Dr. Jesse Ross’s shoes seemed to find more echo than usual in the empty middle school hallway as she made her way back to her science lab. I’ve never seen it this quiet after school, she realized, with all the clubs, sports and assorted meetings, it was usually bustling till after 5pm. But today was the last day before spring break and, without any scheduled activities, every student, teacher and administrator had raced off as soon as the last bell rang. Jesse assumed the janitorial staff was still around somewhere, but they were nowhere to be seen. It’s rather unsettlingly deserted, she thought, as she hurried down the hall.
Jesse would’ve been gone soon after that last bell herself, if she hadn’t forgotten her keys back in the classroom. She’d had a meeting last period with the vice principal for the eighth grade, giving an update on students who were at risk of failing. Jesse was only worried about two. Brian, who had missed a lot of school due to health issues, was sure to catch up, but the other, Diana, well, her situation was more complicated. Diana had perfect attendance and she even stayed late every day for one activity or another. Normally this was the sign of a good student, but not in this case. Diana rarely completed her homework and she often had trouble focusing when she was in class. Dr. Ross didn’t think she had one of the many assigned conditions of the day, ADHD, dyslexia, or any other undiagnosed learning disability. No, Jesse suspected there was something else going on.
Dr. Ross turned the corner heading toward her room, thinking about her interaction with Diana the day before. It was after the eighth grade chemistry section and Jesse was alone, gathering her things in the front of the classroom. Four tall granite tables, one in each corner of the room, stood their ground, armed with two sinks and four gas jets each, ready for Bunsen burners. In the center of the room, twenty chairs waited for students, their tablet arms in place for note taking.
The air felt stagnant in the empty room. Something had gone wrong with the ventilation system and it still wasn’t fixed. Jesse would’ve opened the windows, except that it was too far below freezing outside. She moved toward her desk and noticed a notebook forgotten on the floor underneath a chair. She bent down, reaching for the binder with both hands, her long dark-blonde hair swinging. The book was stuffed to overflowing with folders and notes, and the front was covered with drawings in both black and blue pen. This doesn’t look familiar, Jesse thought, as she stood. The book could’ve been left by any of the thirteen year olds.
She brought it to her desk and looked at it more closely. The binder itself was red, but you could only tell that from the side. The front was completely covered with drawings of monsters, ballpoint pen dug deep, making them look 3D. The ferocious faces peered at her, reaching out with sharp claws and snarling teeth, making Jesse almost pull back in fear, they looked so real. Quite an artist, whoever did this, she thought.
She opened the cover to see if she could find a name, or some familiar marking. The three rings holding the notes and folders in place were stressed with the amount of material they held. Jesse’s hands moved automatically to straighten the papers and adjust the rings. The front item was a folder, covered with more drawings of monsters, claws reaching, faces tortured. These pictures, while still frightening, had more pathos in the eyes of the creatures. They looked like they were reaching out for help, more than trying to do violence. Jesse opened the folder and stopped when she saw the writing on the loose-leaf paper inside. Diana’s name was on top. Just then the door opened and Diana burst into the lab.
“Excuse me, I left my notebook- oh, you found it.” Diana stopped a few feet from Dr. Ross. Her thin, straggly hair lacked color or form. Almost brown, certainly not blond, it hung limply to her shoulders. Diana’s brown eyes looked accusingly at Jesse’s hands as they held open the notebook.