It was two weeks later when Clara caught Aunt Helen giving her husband a handjob.
Clara Mae showed up at East Ridge early; the twenty-something had taken her shift that afternoon at the Kountry Korner. She said she was going to make amends—that maybe she had been less than the perfect hostess—bringing Aunt Helen some of that praline candy she had liked so much, but probably deep down Clara Mae knew what she was after. That’s why she picked a time that she was usually at work. (But she would never have admitted it.)
The Center’s hallways were pretty empty; it was too early for lunch and too late for linen check. She eased the door handle down and crept a step inside; she did not want to wake her if she was napping. In fact, Helen’s roommate was asleep, snoring erratically, masking the click of the door and the light padding of Clara’s footsteps. The curtain between them hung more open than intended, enough so Clara Mae could just see hairy legs akimbo. Helen sat at the far edge of the single bed; her shirt was on but pulled up enough to see the frown of back fat caressing the elastic waist of her polyester pants. It undulated in time with her rocking, hypnotic. She was working hard at it; her quick motions punctuated by the low grunt of woman not used to physical labor.
Clara Mae tried to look away and noticed the roommate needed his catheter bag changed. She tried to shake the shock and just get out, but she couldn’t stop herself in time. Before she closed the door behind her she heard her husband’s groan of release and saw the thick, ropy strings of white against flapping, saggy forearm. Too bad she missed linen check, Clara Mae thought with a bitter chuckle.
And as she exited East Ridge, with the expanse of her day off before her—her marriage in shambles—she had but one thought:
Find The Doll.
Jennie brought The Doll to school that day. She wore her big red puffy coat, even though it wasn’t that cold, because it had a secret inside pocket where she could keep The Doll. She liked it being close to her. It made her feel safe.
Perhaps that was what set the other girls off: one of the outcasts standing up straight, looking confident for a change. Whatever it was, they swarmed her early, as everyone gathered in the courtyard before the first bell.
“Nice coat,” Nicole said.
“Thanks,” Jennie replied. She could hear the group giggling to themselves.
“She looks like a big round tomato,” one of the girls said, barely attempting a whisper.
“Or a Christmas ornament!” Nicole said. Jennie’s face was burning, and she knew she should walk away, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. “I heard that someone saw a cockroach crawling out of her hair the other day in math class.”
“Oh, gross!” one said.
“Roach head!” another said.
Maybe it was The Doll making her brave, or maybe it just being at the end of her rope, but she felt bold. She walked up to Nicole and said, “Don’t put your bug problem off on me. I saw your mom at the pharmacy buying Nit-X. YOU have lice; that’s why you have bugs on the brain,” Jennie turned to the group. “Don’t get to close! She’s got bugs living in her hair.” Jennie got close to Nicole’s face. “I bet your head itches right now, doesn’t it?”
“No,” Nicole said.
“And all of those legs crawling around on your scalp, tickling the roots of your hair, that’s not bothering you right now?” Jennie said.
“No. I don’t have lice,” Nicole said.
“Oh, okay,” and as Jennie pretended to look away Nicole reached up to scratch her head—a reflex she just couldn’t help with all the talk of itching.
“I knew it!” Jennie exclaimed. “Proof! She has cooties!” This time the group laughed with her instead of at her.
Jennie knew to take small victories when she had them, so she turned to walk away. When she did, Nicole grabbed her shoulder and spun her around.
“Don’t just walk away from me!” Nicole sputtered, trying to assemble a clever comeback, but falling empty.
Then Jennie pushed her. She wasn’t even mad anymore; she felt some justice. But she was so tired of being handled—others putting hands on her to do what they wanted. It was just instinct. Nonetheless, she returned a good hard shove.
“Don’t touch me!” Jennie said, and with the push Nicole fell to the ground.
The crowd scattered quickly, and Nicole burst into tears. Jennie felt a moment of sadness for the girl—she hadn’t meant to hurt anyone—until she realized Nicole was faking: crying, moaning, feigning injury. A hand clutched her forearm, and she looked up to see Mrs. Morrison staring down in distain, a half-smoked cigarette hanging from her lip.
The realization dawned on her: it was a setup.
Mrs. Morrison was old pageant buddies with Nicole’s mom, and she had seen Nicole grow up through Christmas parties and piano recitals. Neither had much use for the poor, awkward girl in the puffy coat.
“Your father would be so disappointed in you, Jennie,” was all Mrs. Morrison said, before she turned to help scoop Nicole off of the walkway.
