School’s Out

NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here.

School’s Out
5 p.m. May 23, 2019 ~ Coldwater High School, Coldwater, N.M.

Holly watched the last vehicle pull out of the parking lot. Her work was far from finished — it would never be finished; not until she retired, at least, and that was still a good decade away — but the year was finally over, and she could quit worrying over day-to-day crises and focus on getting ahead of the paperwork that had been trying to drown her since August.

She sank into the aging office chair behind her desk and massaged her temples, wincing. She’d been battling a sinus headache for a month, ever since the upperclassmen had decided to hold their own after-prom at the abandoned church near Cuervo and three of them hadn’t made it back alive.

What a ghastly night that had been. It didn’t usually hurt like this, but those were good kids. She’d known them since they were sophomores, and knowing what was coming and being completely unable to stop it had felt like a knife in her gut. She’d pleaded sinus infection and gone home early, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to be able to slip away and hide in her office with a cushion over her face every time she felt another scream coming on. Fortunately, her face was swollen enough and her eyes were red enough that before she could tell Dr. Scherer she needed to leave, his wife was already pulling a packet of nighttime-formula cold medicine out of her purse and shooing her out of the building with instructions to go home and mix it with extra lemon and a shot of whiskey for good measure.

Joyce was a doll. If she suspected there was anything wrong with Holly besides seasonal allergies, she didn’t let on, and Holly had accepted the medicine gratefully and gone straight home to shut herself in the closet she’d soundproofed with barn mats and foam insulation the week she moved in.

During a break in the screams, she’d stepped outside for some air, wishing she could alert the victims and give them a chance to say their goodbyes. Sometimes she had the option. Sometimes she didn’t. Tonight, she didn’t. Not in her position. Not given her relationship to the people involved. Not if she wanted to keep her career intact and avoid the accusations that were sure to follow if people found out she knew their kids were going to die and didn’t do anything to save them.

A sound interrupted her reverie. Somewhere to the west, an almost melodic wail rose and fell on the wind. Holly held her breath, listening.

Surely not. Here? Now? Who?

The voice was coming from somewhere between the motel at the west end of town and the mesa beyond, a high, pure tone with a natural cadence that in another place and time might have commanded a handsome price from a wealthy family seeking to advertise its grief.

Holly breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t alone. What that might mean in the future was anybody’s guess, but what it meant right now was that she was off the hook: If another bean sidhe was crying for her doomed students, they’d be adequately warned — presuming they understood what they were hearing — and she wouldn’t have to make the impossible choice between using her gift for its intended purpose and protecting herself from the hatred of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the power and its limitations.

The screams — Holly’s and her unseen comrade’s — had stopped when the kids died a few hours later. The headache had remained. Still fighting it a month later, Holly wondered whether her degree of personal emotional investment in a victim determined the severity and duration of the aftereffects. She’d certainly wept longer afterward, though she’d managed to hold it together through the candlelight vigils, balloon releases, funerals, and moments of silence the kids’ survivors had organized over the past few weeks, dispensing hugs and words of comfort accompanied by a few discreet, graceful tears. The impulse to fulfill her family’s ancient role as keener had nearly driven her out of the youngest girl’s funeral, but it was more an emotional response than a demand wired into her DNA, and she’d kept her composure through the service.

Now, she rummaged through a desk drawer in search of the bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen she kept in there. She found the bottle, extracted two pills, and swallowed them dry, nearly gagging as the second one stuck in her throat on the way down.

“Girl, go home. This year is over, and you look like hell.”

Holly turned to see her secretary, Carmela, grinning at her from the doorway. She laughed. “Thanks,” she said. “Did you already dump the coffee?”

“No. There might be a little left in the bottom of the pot, but it’s been sitting there scorching since first hour,” Carmela said. “Don’t tell me you’re going to drink it.”

“Desperate times,” Holly said, grabbing the stained mug off her desk.

Carmela shuddered, moving aside to let her pass. “I don’t know how you can drink that stuff.”

“Headache. It’s hot and caffeinated. Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I’m getting you one of those make-it-to-order machines for Christmas,” Carmela said. “I can’t watch you drink that nasty burnt swill every afternoon. It kills my appetite for dinner.”

Holly chuckled. “I wish it killed mine. I could stand to lose a few pounds.” She poured the last half-cup of dregs and gulped it down. “OK, Kavanaugh out,” she said. “Take it easy, Carmela.”

“See you next week,” Carmela said. “Have a good weekend, and try not to think about this place in the meantime, hey?”

“Yeah. I’ll let you know how that works out.”

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