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Steve couldn’t believe it. He actually couldn’t believe it.

He had been a straight-A student. He was in all AP classes. He was always considered the brightest guy in the class.

And then the law had changed.

The grade he had skipped, all the way back in third grade, was now invalid. Steve was supposed to be going into his senior year at high school, but he wasn’t allowed to. You can’t go into twelfth grade if you haven’t finished third grade.

So here he was, on the first day of school, sitting at a tiny desk in a tiny chair, surrounded by eight-year-olds.

Mrs. Reeve didn’t look surprised to see him when she walked into the classroom, just as the bell rang. She had likely been warned about Steve beforehand. As her eyes ran over the students, one by one, they seemed to go straight past Steve, as if he weren’t even there.

There had to be some way out of this. There had to be. When Steve first went into high school, he’d been able to skip straight into pre-calc by convincing the algebra teacher that he knew all of the material. His algebra teacher had let him take the final exam, and he aced it. Just like that, he’d been allowed into pre-calc. Maybe there was some sort of quiz he could take, proving that he knew literally everything a third grader would know.

Just as Mrs. Reeve was about to open her mouth, Steve said aloud, “Is there any way that I could, like, not be here?”

Mrs. Reeve narrowed her eyes, and the kids around him snickered. “When you speak, you have to raise your hand first,” Mrs. Reeve told him. She looked impatient already.

With a grunt, Steve raised his hand.

She didn’t call on him. “Welcome to your first day of third grade!” she said, suddenly wearing a brilliant and cheesy smile. “Don’t any of you worry. Things won’t be too difficult on our first day. We’re just going to play some games to get to know each other.”

One of the girls in the back row asked, “Who’s the big guy?”

Steve hissed at her, “You have to raise your hand!”

He was ignored. Mrs. Reeve answered, “This is Steve. He’s one of our older students. He had to be held back, due to complications he had with his high school.”

“That’s not really how—” Steve started, but he was drowned out by the muttering and giggling kids all around him. Why had he decided to sit right in the center of the classroom? He should’ve sat in the back, so he didn’t feel so surrounded. And that way the boy picking his nose behind him could actually see the board.

Do they care that a boy his blatantly picking his nose in the middle of the classroom? No. They care that the really big kid forgot to raise his hand.

“Everybody,” Mrs. Reeve said. “We’re going to go around the room, and I want everybody to say their name and something special about themselves. We’ll start here.” She pointed.

“I’m Jessica,” a girl said. “I have a horse!”

“Excellent!” Mrs. Reeve said, wearing her cheesy smile again.

“I’m Toby,” a boy said. “My dad has a motorcycle!”

“Great!” Mrs. Reeve said.

The activity continued predictably, but Steve actually felt nervous as his turn approached.

“My name is Susie, and I can make cookies!”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Reeve beamed.

Steve cleared his throat. “I’m Steve. I’m seventeen years old.”

“Mmhmm,” Mrs. Reeve grunted, turning to the next student. Apparently the special fact wasn’t special enough.

“I’m Cody,” the next boy said. “I can do a somersault!”

“Lovely!” Mrs. Reeve said cheerily.

Steve couldn’t help but roll his eyes, yet as soon as he did, he felt embarrassed. He found himself hoping that the teacher hadn’t noticed.

After they’d finished the activity, every kid got a piece of paper and was told to draw a picture of themselves. What? Seriously? Steve had finished elementary school so long ago, he’d forgotten how stupid this stuff was. Like, he knew it’d be kinda stupid, but but this was ridiculous! He was bored out of his mind.

Two hours passed. The monotony finally stopped when their first recess started, at ten thirty. Steve dragged his feet out to the hall while the kids swarmed around him, threatening to knock him to the ground. Steve seemed to be the last person to make it to the playground while other classes spilled out of the school. Fourth graders. First graders. All of them. The play structure was coated with children.

“Who’s the big kid?” one girl asked a friend, too loudly.

“I dunno, but he looks gross,” her friend answered.

“You don’t think he’s stupid, do you?”

Steve spoke up. “It’s not because I’m stupid. I’m actually quite—”

But the girls screamed and ran away.

