“What am I going to do, Sam?”

Specificity is the key here. What are you going to do about what?

“I think I’m still in love with her.”

With who?

“Whom.”

And who exactly is this Whom?

“No. I’m saying you should have said ‘With whom?’.”

Really? You’re going to correct my grammar with dodgy punctuation like that at the end of your sentence? Really?

“You can hear my punctuation?”

We digress. You think you’re still in love with WHOM?

“Artemis.”

And who exactly is Artemis?

“A fake name I started using to refer to a girl I’ve known for a long while now. On the off chance that someone is listening in on our conversation, I would prefer it if this all stayed anonymous.”

That doesn’t really answer my question, though. I didn’t ask about the name. I asked who she is.

“She is a girl that I first met at the summer camp I worked at. We met while we were both campers and later we were both on staff together. I’ve had a crush on her forever, but I always thought of her as being out of my league.”

Is she?

“Yeah.”

And why do you think that?

“Because she’s gorgeous and bright and cheerful and could really have her pick of any guy she wanted. There’s no logical reason to pick me.”

You do realize how little logic has to do with such matters for most people. Right?

“In theory, yes. But the idea of ‘leagues’ has persisted for a reason.”

I can accept your point. Tell me more about her.

“Well, there was a very brief time where I thought that maybe I had a shot with her. We had been talking back and forth quite a bit and were starting to become even closer friends. I had gone from one relationship to another and the second ended on bad terms all within the six months leading up to our ‘talking’ period, so I’m sure I was a mess emotionally at the time.”

You obviously think that is important enough to point out. Why do you think that is?

“To be honest, I think I’m trying to convince myself that I’m not really in love with her.”

And why would you want to do that?

“Because she has been with the same guy for several years now, lives far away, and is still out of my league. If I’m legitimately in love with her, I would feel like I need to act on it. If I’m not, it would be much easier logistically.”

Because nothing says romance like logistics.

“Exactly.”

So how did you mess up?

“I decided to pull an April Fool’s joke on Facebook. It was brilliantly plotted over the course of the day and reached a climax when I announced that I would be transferring schools to the university she was attending. I had several other friends there, so it wasn’t aimed directly at her, but apparently she got excited. Someone close to her later described the joke as ‘cruel’. Our relationship was never really the same after that.”

That sounds like she really cared about you.

“Cared. Past tense.”

Does she care about you now?

“I don’t know. We haven’t really talked in years.”

I get the feeling that you didn’t expect her reaction.

“Not at all. I had always assumed that I was WAY more invested than she was. To be honest, her being hurt, while it made me feel terrible, kind of made me feel good about myself.”

How so?

“If I was worth enough for her to be upset about not being closer to her, maybe I was worth something after all.”

You’ve mentioned issues with self-esteem before.

“I guess it’s always been at the back of my mind somewhere. I grew up with an older brother who we’ve always joked was ‘perfect’, but the jokes aren’t as jokey as they seem.”

How did you feel when she talked to you?

“Wonderful!”

Why?

“I guess it’s the same thing I said before. She made me feel like I was worth something. There was one time while we were both campers that I can still remember vividly to this day. We were standing there with a group of a couple other people and I guess I did something. To be honest, I don’t remember anything that came before, but she started giggling and hugged me.”

And that made you feel . . .

“Worth a damn.”

You do see the theme developing here, right?

“Well . . .”

Come one, now. Don’t play dumb. ‘Worth a damn’? Really?

“I guess you’ve got a point.”

This girl, for some reason, has always made you feel ‘Worth a damn’. You’ve always had issues with self-esteem, and she’s always made you feel good about you.

“So you’re saying I may not have been in love with her, but with the way she made me feel.”

More or less. You seriously considered attending the same university as her, right?

“Yeah. I did. Not because of her, but because I had a lot of connections there. I narrowed down my options to two schools and I chose the other. I’ve always thought that if I had chosen that school, my life would have gone in a completely different direction professionally and personally.”

And she became a part of that alternate life when you played the April Fool’s joke.

“I suppose so.”

I’m going to guess that for a while there, you hardly thought about her at all.

“Now that you say it, yes.”

And it was only recently that you started to regain your infatuation.

“Yeah. So?”

How have you been feeling about your life lately?

“Like I’m paddling with all of my might and not going anywhere. Like I’m drowning in a sea of profession with no energy to forge a personal life and no real connections outside of my job to make such a life easy.”

So you’ve been unhappy with your life?

“Yeah.”

In particular, your personal life?

“Yeah.”

The part of your life that she would be a part of in the alternate timeline?

” . . . yeah.”

And you’ve been feeling distinctly . . .

“NOT worth a damn.”

So are you really in love with Artemis or are you in love with how she made you feel and what she represents to you?

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“You’re aware of what my job is, right Sam?”

