I’ll Believe You ©
The sun streamed through the colored glass, throwing rainbows over the yellow bumblebee painted on the floor. Nicky smiled. This was the first classroom she’d ever decorated, and it was coming together exactly how she envisioned.
The bright primary-colored tacks jingled in her apron pocket as she danced to the rap blaring from the small speakers. Tomorrow morning Tupac would be replaced with The Wiggles, but on a Sunday afternoon, while she prepped for the preschoolers, the old skool ruled.
She nodded to the beat as she looked over the remaining wall-art. She wanted to make sure every corner of the room inspired happiness. Nicky grabbed the biggest piece and danced her way across the room.
She shoved the brilliant blue stool against the wall with a foot and stepped up, a thumbtack clutched between her teeth. She heaved the neon foam fish cut out over her head, maneuvering it so it would be visible as soon as the kids entered. She held it with one hand while she plucked the tack from her lips.
As she shoved the sharp point through the foam and into the wall, a crash echoed behind her. She yelped and spun, the stool wobbled under her weight.
The contents of her desk littered the floor. Pens, blocks, crayons and puppets stared at her with accusation.
“What the hell?” Her heart slammed against her ribs. She hopped down and approached the colorful detritus with caution. The windows were firmly shut, the door locked. “How?” Nicky whispered. Of course, no one answered.
She slid to the ground on hands and knees to peer under the desk, thinking maybe an escaped classroom pet was the culprit. No black eyes or fluffy tail appeared.
She leaned back on her heels. Weird. She sat for a moment, looking around for an explanation that never came.
“Whatever,” she said with exasperation. She crawled around, collecting the mess before she put them back in the crate, leaving it on the floor. Maybe the room was on an incline and the box had only slipped off.
She wiped her hands down her thighs and went back to work.
She was pinning the purple fox above the window when the little stool shot from under her feet, and she became airborne. She screamed as she landed on the floor. Her teeth clicked together, catching the tip of her tongue. Blood exploded in her mouth. She scrambled backward until her back was pressed against the wall.
Her media player skipped, playing, “Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama.” over and over. It was an MP3 player, not a CD that could get scratched. Fear turned her skin clammy. The song skipped again. “Kill it. Kill it. Kill it.” Then went silent.
“What?” she choked from chapped lips. The sensation of a small icy hand wrapped around her wrist. Cold swept over her body. Nicky was too afraid to move. Her eyes fell to her wrist, and she watched in terror as her flesh compressed and mottled.
She tried to scream, but she couldn’t draw a breath.
The mechanical toys in the bins erupted. Bright lights flashed. The sirens of toy police cars screamed. The high pitched peal of baby dolls chirped.
The door slammed open, hitting the wall so hard the Plexiglas window rattled. Nicky bolted from the floor, throwing herself toward the exit. Something fouled her feet, and she tripped, going down hard on her stomach. The air exploded from her lungs in a haze of pain.
She didn’t wait to recover before she hauled herself to her feet. Her eyes fell on the open door, she forced her feet in that direction.
There was a pressure in the air that made it hard to move, made her feet heavy, made the oxygen thick in her lungs. Her nerves screamed, warning her with every inch that she was in danger. If she didn’t make it before it closed, something very bad was going to happen.
The door began to move.
“No,” she shrieked and lunged. High School Softball gave her the muscle memory needed, and she slid through the door, collapsing on the ground as the heavy door slammed shut. The lock clicked with a finality that echoed through her body, all the way down to her bones.
She brought her knees to her chest, burrowing her face against the rough denim as the first sob burst from her chest.
Sweat covered Nicky as she paced in the parking lot, watching the sun sink in a dark blue sky. She pressed her cell against her chest, hoping Tara would hurry the fuck up. She couldn’t stand out here all night, not with the way her skin itched as she felt the weight of unseen eyes.
She laughed and shook her head. This was ridiculous. She should march back into her classroom, collect her crap, go home, and have a glass of wine. She was a grown-ass woman, she shouldn’t be this freaked out. There was probably some kind of electronic issue…of some kind. Her shoulders rounded as she slumped. She couldn’t scrape together a single plausible scenario.
Bright yellow headlights flashed as her friend’s blue SUV pulled into the parking lot. “Thank you, Baby Jesus.” Nicky exhaled with relief, pocketing her cell.
Tara parked and opened the door, a cloud of smoke billowed into the night.
