Chapter 1 | In which the weak are smote
“So the witch returns.”
Your absurdly typical college clique-branded jock. He lifted his palms in a mock gesture of fright, looking towards Dahlia with a lopsided grin. The others joined in, leaning back with their hands out, feigning fear briefly before obnoxious giggling spread across them. Dahlia just kept her head down, clutched her books to her chest, and continued swiftly towards class.
“Please, don’t cast a spell on me!”
“Burn the witch!”
This particular brand of mockery was old news. It was well into her second semester at Gotham State University, and every day was the same damn routine. The sting became tolerable in that time.
Feeling something warm rising behind her cheeks, Dahlia barged into the girls’ restrooms and slammed her books onto the sink counter, and met her reflection’s gaze. A tightly-balled fist then lifted and ran firmly over her cheek, brushing her tousled black hair from her face as she fought to suppress the wetness forming in her eyes.
Some days were better than others. She figured today wasn’t that day. Although unknown to her still, today was precisely that latter kind of day.
As cold and sun-avoidant as Gotham was, Dahlia’s genetic makeup was oddly uncommon: Pale skin, jet black hair, a petite and somewhat gangly physique, and half a fashion sense picked out of thrift shop that apparently catered to Victorian-boho goths. The most common nicknames forced upon her by her peers were, naturally: Witch. Vamp. Emo. And, on occasion, Geek. Not that she - like many - took much offense to the last one. Really it was a compliment towards her excellence in academics, and perhaps a nod to her worn out old eye glasses.
Regardless, it was all just mockery to lower her self worth and let her know who the alphas were. Like animals.
“Oh, here you are.”
Out came Natalie Odell from a closed stall behind Dahlia. Another run-of-the-mill popular plastic princess. Pretty, rumored promiscuous, blessed with the genetic configuration that endowed her with a male-approved bosom and flowing blonde hair. She adjusted her overpriced purse as she approached Dahlia, walking nonchalantly past her to the hand soap nearby.
“If you’re going to finally end it all and slit your wrists, just do it over the sink so you don’t make a mess.” Natalie vaguely washed her hands, turned off the tap, then approached the electric hand dryer, which switched on loudly. She shouted over the blower, “Don’t let me discourage you though. Everyone’s got to have goals, right?” Her bright pink lips briefly formed a half smirk before falling into a disgusted frown. Removing her hands from the dryer, which then shut off, Natalie walked out as she added: “Have fun with your magic spells and voodoo dolls.”
Dahlia watched the door for several moments, suppressing her confusion and rage as the tensed muscles in her face began to twitch. Did these egomaniacs have nothing better to do with their time? Wasn’t civilization finally past petty bullying? A prestigious degree apparently can’t outrun inner city dramatics.
She left the bathroom quickly.
The first of her classes for the day passed quickly, and with relative peace. Someone in Writing 102 decided to “forget” returning one of her favorite mechanical pencils that she so generously lent out, but that was about the brunt of it.
Later in the day, in Psychology 102, Professor Crane was lecturing, as usual. And Dahlia was taking notes and listening intently, as usual. Not that she particularly disliked her other classes, but something about Psych 102 was particularly intriguing. Learning more about the human psyche, what makes a person tick, what makes a person feel satisfied ... Maybe it was having a well-spoken and well educated instructor? Details. It was regardless her favorite.
Natalie had come to favor picking a seat right next to Dahlia. She decided to get a little more personal. Boy, she was of a mood today.
Without hesitation, she turned her head towards Dahlia - right in the middle of the lecture - and snatched the glasses right off Dahlia’s face. Dahlia was completely taken aback, eyes widening as she turned slowly to her enemy. Natalie held the glasses by the bridge, pinched between two fingers, as if holding a twitching spider. She whispered, “These are the ugliest damn things I’ve ever seen. Are you just a bum or can your family really not afford nicer frames or something?”
For one reason or another, this had become Dahlia’s last straw.
She snatched the glasses back, every bit as roughly as she intended, and responded with her voice low and gritty. “If you ever touch me again, I swear I will make sure it’s the last you damned stuck up skank.”