Looking back, Jennie could remember very little more than the feeling of boiling inside her: painful, like the worst indigestion, like an organ ruptured, like an explosion inside—like a gunshot. Suddenly she was so aware of her heartbeat; she could hear the whooshing of the blood as it rushed through her veins, pulsed in her ears. Why was it so loud? And she had a hand tucked inside the coat, clutching The Doll carefully, but with sweaty desperation. Mrs. Morrison had still not removed the cigarette from her lips as she knelt forward to help Nicole up, and Jennie couldn’t stop looking at it. Jennie swayed, hypnotized by the smoke, feeling a burning inside, watching the red tip of the embers swell as Mrs. Morrison inhaled slightly.
That was all it took—heart pounding, drumming against her ears, the ache inside her—it all passed through her in a sizzle. A snap, crackle, pop. Mrs. Morrison’s cigarette burst, the remaining paper popping open like a too-grilled sausage casing, fiery bits of tobacco retaining more heat than they should and freckling the faces of both the teacher and student. Nicole was really screaming now, frantically brushing the burning from her face. When Mrs. Morrison turned around the filter had peeled back from where the cigarette had been, and around it her face had a ring of ash—just like an exploding cigar cartoon. Jennie was dazed, staring blankly at the sidewalk where she saw—peculiar—a scattering of flies that had fallen dead mid-air. One big, fat green one was still twitching from nerve seizures, spiny hairs on spindly leg shivering as it lay in death throes.
“You!” Mrs. Morrison snapped her out of it, pointing at a stunned Jennie. “YOU did this! I don’t know how, but I know it!” The teacher tried to wipe off her face, streaking the grey even more. “What do you have in that coat? Show me!”
“It’s a GUN, Mrs. Morrison! I bet it is a GUN! That little freak brought a GUN!” Nicole was squalling, and a large crowd of students had gathered.
But when Jennie opened her coat to reveal nothing but the weird doll, it riled Mrs. Morrison even more. As the other kids snickered, the teacher rushed over to Jennie and patted her down, but found nothing but a couple of bobby pins, a wad of chewed gum between foil, and a button.
Jennie looked up at Mrs. Morrison’s frustrated face, and she couldn’t help but grin.
“Wipe that smile off your face!” the teacher barked at Jennie as the bell rang, and the gawking crowd began to drift toward the double doors. “We’ll see who’s smiling now!”
Jennie was dragged down the locker-filled corridors and dropped into a lime green plastic chair in the main office. She watched adults come and go, hearing muffled voices behind glass talking about her as her face throbbed with humiliated heat. She could hear Mrs. Morrison trying to convince the principal that the girl in the puffy coat was up to something—she had something, she didn’t know what it was. “Cigarettes don’t just explode like that,” Mrs. Morrison said loudly.
“Why were you smoking again, anyway?” the principal shot back. “This is a smoke-free campus. You know better than to smoke around the kids. I’m tired of talking to you about this. You’re lucky I don’t suspend you.”
There were more words behind the door, but Jennie couldn’t make them out. She just sat there, squirming, watching the office assistant lazily filing and eating a vending machine pie. Jennie awaited her sentence.
Then the door opened. Mrs. Morrison walked past her, sneering. “I’m watching you. This isn’t over.”
When it was her turn in the principal’s office, Jennie listened to the old man opine about “taking the high road” and “keeping our hands to ourselves” and couldn’t help but feel that he was going through the motions. Probably he repeated the same half-hearted speech to every truant and playground punk, reciting wise words about finding self respect that he’d long lost himself. And—not unlike the hoodlums—she nodded at the principal as he spoke, not listening, secretly smug, feeling like she’d gotten away with something—but not entirely sure what.
At the end of the speech she was ushered back to the office lobby. The assistant—who had finished the pie—opened an old wooden drawer filled with handheld gaming systems, cell phones, and other confiscated items. It was intended for her to take The Doll and lay him on this bed of electronics and banned knick-knacks and just walk away, leave him there for the day, go and learn and eat and play. Maybe even get distracted and forget about him, as many of the owners had who had gone before. Release him from her fingers and just place him there, let the door close, let the dark close in around him. Her hero, her prince, the knight-in-shining armor come to her defense… It was the final injustice, to entomb him after he felled her foes.
Just do it, she told herself. Put him away. She could do this.
The assistant looked at her, sour-faced at the young girl wasting her time. “Just drop it, kid. It ain’t goin’ anywhere. You can pick it up after school.”
But her fingers were numb, unmoving, locked around The Doll’s cotton body; she could not release it.
“Drop it,” the assistant said a final time, snatching The Doll from her fingers and slamming the drawer as Jennie watched. She drifted through her day in a haze. As the other kids pointed and told ever expanding tales of what happened with Mrs. Morrison, Jennie’s thoughts were still with him. She felt the suffocation—the clawing helplessness—and even though she could see the classroom around her, everything felt so very dark. She was night-swimming in slow motion, paddling up, up, up toward the moonlight until (Doll in hand) she would finally breathe again.