Mrs. Shotz had been a ninth grade science teacher for thirty-one years, but she hadn’t been a very good one. She taught at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, and each morning at 5:40 AM, when she awoke to the waaaang of her alarm, she threw her feet over the side of the bed, sat upright, ran a hand through her hair, and sought out her slippers with her toes. Her husband, Norton, sat up on his side, and then the two of them cracked joints and stretched aching muscles before standing up to start their day. Mrs. Shotz had never wanted to teach science, because experiments and lectures bored her. What she liked were textbooks, especially ones with the paintings of birds and fish. She would lose herself for hours when studying the illustrations of mandibles, claws, bills, and wings. Her heroes had been men like the Ridgway brothers, John and Robert, who had spent their lives creating pencil and oil illustrations of every known bird species perched on the stems and leaves of exotic plants for the Smithsonian Institute. Vicki Burns, who did not become Mrs. Shotz until her junior year of college when she had married Norton, her biology professor’s graduate assistant, had wanted to be an artist. She had wanted to paint birds and fish and insects with every part as gloriously intact as the pictures she poured over in the publications of the Smithsonian.
But when a science teacher at Wilson went on maternity leave, Mrs. Schotz was hired to finish the semester of ninth grade biology. The semester turned into the remainder of the school year, and when the other teacher didn’t return the next fall, the principal had asked Mrs. Schotz to join them full-time. The next year arrived, then the next, and eventually Mrs. Shotz stopped drawing birds and flowers. She moved her drawing pads to the closet. The paints dried out, were tossed in the trash and never replaced. Years went by and one day Mrs. Shotz realized that a couple of the children in her classes were the offspring of others she had once taught. She could not remember when they had been in her class. Had it been biology? What year? One of them looked so much like her mother, Brenda Guffey, a girl with stringy brown hair and eyes too close together and who she had taught during the early nineties, that Mrs. Schotz was sure Brenda had returned to her class in some cosmic recycling, like something she’d seen on The Twilight Zone. It was in these moments that Mrs. Schotz would forget what she was saying. She would stand at the board, her powdered fingers clenching the chalk, and fall into a dark and quiet place inside her head. When she came to, she would reread the big block words she had written so that she could find her place and resume her long since memorized lecture about hydrostatic pressure or invasive species or mercury pollution in watersheds. Once she had been sure her heart had stopped altogether, for at least a few seconds, but it had happened early in the morning before any students had arrived. The effect had been oddly calming, as if she had been suspended in time and buoyed up in a kind of cloud. Sometimes, when her classes were particularly disruptive, or when she found herself forgetting the lesson, she tried to remember what it felt like, and she would smile a little to herself at the thought.
Disciplining the children had become a bore. If they paid attention, it was a bonus, if they didn’t, she was peculiarly untouched by their apathy, which was often matched by her own. After she’d been teaching fifteen years, a retiring history teacher had given her the Bad Hat, a horrifically stitched instrument of humiliation designed to make the wearer know the shame of bad behavior.
One October day she made Jack Crandall wear the Bad Hat because he kept making barking sounds while she was trying to explain meiosis. She had tried to ignore him, but whenever she said the word “gamete,” he barked like a Chihuahua. “Jack,” she said, pointing to the back of the room, “Go get The Hat.” Having to fetch The Hat made the punishment worse. Jack had to take it to Mrs. Shotz so that she could place it on his head. “Until recess,” she said, snapping her finger at the stool in front of the blackboard. There was no way for Jack not to look silly in the Bad Hat. It even said “Bad Hat” in childish, yellow felt letters across the front, and the crown was covered in a bouquet of natty, silk daisies with painted-on frowny faces that arched over the top and tilted toward everyone looking at you. Jack wore the Bad Hat for nearly an hour that day, and he hated her for it. Mrs. Shotz had made her first true enemy of the year.
Day after day, month after month, Mrs. Shotz dragged in each morning looking tired all the time. She came to school without combing her hair, wearing the same pants suit with food stains down the front, and the students began calling her Mrs. Spots.
When Jack flipped his half-dissected frog onto the floor and the girls screamed, everyone was sure it would mean the Bad Hat. Mrs. Shotz just sighed, pointed at the frog and said, “Pick it up.” She waddled back to her desk, sat down with an exhausted huff, and began eating one of the Little Debbie brownies she kept in the bottom drawer of her desk.
