THE NEXT DAY BEGAN ABNORMALLY. I AWOKE starving at about four in the morning and went to the kitchen to make toast. I withdrew a halfgallon of milk from the refrigerator and poured myself a glass as the machine heated the bread. When the slices popped up, I ate them slowly, turning last night over in my mind. I didn’t notice Joseph until he waved his hand in front of my face.
“Earth to Mara!”
A white drop fell from the triangle lip of the milk container. Joseph’s words were muffled, invading my brain. I wanted to turn off the sound.
I jumped, then slapped his hand away. “Leave me alone.”
I heard a second person rummaging around in the kitchen and swiveled my neck around. Daniel withdrew a granola bar from the pantry and took a bite.
“Who peed in your Cheerios?” he asked me, mouth full.
I leaned over the table and put my throbbing head in my hands. It was the worst headache I’d had in weeks.
“Is Noah picking you up? His suspension should be over today, right?”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
Daniel looked at his watch. “Well, he’s late. Which means I’m taking you. Which means you have to get dressed. Now.”
I opened my mouth to inform Daniel that we had hours until school started, and to ask him what he was doing up so early, but caught sight of the microwave clock. Seven thirty. I’d been sitting at the kitchen table for hours. Chewing … for hours. I swallowed the cold bread and my panic over losing so much time.
Daniel looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “Come on,” he said softly. “I can’t be late.”
I didn’t see Noah’s car in the parking lot when we arrived at school. Maybe he decided to take an extra day off. I drifted towards the campus, half-conscious. I didn’t see Noah in English, or wandering the halls between classes, either. He was supposed to be there. I wanted to find out where Jamie lived and even though they hated each other, I didn’t know anyone else well enough to ask.
Between classes, I made my way to the administration office to make an appointment with Dr. Kahn, and when the fated hour arrived, I entered his office armed with sound reasoning. I would argue for the grade I deserved. I would tell him about the MP3. I would stay calm. I would not cry.
The principal’s office looked more like a distinguished gentleman’s nineteenth-century study, from the dark wood paneled walls to the stacks of leather-bound books, and the bust of Pallas perched above the chamber door. Just kidding. About the books.
Dr. Kahn sat behind his mahogany desk, the green tint of the banker’s lamp illuminating his preternaturally smooth face. He looked as undoctorly as it was possible to look, wearing khaki pants and a white polo shirt emblazoned with the Croyden crest. “Miss Dyer,” he said, gesturing to one of the chairs opposite his desk. “What can I do for you today?”
I looked him in the eye. “I think my Spanish grade should be adjusted,” I said. I sounded smooth. Confident.
“I can prove I deserved an A on the exam,” I said, and it was true. There was a recording of it. I just didn’t have it.
“That won’t be necessary,” Dr. Kahn said, leaning back in his tufted leather chair.
I blinked. “Oh,” I said, somewhat taken aback. “Great. So when will the grade be changed?”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do, Mara.”
I blinked again, but when I opened my eyes, there was only darkness.
“Mara?” Dr. Kahn’s voice sounded distant. I blinked again. Dr. Kahn had actually put his wing-tipped feet up on his desk. He looked so casual. I wanted to smack them off and pull his chair out from underneath him.
“Why not?” I asked through gritted teeth. I needed to stay calm. If I screamed, the F would stay.
But it was so tempting.
Dr. Kahn lifted a piece of paper from his desk and reviewed it carefully. “Teachers have to submit a written explanation to the administration whenever they assign a failing grade,” he said. “Ms. Morales wrote that you cheated on your exam.”
My nostrils flared, and red spots appeared in my vision. “She lied,” I said quietly. “How could I cheat on an oral exam? It’s ridiculous.”
“According to her gradebook, your first scores were quite poor.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “So I’m being punished for doing better?”
“Not just better, Mara. Your improvement was pretty miraculous, don’t you think?”
Dr. Kahn’s words stoked my rage. “I got a tutor,” I said through clenched teeth, as I tried to blink the spots away.
“She said she saw you sneaking glances under your sleeve during your test. She said she saw writing on your arm.”
“She’s lying!” I shouted, then realized my mistake. “She’s lying,” I said in a lower, shaky voice. “I had a bandage on my arm when I took the test. From an accident.”
“She also said she’d seen your eyes wandering during in-class assignments.”
“So, basically, she can say I cheated without having to submit any proof?”
“I don’t like your tone, Miss Dyer.”
“Guess we’re even, then,” I said before I could stop myself.
Dr. Kahn raised his eyebrows slowly. His voice was infuriatingly even when he spoke. “Christina Morales has been a teacher here for over twenty years. She’s tough, but fair—I can count on one hand the number of complaints from students.”
I interrupted him. “They’re too scared to say anyth—”
“You, on the other hand,” Dr. Kahn continued, “have been here for mere weeks, and you have been late to class on multiple occasions, spoke back to your history teacher this morning—yes, I heard about that—and managed to get yourself thrown out of Ms. Morales’s class after causing a huge disruption. Who would you believe?”
I literally saw red. I tried so hard not to scream that my voice, when I spoke, came out as a whisper. “Just—just listen. There’s a recording of my exam. I’ll get someone to translate it. We’ll play it. Ms. Morales can—”
Dr. Kahn didn’t even uncross his legs before interrupting me. “Tell you what. I’ll call Ms. Morales in later and I’ll go over everything with her again. I’ll let you know my final decision.”
Dark thoughts swirled in my mind and time slowed to a crawl. I stood up from the chair, knocking it over, but my hands trembled too much to pick it up. This was—this whole thing was beyond unfair. And I was becoming unhinged. I threw open the door to his office and heard it slam into the doorstop before bouncing back. I didn’t care. My feet felt like they were made of steel as I made my way to Spanish. I wanted to crush the grass into powder. Morales was going to get away with this. I hoped she choked on her lying tongue.
And I could see it with stunning clarity. Her eyes bulged and she staggered around her empty classroom, putting her bony fingers into her mouth, trying to figure out what was wrong. She turned blue, and made a funny hacking sound. It’s hard to lie when you can’t speak.
I wanted to face her. I wanted to spit in her eye. But as I flew up the stairs to her classroom, I knew I’d never go through with it. I’d curse at her, though. I rounded the corner and crossed the last few feet to the door, thinking of several epithets I wanted to fling in her direction. Today’s Spanish class brought to you by the letter C.
There was no one in the classroom except for Jude when I skidded to a stop in front of the doorway. He was lying on the ground, pale with dust. A huge beam of wood lay on top of him, and I saw where the splinters met skin. His torso was all bloody, and some of it trickled down the side of his mouth. Making him look kind of like the Joker from Batman.
It was Jude’s body no longer. It was the asshole that abused Mabel, lying on the floor, the side of his skull reduced to pink mush, his leg bent at a funny angle. Like a hick ballerina. The linoleum had turned to dirt and the flies choked his wounds.
I blinked again.
He was gone. In his place was Morales. She was lying on the floor, and her face was more purple than blue. This made sense, given my second-grade art lesson in primary colors. Red plus blue equals purple, and Morales was always red-faced. So help me, she now resembled the blueberry person from Willy Wonka. I tilted my head sideways and blinked at the bug-eyed body on the linoleum floor, certain she’d be gone like the others if I looked away. So I did.
But when I looked back, she was still there.