Somehow that was the best thing that happened during recess. A kid followed Steve around making faces. One boy called him a “baby adult.” A few of the kids thought that he was some kind of undercover teacher, and kept trying to figure it out in the least subtle ways imaginable. A couple of girls decided that he had cooties, and Steve thought it would be funny to tell them what an STD was, but a teacher overheard him and made him stand in a corner for half of the recess.

It was insane. It was impossible. How could the highest achieving student in an entire high school be reduced to this? How was he being treated like a disrespectful idiot? And… were these kids bullying him? Was that what this was? The teachers seemed to loathe the mere sight of him, so he got the feeling that he would be getting into trouble a lot more he already had.

But at least there wasn’t going to be much homework. At least he didn’t have to worry about grades at all.

It was a whole year. An entire year of third grade.

Steve wasn’t going to survive.

 

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Ranking

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“I looked up your ranking, and I think that’s where the problem lies.”

Kyle shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “I figured that we would come to that topic.”

The professor ran his eyes over the papers again. “Your GPA seems fine, and your letters of recommendation were also very impressive, but the trouble is that this university is very hesitant with applicants who are below three billion on the ranking system. Out of the seven billion some people on this planet, you’re worse than nearly four billion of them, and that’s something that this university takes very seriously.”

Kyle stared at the floor. “Right, but my grades were all fine.”

“Yes, yes, your grades were right on par with the rest of the applicants,” the professor agreed offhandedly. “But your ranking bothers me. You got through high school without a hitch, and you’ve finished your undergraduate degree with acceptable grades, and yet your ranking is still very, very low.”

“I wouldn’t say very low,” Kyle frowned. “I’m just below average.”

“Extremely few people of your ranking even get through college. For somebody below three billionth rank to even consider graduate school is surprising. What happened?”

Kyle leaned back in his seat and folded his arms, trying to avoid eye contact. “Well, there are a lot of variables that determine your rank. Intelligence, personality, attractiveness, wealth, if you’re hardworking, if you’re charitable, if you’re popular…”

“Yes, and your intelligence seems fine,” the professor nodded. “And you also appear to be hardworking. So where does the trouble lie?”

Kyle hesitated. “It’s… It’s my personality, you see. I’m not particularly popular, or likeable in general.”

“That was my suspicion,” the professor nodded again, more curtly this time. “And have you done anything to improve your personality?”

Kyle shrugged, and he smiled sheepishly. “My mom always told me to just be myself.”

Frowning the professor looked over the papers again. “Yes, and I see that’s done wonders to your ranking. Have you been fluctuating much?”

“No, my ranking has been the same for most of my life. I was a bit better in elementary school, but not by much. All of my friends and family have always been high-ranking people, so I hoped that it would eventually just rub off onto me.”

“Now Kyle, I understand why you want to go to graduate school,” the professor told him. “With a ranking like yours, it can be hard to get a good job. You want the credentials.”

“Yes, exactly,” Kyle agreed.

The professor was reading over the papers again, for the hundredth time. “This letter of recommendation does mention your personality problems. I’m afraid that if this university is to accept you, it will have to be on the condition that your ranking rises very quickly and very soon.”

“I can do that,” Kyle said quickly, almost desperately. “I can do it immediately. I’ll get straight to work on it.”

“I never really liked that personality was a part of the rankings,” the professor admitted. “Hard work, wealth, and popularity are really all that a person should need to worry about.”

“I agree,” Kyle nodded.

Casually, the professor commented, “I heard that the top rank changed earlier this week.”

“Really?” Kyle perked up. “It isn’t Joseph Gordon-Levitt anymore?”

“No, he dropped down to rank three recently. Now it’s Emma Watson at the top.”

“Again? She was at the top just a month ago.”

The professor shook his head. “It’s fierce competition at the top one hundred. It’s a miracle that those people aren’t trying to kill each other. Of course, murder would lower their rank, obviously.”

Curious, Kyle questioned, “What’s your rank, professor?”

“Mine?” the professor asked, surprised. “I’m nearly in the top million.”

Kyle’s eyebrows raised. “That’s very impressive.”

The professor shrugged modestly. “There’s still a million people on this planet who are better than me.”

“I guess,” Kyle stated, not sure how to respond.

The professor sorted the papers back into a stack. “Well Kyle, you’ve heard my offer. I’ll accept you into our graduate program conditionally. If your rank hasn’t risen substantially in the next month, I will be forced to withdraw the offer.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I understand,” Kyle nodded vigorously. “I’ll do whatever I can.”

