And here comes yet another short story 🙂
Miss Marlowe’s lips are pursed. They’re stretched so thin that they’d probably turn blue if she tried just a bit harder. Ira knows that look well. Miss Marlowe reserves it just for him.
Miss Marlowe hates Ira. It’s Minnie Olsson she likes, maybe even more than she liked Emily. Minnie always sits in the front row of the schoolhouse, golden locks neatly parted into plaits, her starched dresses so white that the clouds must feel dirty in comparison. Minnie can recite the longest poems in the Third Reader. Her angelic voice can make the word “psychopath” sound good. That’s what she called Ira, laughing with her friends about the fancy term, before Ira grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her back. He didn’t notice she was crying until Miss Marlowe pulled them apart. Minnie is perfect even when she cries.
The rod swishes down, whistling through the air in a way that makes the other children flinch. Ira knows that they don’t feel sorry for him, they care because they are imagining themselves in his place. Ira doesn’t flinch. When Ma beats him with the belt, it hurts much more than this. He smiles at the class, tears trickling down his cheeks. The rod comes down, again and again, leaving angry red welts across his legs and bottom. But Ira never flinches once.
When the bell finally sounds, Ira is out the door and down the steps. The air is hot and stale, but it’s nowhere near as suffocating as the schoolhouse. His feet pound at the dusty path and his satchel thumps against his back as he runs. He clutches its straps more tightly and tries to lift his legs higher, to make his strides longer. There is no breeze, but he’s running fast enough for the air to weave through wisps of his tangled black hair. The sun glares from above, breathing down his neck like a bad omen. It doesn’t take long for the others to catch up. Ira is scrawny, and his long strides don’t count for much.
“What’d you hurt my sister for, eh?” Willy Olsson has a hard grip and Ira’s eyes water as his hair is pulled from his scalp. “Not enough to kill yours, is it?”
Hands push Ira to the ground. A rock digs into his knee. He is vaguely aware of it puncturing his skin.
Willy’s friends snicker and Ira can hear Minnie’s tinkling laugh. He presses his mouth shut, hatred blossoming in his chest. He wishes he could punch Willy, but Willy’s bigger and stronger than him and he’s got all his friends to back him up.
“Scared, are you?” More laughter. “Did Minnie call poor little Ira names he don’t like? Well, she’s right, ain’t she? Little creep.” He kicks Ira in the stomach.
Ira wraps his arms around himself, trying to protect his ribs as Willy’s friends crowd in on him. Through the gap between the boys, he can see Minnie smiling.
The pain sets in. Ira can’t stop it, but he doesn’t want to cry in front of Willy, so he imagines what it would feel like to strangle Minnie instead. Her throat is white and soft, like a flower petal easily torn. He would press down, hard, and watch Minnie splutter as her face turns blue and the pulse under his hands fades. Her sunbonnet would fall back as she struggles but Ira would be stronger and Minnie would choke, making the ugliest sounds her perfect body has ever made.
It hurts and Ira laughs and laughs and laughs. He feels the skin on his forehead break and the rusty tang of blood mixes with the dusty smell of summer. The grating sound of locusts comes from the grass. It threatens to tune out everything else. Maybe Ira will get lucky and the insects will eat Willy, like they did last year’s crop. It seems, though, that even grasshoppers know better than to mess with Willy Olsson.
“Creep.” Willy gives Ira one last kick. “You better hurry up and run, or you’ll still be here when we come back.”
The ground vibrates as they jog away and Minnie’s laugh echoes in the distance. Ira focuses on the image of her blue, dead face. He wonders if he should just lie here till someone finds him. But the next person to come will probably be Miss Marlowe because Miss Marlowe always stays after school late to tidy up the schoolhouse. If Miss Marlowe finds him, she’ll say this is Ira’s fault, and then she’ll whip him again. Ira doesn’t want to be whipped again.
He manages to pull himself to his feet and walk. His head hurts and he’s thirsty and there’s a tear in his shirt. He can feel the blood starting to dry on his forehead. It attracts flies, which buzz around the wound hungrily. Ira tries to swat them away, but there is nothing else out on the prairie that would interest them, so they come in hoards.
Ira tries to run. It hurts, but the flies scare him. They’re making it hard to breathe and he’s afraid he might swallow one of them. Jack Campbell once recounted how his uncle had swallowed a spider in his sleep and choked on it. The last thing the uncle had felt were the spider’s legs scrambling frantically against the throat imprisoning it. Emily said Jack was a big fat liar, but Ira isn’t so sure. And the flies look bigger than most spiders are.
