by Valeri Beatrix
Maizy Henderson volunteered to disperse our term papers. She was the resident “do-gooder” of the class, but never measured up to me in the eyes of our teacher—Mrs. Pender—though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Her usual more-shabby-than-chic ensemble assaulted the eyes of all who gazed upon it and I drummed my fingers against the desk when she clip-clopped her way to me.
“Kaitlin,” she muttered, holding the manila folder out with a stiff arm.
“Number Two,” I nodded.
“Why—what is number two?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I snatched the folder from her and shooed her along. Every now and then I got a kick out of calling her some random name. Previous gems included: “Rags”, “Brownie” and “Loser”. The last one said with a French accent.
With her nose in the air, she continued around the room, congratulating rowdy students who could care less about a Current Events themed term paper. I should know, I was one of them.
“Interesting work, Kaitlin.” Mrs. Pender called from her desk just as I’d opened the folder.
Written in bright, red ink on the top of the paper was an “A”. Without a doubt, it was my best work, to date, and easily merited an A+. Normally, I’d argue the point, but I didn’t feel like hearing a 30-minute, “grades are final” speech. We both knew she’d change it. I crossed my arms and stared out the dust-filmed window. Even the sun looked disinterested as it hid behind the clouds.
“Wow, you did it again.”
Elsa—my only friend—had turned in her seat to glance at my paper. Her tortoise-shelled glasses poised to jump from the end of her nose.
“You doubted me?” I asked.
“No, but aren’t you afraid?”
She glanced around, leaned closer to me and whispered: “Afraid of being caught.”
I could only roll my eyes. It was times like these that I questioned our friendship altogether.
In truth, we were likely more friends out of habit than genuine interest in one another. Though being tied to her was less mind-numbing than being 1/5 of some Barbie ensemble whose unnamed goal was to measure themselves against each other. (I’d inevitably come out on top, which would result in catfights and the disbanding of said group).
“Seriously, Elsa, is this thing big for no reason?” I tapped her forehead. “Use your brain. Do you really think Mrs. Pender gives a shit about Europe wanting to have more control over their Internet? Better than that, does she care enough to do Google searches of what we turn in? She’s just here to collect a pay check.”
Elsa sighed and pushed her glasses up, a classic sign that a lecture was on the way.
“Every paper you’ve turned in was—”
“Lower your voice!” I said through clenched teeth, looking around to see if anyone was listening. When I caught Maizy staring, she quickly turned to hand someone else a folder. She was across the room so she couldn’t have heard, but I maintained a cautious tone.
“Are you jealous right now, Elsa?”
“Jealous? I’m proud of the real work that I put in.”
“Yeah, and your real work got you—,” I looked around her and at the paper on her desk, “a ‘B’ minus. Good for you,” I tapped her shoulder.
“Look, I just don’t want you to do something you can’t come back from, K.T.” She said, something like pity clouding her tone.
“I know, I know, but how many times do I have to tell you? I’m not getting caught.”
It was the last week of the semester and I didn’t want to spend it arguing with her. So what if I’d re-worded a few preset paragraphs. It’s not like I was submitting for a Pulitzer or something. I turned in my work and Mrs. Pender got to read award-worthy essays. Where was the harm in that?
“OK, class. I’d like to do something special before we get started today.” Mrs. Pender’s shoes groaned as she waddled to the front of the class. “Maizy and Kaitlin, would you guys come up here please?”
I forced a smile and slid out of my desk. She’d likely congratulate us on our good work and tell everyone else why they should strive to follow our lead. When I reached the front, Maizy was already there with that irritable, lop-sided grin in tow. I stood beside her, but left at least 5 paces worth of space between us.
“I’m not ashamed to say that these two young ladies had the best and most professional term papers amongst you.”
Elsa coughed and I wished I could shoot fire from my eyes.
“I’d like you each to read the first few pages of your work.” Mrs. Pender smiled and waited as we went to retrieve the folders from our desk.
“Can I go first?” Maizy squealed, ever the brown-noser.
I thought I might try sleeping while standing, until I heard the first line of her paper:
“The next two years will be critical in redrawing the global map of Internet governance.”
My scalp prickled even before the sweat-beads formed. I cleared my throat and ran a hand through my auburn hair. I wanted to look at Elsa, but a sudden interest in the paisley pattern on my loafers kept me from doing so. Mrs. Pender stood just off to the side of us, but I could feel the fire of her gaze singeing me.
It’s fine, I told myself. Maizy is a smart girl. She probably found the article the same way I did. That didn’t mean anything.
Except it did. She hadn’t just found the article, she’d copied it too.
I could already see it: a “serious” investigation into my previous work, an A-average demoted to an F, a tense teacher/parent meeting where my mom would cry on the inside so as not to ruin her make-up.
It wasn’t until the class broke out in a sparse round of applause that I realized she’d finished reading. I glanced up to find Elsa and froze.
A chill like the crisp wind of fall gripped my skin. The moisture in my mouth evaporated. To void what had to be a hallucination, I squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them…
Worms slithered across the skin of my classmates like moving tattoos. Over bare arms and twiggy legs, they slinked in erratic patterns that left me dizzy.
What was more unbelievable is that no one noticed. Bobby Sam sent a text while one crawled from beneath his collar and into his ear. In the midst of a laughing fit, another slid into the mouth of Bridget Peters. And Elsa. My poor Elsa speared me with a questioning gaze as a group of them pooled around her eyes trying to replicate those hideous bifocals.
I tried again to shake the image from my mind, but a chariot of horses thundered through my chest and sent me tumbling into the teacher’s desk.
“Kaitlin! Is everything alright?” Mrs. Pender asked.
“No…yes, I just—” I turned to respond, but was struck dumb when a sliver of what I could now see was a succession of scars, wriggled across her forehead.
“Y-you…there’s something on—”
My throat seized the phrase like fugitives. I attempted to free them, but ceased when a hand gripped my wrist.
My head jerked up at the sound of her voice. Through my muddled vision, I could see that I was back at my desk. In front of me, Elsa’s humored gaze shone through her large lenses.
“You fell asleep, dummy. Long—hey, stop that!” she said, when I snatched her glasses away and turned her face from side to side.
“What’s your problem?”
I ignored the question and reached for her hands. They were the same as always: child-like with red splotches on the palms. I glanced around at the other kids—Bobby and Bridget. Everyone was back to normal, back to their unimpressive selves.
“OK,” Elsa said, pulling her hands back. “What’s going on?”
“N-nothing, I—guess I had a bad dream or…something.”
“Ha! That’s what you get for cheating.”
I opened my mouth in response, but stopped when the teacher stood up. She too looked normal, well, as normal as she could with a bird’s nest of hair and a lime-green blazer.
“OK, class,” Mrs. Pender’s shoes groaned when she waddled to the front of the room. “Who wants to assist me with returning term papers?”
Maizy Henderson raised her hand, the ghost of a worm fleeing
beneath the cuff on her shirt.