Unexcused

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Teacher Jennifer Leed has a new student that reminds her of an old flame.

Submitted: August 23, 2012

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Submitted: August 23, 2012

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"Burn in hell."

Those words have haunted Jennifer Leed for the better part of her life. She said them rashly out of anger. Tommy Munson just got under her skin so badly. Jennifer had no idea how hard those words would come back at her. She couldn't have fathomed that upon returning to school the next week that she would be called a witch and a murderer by her fellow classmates. Nor could she have imagined that those whispered rumors would follow her all the way through high school.

Yes, she said it, and the entire class had heard it. She didn't really wish for him to burn in hell. It was just an awful coincidence that his house caught on fire that very night. Only his mother escaped the blaze, Tommy and his German Shepard Rexy did not.

Even now, almost 20 years later, it was nearly impossible for her not to think about it from time to time. Her therapist had made great progress with her, but given Jennifer's profession, it was inevitable that she would have an occasional flashback. Mrs. Leed was a teacher and sometimes her students would unintentionally trigger her memory. Whenever she saw a spat between a boy and a girl, she would tense up. Her common quote to them would invariably be, "Be very careful what you say to one another, you may regret it someday." She tried to enforce harmony among the children, but it was just human nature for some people to rub each other the wrong way. The fifth grade wasn't exactly ready to be mindful of each other's feelings. They were still trying to find their footing in the pecking order of life. Usually a trip to the principal's office would suffice anyone who pecked a little too hard.

Thankfully, every year offered the promise of a fresh start for her. She still got butterflies in her stomach just like when she was a kid. Only now, she had reign over them. No one was going to call her a witch in the sense her peers did years ago. Maybe a pupil would call her names because of a pop quiz or extra homework, but that went with the territory. Regardless, the butterflies usually quelled after she got the initial feel for her students.

She had a total of 31 pupils this year at Hopewell Middle School. Her curriculum for the class included reading, language arts, and art. The students left her classroom during the day for math, social studies, science, gym, and lunch. However, her eight hour day would be quite full between teaching and grading for three subjects.Last year, she had five less students. Five more wouldn't sound so daunting to most, but to Jennifer it meant five more minds she was responsible for. If they were willing, she would do her best to sculpt them with knowledge. Of course, there were always those that were either not willing or not capable of being sculpted. She had become quite adept at picking out the usual suspects. This year seemed to offer up a well mixed batch. She had her overachievers, her underachievers, the wannabe jocks, rival girls, a trio of trouble makers, a class clown, two vying teacher's pets, and one charity case.

The latter child she wasn't quite sure of yet. He was only in her art class, so she figured that he left with some of her other students that were on a different academic level than the rest of her class.The boy sat in the far corner of the room with his head down. It wasn't until the end of class that the boy even looked up at her. She was immediately taken aback by him, especially his eyes. He bore a striking resemblance to Tommy. If she didn't know any better, she would have probably thought that it was his son. His name was Bryan Palin. A relative perhaps. She wanted to ask, but could not find the nerve. Just then, she felt foolish. It was her mind playing tricks on her again,another flashback. The boy had dark hair and blue eyes, that was all. Her mind was focusing on those things. Surely, he wasn't a dead ringer for the boy. She found it hard, after all the years, to even conjure up a perfect image of Tommy to even compare the two.

She dismissed the thought as she dismissed her class. Jennifer didn't want to dwell on it. She had done so before, and it had set her back both emotionally and financially. Her therapist would have a field day with this episode no doubt, so she had resolved to not mention it at her next session. Her husband, Dave, wouldn't be too pleased to hear about it either. An understanding man as he was, the whole thing had been a strain on their marriage. That didn't mean that it wouldn't bother her anymore, it was almost impossible for it not to.

The boy exhibited the same behavior the very next day in class. He glanced up only briefly when the bell rang and then quickly vanished from the room. Her concern became less about her own personal issues and more about the boy himself. Every day seemed to play out the same ritual. He never talked to any of the other boys, never looked at any of the pretty girls, never laughed when a joke was made, He was the only one that didn't respond when Jennifer called attendance, but she didn't want to push him so she just marked him as present. Jennifer sympathized with the boy, but she didn't want to single him out and make him feel even more pressure. She thought it could very well be first week jitters. It had only been a few days, she rationalized, maybe the boy would come around on his own. He did seem to be very passionate with the first assignment that the class was working on. He was genuinely focused on the portrait that he was painting of his home.