Natalie stared right back. Her eyes reflected surprise, but her facial expression reflected Dahlia’s anger. Although her volume was still low, her whisper had dissipated. Natalie replied, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Dahlia’s voice escalated further in volume. ”Taunt the bull and see what happens-"
With a snap, Dahlia’s head pivoted to the front of the lecture hall, eyes wide and rounded, classic deer in headlights. Professor Crane was staring at her with his unblinking, intensely blue eyes. For a moment he remained silent, then adjusted his square-framed glasses with two fingers, adding in his calm voice, “Do you have something to share with your colleagues on the current material?” For what seemed like hours, Dahlia just kept staring, her mouth trying to form words with no sound emerging from her throat. Timidly, defeatedly, she simply shook her head, her unblinking eyes glossening with moisture. Crane’s head remained still as he glanced to Natalie, locking eyes for several more moments, before returning to the open book in his hands and continuing the lecture.
He was situated perhaps six feet behind her, with his hands clasped comfortably, one over the other, in front of his body. “I assume, as usual, you’ve studied and prepared for the exam tomorrow.”
Well, no. She in actuality had completely forgotten. Taking in a silent breath, Dahlia nodded with a poor attempt at feigning confidence, her eyes remaining glued to the elegant wood grain of the floor. The Professor continued: “I’d advise you to take advantage of the school library’s late operating hours, in that case.” Another pause. “Your slow decline in grades and project quality hasn’t gone unnoticed. It’s unlike you, and unbecoming of you.”
Dahlia’s eyes finally met his, her mouth immediately opening, urging an excuse to quickly come to mind. A few seconds later and she shrugged to herself with a sigh. “Yes sir, I-I know. I don’t ...” She had no idea what to say. ′I’m probably distracted by my inability to handle my school bullies?′ That didn’t seem like something Crane would really care about. Teachers never wanted to get involved.
Another awkward pause and Dahlia added, breaking the silence, “I’ll take you up on that advice now. Thank you, sir.” Refusing him the opportunity to respond, she hurriedly ducked away and jogged out of the room, boots smacking the hard floor with purpose.
For just a few moments, Professor Crane stood watching her darkly clad figure hurry down the hall, her heavy footsteps echoing more and more quietly. He shut the door and disappeared from the window’s view.
′ The notion of the reflex arc was developed in studies of spinal preparations in which protopathic stimuli or muscle tensions are the chief sources of excitation. Under these simple conditions something like a point for points correspondence between receptor cells and muscle groups could be demonstrated, as in the case of the scratch reflex. ′
“Dahlia! ... Dahlia!”
Dahlia’s eyes rose from her book to see the face of the school’s librarian looming down over her. She smiled warmly. “The library’s closing, Dear. Got everything you need, I hope. Otherwise we’re open again tomorrow of course.”
Not quite, but good enough, she guessed. The hours Dahlia spent in the school library were a shameful waste. She was completely sidetracked from notes and class books to unrelated material. Fascinating nonetheless, but completely unrelated to her class material. Tomorrow’s exam was going to suck.
Outside, the sky over Gotham was dimly starry and black, with a new moon gracing the horizon. Dahlia held her books under one arm as her other held her warm wool coat shut. Halfway through her walk across the parking lot, something rattled in the darkness. Startled, but not yet concerned, she slowed her pace and looked towards the source of the noise amid the buildings. Nothing. Then she turned her head and glanced over her opposite shoulder, carefully watching the shadows. Still nothing. Could never be too careful in the middle of the city.
“You are such a bitch.”
Suddenly wary, Dahlia stopped and looked forward to see two figures emerge from a parked pickup truck, both heading for her at a threatening speed. Eyes widening, feeling her entire body tense, she muttered resistance as she stumbled backwards and bumped into something soft. Large, muscular arms hooked under hers and lifted her to the tips of her toes, dropping her belongings to the cold pavement. The terrified shriek that escaped her was stifled as another figure moved in front of her and pulled a line of duct tape over her mouth.