“Okay, I’m going to need you to go over what happened again.” Tara’s blue eyes regarded her with skepticism as she took a long pull off a cigarette.
“I told you exactly what happened. And would you put that out! You’re not allowed to smoke on campus.”
Tara laughed. “Look, babe, I didn’t obey that rule when I was sixteen, I sure as hell am not going to start now.”
“Fine, just come on so I can get my stuff.”
“Right.” Tara put the smoke out in a soda can and slid out of the seat.
Nicky jumped when the door slammed.
“Are you okay?” Tara asked.
“Would you be?”
“So, you really think you have a ghost haunting your classroom?”
She knew her friend was trying to be supportive. Nicky couldn’t blame her for the derision in her tone. Her hand shook as she unlocked the door to her corridor. “I don’t know what I think,” she whispered, but her eyes strayed to the angry red marks encircling her wrist. That wasn’t her imagination. She glanced over her shoulder at Tara and pulled the door open.
She froze, every muscle in her body tensing as she listened. The halls were silent except for the gentle purr of the air conditioner.
“Well,” Tara said.
“Shut up,” Nicky hissed. Anger at her friend and herself pushed her to take that first step. When nothing happened, she kept going, her sneakers silent on the white tile.
Nicky came to a stop in front of her classroom. Her anger had burned out fast, and now she was too scared to take this last step.
“Oh my God, just move.” Tara shouldered her out of the way and jerked the door open. Nicky yelled and jumped to the side. Her friend looked at her, bemused. “You have either been drinking too much or not enough.”
“I am not crazy,” Nicky snapped. She followed her friend into the room, chest tight and pulse racing.
“I didn’t say you were crazy. I said you needed to regulate your alcohol intake.”
Nicky didn’t respond, she was too busy holding herself together. The room looked exactly how it should- not how she left it.
The crate with the blocks and puppets was back on her desk. Her media player sat on a table, silent. All of the wall-art exactly where she’d put them. The blue stool was under the window.
She swallowed and shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“You did a great job,” Tara said as she wandered around the class. “Did you do the bee?” Nicky nodded, her eyes locked on the blue stool.“Nick-Nick? You okay?” She blinked as Tara took her shoulders. “Speak to me. Are you okay?”
Nicky took a shuddering breath and nodded again. She was nowhere near okay’s zip code, but what else could she say? “Yeah, just let me put the last…” she trailed off. The last piece of art, a tye-dyed cut out of an apple, was tacked to the wall above her desk, not on the table where she’d left it.
Maybe she was losing her mind.
“Never mind,” Nicky said. She snatched her tote bag out of her chair. “Let’s get out of here.”
Monday morning, Nicky stood in the center of her classroom, arms wrapped around her waist. The sky was still dark, dawn’s first pink streaks just beginning to slice across the horizon.
The room felt exactly how she wanted. The media player hummed in the background, playing a song about good manners and taking turns. The crayons waited in their trays. The cubby holes were labeled, ready to receive backpacks and lunchboxes. Everything was exactly how it should be.
Yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
Gradually, the halls came to life and the sun finished rising.
Nicky shook herself and plastered a smile to her lips. She’d been looking forward to running her own room for years, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like a nervous breakdown ruin her dream now.
When her door opened, she was ready for the pig-tailed four-year-old who entered, clinging to her mama’s hand.
“Hi!” Nicky gushed, going to her knees in front of the little one.
Within a few minutes, her room was filled with the babble of excited children, and she was able to shove her fear to the back of her mind.
Until snack time.
She was pushing the cart around the room, handing out juices boxes when her body went cold and her skin hummed with warning.
The happy laughter died.
“What’s that?” Chelsea whispered with wide-eyes.
Nicky’s mouth was dry, but as she passed the grape-juice over, she kept her voice steady. “What was what?”
“That’s the shadow-boy,” Lance piped up from the back. “My brother told me about him.”
“Shadow-boy?” Nicky’s hand went to her chest, covering her rapidly thumping heart.
The dark-haired boy nodded. “Gage said he likes to take toys and get kids into trouble! Gage had to stand in the corner once because the shadow-boy dumped red paint on the floor, and the teacher didn’t believe him.” His face was pink with anger at the injustice.
The bruises on her wrist ached, Nicky looked at the livid purple fingerprints on her fair skin. “Well, don’t worry,” she whispered. “If you tell me the Shadow-boy did something naughty, I promise I’ll believe you.”