“Good,” the professor said, wearing a fake smile. “That will be all.”

Kyle left the office, wondering which charities he might donate to.

Room 471

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It was a peculiar door. It was peculiar not because it looked peculiar, but because it was so ordinary that Andrew had never even noticed it before. Room 471. Andrew had been certain that he’d explored every room in the high school, yet somehow this door had gone unnoticed.

If Andrew hadn’t been hurrying to class, he would have investigated that room right away. Room 471 was clearly no classroom. It was sandwiched tightly between Rooms 470 and 472, so it could be no bigger than a closet. Maybe it wasn’t worth it. It was probably just a tight little cupboard filled with cleaning supplies.

But Andrew had always told his friends that he had explored every room in the high school. He couldn’t let this one room get away from him.

He was hardly paying attention during his English class. The teacher droned on about The Odyssey, a book that Andrew had only read the Wikipedia description for, and the entire class stared forward with their eyes glazed over. How could he have missed that room? How could it be that he had overlooked a door so obviously placed in the middle of the hallway?

Brian and Emily were whispering to each other behind him. “They haven’t heard from him,” Brian was shaking his head. “It’s strange, isn’t it?”

“That’s so sad,” Emily frowned. “He was my favorite janitor. We would chat after school all the time.”

Andrew tilted his chair back. “What are you talking about?”

“Stevens, the janitor. He went missing last night. He never showed up this morning.”

“He’s probably skipping work,” Andrew decided.

Brian narrowed his eyes. “They called his home. Nobody answered.”

“Then he probably didn’t answer.”

Emily shook her head. “Stevens wouldn’t skip work. He was so nice!”

Andrew pursed his lips and leaned his chair back into place. He twirled his pencil in his hand a few times and pretended to take notes.

His next class with Geometry, and after that was lunch. That was when he would check out Room 471. Andrew had been thinking about that room all day, almost a bizarre amount. It’s just a storage closet. But what if there’s something interesting inside? There won’t be. It’s only a room that you never noticed.

How could there be a room that he’d never noticed?

At the start of class, the teacher read off the attendance list. Brian was absent. That’s weird. Wasn’t Brian in your last class? Why would he go to boring English but skip Geometry?

Brian’s friends were whispering to each other across the empty seat between them. Andrew couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he thought that he detected the word “missing”. For some reason his mind strayed back to Room 471.

That room couldn’t be making people disappear, could it? No. That’s ridiculous. It’s just a storage closet. It’s just a storage closet. Stop overthinking it. That door has always been there. You just never noticed it. Or the room didn’t exist before. Maybe that room never existed. Maybe you’ll leave this class for your lunch break, you’ll walk down that hall, and the door won’t be there.

It’s just a storage closet. It’s just a storage closet.

Feeling weirdly nervous, Andrew decided to eat his lunch before he explored. He could check out Room 471 later. While he ate with his friends, a cop walked through the dining commons. There were murmurs following him, murmurs with the name “Brian”. Andrew had been one of the last people to see him. How could his disappearance draw attention so quickly?

“That’s three people,” somebody commented. “Three people gone in less than twenty-four hours.”

And Julie’s name was added to the murmurs. Stevens, Brian, Julie. Disappeared without a trace. One moment they were here, and the next they were gone.

It’s just a storage closet. It’s just a storage closet.

Without really thinking, Andrew got out of his seat and started walking. Room 471 has always been there. There’s nothing in there. Just open the door, and you’ll see.

  1. 464. 466. 468. 470. Room 471.

The door was still there, right where he’d seen it earlier. Andrew was relieved, but he felt stupid. The door wouldn’t just disappear. That’s ridiculous. That’s insanity. Just look inside and you’ll see that it’s an ordinary room.

Andrew’s hand trembled as he reached for the knob.

It was unlocked.

He opened the door and stepped inside.

It was just a storage closet.

“That’s it?” Andrew asked himself, closing the door behind him. “It’s just a closet?”

But then he saw that there were people sitting on the floor, leaning up against the wall. He recognized one of them as Brian. The other two were a girl and a janitor. “Oh no,” the janitor mumbled. “Another one.”

“What’s going on?” Andrew stepped forward. “Are you people… hiding in here?”

