Here’s a short story I wrote for an anthology where every story has the same first line. I “modified” mine by making my first line dialogue, which I did not know was illegal. Turns out it is. Also, it’s probably a little too campy. I don’t know. I liked the concept while writing it, though. But yeah. For the time being, I don’t know what else to do with it. It was written for a specific purpose, it did not serve said purpose, it goes here. Welcome to the rejection pile, Hero Academy. Others will join you soon.
“I came of age in a time of no heroes. Their absence had been long developing over the years. Nightly news broadcasts featured fewer and fewer stories of good Samaritans. People no longer experienced random acts of kindness, so they had none of their own to pass on. The disappearance occurred slowly, but continued to dwindle until there were no heroes left.” Omar Mehari looked down at the notes scattered about on the podium he stood behind and quickly glanced over the seating chart for the audience in front of him. Returning to his speech, he made sure to make eye contact with the students with whom he thought his words would resonate the most. “It made for unmitigated hysteria. Mugging attempts in broad daylight went unhindered.”
In the third row from the front, Ralph Tully stopped scribbling in his notebook. From under the brim of his ball cap, he looked up at the man at the pulpit and swore he was looking right back at him.
“Cats stuck in trees remained there until willing to venture down on their own and dogs ran stray with no one attempting to return them to their owners.”
The mention of an animal in peril made Elise Edwards perk up. She had sat with a solemn expression on her face, but it softened immediately and nearly melted to tears as she imagined a street lined with trees filled cats stranded on branches and dogs aimlessly wandering below.
“The concepts of courage and bravery disappeared entirely, relegated to being the stuff of fairy tales and spoke of as if they were super powers possessed only by people involved in freak chemical spills or born of another planet.”
Peter Rutledge shifted in his chair. An open textbook that sat upright on his desk hid the majority of his face. It also acted as camouflage for the comic book he snagged from a box in his old man’s closet before being sent off to school. Peter’s eyes moved from the page to the podium.
“According to the National Parks Department and Departments of Tourism across the United States, wilderness paths have barely been touched and almost no exploration has occurred in over twenty years.”
The heel of the leather boot on Hallie Price’s foot dropped to the floor, an involuntary reflex caused by her shock at the stat. She was wearing a flowing skirt and a stylish blouse, both looked as though they had just come off the store rack, but her leather footwear showed more than enough wear and tear for the rest of her outfit. They were made to get dirty and she put them to good use.
“The parents and grandparents of my generation spoke of heroes. We simply expected they would come for us, too. They didn’t, because we never became them. We just kept waiting. Your generation cannot afford to be so passive. That is why you’re here.” As he finished the sentence, the man pressed a button on a small remote that sat alongside his notes. The movie theater-size projection screen that painted the wall behind him lit up with a few flickers before an image appeared steady on display. It read “Hero Academy” and was shaped like a badge that begged to be earned.
The man took the moment of unveiling to wipe his brow. He was not a particularly strong public speaker. In fact, he hadn’t spoke in front of an audience since his required oratory class in high school, and even then he faked sickness long enough on the final presentation that the teacher finally allowed him to film the speech from home. He was afraid of speaking up then.
He was afraid of speaking up now too, which is why the pilot run of Hero Academy was assembled in secret. It was less an official institution and more an obscure experiment, reaching just enough people outside his circle of friends to assemble the thirty-four students who sat in the seats in front of him. It would be his job to equip them with the skills and knowledge they would need to leave the school and enter the world ready to act and, if all went right, inspire.
“I am Omar Mehari, and I will be your professor through this course. You are the first class, meaning you a unique opportunity in front of you. Most people go to school, get a degree, and spend an inordinate amount of time looking for a job in their field. You won’t have that problem. All the world has openings for people like you and no one to fill them. Job prospects don’t get much better than that.
