This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
It was an arid July day, with barely a hint of a breeze. The early morning sunlight shone through the shutters on the school hall windows, breaking into little beams, illuminating the dust that had been hovering out of sight. Thin slices of dust and light, tangible enough that small children would try and hold them.
Hundreds of children were packed in to the school’s assembly hall, unaware that it would be the last one they would attend for two weeks. The throng had been a-buzz with anticipation that morning, unusually so for an assembly, but this one was different, because this one had a guest speaker. Most Monday morning assemblies were not worth waking up for, but guest speakers were usually memorable. Maybe it would be an overzealous Christian youth worker, desperately trying to connect with them by referencing rap music and using decades-old slang, or an eccentric local author none of them had ever heard of.
The children’s faces were showing conflicting emotions; some rapt with attention, others confused, as they stared at the stage and the small woman with a commanding aura that stood in the middle of it. The noise and boisterousness that followed the children’s entry to the hall had ceased, the squealing and chattering and turning around to see where friends were sitting had stopped.
The woman’s first words were: “Everything you’re being taught is fucking shit.”
The face of the school head teacher behind her was rigid, eyes wide in surprise. His face said: I knew this was a bad idea. The kids’ faces were saying something of their own: She just said shit. But it wasn’t the giggly realisation kids usually get when an apparent authority figure does something uncouth. It was an uncomfortable, squirmy sensation. The girl on the stage was dark. She exuded it. She wore darkness like a shroud. This was a girl who had come through flames and maybe walked through them willingly, and could now burn you if you got too close. Something was happening here. This was not the standard “You’re All Winners” address the kids had been expecting when they shuffled in.
The woman was slight, thin, with short black hair and pale skin. She was unremarkable in appearance, and yet had a presence about her that intrigued the kids. After that start they had no idea what was to come, but they knew it would be worth paying attention to.
Grace gazed out at the sea of alien faces, trying to concentrate on deep breathing to calm her nerves. Her heartbeat thumped in her ears. She hadn’t meant to start with those words. They just came out, unplanned. Stumbling over her words, she corrected herself.
“Let me explain what I mean. It’s probably easier if I go back a bit, and explain what it was like when I was your age. You guys probably won’t know what I’m talking about, but life was a lot simpler back then. We only had a handful of channels. Only the rich, or people who didn’t live in the middle of nowhere like I did had satellite. We had consoles, sure – I loved my Atari – but my friends and I would get our arses out of the house and while away the hours at the arcade they had downtown. We would usually play Pac-Man, or if that machine was busy, some pathetic spin off like Ms. Pac-Man. God, I hated Ms. Pac-Man. But there was no Internet to suck up our time, no email, and no mobile phones.
“So maybe you’re thinking ‘how did people communicate during those archaic times?’”, here Grace smiled at her archness. “Well, a bit like you guys have texting, online messaging and chat rooms, we had pen pals. Or I did, anyway.”
Grace was sweating now, trying valiantly to stay on topic, to remember the point of all this: community service. Come back to her old school, talk to the kids about what had happened to her, what she had done about it, and why it was so difficult to talk about even now, twenty years later.
“I had many, many pen pals. We would find each other in the back of music magazines or local papers or something, and we would take great care in drafting that first awkward letter – no-one wants to sound too desperate. Everyone wants to convey the illusion of cool...although, if we were really all that cool, we would just have real friends, now wouldn’t we? The standard first letter mostly consisted of, ‘Hey, my name is BLAH, I live HERE and I’m THIS MANY years old. I LOVE music! My favourite bands are blabity blah blah blah...well, write back if you want!’
“Letter writing is a real lost art – nobody does it anymore! It’s very sad, because when I think of all the hours I put in those letters...making funny drawings in the margins to illustrate my point, ornately decorating the envelopes, filling the envelope or package with all kinds of crazy trinkets...I have received everything from clothes to a hit of acid to a few buds of pot to herbal tea to fabulous mix tapes in the mail from friends. Those really were the days. The postman told my Mom that he looked forward to delivering our mail every day.
“Everyone had a moniker as well, just like today’s message boards and forums and email and such. Sometimes people kept the same name, sometimes changed it as the mood struck them. Mine was Diva. When the Internet age dawned upon us, I was thrilled. I hadn’t had a proper pen pal in years, but all I could think of was, ‘Wow, these kids get to do it for free now!’ I have doubtless spent thousands of pounds on postage, envelopes, paper, art supplies, and long-distance phone calls. Today’s generation sure does have it easy.”
Grace paused and looked out at the hall, the young faces in front of her, some paying attention, others looking confused, plenty bored. She was doing her best to keep on track here but the memories were flooding back. She could hear the screams, smell the blood in her nostrils. Composing herself, she continued.
