Come Monday, there’s no ambiguity in whether people know Emma’s fate. The mourning shrine in the front hall is clear enough advertising. A picture of her smiling - it looks professional, and I wonder if it’s from her modeling - in the center of a wreath of flowers, surrounded by dozens of other pictures of her and twice as many flowers. Where did all of this come from? Did some students make it? Or did the school put it up? Does the administration have a dead student wreath prepared for just such an occasion, stored in a closet somewhere? Would I have gotten one, if I hadn’t made it out in January?
…Probably not. And even if I did, it’d have gotten stolen or vandalized before first period even started. My dead student wreath wouldn’t have had nearly so large an audience, either.
There are over a dozen girls standing by the memorial, and maybe every third student stops to look or chat in low, somber tones. I shove past, keeping my head down in case the girls wanted to harass me ‘in Emma’s memory’ or whatever bullshit excuse they wanted to come up with today, but I can’t escape the suffocating feeling in the air. The whole school is quieter than it should be, like just after a big gang fight, when no one wants to get the attention of the celebratory winners or impotent losers. Even Ms. Knott’s computer room feels more subdued than usual, with less students audibly slacking off and joking around. Is this the impact of a popular girl’s death?
It’s nicer than usual. No one bothers me throughout the day; it reminds me of the month before winter break, when the whole bullying campaign stopped and the worst I’d receive in a day were turned-up noses. I have to remind myself why this is different though. It’s not the calm before the storm. It’s not a lull before they hit me with something worse than anything previous. It’s… I’m not naive enough to call it the end, but it’s a break at the very least, while everyone puts on the production of grieving a lost classmate.
Even World Issues with Madison is more bearable than ever before, even if that’s mostly because she’s so caught up in the act of grief that she can’t tell of Greg in her usual way as he gives his condolences to the other girls in class. The annoyance on their faces as he parrots back their mourning words brings a smile to my own: a brief one, quickly smushed down before anyone could see. I don’t need to paint any sort of target on myself, especially when an errant rumor might hit closer to the truth than is safe. The worst possible outcome would be if Madison and Sophia somehow framed me for Emma’s murder because I’m - god forbid - happy for the reprieve today.
It’s as close to a perfect day as I’ve had all year, so of course the world conspires to shit on me in the form of a pissed off Sophia Hess ambushing me on my way to math. A fist to my gut drives the breath out of me, and before I even know what’s happening, the bitch is shoving me against the lockers with a forearm pressed against my neck.
“What’s so fucking funny, pissant?” she hisses at me, baring teeth - not smiling, definitely not smiling - in a vicious snarl, inches from my face. “I asked you a question, so answer me: what the fuck do you have to smile about?”
I try to suck in a breath, not to answer her, she wouldn’t like any answer I could give, but to reclaim the air she drove out of me, but her arm is cutting off my breathing to a strained wheeze.
“You think you’re having a good day? You think that without Emma around you’re safe? You’re dumber than I thought if that’s true. You’re a piece of shit. Prey like you isn’t safe unless I say so.” She punctuates her threat by driving another fist into my stomach, driving out the wisps of air I was able to suck down. Tiny, dark blips swirl in the air, and for a moment I panic for real, thinking my bugs are attacking, but it’s just dark spots in my eyes. My bugs are coming closer though, without my direction, and I send them away to be safe, desperate to stay hidden.
“Sophia, we have to go,” comes a girl’s voice, from off to the side. A pale hand grabs Sophia’s arm, but it gets slapped away.
“Don’t fucking touch me!” she snarls, finally releasing pressure on my neck. I drop to the floor in a heap. The metal of the locker is cool against my back, and I can finally suck down a breath. It sends me into a coughing, wheezing fit, but the dark spots in my vision clear up.
“Teachers are coming,” says the white girl, who I now recognize as one of the trio’s lesser sycophants, one of the girls that would join in on the name calling and rumor spreading, but never acted alone or from the front of a group. Marcy? Martha? Mary? Something that starts with an M. “We need to get out of here, now.”
Sophia scoffs, but lets herself be led away with only a parting comment. “You’ll keep that smug smile off your fucking face if you know what’s good for you.”
