Writing by Raven Shumate
The mark upon my hand has neither faded with time nor festered with anger, merely a remnant of an earlier warning. The spring always reminds me of gnawing on pencils til rubbed raw, whimpers from chalk sticks long past retirement. Curiosity naturally arises when others hear how much I despise flowers of any kind, never accepting them as gifts or helping my wife sow new life into her garden. Swiftly, time has passed me by, but listening to my grandkids grudgingly recount how their day at school went has transferred me back to that morning.
I had woken up with my hair slicked to my scalp, my chest trembling with every ghostly gasp. I turned my attention to the noise beyond my window to realize that it was pouring down icy shoots of rain. Gathering myself together, I peeled back my sheets and treaded across each wooden board with caution. I gulped down a slurry of cereal and hobbled one foot after the other trying to get my brother’s old jeans on. Running out the door and into the pelting rain was far from graceful, but I managed to stumble on to the bus before it sputtered away.
Flopping down on an empty seat, I started feeling nauseous, inclined to believe that my breakfast mixed with the jarring motion of the bus was to blame. The pounding on the roof distracted me from my queasiness and my vision began to blur. Everything surrounding me drowned out as I slipped away. To my disappointment, the journey ended in the blink of an eye with the brakes suddenly screeching to a halt, startling me from my sickened stupor.
My initial dread rebounded while I forced myself to trudge past each row of seats. I dug my nails into every backrest, but I knew I couldn’t stay behind even though I desperately wanted to. The downpour drenched me yet again once I exited the bus, which immediately sped off in the opposite direction. Peering up at the building in front of me, my unease only worsened the longer I stared. I heaved my disjointed body forward nevertheless.
The stark white of the ceiling lights ricocheted off the tiled floor to create a harsh glare. I shielded my eyes just to be compressed against the walls by a tidal wave of students, so I swallowed my discomfort and kept my eyes trained on the blazingly shiny floor. As the overwhelming commotion shrouding my tiny figure began to dim, I risked a glance away from the ground. Fewer and fewer students occupied the hallway, most walking the other way. I thought nothing of it and returned my gaze to the floor to discover that the sight of it no longer hurt my eyes. I figured that I’d finally adjusted to looking at the tile, but then a few lights above my head began to flicker. This wouldn’t have been too abnormal if all the other lights weren’t shuddering as well.
I stopped dead in my tracks and turned back around to see most of everyone else already in class with only a couple of stragglers left. I could tell that the lights behind me were sparking more aggressively by the way they danced on the tile, but I refused to spin around. The original white light had now become a sickly yellow that silhouetted me. An ogre-like shadow scowled back at me, forcing a scream to escape my throat. I gaped at the halls again to see if anyone heard me to find them perfectly hollow.
With each stride, I inched closer to freedom. I would’ve welcomed the rain with open arms if I ever made it out the door, but as I rushed down the infinite halls, I felt the smooth tile beneath my feet begin to slip. A little too abruptly, I skidded to a stop, almost tripping over my laces in the process. The floor seemed to be caving in on itself, each tile colliding with one another. Fragments leaped into the air around my ankles and they followed me while I carefully backed away. To my dismay, I felt something crumble underneath my feet, as if I had stepped on thin glass.
Having no option left, I turned tail and bolted back down the hallway. I didn’t look over my shoulder, I could assume what was happening behind me after hearing the grinding sound of collapsing floor growing louder in my ears. The ground trembled beneath me and my earlier sickness returned, this time with a more demanding kick. I bit my tongue to hold back my breakfast, wishing I could squeeze my eyes shut and block out the dizzying lights and their tumbling tiles when I smelled something.
Just ahead, I caught a glimpse of a door through the wavering light. I didn’t think I could’ve run any faster than I already was, but a surge of energy accompanied me along the endless roaring hall. The smell grew stronger and more fragrant as I sprinted towards the door. The floor was crushing under the little weight I carried, its cracks splitting and spreading. I’d be buried alive soon. Clinging to the redolent scent, I extended my arm out in sheer desperation. I only had eyes for the doorknob. My fingers seized it with glee, the smell engulfing me, only to have my skin sizzle and burn.