On a Tuesday afternoon in May, only days before school was out for summer, the class grew so loud, she laboriously pulled open a desk drawer, took out an octagon-shaped, hand-made sign, and held it up like a school crossing guard. Be Quiet, it said in red block letters. Everyone stared, waiting for something, but she just sat very still behind her desk with the sign in her hand until the class began tittering. Then their titters turned to laughter, and their laughter turned to shrieks. Mrs. Shotz sat quietly with the sign in her hand until the 3:00 o’clock bell rang and the students got up en mass to run for the door.
When the class met again, Mrs. Shotz placed large sheets of creamy white paper and sets of acrylic paints with two brushes, one thick and one thin, on each desk. On the board hung a full-color, poster-sized drawing of an iris blooming purple and majestic on the center of the paper. Large circles surrounded the center, each containing an enlarged, detailed drawing of a part of the flower: the blossom, the stamen, a leaf, and a cut-away of the stem. Every vein in the leaves, every curve of the petals, the gradation of the purple, everything was clearly and meticulously drawn. In the right hand corner it read Vickie Shotz ’78. The paper was yellowed and curling in the bottom corners as if it had recently been unfurled from a long dormancy.
“Today you will paint the flower parts. Pay special attention to the stamen, the pistol and the. . .” She pointed at the blossom and stared hard. “Paint the flower,” she murmured, and sat down at her desk.
Jack took the thick brush in hand and dipped it into his acrylic paint. Flicking his eyes up at Mrs. Shotz and then back down, he turned his vertical sheet of paper sideways and proceeded to paint a gun. Stretching the image all the way across the paper, he filled the sheet with a sloppily painted black pistol.
Heath, sitting behind him, caught sight of what Jack was painting and asked, laughing, “What is that?”
Jack dipped the thin brush in yellow paint and began lettering Colt 45 in gloppy letters along the barrel.
“Lookit Jack’s picture,” said Heath.
“She said to paint a pistol,” said Jack, and the students around him erupted in laughter. Several girls looked up at Mrs. Shotz, but she didn’t move. Her eyes didn’t blink. She was silent.
Whether it was the laughter that bolstered Jack’s confidence or his unimaginable luck that Mrs. Shotz was not stopping him, Jack reached for his thick brush once more. He never scored higher than a C in any class, so he figured he had little to lose and the esteem of his peers to gain. It was a win/win situation for Jack, a boy whose father would often fill the boy’s pants pockets with shoplifted goods, and if caught, would feign shock at his son’s crime and spank the tar out of Jack while cursing him for being such a bad kid.
Jack was going to paint a hand firing the gun. Fumbling with his brush in the yellow paint, he knocked the set onto the floor, spattering white and red paint on the ankles of Kimberly Gerard.
“Jack, you freaking moron!” said Kimberly, jumping from her seat with paintbrush in hand. “Look at what you did.” All eyes were on Jack and Kimberly. “You got paint all over my legs, you jerkwad!”
All the other students slapped their desks and laughed, then suddenly the noise died down. Everyone’s attention moved to Mrs. Shotz, who sat very still in her chair with her eyes focused on the floor six feet in front of her desk. A few nervous titters ensued, but no one said anything. The students turned to one another and whispered.
Jack was finally the one who spoke. “Mrs. Shotz?” She said nothing and remained still. “Mrs. Shotz?” he said louder. Still nothing, and the students began laughing again. His bravery grew, and he stood up from his desk. “Mrs. Shotz, is there something the matter?” Jack leaned forward and the front of his shirt dipped into the wet paint on his picture.
Kimberly shot out a finger and said, “You moron, you got paint all over yourself. Mrs. Shotz, Jack’s making a mess of everything.”
But Mrs. Shotz sat as still as a mannequin. The class turned to Jack, awaiting what would unfold next. For what seemed a long time the class held its breath, looked at Mrs. Shotz, then back at Jack, who rubbed his hands across his paint smeared t-shirt, uncertain what the moment called for. There was no adolescent precedent for such a scenario. Everyone waited for someone else to know where this was supposed to go, and Jack took the pressure of being the one to navigate this moment for them. He picked up the paint set from the floor, shifted it from one hand to the other, and then without knowing any real course of action, he put it back on his desk and bounded up to Mrs. Shotz.
