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Mr. Tanner's Fourth Grade Class

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There is nothing wrong with your computer. Do not attempt to control the screen.

The video begins to play as soon as you load the page.

Black and grey flickers within the video frame, too regular to be static. The image resolves into a child's snow globe, motes of white drifting softly onto the landscape. Beneath the glass is a picture-perfect post-war American suburb, long-finned cars and identical ranch-style homes with tidy lawns and picket fences. All of it dusted with a deep layer of snow.

The camera zooms closer, to show two young girls walking along the street in winter coats and mittens, their schoolbooks clutched tightly against the wind. A woman's voice can be heard speaking, indistinctly at first, but gradually, her words become clear.

*****

It was the winter of 1955, the year the snow fell in drifts as high as my head and stayed until April. I was nine years old that August, and I'd never seen so much snow. My father kept talking about stories my grandmother had told him about a snow like this when she was a child, but I didn't believe him. It felt like the world was ending, and surely that had never happened before.

You'll have to forgive me; I was only nine.

Our next door neighbors that year were the Carters; their daughter Beatrice and I were best friends. We looked like sisters, both of us dark-haired and round-faced, but her hands were thinner than mine, and I was a whole inch taller. She liked dresses and girl things; I was a tomboy, constantly getting mud on my pants or ripping the hem of my shirt. But somehow, we were still friends.

In fact, we were practically inseparable. We walked to the school bus together each morning, and back from the bus stop each night. In between, we sat next to each other in Mr. Tanner's fourth grade class, behind Liza Pinzelik and Johnny McClintock, and right in front of Sofiya Malka, who lived across the street. I still have a photo of all of us together on picture day, smiling for the camera. Beatrice and I had our arms around each other. Best friends.

That was the year that the playground was closed because of the snow, so we all had to squeeze into the gym for recess. I hated it. But Beatrice didn't mind. Beatrice, you see...

Beatrice was real smart, even then. Not like me. I did pretty well in my studies, but I wasn't really interested in them. I didn't take them seriously. I never once got a gold star on my science experiments, or had Mr. Tanner read one of my essays to the class. But Beatrice was so incredibly curious about everything. She'd ask questions until Mr. Tanner was tired of answering and told her to look them up. Then she'd spend the rest of class time with a book – one of the fifth grade text books, or an encyclopedia, or something – and she'd talk to me afterward about how everything fit together. Beatrice wanted to know how everything fit together.

And whenever she had a chance, she wanted to make towns.

She drew maps on the backs of her homework. Rambling, sprawling ones with loopy streets and hidden cul-de-sacs. Crowded, jumbled ones with sharp-angled corners and a million traffic lights. She labeled the city hall, the shopping malls, the libraries and schools. And on each map, she colored a single spot in green and labeled it, too: her house. Every single one was her town.

When she didn't have paper, she built them out of blocks, or legos, or twigs and empty cardboard boxes, if that's what she had. She'd stake out a corner of the gym during recess and we'd start setting them up. “This is the main road,” she'd say, or “Here's where the railroad comes through, let's start there,” and we'd be off. We probably made a hundred towns that winter, abandoning them when the bell rang for our next class. I assume the teachers took them apart over night, but I didn't think about that. We just made more.

It was a weird game, and I never really understood the rules. I'd rather have been running around on the playground, honestly. But Beatrice loved it, and we were best friends, so I loved it, too. Or at least, I said I did. Looking back, it's hard for me to be sure what I felt about it. I was only nine. I just knew I wanted to see what we could do together.

By February, the weather had turned icy, and they had to close school for a week because the roads were so bad. I drove my parents crazy that week, I hated being cooped up so much. They started sending me slipping and sliding over to Beatrice's house first thing in the morning to play. Her dad had built a tree house in the front yard, and then carefully chipped the ice off of it every morning so it was safe to climb into. But it didn't take long for Beatrice to get bored of pretending we were pirates, or Arctic explorers, or balloonists high above the earth.

That particular February morning, I was hanging off the edge of the tree house, one foot dangling over the drop as I stared off into the distance, as if searching for a place to land. The neighborhood was glittering white, lumpy snow where the frozen cars and frozen houses sat. It was so quiet, stiflingly so, and it made me want to yell, just so I'd know I was real.

Beatrice sat on the floor of the tree house in her pink winter coat, tracing lines like roads along the grain of the wood. “I want to do something else.”

“We could build a snow fort,” I suggested, even though I knew what she wanted. “Your back yard is huge, it could be a really big fort.”

Beatrice frowned. “No. You'd just want to throw snowballs.”

I hadn't realized that until she said it, but I knew it was true. Still, I didn't want to throw them at her. “We could make a giant snow monster to throw snowballs at. It could be attacking the fort.”

Beatrice's frown grew darker. “Why does there have to be a monster?”

“I don't know,” I said, pulling myself back into the tree house. “It's exciting.”

“It just breaks things.”

“But then you can build them again.”

Beatrice just stared at me. “What if you like what you made?”

“You always like what you make,” I said, because she did. She loved every single town like a puppy.

But she still looked sad, so I gave in. “It doesn't have to be a fort. There's enough snow. We could make a whole town in your backyard.”

Beatrice ducked her head down, and that's when I knew.

“You already have, haven't you?”

“No,” she said, but it was too fast.

“You have,” I said, and the weight of it took me by surprise. Beatrice had lied to me. My best friend had lied to me.

It probably wasn't the first time it had happened, but it was the first one I noticed.

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

As if that mattered.

“It's supposed to be for you.”

That got me to look at her again. She was trying not to cry, and I knew she felt bad about lying to me, but I couldn't let it go. Everything was so quiet. There weren't even any birds singing.

“Then show it to me.”