“If you reach under your desks, you’ll find a backpack. In it, as some of you have already discovered,” he said as he looked to Peter, who had the contents of the book bag spread across his desk, “is all of the material you will need for this course: Notebooks, textbooks, reading material, films. How we will work through this material is laid out in your syllabus. The first case we’ll be studying is–”
“Indiana Jones!” Peter exclaimed.
“Who’s that?” Elise felt as though she was missing out on something based on Peter’s joy.
“You’ll find out when we watch the film,” Professor Mehari replied with a smile in the corner of his mouth, partially from Peter’s enthusiasm and partially from the rest of the class’s ignorance.
“Is it a documentary?” Hallie asked.
“Something like that,” Professor Mehari said out of his grin.
Over a month into the course, the students were buying into the program to different degrees.
Peter was always eager and interested in the next heroic subject to study. He revealed to Professor Mehari during a post-class meeting that his father used to show him much of the same material they were examining. “I remember watching Golden Eye with my dad and any time Bond would do something awesome–which was constantly, of course–my dad would shake his head and say, ‘We need more people like him,’” he explained. “I want to be that.”
Hallie shared the enthusiasm, though hers was more focused. Seeing characters taken to exotic locales and interacting with the terrain was as important to her as the action or dialogue. Even as the class read passages from the various books assigned, she would sigh at the description of a mountain range or the grainy sand of a conquerable desert. And she excelled on the small field trips the class would take through the several acres of forest surrounding the campus. Her boots always came back muddy, her hands with new blisters and cracks–even during what was supposed to be a simple walk.
“Guys! You guys!” her voice found the group, calling down like a bird’s chirp from a treetop.
“Where are you, Hallie?” Omar asked. “We can’t see you.”
“Look up.” Even those who couldn’t fully spot her saw an arm extender further than any branch, waving.
“She makes me nervous,” Elise Edwards whispered to Omar.
“Me too,” he replied, “but appreciate her adventurous streak. We need people like her.”
The bushes next to the group began to rustle and just a moment later, out popped Hallie with a newly acquired scratch on her cheek and her hands clutched around something. She held her arms out and undid her folded fingers to reveal a small bird with a wing that wouldn’t flutter when the other did.
“I found him at the base of the tree,” she said. “He musta fallen. I think I saw a nest a couple branches under me when I was up there.”
Elise rushed over, moving so fast that she swallowed her own gasp of horror at the thought of an injured animal. She examined the wing, then turned back to Professor Mehari.
“Do we have a first aid kit?” she asked, the words falling over one another to exit her mouth.
“We do back at the school.”
“Can we go back?” Elise asked. “And can someone stay so we know which tree to bring him back to?”
“I know the one,” Hallie promised, “and I know the way back. I never forget a good climb. We’ll have him back in his next where he belongs.”
Professor Mehari gave permission to the two girls to return for the first aid kit. Before the two took off, he mouthed, “Told you” to Elise, and she nodded in agreement.
Others, like the permanently stone-faced Ralph Tully, were less enthusiastic. He showed up for every class, something that couldn’t be said for every enrolled student, but he rarely participated and gave little indication as to his feelings toward the class. He made no mention of it, but he was still somewhat shaken by how Professor Mehari made eye contact with him while talking about muggings. It was something Ralph experienced first hand while walking home from eighth grade. Two older kids–likely high school kids but Ralph’s memory made them appear like ageless giants–stopped him and knocked him to the ground, kicked him a few times, and stole the few bucks he had on him and the keys to his house. Ralph limped his way to a general store to call his mother to pick him up, afraid the attackers might follow him home if he continued on foot. The store, recently a victim of repeated thefts by the same kids who jumped Ralph, had instituted a “No Children Unless Accompanied by an Adult” policy. It was not a fond memory for Ralph. But he thought sticking in this class might help keep it from happening to him, and help him keep it from happening to others.
