This story is paired with Chapter 16 of Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
She watched the blood run down her arm, her skin gaping like an open mouth. It was too deep this time, and probably, she would need stitches. She tore open a Band-Aid, squeezed the mouth shut, and covered it as tightly as she could. The beige plastic soaked through, and red rivers began to escape. She enjoyed the emergency, this feeling of permanent damage, skin like a thin balloon. She turned back to the old tin box that held her supplies, and removed a piece of gauze. Holding it to her arm, she taped firmly around the sides. When the red began to show, she added another layer, and taped that one down too. She lay down on her bed, pressing down on the gauze, feeling the thrill of a patient who has been pieced back together.
* * *
I admit, this endeavor has gotten out of control, but I feel like my findings are important. I judge reactions. I set up experiments. She failed to conform to my hypothesis. I don’t know what is going to happen next.
She was small and beautiful, with limp blond bangs threatening to cover her eyes. Her bones were birdlike, delicate, and I noticed the narrowness of her wrist when I saw her the first day of class. She had scribbled something in her notebook, but I couldn’t make it out. A surprise notebook inspection at the end of the week could get that sorted out.
I was taken by her: she was graceful, yet unaware of the attention she could receive. No, she wasn’t a dancer or anything like that, but she could have been. In a room full of girls eager for my attention, she seemed not to notice me at all.
I tried my best to be charming and fun, but weeks passed and she had yet to raise her hand in class. All around her, girls desperate to please me, to get a “well done” or “astute observation” thrust their hands in air, but she held her head down low. Her assignments initially revealed little about her. In response to the prompt, “Who is your hero?” she wrote a bland response listing an aunt or actress. It was drivel, and I almost missed it completely when I was going through the pile of papers. After each class she would slip out the door before I had a chance to call for her, to tempt her with some reason to stay. The girls — they were eager to run errands for me. But she offered nothing.
Finally, I found an opening when she responded to the prompt, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” with the answer: “Alive.” Surrounding that word were some clichéd expressions, some vague allusions to adversity, but it was troubling enough — perhaps she was calling out to me after all — that it would warrant a talk. I summoned her to stay after class. I don’t think I knew what her voice sounded like at that point.
“Well,” I started. She looked at me through her bangs, her eyes like ice. “Well, I’m concerned about you. Do you have something that you need to talk to an adult about?”
Still quiet, but her mouth began to quiver, her lips seemed ready for speech. We were standing at this point, and I towered over her slight frame. I moved around to sit casually on the edge of a desk, closer to her eye level. “It’s okay,” I offered. “I’d be happy to write you a late slip for your next class. I just want to make sure that you’re okay.”
“It’s math,” she finally said.
I was taken aback. Her voice was deeper than I had expected, more like a woman’s than a girl’s. It was disappointing. “You are having trouble in math class?” I was confused.
“No, I have math next period.”
“Oh. Well, okay. I’ll get that late slip ready for you.”
She nodded. Then finally, “I’m lonely. That’s what I meant in my essay. Sometimes I think that no one understands me at all.”
“Oh?” I said. I was rifling through my desk to find the stack of late slips that I had been issued at the beginning of the year. So far, I hadn’t needed any of them.
“Well, my parents…” she trailed off, voice cracking.
“You can tell me. Everything you say will stay between us.”
“My parents made me see a doctor. They thought that I was depressed.”
“Why did they think that?” She didn’t respond, but I noticed that she tugged on her sleeve. An unconscious tic?
“Well,” I continued. “Here you go.” I handed her the paper. “Remember, you can talk to me about anything you need to. I’m not a counselor, so I don’t have to tell your parents what you say. You can talk to me like a friend.” It seemed too much, but very slightly, I saw the beginnings of a smile.
It took a few more weeks before I was able to get anything meaningful out of her. She had already admitted to her loneliness, and hinted that there was some kind of trouble at home. At the time, I felt lost as to what I wanted to make from her — a lover, a child, a warrior? She was a lump of clay. I relished in the opportunity to sink my hands into her, to see what shapes would emerge, to see what I might be able to create. Gradually she began to hang around for a few minutes after class ended each day. I never saw her speak to her peers. It was ideal.
One day she told me that she didn’t get along with her mother. Another, she elaborated, saying that her mother obsessed over her clothes, the hems and the necklines. I suggested that her mother might believe she was trying to gain male attention, perhaps from her father. She wrinkled her nose at the thought. We had a laugh. We were bonding. I asked if she wouldn’t mind staying after school to help me organize the classroom. It was a vague request I admit. To others I might have suggested grading papers, especially if I thought they were the jealous type obsessed with grades and rankings. I knew that wouldn’t appeal to her. But with trouble at home, I took my chances that she would grasp at any opportunity to prolong her time away. “Of course, I’ll write a note for your parents explaining why you are late,” I added, if permission would be a problem. “Oh no, it’s fine,” she said. “No one will be home for hours anyway.” It was perfect.
At the end of the day, I tried to remain as casual as possible, but my mind was spinning with possibilities. I was unpacking the closets in the back of the classroom when she timidly knocked on the door. I set down the pile of books that I was holding and motioned for her to come over.
“Are all of these books yours?” she asked, tracing her finger across an embossed cover.
“Oh, no,” I said. “When you inherit a classroom, you also inherit the junk. I figured it was about time I went through some of this and got rid of things.”
“So what should I do?” she said, staring at the growing piles.
“Well, I thought you could go through them and see what looks worth saving.”