Friday morning rolled around, and Jennifer had intended to try to interact with Bryan. She wasn't quite sure how she was going to go about it yet. Perhaps, she thought, it might be best to just ask him to stay after class to help her with some menial classroom chore. That way, the other children wouldn't be privy to whatever was troubling the boy. She just wanted to feel the situation out before she started asking other teachers what they thought about Bryan's demeanor.

Jennifer passed the main office on the way to her classroom. She glanced in and to her surprise Bryan was occupying a seat that was reserved for visitors of the Principal. She thought perhaps that something must have occurred before school. Bullying immediately came to her mind. The offending student must be in the office and Bryan is waiting to tell his side of the story. Jennifer felt pity for Bryan. She had hoped that it wouldn't come down to something like that. It was inevitable for the student that was "different" to be picked on, but somehow she thought that she might be able to thwart it before it started. The thought that the boy might have just asserted himself and hauled off and punched someone was brief. Jennifer was positive that he was just too meek for that. Someone in her class would surely clue her in on the morning events.

The bell rang, and Jennifer watched the children flood in from the front entrance of the school. She stood silently against the wall monitoring the students passing by her. Some fidgeted with their lockers, and others headed straight for class. Her view of the main office was blocked by passing children, but she had noted that the door had not been opened since she had passed by earlier. The warning bell sounded and the children quickly hurried to class. Jennifer lingered a little too long on hall duty trying to see if the office would release the children. It did not,so she made her way to class herself.

Her students were already whispering amongst themselves as she entered. Jennifer started calling attendance. She went through everyone, but skipped Bryan since she already knew where he was. She looked casually around at the students.

"Does anyone know where Bryan Palin is?," she asked.

A boy that was digging through his backpack turned to her and said, "Yeah, he's home. He won't be in for another two weeks."

Jennifer looked at the boy curiously and asked, "Did he get suspended?"

The boy answered, "No, he has a broken leg."

Jennifer frowned, "Please be serious Todd. I just saw him this morning in the office, and he certainly didn't have a broken leg." She looked around the room and sighed. "Does anyone know what happened this morning with Bryan?"

One of her vying teacher's pets sharply raised her hand.

"Yes, Meagan?" Jennifer nodded her head to the girl confidently.

"Todd is telling the truth. Bryan broke his leg the last week of summer camp horseback riding. He hasn't been in all year," the girl answered.

Jennifer looked blankly at the girl. She thought that the class was having fun with her, that is why they were whispering. Jennifer walked over to the painting that Bryan had been diligently working on and picked it up. "Then who painted this?," she asked sarcastically.

Meagan uncharacteristically called out without raising her hand, "You did Mrs. Leed."

Some of the children began to chuckle. Jennifer immediately became flustered. She tried to hide her flush face, but she could feel the red already creeping up her temples. She quickly regained her composure and released a chuckle herself. "Yes, of course. Good Meagan, you are the only one in the class that stood up to an untruth. Just as Ginny in Chapter 3 of Chasing Blackbirds stood up to the Governor even though she was afraid to. Now everyone let's turn to Chapter 8 in the book."

The students did as she said, except the few that left her class after homeroom, they just waited it out for the bell to ring. No one was staring at her, they weren't whispering or laughing anymore. They had bought it, or they just didn't want to carry on the failed joke anymore if the teacher was already wise to it. She didn't know which it was, but she was sure that the office would have the answers. Jennifer didn't need to start the year off by flaking out.

She had time to go to the office between classes, but she had held out hope that the boy would come lumbering into her art class as he usually did. He did not today. His seat remained empty. She walked deliberately around the classroom and paused at the easel that held the painting the boy had been working on. She glanced around at her students, they were working on their own artwork. Jennifer stared into the painting again. She had the haunting feeling that she knew the subject of it, she felt a certain familiarity. It sent a terror through her. Meagan had said that she painted it. Jennifer felt fearful that she just might have. The painting was far too advanced for a boy of his age. It was devoid of any primary colors and instead was just fleshed out in hues of grey like a black and white photo. For the shadowing, Jennifer thought. Colors would come later, it was just as she would have painted it.

