Scratching

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Scratching

Reese took a minute after the students left and before the janitor showed up to clean the mess to take a few deep breaths. He knew things were different in the city than where he’d grown up. He knew kids were wilder here, had expected that when he’d taken the job.

What he hadn’t expected was one of these idiot kids jumping on his desk in a fit of extra energy. The desk, which had probably been bought in a fire sale, had not been up to the weight of a teenage boy.

“Mr. Byron,” Principal Price said, coming into the room. She took a look at the desk, and her mouth turned up in a badly hidden laugh. Of course, this was funny for her. After all, it had happened to the snooty country boy after all. “How are you?”

“Fine, frustrated, confused,” Reese said, “How’s Frankie?”

“He got t the hospital okay. Looks like he’s broken a few bones, but he’ll mend. Any idea what caused this?”

“None at all,” he replied, “I hope I’m not in trouble, here.”

“No, of course not,” Price said, “We’re just going to have to replace your desk with one from the basement for now, until we can get you a new one.”

Great, a basement desk. The only desks in the basement were the left overs from when the old school building had been torn down some thirty years ago. The desk he’d had was shitty, this one was likely to be old and shitty. He’d be surprised if it held up his lesson planner.

The next day when he reached his classroom, his new desk was already in place. It was a monstrosity, nearly twice the size of his old one. Certainly larger than the small classroom had space for. It was made with dark brown wood, covered in deep scratches. Every single drawer stuck as he tried to move his things into it.

Muttering darkly to himself, Reese dropped his planner on the desk top. He knew it would do no good to complain, and even less good than that to expect a new desk any time soon.

From somewhere in the desk came the sound of scratching. Reese halted his pen, and listened. Was there a damn mouse in there?

The sound faded. Students started to file in, making it impossible for him to seek out the source of the sound.

Reese took attendance, and closed his book. The scratches under it caught his eye. What had been nonsensical marks before now spelled out two words. Watch Alice.

He touched the scratches. He was sure they hadn’t been there before.

He glanced up at one of his students, a girl named Alice. It had to be a coincidence, Alice was a fairly common name. She sat at the very back of the class, her face down in her composition book. Reese wasn’t sure he’d ever heard her speak before.

He shook his head, and got to his feet. “Alright, folks, let’s get our homework passed up.”

The class did so. Some looked guilty, some looked calm. Two or three didn’t bother pulling anything out, having not completed the assignment. Alice, who he couldn’t help but glancing back to, fished her work out and handed it to the girl named Abigale in front of her.

“What the hell are you looking at, bitch?” Abigale said suddenly.

“W-what?” Alice stammered.

“Abigale,” Reese said, “we don’t talk like that in this classroom.”

“But shes back here staring at my face like it’s messed up!” Abigale said.

“No I wasn’t,” Alice said, “I just looked up at you when I handed you my-,”

“You don’t need to be looking at me!” Abigale cried. She got to her feet, reaching for the other girl. She’d managed to put three long scratch marks across her face before Reese could reach them. The rest of the class responded in a predictable way, jeering and egging the girls into a fight.

When Alice had been taking to the nurse and Abigale to the principal’s office, Reese flopped back into his chair. It would be hell to get the class back on track, but he had to try. What had been wrong with Abigale? “Alright, books open to page 217, we’ll be starting on a new story today.”

The class grumbled. Clearly, they didn’t think they could be bothered with such things as reading after the show.

Frustrated, Reese picked up his planner. That’s when he discovered that the words, Watch Alice, were gone.

Weeks came and went. Abigale came back to class, apparently seeing a new therapist after her step mother abruptly stopped coming to pta meetings, and was a much calmer student. Reese had just about managed to forget the whole thing when he came into his classroom one morning to find new scratches on the top of his desk. Keys on the hood, it said.

“I don’t think I’m getting enough sleep,” he muttered, hanging up his jacket.

