he assignment was a five-to-seven page essay on the question “Is it worse to be cruel to a dog than to a flea?” When the professor put it up on the whiteboard for the students to copy, a few of them snickered, as if they believed the actual assignment had yet to be written. But when one of the snickerers—a young woman whose right wrist was encircled by the tattoo of a green vine— said, “Really?” the professor turned the inflection around and responded “Really,” before she had even laid her dry-erase pen in the whiteboard bed. She was a woman in her late forties who dressed formally for every class, usually in some skirt and blouse combination with the same pair of low black pumps. Though her countenance said that she took this all quite seriously —the class, her students, life— there was also about her an air that suggested how quick she might be to relax, even have fun, in a setting other than this austere, purely functional room.
She bid them all a good weekend, which was the signal that they had been granted permission to pack up and leave. The students stood and shuffled in a slow herd toward the door, slow because most of them were running thumbs across the screens in their hands to see what crucial developments might have appeared there in the last hour. The final student in line was a young man who’d sat next to the green-vine tattoo. He approached the professor and cleared his throat, though she had already turned her face to receive whatever it was he would say.
“I don’t think I can write five pages on that,” he said, nodding at the sentence on the board. “I’m not trying to be rude or anything. Or, like, difficult. But—I mean—five pages?”
“Well, you don’t have to write five pages.” She moved to the board to erase the assignment without turning her back on him. “You could write seven.” She smiled, appearing to take pleasure in her own joke, but let it ebb when he gave out a guffaw that sounded more tortured than amused.
“Look, Stephen,” the professor said, in a voice that was firm but not unkind, “I won’t ask you why you signed up for a philosophy class if you weren’t interested in thinking about questions like this. Maybe it’s just something you need for your major. But since you’re here, you might as well see if you can get something out of it.”
“Okay. But I’m pretty sure I won’t get five pages.” He smiled, having apparently calculated that this particular professor might appreciate his own weak attempt at wit. She urged him again to have a good weekend, and pretended she needed more time to collect her things so that he could leave the room alone ahead of her. He seemed to understand that she was pretending, and why, though it was also clear that he had no way of showing his gratitude.
She had advised them early in the semester that they would all come to find their own ways of thinking about the questions she raised in class. Some of you will be able to concentrate in front of the computer, she said, but for others, a long walk by yourself might be the best bet— your mind will be working on the problems even if you’re looking in store windows or up at the sky.
And I’m not talking about a long walk with your cell phone, she added. If you really want to get some good thinking done, leave it behind.
Stephen took his phone out of his pocket and set it on his desk in the room he shared with the boyfriend of the girl adorned with the green vine. Usually when he came out of the dormitory he turned right, in the direction of the classroom buildings and the cafeteria, but now he went the opposite way and walked toward the little town that bordered the campus. He had only been to the town once, the day his parents dropped him off at college two months before. They’d gone for lunch at a diner called The Brown Cow, after which his parents would get back into the freshly emptied car and make the five-hour return drive home. During lunch, his mother kept up her hyper cheerfulness to the extent that neither Stephen nor his father could get a word in edgewise, but when the waitress came to clear the plates away, his father lost it. They stayed at the table longer than they should have, so he could collect himself. But every time it seemed he had done so, the crying started again and he reached for another napkin from the dispenser. When she saw what was going on the waitress, who was his mother’s age, told them there was no hurry, and she patted both Stephen and his father on the shoulder.
Stephen crossed the street before he would have had to pass The Brown Cow, and kept his eyes trained on the sidewalk. His face held the look of someone straining to identify a tune he could hear only faintly. He walked more than a mile, beyond the point at which the street with the shops ended, then turned and retraced his steps back to campus, still appearing to listen for the tune.
He sat down at his desk, consulted the notebook in which he had copied the assignment, and created a new document on his computer. He watched the cursor blink for a few minutes, then leaned back in his chair. After a few more minutes he leaned forward and typed, “It is worse to be cruel to a dog than to a flea. This is because a dog will understand that a person is being cruel to him, and a flea will not.” He read it over and considered before inserting “probably” before “a flea will not.” Then he tabbed to a new paragraph and wrote, “That’s all I got,” laughed to himself in a way that did not sound in any way happy, erased the line, and put the computer to sleep.
In the cafeteria, his roommate and the roommate’s girlfriend called Stephen over to join them. “That assignment is bogus,” Amber said. When she waved her fork at Stephen to emphasize how much she meant what she was saying, a dot of ketchup landed on her wrist, looking like a ladybug crawling through the green vine. “Who cares about fleas? Do you? I wouldn’t mind being cruel to a flea. You’re supposed to be cruel to fleas, right? Do they serve any purpose other than being a pain in the ass?”
