Stitch-face sat three desks in front of me in grade three. We called her that because her upper lip had a hitch on the right side. An animal had bitten her, or that’s the story we made up. It’s not like she ever told us or said a word to anyone. As the weird kid, she took a lot of crap from everyone. In class she would sit with eyes glued to her notebook, her expression pitifully dark.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy school very much either. Warwick Elementary looked like a castle from the outside. Inside it had the cheery atmosphere of a factory. It was a place where little boys and girls went to have the devil beaten out of them, literally.
Then again, it might not have been so bad if we hadn’t been unlucky enough to end up in her class. If anyone deserved to be called a witch it was Ms. Pendleton. How someone who hated children as much as she did ended up teaching is something that I’ll never understand.
“You’re nothing but a bunch of animals,” she’d say. “Animals that can’t behave get put in cages. Understand?”
It wasn’t just an empty threat. There was a cage at the back of the classroom where we kept the class pet, a little grey rabbit we called Sleepy, since that was all he ever did. Ms. Pendleton would tell us that Sleepy had been a boy once. A naughty boy who’d made her so mad that she’d locked him in that cage forever. Slowly, that boy had forgotten how to walk, how to talk, and eventually, he forgot that he had ever been a human being at all. Eight is old enough to know the difference between reality and fantasy. But coming from her poisonous lips, the threat of joining Sleepy in that cage felt real.
Ms. Pendleton wouldn’t get away today with the things she did to us back then. See, she really thought of us as nothing more than chattel. Beside her desk stood the cabinet where she kept her devices. Her “tools” as she called them. Ms. Pendleton had custom fashioned something called the “straight holder.” If she caught you leaning forward or to the side she’d smack her ruler on your desk and say “Straighten up.” Two times got you a pull on the ear. Three times and you had to spend the rest of the day strapped to an iron crossbar. Another one was called the “head holder.” Same idea, except the point was to keep you from turning your head to look out the window while she was talking.
With Stitch-face, her punishments always went even further. She didn’t have parents. Alice was an orphan.
A kid without parents seemed categorically impossible to me. I couldn’t understand it. At the end of the day, when all of us would wait for our parents to come pick us up, I’d try and stick around to see who came for Alice.
One time I saw her walking hand in hand with a very tall man. The whole figure of him—thin and crooked—seemed to wobble in the air like a dancing shadow. The sight of him made my blood turn cold. His presence just felt… wrong. When he disappeared under a street light I figured it out. Alice wasn’t holding hands with a man who looked like a shadow—the thing beside her was her shadow!
Besides the doll she dragged along the pavement, Alice was walking home alone. I could only imagine what home was for her.
That doll lived in Alice’s desk, stuffed all the way at the back so you could only see its hands and feet dangling from the drawer. The funny thing about it was that the doll had a messed up lip too. Its scar was in the exact same place as Alice’s.
I wonder who got theirs first.
The only time anyone stood up to Ms. Pendleton was when she tried to take Alice’s doll away.
“Give it,” she said. “A girl your age shouldn’t be playing with dolls. It’s time to grow up and leave such fiendish ways behind.”
Alice didn’t say a word. She simply stared up at the teacher. Ms. Pendleton swung the desk around and reached for the doll, only her hand froze in the air before it ever touched the drawer, like it had met an invisible wall.
We all heard the crack. We all saw her fingers bend so far that they pressed themselves against the back of her hand. Alice just kept staring at her. Her expression hadn’t changed.
It’d happened on the last day of class before Christmas vacation. When we returned in January, Alice wasn’t there. Her desk at the center of the room sat empty, her books were gone. Her name had vanished from the banner with all our names on it that ran along the wall.
Where had she gone?
Ms. Pendleton seemed very pleased with herself. One day I worked up the courage to ask out loud in front of everyone what had happened to Alice. Ms. Pendleton cackled in response.
“You know what they say don’t you? Don’t go chasing Rabbits.”
Yeah, that was the other thing. Sleepy was gone too. His cage was empty.
When Alice had been there I’d always felt bad for her. Once she was gone I realized that she’d been more than just our whipping girl; Alice was the bulwark that held Ms. Pendleton’s evil in check. Without her, there was nothing standing between us and it. That’s when the games started.
A note landed on my desk. Have you seen her? Beneath a crude drawing of a dead faced girl with a curled lip, the “no” column had three X’s, the “yes” column seven check marks. I marked my X, then I gave it to the girl behind me.
Alice wasn’t really gone. At recess my friend Jarvis told me that he’d seen her in the bathroom. Jenny said she’d seen Alice across the street. “She looked cold,” she told us, pretend-shivering to show us what she meant. “I guess she forgot to take her jacket.”
It was the middle of March and Ms. Pendleton was keeping us outside a lot for some reason. One morning she brought a bucket full of little shovels and told us to start digging. The earth was frozen. Breaking through into the soil below was hard. After a day we’d opened up a series of holes that were big enough to put small bodies in. We carried the dirt up to our classroom and dumped it in a yellow tub. Supposedly we were planting a vegetable garden. I don’t remember seeing anything grow.
More and more of us were seeing Alice. A kid said she was on the roof with a little grey rabbit in her arms.