Still, there were some holdouts and skeptics. In the middle of a second week lecture on the philosophy of Robin Hood, a hand shot up in the front row. It belonged to Nathan Braswell. The first name told far less than the surname, as it was shared by a popular cleaning solution known best for the obnoxiously catchy slogan that played at the end of all the company’s commercials. Nathan was the heir to the fortune built on sparkly bathroom floors and animated dancing bubbles.
“What makes you qualified to say what he was doing was right? He’s still stealing.” It was unclear if Nathan’s snobbish tone was simply perceived because of his family’s enterprise or if he truly was a stuck-up rich kid.
“That’s a fair question,” he replied calmly as he stepped out from behind the podium. He appeared to shuffle and by his first fully revealed steps, it was clear he was dragging one of his legs with him. He stopped and leaned back against the stand behind him. “I was born in Eritrea. My family fled when I was just a child. On the trip over, I fell victim to a bacterial infection that took most of my leg.” He tapped his thigh and it responded with a metallic clanking to confirm his story. “It could have been worse but my father, he had absolutely no conscience about providing for his family. He took everything he needed to keep me alive. Perhaps it wasn’t right of him, but we all survived, everyone on board. I think what he did as admirable, but I am biased. You are free to draw your own conclusion, as you are with everything we discuss here.”
With just two weeks left in the course, the students who remained were preparing to take on their final exam. The anxiety of not knowing exactly what the assignment would entail was eating at their sanity. Details from Professor Mehari were slim, which meant the information spread by students was as plentiful as it was inaccurate.
Facing a fear was the consensus opinion, though everyone’s fears were different. Peter was nervous he’d fail to live up to the hype he made for himself. He assumed the expectations for him were high given how active and engaged he was in class. Ralph thought he’d have to confront the people that wronged him. Hallie worried she’d have to take an exam at her desk rather than put her physical skills to use. Elise thought all of these scenarios were equally terrifying.
Rather than testing on the theories taught during the class with a standard exam or an essay, Professor Mehari decided a more applied approach would be better. The assignment was broad and open-ended. On the last day of class, the students were given a piece of paper with three words on it: “Be someone’s hero.”
As the years passed and the first students of Hero Academy got further in time from their lessons, they continued to practice all they learned under the tutelage of Professor Mehari. He continued the school, taking new students in every year. There was even a waiting list for prospective pupils who wanted to attend but couldn’t fit into the next semester’s already full class.
Hallie Price was surprised to find a letter awaiting her when she returned to a tiny village from the untamed terrain of sub-Saharan Africa. Usually the mail came in bulk, weeks worth that piled up in the mailboxes at Peace Corps offices. Hallie sat at the handcrafted table and carelessly tore into the envelope without checking the return address. Inside was a newspaper clipping with a picture of her and some of locals she had lived with for a time. They were standing near a just-completed water well. Wrapped around the article was another piece of paper of a heavy stock.
It was the same one that arrived unexpectedly on the new desk of Ralph Tully. He had recently received a promotion within the police department for the success he had on his beat. The paper wouldn’t remain on his desk long, though, as Ralph had almost immediately left with the weighty sheet to find a craft store that would help him pick a frame for it.
Elise Edwards had the same idea. She displayed the paper with pride on the wall of her office, though unlike Ralph’s that tilted slightly, Elise was able to hang it perfectly straight without needing a level. It was the first thing clients and patients alike saw after entering through Elise’s door, though the patients were less likely to read it, being animals and all.
Likewise, Peter Rutledge took great pride when he received the paper. He imagined it would have been hard to deliver it to a globe-traveling secret agent or a mystery man with hundreds of identities. Luckily, it found Peter easily as he was neither of those things. It was delivered to him by hand from Professor Mehari after Peter wrapped filming at Hero Academy. The school and its only teacher were the subjects of the latest documentary that Peter was producing, part of a series that followed everyday heroes. He looked down at the flimsy lined paper Professor Mehari handed to him. It was a list of all his classmates and their contact information, written out in clear handwriting by Professor Mehari. Attached with a paperclip behind it was the heavy paper that brought his peers such satisfaction: A diploma.