“I don’t know.” Stephen’s expression indicated that he would have liked very much to offer a more intriguing response.
“I think it’s a trick question.” Amber spoke around a mouthful of French fries, and Stephen looked away.
“I don’t think so. She isn’t like that.”
“Well, I’m going to treat it as if it’s a trick. Here’s my essay answer right here: ‘Yes. It is worse to be cruel to a dog than to a flea.’ That’s the whole thing.” She started to choke on her own laughter and her boyfriend clapped her on the back. “Don’t you dare steal it!” she warned Stephen, when she had recovered. “Don’t you plagiarize me.”
Stephen told her he wouldn’t. “That’s not really what I’m going to do, doofus,” she said, winding her finger through the remaining ketchup on her plate and licking it off. “What do you take me for? What I’m really going to do is type in a search for ‘cruelty + philosophy,’ and whatever comes up, I’ll change a few words and voila! Instant paper.”
“Yeah, just do that,” his roommate told Stephen. “Why not?”
Seeming eager to offer evidence of her strategy’s success, Amber went on, “That’s how I finished that World Lit assignment, some crazy Russian book about a woman who has conversations with her sugar bowl. I mean, excuse me? But it turns out there’s a ton of critical stuff on it! All mine for a click. Who knew?”
Stephen shrugged—but it was not the shrug of someone who didn’t care. He stood and picked up his tray. His roommate asked, “Hey, you meeting up with us later at the Brat? That girl from Western Civ told Amber she’d be there.”
Amber told Stephen, “She doesn’t know who you are, yet. But she will.” She pointed at him as if making him a promise.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Don’t be a pussy.” His roommate pointed at him, too. “It’s Friday night. You’re supposed to go out and get wasted, not sit in some crap dorm room and do crap work. That’s bullshit.” He sat back, seeming surprised by his own vehemence.
“Thanks,” Stephen told them, turning.
“For what?” Amber said, but he was far enough away by then that he didn’t need to answer.
By Sunday afternoon he had scribbled many notes to himself, but no actual pages. When his roommate went to meet Amber for dinner, Stephen got up from his desk and looked out the window. It was a gray day, dismal with a light sleet, and the outside lights had been on since morning at The Brown Cow and other places on the main street. He went back to his computer and typed in “cruelty + philosophy,” but closed the search engine before it could launch.
When his mother called that evening, he told her he’d spent the weekend working on his philosophy paper but was having some trouble. The way he put it was that he didn’t know what angle to take on it.
His mother said, “Why don’t you write to Miranda? She could probably help.”
“I thought you wanted me to think for myself. ‘That’s the whole point of college,’ you said.”
“We do want that. I’m not saying she should give you the answer. But she’s your cousin and she’s smart. She studied this stuff. It didn’t get her anywhere—she’s working at a TJ Maxx, for God’s sake—but she’d probably jump at the chance to dig back into it again.” On the other end of the line he could hear her rummaging through a drawer. “Aunt Cherry just gave me her email address. Here it is, I’ll send it to you. By the way, Dad wants to say hi.”
A fumbling as the phone changed hands. “You there, son? What’s the problem?” “There’s no problem.”
“It sounded as if you needed help with something.”
“No. Just writing a paper. Philosophy. It’s hard, but that’s what college is supposed to be, right?”
His father gave a little snort. “Well, I wouldn’t know.”
“It’s okay. I got it covered.”
“You sure? Because you know we want to do whatever we can, right?” Then came the choke in his voice that signaled the start of what had waylaid them all at The Brown Cow that day. “Very proud of you, son,” he said, but he had to hand the phone back before he could get it all out.
Two days later he came back from Western Civ and found an email from his cousin with
an attachment labeled Stephen paper. He clicked on it, read, then took a breath and went to the window. The sky had brightened since the weekend and the air was lighter, not so dense. He opened the window slightly as his roommate came in. “Come to the Brat, asshole, it’s Nickel Beer Night,” he said to Stephen. “Aren’t you done with that crap paper yet?”
“Almost.” His roommate waited, just standing there. After a moment, Stephen said “Okay” and turned the computer off, its shutting-down sound almost covering the sound of his exhalation as before him the screen went dead.
The professor had told them she’d return their papers at the end of class a week later.
The topic that day was free will versus determinism. An energetic debate rose up between the majority of class members, who voted for free will, and two or three others who argued that every human action is controlled by a causal chain of events leading up to it.
