This story is by Tonya Colson and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Natalie hunched her narrow shoulders and walked straight to Miss Howe’s classroom. Grandmother dropped her at school early, but she avoided the crowded halls. Unpopularity was infectious; the other teens gave Natalie a wide berth. ‘Mouse’ is what Leila had called her. Small and quiet. But Leila was gone, and Natalie no longer spoke at all. She hadn’t uttered a word in four years.
“Good morning, Natalie. I think you’re going to love the story we’re reading today.” Miss Howe’s bright smile filled the empty classroom.
Natalie would love the story. She loved everything about Miss Howe because Miss Howe never made her feel awkward. The corners of Natalie’s mouth twitched upward as she slid into her seat.
Miss Howe straightened the stack of essays in her hands, then set them down too close to the edge of her desk. The pages fluttered to the floor.
“Oh, not again. Can you believe this?” Miss Howe knelt in her long skirt and scraped the papers back into a pile. Natalie smiled. Miss Howe talked to her each morning, somehow intuiting her unspoken side of the conversation.
Miss Howe stood and wrote the day’s assignment on the board in her perfect, curling script.
“Winter break starts tomorrow. Any plans, Natalie? I’ve heard there are fireworks down by the river on New Year’s Eve.”
Natalie crumpled at the mention of New Year’s Eve, but Miss Howe still faced the board and hadn’t noticed. Natalie squeezed her eyes shut, but the memory flooded back. Leila.
Grandmother had been asleep. Natalie was ten, too young to be out past midnight, but she waited up so Leila could tell her about the fireworks. She heard car doors, then footsteps on the wooden porch, but the front door remained closed. Was Leila kissing a boy?
Natalie crept to the window and cracked the curtain, but she couldn’t quite see the porch in the dark. A police cruiser sat in front of their house. The interior lights were on, but she saw no one inside. Were the police chasing a criminal in her neighborhood? Maybe on her porch? She dropped the curtain and held her breath. Fear pressed her to the spot. Should she wake Grandmother?
Natalie held her breath as Miss Howe debated the pros and cons of watching the fireworks. It was her first year in town, so she’d never been. She didn’t have anyone to go with, but she wanted to get out and make new friends. Would it be worth braving the cold?
The first-period bell rang, interrupting their conversation. Students streamed into the classroom, chattering about New Year’s Eve. Natalie felt unmoored; she gripped the edge of her desk with sweaty fingers. Her stomach lurched. Leila.
Natalie slunk away from the window, her skin clammy. She heard scuffling, then a muffled cry from the porch. Was that Leila? It sounded like Leila; she had to check. The doorknob felt cold in her hand as she cracked the door.
Miss Howe’s heels tapped the floor as she handed back their essays. Natalie’s breakfast rose in her throat, and she rushed from the classroom without taking the pink hall pass. She locked herself in a bathroom stall and sat, rocking to calm herself. Tears splashed onto her thin knees as she struggled to pull toilet paper squares from the dispenser. Leila.
Leila lay on the porch, her scarf bunched in her mouth. Mascara-stained tears streaked her face. A thick-necked policeman leaned over her. Was Leila hurt? The sight of the policeman comforted Natalie. She opened the door wider.
The policeman’s bare buttocks caught the light from the living room, glowing white above his navy trousers. His gun belt lay on the ground next to him. He turned and stared at Natalie with pig eyes, his face red with anger.
“If you tell anyone….” He nodded his spiky, crew-cut head toward his gun. Tell what? Natalie wasn’t sure what she was seeing. The officer grabbed his gun belt and got to his feet. He spat on the porch next to Leila, then bent close to Natalie, his breath warm and sour on her face. “You. Keep. Quiet.” His boots crunched the frozen grass, leaving dewy prints on the lawn as he strolled back to his car.
Natalie was on her knees next to Leila. She needed her sister to explain, but Leila turned her face away. Natalie opened and closed her mouth, but no words came out. She grabbed Leila’s hand and tried to pull her up. “Mouse, stay quiet; you’ll wake Grandmother. Go inside now,” Leila said. She stood, tugged at her pants, and walked past Natalie into the house. Her bedroom door closed with a decisive click. A week later, Leila hung herself in her closet.
