Me and My Shadow
I knew immediately that the newcomer would be a problem. It’s never easy when a new child joins halfway through a school term; by that time friendships have been forged, coteries and pecking orders established, and social norms adopted. It’s an unusual child that can be assimilated into the network without teething problems, and though Monica was, in fact, an unusual child, it was immediately clear that her social skills were sadly under-developed.
She had chosen a seat in the corner of the classroom, from which she could observe her schoolmates and also look out of the window. As I entered, that was exactly what she was doing, gazing intently at someone or something in the bushes, her arms folded defensively across her narrow chest. I turned to see what had captured her attention, noting a fleeting impression of a flash of russet red, something moving quickly enough to cause the bushes to toss this way and that.
“Good morning everyone,” I greeted them, their freshly-washed young faces turning expectantly towards me.
“Good morning Miss Crook,” they chorused in return.
“And we have a newcomer in our midst,” I said, in a cheerily welcoming manner, “Monica Jacy, I believe.”
Monica dragged her gaze unwillingly away from the window and stared blankly at the sea of faces now turned in her direction. Her hand reached for one of her long black braids, which she slipped between her teeth, before raising her eyes to mine. She said nothing, waiting for me to continue.
“Welcome Monica, would you like to tell us something about yourself?” I said.
Panic flickered across her face, before she shook her head firmly. The other children tittered.
“Well, maybe your classmates should tell you something about themselves instead, and we can come back to you later?” I said. “We’ll start with Tommy Flynn, shall we?”
Tommy, who had been smirking at Monica, pulled a face, flushed and stood up unwillingly.
“My name is Tommy Flynn and I live in Ripley Hollow and I like baseball and I have two big brothers and my Dad is the local sheriff and my Mum works at the hospital and my best friend is Joe Walker and …..”
“Thank you, Tommy,” I said. “Complete sentences, remember? And draw breath in between each, but well done.”
Drawing inspiration from Tommy’s efforts, the rest of the class followed, each child careful to give their parents’ occupations and the name of their best friend.
Attention focussed on Monica once again, and I felt my spirits sinking.
“Come along Monica,” I said encouragingly.
“My name is Monica Jacy, I ain’t got no folks. I live with my gramma and my best friend is a secret,” she said.
The class erupted in howls of laughter, and Monica blushed unbecomingly.
“That’s very unkind,” I shouted at the rest of the class. “I don’t have any folks, Monica. Ain’t got no folks is a double negative.”
She wriggled uncomfortably.
“Tell me about your best friend,” I said gently.
Monica’s gaze shifted to the window again. Following her gaze, I strolled to the table near the window, ostensibly to pick up some chalk and a duster. As I did so, I saw a flash of red in the bushes once again.
“He don’t like me talking about him,” she said, defiantly. “He’s a secret.”
The other kids sniggered loudly, and I sighed.
“Doesn’t Monica. He doesn’t like me to talk about him. Now let’s get started then,” I said. “Monica can sit next to Tommy. Let Monica share your book, Tommy, just for today.”
Tommy looked distinctly underwhelmed, and grudgingly slid his book across the desk, leaning his body well away from Monica. She didn’t look particularly clean, and I wondered whether she might smell, though I wasn’t close enough to tell.
The morning passed quickly and at lunchtime the children spilled into the yard where they secured benches under the trees for their own particular group, piling lunchboxes of every shape, size and colour onto their laps. The contents were laid out, each child eyeing its neighbour’s lunch with curiosity and in some cases, envy.
I was on supervisory duty, so I made my way to an unoccupied bench where I opened up my own pink lunchbox. Scanning the yard for Monica I saw her sitting alone on a tree stump, clutching a brown paper bag. With downcast eyes, she almost secretively drew a wedge of white bread, spread thinly with jelly and peanut butter, from the bag and took a bite. My heart went out to her – peanut butter, and no-one to talk to. There was always one.
Sighing, I put my sandwich back in my box and strolled casually round the tables, pausing to have a word with each group as I made my way over to where Monica sat, still alone.
“So how did your first morning go, Monica?” I said.
I heard the bushes rustle behind her.
She slid her hunk of bread surreptitiously back into the crumpled brown bag and twisted it shut.
“Fine,” she whispered.
“Where was your last school, dear?” I asked.
“Oh, someplace out west,” she said, giving nothing away.
“And what brought you to Ripley Hollows?”
“Gramma said we had to come here.”
“Does she have friends here?” I asked.
“She don’t have friends nowhere,” she said in a matter of fact voice.
“Doesn’t, Monica, not don’t. And anywhere, not nowhere. You’re using a double negative again there.”
“Whatever,” she sighed.
I examined my lunchbox with studied regret. “Oh dear, I just really don’t feel hungry at all today,” I said, regretfully. “I wonder whether you might like to eat these for me Monica.”
