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.
“Yes, here you go,” Jesse said, breaking the silence, “I was just looking for your name somewhere. You don’t have it written on the front, I couldn’t tell whose notebook it was at first.”
“Well, that’s kind of on purpose, actually.”
Jesse looked at her curiously. Diana didn’t explain.
“Well, I really like your drawings on the cover, they’re quite good.” Jesse said as she closed the notebook.
Diana looked stonily at her, as if Jesse had insulted her instead of saying something nice. Jesse smiled, but couldn’t hold it for long since it was met with that semi-glare. She tried a new tact.
“Looking forward to spring break?” Jesse asked, renewing her smile.
Diana’s glare turned anxious as she stepped closer to reach for the notebook. She took it and pulled it to her chest, nervously, her eyes fearful. Jesse felt Diana’s tension and realized they were both holding their breath. For some reason Diana didn’t move to leave. She seemed about to say something. Jesse spoke first.
“Is there something I-”
“I gotta go.” Diana turned quickly and left, flying out of the room so fast, the door seemed to bump emptily after her.
Those few moments seemed to haunt Jesse all last evening; those drawings, the thin limp hair, the stony gaze, and then the anxious fear in her eyes. It was as if Diana was going to share something with her, but she lacked the trust in her teacher. Jesse knew that trust was hard won from someone who had no experience being trusted herself. She had her own history to back that up. Diana had troubles at home, that seemed clear.
Those thoughts bounced around in her head as she walked the last few yards to her classroom. She was trying to do what she could to reach Diana, but she hadn’t yet figured out the key. The lab looked dark through the wire embedded glass window in the door as Jesse approached it. But I left the lights on, she thought, that’s odd. As she pushed open the door the sound of hissing reached her ears and the acrid smell of gas filled her eyes and nose. What the-?
Jesse ran from table to table, shutting off the gas jets. Every one of them had been opened to their full extent, and the room was choking with poison. Who would do this, Jesse thought, as she ran to the last table. Then she saw, on the floor, a figure splayed out between the chairs, faded blue jeans, gray sweatshirt, limp almost-brown hair. Diana.
Jesse ran to her and turned her over. He face was flushed, but she seemed to still have breath in her. Jesse struggled to gather her limp arms and legs, lifting her, clutching Diana’s body to her own, half dragging her out of the room, knocking over chairs as they went. Down the corridor and into the stairwell, down a half a dozen steps to the emergency exit door and then pushing through it, almost stumbling out onto the sidewalk. She went down on her knees, lying Diana down on her back. The cold fresh air hit Jesse’s face and lungs and she gulped it in as if for both of them. Leaning over Diana, she lifted her head to her lap. Bending her face close to Diana’s, she could feel her breath.
She fumbled in her pocket for her phone, calling 9-1-1. After quickly giving them the location and situation, Jesse returned her attention to Diana. She pulled Diana into her lap, cradling her head in her arms. As she adjusted her, the sleeve of her sweatshirt shifted and Jesse saw bruises at her wrist. It was as if someone had bound her, or held her roughly. Jesse felt her heart tighten. Just then, Diana began to stir and she coughed and folded herself into a ball as Jesse held her.
“Diana?” Jesse said urgently, “Diana? Can you hear me? It’s Dr. Ross.”
Diana’s eyes rolled and then slowly focused. At first she seemed to lean into Jesse’s embrace, falling into her, allowing herself to take the support. Jesse felt her heart go out to the girl like a prayer, her life was so delicate and precarious. Then, as Diana seemed to gain understanding of her surroundings, the clarity of the situation, of what had almost happened, of what had not happened, she started to pull away, to stiffen in Jesse’s hold.
“Don’t let them send me home.” Diana whispered desperately. “Don’t let them, please.” Then tears flowed from her eyes in surrender. Jesse held her tightly, accepting the trust, securing a promise.