I waited for the last child to trudge out of the room before letting the heavy sigh that had been resting in my chest all morning spill out. Behind me, William Chore laughed softly.
"Long day, sir?" He asked, his golden eyes scanning the shelves of books, finally catching on the spine of one.
"You're aware I'm not fond of these new testing schedules," I commented. He nodded and perched silently at a desk near the windows, opening up to where he'd last left off, his fingers chasing the words across the page. I watched him for a moment. In a few weeks, like the rest of his class, William would be graduating and heading out to college. Unlike the rest of his class, his future awaited him halfway across the world in France. Graduation was a bittersweet topic for me every year, particularly in the case of students whom I knew would make it farther than even they knew. 'And then', I thought as the door swung open and another of my students scampered in. 'There are these ones.' He slammed it shut and leaned against the cool, gray metal.
"Dylan," I greeted him calmly. His olive eyes darted to me from under flaming locks and then to William whose interest had already returned back to the page.
"H-hello Mr. Flynn," he glanced out the window on the door. Not finding what he was looking for he relaxed a little and stepped further into the room. I stood and went to the fridge in the closet as he settled into a desk in the front and laid his head down. Dylan Strants was, academically, as bright as William. But he lacked social intelligence which often put him at the corners of people's friend groups and at the top of my worry list. It also made him a very easy targets. He had made a lot of improvement over the four years I'd had him though and I imagined after leaving he'd have little difficulty taking the world by storm with his eye for photography. I pulled my food from the fridge and listened to the muted music in the band room next door. I enjoyed the jazz rhythm and felt a hint of disappointment that it was almost impossible to hear past the thick brick walls.
The door to the class opened again and I frowned. There was no point in having walls to help keep out noise pollution if my lock wasn't working and anyone could skip in and out as they pleased. The janitor had promised to come fix the issue the week prior and I had a feeling he'd been avoiding me since. Glancing into the room my earlier suspicions were affirmed as Joshua Burns sauntered over and fell into the seat beside Dylan.
"Wha' sup tough guy?" He asked with his signature sharp grin. Dylan kept his head down.
"Before you do anything stupid, Burns," William sighed, turning the page of his book, "I feel you should know Mr. Flynn is in the closet." The last boy glanced back and I stepped out, pretending to not have heard the conversation. He tsked and shifted a little away from Dylan.
"I thought he'd already come out," he remarked quietly. I set my food down on my desk and smiled up at him, biting back the urge to smack him.
"I'm glad you finally found your way to class Joshua. If I remember correctly, you owe me a test." He cursed under his breath "Language young man." He grumbled a reluctant apology. After setting him on the task I sat back in my chair and glanced over the trio. In terms of personality, they were three of my four loudest students. Chances were if I looked, I would find the last, Aden Montreal, on the soccer field.
"Mr. Flynn?" I turned my head to Dylan, not realizing I'd zoned out.
"My apologies, yes Dylan?" My eyes were fixed on his hands as he nervously played with his hoodie strings. I always noticed other people's nervous habits and would often drift off in thought watching them fiddle things. I wondered whether he'd heard me for a moment and was considering speaking again when the bell marking the second half of lunch rang and his head shot up.
"S-sorry, I have to go," he quickly grabbed his backpack and raced out. Josh watched him leave, guessed on the last few answers of the test, and then set the paper on the corner of my desk before heading towards the door.
"Mr. Burns I'm sure I don't have to remind you as to this school's zero-tolerance for bullying regulations," I called to him calmly. He glared back at me.
"You don't know what you're talking about. I have wrestling practice." In spite of his record, I worried about Joshua as well. In fact, if I really thought about it, I worried about all four of them. I often wondered where they would end up, what challenges they might face. Which one's they'd overcome, which ones would overcome them.
"Dylan, Josh, Aden too, I know they're your favorites, but you really shouldn't worry yourself over them so much." I looked over at William and smiled sheepishly and ran a hand through my hair.
"Now William you know I don't have favorites," I stated. The statement was, mostly, true. Each student was unique and peculiar in their own way and I liked to think I cared about them all the same. But I admitted to myself there were some that I looked forward to working with more than others. I knew William was more observant than the rest of his class, more than the rest of his grade, but it still unsettled me slightly to think I could be so easily read.
"They don't deserve to be worried over anyways," he added. I leaned back a little in my chair, silently prompting him to continue. He rose and walked over to the desk directly in front of mine. Each of his steps was careful and calculated. "Eventually you'll forget about us. You're still a young teacher. There will be others that rise up and replace us. Students more anti-social than Dylan, bigger pricks than Josh." he raised a hand in apology for the comment.
"William, I never forget my students." I leaned forward a bit and smiled. "I look forward to seeing where your class ends up. I'm certain you will continue to give me reasons to be proud, all of you." His silence made me think he disbelieved my words and I sighed. He'd always had difficulty accepting any sort of praise or positive reinforcement. His attention returned to his book, putting an end to the conversation and I focused on getting work done while I ate. When the next bell rang he stood to return the book to its spot.
"I've always told you that you can borrow it. You don't have to spend your lunchtime in here." He made sure the spines were aligned and then grabbed his bag. With a hand on the door handle, he paused.