Jennifer stared at her student roster as the children cleaned up their art equipment. The bell soon rang and everyone, including Jennifer, cleared the room. She headed toward the office to inquire about her missing student. The plump woman behind the desk wasn't the usual secretary, she wasn't even the usual substitute. The woman looked flustered to begin with so Jennifer approached her sheepishly.

"Excuse me, I was wondering if you could pull up Bryan Palin and find out if he was in school today," Jenniferasked softly.

The woman slid her glasses in place and smiled at Jennifer. "I'll sure try," she said politely. She entered the boy's name into the computer. "No, says that he is out with an injury and is expected back on the 22nd."

Jennifer rubbed her chin nervously. "Okay, can you tell me how many students are supposed to be in my homeroom?"

"Name?" the woman asked.

"Sorry, Jennifer Leed," she said with a slight chuckle.

"It says that you have 31 students, counting Bryan Palin who is out right now."

Jennifer tried her best not to sound too condescending. "I know what my attendance sheet says...I had a boy in my classroom that I can't account for, is there any chance that we had a late transfer?"

The woman pecked away at the keyboard and then stared blankly at the computer screen. "I'm really sorry, I just can't seem to get into the system. Maybe the boy was in the wrong classroom?"

Jennifer had no time for guesses, but she couldn't blame the woman for trying. The poor lady was probably anxious to get out of there.

"I could leave a memo for Mary to look into it Monday for you," the woman offered.

"That won't be necessary, you're probably right. The boy must have been in my room by mistake. Have a good weekend," Jennifer said cheerfully.

"Yes, you too," the woman kindly replied.

Jennifer walked back to the art room. She didn't want to let it go, but she would have to wait until Mary got back to figure it out. Someone had painted that picture. She saw the boy working on it, she watched his hand make the deliberate strokes onto the canvas. She unlocked the classroom door and stepped toward the painting. She stared quizzically at it. A patch of green tinted the foreground in front of the house. She was certain that it had not been there before. Maybe the light reflecting on the wet paint had played tricks on her eyes. Jennifer moved the painting closer to the window. She now saw a slight hint of red on one of the house's shutters. It was impossible to her, someone had to have come in and painted those colors. They even appeared to be wetter than the background layer. A distant rumble of thunder broke her gaze. She glanced outside at the approaching dark clouds, a storm was coming.

She knew that if she didn't leave soon, she would hit the beginning of rush hour traffic. Her 30 minute ride would easily turn into an hour or more with the bad weather. She felt compelled to study the portrait more intently, so she took it with her. She put her backseat down and laid the painting flat. It continued to distract her as she drove. Jennifer did her best to keep her eyes on the road. It had just started to spit a few droplets of rain. She was dismayed that she would have to figure out a way to get the painting in her house without it getting soaked. She resented the fact that Dave hadn't moved any of the boxes from the garage. If he had, she could have pulled in and unloaded the painting without worry.

Jennifer took the exit off of the highway, the storm seemed to have missed it. She was ahead of the rain as she road through her town. It got even sunnier as she approached her home in Fox Creek, but the wind and distant rumble of thunder told her that the storm would still make an appearance that day.

The development in which she lived looked like a ghost town. Only eight of the twenty-five homes were occupied and none of them were even on her street. The nearest neighbors were a block and a half away. Perhaps, if the economy ever picked up she would have some company. She looked forward to having neighbors almost obsessively. Whenever a car pulled up to tour one of the houses, she would stealthily peak out of the window to size up the perspective buyers. Hopefully, she and her husband would get good people on both sides of their home. For now, the birds were the only sounds greeting her as she exited her car.

The birds, it was a wonder that they were even still there. Most of their homes were demolished to make way for the new constructions. The builders of the homes were purportedly green builders. They assured everyone that the trees that had to be removed would be used to construct more homes, as if that was what environmentalists wanted to hear. They did leave 50 trees around the development that didn't alter their building plans too significantly. One of which was a hundred year old oak tree that stood imposingly across the street from Jennifer's home in a corner knoll.She felt that it would have been far better to have removed that particular tree and planted a few saplings in its place. The tree was clearly out of its element among the well manicured lawns and landscapes.

