By Kirsten M. Snipp
Daphne felt the thin fibers of nylon disengaging themselves, felt the run creeping across her foot, dribbling up her leg. Unknitting, like a thousand toes of centipedes scuttling towards her crotch.
“Damn.” She thought, knowing the students would notice, knowing the girls would whisper behind their texts, staring, as if a run in one’s stocking were the scandal of the week. She felt the offending toenail scratch against the interior of her sensible black pumps. She imagined the black leather dye stains under the shell-colored polish, the blister forming, hovering over the knuckle of this little roast beef-less pig.
To her deepening trepidation, she noted the classroom door stood ajar. Not even the comfort of a private, centering breath behind a closed door before stepping across this foreign threshold.
She heard her new charges talking, her heels clicking, her book bag straps creaking. Her lungs shrank to the size of turnips and clamored in her throat. Attempting to mask the single stripe of nude flesh from the assemblage of suspicious eyes, she scissored her legs and stepped inside. Closing the door, she heard the latch slip into the frame.
“Good morning,” she tried to say, but her voice caught against her truncated lungs and sounded more like “Good more.” The students stopped talking and appraised her in silence, waiting. Had they known to expect a new teacher, or are they surprised?
“Good morning,” she began again. “I’m sure you are all surprised to see me. Ms. James had to return to her home country, uh, unexpectedly. She’ll not be returning this term.”
Did they except this explanation? Did they even care? Daphne knew little about the circumstances of Ms. James’ sudden disappearance.
Daphne cautiously eyed the eyes evaluating her. The girls wore pastel sweaters and tweedy skirts, expensive shoes. Their hair was cropped and styled to the latest fashion. Daphne felt dowdy in her sensible, sturdy shoes and shirtwaist.
“I’m Daphne Kerr, your new teacher. Nice to meet you.” Daphne paused, hoping for a mirrored, “nice to meet you, too.” Nothing. Silence. Twitching. The boys fidgeted in button-downs and t-shirts, heavy eyebrows brooding, gazes chary. Trepidation nagged. Do I belong here?
“I’ll try to pick up with the same textbook you’ve been using and I’ll do my best. After all, Ms. James was English and I’m American, so I won’t punish ‘u’s’,” she smiled, pausing again, awaiting recognition, affirmation. The students watched her in soundless speculation. “First, let’s see who’s here.”
Daphne felt safer at the podium, hiding her exposed flesh behind its girth. Extracting the roll sheets from her bag and adjusting the microphone, she began to blitz and butcher her way through the list of names. The roster spooled and spiraled in front of her, the sea of twenty-five seemed to multiply into an ocean of millions. Students tittered at her pronunciation; she worried that those absent might be present if only she could decipher their names. With each name she read, with each voice of acknowledgement, she swam nearer the surface, until at last her lips breathed air again.
“Wataru?” No response. “Mr. Wataru Furuyashiki?” Daphne sensed movement in the back-left corner of the room. A head, embedded with silver studs and topped with sharp hobs of black hair lifted from a nest of folded arms and nodded towards the podium. Why hadn’t she noticed him before? This student was a raven in a flock of pigeons.
“Uhn,” he replied, focusing eye and iris upon her. Girls twittered. He shifted in his desk, unfolding and refolding his legs like umbrella spindles, like spider’s legs. He was dressed in black: a leather jacket garnished in silver chains, stove-pipe jeans pierced with studs, biker boots supporting silver buckles. His tight black T-shirt bore an image of a skeletal creature waving a guitar.
“Yeah, Wataru,” he replied, blinking. He yawned and stretched and dropped his head back upon the desk again so quickly that Daphne doubted what she’d seen. The guitar-brandishing skeleton sported a grotesque, rigid penis, extending nearly to its breast-bone: the swollen, fleshy glans an inverted heart. A cadaver with a hard-on.
A shiver of revulsion and a sharp piercing of panic seemed to animate the breech in her stockings: she felt the unstitching of a few more inches. Contorting her face into a mask of professional calm she did not feel, she opened the textbook, bade the students to do so also. She marveled at the steadfast hands of the wall clock.