“The ‘pen pal circuit’, if such a thing ever existed, mostly consisted of high school loners, outsiders, punk rockers, goths, etc...you know, the ones you would expect to have detached relationships with people...unfortunately, the sad truth is that the majority of the people you would get to know were just as asinine as the people you were forced to coexist with every single day in school. But once in a while, you would come across someone really amazing. Someone whom you swear was separated from you at birth. Sometimes you become best friends with that person. Sometimes you fall in love. You think nothing of giving this person your phone number, inviting them to visit you, telling them your every thought, desire…but sometimes these people are dangerous. Sometimes they completely destroy your sanity, your family, and your life. Unfortunately, one person I met did just that.”
It was ten in the morning and Grace was sat alone in a dingy café, picking listlessly at her scrambled eggs, leg shaking nervously, looking up from her plate every ten seconds to glance at the door, hoping that it would open, practically begging for the ding-a-ling of the little bell. She always felt sorry for those people who sat alone, eating breakfast alone, reading a book in their little booth making it seem that they are worth something in the world. She pushed her eggs and half eaten sausage aside. Frankly she wasn’t very hungry, she just always felt bad if she didn’t order something. If you just said you wanted water the waitress would you a scornful look, knowing that you aren't planning on spending any money.
The minutes ticked by. The door remained closed. Grace tapped her feet to the sound of the B-52s cranking out of the radio behind the counter. She didn’t care for them, but she was trying to make the wait go by quicker. She knew Sam was at the back of the cafe, reading a paper. Or pretending to, at least.
She wished she’d picked a better meeting place. The walls were a disgusting mouldy yellow colour, like the teeth of a long-time smoker, while a certificate on the wall proudly proclaimed that the diner was of an ‘intermediate’ level of cleanliness and hygiene. Only intermediate? That was worrying. The only other person in the place aside from Grace and her friend Sam was a bored-looking peroxide blonde waitress, who looked as though she had come straight out of a 1950’s American road movie. She was even chewing gum. Grace hoped she called everybody ‘darlin’.
Grace sifted through the papers lying between her coffee and cigarettes; all letters, all from the same person. She looked through them reading the each signature.
Until she reached the final one.
See you soon, Bobby...
Grace picked up the napkin holder and gazed at her reflection, adjusting her jet-black hair for the tenth time. She shook her head in disapproval, finding all her flaws. The way her left eyelid was slightly lower than her right. The little hole in her nose from a piercing that she found out was a drunken mistake, her mole on the side of her neck. Such a disgusting mole, she thought. She raised the collar of her jumper to try and hide it, but it was an annoying brown dot on her creamy skin and her efforts were for nothing. She glanced at the door again. He was late.
He probably chickened out, she told herself. I’m so stupid. I should go home right now. I sent him a photo in my last letter. That was it. He saw my disgusting face. He saw that mole. Ten more minutes. Just ten more minutes.
It was the tenth time she told herself ten more minutes. Her friends had told her this was a bad idea. Even Sam, her best friend, hadn’t been wild about it. She didn’t know him, only through the letters that could be lies and just recently the phone conversations. Grace thought differently. She knew. There was something in his voice, something soothing and kind; this was the guy she was waiting for. He had to be. The only advice from her mother was to not get raped, but of course, her mother thought every man in the world was a potential rapist so that really didn’t hold sway with Grace. She was just tired of messing around with all the fuck-ups and morons the opposite sex had provided thus far. If she didn’t do something for herself she would end up one of those people, sitting in a booth by themselves, having no one to talk to.
She had many pen pals but Bobby was her favourite. His friendly letters had recently turned into love letters and then those turned into haunting, yearning, romantic words that made her cry. His words made her cry. That was enough for her and she told him that they had to meet. Bobby lived hours away and agreed to travel all the way to meet her in this deserted cafe, nine o’clock sharp.
It was ten fifteen now. Ten fifteen is when Bobby Walker sauntered through the door. Ten fifteen is when Grace would live again…
Grace shook her head, trying to shift the memories of Bobby. In the years since her discharge from the psychiatric facility, his appearance in her thoughts had been less and less frequent, and yet now, talking about all she had been through to these kids, his memory was once again front and centre in her mind. She had to push through. Finish her talk, get out, go home and try to forget.
“Look, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about arcade machines and pen pals, you probably think what I’ve got to say isn’t relevant to you. But it’s like I said before - everything you’re being taught is fucking shit. It’s all wrong.” She turned shot a look at the high school head teacher sitting behind her. He wasn’t talking, but his face was saying plenty. His face was saying Oh, shit. His face was saying, this is not going to be the pep talk we were promised. She shot him a look of her own. In bold black letters the look said: I am going to tell the truth. And his face darkened even more.
