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.

Chapter 21: The Dog Ate My Homework (Second Half/ Part 2)

Squinting, she read the topic. “Do heroes exist on their own? Should their lives be freely taken?” She scratched her head, wondering how many cups of coffee Mrs. Jenkins had gone through in order to write something so pedantic; and yet it seemed almost amazing.

Her lips creased together as she thought about Roger. The many things he might have said. Things like, there’s no such thing as fate. Destiny. Or even that heroes didn’t exist, even though she was almost certain that he read comics; which meant that at one point or another, he had to have believed. She stretched her fingers. She needed to be serious, because this was part of her final grade, and she was failing miserably.

Something the world English teacher had said wasn’t true for him. She closed her eyes, tried to focus. Wondering why everything about him was hidden. Covered up. In some ways, he even reminded her of Teresa, except there was no guilt. No denial. She opened her eyes, fearing his reaction, she decided that she couldn’t tell him, about her visit to the past. Or her talks with his father. She made a scratch, with her pen, crossing off the word, father, which had appeared on her script. She ached, wanting to touch the pendant. To return to that strange place that almost felt like home.

Looking at his empty seat, she knew that there were things that she wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t fully know, but she liked the way he had looked at her. How he had protected her, during the party. Gone so far as to take her medicine bottle and force her to examine herself.

Mr. Ono shifted in his seat. When he looked up, their eyes met and Brandi nodded. She almost felt guilty for disobeying his orders. Remembering the last time, how she had been thrown out. Her head bobbed again, like a sunken submarine that didn’t want to be caught. Or even spotted.

Making a fresh indentation mark, she started a new paragraph; fascinated by the way the Nameless One could change. Shape-shift. The way the pendant had also changed her. Even though, going back was forbidden. But then, she was trying to change things. Make them better. Then the color bled. Mutating as the scene shifted. The one with her father and the three witches. Dwight. Someone would have to save them. She realized that that scene seemed to represent some sort of key. She would save them, but she also needed to know the truth. About him.

But she couldn’t tell Roger, because he would dissuade her the same way, Teresa had, when she had first mentioned Lucien and the mysterious box. Her head bobbed up and down. Teresa had once been her friend. But now, she only had Roger.

And Teresa wasn’t her friend. No. Not anymore. So much for fate, luck and destiny.

Sweat poured from her face and she flinched, remembering the arrow, and then, she looked up. At her side, Mr. Ono stood watch. His arm outstretched, waiting to collect her paper, like an errant guard.

She wiped her forehead. The thud in her chest growing louder, stronger as the pen’s ink smudged. “Not finished.”

“But the others have,” Mr. Ono waited as Brandi looked at the clock, observed the long hand on six and the short on 9. The bell rang. Color drained from her face as she extracted the unfinished essay and folded the test.

Mr. Ono pointed to the sheets. “Everyone except you.”

No longer concerned about the cautionary looks of her classmates, or Mr. Ono who seemed to be registering shock, she handed it over. All the while, shaking her head. “I just didn’t get it.”

Seeming genuinely concerned, Mr. Ono placed a hand on her shoulder and stopped her. Then he lifted her arm. It fell soundlessly. “Okay, but tell me something.” She looked at him, almost ready to divulge a secret. “Who assigned you something on fate?”

She could hear the chairs as they scraped back. The others hurried outside, as if to avoid an avalanche. Standing there, Brandi could hear his breathing. She closed her eyes, knowing before he did that he was going for her essay, so she sidestepped him; shoving the papers into her pants. There was nothing he could do.

But she was wrong.

Because instead of getting angry and shouting, Mr. Ono pointed towards the door. It was as if he was some sort of mystical king who could evict her from his kingdom.  “Leave.” Drawn tightly together, he looked constipated.

Brandi stamped her feet. Glanced, like a spoilt child who had been made to go to bed without supper. She stuffed everything into her bag, thinking that it would have been wiser to go to him before the period. But she couldn’t control things. Her life was hackneyed. There was nothing and no one to excuse anything, so she trudged out. Seeming more than a little defiant.

But oblivious to her walk of shame, other students entered. Among them, Roger and Teresa fell back, busy, observing the hands of fate as Brandi’s mind stretched back further, and she considered the fact that the transfer she and her mother had initially carved out, had failed.