She looked up, and I detected a quickly masked look of eagerness.
“If you want me to,” she said, hesitantly.
“Thank you Monica,” I said, wondering whether I had enough change to raid the snack machine in the staff room before the afternoon session.
As I left, I looked back in time to see her passing the hunk of bread behind her into the bushes, where, amongst much rustling, it disappeared. Then she withdrew a sandwich from my lunchbox and, pulling the two slices apart to check the content, smiled ecstatically and bit into it. My mouth watered at the memory of the roast chicken, liberally laced with mayonnaise and I headed quickly to the staff room.
At four o’clock, the children teemed out of the classroom, and were soon reunited in the schoolyard with parents or elder siblings. Monica was in no hurry to leave, slowly putting her notebook and pencils into the paper bag which had contained her lunch.
I was marking homework when I became aware of her close by my desk. My suspicions had been correct; she did smell, but not the pee’d-and-dried smell most teachers recognise. It was something earthy, musty, almost animal-like.
“See you tomorrow, Monica.”
“Here’s your box back,” she said pushing my empty lunch box across the desk to me.
“You keep it Monica, for your lunches.”
Her eyes widened, surprised.
Turning as she reached the door, she smiled for the first time that day. “And my friend says thank you too.”
I went to the window, curious to see if her grandmother had come to meet her. There was no one left in the schoolyard, and Monica let herself out through the school gate. She glanced across at the shrubbery on the opposite side of the road and jerked her head.
I watched in shock, as a red wolf loped out of the undergrowth, and bounded excitedly down the road behind her, occasionally nudging her hand with his nose.
“About the wolf, Mrs Jacy,” I began nervously, perched on the edge of a packing case outside her trailer, which was parked right on the perimeter of the local trailer park.
Her brows puckered. “What wolf?”
“The red wolf that follows Monica around wherever she goes,” I continued.
She’d been leaning back on two legs of her chair, propped against the side of the trailer, but she snapped forward immediately.
“You seen it then?” she said, surprised.
“Have seen it,” I corrected, before remembering I was not talking to class at this moment. “Yes I have seen it, Mrs Jacy.”
“You ain’t s’posed to,” she said, half to herself, absently rubbing her chin between her thumb and forefinger. “You part Indian then?” she asked.
“No, Mrs Jacy,” I said, “English.”
“Yes it is weird, and worrying.”
“For you, p’raps,” she said grinning and displaying a gap in her front teeth.
“I mean, it would be worrying for the other children at school if they saw him. It’s no place for him, around kids. This has to stop.”
“Other kids can’t see him,” she said, “and ain’t no-one gonna stop him going where he wants to.”
“Is he tame?” I asked.
“’Til she’s hurt,” she cackled, “then he ain’t. Then he’s real wild.”
She gave that kooky, gap-toothed grin once again, and I left the trailer park.
The bullying started fairly soon after Monica’s arrival. At first it was just an apparently accidental push, a casual tripping up as she passed by, but like all bullying it quickly escalated, and I couldn’t be everywhere to intervene.
Tommy Flynn appeared to be a ringleader in these activities, and disappointed, I asked him to stay after class one afternoon. There were four other boys I had identified as being involved, but I decided to tackle Tommy first.
“Why are you bullying Monica Jacy, Tommy?”
“Because she’s weird,” he said, and then added hopefully, as though it may exonerate him from any further blame, “and she stinks funny.”
“Smells funny,” I corrected him, and instantly regretted it.
“You noticed it too?” he said brightening.
“No,” I lied, “I was correcting your language.”
He shuffled uneasily on the spot.
“It has to stop. It’s unkind, it’s not civilised and….” Why did the word dangerous spring immediately to mind?
“OK” he said cheerily, in a way that clearly indicated he had no intention of obeying. “C’n I go now Miss?”
“You may Tommy. And remember, I wouldn’t want to have to talk to your father about this.”
“Wouldn’t matter none,” he confided obligingly, “he don’t like Injuns neither.”
Before I could correct him, he was off out the door, galloping across the schoolyard with his hood over his head, the rest of his coat flying out behind him like a cape, flicking away at his flank with imaginary reins.
Hunting ‘Injuns’, no doubt.
Some weeks later, I was awakened by the sound of distant sirens, getting closer, and slipping quickly out of bed I went to my window. There was a full moon that night, and the street was reflected in silver, casting long shadows across the sidewalk. An ambulance and several police cars, some of them from over the county line, hurtled along the road, lights flashing furiously and sirens wailing like banshees as their tail-lights disappeared up the road to the ridge.
I went downstairs to heat some milk, pacing the kitchen anxiously, wondering what disaster had befallen at the other end of town. Out in the moonlit yard I detected a movement under the trees, and a few seconds later I heard a muffled thump at the door. I cautiously opened the door a couple of inches, seeing nothing, yet sensing a presence.