“Mr. Addison here,” she jerked her thumb at the gaunt, uncomfortable looking man, “wants you all to hear a story about morals and decency and how you’re all going to make it if you’re good people. Because he’s a teacher. It’s a teacher’s job to give you guys false hope in threatening garb. Sounds deep, I know, but what it boils down to is this: it’s a teacher’s job to try and instill confidence in you, telling you that good things will come to you, if you study hard, if you pass your exams, if you don’t chew gum in class and if you speak respectfully to others. But your teachers don’t know shit.”
Grace strode to the front of the stage now, eyes blazing. She was in her element, no longer sure if the speech would benefit anyone but her, but she knew this had to come out.
“Sometimes bad shit happens to wonderful people. Sometimes great things happen to evil people. Life is a lottery. It doesn’t make sense, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Do you trust a man who oversees classes where some of the girls are pregnant and yet they need to ask permission to use the bathroom, and they can’t chew gum?”
She paused. She was getting sidetracked. They had spoken about that in the group therapy sessions. Symptom of a disordered mind, she was told. Keep on track.
“In high school it’s all about what you’re wearing and who you’re friends with. You can come to my party and you can’t, and you’re cool but she’s not cool, and we hate you because of your taste in music or TV or because you read too much or whatever the fuck, and once everyone else has decided whom you are, that’s who you become. There’s no way out once that happens. You’re stuck with it. Guess what? Nothing changes. It’s the same deal when you’re an adult. You get tagged again when you’re grown-up. It’s usually a different tag than the one you had stamped on your forehead in high school - today’s geeks are tomorrow’s rock stars and supermodels. But again, unless you’re amazingly strong, you’re stuck with the label you’re given. I wasn’t an adult when this happened to me, so I was still under the illusion things would get better. Mr. Addison here, he’s probably still under that illusion himself - that things will get better for him. Maybe he believes all the crap he tells you.”
Eyes driving ice spikes through the back of her head now, but she kept going.
“I can’t decide if false hope is a good thing to have sometimes. Ignorance is bliss and all. I was unhappy like most of you, but I was hopeful, and that’s why I started writing to this guy named Bobby Walker. I thought that if I knew someone outside, a kindred spirit I couldn’t find right here, then I could get out of the funk I was in at the time. Bobby Walker knew more about life than I did and the irony is, he almost killed me with the knowledge. But he was five years older than me, and he said all the right things in the beginning. You only need to reveal what you want to reveal, and you can invent the rest. That’s the thing about pen pals and chat rooms. In reality, you become who they want you to be. Online and in letters, you can become who you want them to think you are. I still don’t know who Bobby was.” She paused again. Where to go from here?
At the back of the hall, someone caught her eye. Not a pupil, but he didn’t look like a teacher. He looked familiar somehow. An older version of someone she had known, long ago. His hair shorter, his waistline a little wider, but...no. Grace shook her head. That was a lifetime ago. It was practically another life. There was no way it could be him. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him for years, how could he know she’d be giving a talk here? More to the point, why would he even care?
It was then, lost in these thoughts, that Grace heard a murmur from one of the kids sitting in the front row. He was smirking as he turned to his buddy, and muttered something…
Mr. Addison was silent in his chair behind Grace as the students took in her curse-filled ramblings. He was tall and lean as a knife, his thin, angular features making him reminiscent of a vulture someone had stuffed into a suit. He tutted under his breath as Grace spoke. As if starting her speech by decrying education was not bad enough, her ill-thought-out address was taking in arcade games, drugs and lord knows what else was to come. He was already regretting the decision to allow her to speak the students. He would be perfectly happy to have the children in, teach them the prescribed curriculum and send them home again with the minimum of fuss. Instead here he was, sitting uncomfortably behind a woman living in the edge of sanity, spouting dangerous nonsense to the children in the name if education, and apparently, community service.
He did not work at the school when Grace had been a pupil there, but he knew her story nonetheless. Practically everyone did. He assumed that she would be in a psychiatric ward for the rest of her life, but clearly someone, somewhere, thought letting her “educate” children would be a good idea.
He heard the familiar murmuring from the front row of the assembly hall before even Grace did, but then after decades of teaching his hearing was attuned to the early signs of trouble. He didn’t realise at the time just how much trouble.
Later, from his hospital bed, he will tell the Police that, no, they did not search Grace when she entered the school as it was not policy. He will tell them that Grace’s case worker assured him she had been signed off by not one but two psychiatrists as no sort of danger to herself or others. He will tell them that those psychiatrists were wrong. He will be heralded by the media as the selfless teacher who risked his life to protect his pupils from harm, but as the weeks drag on the media narrative will turn, from hero teacher to the dangerous maverick who risked his children’s lives to help a violent criminal avoid prison.