“Mrs. Shotz?” he said, leaning close to her face. Everyone shuffled in their seats. “Are you sick?” He waved a hand in front of her eyes, but they did not move. She didn’t even blink. The class exploded into giggles and talk. He leaned even closer. “Hey. Heeeeeyyyy!” Jack looked back at the class with a pure and uncertain joy that left him terrified underneath his smile.
Heath ran up next to Jack, punched him in the side, and said, “Tell her to let us go early!”
“Hey,” said Jack, “can we all go home early?” Mrs. Shotz gave no response and the class began screaming with laughter. Jack looked at the class and turned to Mrs. Shotz again. “Hey, Mrs. Shotz, can I eat one of your brownies?”
Heath jumped in. “Yeah, can we all have a brownie?”
“Maybe you can change everybody’s grades,” said a voice from the back. “Get the grade book.”
“Yeah, give everybody an A!” someone else said.
“There’s something wrong with her,” said Kimberly. “She’s passed out or something.”
“She ain’t passed out. She’s wide awake. Ain’t that right, Mrs. Shits,” said Jack.
“She’s like, in a coma or something,” said Kimberly.
Realizing his moment was threatened, Jack sprinted to the back of the room, grabbed the Bad Hat, and ran back to Mrs. Shotz. The class gave a collective “Aahhhhh!” as he placed it on her head. With no reaction from Mrs. Shotz, he gingerly pulled at the edges, afraid to shake her into consciousness. In a few seconds it was securely attached atop her gray curls, and Heath fell to the floor in rapturous giggles. Several students jumped from their seats and took tentative steps towards the desk.
“You are going to get us all into so much trouble,” said Vivian, a thin girl with acne who sat in the row next to the window.
“Yeah, I think maybe she’s dead,” said Kimberly. This possibility brought gasps from a few students.
“Aw, she’s not dead,” said Jack. “You ever seen anybody dead who could sit up in a chair? See?” and he bravely put a hand on her shoulder, patting her. “Mrs. Shotz has just been bad. Haven’t you, Mrs. Shotz?”
“Oh my god,” said Wendy, the girl behind Vivian. “She’s going to kill you when she wakes up.”
“Do you think she’s asleep?” asked Vivian.
“I heard that some people can sleep with their eyes open,” said Wendy.
“Hey,” said Jack, looking around the room. He ran to a filing cabinet and rummaged around in it. The class leaned forward in their desks, speculating about what he would do next. Jack slammed the drawer shut, ran to the back of the room, and poked through the items on a shelf until he found what he wanted. Running back to Mrs. Shotz’s desk, he unfurled a moth eaten French flag, and draped it around her shoulders. Then Jack ran over to the closet to take out something that heretofore had been strictly off limits to every student at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, Mrs. Shotz’s skeleton. Jack wheeled it next to Mrs. Shotz, lifted a bony hand and placed it on her flag covered shoulder. Several girls squealed with feigned appall at the creepy sight.
Kimberly headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” yelled Jack.
“I’m going to go get help,” she said, reaching for the knob.
Jack leapt from behind the desk and got between her and the door. “Everybody’s going to get into trouble if you go telling,” he said, and several voices yelled in consensus. Kimberly opened the door but Jack pushed it shut. The words came out rapid and high as he pointed back at Mrs. Shotz over Kimberly’s shoulder. “They’ll fire her! Do you want her to get fired? If you go blabbing and somebody sees that she freaked out like this she’ll get fired and it’ll be your fault!”
Kimberly’s mouth fell open and her frightened eyes took in the rest of the class that had gathered around them. “But, she’s not moving,” said Kimberly in a weak voice.
“Maybe she’s just playing a game with us,” said Jack. “And we’re not hurting her. It’s all just joking around. Why have you got to always go making trouble about everything? Every time we have any fun you jump in and try to tell on everybody and ruin everything.”
Jack was so close to her face she could feel his hot breath on her forehead, and all around her were angry faces and threatening words from classmates telling her to Shut the hell up, Quit screwing everything up, and Leave it alone, bitch. Pinching her eyes shut, the tears fell and Kimberly ran back to her seat on the far side of the room. She sat down, holding her arms tightly over her chest. The only other person still seated was Vivian who looked as stricken as she did.