Brian shook his head. “I wish. Andrew, this room doesn’t exist.”

“It… doesn’t exist?” Andrew repeated.

The janitor lifted his eyes and sighed, “You won’t be leaving any time soon. This room never existed. And it never will.”

“I don’t understand,” Andrew said slowly. He turned around.

The door was gone.

There was no way out.

Check Plus Plus

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I thought that middle school was pretty easy. Most of my teachers didn’t have particularly high expectations of us. I had a history teacher in 8th grade who assigned a weekly question sheet, and the grading was very straightforward. If you did fine, you got a check mark. If you did poorly, you got a check minus. If you did especially well, then you got a check plus.

One day Cami got a check plus plus. Things changed after that.

“Now hold on,” Peter says to the teacher. “How did she get a check plus plus? I didn’t think that such a thing was possible!”

“Well, she did a really good job,” the teacher replied.

Peter wasn’t happy. He wanted to go further. He wanted to push the limits. He wanted a check plus plus plus.

We all thought that he was joking. Actually, we didn’t know what to think. Would the teacher really give out a triple? The weekly homework was only ten or so questions that had answers plainly written somewhere in the textbook. Check plus plus plus didn’t make any sense. I barely understood how a double plus had happened.

Peter had a full paragraph written to answer every question the next week. The following Monday, he got his homework back, and it was only a check plus plus. Well, it’s no triple, but the fact that two doubles had been given out was still phenomenal. I mean, nobody had even thought that it was possible before.

The teacher found out that Peter was going for a triple. He thought it was pretty funny.

Some of the more studious people in the class were getting interested in this idea. It was a sort of competition, really. Who would be the first to get a check plus plus plus? I personally didn’t care that much. I was fine with my checks and occasional check pluses.

It was near the end of the year, probably early May, when Mina pulled it off. Check plus plus plus. Apparently she had turned in graphs and shit, entire pages printed out for simple questions that could each be answered in half a sentence or less. When the first check plus plus had surfaced, I didn’t care. But a triple? I was honestly blown away.

I worked pretty hard on the next homework. It was nothing extreme. And I got a check plus plus on it! Wow, you would not believe how little I cared when I got that handed back to me at the start of class. It was fairly easy to get a check plus plus, really, but I didn’t care enough to strive for it every week, like some people did.

But wait! Things got even crazier! The same week that I’d gotten my check plus plus, Peter had gotten a check plus plus plus plus! He got a what!? A quadruple!? He had reached the impossible and then gone past it. The entire class was in complete disbelief. A check plus plus plus plus! This is some fucked up shit right here.

And then it happened in mid-June. The final homework assignment. Things got weird.

It was something that was only discussed in whispers. It was almost as if it hadn’t been discussed at all. For the final homework, the entire class had mutually decided to push our history teacher to his limits. If each and every student tried to go for a check plus plus plus plus plus (that’s five plusses), one of them would have to succeed.

Quintuple plus. Let the games begin.

And when I say games, I mean that the class had devolved into madness. On the day that the final assignment was due, Peter and Cami came in, having been up all night competing their page counts, and I think they each had over a page of writing for every question on the homework. But it got stranger. It got much stranger.

One girl had made a t-shirt. A what? A t-shirt? She had bought a white shirt, printed out her homework on special paper, and ironed the image of her answers onto it. It was a shirt covered in fucking history trivia. She had even made sure that it was the teacher’s size.

Another girl made origami. I actually couldn’t comprehend what I was looking at. She had made a giant cootie catcher and covered the inside with her answers. As big as the cootie catcher was, the font on the inside was really, really small. You pick a number, the number of the desired question, then you flip flap fold it around, and there’s your three-paragraph answer.

And I had typed up, like, a page and a half or so. It was okay.

Oh man. The plusses were flying. The shirt had earned a check plus plus plus plus plus plus. Yeah. Six. I think the origami was only a check plus plus plus plus plus. I got my first and only triple. That was kinda neat.

Cami and Peter had somehow both worked equally hard, and the teacher had noticed how closely they were competing, so just to troll them he gave them the same number of plusses. They were both pretty annoyed that it had been a tie.

How many plusses had they gotten? They had both received a check plus plus plus plus plus plus plus plus. And I have nothing to say about that.