Dr. Horne was the Devil, literally, the Devil. We figured this because of his profound laugh, causing the classroom to quake at every bark. And he’d only cackle at wicked events, like the sadistic murders of the Mitchell twins a few months ago, a lovely pair of boys, their bodies found chopped up into hundreds of perfect cubic pieces scattered throughout campus.
One day some of my classmates vanished. After the university grew suspicious, Dr. Horne instructed our class as normal, but our peers never returned. He preferred teaching English, probably since it wasn’t his primary language.
At the beginning of every class, Dr. Horne would stand by the door, his face stained by glossy velvet and a bland expression. “There’s only one way to pass,” he’d repeat in a colorless tone. “A final exam, a poem presented in front of the class, something you think I’d like.”
What the hell did the Devil like? I pictured fiery planes occupied by a castrated humanity, people burning, the majority deserving. Or maybe he’d like something simpler, like problematic icons tormented for their wrongdoings.
Anyway, it was the final day of class. I overheard some of my classmates talking about their topics. Genocides. Pandemics. Famine. It all sounded of knockoff narratives from tales of the Four Horsemen. So trite and artless, did they really think the Devil adored ingenuousness? The Mitchells were sliced into perfect cubes for crying out loud.
The final exams began as I gazed at the empty blue lines of my yellow notepad. Speaker notes were advised, and anything Dr. Horne suggested had to be followed, or so we believed.
The perpetual duress troubled many of us, students wailing under their cracked voices, stuttering between stanzas even when reciting the most unsophisticated of verses.
No one received feedback. Ever. Even for the final exams, once students declaimed their poems, Dr. Horne apathetically waved his hand for them to sit. Did he intend to post our grades online weeks after the semester ended, for us to live in chronic trepidation until our dooms were determined by a letter on a website? I hoped not, but it did sound like something the Devil would do.
It was my turn. I tried ignoring Dr. Horne’s scrutiny while approaching the podium. I felt sick; sweat escaping my glands, breaching my clothes. I resorted to the opposite of appropriate solutions: improvisation. It was all I had left, in a time of life and death.
“Hi,” I opened. “This poem is called Wounds.”
Dr. Horne nodded, gazing at me from the tips of his eyelids.
Recalling a bank of pieces I crafted over the years, I attempted to pick apart some of the bolder or gloomy verses to summon an amalgam of my darker youth. The poem didn’t even make sense, but a couple of stanzas in, I watched Dr. Horne form a smirk, the ambiguity behind his gesture more frightening than anything.
I finished, nearly quoting a work originated as a response to my former partner’s unexpected leave and urge to find better, including my relationship with the environment and how it influenced self-destructive vices. The analogy of the world portrayed as an already existing realm of damnation undermined the meaning of my piece, but I hoped it would delight the Devil.
Dr. Horne’s grin confirmed everything. He even showed his devilish teeth, accompanied by a sudden applause. Everyone immediately followed, yet it appeared quite obvious that many were confused. For the first time, I became the reason Dr. Horne clapped for anything.
I slowly walked to my seat, hearing some of my peers whisper about how terrible my poem turned out to be, the recycled verses, how only I received recognition.
Henry was called on next. He exhaled, looking back at me and down at my notepad to find it empty. Shaking his head, he balled up his original notes and threw them into the trash.
He pulled an even worse composition out of his ass, narrating it in style. Looking like a damn dictator, he poured an unbelievable amount of heart and soul into the most deplorable of verses, piercing all of us with daggering, lifeless eyes. I shouldn’t have been so overt about my extemporization. Poor Henry seemed lost.
Yet, Dr. Horne guffawed in his seat, clapping his hands or grabbing his stomach. He truly enjoyed Henry’s poem, and Henry embraced his reactions. The previous presenters became more perplexed, trying to find errors in their works, and every student who hadn’t yet recited their pieces began to craft new ideas. Losing sense of the transpiring events, fearing the imminent tragic demise of my class, I fell into hypnosis behind Dr. Horne’s rambunctious laugh, my cheek pressed against cheap, antiquated wood.
Then, Henry concluded his poem with a final pound of his fist, and I snapped out of my trance. Dr. Horne stood, awarding Henry with a roaring ovation. That’s when it all made sense to me: The Devil would enjoy shitty poetry. And it was up to the remaining students to keep him under infinite hilarity. Because if his trembling cackles caused the building to collapse, well, at least we’d die a more peaceful death, and not end up like them Mitchell boys.
This story was originally published by Riggwelter Press.