You mean your job isn’t just to ask me inane questions that should really just be targeted at yourself?

“Well someone’s in a mood today.”

Sorry. When you’re frustrated, I get frustrated. The problem with talking to the voice in your head is that it tends to reflect your bad mood back at you.

“I guess you have a point.”

Regardless, you came to me for a reason. Let’s get to it. In answer to your question: Yes. I am aware that you are a high school math teacher.

“Well, my sister is an art major in college. I never really thought about it until I was talking to her today, but I realized that I had no idea how her classes worked. Was there a lecture? A demonstration? Did they just sit and stare at each other for hours on end?”

And did you ask her?

“I did.”

And?

“And she told me that they are assigned a project. Then, they attempt to work on that project with their teacher checking in on them and critiquing their work.”

So how do they learn anything?

“Essentially, through experimentation. They learn art by doing art.”

You’re saying that rather than learning superior methods by someone simply telling them, they learn through discovery. They learn through trial and error.

“Exactly!”

So let me guess: being the selfish person that you are, you started thinking about . . . yourself!

“Seriously with the snark today?”

Sorry. You’re just in a foul mood. It’s too bad you can’t imagine me in a better mood.

“Whatever. You were saying?”

You started thinking about your sister’s classes, how they learn through experimentation and you started thinking about the classes you teach. What if they ran under a similar philosophy?

“Exactly! What if instead of trying to teach math, we let kids do math? What if math was taught not through lecture and assignments, but through experimentation and discovery?”

What if?

“Well I don’t rightly know. I’ve never seen a math class taught that way. Maybe no one has. Theoretically, you could present students with a problem, then let them figure out how to solve it. They could do research on how similar problems have been solved in the past and attempt similar techniques until they have discovered the methods for themselves.”

So do it.

“I don’t see how. With having to follow the TEKS, there’s no way I have enough time to work out an entirely new method of teaching mathematics on top of keeping up with my current work. The earliest I can see having a chance to work on something like that would be this summer.”

Well then, this summer . . .

“This summer, I suppose.”

“Hey Sam?”

What’s up?

“I’m struggling.”

That’s what I’m here for.

“You heard about the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality from this morning, right?”

Clearly you did, so yes. What’s the problem?

“Ok. I understand why people are in favor of it. I really feel for people who have to spend their lives pretending to be something they’re not. No one should have to go through that.”

Doesn’t everyone go through that? We all pretend to be something we’re not at some point in order to keep society flowing smoothly. You, for example, pretend not to hate certain people when you’re talking to them. You pretend to be something you’re not all the time.

“Yeah. And it’s exhausting. Can you imagine being forced to do that your entire life?”

I get the feeling that you’re dodging your real issue here. Spit it out.

“Fine. I don’t understand why people are against it.”

They believe that it infringes on their freedom of religion by forcing them to acknowledge marriage as something more than their beliefs allow.

“But that’s not what freedom of religion is about, is it?”

Explain.

“Freedom of religion is all about not being forced to be a part of any religion. It’s about someone not being allowed to impose their religious beliefs upon someone else. Churches aren’t being forced to perform gay marriages. That would infringe on religious freedom. This is just about a legal contract.”

It sounds to me like you are suggesting there are two sides to marriage.

“What do you mean?”

There’s the fluffy side and the paperwork side. The fluffy side is all about the chapel and the flowers and who the maid of honor will be and living together and stuff like that. The paperwork side is all the bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that you don’t actually understand. Taxes and whatnot.

“Yeah. I guess so. It seems to me that what you call ‘fluffy’ gay marriage has been happening for years. They live together, have ceremonies, and stay committed to each other just like heterosexual couples. From what I can see, all this ruling means is that they’re allowed to file the paperwork saying that they’re doing that.”

Your still dodging your own point.

“Which is?”

Why don’t you care?

“I . . . of course I . . . damn. You’re right. I’m really just so indifferent about this whole thing.”

Well, logically, this ruling will have little to no impact on your life or decisions.

“That’s true, I guess . . . wait. But if that’s true, doesn’t that also mean that it will have little to no impact on the lives of those who are avidly opposing it?”

Go on.

“I have to assume that the people opposing gay marriage are not gay.”

A logical assumption.

“So that means that this ruling will have no effect on their own ability to marry or not marry.”

True.

“And we’ve already said that this doesn’t infringe on their religious freedom. No one’s forcing them to preside over the ceremony.”

You might go so far as to say that the exact opposite it happening. Those who oppose it claiming religious freedom are trying to impose their interpretation of the Bible’s definition of marriage upon those who don’t agree with that interpretation.

“Or who don’t believe in the Bible at all.”

Exactly. It seems as though the wrong people are claiming a violation on their freedom of religion.

“And it’s hypocritical. If they want to enforce God’s will as determined by the words of the Bible upon the masses, shouldn’t we be stoning adulterers in the streets and telling women to shut up?”

