1:46 P.M. Not even halfway through seventh period. This, just like any other middle school day was crawling forward at glacial speed. The tired old clock on the wall at the front of the classroom was the focus of nearly everyone’s eyes except for the kids snickering over some private joke in the back of the room and the girls admiring their adolescent faces in their pocket-sized makeup mirrors.
Mr. Boyle was going on about the Pythagorean Theorem or something to that effect with an apparent disinterest in whether or not any of his students were able to follow his mathematical diatribe. He paced back and forth in front of the musky chalkboard, occasionally stopping to jot something down on its once green surface that had long since faded to a dark shade of gray. His shoes, a dressy variety that was far too formal for a room full of eighth-graders squeaked constantly against the recently polished wooden floor.
Justin was staring down at his notebook with little regard for the geometrical formulas being spouted by his teacher. There were a couple of obligatory isosceles triangles scattered across his page with tiny numbers marking their angles and attributes, but the majority of the white, blue-lined palate was devoted to a much more deserving purpose. Without a doubt it was a work of art. In the upper lefthand corner was a creature that roughly resembled a boa constrictor, its mouth opened wide and approaching the point of one of the triangles while its body wound down the left margin, trickling in and out of the shiny metal hoops that held the looseleaf together.
Opposite the snake was a face, half shrouded in pen-made shadows with eyes that peered out into the world with a hard and unwavering gaze. Their pupils were dotted with tiny white spaces representing the glints that reflected off their blackness, their corneas speckled with jagged lines of light. The eyebrows were arched in an expression that hugged the border between irritated curiosity and unbridled rage. The nose was flat and broad with nostrils that flared like two bottomless pits that threatened to swallow anything that came near. The mouth was curled into a sneer that revealed only a few crooked teeth beneath a pair of dark lips that were creased and broken like they were made of paper-machey. The features were surrounded by a facial structure darkened by deep lines and shadows and topped by a bald crown, complete with gently curved lines to represent its absorption of light.
Before he could move on to his next masterpiece, Justin was startled by the sound of someone clearing their throat. The sound was too gravelly to be a fellow student, but was far too close to be coming from the front of the room where Mr. Boyle had been the last time Justin had looked up from the third row desk where he parked himself daily. He shuddered with the realization of what was going on and looked up slowly, mortified to see a disquieted Boyle standing directly over him, peering down with cold gray eyes from beneath his dark framed glasses.
Mr. Boyle was mostly bald, but the sides and back of his head were covered with fiery red hair that must have, in his younger years, been his most distinguishable feature. He had a long narrow nose and a chiseled face that, coupled with his blunt and unsympathetic personality, made him an object of fear to almost every student who came across him. He was supposedly a brilliant mind when it came to math, but few of the kids had any interest in or comprehension of that aspect of his being. They saw him as a cruel taskmaster who was not to be crossed, and Justin was terrified with the notion of having run afoul of him.
“What have we here?” asked Boyle in his deep, unfriendly voice, looking directly at Justin’s artwork. He grabbed the notebook off the desk and held it up for the class to see, drawing a few nervous chuckles that were derived not from the artwork but from the other students’ thankfulness that this horrible fate had befallen Justin instead of them. “A doodler. Is this your idea of math?”
Justin had no idea what to say. He just looked down at his now empty desk hoping he would suddenly awaken from this nightmare.
“I’m talking to you,” Boyle growled, the agitation in his voice growing. “Is this your idea of math?”
“Then you don’t think the Pythagorean Theorem is important enough to require your attention?”
“No. I… I was paying attention.” Justin could feel a cold sweat begin to trickle down his back.
“Really? And yet you had time to do all this. You must be some kind of genius.”
“It uh… it helps me pay attention.” It wasn’t a complete lie. He was more than able to doodle and follow the class simultaneously in more interesting subjects. History for example. In history he would do drawings that coincided with whatever period the teacher happened to be talking about. In that case it did help him. Or the time in biology when he had drawn an amoeba. The scientific accuracy may not have been all that terrific, but he definitely remembered what an amoeba was. Nevertheless, his protest was ignored by Boyle who returned to his sarcastic tirade.