After an interminable 90 minutes, Daphne emerged from the classroom as if from an abattoir. She could almost smell the blood on her hands. As she had been advised by Mr. Noguchi, Daphne reported to the teacher’s lounge at noon and introduced herself to the receptionist in faltering, stilted Japanese. The receptionist cooed and fawned in tones Daphne couldn’t fathom and retained her at the desk while she summoned Nat and Dave.
Daphne watched as Indianapolis Nat and Springfield Dave approached, jostling in 60/40 tweed blazers under thinning hair and pinkened scalps. Daphne thought that the two of them seemed to be box-cuttered out of their normal habitats and pasted into this peculiar scene. She saw the ragged holes in Midwestern skylines that their silhouettes must have left in the tableaus of their towns when they upped sticks to head for Japan. As she stood at the desk, shifting her weight from foot to foot, she envisioned them wearing gold signet pinkie rings and jangling Ford truck keys in overall pockets. Instead of gripes about grain prices and back-forties mumbled from behind Marlboros, they now twaddled in soft-spoked voices about the curriculum, the new crop of students, their publishing struggles. She could almost hear Nat lament the lack of real coffee, dreaming surely of watered-down and re-constituted truck-stop excuse for coffee as he slurped his cup of instant.
“You must be Daphne,” Dave said, extending his pale hand. “I’m Dave Duncan. Mr. Noguchi asked me to take you under my wing,” he said, shaking her hand vigorously. “Wish these wings could fly: I’d pay less in air fare,” he added, flapping his arms.
“Nat,” Nat said, nodding.
Dave continued, “I understand you’re taking over Rebecca James’ classes, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “Everything is so new to me.”
“Becky was a cracker! We’ll miss her around here. Weird sense of humor on that one. Sometimes we couldn’t tell what she was getting at.”
Nat said, “Nor, as we now discover, what she was leaving out.”
Dave gave Nat a secret, perishing look and said, “How was your morning class?”
“Okay, I guess. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to Japanese students … I mean, everyone is always so quiet.”
“Let’s eat, I’m starved!” Nat said. “Care to join us?”
“Mystery meat surprise,” Dave said, stabbing his chopsticks into a glossy tidbit and raising it to his lips.
“You’re not dead yet,” Nat said, chopsticking a mouthful of rice.
“No, I’m not, and damn if I’m not putting on weight to boot.”
They chomped in silence until Daphne volunteered: “Uhm, do you guys know what BlackBlack is?”
“BlackBlack? Isn’t that that peel-yer-face-off, blind-you-in-both-eyes chewing gum?” Nat asked.
“Oh, yeah! My nephews back home can’t get enough of the stuff, always begging me to send care packages. They like to use it to mess with their friends. Test of manhood or something. Why do you ask?” Dave said.
“There was this student in my class, he was eating – well I guess chewing – it all period long. It seemed so strange, I guess I thought it was… well, contraband.”
“Contraband?” Dave asked.
“You know … Drugs.”
Both men laughed and Nat said, “next thing you know, you’ll be buying crack at the local Seiyu!”
Daphne felt her embarrassment rising.
“It’s only chewing gum,” Dave said, “But if you’re really curious, I’ll let you try a piece after lunch. Hang on to your hat, it’s strong shit.”
“I’m not much of a gum-chewer, but I am quite curious.”
As Dave had promised, the gum was indeed strong shit. Daphne could smell the mint from beyond the wrapper. As she chewed, her eyes watered and her sinuses cleared with the potency of it. She wondered how anyone could chew a whole piece of this stuff at once, let alone stick after stick. She surmised that Wataru must have a mouth of steel; the floor around his desk had been littered with the black and silver wrappers.
“Realia,” the teacher’s book claimed, “is what separates a good lesson from a memorable one, a ‘student-friendly’ instructor from a mere lecturer. Students prefer real objects to pictures in a book.”
Daphne looked up from the text, watched the boxy buildings thwack past the train windows. The sky was aching, heavy and crampy, pressing against these battered rooftops complaining of PMS and bloat. The concrete and slab structures refused to yield, refused to loosen the band of restraint.
