“Virgil, are you sure this is the First Circle? I thought we were descending into Hell?”
“This is actually a shortcut. This hallway intersects pretty much all the Circles, and even Real Life. It’s quite accessible, in fact. Most people find themselves in here at some point in their lives without ever noticing it.”
“It looks like a high school hallway,” Dante said, observing the hand-painted banner with thick tempura block letters announcing the upcoming Halloween-o-Grams sale.
“Exactly.” Virgil looked into room 616 and saw the gaunt faces of withdrawn, disengaged Sophomores. “Poor motherfuckers. Pardon my Italian.”
Virgil opened the door and motioned for Dante to follow. They could cut their journey even more short by crossing the room through the far door, where some student work still haunted the faded blue bulletin board, mournfully displaying a study unit that no one would remember.
As Dante and his guide passed rows of students sitting dutifully, if a bit lackadaisical, at their desks, one of the living dead students raised his hand. Without really looking directly at Dante, he asked, “Do we really have to do this?”
“Uhm, yes?” Dante guessed.
“UGH!” the student raised his chest with the whine, in order to dramatically flop forward over his desk. Rolling over to his left, he remained laying prone on his arm while still trying to make marks on the worksheet with a pencil with his right.
Dante glanced over at Virgil, who waved a hand to give Dante some silent permission to continue. Dante then took the worksheet away from the student, who sighed again, then sat back up. His pencil continued to work as if writing automatically, but with nothing else to scribble on but the desktop, it began to make an edgy, chickenscratch representation of a penis.
Looking over the worksheet, it seemed to just require some basic repetition. “Well,” Dante said, “why don’t you just tell me the answers out loud, instead. If you finish your busy work, you can be excused, right?”
Dante considered the paper before him. “Okay. Uh, ‘Emperor Justinian displayed a virtue of ambition but failed to also display the virtue of’ … what?”
The student blew a sigh through pursed lips, attempted a thought, and looked suddenly as if he were pricked by a needle. “Ah,” he trailed off, then quickly said, as if it were one word, “I dunno.”
Virgil shrugged, indicating it was just as expected. Dante was incredulous. “Well, it’s obvious he does know. It just might take him a bit of time to answer.”
“It’s time no one wants to spend,” Virgil said. “Much easier to just say ‘I dunno.'”
The student rolled his head to the side, his neck clearly deficient from centuries of desk-made posture. “Ugh. Just tell me. I say ‘I dunno’ and you tell me.” Then he added, as if to assure Dante and make everything okay: “I’ll write it down.”
“So you just want to fill out this worksheet?” Dante handed it back.
“It’s fine, whatever. I’ll even wait until a few minutes before it’s due and still turn it in on time, okay?”
“Well, it would be better if you actually learn it.”
“How am I supposed to get points that way?”
Virgil motioned to Dante; it was a lost soul. “C’mon. Let’s get out of here.”
“Can’t we take them with us? There’s nothing really keeping them here, right?”
“Nothing substantial. It’s more one of those ‘hell-of-your-own-making’ kind of things.”
Dante lowered himself to look at the student. “Come with us. Do you really need to finish this?”
The student blinked, but did manage to look at Dante for the first time. “Is this not going to be on the test?”
Dante considered, “Well, maybe. But also maybe one test won’t matter. As long as you’re learning stuff, I mean.”
The student looked pained once again. “Ooh, I don’t know. I’m getting a 94 percent right now. So a test would be pretty important.”
Dante stood back up. “Oh my God,” he said, but Virgil shushed that kind of talk.
The student took up the worksheet again, laying his head back on his left arm as usual. “I have to do good. I’m a good person. I need to get a good job someday.”
Dante threw his hands out. “Those things aren’t even related! I mean … any of those things!”
Virgil had to put his arms around Dante and try to lead him to the door. “Some people get it; some people never leave here.” Then he observed, “Beyond ourselves we hope our meaning be laid / But what be meaning without weight or grade?”
“Where is the teacher?” Dante realized.
“Oh, there’s a whole ‘nother circle for them. Right near Sisyphus. Come on, I’ll show you.”
“Wait! How much is this worth?!” the student cried out, as Virgil and Dante slipped out the door.