“So then you’re a genius.” Mr. Boyle took a step back from the desk and addressed the class. “Ladies and gentleman, we should all feel privileged to be here with young Justin. I’ve wasted so much time standing up there going on and on not even knowing we had such brilliance in our midst. Maybe Justin will be so good as to tell us all what the area of our last figure is.”
Justin meekly glanced up at the chalkboard. It was littered with various triangles and numbers that made no sense whatsoever. He wasn’t even sure which of the shapes Boyle was referring to. The first strategy that came to mind was to just blurt out a number that looked close to the numbers on the board, but they were all so variant, ranging from three’s to fifteen’s to eighty-seven’s. He was doomed.
“Well?” Boyle asked with growing impatience.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” Justin squealed.
Boyle drew closer again. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I heard you.”
“I don’t know.”
“The genius doesn’t know!” Boyle exclaimed drawing another round of nervous laughs. He bent over closer to Justin and hissed through his clenched teeth. “This is my class, genius. You need to pay attention in my class.”
Mercifully the encounter had taken up enough of the class time that it wasn’t long before the period bell sounded and Justin was freed from Mr. Boyle’s hell chamber. He managed to refrain from doodling for the remainder of the class, but Boyle’s tactics had hardly worked as Justin’s mind was far from the lesson. Instead he replayed his humiliation over and over in his mind, growing more outraged with every turn. He knew his face must have been tomato red, and he had to struggle to keep the tears of rage from escaping his puffy eyes. Of course it was all well and good to sit there and be angry. He was completely at Boyle’s mercy and there was nothing he could do about it.
As he got up to leave and try to humbly slither to his next class, Justin was quickly made aware that his tribulations were not over yet. Looking down he quickly stuffed his notebook into his oversized backpack, slung it over his shoulder and made for the room’s back door. With one foot into the hallway he felt something block his path. A hand in his chest. He looked up less than surprised to see Eddie and a couple of his consorts staring back at him.
Eddie wasn’t any bigger than the average thirteen or fourteen year old (Justin suspected he was the latter because he had to have been left back at least once) but he was twice as menacing as anyone else in the eighth grade. He had dark eyes that sunk deep into his skull and a brow that protruded well out in front of him. His hair was carved into a caesar cut that came almost to a point atop his head that was half covered by the hood of his black sweatshirt that was two sizes too big for him. Though it would be a serious mistake to say it to his face, Justin was sure that close relatives of Eddie’s must be tromping around the woods of the pacific northwest with their pictures on the covers of supermarket tabloids.
“What’s up, son?” Eddie smirked as the words passed through his lips. Justin tried to brush past him out into the hall, but he was stopped in his tracks by the lumbering frame of one of Eddie’s buddies. Somehow he found himself stuck between the three of them and one of the hard greenish blue tile walls that lined the corridor outside the classroom. “Where you going?”
Knowing that no good would come of this, Justin looked to either side hoping for some form of assistance but there was none to be found. Hundreds of other kids were shuffling their way up and down the hallway completely oblivious to and unhindered by his plight.
Justin swallowed hard and looked up at Eddie who now had his hand clinched around his collar. Eddie slammed his free fist hard into Justin’s stomach. The force of the blow knocked him back and when his backpack ricocheted off the wall he lost his balance and fell to his knees. Eddie and his friends burst into uncontrollable laughter while Justin could only look down at the floor, too ashamed to look any of them in the eye. By now some of the other kids in the hall had noticed the confrontation and they too were having a good chuckle at the ailing Justin who was struggling to scramble back to his feet.
“Saved by the bell” is a bit of a cliche but Justin most certainly was in this case. The late bell sounded and the hallway quickly cleared out with students ducking into the appropriate classrooms. Justin’s tormentors, too, made their way down the corridor, but not without a parting verbal shot.