The train pulled into a station, pulled away, smearing the glass panes with more oppressed concrete and steel. A woman clad in a tan cape shuffled into the car and, jolting with the uneven trajectory, ambled towards an empty seat. One gloved hand rested, tentatively, on the top button of her wrap. It seemed prosthetic, disembodied, until it jerked to life and skittered into the slit of the cape. She stumbled and plopped herself on a seat across from Daphne.
“Realia,” the teacher’s book prompted.
A leather bag appeared from beneath the folds of the cape. The suede brown gloved fingers, edged in orange stitching, crept over the folds of the handbag, spindly, sinister, the legs of a poisonous spider.
“Unit 8, Prized Possessions,” the teacher’s book stamped its foot. “In this unit, students will discuss their most important possessions.” As the spider hunched in leather folds, Daphne closed her eyes and surveyed her cache of “real” objects: a battered Swatch she’d received from her mother and step-father upon graduation, a pair of 14-carat gold earrings she’d gotten for a birthday, a four-leaf-clover, encased-in-Lucite key ring she’d found one summer at the beach. Silly, these objects. The students would prefer a lecturer to an instructor with such paltry offerings. She could hear the derision in their vague mummers of acquiescence were she to offer such a paltry piece of junk. She could already sense the distance this might create, further alienating her from their tight ranks of coolness.
The spider stretched and flexed, weaving guilefully against the stretches of leather and wool.
Possession: a Romance. “For Daphne, With best wishes. AS Byatt.” A hard-bound, first edition, signed and personalized copy of my favorite novel, she thought. Relief flooded through her as visions of Rebecca James’ collection of royal family memorabilia were exorcised. Possession.
The air in the teachers’ lounge was close, confined, barium-heavy. Professor Ogura with his proud hair was at the tea machine filling a cup and sucking loudly from under his misfit plates. Daphne knew that wherever he sat with that cup, she’d hear him slurp from it and chew his lunch, smacking his lips in open-mouthed abandon. Miss Hitch, a simpering, sallow woman, waited behind him, dutifully, holding her teacup between the lanky fingers of both hands. She stood as tall as her 5’ 2” stature would allow, not shifting or fidgeting in her grosgrain-ribboned patent leather pumps and pleated black skirt. Her brushstroke eyebrows were painted on, as was the rest of her face. She nodded and bobbed obsequiously as she accepted her turn at the tea. Nat and Dave were huddled over a laptop, and Daphne hoped not to have to enter a conversation with them. Creeping and cautious, she settled fitfully into a seat at a table in the far corner and began to organize materials for her next class, trying to ignore the strains of Chinese and Japanese and English braiding into an indiscriminate plait of sound. She thought about the far-left corner of the coming classroom, she thought of Wataru, absent from the last two classes, a stretching erection of defiance. There was something unsettling about that student with the pierced face and sharp hair. Something creepy. To her embarrassment, she felt relief at the thought that perhaps he might be absent again. Where do these students go to skip off school, she wondered. She unzipped her book bag and fished for her pencil case, removed it and opened the lid.
There it was: a crumpled piece of trash. A wrapper from a piece of BlackBlack chewing gum. Startled, she flung the wrapper to the floor and stifled a scream. How the hell had that got in there?
Needing to breathe and to calm herself, Daphne retreated from the dissonance of the teachers’ lounge to the square in the central quad. She chose a bench under a ginkgo tree. The leaves, uniformly yellow cloven fans, muttered and fidgeted, griping. The complaints of the leaves were soon drowned out by the squeals and gnashes of electric tools; the construction crew had resumed work on the new medical center building directly across the square. A disused office block stood to her left. In its windows, against chalky, dusty panes, blinds splayed and tumbled like a Las Vegas loser’s poker hand. Daphne checked her watch, willed her breathing to lengthen, her heart to decelerate. Fifteen minutes until third period began. A droplet of sweat trickled down between her breasts. The cardigan had been advisable in the morning, an ungainly mistake now under this oppressive October afternoon. From somewhere inside the new building, girders clanged as Daphne shimmied out of the woolen garment, closed her eyes and settled on the bench under the leaves.