Nothing could fill the Leila-shaped hole in Natalie’s heart. She’d wanted to stay home today, but Grandmother wouldn’t hear of it; she’d long ago lost patience with Natalie’s prolonged, silent mourning.
The bell rang, startling her. She blotted her eyes once more, then slipped out of the bathroom and joined the flow of students in the hallway.
Grandmother and Natalie hunched over their TV trays, watching a New Year’s Eve special. Natalie picked at her beans and ham, bringing the spoon to her lips whenever she felt Grandmother watching her. They never ate this late.
“Natalie, let’s go see the fireworks.” Natalie’s spoon dropped from her fingers and landed in the bowl with a clink. No, no, no. Natalie shook her head, but Grandmother was on her feet. She leaned over and pressed her thin lips to the part in Natalie’s hair.
“Come with me. We need to get out of this house.” Grandmother’s voice was firm and insistent as she collected their coats. Natalie clenched her teeth and pushed her TV tray back. For once, she would try not to disappoint Grandmother.
As they stepped out of the car, Grandmother’s glasses fogged in the cold. Natalie took hold of her elbow and guided them toward the river, keeping her eyes down to avoid patches of ice. Firecrackers popped in the distance; the smell twisted her stomach, and she swallowed, hoping her beans and ham would stay put.
“Natalie, is that you?” Natalie looked up, surprised to see Miss Howe was walking toward them. She squeezed Grandmother’s arm.
“Hello, I’m Natalie’s English teacher. She’s such a pleasure to have in class,” Miss Howe said, her cheeks flushed pink in the chilly air.
“Nice to meet you; I’m Natalie’s grandmother. She does love books, doesn’t she?” Grandmother’s eyes crinkled with delight, unaccustomed to hearing praise regarding her granddaughter.
“I’d love to watch the fireworks with you, but I’m not feeling well. I asked around, and it seems there aren’t any taxis in this town? I’m new here, you know. Anyway, it’s my lucky night. A kind policeman has offered to run me home.” Miss Howe gestured toward the portable toilets as a uniformed officer stepped out.
Natalie’s blood ran cold. It was him. The policeman walked to Miss Howe’s side and placed a hand on her arm, impatient. A flash of distant sparklers glinted off his metal badge. He didn’t seem to recognize Natalie, but she was 14 now. It had been four years since he’d hurt Leila.
Fear paralyzed her. Miss Howe was in danger, but what could she do? Natalie’s mouth opened, but the sound clotted in her throat. She swayed, lightheaded, against Grandmother.
“Well, nice to meet you. Happy New Year,” Miss Howe said.
Natalie released Grandmother’s arm and pitched herself to the ground. A wail formed deep in her chest, increasing volume with each breath. She clutched Miss Howe’s boot, determined not to let go. Grandmother wrung her hands as the crowd slowed to watch. The officer reached for his radio, then hesitated.
“Natalie? Are you okay?” Miss Howe leaned down and offered Natalie her hand. Natalie’s fingers cramped in her mitten as she transferred her grip to Miss Howe’s glove.
As the first fireworks exploded, Natalie sat up and croaked into Miss Howe’s silky hair.
“Leila. Sister. He. Hurt. Her.” The booming fireworks covered each raspy sob. Had Miss Howe heard her? Natalie looked deep into Miss Howe’s eyes, willing her to understand. Miss Howe nodded once, then helped Natalie to her feet.
“She’ll be okay; the fireworks just scared her. They terrified me when I was her age. I’m going to stay with you two, alright?” Miss Howe reassured Grandmother before turning to the officer. “I won’t need that ride after all. I’ll stay here with my friends.”
Natalie’s tears were hot on her cheeks as the policeman retreated. She’d done it. And Miss Howe had called her friend. She straightened her shoulders and took hold of Grandmother’s elbow as the sky erupted with color. “Happy New Year, Leila,” she whispered.