Chapter 21: The Dog Ate My Homework (Part One/first half)

As the other students walked through the school’s mahogany doors, Brandi followed. Wondering how it was that one minute, she was, where she was supposed to be and the next, in another place entirely. Cursing under her breath, she grabbed a couple of things from her locker, and then, she went further down the hall to math class.

Ahead of her, she caught sight of a trio of teachers. Her breath caught. She was dismayed at seeing the curl. Edge of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses which she knew belonged to Mrs. Jenkins. Oh, great! she thought, feeling the huge expanse that she had often thought of as time, slip through her fingers. There was no way she would accomplish this feat in half an hour, she lamented, holding her head in her hands. Why had she squandered the night?

She dropped onto the black-cushioned, metallic chair, searching for her friends, but Roger and Teresa weren’t there. They had absconded. Why hadn’t she also received the memo? she thought, pulling books out of her bag and dropping them onto the desk, as if their usefulness meant nothing to her. She glanced out the window and forced herself to take a calming breath. Then she heard the side door open again and she caught sight of Teresa. A new and improved version of Teresa, who was wearing a pair of designer shades, and looked way too glammed up. Something inside of her shifted and she shook her head, remembering the party that she had been tricked into attending. She turned her face, hoping to avoid another confrontation, like the one on the bus.

It came anyway, (after she put the pencil’s eraser in her mouth and bit down).

From the other side of the room, Teresa seemed to smirk as she slipped into the seat beside Brandi’s. She rubbed her stomach, seeming somewhat discontent; then frowned and leaned forward as if to offer up some secret. Tidbit on life. “If I had known you were hungry,” she said, running her tongue playfully over her lips. “Then, I would have gotten you something.”

Brandi shifted in her seat, looking for clues that would have hinted to her friend, ex-friend that there had been some sort of invitation. She held her breath. Faintly disturbed.

While Teresa edged closer. Her fingers pulling the soggy pencil from between Brandi’s open lips. Her heart hammered in her chest as Teresa continued to inch closer. Her gaze leveled towards Brandi, as she shook the pencil in front of her friend’s face. Blinked. Her head inclined further. Forward. “There weren’t many people in the cafeteria.” She paused for effect. “Nobody from the bus, to admit, that they saw your trick.” The pencil stopped shaking. “Now you see it.” There was a whooshing sound, as it went like a javelin through the open window. Teresa dusted off her palms. “Now you don’t.”

Brandi’s jaw dropped, and she felt the pain returning to her side. It would be better to ignore Teresa. Not rise to her baiting. She exhaled.

The door opened and Mr. Ono, a slim Asian-looking young man, stepped inside, carrying an armload of papers. The other students groaned, on seeing him, sensing that it was another Pop Quiz Monday. Like a magic trick on the street corner, the objects on the desks disappeared. And the clock was reset as he distributed papers.

Meanwhile, Brandi pretended not to have noticed, and Teresa plastered a hand over her mouth and acted as though she was about to throw up. Seizing, her books tumbled into a heap on the floor.

And Mr. Ono reeled back, stuffing a hall pass into her pocket as she made her way to the door, which he motioned for one of the students to open and then shouted, “Make sure the nurse signs it.”

Teresa nodded, giving Brandi a look that seemed suspicious. Hinted at her guilt, while Brandi, rearranged the things on her desk. So much for literature, she thought, flipping through the five-page quiz. There was no way for her to tackle it and still finish Mrs. Jenkins paper on time.

She stuffed the latter into the former. Thinking her mother would applaud her for setting priorities as she attempted to re-write the essay. Burying her head in her books, she couldn’t help but remember her mother’s spiel that morning about college and the future. Her future. She crossed off a few words, because fate and destiny were things that should have been outlawed. And anyway, her future could wait.

In front, Mr. Ono arranged himself behind the rectangular desk. It seemed more like a prop than a regular piece of furniture. There he began to work out the structure of their final, because as he’d often explained to them about being proactive, now was as good a time as any. Why wait for the day, before the day, when you would have to sweat it out?

Like a sore thumb, Brandi hunched over her desk, and wrote out her essay on the various pieces of loose leaf. There would be no time to brainstorm ideas or proofread, what she had written.

She read the topic. “Do heroes exist on their own? Should their lives be freely taken?” She scratched her head, wondering how many cups of coffee Mrs. Jenkins had gone through in order to write something so pedantic, that it seemed almost amazing.