The chimes for third period sounded and Daphne lifted her head. The clock in the square stated 1:20. “I’m late!” Daphne snapped as she jumped up from her perch. In a second story window of the abandoned building, she was sure she saw a face, topped by a crown of spiky black, peering out at her. Thrusting her bookbag over her shoulder, she crossed the quad and clipped down the corridor to the classroom. She could see the face looming out of the window, feel it bearing down on her as she rushed towards the room, breathing heavier behind her as she climbed stairs. Her heels clattered on the linoleum, her palms were dampening, she felt a hand reaching for her shoulder. As she rounded the corner past the main auditorium, she bumped headlong into Dave. The scream leapt from her throat, clawing past her teeth.
“Dang, Daph, you’re in hurry. Where’s the fire?” Dave said, smiling.
Blinking, Daphne managed a quick and hoarse, “Sorry, Dave,” and brushed past him, ducking into the women’s room across the hall. Dropping her belongings, she ran cold water over her hands, bringing cool drops to her cheeks and throbbing temples.
“Shit, Daphne. Fucking hell,” she said to her reflection. “Shit.”
That evening, Daphne double-locked her doors and closed and locked the shutters and windows. She pulled closed all of the curtains. She jammed a chair under the doorknob of the front door and, still unsure, she placed the drain plug in each of the drains and put a stack of books on the lid of the toilet. When at last she fell to sleep amidst thoughts of shadowy figures creeping in hallways, she dreamed of a silver-studded mouth, gaping open and filled with steel-capped teeth. The lips moved mechanically, exaggerating syllables, even while the jaws chomped and enclosed her. “It’s real,” the voice said and took a bite of her flesh. “It’s real and you must make it more real.” The tongue had a silver stud which clapped her about the neck and shoulders. The full force of its breath rushed around her and surrounded her in a cloud of overpowering mint.
On Monday morning, over unusually strong coffee, Daphne reviewed her lesson plan. She checked and double-checked that Possession was in her bag. Glancing at the clock, she felt a sense of uncertainty creep through her. Monday. Wataru day. “You are what you wear,” she told herself, using the almost forgotten Cosmo quote as a fetish to ward off evil. Right. She’d dress safely, yet confidently. Her clothes, like her lessons, would exude professionalism. She chose slacks, flat shoes that wouldn’t hinder running and … She spent 10 minutes looking for the sweater before remembering the gingko tree and Friday’s sweating afternoon sun.
Wataru, of course, was absent again. The lesson had been successful, and the students had participated by bringing in some precious objects of their own. Ryu, a shy, quiet boy, brought a pencil that his high school English teacher had given him. Mari brought a lunchbox cover that her mother had embroidered for her, and all of the students seemed dutifully impressed with Daphne’s hardcover book.
Relieved and triumphant, Daphne opened the door to the teacher’s lounge. “Just drop off this paperwork and skip,” she told herself. “Time for sweater hunting.”
“Daph! No party without you,” Dave called.
“No show without Punch,” echoed Nat, in a failed attempt at a cockney accent. “Come on over and join us.”
“Just a minute,” Daphne said as she opened her locker and gently placed her precious volume on the shelf.
“What’s that, Daph?” Dave joked. “Victorian porn?”
“More like the Bible,” Nat countered. “Daph’s rewriting it, knowing her.”
“That’s right,” Daphne said. “In Genesis, I’m having God give man a sense of humor. It should catch up with you two in about 2,000 years.”
Nat flinched, a little taken aback by Daphne’s bitter sarcasm. Dave laughed and said, “First time I’ve ever seen the lamb snap at the lion.”
“Baa-a-a-a,” said Daphne as she walked over to where they were gathered. A large cardboard box stood on the table between them as they motioned for Daphne to come view its contents. Packed with orange and black tissue paper, bite-sized bars of chocolates: Butterfingers, Snickers, 3 Musketeers nestled in the box.
“Happy Halloween, Daphne. Take a couple. My mom can sure pack a care package,” Dave said, beaming.
“I’ll say. I haven’t had these since I was a kid. Thanks, Dave,” Daphne said as she took a few candies. Making small talk and gazing out the window, Daphne thought of her abandoned sweater as she watched the sky grow darker.