“Enough!” said Ms. Pendleton,“since you pigs can’t stop talking about the dead, maybe you should play the dead-man game hmm?”
The dead-man game went like this: one of us would lie down in the middle of the class, the rest of us would pile our winter jackets up on top of him. Then we’d walk around the mound in a circle, holding hands and singing a song made up of meaningless words that Ms. Pendleton had written on the chalkboard. At some point the dead-man would arise. Then we’d let go of each other’s hands and run away. Whoever got caught became the dead-man for the next round. But there was a catch, the loser had to give the teacher something to hold onto until the curse was passed. Our first dead-man was a kid named Tommy, I knew him from the softball team. He gave Ms. Pendleton his left mitten. I watched her put it in her drawer.
The change in Tommy happened quickly. His eyes got darker, as if he wasn’t getting any sleep. “Ms. Pendleton,” I said. “I think Tommy’s sick, he needs to see the nurse.” But Tommy wasn’t sick. At recess he told us that a man was coming to his room at night and dragging him out of bed. This man would put him in a sack and take him back to school where Ms. Pendleton would force him to spend the night digging more holes in the yard. “It was s-so c-c-cold,” he told us. Tommy stopped coming to class. I never saw him again. The same thing happened to Mildred when she became the dead-man.
I told her that I wouldn’t play anymore. It was too dangerous, but when the time came to run away from the dead-man, what choice did we have? You either ran or you got caught. I started hiding in the bathroom. Standing on the toilet cover, I cried into my hands and prayed that Ms. Pendleton wouldn’t find me. That’s when I heard the knocks.
Knock, knock, knock
I waited a minute, then I unlocked the door and poked my head out of the stall. The room was empty. When I turned back around, Alice was standing on the water tank. She didn’t look dead. Her dress wasn’t dirty or eaten through by worms. I stumbled back into the door but somehow it had gotten locked again. Looking at Alice, I realized that even though I’d been obsessed with her for months, I’d never really seen her. Her hair was a bright shade of walnut. It looked a little matted, like nobody had taken the time to comb it for her. Her eyes were blue and there was something questioning about them. I raised my hand and put it over my left eye, that way I would only see the good side of her.
It hurt to know that she had always been that pretty.
Taking a paper out of her pocket, she put it up against the stall and started drawing on it. She drew two pictures, then she put the paper in my hands. The first one showed the teacher’s desk. Inside there was a little girl with lines crisscrossing through her body. Alice looked at me and made a scissor motion with her fingers. “Your doll… she’s tied up in the teacher’s desk and you want me to cut her free?” Alice nodded. The second drawing showed a boy holding a shovel. Beside him, a little girl was laying down in a rut. The boy was covering her with dirt. Once the doll was free I was supposed to bury her. At least that’s what I understood.
The fact that Alice had chosen me to do it made me happy. I went to hug her but she wasn’t there anymore.
I made the plan with Jimmy, the kid who sat in the desk to my right. He was supposed to fall down in the hallway during lunch and pretend he’d broken his leg. “Ms. Pendleton,” he’d scream. “I need help!” While she was distracted I’d go into her drawer and cut the doll free. It would’ve worked if Jimmy wasn’t such a shitty actor. In the time it took me to open the drawer and get my scissors out, Ms. Pendleton had come back.
“You little sneak. You wormy squirmy little sneeeak. You like to play games behind the teacher’s back? Well I’ve got the perfect game for you.”
Ms. Pendleton yanked my hand toward her. Like a hungry little alligator, her nail clipper ate off pieces of my finger. These bloody bits of skin and nail ended up in a little black sack.
I tried to stay awake that night, but I couldn’t. Dark hands came twisting through my bed sheets, pulling me down into a bog of sleep. I flew into the sack of the man who’d come to carry me away. His upper body was exposed and he wore a pointy metal hood over his head. I’m sorry Alice, those words went through my head as it bounced off each stair and over the cobbles in the drive way.
I don’t know how he dragged me there so fast but within seconds I was being dumped onto the floor of the classroom. Tommy was there with Jenny and Mildred. Their eyes were glowing red—it looked like they’d been crying blood. When they saw me on the floor their mouths stretched out to gaping smiles. Tongues coated with slime rolled down to their knees. These weren’t my friends. They were demons! With shovels they started scooping soil out of the yellow tub and dumping it over my face. I tried to move but the hands coming out of the floor held me in place. Dirt filled up my mouth, my nostrils. I couldn’t breathe.
And all the while I could hear her laughing at me, that evil woman, laughing as I choked to death.
I heard the window shatter and it sounded like my own mind blasting apart. The hands restraining me crumbled to dirt. I sat up. What I saw will never make sense to me: there was a tall man in the room, so tall that his head touched the ceiling. His body was made of pure coagulated darkness. In his hand, Ms. Pendleton was being thrown against the walls like a wet doll. The whole room was spattered with her blood.
She hadn’t noticed that I’d snipped the ribbon of her binding when she caught me. The anger that one little cut set free was so commanding that it left my heart cold. Seeing Alice on the window sill didn’t change that. Though the crook in her lip made it hard to tell, I could see that she was smiling.
If anything, it made my heart a little colder.
Credit: Hugo Dark
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