"I like spending time in here. Sometimes, Mr. Flynn, it feels like your room is the only place I'm understood," I frowned a bit in worry. One would think their brightest students were the ones they had to look after the least, but the case was often reversed. "You're taking tomorrow off correct?" I wanted to say something but instead simply nodded. "Have a good weekend then Mr. Flynn," he responded with a rare smile.
Had my father called me earlier to let me know his flight was canceled I may have arrived to work early as usual. As it was, I found myself hurrying into the halls as the second bell after lunch, which told the students they should already be in class, rang. The fact that I was coming into work on a day I already been approved to take off did little to ease my guilt.
"Mr. Flynn!" I halted and glanced over my shoulder as Aden ran to catch up.
"Running late again are we?" I teased. She rolled her eyes, easily keeping up with my long strides which matched two of hers.
"I never run late sir," she said matter of factly. Either not noticing or choosing to ignore my amused grin. Aden had seemed a promising student her first years but after taking up sports it seemed academics became more of a chore. She did only the minimum to make sure she stayed on the team, barely, and it had been more than a handful of times she had arrived late to class or skipped altogether for some extra practice time. "William asked me to deliver something to your room during third period," she continued. "Besides, aren't you not even supposed to be here today?" I ran a hand through my hair.
"Ah well, life has a tendency of catching me off guard and...wait, I don't have a third period," I said. In fact, Mrs.Reigns had kindly taken over for all my classes so my room shouldn't even be open. Not that it matters without a lock. I grumbled to myself. I could understand William hiding out in there during lunch but, if I remembered correctly, he should be in art now. Aden paused and looked up at me curiously. I waved a hand dismissively. "Sorry, a bit preoccupied. Go on and tell William he should go to class, I have to check in." She nodded and hurried up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I shook my head, I would never understand where she got all the energy.
It took me longer than I had hoped to check in as the principal pointed out how I "really should take a day or two off" and "What in hell's name had made me decide to show up when I'd already had the day cleared?" I paused a few steps from my classroom door. Something was off. Not off. On. The lights. The kids had probably forgotten when they left, or maybe the janitor had finally gotten around to fixing the lock, though I couldn't decide why he'd leave them on. I tried the knob and frowned when the door opened easily.
"William? Are you still-" The smell hit me first. Like someone had left a mountain of coins to bake in the sun. Something stopped the door before it could open all the way and I immediately regretted looking down. The blood that pooled from the hole in her temple tinted her straight blonde hair a sick shade of maroon.
"You were supposed to take the day off," a voice, terrifying in its calm familiarity, called from my desk. I should have turned and run out. I should have yelled till I blacked out from lack of oxygen. I should have followed protocol, but for some odd reason, I couldn't quite remember the protocol for walking into your classroom and finding the still warm body of the child you'd been speaking to moments ago blocking your door. I stepped further into the room, letting the door close.
"Why?" I asked. I was certain I didn't want an answer, but part of me wanted to desperately believe there was a completely sane reason for this that I simply hadn't thought of yet. William scratched his chest lazily. Fingers that had traced black words the day before now tracing the edges and curves of the silenced pistol resting on the desk by his thigh. "What the hell have you done?" I growled. I should have been afraid for my life but I was so used to William. The wise, bored student. The day-dreamer. The one's whose face lit up only when he talked about how one day, one day he'd be a teacher. Just like his father. Just like me.
"Language, Jeremy, you shouldn't speak like this in front of your students." I wanted to call him a monster. I wanted to comfort him, tell him everything would be okay. My knuckles cracked as my hands tightened into fists, fingernails biting into the skin of my palms. He looked down, looking almost sad as if he were simply telling me he'd forgotten an assignment. "I didn't want you to forget them. Your beloved students." Them.
"William...who else?" He kept his head down. "William," I repeated and felt my lungs frost over as his eyes flickered to the closet for a moment. I turned my head slowly. Things couldn't get worse. I'm a literature teacher, I, better than anyone, should know things can always get worse. The fact I didn't immediately retch was about as shocking as the additional scene was horrifying. "Oh god..." I looked at William, where else? His shirt had little, speckled dots where he continued scratching, the skin worn raw.
"This way, no matter what, this way you'll remember them."
"You're a monster." The words seemed to shock us both and I was disgusted by the pang of guilt I felt at the hurt that flashed in his eyes.
"I did them favors. I did you a favor. They were idiots. Dylan, Josh-
"Don't you dare say their names!"
"You worried about them. Now you don't have to. They won't waste away at desk jobs or chasing impossible dreams. Now you can imagine any future you want for them," he explained as if it were basic logic, simple addition and subtraction. As if to ask, "how? How do you not understand?"
"You think I wanted this?" I yelled, tensing my jaw in a failed attempt to stay as calm as possible, given the circumstances. He stayed silent for a moment in thought.
"I just thought... since they were your favorites..."
"You were my favorite," I blurted out. His restless fingers froze and he raised his head.
"Oh," he said quietly then tilted his head a bit. "Then you'll remember me, too." He raised the gun, his knuckles pale as he rest the tip under his jaw.
I don't know if the lock ever got fixed. I never went back to check. But some days, when it's particularly warm, the entire school seems to wreak of coins.
(This will certify that the above work is completely original. Genesis Garcia-Diaz)