She sat down at one of the student desks. The pile of books was well over her head. She was so small. A child.
I began to plant the seeds then, and now of course, I am filled with regret by that decision. I’ve done this before — not many, but before — and I thought I had figured out all of the variables. With this one, with this girl, I was wrong. All experimentation includes a margin of error.
You see, I decided, seeing her dwarfed by that stack of books, that I wanted a doll child. She would be my dear sweet thing and I would be the father she lacked. She would need me, and I would provide for her. I would be her daddy, as I was already the daddy of some others, and it would be me that she would run to when she needed protection or money or love. It would be me.
I showed her that kind of caring in the back of the classroom. I slipped her two sharp dollar bills to bring down to the vending machine for sodas. I patted her on the back, and told her that I would be happy to go over her homework with her before she left. She looked like she was about to cry. Her face wrinkled and contorted. This wasn’t the show of emotion that I had expected. It shook me.
“Can I tell you something?” she said finally. Her eyes were red, but she had been successful in keeping the tears at bay.
“Okay.” I was reluctant, so nauseated by her display of emotion. I like my doll children cheerful and sweet. I like my lovers meek. I can only tolerate outbursts of emotion in my warriors, but even then it is rage or ferocity, not this: whimpering, blubbering. Maybe I had been wrong in choosing her at all. Yes, there was something about her that had confused my classifications, but there was no room for anything else. I couldn’t tolerate tears.
She rolled up her sleeves and I recoiled in disgust. She was a patchwork girl, arms lined with red gashes and scars like worms beneath the surface. Her wrist bore some black threads. She opened her mouth to speak, but the room buzzed with a powerful feedback, and I thought that I was going to faint.
“No one understands me except for you,” she said.
“I could never understand something like that,” I said, pointing at her arm. “Please, cover that.”
“I’ve never shown anyone before.”
“But the stitches…”
“I looked it up online. My dad had an emergency kit. I did it myself.”
The feedback continued to build in my ears. My pulse grew louder inside my head. All these months I had dedicated to her, but she was damaged, disgusting. “You need to leave,” I told her.
“You said that I could talk to you about anything,” she said. She was confused, I could tell.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t say that. Not like that.”
She stared stupidly, and finally rolled down her sleeves to cover her destruction.
“Get out,” I said again. And when she still didn’t move, I grabbed a book from the top of the pile and threw it past her. It skid across a desk before landing on the floor with spread wings. She took a step backwards. “Get out!” She turned and ran from the room.
Sweat beaded on my forehead, and the pulsing continued. My heartbeat? I grabbed the side of a desk. When I woke up, I felt a small gash on the side of my cheek that must have happened when I fell. It had grown dark.
By the time I got home, I had grown sick with worry. Would she really be back in front of me tomorrow? I should have conducted my experiment on a weekend, but I had no idea that I might fail in my purpose. I was like a pioneer. I wanted my others—my doll children—to bring me comfort, but I was in no state to be their father.
The next morning, I got myself dressed and ready to teach my classes. I prayed that she would be absent, hoped that she wouldn’t dare show up and face me after our disastrous meeting the previous afternoon. By third period, when the absence list was slid under my classroom door, I saw that she had made the correct decision and stayed home.
This continued for the rest of the week. Each day I would arrive in fear, only to be placated when I saw her name on the list. My problem had disappeared, so it seemed. When Friday arrived, I began to push all thought of her from my mind. I had made a mistake, chosen the wrong girl, but with my problem out of sight, I could try to salvage the lost time, to begin my process again.
As I packed my bag with my books and grading for the weekend, there was a knock on the classroom door. A girl. This was easy: they were coming to me. She was in my class, that much I knew, but I couldn’t remember her name. Eliza? Elena?
“Mr. F.,” she said. “Something happened. You need to come outside.”
It could have been that she needed an adult, or it could have been that she needed me. At the moment this was unknown. But as we rushed through the hallway, still filled with lingering students, I saw their eyes turn towards me.
We reached the faculty parking lot, and I looked at Eliza or Elena for direction. “Um, your car?” she finally offered. And then I saw it, the glimmer of broken glass on pavement. My driver’s side window can been smashed in. I saw a piece of paper fluttering on the seat, but I knew that I shouldn’t reach for it through the glass, and in front of Eliza or Elena. I crouched down to examine the broken glass. There was blood.
I thanked her for letting me know, and kicked the bloody glass aside. Maybe she didn’t see it. “Should I call the principal?” she asked. “I can’t believe someone would do this to you.” I sent her along, told her that it was fine—a prank—and that she needn’t concern herself. She finally left, and I opened the door, sending the remaining glass shattering to the ground. I grabbed the note and opened it. More blood.
Dear Mr. F.,
I’ve thought a lot about what I wanted to say to you about how you hurt me. Before I met you, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone, and that no one would understand me. You assured me that this wasn’t true. You offered yourself as a friend, but when I opened up, you turned from me.
I’m sure you want me gone. I’m sure you even wished that I would end it all. Change schools? Or hey, finish the job and kill myself? And oh, I considered it. But I’m not going anywhere. I’ll see you in class on Monday. I dare you to tell the police about your car.
It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t have to be. I crumpled the disgusting note and stuffed it in my pocket. What did she mean? I thought it best to document all that has happened so far. For what purpose? I’m not sure. I thought of my warriors, and how quickly they would leap at the chance to destroy this girl. But no, she was unpredictable. I couldn’t risk it yet.