To Dread

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Her eyelids grew heavy after lunch. She'd already been deathly tired. She always was after a visit from the man on fire. Nan said he was only a nightmare, but Rachel knew that he was really a demon that lived and died by nightfall. He took a piece of her heart every time his empty eye holes bored into her, and having chunks of beating organs thieved away left her limp the following day.

She'd managed it well enough through the morning. A dull headache pounded between her ears, but she ignored it all through morning work and reading and science, just like she ignored the vague nausea tightening the back of her throat. But now, with her belly full of meatballs and chocolate milk sipped straight from a punctured plastic pouch, her struggle to stay awake intensified.

With her elbows on her desk, Rachel put a hand under her chin, holding up her head. She blinked dully. At the front of the room, Mrs. Heart wrote on the chalkboard. She was doing that sentence diagram thing that always left Rachel confused and irritated. Underlining some words, circling others, creating a mess of marks that Rachel had no idea how to decipher. And if she tried to pay attention long enough to sort it out, the explanations only left her more confused.

Rachel didn't know the meaning of any of the words Mrs. Heart used, adjective, modifier, transitive verb. Rachel wanted to throw all of the stupid words out of the grade school windows. Useless words. Or, worse, they had a use, but she couldn't access it. Throw, drop, toss all of those transitive verbs out the window. And the frustrating, awful, horrid adjectives and modifiers too.

She didn't realize she'd started to fall asleep, not until her body jerked awake. Like when she was drifting off to sleep in her bed, cozy, without nightmares, and then the bed came rushing up into her, slamming into her like she'd been floating and the bed had knocked her out of the air. Nan called it a hypnic jerk and said it was normal. Nan always said everything was normal and fine. Except that it always felt like nothing was, and lately that 'everything is wrong' feeling had been getting so much worse. Like the man on fire. He used to come every so often, usually if Rachel stayed up too late. But he came all the time now, never leaving any evidence, any scorch marks, and so nobody believed her. Not even Yasiris now. Not that her Best Friend Forever had come right out and said it.

The brown phone on the wall rang, rattling in its cradle. Mrs. Heart set her chalk down and walked across the orange, faded to brown in some spots, carpet. She picked it up and her melodic voice murmured into the plastic. The energy in the class, bristled, like hair on a frightened cat stood upright, waiting tensely. Demetri whispered to Asia. Ray made a fart sound with his mouth and the boys at his table stifled their laughter. 

Thalia. On the other side of the room, Thalia stared hard at Rachel. Something like lighter fluid, like hot metal, like decay shook her. In the center of her chest, her lungs pulled tight, sticking together and stopping her breath. They formed a knot that hardened with each moment that Thalia stared at her, the disgust and rage flashing in her medium-blue eyes.

Rachel didn't know why everything had gone so wrong with Thalia. She'd never figured out why Thalia had started the year being very friendly with Rachel and Yasiris, and then, without warning, she hated both of them. Thalia had been new at the start of the year. She'd been nice when she had no friends. Now that the cool girls liked her, she liked to give Rachel mean looks when Mrs. Heart wasn't paying attention, and when they sat together during media class, at the table assigned by Ms. Bomb, Thalia stabbed words into Rachel over and over, mean little whispers that thrummed in Rachel's ears long after they'd been spoken. You only have one friend. Nobody else likes you because you're a freak. Frankenstein. Did you try to burn your face off 'cuz it's so nasty looking?

Mrs. Heart hung up the phone and turned back to the class. She met Rachel's eyes, and flicked a finger in the air, gesturing for Rachel to come forward. Rachel zipped up from her seat and clamored to the front of the room, bouncing on her toes in front of her plump, sweet-faced teacher.

Mrs. Heart bent at the waist, murmuring to Rachel in a low voice. "Ms. Anceps needs to talk to you. Go to the music room and come right back."

Rachel nodded and hurried from the room. If Ms. Anceps wanted to talk to her, it could only mean one thing. She must have another solo for Rachel!

Outside of the classroom, Rachel bounded through the school library. Her classroom was one of several with doorways in the actual library. In order to cordon off the traffic to and from classrooms, Ms. Bomb had strategically placed tall bookshelves around the exterior of the room, creating a middle section of the space that acted as the actual library, and the sides of the room had become makeshift hallways. Although the interior portion of the library could still be seen, and as Rachel bounded towards the double doors that led to the actual hallways of the elementary school, she saw the first grade class currently in media class, clustered around small tables while Ms. Bomb read them something by Beverly Cleary. Rachel caught a snippet of content before breaking through the center of the swinging wooden doors. Ramona and Her Mother, she thought.

From the upper hallway, down the stairwell with the big round window that faced the front of the school building, past the nurse's office and then past the shell of empty space that used to be the school's main office, but had stood empty and sad since the renovations last year, through all of this, Rachel's heart pumped with anticipation. But when she pushed through the next set of double doors, coming into the empty space that used to be the school's cafeteria, that anticipation, with all of the heightened tension it had collected, turned swiftly to dread.

The music room was in the basement. The deep, dark basement.

And hardly a soul ventured into this empty husk of the building. Rachel had never gone down to the basement alone, and even though Ms. Anceps would be waiting to meet her once she reached the music room, Rachel didn't know if she could do it. Down the dark, basement stairs, through the dusty hall with no lights.

But she had to do it, because Ms. Anceps needed to talk to her. She probably had another solo or special event for her to perform at, and Rachel needed those events to keep up with herself. Without the praise and admiration that her singing brought, Rachel knew her nightmares would carry her off, devour her innards in the gloom.

She crept down the basement steps, her ribs pulling together so tightly she wondered if they might snap. She'd do this because she had to. Because she was only beautiful when she was singing.



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