By the time she was able to return to her bench on the quad, the campus was nearly deserted. Shadows had melted from the trees, dripping into deep spaces, oozing and congealing on surfaces, sucking breath from girth. The bench was there, under the gingko, staunch under the weight of seething dark. She looked beneath it, behind it, around it, but the sweater was nowhere to be seen. It was … absent? Frustrated, Daphne cut a path across the quad toward the bus stop and paused to drop a pocketful of candy wrappers in the bin. Gloom spun webs against the stew of discards, and Daphne saw a corner, a buttonhole, a swatch of sweater. Relief salved her spine as she reached in to retrieve her garment. In her fingers, the knit was coarse, but hers. An expectant chill hovered over her shoulders as she pulled her sweater from the trash, but it felt too light, too insubstantial. And then she saw it. Her sweater, or rather what was left of it: only the bottom half, rent by tears and guts, frayed strands made black and wicked by flames. Daphne flung the tragic garment back into the trash and started to walk away. Just then, her cell phone began to ring. She stopped, patted her pockets, and realized she’d left her bag next to the trash bin. Retrieving her bag and her telephone, she opened the object and shouted “Hello!” into the receiver. No answer. The caller, “user unknown,” had already hung up. Fear leapt up her spine like a forest of flames. She’d had the phone for less than a week, and no one knew the number.
Determined to gain some insight on the recent, uncanny events, Daphne headed for the teacher’s lounge at lunchtime the next day. As she’d expected, Nat and Dave sat at their usual table, poking at bento boxes, engaged in discussion.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Have a seat. How’s it going?” Dave said.
“All right, I guess.”
“Daphne, are you okay? You’re white as a sheet. Something wrong?” Nat said.
“Well, actually,” Daphne began, “I’ve been having a bit of trouble with one of my students. He’s really creepy, and it’s starting to get to me.”
“He probably has a cool complex,” Dave interjected. “I once had a kid who, with a totally straight face, told me that the reason he’d been absent from my class that morning was that he had to go and pick up his friend from jail. Like he’s really impressed me with his heavy friends, or even like I would think that a reasonable excuse. Students!” Dave laughed.
“I remember that kid,” Nat added. “Wonder if he ever graduated. I know I failed him a couple of times, too.”
“Well, it’s not that – I mean this student is absent a lot too, but it feels like he’s stalking me or something. There’s been a strange sequence of coincidences that just don’t add up and I’m really starting to get a bit freaked. Did Rebecca ever say anything?”
“Becky? I don’t recall anything specific, though most of us don’t just pull a runner in the middle of the night for no reason at all,” Dave said.
Absently, Nat added: “I read the other day this article about some Aztec or Inca tribe that was so scared of eclipses that they actually sacrificed virgins to prevent the sun from dying. People tend to get weird when things happen that they don’t understand.”
“The sacrifices must have worked, the sun’s still going strong,” Dave said, then seeing Daphne’s distraught demeanor added: “Seriously, Daph, I’m sure it’s nothing. If you really think that this is something that needs to be looked into, go to Noguchi. He’s a great guy and he listens.”
Daphne left them and opened her locker. Four text books fell out, thumping on the floor. As she picked them up and restacked the shelf she froze. Her book, her prized Possession, was missing.
Sleeplessness and acetone anxiety twisted among those assembled in the teacher’s lounge. December darkness began sealing in ever closer, each day shorter. The copy machine shrred and kafluncked, the scent of warm toner and glass cleaner slithered into the knits and weaves of heavy winter clothing. The lounge was dense with intent. Tock, tock, tock, the neighborhood fire brigade had begun its vigil the night before, warning against the folly of untended flames, intoning, Buddhistly, the dangers of the dry cold and the intoxicating, lulling fumes. Daphne steeled herself to the environment, quelling her mounting apprehension with a studied composure.
