THE USURPER

Santian Vataj

The silvery fish, a Diamond Tetra, was a gift from his student Vlora, who last year presented it to him in a fishbowl the size of a small melon.

“A gift from my family,” she said.

Daren Shaw tapped the bowl. “Well, I think the class will really love this.”

The class?

He blushed a little. “What? Should I take it home?”

“Yes, and refer to it as Ora, if you don’t mind. You see, in Albania, that’s what we call the spirits who protect humans. If you don’t have an Ora, you’re finished.”

“Ah,” he said, feigning interest. “See, the truth is, I’m not even supposed to accept gifts from students.”

“Mister Shaw, don’t be ridiculous. If anyone gives you trouble, any trouble at all, my father will take care of it.” She left the small aquarium on his desk.

He had little choice then, but to walk the ten blocks to his apartment, careful not to drop the sloshing bowl carrying his precious Ora.

Now, nearly a year later, the thing was dead. He found it one morning, suspended in turbid water. Already late for work, Daren poured the entire contents of the bowl into the toilet. With one flush, the filthy water with its plastic coral, sand, and lifeless fish disappeared in one all-consuming vortex.

Still in his underwear, Daren found yesterday’s pants on the ground and shuddered as his legs passed through the cold fabric. He collected his things and left the apartment bathed in late morning light.

It was his third lateness in as many weeks and he was sure to hear it from the payroll secretary, a woman with a Nazi-like disposition for policing even the smallest infractions. His thoughts drifted from Vlora and the dead fish to the payroll secretary as he walked the ten blocks to work, past rows of coffee-colored buildings that dominated this corner of the Bronx.

In the office, payroll was nowhere to be seen but there was a note in his mailbox:

Please see Principal at your convenience. (Payroll)

In the teacher’s lounge he finds Massey and Shapiro, the math teachers. The room is utterly square, and its linoleum tiles suffer beneath the weight of copy machines, bookshelves, and the perfectly round tables whose faux-wood surfaces are littered with piles of paper. A large wooden crate sits in the center of the room like an occupying spaceship. The math teachers use a crowbar to pry it open. After a little struggle, the last plank of wood falls to the ground with a thwacking sound. They examined the strange object.

Four feet tall, slouched, it had arms and legs, an oval head that kind of resembled an egg, and a black plane of glass for eyes. In its current state it seemed almost cute, like a rather large toy for children.

“What’s it for?” asked Daren.

“You didn’t get the memo? It’s supposed to teach a class.” Massey said.

“Bullshit.”

“It’s true. This thing is top of the line, from Germany. Heard the boss say so.”

Daren waved his hand dismissively and said to Massey, “What you don’t understand is that poetry comes from right here.” And he touched the left side of his chest. “Teach kids? Give me a break,” he said, as the robot just stood there, stupidly frozen in place, its head tilted downward.

 

By lunchtime he rediscovered the crumpled note in his pocket, reminding him to see the principal. The two hadn’t spoken since the holiday party, and when Daren entered his office, the principal pulled up a mahogany chair and asked him to sit.

“What’s up?” asked Daren, still standing.

“You’ve heard about Neo?”

“Neo?”

“The robot.”

“That thing in the teacher’s lounge?”

“That thing cost a small fortune and the superintendent is keen on seeing that it works.”

“Works?”

“Starting Monday, it will teach your English elective and you will facilitate, which means passing out materials and grading papers. You are to treat Neo as you would a colleague.” The principal shuffled some papers, searching for his words. “Look, I don’t want to make this hard on you: let’s just move forward.”

Daren bristled as he placed a hand on the left side of his chest and prepared to tell the principal that poetry came from the heart, but the man wasn’t interested and waved him off just as a phone rang.

 

Monday arrived, and Daren watched as a technician prepared Neo all morning long.

“You basically have to be in the room for legal reasons and to ensure that it doesn’t go haywire, in which case you should call this number,” said the technician, handing him a business card.

Daren took his place at the front of the class beside a projector that was synced to Neo’s internal system. The black plane of glass on Neo’s face turned fluorescent blue, an indicator that it was on. The word “WELCOME” appeared across the board as the first students trickled in. The robot moved up and down the aisles quietly, like a confident little man. Its modulated voice was unlike a robot’s. In a high British accent, it recited from the Aeneid first in English, then in Latin. Meanwhile, everything the students said was recorded and entered into a database for future analysis—all courtesy of invisible algorithms Daren didn’t even know existed. Towards the end of the lesson, Neo even performed a little dance, sending the children into wild fits of laughter.

Daren sat hunched over a desk pretending to examine some papers as a trail of excited faces streamed out of the room. Only Vlora remained. With her large black eyes, she looked at him disquietingly as Neo stood nearby like a sentinel. In a whisper, she said, “You have to do something about this.”

But Daren could only smile ambivalently, like a man who’d lost his Ora. He watched as the teen sauntered out of the room before spitting at Neo’s feet.

Copyright © 2019 by Santian Vataj

SANTIAN VATAJ was born in the former Yugoslavia to Albanian parents and raised in the Bronx, New York. Santian is a Fellow of The Academy for Teachers and currently works as a history teacher at a public school in the Bronx. His work has appeared in the anthology The Writers Studio at 30Prelude magazine’s website, 100 Word Story, and Silver Needle Press.