Jack felt that warm trickle of excitement that came when he knew he was doing something dangerous, something the principal might threaten to call his parents over. His father would pretend to be upset in front of the principal and promise to “straighten him out good,” but as soon as they got out the door his dad would just tell him to knock it off and Jack would wait in the truck while his dad stopped at the store for cigarettes and Red Bull.
“Hey, I know,” said Jack, and all eyes were on him once again. He hopped across an empty row of desks and took a brush and paints from his desk. He bent down next to Mrs. Shotz, dipped the tip of his brush into his black paint, and proceeded to paint a Salvadore Dali mustache across her face. The class clamped their hands over their mouths and slapped at one another in hysterical laughter. He put a final flourish on the tips of the mustache, set his brush down, and pulled open the bottom drawer. Three Little Debbie brownies lay next to a juice box. Jack grabbed a brownie and ripped off the plastic. He held it in front of her face and said, “You want a snack, Mrs. Shotz? Mmmm, this brownie sure does look good. Maybe I’d better taste it for you.” He took a bite and put it back in her face. “Now you try. Come on, have a bite, Mrs. Shotz. You know you’re hungry.” He touched the brownie to her lips. A slight movement of her mouth sent the class scurrying back to their seats. Jack jumped, looking uncertain, until he recovered and pushed it at her one more time to show she hadn’t scared him. Then he quickly put the whole thing in his mouth and chewed the dry bread.
The skeleton’s hand slipped from her shoulder and rattled against its femur. The sound brought another round of squeals and giggles.
“Hey man, it’s almost three o’clock,” said Heath. “What are we going to do?”
“What do you mean, what are we going to do?” said Jack. “Let’s take her clothes off.” The class tittered, some groaned, and then all was silent. A cold sensation settled into Jack’s stomach. He had said the wrong thing. There was no amusement in it. He felt the same burning strangeness of being outside the circle that he had felt on the day Mrs. Shotz had first made him wear the Bad Hat, and his power ebbed, leaving him bitter and jittery. “I was just kidding,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me to see old Mrs. Shits naked.”
“We can’t just leave her here,” said Kimberly. She sat biting her lip with her arms still folded tightly.
Jack could see the mood of the class was turning uncertain.
“It’s time to go,” said Heath. “We’d better get out of here before. . .” He shrugged and pointed at Mrs. Shotz.
Jack picked up the skeleton hand once more and returned it to her shoulder. He looked down at Mrs. Shotz with angry eyes as he pushed the Bad Hat further down on her head. She wobbled, but she did not come back to life. Her hands lay limply on her lap, and he noticed for the first time that she wore a wedding band on her left hand, a small silver band tight on her plump ring finger. It had never occurred to Jack until that moment that Mrs. Shotz might have someone that she went home to everyday. For a second Jack wanted to reach into her lap and touch the ring lightly, but he did not. He stood up and cast his eyes over the entire class. “Nobody can tell, alright? Everybody keep your mouths shut. If anybody tells, we’re all in trouble because everybody was in on it. Got that?” A few heads turned to Kimberly and Vivian who were grabbing their books from under their desks. “You heard me!” he said.
Mrs. Shotz sat, her face pasty white with the black mustache obscenely flowing from one cheek to the other. Her empty eyes still focused on the floor, and the Bad Hat sat absurdly low on her head, forcing a tendril of dull gray hair over one eye. Her lips were parted slightly as if she were about to say something very tenderly. Yet she was still, silent, and absent.
The bell shocked the moment away, and the class scrambled for the door, everyone speaking in hushed voices and looking back at Mrs. Shotz to see if the spell would be broken, if the moment would truly end this way. Jack was left standing alone beside Mrs. Shotz. He grinned at her and walked toward the door, but then the grin fell away and he felt something small and knotted inside that made him want to run back and shake her, but he didn’t dare. His breath caught in his throat as he looked at Mrs. Shotz and around the empty room one last time. Then he slipped out the door backwards and pulled it shut behind him.
Cathy Adams’ second novel, A Body’s Just as Dead is scheduled for release from SFK Press in early 2018. Her debut novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. She is a Pushcart Prize nominated short story writer, and her stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture Journal, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, Southern Pacific Review, and thirty-six other publications from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.