The rain fell steadily for several minutes before Phoenix noticed it and looked over at the dividing windows, droplets slithering down the panes. That aroma of lavender had seeped into the room and never left. He relaxed back on his seat and began imagining the UFO passing through the sky. At the same time he zoned out of his English lecture; it had gotten quite boring when his teacher, Ms Melbourne, started reading the closing pages of Edgar Gray’s PAW. She sat on her desk at the front, eyed by the many yawning faces of adolescence. Her brown hair, shaped like a paintbrush, stood upright. Amongst her black skin, she had a birthmark that took up a little more than half of her left cheek. Smiling still, she flicked the page over to the ending paragraph.
"The world would be a much nicer place if everyone possessed the ability to love like our pets; even dogs and bush crickets are thought, by some, to dream.” Her voice flew through the class like an emotional aeroplane that never quite landed, slowly moving from word to word. ”Banewood, amid the rain, stands against its winds with fossils of grey; it had stood so for one hundred years and might stand for one hundred more. The luminescence of the sky was ebbing slowly against the darkness, crossing the narrowing woods of the graveyard, saturated by a foul odour of carrion and mud. Sounds of ravens and flutter bugs, crunching footsteps and quivering millipedes, festered the landscape, and those who dared listen, listened . . . forever."
Phoenix couldn’t stop yawning, though, he did cover his mouth with his large hands, impatiently awaiting the clock above her desk to tick towards 3:45 P.M. He glanced at his watch.
Eventually he heard the silence shatter. The school bell whirled across the room and shook the air. The class screeched their chairs backwards and threw on their bags. Phoenix was the first to go.
“Remember!” Ms Melbourne yelled. “I will be testing you on this in the coming days so get stuck into your novels. And if anyone wants to join the after-school debate team check up at the office!”
On his way out, with the infinite bell muffling everyone’s chatter, Ms Melbourne snapped her eyes towards his unique little Afro and said, “Not so fast, Phoenix.”
He stood dead in his tracks and let the others pass him. The purple door swung open with a creak and he could hear freedom calling his name. Phoenix swallowed a prickle in his throat. His chest raced for a few seconds, then relaxed. He turned around and walked over to her desk, gripping the straps of his schoolbag.
“A quick word,” she said, sitting up from the desk (she wore high heels that clicked and clacked off the ground) that had several copybooks, a computer, some novels, and a cup of coffee on it, and heading for her swivel chair, where she would begin typing loudly. “Don’t worry, I won’t take up too much of your time.”
The last of the students’ voices were just beginning to fade out into the hallway.
Phoenix had no way of figuring out what she wanted, except for the consistently poor grades of his report card. He knew that it was academic. And he knew—had known for the last several days—that she was going to bring it up at some point.
He knew it by the apathetic tone she sometimes carried around. A tone that, as it seemed to wear off gradually and grow more intense with each syllable, sounded like trouble.
Ms Melbourne paused for the merest fraction of a beat as she clicked repeatedly, crossing her eyebrows back and forth. “One moment . . .” she said. “Okay.”
Ms Melbourne clicked once more and pulled the drawer of her desk outwards with a smooth thud. Inside, there had been files of paperwork clumped together.
The exams, Phoenix thought. Oh, boy, I finna get clapped.
She rummaged through the papers until she came across the one marked with Phoenix Newman. He had neat handwriting, that much he could tell. But his eyes were more focused on the number, big and red like a bloody painting: 34%.
More silence followed. “What happened?” Ms Melbourne asked with sympathy. “Thirty-four per cent is very unlike you. You used to be a high-achiever.”
The truth was that he didn’t know. He didn’t know where he went wrong or what he did wrong. Phoenix was confused as all people would have been in such a situation. He knew it was bad, but he didn’t know it was borderline repulsive.
Now watch this drive!—“The test was too hard, miss. In fact, all of the Christmas exams were, this year. And I didn’t get much time to study either because I have other subjects and school projects due the end of next—”
Ms Melbourne craned her neck to listen, widening her eyes, but heard only gibbering that led to no valid reason.
“I didn’t quite get a few things and that was probably—”
“Phoenix,” she said, a short silence following afterwards, “‘fear is at the root of most bad writing.’”
Phoenix coughed and said, “Huh?”
“Stephen King,” she said. “Oftentimes, when we feel like we can’t write well or we get that hellish writer’s block that might as well not exist, it’s because we’re too scared of our own ability. And to tell you the truth, you are the most capable in this classroom.”
Thank you?—“Some things are harder to write than others,” Phoenix said. “Maybe I can retake it?”
“No,” she said softly. “I know you’ll do fine. I just think you’re a modest writer. A far too humble one at that.”
It was quiet for a couple more seconds, then she turned and started typing at her computer. “I won’t mark this for your Christmas. I’ll use the previous result from October, just don’t tell anyone. No need to thank me.”
“But, won’t you get in trouble?”
“I teach for the students. Not for the paycheck.”
Ms Melbourne looked up at the clock behind her. “Oh, sugar. You better go now.”
“Wha—” Phoenix glanced at the clock: 3:49 P.M.
SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!
Phoenix fumbled away from her desk and said, “Thank you, uh, see ya, miss.”
He backed out of the room and rushed towards the exit in that same minute. He popped open the front door and saw the blackening clouds. And as the sun eventually sank below the city skyline and the broadening shadows merged into the roads, Phoenix shoved himself onto his bus, sat down quickly, and opened up Discord on his phone. By that time, everyone had just been going home from school so he didn’t expect to see any messages. But Alex, who had gotten a cold and stayed home sick, sent him a message about an hour before school ended: Uh huh bitch, makin ur bitchass phone buzz in class oOOOOoOoOo
He grinned and plugged in his earphones to listen to Spotify.