Beatrice climbed slowly down the ladder and led me around the side of the house, where a path had been trampled into the snow. The drifts grew higher as we reached the back yard, or I thought they did, until I looked closer.

She'd tunneled through the snow back there, piling it high like mountains on the edges of the yard. Within that valley, she'd made a city. A group of skyscrapers huddled together along one edge, newspaper windows now glittering with ice. Lines of toy cars stretched down a series of freeways that criss-crossed in all directions. There were cardboard-box trains and tiny twig traffic lights.

I must have made some noise, because Beatrice gave me a small smile. “The stepping stones are parking lots,” she told me, carefully stepping over a building to plant her feet on a bare stone patch. I followed her into the city, slipping a bit on the ice, but she grabbed my hand and I managed not to topple over into a museum.

“That's city hall,” she said, pointing. “It's old, so it doesn't match the rest of the buildings. The train station's over here.”

It was beautiful, but there was something about it I didn't like. Something as suffocating as the silence of the morning. How much time it must have taken her! We could've made a dozen towns, if we'd done it together.

“Where's your house?” I asked, mostly to keep from being angry. I didn't want to be angry.

“It's not for me,” Beatrice said, sounding as muffled as I felt. “Your house is over there.”

I hopped closer to where she was pointing. There was a perfect little house with a chimney and a folded paper tree with tiny purple flowers drawn on it.

“That's my house?” Across the street, she'd put in a park. I'd always wanted to live by a park.

“Yeah. Do you like it?”

I couldn't answer her. I felt sick all of a sudden, sick to my stomach and too small. The snow drifts around the edges of the town felt a million miles tall, and ready to bury me. At the same time, I felt stupid for being afraid; there was nothing to be afraid of.

So I pointed to a blank patch of snow. “What goes here?”

“What do you want?”

I couldn't think. Why was she asking me? “A racetrack? Not for cars, but for people. A big one.”

“Okay.” Beatrice knelt down right there, so careful and precise. She had to crack the ice layer on top of the snow, and I knew she was a little off-balance and it wouldn't take much to make her fall.

I really don't know why I put my hand on her shoulder, but it was like thinking I could do it meant I had to. I felt so dizzy, but that's not why I did it. That's not why I pushed her.

I just wanted to.

She fell onto the blank area, but my feet slipped out from under me at the same time, and I fell into a neighborhood of tiny houses. My hands flailed around, trying to find purchase to get me back on my feet, but I couldn't figure it out. There was too much ice, and too much snow, and not enough of me.

Beatrice was crying, wailing so loud her parents came out on the back porch to make sure she hadn't hurt herself. And I was crying too, and saying I was sorry, though I wasn't sure if I was really sorry or if I just felt bad for making her cry. Once I got myself up, I ran, straight through the town, crashing through the skyscrapers and freeway and finally to the open snow of the front yard, ice crunching under my feet the whole way.

I didn't look back.

*****

The camera pans out from that perfect winter street, hovering briefly above the snow-covered houses before panning out further, the image slowly blurring under the glass of the snow globe.

You can see now that the snow globe lies on its side on the plush passenger seat of an older model car. The window is open, and the light of the setting sun glints off the streets of a desert town. There is a woman driving the car, her dark hair wrapped against the wind, sunglasses hiding most of her face.

She is still talking.

*****

When my parents asked what happened, I couldn't tell them. I really didn't know. Beatrice wouldn't talk to me for three days, and by that time, her dad had shoveled the snow from their back yard and destroyed all traces of the town. It was gone, like it never happened.

Beatrice and I still played together, but it wasn't the same. By the end of the school year, she was spending most of her time with Sofiya Malka, and I found another best friend. My parents moved us to California the next summer, and I forgot all about it.

Until last month, when a blizzard fell on six states in the middle of July, including California. The papers said it was the work of a woman they called Captain Freeze, as if she were some supervillain from the comics. She wasn't even wearing a mask. She hadn't intended any harm, she said. She just wanted to see what she could do.

I was living in San Diego then. I had a little house right across from a park, with a huge jacaranda tree in the front yard. There'd just been a write-up in the paper, about the fitness track they were building near one of the high schools. That first morning after the attack, I saw my neighborhood coated in snow like white frosting, and the memory hit me, of the town in Beatrice's back yard that winter.

My town.

It's funny, these people showing up with powers, one right after the other. My parents think it's because of the meteor shower this spring.

But I've been collecting the photos in the papers. Captain Freeze, of course. The man they called Hemlock, who stopped a drunk driver with actual walking trees. The Blur, who got all the passengers off that runaway train in Connecticut before it could crash.

I have them next to my picture of Mr. Tanner's fourth grade class, and the photos posted in the paper under their real names: Liza Pinzelik, Johnny McClintock, and Sofiya Malka.

And then there's Lady Midnight's on-air prediction of that earthquake in Oklahoma. I never would have thought that Beatrice would see the future. But I guess she did.

I don't know for sure that anything is going to happen to me. I can't find Mr. Tanner to ask; the school says he left that year to work on a government project and never came back. But I can feel something shifting inside me. Sometimes I stand on a street corner and feel dizzy, sick to my stomach and too small for my skin.

If the scale was right, I'd have to be about five hundred feet tall to look down on the buildings the way I did that winter. My feet would sink through the streets and into the earth below, the way my feet punched through the ice crust in Beatrice's back yard. It would be horrible, doing that in town. I'd hurt so many people.

But in the desert...

Maybe once I know, I won't have to do anything. Maybe what Beatrice saw... what I did... maybe it doesn't have to be my future.

I just want to see what I can do.

*****

The camera pulls back again. The car and its driver leave us behind. As we drift higher, the highway shrinks beneath us to a thin line of toy cars stretched out into the lonely desert.

The camera turns to the sky above, a darkness filled with a million glittering stars that slowly fade to black.

The video ends.

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