She carefully grasped the painting and slid it from her car. Again, the lighting seemed to effect the colors. The once bright red shutter now appeared a darker crimson, the shade of her own shutters. Jennifer had no time to ponder it, as the first droplet of rain had found her arm. She hurried into her home and propped the painting up on a table in the foyer. She checked the messages on her home phone. Even though she had a cell phone, she got most of her calls through her landline phone. She was rarely reachable on her cell during school hours because she usually kept it off.There was a lone message from her husband letting her know that he would be home from his business trip on Wednesday for certain. He was supposed to be home that Monday, but a delay in negotiations with a new client had pushed it to Wednesday. It would be wonderful if he won the bid to design and construct the new casino in Pennsylvania. It would mean a huge bonus for him, and they needed the money to pay the balance of their house off quickly like they had planned. She was excited, but would call him later to see how the situation was going.Davedidn't like to be bothered much during business trips, and it was under no suspicions that it was because his trips were strictly business and Jennifer respected that.

She made her way to the kitchen. The teacher hadn't eaten anything more than a piece of fruit that day and she was starving. There was a bit of leftover chicken salad in the fridge. She made a sandwich and sat down at the kitchen table by the window. Jennifer watched as the storm clouds rolled in, quickly engulfing the sparse remnants of blue sky. The rain began to sporadically spit at the kitchen window. Lightning flickered, followed closely by a coarse crack of thunder. It frightened her, the strong winds much more than the thunder and lightning.The storm seemed strong enough to test the integrity of her home and she hoped that it would emerge unscathed.She took slow, calculated bites of her sandwich as she stared out at the storm. The faint tapping on the front door was masked by the howling winds. It made its way to Jennifer's ears only when there was a brief lull.

She sat the remaining sandwich on a plate and walked toward the door. Now it seemed like the clicking of her heels on the hardwood floor had drowned out the noise. She ceased walking when she came to the foyer. The tapping sound also stopped. She glanced at the painting and was startled by yet another change. There was a figure standing at the door of the house. Her gasp was interrupted by the reoccurring tapping. Please be Dave, she thought to herself as she peeked out the side panel of the front door. She could see a child there.

He noticed her and called out, "Please let me in, I'm so cold."

Jennifer looked around and could see no one else, just the boy. She was still frightened and alone so she returned a cautious question, "What are you doing here?"

"Please Mrs. Leed, I'm cold," he cried.

A student, one of her students. She didn't hesitate then. Jennifer quickly opened the door and pulled the boy inside. She locked the door behind him just as quickly. The boy was soaked to the bone and shivering violently. His long dark tendrils of hair concealed his pale face, but Jennifer knew who he was. It was Bryan. The boy huddled in the corner by the door, dripping water on the floor.

"Wait here, I'll get you a towel." Jennifer hurried down the hall.

She returned and found the boy glaring at the painting. Jennifer swaddled the boy tightly with the bath towel.

"You have my painting?," he asked almost with an air of accusation.

"Yes, I wanted to study it," Jennifer said awkwardly rebutting his charge of theft.

"Well, what do you think of it so far?" the boy asked.

"It is very, very good." Jennifer stated as she rubbed the boys shoulders with the towel.

"Does it look familiar to you?" he asked curiously.

"Yes, it does. Do you live in this development too Bryan?" she asked.

The boy pulled sharply away from her grasp. "No, I don't live here."

"Well, it looks an awful lot like my house," Jennifer added.

"That's because it is," the boy answered sarcastically.

"And why would you paint my house?" Jennifer asked.

"Because I don't have one," he returned solemnly.

Jennifer looked sadly at the boy as he walked away from her down the hall. She may have pegged him well as a charity case. She didn't know what to say to him, but she had so many questions. First of all, why was he there?

She followed him slowly and called out to the seemingly distant child who stared wondrously at each aspect of the surrounding home,"Bryan, why are you here? How do you know where I live?"

"I followed you," he answered nonchalantly as he studied a photograph of the happy couple on the wall.

"You followed me on the highway? " Jennifer asked condescendingly.

The shaking boy rubbed his nose briskly with the towel and answered, "No silly, I saw your address on a magazine in your classroom and I rode my bike here."

"That is just too ridiculous Bryan, what is your phone number so I can call your parents?" Jennifer turned hastily to retrieve the phone.

When she turned back around, the boy was gone. She walked toward the kitchen and peered in, he wasn't there either. "Bryan?" she called out.

There was nothing but a puddle left on the hall floor where he had been standing the last time see saw him. If it wasn't for that puddle she might have felt like she was hallucinating because the boy just disappeared so suddenly. She noticed a few drips that led to the stairs and a few splats of water on the steps.

