The Examination by Anika Carpenter

Removed and uncoiled, Amy’s brain stretches from the chip shop to the war memorial. It winds like wet-warm yarn past the library, the pub, the school where she teaches. It finishes up on the steps of the Town Hall, resting, while her neighbours’ gossip pools into dirty puddles  – what kind of teacher stops to chat and joke with the teens who kick cans down our well-kept high street, it’s a green light for bad behaviour, and who paints their front door, hot pink. It screams for attention each time I pass it, interferes with my quiet reflection. Dressing like she does, single as she is, she has no place leading classes on the subject of loving relationships.

The village has split in half to inspect Amy’s brain. The first group is spaced evenly along its length, shooing flies and hungry cats from slick cerebrum. The second paces up and down, checking for kinks, looking for damage, something to explain Amy’s selfish behaviour. The examination is inconclusive. 

The villages gather Amy’s brain back up, wind it into its original crooks and loops. They do notbrush away the grit it has collected from the pavement. Specks of asphalt are left to nestle in its spongy folds. ‘This is not negligence,’ the villagers tell each other. ‘The uncomfortable, irritating presence of these fragments will help her appreciate the serious impact of her thoughtlessness.’ 

What the villagers implant makes Amy no more sympathetic. She remains unaffected by their concerns. But she does begin to complain. ‘I have an itch in the very centre of my brain.’ She tells her doctor. ‘An upsetting idea has burrowed its way in, and however much my mind turns it over and over, I cannot make sense of it.’ The doctor sends her away with pills, and a leaflet listing possible side effects.

In between showing her class a map of the world, and teaching them where sugar, and chocolate, and lemons come from, Amy’s nose begins to tickle. She pinches her nostrils, squeezes her eyes shut, takes a sip of water. None of which prevents the sudden intake of breath that comes before a sneeze. What she fires across the classroom is not a fine spray of saliva, but a pearl that shoots out like buckshot, whizzes millimetres from the faces of gaping pupils, bounces off the back wall, and rolls back over the hard-wearing carpet to come to rest at Amy’s feet.

Parents meet to discuss the incident. ‘She’ll produce countless others,’ they say. ‘She’ll make our streets unwalkable, unreasonably hazardous, create an environment of disagreeable hesitancy where everyone is always having to watch their step.’ 

Amy holds the Head Teacher’s gaze as he explains why she is being let go. He praises tightknit community and respect for strong feelings. He makes it clear he has to do what is best for everyone. As he speaks, his skin takes on the grey-beige hue of a clam shell, his features harden, his skin tightens, his eyes bulge. His mouth stretches into a long, thin crack. The more he says, the more his words sound like teeth grinding sand, and the more Amy has the feeling of standing opposite someone blowing and blowing and blowing into a balloon, while their mind is off some other place. ‘Stop’ she says, and ducks for cover behind her book-stacked desk, as his features finally shatter, sending lethal shards speeding towards her heart.

Biography: Anika Carpenter lives and works in Brighton, UK. Her stories have been published by Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Gone Lawn, Janus Literary and others, and have been shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize and the Bridport Prize. You can find her via her website or @stillsquirrel on Bluesky