Then she and M-girl are gone, just in time for a pair of teachers to come into view: Mr. Gladly and one that I only vaguely recognize. I think he teaches woodshop, or maybe small engine repair? Whatever he teaches, he only spares me a pitying glance before continuing on, either to wherever he was originally going or to track down Sophia and M-girl. Gladly though, he stops next to me and, of course, makes a scene.
He calls out to the hall, “I don’t want to be That Guy, but the bell’s about to ring and you all don’t want to be late, do you?” which I guess is as close as he can get to telling students to fuck off while still being a ‘cool teacher.’ Still, the hall starts to clear, albeit slowly. The warning bell that comes a moment later puts more urgency in the other students’ egress than his words. I struggle to my feet, ignoring Gladly’s outstretched hand to stand on my own.
“I saw what happened,” he says.
“You saw Sophia choke me out?” My voice is scratchy, but the disbelief shows through, judging by how his lips purse.
“I saw her standing next to you, and I saw you fall,” he says noncommittally, dodging any sort of responsibility.
He sighs. “Look, Taylor, as I’m sure you’ve heard, Emma Barnes passed away last week. I don’t know if you knew this, but Sophia was on the phone with her when she died-” That was Sophia on the other end? That means ‘Predator’ is a nickname, not a cape name. “-and she’s going through a rough time right now. Now, everyone grieves differently, and it’s not always pretty. Some people get sad, some people get numb, and some people get angry.”
Wait is he actually giving me this talk?
“Sophia’s a very… complicated girl, and we need to be patient with her while she’s going through this.”
He is! This… this… I don’t even know what to call him for this. This is a new level of spineless malice, even for him.
“Why don’t you try reaching out to her? I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, and she could probably use a friend now more-”
I cut him off with a “are you fucking kidding me?! She beats the crap out of me every day for a year and you want me to be her friend?”
“She does what? Taylor, if that’s true, we need to go to the principal and-”
“And what? Give a couple days of vacation?”
He sighs. “I’ll talk to Sophia, okay?”
“No! You’ll just set her more against me.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Taylor, I don’t know what to do with you. I’m trying my best, okay? You won’t talk to the administration, you won’t let me talk to the people you blame, you won’t tell any of the teachers what’s going on; I’m trying. Would you please just let me be on your side for once?”
“You- You seriously-” I scoff, and in lieu of finding an end to my sentence I shove past him. Gladly calls out to me as I stiffly walk away, bruise no doubt already forming on my gut, making each step stretch and tug my abdomen painfully, but I don’t hear his words over the crashing of blood in my ears.
Let him be on my side? He’s delusional if he thinks I’m in any way stopping him from calling out the bullying he witnesses. He only says things like this to clear his conscience. He doesn’t actually have any intention of doing anything, or he would have already. He just wants to feel good about continuing to do nothing, about staying comfortable while others pay the price. He wants to feel like a good teacher, but he isn’t. He’s the worst kind of teacher, in and out of the classroom.
His classes are always full of inane group work, and he never does anything about the shit that goes on under his nose. Hell, he’s worse than a substitute in the classroom. A sub at least doesn’t care about the power plays and social hierarchy of the students. The sub last fall was a crotchety old lady, but at least she was an ass to everyone. What I’d give to see her send Julia to the principal again…
And out of class? The other week pops into my head, when Emma taunted me over my own mother’s death - again - and the other girls told me to kill myself. He saw, he heard, and the only thing he did before walking away was make a sad face.
He never set out to hurt anyone, but he does let it happen. He let’s it happen, every day. That makes him culpable. It has to, at least on some level. He has the power to stop so much bullying, but actively chooses not to, so he’s responsible for everything that goes on under his watch. And there’s no way he’s only like this at school. He probably looks away from abuse everywhere else in his life too. With how he acts, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d ignore a mugging, or a murder, or anything really: lock eyes with someone just before they’re shanked, then make that same damn sad face before going about his day; “not my problem,” he would say before patting himself on the back for being ‘cool.’
No one bothers me as I leave the school to bus home, not caring that I’m skipping Mr. Quinlan’s math class. Despite my best efforts to push him out of my head, thoughts of Gladly plague me the whole way home, and even past its threshold. His sniveling, sad face sticks in my brain like tar, and every time my gut aches, it’s him I think of. That night, long after my dad has fallen asleep, I remain awake, unable to sleep through the layers of buzzing ideas.
Emma’s knife is the center-point of my thoughts, a beacon swaddled in my costume.