The shrieks flew from my mouth and went unheard over the booming of the quaking earth. My smoldering hand was agonizingly livid. The choice was mine. I wouldn’t be standing for much longer if I did nothing, but at least if I burst through the door, I’d have a chance of finding safety. The doorknob flared like hot iron, a deep red that dared me to hold it. Accepting the challenge, tiles shifting beneath me, I grabbed the handle, twisting and turning it despite the heat that seared my skin. It gave way and allowed me to pull myself through before I had the chance to drown in a sea of flooring, the perfume-like smell following me. On my knees, I panted and heaved while I clutched my scorched palm, curling up into a ball. I focused on the scent to calm me and though it cooled me down, the scalding fire in my fingers throbbed with pain.
Through the haze, a singsong voice called out, asking “What’s the trouble?” A high-pitched, feminine sound. It wasn’t whiny, it wasn’t raspy, but it had a slight southern twang. The voice echoed distantly before it approached me, along with the sound of clicking heels. I half-heartedly winked away my sluggishness to see a woman taking careful steps towards me. The fragrant smell clearly came from her as I almost choked on its overwhelming stench.
At first glance, I took her hair to be gray, but the longer I squinted at her, the more I realized that she was blonde. Each strand was well-kept, curving neatly around her head to form a perfect bob that ended with a simple curl. She didn’t hold out her hand to help me up, nor did she wait for an answer to her question even though she didn’t say anything else. She just stood there, craned her incredibly veiny neck over at me, and waited for me to get up.
After much heaving and squirming around, I managed to haul myself up on both feet with no help from her. I stared blearily at her thin frame as she slowly turned around, seeing that I could stand on my own. In a rather leisurely manner, she strolled away from me, saying “You don’t want to be late” in passing. The flowery smell went along with her, but flowed around me while I ambled to catch up. I was skeptical of her, though my aching and the aroma around me dulled most other thoughts.
The clacking heels led the way to a desk, an ordinary wooden desk. The woman unclasped her veiny hands from behind her back and gestured towards the adjacent seat with a wry smile. It was then I noticed how her eyes protruded from her skull, glassy, leaving little room for her eyelids to rest. Eyebags sagged under the weight of them. They were a stormy blue color, like an ocean at dusk, only grayer. The look she gave me told me that sitting down wasn’t up for debate, so I held my tongue. She knew I was injured, but her apathy was contained by a mysterious grin, this time with her teeth. I suppose you could call her smile nice, but you had to admit there was something animalistic about the way each tooth was slightly offset, how her canines stole the show. Her overbite was just noticeable enough to suggest she’d once bitten a tough piece of meat and extended her teeth out with it.
She pushed my chair in for me and sauntered to the front of the room that was suddenly full of fifteen or so students. Their attention was directed at the chalkboard. They had no interest in me. The woman took a stubby chalk stick and wrote her name in cursive: Ms. Bluebell. The name matched the sleeves of her dress, each mirroring the flower’s curvy shape.
Now that I was in her classroom, the sickly scent of what I could only assume was perfume lingered indefinitely. It permeated my brain and made me lightheaded. I tried inhaling through my mouth instead, but the air stung the back of my throat.
When I coughed to try and clear it, Ms. Bluebell’s eyes swiveled around till they landed on mine. “Do you need to step outside?” she innocently asked. I said it was impossible to step outside. She said “How could that be?” and cocked her head to the side. The entire class turned as one to face me.
I stammered stupidly that the floor wasn’t there anymore and the lights weren’t working, to which I expected the class to snigger at, but every kids’ face was blank and lifeless. Only Ms. Bluebell shook her head, giving a wan smile in return. “Children can’t live in fantasies forever,” she sighed dreamily and turned back to the chalkboard. The other students turned their attention back to Ms. Bluebell as a single entity.
I don’t remember much after that. I sort of spaced out until the bell rang for recess. I awoke from my stupor, but I didn’t move. The other kids whirled by my desk in a blur, leaving me alone with her. She startled me even though I watched her walk over to where I was sitting. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t you want to play with the others?” She enunciated every word very succinctly as if she were foreign to the concept of speaking.
I didn’t look her in the eyes. Glancing over at her hand, I couldn’t contain a gasp from escaping my mouth. Her fingers were pencils, each one about as long as my entire hand. Replacing an expected pair of claws was a set of cuticles without any fingernails. All that was left was a white outline and scarlet skin where the nail should’ve been set in. What disturbed me most was how raw the flesh was, like her nails had been recently pried off.
She took her hand off my shoulder, clasped it behind her back. She lowered her head so it was level with mine. “Go play with the others,” she said, not frowning, but not smiling either.