“Why don’t you draw that, you fag,” Eddie shouted, breaking out once again into wild hysterics. “Oh man, what a pussy.”
So now Justin had two mortifying incidents to play back in his mind as he sat through his final class of the day. Luckily this teacher was far less hostile than Mr. Boyle and had little concern for what her students were doing while she taught, so Justin was able to district his mind from what had just transpired by getting back to his drawing. Still, the image of Boyle’s brutal face kept leaping into his mind.
Before long, Justin found himself drawing that face in the center of his notebook page. It didn’t look exactly like Mr. Boyle but it was close enough that anyone who may have picked it up would know who it was supposed to be. Instead of an expression of anger and disapproval, though, Justin formed the face into one of pain, of sheer horror, with eyes that signified a terror that could not be controlled.
While it made him feel better to see the teacher’s features portraying helplessness rather than aggression for once, there was more to be done. Justin added a body to the face, but not in the usual stiff pose Boyle took that made him look like he had been carved out of a rock. Instead, Justin drew Boyle’s arms and legs twisted and broken at all of their joints. His torso was pressed against an imaginary ground, bleeding profusely from the chest and stomach, organs and bodily juices flowing out of him and into steaming pools around his devastated trunk. His hands were open and dangling, useless to stop the terrible end that had befallen him
And now for the piece de resistance. Though he had at first drawn a sturdy neck attaching Boyle’s face to his shoulders, Justin decided to do one better. With a speckling of jagged cut lines and a steady stream of blood oozing from the wounds and trickling across the page, Justin viciously severed the math teacher’s head.
Before he knew it the dismissal bell rang. His task had made the period go by quickly for once. Rising to finally break loose from the brick-framed purgatory known as Middle School 66 for the day, Justin took one last proud look at his bloody creation, etched in the pages of his looseleaf for prosperity. Managing a slight smile, he closed the notebook and squeezed it once again into his awaiting backpack.
As he scampered out of the school building and into the fresh air of freedom, moving hurriedly to avoid another encounter with Eddie and his boys, Justin was nearly stopped cold in his tracks. Not by a vengeful teacher this time or by a testosterone-spitting fourteen-year-old, but by what he saw walking down the sidewalk in front of the school. It was a man, very tall and very thin but it was neither of those attributes that grabbed Justin’s attention. Instead it was the snake wrapped around his neck. A snake that looked to be very much the same type and size that Justin had created in seventh period math. But there was more. The man’s features looked very close to the face that Justin had drawn in Mr. Boyle’s class. The unblinking eyes, the arched brows, the flat nose, the monstrous nostrils, the crooked sneer, the chapped lips, the hairless dome. It was all there. Justin could hardly stop himself from shaking as the man gave him a brief and piercing glance. Without a word or gesture, the man continued on his way down the street.
Justin crept up the concrete steps and into school the next morning. He was half asleep but his mind was still fresh with images of the traumas of the day before. He told himself that everyone would have forgotten about the incident with Mr. Boyle by now, that maybe Eddie would leave him alone for once today, and that there was nothing sinister about the man in the street, that he’d probably just drawn him because he’d seen him around the neighborhood before. Try as he might, he could convince himself of none of the above.
Justin was late, as usual, because he had a great deal of trouble getting out of bed. After a quick hassling by the school guard, a burly woman who made it her mission to inflict as much emotional stress on tardy students as possible, Justin sauntered toward his home room class where he would begin his day.
When he made his way into the classroom he knew immediately that something was not quite right. Instead of seated at their desks as they normally were, his classmates were huddled in small groups at various points of the room. And the teacher, Mrs. Phillips, one of the friendly ones who on a normal day would cheerfully read off names from her attendance list… the teacher was nowhere to be found. That was the strangest part of all. Not that Mrs. Phillips wasn’t there, but that the room wasn’t amok with chaos in her absence, as you would expect from an unsupervised group of pre-teens. There was no laughter, no shouting, no hurling of small objects, just a kind of hushed murmur.