We’re digressing again.

“You’re right. Where was I?”

Why don’t you care?

“Actually, I don’t think that’s the question anymore.”

What do you mean?

“I’m not gay. As we’ve already said, that means this ruling will have no effect on me.”

So?

“So the real question isn’t why don’t I care. The real question is why does anyone who isn’t gay really care about this? Why are they so passionately opposed to it? Why do they think that this is infringing upon their rights in any way?”

I think you just figured out where you stand on this issue.

“More to the point, why are we still fighting about this? The anti-gay-marriage faction just lost. It’s not like you can appeal the supreme court, can you?”

If you don’t know, I don’t know.

“A lot of help you are.”

I met Sam for the first time that day.

I was sitting at work listening to the local morning radio show when they began to discuss a meme that was sweeping the internet known as the “Charlie Charlie Challenge”. The set up was that you drew on a piece of paper a cross dividing it into four sections and wrote yes and no in the sections in a checkboard arrangement. You then placed one pencil along the horizontal axis and balanced a second pencil vertically across the first (or vice-versa). Then, you say the words “Charlie, Charlie can we play?” and the pencil would swing to point at either yes or no. The story was that Charlie was a Mexican demon that was summoned in this way and after being invoked would answer yes or no questions. Apparently the internet went nuts over this despite it having been around for years.

This was the idea I was pondering as Sam walked through the doors.

“Hello?” he shouted, not being able to see me through the blinds of my office.

I stood and went to greet him. “Hi,” I said cordially. “Can I help you?”

“Actually,” he said, “I think I’m the one who can help you.” That was when I finally snapped out of auto-pilot and noticed what was standing before me. Sam was clearly well over seven feet tall and somehow managed to stand erect despite the ceiling being a mere six and a half feet. Moreover, I couldn’t make out any of his features. I could make out the outline of his figure and face, but his individual features were veiled in darkness.

As the entirety of his persona washed over me, I was forced to retreat back into my office. He followed calmly and sat in the chair opposite mine.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to regain some professionalism. “What do you mean you can help me?”

Sam’s features lit up just enough for me to see his smile. “You’re wondering about Charlie, aren’t you?”

“How could you know that?”

Sam’s features suddenly snapped into the form of a much less surreal or intimidating being. He suddenly appeared to be a plump, bald man whose nose was just a bit too large for his face and whose eyes were just a bit too close together. “Look,” he said, “this is going to take all day if you don’t accept a few things.” He pulled a bowler hat from thin air and placed it on his head. “My name is Sam, I know what’s going on up there,” he reached across the room and tapped my forehead, “and I’m here to help. Can we role with that?”

The whole situation left me a bit dumbfounded, but something about this new form was comforting to me. It was as though I had known Sam for years.

“Fine. What do you have in mind?”

Sam grinned. “Try it!”

“Try what?”

“The Charlie Charlie Challenge.”

I scoffed. “You’re joking, right?”

Sam’s face was resolute. “Look, you know the internet is full of lies. What makes you think this one is anything different? They couldn’t get it to work on the show. Maybe it’s all just a hoax or a bunch of flukes. You’ll never know until you try!”

I considered his point for a while before giving air to the tiny spark of fear glimmering at the back of my mind. “What if it’s true?”

Sam was ready for this. “You don’t have to go through the whole ritual. You know full well that most demonology information suggests a very specific set of rituals for summoning any demon. If you assume that Charlie is real and can be summoned, doing part of the ritual wouldn’t summon him which would let you isolate your variables.”

I began to catch on. “You’re saying just set up the pencils and see what happens.”

Sam smiled. “You’ve got a whole jar of them right next to you.”

No further convincing was needed. I picked up two pencils and began to lay them as directed. It didn’t take long, however, before I ran into the same problem they had had on the show when they tried it: I couldn’t get the pencils to balance. I thought maybe it was something about the pencils, so I went online to see if I was setting them up correctly.

The videos were shocking. People would ask the question and the pencils would move. I did notice, however, that the pencils they were using in all of the videos were the more traditional octagonal pencils. Mine were round. I tried stabilizing the bottom pencil, thinking that might be the problem, by taping it down. When I finally managed to get the pencils balanced, nothing happened.

“You see?” I said. “There’s got to be something more.”

Sam looked at the motionless pencils. “Your variables aren’t isolated. You took away the bottom pencil’s ability to move. That could easily make a big difference.”

I pondered the pencils. “That’s true. But I don’t have any of the right kind of pencil.”

“Then see what the experts have to say.”

I nodded and returned to Google to see what it had to say.

Virtually every sight I went to that discussed the Challenge offered the same explanation: the pencils, as delicately balanced as they are, are very susceptible to subtle changes in the air such as breezes or light breaths. I looked back as my still motionless set up and decided that must be the reason mine didn’t work: I had taken away some of the delicacy by taping down the bottom one.