“Stephen, you haven’t weighed in yet,” the professor said, during a rare pause in the exchange of emphatic comments that all seemed aimed at winning something or beating someone, rather than exploring the different perspectives of an idea.
A flush lit Stephen’s neck. “Sorry,” he muttered, appearing only then to pay attention to the discussion. “I’m not sure which I believe.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” The professor gave him an approving look. “Philosophy is a love of seeking wisdom, not a love of having concluded and shut off one’s mind. Nice job, everyone.” She moved to her desk. “I wish I could say the same for all these papers,” she told them all, picking up the stack. “Some are very good. But one or two of them made me think I should suggest a new core education course to the administration. Something along the lines of ‘How to Hide What You’ve Googled So It Sounds Like Original Work.’” She paused, standing before the girl with the green vine. Amber reached for her paper, her tattoo sticking out of her sleeve, but the professor held onto it as she continued. “I mean really, people. It’s as if you think I might not have a computer or something. Do you think I don’t deal with this every semester? It’s disheartening, to say the least. And destructive to yourself, though I doubt you would understand why.” Finally she let Amber have what she wanted, though by then Amber had covered her face with her hair.
“You can expect a follow-up email from the Academic Integrity Board,” the professor said. She did not look at Amber, but it was clear whom she was speaking to.
Stephen received his paper with the circled blue A and did not get up from his seat until everyone else had left the room. The professor did not seem surprised that he had hung back. “Perhaps needless to say, I wasn’t expecting the quality of your paper,” she told him, erasing the Pro Free Will section of the whiteboard. “After you told me it would be so difficult. Did it turn out to be, in the end?” She moved over to Pro Determinism, managing to clear the words without turning her back on him.
“I worked really hard on it.”
“I worked really hard on it, I said.” He cleared his throat. She had finished wiping the board and was placing her things in the leather satchel she always brought to class.
“Forgive me for asking. It’s just that I hadn’t seen enough of your work yet to know you could write something like that.” She smiled. “I’m impressed. I’ll have to call on you more often from now on—it’s your own fault for showing me what you’re capable of.” When he made no move to pack up himself, she told him she’d see him on Thursday, gave a little wave with another smile, and left the room.
Stephen folded the paper over three times and stuck it in his back pocket. Outside it had turned colder than when he’d gone into class, but he continued to carry his jacket instead of putting it on. He walked to The Brown Cow, where he sat at the counter and ordered two milkshakes, which he drank very fast. Then he ordered two more. The waitress he recognized from the day his parents had left him said, “Whoa, honey, you’ll make yourself sick,” but he shook his head without replying as he drained the big glasses. He left her his last twenty-dollar bill on a check for ten, then slipped out of the diner before she could call him back to tell him he’d made a mistake.
On his way back to campus he ran into Amber and his roommate. Amber was crying into her boyfriend’s coat. “This is so fucking bogus.” She turned to Stephen with an expression that indicated she was waiting for him to agree. When he didn’t, her face flashed with fresh anger. “That bitch is going to be sorry she did that to me. Just wait till my father gives her a call.”
Stephen nodded and began walking up the hill. He stopped and threw up into a trash barrel, and when he straightened again the girl from Western Civ was watching him with a hand over her own mouth and a look of disgust in her eyes. He walked a few steps farther to sit on a bench. It was still wet from the rain overnight, and he swore and stood quickly, walking back to the bin he’d been sick in. He pulled the paper out of his pocket. It is just as wrong to be cruel to a flea as to a dog because both of them are creatures. As human beings we have a moral obligation to show humanity to our fellow creatures, even if our potential victim does not recognize cruelty or cannot feel pain. He dropped it on top of the trash. A later page was now visible to anyone who might walk by and feel inclined to read part of a philosophy paper thrown out in a puddle of puke. A moral person who violates his own humanity will be damaged by what he has done, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it and in ways he will likely not have been able to anticipate.
He went back to his dorm room and slept through the rest of the day. When his mother called that night, he didn’t answer. It wasn’t until the weekend that he called her back to tell her he was sorry, he’d been busy. When she asked about the paper and he told her he’d gotten an A, she said, “Oh! I knew you could do it, honey. Aunt Cherry will be so pleased, and I’m sure Miranda would love to see what you did with her input.” Then he had to hold the phone away from his ear as she repeated the news to his father and, across the distance, both of his parents cheered.
“Original Work” from Infinite Dimensions. Copyright © 2022 by Jessica Treadway. Reprinted with the permission of Delphinium Books.