Chapter 22: Penance

After a while, when it seemed like nothing else was going to happen, Brandi entered the World Literature classroom and took a seat. In the back, she felt safe from the prying eyes of her teacher, even though, Mrs. Jenkins had already moved her up front. Hinting at the parent-teacher conference, that Brandi would need to get her eyes tested. But that had been a month ago, and having missed a few days, Brandi thought, it would be okay. So she took a chance, and slipped into her usual seat.

A few girls stared at her and she swore under her breath as Mrs. Jenkins approached the door. She issued orders. Commanding them to pass up their papers as she silently shut the door. Brandi did as she was told, halting only when a figured appeared outside the door. And Teresa barged in.

Everybody turned, as if they were seeing some sort of specter. As Teresa ambled towards them with uneven steps. She seemed to waver, like someone under the influence, and Brandi put a hand to her lips, hoping to hide her anxiety, as the pile of essays careened to the floor. Then the disjointed girl stooped, mumbled some sort of apology and reshuffled the pile. Brandi watched her carefully, as she inserted her own paper. Going over the possibility of how their lives would have been different, if they had never met. On her hands and knees, Teresa seemed to nod, staring directly at her, as if at that exact moment in time, she had been considering the same thing.

While Roger hustled into the room and noting the disparity between them, made a beeline to a much further seat. Trekking as close to the windows, as their teacher would allow.

At the front, Mrs. Jenkins called them to attention. Banging her thin whip, that some of the students suspected also worked as a cane. They turned to her and she read out the instructions, which had been written down on the board. They were being directed to page 731, to a short story called, In the Grove, which had been written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Underneath the directions, questions followed.

Brandi opened her book obediently and flipped through the pages. Wishing that she could be outside stretching her legs instead of in there, with them. Roger waved. Pushing a pencil behind his right earlobe, he stretched and observed Teresa, who had taken Brandi’s seat up front. Looking past her, he peered out the door’s narrow, glass partition, trying to make out the figure who was standing just outside.

Brandi’s eyes followed his. She tried to figure out why he had cut class, when someone rapped on the door. Lifting her head, she spotted Mr. Ono, and a spasm rose in her chest. She ignored it, as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door and let the math teacher in. A few voices rose. Some students even turned their heads in her direction and spoke in hushed tones. She tried to ignore them, even though she was almost certain that they were whispering about her. The news had spread. Was still spreading.

Adjusting the cord, which held the pendant, she tried to feel her connection to the bigger thing. The greater thing, that people often referred to as life. But she couldn’t feel it. Or see it. Everything was a disjointed mess, that seemed to be rushing forth, between her fingers.

She stroked her neck and unhooked her hair, from the coiffured bun, that she now realized had once belonged to her mother. And she held her breath, thinking that schools often came with their own inquisitions. She could almost feel it. The nameless students who had once been accused of cheating, some through the use of their cellphones. Others using their bodies to store pieces of information, that refused to stay intact in their brains. She lowered her head, wondering if it would have been better to have begged her mother for an extension; due to the party and her undiagnosed illness.Besides, hadn’t she taken too much cough syrup? And reached home late?  Wasn’t there somewhere else she could go?

From the other side of the room, Roger gave her a reassuring smile, as he tried to turn the pages of his dilapidated textbook. Sitting there, she could vaguely make out the edges of a comic book and a rueful smile, crossed her lips. She scratched her head, wondering about the date of the textbook’s extinction.

Then the voices at the door rose, and she heard the word penance and retribution. Mrs. Jenkins gave her a wry smile, before turning back to Mr. Ono.

Brandi bit her lip, remembering the last person who had gone mano a mano with Mrs. Jenkins. For two weeks straight, the girl had been made to recite dialogue from Hamlet. Brandi could still remember pieces of it. Pieces that floated across at them during recess: To be, or not to be, that is the question. She shook her head, remembering how she had stuck pieces of cotton in her ears between classes and had almost steam-rolled into the Principal, on the way to the bathroom. She grunted, thinking that even Ron and Harry Potter had been saved from the worst of it, even though they had had to encounter crying Myrtle.