"Bryan," she called out loudly as she ascended the stairs slowly. As she reached the top step, a loud shatter of glass came from below and then the patter of trailing footsteps. "Bryan!" she called out more frantically as she hurried down the stairs.

The boy did not answer. Jennifer walked cautiously down the hallway toward the front door and discovered broken glass on the floor. A mirror had been smashed. She was getting annoyed with the fleeting child, but tried hard not to show it in her voice. "Bryan, please come here," she said calmly.

"Please don't be mad that I broke it. It was an accident," the boy pleaded from afar.

"I'm not mad, just please come out so I can call your parents," Jennifer said patiently.

The boy didn't respond.

"Bryan?" Jennifer called out again.

Another crash came from the kitchen. Jennifer ran quickly to inspect. The kitchen window that she had been gazing out earlier was broken. Wind whipped in, whistling through the shards of glass that remained. The storm, she thought at first. Upon a closer look, she saw that the damaged was deliberate. Her cappuccino maker had been hurled through it.

"I'm sorry, please don't be mad. It was an accident," the boy said with a sarcastic tone.

"Enough of this, come out right now or I will call the police!" Jennifer demanded.

"Okay, you can call my mother, but please don't tell her what I've done. She'll be very mad," the boy begged.

"What is your phone number?'" Jennifer asked sternly.

"I wrote it down for you in the kitchen," the boy answered.

Jennifer looked hastily around for where the boy could have written it. She found the number scrawled crudely on the wall in what appeared to be ketchup. It made her furious, but she dialed the number without hesitation. It rang three times before the person on the other end answered it.

"Hello?" a faint,gravelly voiced woman greeted.

"Mrs. Palin?" Jennifer held the phone tightly to her ear. She could hear the woman breathing deeply.

"What?" the woman asked incoherently.

"I want to talk to Mr. or Mrs. Palin please. I have their son, Bryan here at my house and..."

The woman interrupted her, "You must have the wrong number, this is the Munson residence."

The name sent shivers down Jennifer's spine. She uttered, "Tommy's mom?"

"Who is this?" the old woman asked.

Jennifer gasped, but said nothing.

"Tommy is dead, he died thirty years ago today," the woman cried before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Jennifer put the receiver down on the counter and stood there frozen with fear.

"You made my mother sad, you shouldn't have done that," the boy yelled.

"What do you want from me?" Jennifer cried out loudly.

"I wanted you to tell my mother that it was your fault, not hers," the boy screeched.

"Why are you doing this Bryan?" Jennifer sobbed.

"You can stop calling me Bryan, you know who I am. You've always known," Tommy said coldly.

The lights flickered and then the power went completely out. Jennifer groped for a knife in the dark kitchen. Her hand was barely on the handle when cold fingers grasped her wrist. She shrieked and ran from the room.

"She blamed herself for locking me in my room. She didn't know, the principal told her that I told you to burn in hell. Of course, she punished me."

"No, I said that to you Tommy. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry," Jennifer cried as she stumbled to the stairs.

"No one said it, you made it all up to get me in trouble because you were jealous. Jealous that I liked Alice and not you," Tommy scolded from the darkness.

Jennifer fell with her back to the stairs. She could hear Tommy coming closer to her. She crawled backwards up the steps on her elbows. "I didn't mean for it to happen, I was just mad at you for not liking me. I was a stupid kid. Please go away."

The lights flickered on momentarily. She could see a flash of Tommy at the bottom of the steps.

"There was a storm that night too," he said. "The power lines fell onto the roof and set the house on fire, we couldn't get out."

Jennifer stopped sobbing and look curiously down at the shadow of the boy. "We?" she whispered quietly to herself.

The room flashed with light once more and she could see that the boy's flesh was dark and smoldering.

"Me and Rexy," he answered her.

Of course she remembered Rexy now. She wished that she could forget about him, but she could smell his burning fur. She could feel his hot breath on her neck just before his teeth seared through her throat.

Jennifer's husband received the tragic news early that morning. The tall oak across fromthe house fell and took the power lines down with it. His wife has perished in the blaze that it ignited. Her charred body was found on the staircase. What was later bewildering tohim was that a painting that she had painted seemed untouched by the fire. It was of an unfamiliar house, and a young boy and his dog.


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