She poured a cup of tea and went to her locker. Among her other belongings was a paper sack with the words, “to Kerr-sensei.” She tore it open to discover a worn, dogeared paperback copy of Possession. Paperback? Her heart thumped in her throat, filling her ears with rushing waves. The inscription read, “for Daphne Kerr, with best wishes.” Her fear was uncontrollable now, nipping at every extremity. She stuffed the sack and book into her bag and headed for Mr. Noguchi’s office. Fear and fury gripped her, and in her haste as she flung herself down the hall, she ran into Wataru. “Kerr-sensei,” he began.
“You!” Daphne managed and she pushed him away with both hands. “You.”
Wataru gazed at her through thick lashes and blinked. “Nani ka yo, Sensei. Gomen.”
The words might have been apologetic, the tone was not.
“These are very serious allegations, Kerr-sensei. You should know that, while the administration will review your complaint thoroughly, the accuser is sometimes found to be more … questionable, shall we say … than the accused. I’m not at liberty to discuss previous cases, but be assured we’ve encountered these problems before.” Mr. Noguchi’s pupils pierced the center of his thick glasses as he regarded her from across his desk. “You may wish to rethink this before you request we continue.”
Daphne felt the panic, a raging thirsty beast 15 minutes ago, slink away into stifled shadows.
“The winter holiday is approaching,” he continued, “perhaps with a bit of rest?” The corners of his mouth sutured upward: a patronizing smile.
“Yes, well, perhaps you are right,” she said, clutching her bags and standing. “I appreciate your time on his matter. I’ll let you know.”
Stepping outside, Daphne felt the winter chill pinch her cheeks, resurrecting the flush of anger and … shame? She half turned, casting her gaze back towards the windows of authority when she saw the moon, its dismembered Cheshire Cat grin mocking the pale, blazing fury of the enfeebled sun.
The voice cast across the quad, trolling. The banished panic salivated and barred its beaten fangs.
“Daphne!” It was Nat, waving from the bus stop. “We’re going for a Christmas drink, care to join us?” By his side, Dave waved in tandem.
She stalled, checked her watch. “I’ve got piles of exams. Raincheck?” she called back. Her words were swallowed into the retreating bus.
The teacher’s lounge was solemn. Miss Hitch and her skeleton crew sat finishing the pre-break paperwork and sipping cups of steam. Daphne removed her texts from her locker and retrieved her coat.
“Daphne,” Miss Hitch said, “I hear you’re leaving us. You’ll be missed.”
“It depends on who does the missing,” Daphne said, leaving a bemused Miss Hitch staring after her.
For the last time, she checked her mailbox. Among flyers for the 31st annual Speech Contest and a seminar on sexual harassment, publishers’ catalogues and comp textbooks was a typewritten note from the head librarian. Terse, tight and annoyed, the characters spindled across the page:
We are holding your book. Please come to claim it as soon as possible.
The librarian was a Hollywood caricature: her widow’s peak striped in white, the chignon at the nape of her neck tight and as unyielding as her thin lips. Her threadbare cardigan was clenched at the neck with a tarnished jeweled brooch. Her bloodless hands were unadorned with rings, her shoes were pathologically sensible. “Danvers,” Daphne thought. “Manderley is missing you.”
“Sensei,” she said, disapprovingly, glancing at the silent clock, “you’re just in time.”
Duly admonished, Daphne accepted the proffered book, opened the cover, and nodded.
“Yes, it is mine. Thank you so much for having your eyes open. I’m very glad … grateful … to have this back.”
“You should be more careful, sensei. Sign here.”
The campus was nearly deserted, and as Daphne crossed the asphalt, a nibble of wind trickled around her ankles, slapping her coat into her calves. Late December afternoons are mere snacks for encroaching night; the close darkness seeks meatier prey. Daphne boarded the bus and sat, spent and cold. She removed the prodigal volume and fanned its pages, refusing to imagine a life without this book. It was then that a page of paper, torn from a spiral bound notebook, dropped onto the seat next to hers. She retrieved it and cautiously opened it. The message, written in a slanted, sure hand, read like the lyrics of a death-metal anthem:
You cannot breathe without my skin,
I am the doctor, you are the need.
You cannot kiss without my eyes,
I am the doctor and you are the need.
Merry meet, merry part, merry meet again.
Daphne held the page in tremulous hands and wept.