Unhooking the chain, I stepped out onto the porch. As I did so, the red wolf stepped into the light spilling from the open doorway, and settled down a couple of yards away, watching me. His yellow eyes flickered in acknowledgement. I stood transfixed with…. what? It wasn’t fear, though I knew it should have been.
I held out my hand, and he rose to pace slowly forward his fur gleaming in the moonlight. His damp, earthy nose nudged the palm of my hand, and then he tilted his head to rub his cheek and ear against my fingers.
Then he bounded backwards, elongated his neck, and gave a long desolate howl that faded after a several seconds, whilst, from the ridge east of the town came an answering chorus of eerie howls, echoing around the valley. With one last look at me, he ducked under the fence and streaked silently into the night.
Disturbed, and with a sense that disaster was all about me, I hurried back indoors to dress. As I reached for my jeans, I realised that my hand was sticky. I turned on the bedside light and saw that my fingers were smeared with blood.
Retching, I rushed to the bathroom to wash my hands.
Once dressed, I set off in the general direction the emergency vehicles had been heading. I was joined by others who had been awoken by the activity. At the bridge crossing the creek, about half a mile short of the ridge, our progress was halted by a cordon of police officers.
“What’s happened?” one of my neighbours asked.
“You need to go home, folks,” said the cop, “lock your doors and stay inside.”
We turned back towards our homes, but not before I had seen Sheriff Flynn, seated half in, half out of a police vehicle, his head in his hands and shoulders shaking with violent sobs.
I turned back with the others, needing company for the short journey home, although somehow I didn’t feel to be in any personal danger. There was just an overwhelming sense of horror and loss, a sense that some chapter was now over, some course had been run.
The country’s press descended on our sleepy town that week, reporters taking a quote from anyone who would oblige. And there were plenty who would.
Over three hundred sheep had been slaughtered that night of the full moon, their throats torn out and carcasses ravaged. They said that the farmers were ruined, none of them insured, and most having no other livestock to fall back on. It didn’t escape my attention that the slaughtered sheep belonged only to the families of those four boys who had helped Tommy Flynn to torment Monica Jacy.
But the real horror was the mangled body of Tommy Flynn, found close to the sheep pastures, his throat torn out as well. No-one knew what he was doing out in the fields, and someone said his bedroom window had been forced off its hinges, his bed covered in mud and animal hair.
Hunting parties scoured the woods for days, and many small animals perished as nervous hunters reacted to every movement. But there was no sign of any creature, or creatures, that might have wreaked such havoc in the course of one night.
School was closed for a week, and when it re-opened, the sons of those farmers who had been ruined did not immediately return.
Monica Jacy did not ever return.
I checked the school records to see which school she had attended out west. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t immediately recall why. I phoned them to see if Monica had returned there.
“We had no Monica Jacy here,” said the headmaster. “Around that time we had a Monica Jolon. Could her name have been changed?”
“She was a small, thin girl,” I said, “with long dark hair.”
“Well Monica Jolon was certainly small, thin and dark,” he said. “I remember that much. Quiet girl, didn’t really fit in.”
“Was she bullied?” I asked.
“Sadly, yes, as I remember. She was part Indian and there’s still a lot of distrust and resentment about half-breeds round here. Shame really, she had a very sad background. Both parents killed when their cabin was torched by some hooligans, a few years back. She and her younger brother were taken in by their grandmother, and then the boy died of meningitis. He’d worshipped her apparently, followed her everywhere, and she was devastated when he died. Sometimes it seems like tragedy kinda follows some folk about. It can’t have helped what happened here, either.”
Suddenly, I knew why the name of the school was familiar. There’d been a shooting incident, and six boys had been killed. Some kid with a shotgun, wearing fancy dress, an Indian outfit, had managed to break through security. He’d targeted one classroom and had never been caught. Someone said he just faded out of sight, right in front of them. Shock, they said.
“Did Monica see what happened that day?” I asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
“No, thankfully. It was her class that was attacked. Her grandmother had called her in sick that morning, and Monica never returned to the school afterwards. Quite a few kids were withdrawn from the school at that time, but most of them did come back eventually. We’ve a pretty good reputation.”
I thanked him, and ended the conversation.
Later that week I drove to the trailer park where I had visited Monica’s grandmother. As I had expected, the trailer was empty, looking as though they may have left in a hurry. There was a heap of rubbish round the back of the trailer, and I kicked through it, not really knowing what I was looking for. Eventually I caught a glimpse of something pink, and I sorted through the rubbish to pull my sandwich box out of the rubble.
Inside there was a photograph of Monica hand in hand with a young boy, obviously taken at a children’s party. Monica was dressed as fairy. The boy was proudly wearing full Indian outfit complete with a feathered head-dress. Printed on the back of the photo were the words ‘Me and Red Wolf.’
“Red Wolf and me, Monica,” I whispered, turning to leave.