There were also, however, a couple of articles about the dangers of demon summoning.

I turned back to Sam, mouse hovering over the headline to just such an article. “What do you think?”

“I think that article can’t possible say anything you aren’t already considering.”

I sighed, “I hope you’re right,” and I clicked on the article.

The article started by discussing the basics of the challenge (I merely skimmed this part), then went on to discuss some people experiencing weird things if they did not end the game with Charlie such as Siri malfunctioning. The article pointed to a couple of preachers who warned of the dangers of summoning demons under any circumstances and then went on to discuss what heightened feelings of fear and paranoia can do to your perceptions.

That was enough for me.

It wasn’t enough for Sam.

“There’s a way you could find out for sure,” he said, his face snapping instantaneously to its darker form and back.

“Fuck you, Sam,” I said as a sense of fear rushed into my heart.

“Come on. You don’t even believe in demons, right?”

I clenched my jaw.

“You’ve said dozens of times before,” he pressed on, “that when most people talk about demons, it’s one of two things: a scapegoat to avoid responsibility for their actions or a misunderstanding of mental illness. You aren’t avoiding responsibility and Trunchbull is the only mental illness you’re dealing with.” The use of that name through me off. Perhaps Sam really could read my mind. “If demons aren’t real, what’ve you got to lose?”

“Ok,” I said skeptically, “but what if they are? Is it really worth that risk?”

“Why don’t you see what you can find out?”

Back to Google.

I tried to see what Lutheran theology had to say about demons, but found myself lost for a solid hour reading articles about the lies of Lutheran theology and how all Lutherans are going to hell. The articles, for the sake of accuracy, were all by the same highly fundamentalist man who seemed to have problems understanding the concept of metaphors and was inherently opposed to rituals of any kind. One article tried to argue that Martin Luther consorted with the devil by discussing an encounter between the two that Martin Luther wrote about. I read Luther’s account and laughed.

“Seriously, do people not understand the concept of metaphor or literary devices?”

Sam grinned from ear to ear, turned into a giant white whale, a red letter A, a snake coiled around a tree and back to the bald man in the bowler hat. “Sure doesn’t seem like it.”

I tried to get back to the task at hand of researching Lutheran theology on demons and was met with an excerpt from a Lutheran pastor’s handbook discussing exorcism. That was when I noticed Sam leaning over my shoulder. “Hmmm,” he said. “Didn’t the year-round staff at camp say that they had had the place exorcised?”

The memories flooded back to me: the ghost stories, the spiritualists, the pastors, and particularly the staff pastor. She had said that ghosts and demonic possession weren’t contrary to Lutheran theology. “That means demons are a part of Lutheran theology. Doesn’t it?”

Sam shrugged. “Or at the very least that they might be real.”

I eyed the pencils that still lay motionless on my desk, the bottom one still taped down. I glanced between them and the piece of paper lying next to them and Sam.

“Do it,” Sam whispered. “Just do it.”

“I don’t . . . I can’t . . . but I . . .”

“Do it.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” My mind was made up. “Let’s consider the possibilities. Suppose Charlie isn’t real and I try it. There are two outcomes: something happens and I’m left wondering whether Charlie is real or nothing happens and I’m no closer to a real answer than I am now. That’s two cases that don’t actually get me any closer to an answer.

“Now suppose Charlie is real and I try it. There are two outcomes here: either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, I’m in the same situation as if Charlie wasn’t real. If it does work, there are two more possible outcomes: Charlie answers my silly questions and then leaves me alone or Charlie decides that either I offended him or that he likes me and he refuses to leave me alone. Perhaps he even gets some of his more malignant demon friends in on the game.

“That’s five outcomes I’ve come up with. Two leave me no closer to an answer than I am now. Two put a check in the Charlie’s real column but don’t actually confirm anything. The fifth puts me at severe risk both physically and spiritually. That means I have an eighty percent chance of getting no answers and a twenty percent chance of getting an answer that I really would rather not hear.”

Sam sat back in his chair and seemed to shrink a bit. “So then you have your answer.”

I glanced back at the pencils. “I guess I do. At least with regards to Charlie.”

“But?”

“But I’m still not sold on demons. Are they real or aren’t they?”

Sam smiled and stood. “I can’t help you anymore there. You’ll have to talk to someone else about that.” Sam walked to the door and paused briefly to turn back. “I’ll be back when you need me.” And he walked out of the building.

I glanced out the window to see if he had arrived by car or walked. Sam, however, was nowhere to be seen. The only sign of life was the small dog chasing the local family of stray cats across the front lawn.

I turned back to the pencils, still motionless.

I blew softly.

The pencil turned.

I laughed and went back to work.