The first thing I noticed when I entered the school was the locker.
Its pale, beige surface was covered in red sharpee, words slashed by dangerous hands.
Each word spurted out like an open wound, dripping with hate; disgusting and awful.
The second thing I noticed was the girl sitting in front of the locker, her head resting on her knees, a curtain of dark hair blocking her face. Her bones jutted out awkwardly from her thin frame, like popsicle sticks. A silver pentagram hung off of her neck, resting on her shoulder.
“Katie?” the teacher beside me heaved a sigh. “Good heavens, this is the second time this week.”
The girl lifted her head, brown eyes swollen and sharp nose tinged pink. I gaped at her in shock—this girl could have been my sister’s twin, if she hadn’t been such a stick. “It’s fine, Ms. Lawrence.”
“Y’all know that’s not true,” Judy said. “I’ll let the janitor know. We’ll get this cleaned right up.”
Judy beckoned me down the hallway, murmuring, “It’s just awful, Mr. Lloyd. But what can we do? Anywho, here’s the staff room, where we meet before class.”
The next day, I watched the janitor patch up Katie’s locker with lame posters advertising the upcoming school dance. Red marks dripped over the edges, as if the posters could barely contain the marks from oozing outward.
I continued my path down the hallway to the teacher’s lounge. Inside, the teachers sat around the main table sipping coffee and chatting.
“The last darn thing I want to do is chaperone the school dance,” a burly bald man with thick eyebrows was saying.
“Now Frank, it won’t be that bad,” Judy replied. “It only goes ’til midnight.”
“I think it’s near stupid that the kids are all forced to go,” he continued, his fat caterpillar eyebrows rising in contempt. “Especially that Katie girl. Them other kids get so dang uneasy around her, and rightfully so. She told them that she’d never step foot in a church. It’s blasphemous!”
“Morning, Mr. Lloyd,” Judy said pointedly, nodding at me. I frowned, pulling in the words that were about to escape my lips; this was my first day and I couldn’t afford to make enemies.
“Hi,” I shook hands with Frank and the ladies in the lounge. “I’m Evan. It’s nice to meet all of you.”
Frank narrowed his eyes at me. “You know, we could always use more help with the school dance. I’m sure Judy would appreciate having both of us around for any heavy lifting.”
“Sure, I can help,” I replied. If there’s anything I learned in teacher’s college, it’s that first impressions matter, even with big bald meatheads.
To my relief, the bell rang for first period. As we exited the staff room, Frank slapped me on the back, forcing the breath right out of me.
“You have English first period, right?” Frank asked, smiling, one caterpillar raised. “Good luck with that.”
A giant group of students stood outside my classroom door, blocking the entrance. Two girls stood in the centre of it all, preening—the classic Queen-Bee and her sidekick.
“Why look,” Queen-Bee whispered loudly to her redhead friend as I approached, blonde curls bouncing. “It’s the new teacher. He looks awfully young, don’t he?”
“Hello,” I said, smiling at everyone. “I’m your new teacher, Mr. Lloyd. Can everyone please go inside? Class is about to start.”
“Mr. Lloyd,” Queen-Bee said. “We can’t go in.”
“She’s in there,” Red said. They both giggled nervously, batting their eyelashes. The other students murmured to each other, enjoying the show.
I pushed past the students, my cheeks warm. My eyes fell on Katie, who was sitting by herself on the far side of the room, eyes trained out the window. She had artfully drawn a spider on her cheek with eyeliner.
I took a deep breath, then turned to face Queen-Bee. “What seems to be the problem here?”
“My mother says I can’t be in class with anyone who doesn’t follow the principals of the church,” she said sweetly.
“Religion is not an excuse,” I replied, exasperated.
“You don’t understand,” Red said. “She’s a witch!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katie flinch. I could feel my pulse increasing. “I will not tolerate name calling in my class.”
“It’s not a name,” Queen-Bee stated. “It’s the truth.”
“She’s right,” Katie said, turning to stare at the redhead. “I will put a curse on you if you come anywhere near me.”
Queen-Bee and Red gasped dramatically, taking a step backwards.
“Those of you who don’t want to be sent to the principal’s office, please take your seats,” I snapped. “The rest can go have a chat with him.”
I sagged in my chair, both defeated and relieved when everyone entered the classroom—everyone but Queen-Bee and Red. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the bell rang for second period.
“Katie,” I called, grabbing her attention as the other students left the class. “Don’t you think that was a little uncalled for? You’re just provoking them.”
“If it keeps them away, then I don’t care.”
“Would it really hurt to try and fit in? It would be easier for you.”
Her face flushed scarlet, and I immediately felt ashamed for my words. As she left the room, she called behind her:
“I won’t change just because a bunch of assholes think I should.”
Part of me admired her for that.
The night of the school dance loomed. The school had rented out a nearby wood barn for the occasion, and I found myself helping Judy put up balloon bouquets, strings of white lights, and paper streamers. I carried chairs up into the loft, shoving them between hay bails for seating. Frank didn’t do much except set up a decent stereo system, which cranked out country music that I had never acquired the taste for.
He assigned us positions: me at the front door, taking attendance; Judy outside, ushering people in; and himself comfortably in a chair at the far end of the room, surveying the loft.
Katie was the first to arrive, dressed in a full length black dress. No spider today, just heavy eyeliner and her characteristic pentagram necklace.
“You’re here early,” I remarked, checking her name off the attendance list. She shrugged, and strode across the room, clambering up the stairs to the loft. Frank gave her a disgusted look as she passed.
More students trickled in, filling up the barn with chatter. Frank yawned, his eyes drifting closed. It wasn’t long before he fell fast asleep.
I itched to check the loft, but I was still waiting on a few students. I glanced at my list anxiously—five names left.
The clock ticked by. Three students to go.
I noticed Red lurking at the foot of the staircase. Over the music, a drone of voices wafted down from the loft, chanting something. The chant grew louder, and louder.
Heart racing, I shoved through the crowd to the base of the stairs.
Katie was pinned against the wall, two boys holding her there. Queen-Bee stood in front of her, waving a lit cigarette in front of her nose. A red welt glowed on Katie’s cheek. The chanting grew loud and clear:
“Burn the witch! Burn the witch!”
“What the hell?!” I roared.
What happened next was chaos:
The cigarette dropping to the floor, dry hay immediately catching flame.
Red trying to block the stairs, me shoving her out of the way. Queen-Bee knocking me backwards, the students running past.
The boys shoving Katie back as they ran, her head hitting the wall as she collapsed.
A wall of fire rising up, licking the ceiling, blocking Katie’s exit.
Eyes watering, lungs burning. Uncontrollable coughing. My pant leg catching fire, hot flames lapping my skin.
Katie, lying on the floor coughing, reaching towards me through the flames.
Frank grabbing me, pulling me down from the loft while I coughed and coughed, croaking out her name.
Frank dragging me outside, shutting the barn door behind us.
Every day, I would think about her.
I would think of her thin silhouette in the barn window as she threw open the shutters, hauled herself up onto that ledge and jumped.
I would think of her in the hospital—one leg in a cast, arms covered in burns—thanking me as I cried tears of relief and shame.
I would think about her switching schools, Frank getting fired, Queen-Bee and Red getting expelled.
Everyday, I would limp past her locker—shiny with new paint, a new beige tissue hiding the wound.
Faintly underneath the paint, you could still make out the slash marks.