Justin made his way over to an unoccupied desk next to Vincent, one of the few of his fellow students that he could tolerate. Vincent wasn’t exactly a friend but he was an acquaintance and a fellow misfit who Justin felt comfortable enough saying hello to and having an occasional conversation with.
“Hey man, what’s going on?” Justin said, placing his backpack on the ground with a thud. Before Vincent could answer, Justin felt a hand swipe the back of his head. He ducked, avoiding the worst of the blow and spun around knowing full well who would be there. Eddie.
“Don’t you read the paper, dumb ass?” Eddie’s tone was the same as always, but his barb wasn’t followed by a stream of mocking laugher as it normally was.
“What…” before Justin could finish his sentence, Vincent produced a newspaper turned to an spot four or five pages deep. At first, Justin was unsure of what he was supposed to be looking at, but then he noticed it, tucked beneath an add for an inexpensive trip to the Caribbean. A picture of a body, draped with a sheet being wheeled into an ambulance in front of a brick building with an awning. Next to it, in big block leaders, a headline that read “Neighborhood Tragedy: Teacher Killed in Gruesome Accident.”
As Justin began to read the article, Vincent narrated almost on cue with the words. “It’s Mr. Boyle,” he said. “He’s dead. He was getting into the elevator in his apartment building and it just shot up or something and he got caught. Mechanical failure, but it says it’s weird because the elevator had just been inspected. He was…”
Eddie interrupted him, by smacking the back of Justin’s head again, this time landing the full impact of the blow. He was almost giddy with the excitement that had made its way to his little corner of the universe. “Broke all his bones, man. Cut him open. And get this… dude’s head got cut off. Decapitated!”
Justin’s heart skipped a beat… or two… or ten as he stared back at the picture. Boyle’s body was completely covered with a white cloth, but as he looked closer, Justin could see that one of his hands was hanging off of the gurney. Dangling. It wasn’t the easiest thing to see in the grainy newspaper print, but to Justin it was clear as day. The hand was open and helpless. It was exactly as he’d drawn it.
“I gotta go!” Justin blurted the words out as he spring up from his seat, grabbed his backpack and darted toward the door. He could hear Eddie calling after him something like “Aww the fag’s gonna cry” but was unhindered by his idiocy. His heart racing and a frosty chill shooting down his spine, he ran down the hallway to the bathroom. He hardly noticed its emptiness as he tumbled into one of the stalls, fell to his knees and vomited into the uncovered toilet. He looked up gasping for air, and then vomited again.
After several minutes of regurgitating his breakfast and panting himself into exhaustion, Justin slid off of his knees and sat cross-legged on the tile bathroom floor. He fumbled for his backpack, produced his binder, and shuffled through the pages to the one on which he had drawn Mr. Boyle the day before. He looked at the hand first, and found what he expected'”that it was in exactly the same position as the hand in the newspaper. The rest of the body'”he tried to imagine what a human being would look like after having been crushed to death by a rampaging elevator. It would look precisely like what was on his page.
Justin sat there for a good half hour staring at his artwork, thinking incessantly about what had happened. He wondered if Mrs. Phillips had returned to the home room yet, and whether anybody would wonder where he was or come looking for him but he was pretty sure that they wouldn’t. It wasn’t hard for someone like him to fall unnoticed through the cracks in a place like this. When it came down to it, nobody really knew him at all.
After one final glance at his drawing of Mr. Boyle, Justin tore the page out of the looseleaf and tore it three times. He crumpled the eight little pieces of paper into tiny balls and tossed them into the toilet. Reaching up to flush, he watched them disappear into the whirlpool that would bring them to their ultimate demise in the depths of the sewers deep underground. Justin turned his attention to the blank page that was now facing him from his notebook. He dug his hand into his backpack, fingering around until he found his favorite pen. After a moment of hesitation, he began to draw Eddie.