If he knew how it would turn out, he might have decided to stay in his seat. But instead, he saw Grace stride to the front of the stage and ask the boy to repeat what he had just muttered to his friend and he jumped into action, sweeping down the front row and grabbing the offender, a known troublemaker named Bobby, by his collar. He was so concerned with getting him out of there that he didn’t see Grace reach down into her boot and didn’t see the light glinting off the knife until it was too late.
“Dude, that bitch looks crazy.”
“Um, excuse me?” she challenged the boy. Stay calm, her inner voice hissed. Remember why you’re here in the first place. You cannot do community service at your old school and have it end in violence.
The kid, cocky and clearly thinking himself some kind of wit, looked directly at her, with that stupid expression that people get after they say something asinine that you hear but weren’t supposed to. “What?” he replied.
Grace was getting more annoyed by the nano-second. “What did you just say to your little fuck buddy just now?”
The kid, all piss and vinegar now, spat back her, “I SAID - ’THAT BIIIIIIIITCH LOOKS CCRRR-AAAYZY!” The kid did a bit of flailing around for good measure. He was very proud of himself at this moment; all his friends were on their feet, applauding him for being so fucking cool, and he was already envisioning that phrase being forever immortalised as the caption below his photo in the next yearbook.
It was then that Mr. Addison let out a heavy sigh and swooped down from the stage swiftly, which suggested that this was clearly not the first time that kid had crossed the line, and grabbed the boy by his shirt collar, yanking him out of his seat.
“OK, Bobby, you’re outta here.”
Grace blinked. Bobby? His name is Bobby? In her already vulnerable state, just hearing that name uttered out loud in her presence sent her over the edge. Grace coolly made her way down the steps off the stage, and started in the kid’s direction. The headteacher still had him by the collar. She inconspicuously reached into her boot where she kept the knife that she never went anywhere without, scooted in front of the pair, and aimed the knife at Bobby II’s chest.
What happened next was something she did not expect. Bobby was quick; he saw the knife and jetted out of the way, falling to the floor. Next thing Grace knew, the knife was stuck in Mr. Addison’s chest instead. He screamed in shock and pain; the assembly hall was at first silent, and then frenzied.
Grace reacted with surprising speed and composure. She waved the knife in the air. “Nobody fucking move! Nobody!” She grabbed Bobby up from the floor and held the knife to his throat.
“Stay where you all are and no-one else gets hurt!” Out of the corner of her eye she saw a staff member reaching for his mobile phone. She began backing out of the hall, knife to young Bobby’s throat. For a moment she felt a pang of sympathy, she knew what it felt like to have a knife to your throat.
“You’re coming with me,” she whispered to the panicking teen. “Damn right I’m fucking crazy.”
Cassie Jacobson: So many twists and turns. Keeps you wanting to read to see what happens next. The main character is detailed well. The struggles and growth of Joby makes you admire her. It gives you a proud satisfied feeling while reading it. A refreshing difference then most books out there today, and in a w...
harry142018: This story was gripping and very professionally written. With lots of twists and slight of hand tricks, the author deceives the reader until finally showing their cards at the end. With several subplots all intertwining to create the main plot, this really is an interesting and engaging read.
christylynnr5: This was beyond amazing! I loved this book. The characters seemed so real. It was amazing how the author let Zak and Kaylees personalities slowly change. This story was very sad and eye opening. It could teach some people a very worthy lesson. It was a great combination of romance, mystery, and a...
zoheusher20: What more can I say? The writing style and little details drew me into the book and for the entirety of the story I was Juliet. I felt her turmoil and emotions and every trouble or triumph as they arrived. This story was very different and had quite a few little but unexpected twists that made it...
LouiseJ2: I enjoyed the detail you went into with regards to the case. It made the UNSUB appear believable. The crisis in the middle of the story was my favorite part, very dramatic but not over the top. I feel like sometimes pairings can be overdone but I liked that some of the relationships were a little...
romboili000: As I read this book it made me realize the importance of trusting big God. And believing that you can love even when it feels impossible. This story definitely has made me what to become a better person in Christ and just life. So thank you that's all I have to say because you wrote this story so...
rachelrainford6: This probably has to be one of the best books I've read on here. I read it quite quickly and I'll have to say the story took a turn towards the end that I did not see coming. The topic discussed in this book such as life really gave me a new insight and I realize that it is taken for granted.
Bernsigns: This is an age old story, but with excellent plot twists that I didn't see coming. I truly liked how the story slowly, but steadily revealed the secrets. There were secrets I didn't expect, which kept me wanting to read. I always love a happy ending, with a little bit of real life mixed in. Th...