She, on the other hand, hated Hamlet. Couldn’t stand Ophelia with her drivel. How hamlet had sent her mad with his talk of “get thee to a nunnery.” She cranked her neck, thinking that she wouldn’t go down without a fight. That whether or not her mother approved, she would do whatever she thought was right. Besides, she wasn’t one of those gifted children who could rely on scholarships. Instead, for her there had always been academic probation. She took a deep breath, thinking how easy it was to fall back into old habits as Teresa raised her hands in the air and gave her old friend an applause.

The faces of the teachers grew more constrained and Brandi sucked in a breath. If she was going to fail, she thought, she would do it grandly, so she turned and bowed. The way she had seen musicians do it when she had gone to recitals with Avery and they had scoped out the musical conductors. Back then, they would chatter incessantly, calling each other in the day or the night. Not caring about the time difference. But now they hardly spoke. And thinking about it, she almost understood the difficulty that her parents had faced, trying to carry on a long distant relationship. Not that she or Avery had even discussed dating. Besides, Aunty Pam would definitely have had a coronary. Before which, she would have killed them, for good measure and just to be on the safe side.

A piece of paper landed on her desk and someone shouted, “Back to work.” Brandi tore open the note, which read: I know what you’re trying to do. She glanced around the room, trying to figure out who had sent it, as the door closed and Mr. Ono departed. Rolling it into a ball, she stuffed it into one of her pants pockets, deciding instead, to scan the author’s biography for some idea on how he had lived.

The pages turned. Backwards and forwards. The blurb mentioned that his death had been a suicide. But she chose to ignore it. Skipping the lurid details, she jumped to the year of his birth, which coincided with the year of the dragon. And she felt an affinity, even though she wasn’t prolific or a Japanese writer. She focused on the story about the woodcutter and his wife. A story that seemed to have many takes, depending on the participant.

And holding the lower part of her mouth between her hands, she thought of the Norwegian painter, Edward Munch and the painting Teresa had shown her, which had been entitled The Scream. Back then, during the days of their own goals, she had felt the title fitting. Now though, she wondered if ‘Man Losing All Sense of Hope’ was more affable. Or even ‘Hysteria’. She read through the passage, feeling a vague sense of unease, as if somehow she knew that she would not be able to accomplish her task. No, not the way she had first envisioned it.

Then, she blew air into her t-shirt, feeling the heat exacerbate. Surely, her mother would be upset, not to mention Nicholas, who was suddenly getting even more parental. She shook her head, wondering about her father. What sort of a reaction could she expect from him? Guilt? Fear? Confusion?

She rubbed her fingers together, thinking that if they were pieces of wood, soon they would become a kindling. She looked from Roger to Teresa. Who could  she trust? Roger seemed useful. Intelligent. But did he have the strength to go through with this? Whatever this was? And yet, he had sworn to protect her. She wondered how that worked, as Teresa scribbled down a few things from the blackboard.

“Darkest of day and brightest of night,” she hummed. “Help me to see with sight beyond sight.” The windows opened and she felt a strong surge of breeze as Teresa looked across at her and frowned. The pages from Roger’s book scattered, dancing around the room, as his expression hardened and he turned to appraise her.

“Stop it!” Mrs. Jenkins yelled, banging down with her cane again.

The room spun for a second or two, and Brandi almost didn’t know where she was, until an arm touched her shoulder.

“Close those windows,” Mrs. Jenkins ordered. Roger and two other boys leapt to their feet, quickly placating her as Brandi’s eyes narrowed; she focused in on her teacher.

What was happening to her? she wondered, rubbing her sweaty palms into her jeans. She closed her eyes tightly, feeling both cold and afraid. Then she looked over at Teresa, remembering that time they had viewed The Craft. Could her friend, really control the elements? She thought of Teresa’s charm bracelet and her knowledge of aikido.

Brandi closed her eyes, fighting back tears, as the teacher placed a detention slip on her desk. She looked up. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Jenkins said, removing her arm. “Mr. Perkins is only there to keep you, innocent.” Brandi frowned, bowing her head. It was almost as if, she were back in the cave with Quasimodo. Almost as if, he was telling her, again, that she couldn’t win.

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