Read an Excerpt
The woman stood at the blackboard at the front of her classroom, watching her students work on the problem she had laid out a few minutes earlier. Though her eyes flicked constantly over the class, her mind wasn’t registering the images her eyes were feeding to it.
The heat of the day was building, which was good.
The hotter the sun beating down on the roof, the less the joints in her fingers and toes, her hands, her feet—even her arms and legs now—hurt her.
That was some consolation, though not much. At least, although the winter’s cold threatened to make her totally immobile, she still had the summers to look forward to—the dry, desert summers, when the heat would soak into her bones and give her some tiny measure of relief, a slight easing of the pain her disease brought with it, a pain that grew each month, along with the ugly deformities of her misshapen joints.
She was supposed to be better now. The doctor had promised her the new treatment would work.
No, that wasn’t actually true, she reminded herself. He’d said he hoped it would work; he hadn’t promised her anything
She gritted her teeth, and denied herself even the brief solace of a sigh as a sharp pain shot up from her left ring finger.
Her instinct was to rub the painful finger, but that would only make her right hand hurt more, and already she was barely able to hold the chalk as she carried on her class.
Against her will, her eyes traveled to the clock.
Ten more minutes and the noon bell would ring. Another day of summer school would be over.
She could make it.
In the fourth row of the classroom the boy stared once more at the problem he’d copied onto the paper on his desk, and quickly computed the solution in his mind. It was right, he was certain, but even if it wasn’t, he didn’t care.
He put his pencil down and let his gaze wander to the window, where the heat was making the mesa shimmer in the distance.
That was where he should be today—hiking up on top of the mesa or in the cool of the canyon, swimming in one of the deep holes the river had cut from the canyon’s floor, working the anger out of his system with physical exercise. He’d had another fight with his father that morning, and the last thing he’d wanted to do was go from the oppressiveness of his home to that of the school.
Perhaps he should just get up and walk out.
He tried to put the tempting thought out of his mind.
He had agreed to go to school this summer, and he would.
But it would be the last summer.
Indeed, these few weeks of school might be the last ever.
He looked up at the clock and sucked in his breath.
Nine more minutes.
Then, as he watched the second hand jerk slowly around the face of the clock, he had a sudden feeling he was not the only one concerned with the time.
He glanced instinctively at the teacher.
As if feeling his glance, her eyes shifted from the clock and met his for a moment, and he thought he saw the beginning of a smile on her lips.
Then she winced slightly and, as if ashamed that he’d seen her pain, she turned away.
The boy wondered why she kept teaching. He knew—everyone knew—how much the arthritis hurt her, how much it crippled her in the winter. Even now he could remember the day, the previous January, when the temperature had been well below zero and he’d seen her sitting in her car in the parking lot. He’d watched her for a few minutes, unable to see her face clearly through the moisture that had built up on the windshield, but still somehow able to sense her reluctance to step out of the warmth of the automobile into the bitter morning chill.
Finally he’d approached the car and asked her if she was all right.
She’d nodded, then opened the door.
Slowly, painfully, she’d eased her legs to the ground, and finally, carefully, stood up, a gasp erupting from her lips as she battled the pain.
He offered to help her, but she’d shaken her head.
He’d turned away and hurried into the school building, but when he was inside he’d turned back and watched her through the glass doors.
She’d moved slowly, every step clearly an agony, her face down in an attempt to hide her pain.
But she’d kept moving, kept walking, not even hesitating when she came to the steps and had to pull herself slowly upward, gripping the iron railing with her gnarled left hand as her right hand clenched against the pain.
She wouldn’t give up.
She’d never give up.
She’d keep teaching, and keep browbeating her students to do better and work harder, until the day she died.
The boy smiled slightly as he remembered the last time he’d been subjected to one of her tongue-lashings. She’d called him in after school and flung a homework assignment at him, her eyes fixing accusingly on his as she announced that she was considering failing him.
He’d studied the homework and discovered two mistakes, which he didn’t think was so bad. When he’d voiced that opinion, her eyes had only mocked him: two mistakes might be fine for most of the class; from him she expected more. Much more. He was smarter than the rest of them, and the work shouldn’t have been a challenge.
He’d squirmed, but she’d kept on: if he wasn’t going to try in high school, how was he going to get through college, where there would be a lot of people smarter than he?
That was when he’d told her he wasn’t going to college. Even now he wished he hadn’t.
Glaring at him, her fist had smashed down on the desk with a force that should have caused her to scream with agony. But he had been the one who flinched at the blow, and she had smiled in triumph.
“If I can do that,” she’d said, “then you can damn well go to college.”
He hated to think what she would say, at the beginning of his senior year, when she found out he was thinking of dropping out of high school.
But there were other things he wanted to do, things he didn’t want to put off.
The teacher glanced surreptitiously at the clock once more. Just two more minutes. She could go home and sit in her back yard, ignoring the shade of the cottonwood trees to bask in the sun, letting the full heat of the afternoon penetrate the pain as she worked on her lesson plans and graded the examinations she’d given the class that morning.
She began straightening up the clutter on her desk.
She frowned slightly as a strange odor filled her nostrils. For a moment she couldn’t quite identify it, but then realized what it was.
It was a malodorous scent, like a garbage dump on a hot day.
She sniffed at the air uncertainly, her frown deepening. The dump had been closed years ago, replaced by a treatment plant.
She looked up to see if anyone else had noticed the odor.
A flash of pain shot through her head.
She winced, but as quickly as the pain had come, it faded.
She shook her head, as if to shake off the last of the pain, then looked out at the class.
A red glow seemed to hang over the room.
She could see faces—faces she knew belonged to her students—but tinged with the red aura, seen dimly through a wall of pain, they all looked strange to her.
Nor could she put names to the faces.
The knife inside her head began to twist again.
Just a twinge at first, but building quickly until her skull seemed to throb with the pain.
The reddish glow in the room deepened, and the odor in her nostrils turned rank.
A loud humming began in her ears.
The aching in her head increased, and turned now into a sharp stabbing. She took a step backward, as if to escape the pain, but it seemed to pursue her.
The hum in her ears built to a screech, and the redness in the room began to flash with bolts of green and blue.
And then, as panic built within her, she saw a great hand spread out above her, its fingers reaching toward her, grasping at her.
The boy looked up as the piercing scream shattered the quiet of the room. For a split second he wasn’t certain where it had come from, but then he saw the teacher.
Her eyes were wide with either pain or terror—he wasn’t certain which—and her mouth twisted into an anguished grimace as the last of the scream died on her lips.
Her arms rose up as if to ward off some unseen thing that was attacking her, and then she staggered backward, struck the wall and seemed to freeze for a moment.
As he watched, she screamed once more and sank to the floor.
Her arms flailed at the air for a few seconds, then she wrapped them around her body, drawing her knees up to her chest as she rolled helplessly on the worn wooden planks.
The boy rose from his seat and dashed to the front of the room, kneeling down beside her. But as he reached out to touch her, she screamed yet again and scrabbled away, only to collapse a second later, sobbing uncontrollably.
When the ambulance took her away, she was still sobbing, still screaming.
The boy watched the ambulance leave, but even after it had disappeared into the distance, the sobs and screams lingered on, echoing in his memory.
Perhaps the other students who were in the classroom might forget the agony they’d heard and seen that day.
The boy never would.