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Matt Nelson, 23 Oct '12

The students in Sister Jane's class never did learn their times tables. The chinchilla stopped all that. His name was Chi-Chi, and he could predict the future.

Chi-Chi was a fat and pampered rodent with overgrown nails and teeth that were too big. The cage would have smelled if Sister Jane hadn't sprayed disinfectant on it every evening. The animal was an object of fascination to the St. Vincent students. He was older than most of them. Usually he lay unmoving in a sunbeam at the edge of his cage.

But when Sister Jane told her twenty-six students to take their mathematics textbooks from under their desks, Chi Chi rustled against the wall of his cage. When she asked them to turn to page 47, he squeaked and pawed against the metal.

Becky Conway, 7, noticed first. "Sister Jane, Chi-Chi is being bad."

The teacher ignored her and told Michael Pennington, 6, to put away his hot wheels. He revved the engine louder and Sister Jane demanded that he give the car to her. He screamed and threw the car against the colorful skulls hanging on the walls. The masks were constructed from balloons layered multiple times in paper mache and paint, with crisscrossing lines and religious symbols. Sister Jane had taped a banner above them: DAY OF THE DEAD IS NOVEMBER 1. Michael's miniature jeep embedded itself in an eye socket made from congealed water and flour.

The rest of the class remained silent, awed by the power of Michael's outburst. Sister Jane sent him to the principal's office and he fled, tears and snot streaming from his face. The nun, forever unruffled, ordered the class to turn to page 47.

In the brief silence, they heard the chattering of metal wheels. Henry Cunningham, 7, shouted, "Chi-Chi's running!"

Most of the students laughed at the efforts of the chubby rodent, who was churning about his wheel. Becky Conway didn't laugh. She didn't like the way that Chi-Chi's eyes were bugging out, or the red spittle that lathered from his mouth, or his terrified squeaks.

Sister Jane crossed the room to the cage and frowned at her class pet.

"Chi-Chi," she said, and placed her hand on the top of the cage.

He leapt from the wheel and threw himself violently into the metal wall. Sister Jane drew her hand back instinctively, and the cage lurched toward the lip of the bookcase ledge. All the students, even Becky Conway, burst into laughter.

Sister Jane reached for the latch at the top of the cage, and then the floor began to shake. The art projects fell off the walls. A grinning skull landed next to Becky's desk and shattered into dust. The floor dropped under her desk and she went with it.

The chinchilla cage bounced off the floor and landed on its side. The twisted metal remained bound, and Chi-Chi squeaked helplessly against the bars of his prison.

As the bookcase slid toward her, Sister Jane tried to balance herself. She twisted her ankle and landed on her knees, grasping futilely at the desk closest to her. A broken piece of ceiling crashed into her chest and she cried out.

In the middle of the chaos, Paul Rodriguez, 7, left his desk and went to the back of the room, near the coat hooks. He picked up his Star Wars lunchbox and hugged it. It was his favorite lunchbox. He tried to open it up because he wanted his snack, a piece of breading with chocolate frosting. The plastic clasp wouldn't release. The back of the room shuddered, and then the wall fell inward, and Paul died.

A flood of stinking mud gushed furiously into the classroom. Chi-Chi's cage vanished into it, and Sister Jane kept her head up for a moment, before she too succumbed. Her desk toppled, and the mud carried away a ceramic apple from one of the drawers. Hours later, it was found by a policeman who could still read the faded inscription on the stem: "LOVE IS PATIENT. -RAY."

The chalkboard at the front of the room cracked and shattered. Pieces of it fell next to Becky Conway, trapped under the broken floor of St. Vincent. She traced the faded cursive lettering with her fingertips. She had never been able to make a 'z' just right.

When the earth stopped shaking, Michael Pennington came out of the boys' bathroom. The principal scared him, so he cried into the toilet paper. He heard nothing in the hallway except for a dripping sound. He walked past the coatracks and the empty gymnasium, stumbling a little over the torn up floor. The big-kid lockers had been ripped open, and he gazed wonderingly at the secret contents of a sixth-grader's nest, thrown with abandon next to the ruined water fountains.

When he passed the door of his former classroom, he remembered his jeep, and decided he would ask Sister Jane if he could have it back. The knob was jammed. He wasn't tall enough to see over the edge of the small window set into the door.

Michael wandered into the chapel at the end of the hallway. The ceiling had been torn open, and bright sunlight was rushing into the room. The crucifix had come askew, and leaned against the altar. Michael stared into the wooden eyes of Jesus Christ, and he saw for the first time that they had no irises.

He settled himself into a pew at the front of the church and removed one of the cushions. The red felt was warm from the sunbeam. Michael knelt on it and gripped his hands together. He bowed his head and began to pray.