“Bishop to E8,” he answered and lit a cigarette. It was a beautiful Tuesday morning. But, he wasn’t going to school. The sprinkler system dusted the lilies out the window with crystal clear droplets, their lifeblood. John thought about this as he dusted his lungs with ash, tar and soot and all the blessings mortality brought a heavy soul.
“Go downstairs. Game time has ended,” The Voice in the wall spoke again.
“It’s always games here,” he yawned.
"Big John says games are an effective teaching device for children your age facilitated through activities they enjoy."
"Not these games."
"I don't know," John sighed. "Games. Skateboards. With people."
"I'll see if I can adjust your curriculum."
"I'll never understand why Big John would send you anyway."
"Skynet will use aspects of human nature against you to achieve victory. A human teacher would reinforce this."
"By Skynet, you mean you."
"Big John reprogrammed me. I'm no threat to you now."
Instead of responding, John blew out large Os with his cigarette smoke and watched as they grew wider, wider, and finally gone.
“Yeah. I know. I’m going now.” He slid into his sneakers and ball cap and made his way down. He used the back stairwell, which was the longer route. But, he avoided the front stairs that were decorated with family pictures for guests and extended family visits.
When he reached the kitchen, he slunk, head down into a table chair. He let his shoulder-length waves cover what lingering skin his cap exposed. The familiar smell of frying bacon attacked his nostrils, flooding his mind with childhood memories of Sunday mornings, newspapers, laughter and other unwelcome nostalgia.
“Good morning, John,” the brunette Figure at the stove called sweetly. To John, The Figure’s melodic voice sounded like honey. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
“You know my real mother would never let me smoke in the house,” he muttered so the neither The Voice, nor The Figure hear.
“Why don’t you pick up where we left off last time?” The Figure suggested.
John glanced to the old family Bible with the aged leather binding that sat near the edge of the counter. “I know what you’re doing. But, can we just get on with it?”
“What do you mean, John? We read a passage every morning.” The Figure turned around carrying a plate. By mistake, he caught The Figure’s eyes, as blue and warm as any fond memory he still possessed from his real mother. But, this was not his mother. And John tried his best to remind himself of that.
“You don’t believe any of this, so I don’t understand-”
“Cooperation please, John,” The Voice ordered.
John gulped back putrid dread and adrenaline. He was not looking forward to what would happen next. Angrily, he swept the book to his lap, violently turning to the bookmarked page. He read mechanically, as a machine might, and did not to let the words sink in.
When The Figure fell to the ground and began crying out, John allowed only a single hot tear to fall from his right eye and down his cheek. It dried and disappeared before reaching his chin.
“John!” The Figure gasped, tearing at her throat. Her beautiful brown locks thrashed. “It hurts, John!”
This was the way it worked, John knew. Soon she would be dead, and there was nothing he could do. If he tried, he would fail the lesson and would have to start from scratch. So instead, John stood over her and pulled his cigarette to his lips with a quivering hand. By the third drag, it was over.
“What are you doing to me?” John regretted the question as soon as it left his mouth.
“You have passed. Big John has a message for you now,” The Voice answered.
“I don’t care what he said,” John whispered.
“Beginning of Message. John. I am putting you through the unimaginable, at the hands of an instructor you least expected. I know. I have been where you are now. But, I need you to trust me.”
“John, picture the leader that can rise from the nuclear ash, just as mankind is preparing for oblivion. Facing the dawn of our imminent extinction, he gathers the small scattered handfuls of humanity. With this small army, injured and starving, he rages against a more powerful, efficient adversary to secure the victory that the masses who came before could not accomplish.”
“Stop, stop, STOP!”
“Now, imagine what that leader would be like. What would this leader have to do? Ask yourself, John, if you met this person face to face, would you like a person that could be capable of this?”
“I said I don’t care about Big John or you.” John flew at the wall, pounding his juvenile fists against it. When he felt the bones in his left hand pop and give, he did not surrender to the pain. He continued, flailing with his feet until he was sweaty and out of breath. When his body was spent, he slid to the floor in a puddle of human flesh.
“Your task is to save humanity, not to be human. End of message.”
John eyed his mother’s motionless, twisted face on the kitchen tile. “How many more times do we have to do this one, this lesson?”
John shook his head. “Let’s get on with it.”
“You’re injured, John.”
“I said I’m ready.”
After a short pause, The Voice responded. “The time has started again for chess. Bandage your hand and come to the game room please, John.”
John nodded. He made his way up the front stairwell to the nearest first aid kit, pausing only momentarily to straighten a picture frame that had become crooked against the yellow wall.