Who other than Natalie? In shock, Dahlia locked eyes with the blonde: Natalie’s eyes reflected only anger, and Dahlia’s reflected something she had yet to experience with such shock and intensity:
After a beat, Natalie raised her arm and brought her hand across Dahlia’s cheek, firmly, as a sickening smack echoed across the parking lot. Another beat later, and Natalie slapped her again, several more times. Dahlia’s eyes squeezed shut, feeling briefly faint with each strike.
Natalie took a moment to calm herself before spewing, “Don’t think that you can say whatever you want to me and not have it come back to haunt you, you goddamn crazy whore. If you ever think you can be better than me, you better remember this night and think twice. I am everywhere. How’s that for a threat, huh bitch?” Her skinny hand slapped over Dahlia’s neck, tightening every moment. “So long as you go to this school, I own you and everyone here. Got it?”
Dahlia didn’t respond, eyes still shut, wishing for this moment to be a nightmare she’d soon wake up out of.
Natalie let her go, after what seemed like several minutes. With a wave of her hand, the individual holding Dahlia suddenly dropped his arms and shoved her forward and into the nearby car. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared, back into the truck, and drove away.
Dahlia wept furiously on her knees, slumped against the car, as she weakly stripped the tape from her mouth.
The apartment on the third floor wasn’t really all that bad, at least when maintenance got the pest control under ... well, control. And when the heaters actually worked. And when the water was turned on. And when the wallpaper peeled off in even increments. Really when one considered how scummy Gotham’s streets were, especially the gang and drug trafficking in The Narrows, it was a palace.
Dahlia trudged up the stairs, face beaten down with exhaustion, and entered her apartment quietly and with hesitation. She had hoped that her drunken stepmother, Linda, wasn’t up and about; so naturally, she was. Linda was the type of woman you could look at and know, without a question of a doubt, that she had been to jail more than once. She was only in her early forties but looked old enough to be Dahlia’s young-ish grandmother. Without a hint of grandmotherly love, Linda sauntered up to the door as Dahlia entered and crowed, “Dahlia, where the hell have you been all night? I needed you here to help clean up the mess in the kitchen!”
Normally Dahlia would have the patience to at least feign sincerity with Linda. Yet coldly, she replied, “I had my own problems to deal with. And since when do you clean anything?”
Linda’s drug-addled brain didn’t hear a word her stepdaughter said. “I left you the dishes and mopping the floor, and if you ask me, I went easy on you. Maybe next time I’ll give you the toilet and the p-trap in the sink ...
Dahlia slammed the door shut to her small bedroom, and promptly locked it from the inside. Linda would just get drunk and get over it.
If Dahlia had any say in it, everything in her room would be black. Black bed sheets, black pillow cases, black desk, black desk lamp, black closet door, black floors, black wallpaper ... But when you grow up in one of the poorer neighbors in one of Gotham’s seediest districts, you just take what you can get. Not a single piece of furniture in her room matched, nor did it appear as if it would stand against even a gentle breeze. Minimalism was an inevitability, not a choice.
After throwing her books onto the bed, Dahlia immediately went for a drawer in her vanity and retrieved a half-used tube of cooling gel, and applied it to her bruising neck and cheek. And in between another pea-sized application of gel, she would drive her cheek to her shoulder to wipe away the calm, continuing tears.
Like a great mind reader, Cat - Dahlia’s rescued stray cat - hopped up through the ajar window from the fire escape, announcing his arrival with a chirp. What a relief it was to see him after a long day. Dahlia greeted him, sniffling sadly, and scooped him up from the windowsill. “Sorry, Cat, you’re going to have to grab something to eat on your own tonight. I just can't deal with her tonight.” Cat’s bright, inquisitive blue eyes just watched her blankly, content enough being with kind company.
Dahlia moved to her bed and slid onto it sideways, allowing her torso to fall into a pillow as she continued to cradle Cat.
“One more semester, I gotta remember. If I finish this semester, I can just transfer out.
“I am so damn done with this city.”