Up ahead, the steeple of the church looms over the outskirts of town. Relief washes over Ira. Ma’s house is at least another mile away, but the pastor always leaves the church unlocked so that people can get closer to God.
Ira isn’t sure whether he wants to get closer to God. God is cruel, telling people that they are supposed to care, but then he goes and hardens the Egyptians’ hearts so that they will pursue the Israelites into the sea and he can brutally murder them. Ira knows this because they tell the story every Easter. God forces people to make bad choices, and then he punishes them for it.
No, it isn’t God Ira comes for. But the inside of the church is cool and the strong scent of incense keeps the flies away. There is a basin of holy water next to the doors. Ira wets part of his torn shirt and wipes his forehead, cleaning away the worst of the blood. His legs hurt, both from the whipping and from the kicks Willy and his friends gave him. He goes to sit in one of the pews. The wood feels smooth beneath his fingertips. He doesn’t want to go home yet. Ma will be angry about the shirt, or if she’s not, she’ll have had so much booze that she’ll be angry anyway. Ira knows that a third beating is waiting for him, but he can stay here a little while longer.
Ira looks up, startled. There’s a girl at the other end of the pew. She must have been sitting there all along. Her raven black braids make her pale skin appear almost ghost-like. She looks roughly his age.
“Hello,” says Ira.
He’s embarrassed. He’s covered in blood and his shirt is torn, but the girl doesn’t seem to mind. She just stares at him, until the silence starts to feel awkward.
“Where are you from?” Ira asks.
“I have family here. My name is Emily.”
“I had a sister called Emily,” Ira lets slip, before he can stop himself. “She drowned.”
“That’s sad,” says Emily, and Ira gets the sense that she knows he’s not telling the whole truth. That Emily drowned because he pushed her and Emily couldn’t swim. He had been mad at her, but he hadn’t meant for her to die. He hadn’t meant Emily’s death to make Pa leave and Ma drink. He had been jealous that Emily was the one they preferred, that she was so good at school while he struggled, and he thought he would teach her a lesson. He’d wanted to scare her, but he hadn’t wanted her to drown.
This Emily lets her legs swing beneath the pew. They look like pendulums, going back and forth and back and forth. Measuring time running out. Ira watches her, and can’t help but think that she looks familiar. Emily stares back at him. Those dark pits of eyes reveal nothing about her thoughts.
“Who beat you up?” she asks.
“A boy at school. His sister was calling me names, so I twisted her arm.”
Emily smiles. “What’d she call you?”
“I dunno. A lunatic or something, I think. A crazy person.”
She considers this. “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“I don’t think I am,” says Ira. He isn’t so sure, though.
“You killed your sister,” says Emily.
Ira is sad that she has already heard this about him. It’s all anyone in town knows him for anymore.
“I didn’t mean to.”
“I know,” Emily says. “That’s the worst thing about it, isn’t it?”
She slips her hand into Ira’s and it’s cold, cold as ice.
“You’re so cold,” Ira says.
Ira looks at her and as recognition sets in, he understands. She has come back for him.
Emily smiles, more brilliantly this time, and Ira is relieved, relieved that she doesn’t blame him. She still loves him, even if she’s the only one.
“I could come with you,” says Ira. “It’s not fair that you had to go alone.”
“No, I suppose it isn’t,” she says. Her smile has become a triumphant leer. But Ira doesn’t notice. He only sees his sister, that day at the pond, wearing a beautiful white dress and laughing. He tightens his grip on her hand as they walk up to the front of the church, where the altar is. Her hand is almost warm now. There is a knife, Ira knows, a knife that the pastor uses to cut the bread before communion. It is a good knife, silver and glinting, and it contrasts perfectly with red.
Ira isn’t thinking of tomorrow when he picks up the knife. Tomorrow, when Miss Marlowe’s scream will echo through the entire church. When the slates she is carrying for Sunday school will clatter to the ground, forgotten, as she rushes to the altar. She will see the knife jutting grotesquely from his chest, askew, more to the left than right. Ira’s body will have stiffened hours ago and although Miss Marlowe will shake him long and hard, she won’t be able to wake him. When she has calmed down enough to look around, she will see the blood on the floor, and the words someone has written in it. Miss Marlowe will think that the handwriting looks more like Ira’s twin sister’s than Ira’s, but the thought will be fleeting and she will not remember it later. All she and the town will remember is the message.
I’ve gone to be with Emily.