He’d been dreading the third class of the day, because of a student named Marshal. He was hoping that Marshal wouldn’t take the time to look at the grade on his most recent essay until he was well away from Reese’s classroom. To that end, Reese waited until the students were leaving to hand them back.

His plan failed.

Marshal stood right at his desk, and flipped through the pages of his work. On the front page was a red D.

“Mr. Byron, I don’t understand this grade,” he said.

“That’s why I give the essays back to you, so that you can go over it at your leisure and see what you can learn from it. That’s all a bad grade is, Marshal, a change to learn.”

“I’ve never gotten such a bad grade on something,” Marshal said. Some of his fellow students were chuckling as they left.

“I was surprised too,” Reese said, “But I can’t let poor work slide just because of good work in the past.”

“Well, can I rewrite it?” the boy asked.

“No, I’m sorry,” Reese said, “I don’t accept do overs. This isn’t a new policy, I told you that at the start of the year.”

“But I can’t have this grade!”

“And I can’t have you raising your voice in my classroom,” Reese said, “Now get to your next class, please. Do better next time.”

Marshal stormed out, though students coming in for the next class. Reese went back to his work, but his hands were shaking.

That afternoon, he made a point of dawdling so that he could walk out of the school with Principal Price. “Any progress on getting me a new desk?” he asked.

“What?” Price asked, “Oh, that’s right. No, we haven’t had a chance to take care of that, yet. Hopefully when we get the budget for the next semester.”

“The next semester?” Reese asked, “But it’s only October now.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t just make money show up where it’s not,” Price said.

They’d reached Reese’s car. Price caught sight of it first, and stopped. “Oh, hell,” she said.

Reese looked at his car. Someone had scratched the word Fucker on the hood.

“That little bastard!” Reese cried, “Principal Price, I know this was Marshal Clinton. I gave him a bad grade on his essay, and he decided to take it out on me like this.”

“You don’t know that,” Price said, “Not for sure, anyway. We’ll investigate this, I promise you. Come talk to me about it tomorrow, okay?”

And she patted him on the shoulder and headed to her own car. Reese got into his, thinking darkly to himself that even if they did prove Marshal had done this, it wouldn’t help him pay for a new hood.

Much to Reese’s relief, things were quite again for a time. No outbursts from the students and no scratching from his desk. In fact, snow was falling on the city before, staying late one night to grade papers and give the salt trucks a chance for one more pass, he heard the scratching again.

He picked his papers up. On the desktop, again, were the words Watch Alice. After two correct predictions, he was determined to take this one seriously.

The problem was that there wasn’t much to watch Alice do. She didn’t talk if she didn’t have to, not to teachers or her fellow students. He checked with her other teachers, who all reported the same. Alice kept to herself and her school work. No reason for concern, especially when there were so many kids in the school who were in real trouble.

He watched her anyway, because the scratching didn’t go away.

The day before holiday break came. Reese was sure that he was more relieved than any of the students. He was looking forward to two weeks off, knowing that Alice would be safely home with her parents. That and the hope of a new budget and a new desk in January meant that the day couldn’t go by fast enough.

At the end of his first class, he took one last opportunity to keep an eye on Alice. He shut his book, just in time to see that the words had changed. Too late, it said now.

Alice was usually the last to leave, tending to avoid the scuffle at the door. That day, though, she hurried to the front, leaving her book bag at her desk.

Reese got to his feet, starting towards her. “Alice,” he said, “is everything okay?”

She didn’t respond. Instead, she pulled a pistol from her hoodie pocket. She fired twice before Reese could grab her, hitting Abigale in the head and another girl in the chest. When Reese got his hand on her, she fired at him, hitting him squarely in the chest. She took three more shots before putting the gun against her own head.

Reese stumbled back, falling onto his desk. He could still hear screaming, but the words were no longer making sense.

The words, too late, were gone, but the scratching sound was back. As he watched, the word Welcome appeared.

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