Spring 2022, Volume 32

Fiction by Melody Sinclair


Dr. Elm Valor rolled into the middle school parking lot on a sunny Monday in November. The odometer on her beater ’98 Jeep Cherokee clicked to 200,000 miles just as she punched the beast into park. Elm whooped at the accomplishment.

“You’ve served me well,” she said, patting the dashboard. “This is the place. Stand still, my steed, Let me review the scene, And summon from the shadowy past The forms that once have been.”

She’d used the same Longfellow quote most mornings of her short teaching career. It started as a goodbye to her beloved Jeep but had morphed into an incantation, a charm for a good and purposeful day.

Elm taught middle school Language Arts at a private institution full of rich assholes-in-training. Sure, she could have been doing greater things with her PhD. Many of her friends viewed teaching middle school as a bottom-of-the-barrel career choice. But the private school paid more than she could refuse, there weren’t many opportunities in this mid-sized town, and above all else, the little assholes-in-training needed her.

Elm unzipped the purple makeup bag sitting on the passenger seat. Having not met any red lights, she hadn’t been able to finish her makeup that morning. She couldn’t go without lipstick, so she’d have to apply it in the parking lot. Puckering, she winced as her jaw popped. She touched the sore spot, but fell into admiring the unlined face and bright eyes awarded to those in their 20s. Thirties were creeping in—if there were a time to embrace vanity, it was now.

Elm scraped together loose change for a vending machine lunch. Rosemary Prep didn’t have a cafeteria. The school board likely considered hairnets and industrial vats of meatloaf gauche. Most kids congregated in the student lounge or courtyard and ate lunches of fresh sushi, kombucha, foie gras, pate, and Kobe steaks delivered through Postmates. Elm normally picked at a candy bar while grading blatantly plagiarized composition papers.

The clicking of her heels ricocheted off the wainscoted walls, the early hour leaving the halls empty. She inhaled, savoring the lemon floor polish and leather—smells more fitting for a country club than a middle school. Pausing at the lost and found rack, Elm faced her daily temptation of forgotten iPads, Burberry trench coats, and clunky Chanel accessories. The kids wouldn’t miss these items, and if they did, their daddies would buy replacements. She could pay her rent with this rack, and shouldn’t these spoiled kids learn a lesson in loss? She held lambskin Chanel gloves, weighing the price in her cold hands, easily worth $700.

“Lose your gloves?” a deep voice rumbled from behind her. Elm startled but composed herself quickly, tossing the gloves back on the rack.

“Thought they belonged to one of my students,” she lied. “I was checking the tag.”

Harold Jenn, the art teacher with eternal coffee breath, crept closer. “Good.” His halitosis steamed her face. “Stealing would make you a naughty girl. Can’t have that at a fine institution like Rosemary Prep.”

Hand in her pocket, Elm clutched the rock she’d carried since childhood. Her Demon Rock wasn’t big, but it had a jagged edge. It could cave this creep’s head in nicely, should he make one more move. Secure with her weapon in hand, Elm examined Harold. He’d attempted to disguise himself with professorial attire—a tweed jacket, reading glasses, and even an empty pipe. He looked deliberately foolish, like a child wearing a Halloween costume. Elm wondered why he made an effort. But Harold’s predatory eyes couldn’t be hidden. His brazen advances weren’t a mystery, and his behavior plagued the female teaching staff. When the history teacher complained last year, she was fired on trumped-up charges. Unfortunately, Harold had friends in high places. He was untouchable, someone to be managed, not destroyed.

Elm pushed past him and into the teachers’ lounge, which was an explosion of lavender streamers and balloons. The middle-aged Spanish teacher, Elm couldn’t remember his name, so she called him Señor, hung a banner reading, “SWEET WISHES TO THE FUTURE MRS.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Harold complained, entering the lounge behind Elm, “I forgot Anne’s bridal shower. Elm, let me put my name on your gift.”

“I forgot too,” Elm said, pouring coffee. She didn’t mention that even if she’d remembered, she wouldn’t have participated.

Señor stood back, admiring the decor, and Elm popped a stray balloon with her heel.

“I’m off,” Harold said. “Got to marry the tempera paints to save cabinet space.”

Elm added the pun as an offense to her list. She detested idiots who used marry as a verb for inanimate objects. Wedding themed anything annoyed her, and there was so much overindulgence of joyful bliss these days—reality shows, magazines, websites, books, wrapping papers, greeting cards. Why all of the hoopla surrounding the mind-numbing ceremony of tying your life to another person? Elm remembered four of her mom’s six weddings. Six soul mates, six vows of ’till death do us part, six men to honor and obey. Elm’s friends, all in their early 30s, had fallen victim too. They marched down the aisle, mindless zombies in tulle and mumbled uneatable promises in exchange for wedding registry toaster ovens and off-season honeymoons in Boca Raton.

Elm didn’t need a husband; she had Zed, a man she’d met at the beginning of the school year. She’d been in the parking lot, ready to leave for the day when she noticed a man standing on the lit Ar by’s sign by the school. Holding an unwrapped sandwich, he shrugged off his leather jacket and threw it at the base of a gold motorcycle parked nearby. Sauce from the Beef ‘Zn Cheddar dripped on his tattooed torso. When he back flipped off the sign, sticking a perfect landing while still holding his dinner, Elm knew he was the guy for her. She picked him up that day, and they continued a physical relationship, sans conversation. She didn’t ask about the SpongeBob SquarePants tattoo in his left ear, and he didn’t say anything about the Demon Rock she slept with. With Zed, there were zero risks of falling in love and entering a lifetime of servitude.

Harold paused on his way out to shove a tiara party favor with a veil onto Elm’s head. “You look like that German porn star from the ’50s. You know . . . what’s her name? The one who wore a tiara while she fucked?” His hand lingered in her hair.

“Don’t touch me. Ever,” Elm said, a cold slice of revolt slithering up her spine.

She tossed the tiara onto the sheet cake in the middle of the table and stood to leave. The mousy music teacher skittered closely behind, sloshing coffee onto the carpet. No woman wanted to be the last in a room with Harold. He’d become more aggressive lately, almost dangerous.

In the hall, students fished books from their lockers and filed into classrooms. Samantha Jones, a chubby seventh-grader, rushed to Elm’s side. Tears and snot mucked up her ruddy complexion.

“Mrs. Valor?” Samantha asked.

“Doctor Valor. I’m not, nor will I ever be, married.”

“Doctor Valor?”

“Yes?” Elm asked, leading Samantha from the flow of hallway bodies to an alcove with a bench. “Wipe your face. It’s disgusting.”

“I just . . .” Samantha hiccupped awkwardly, caught somewhere between a belch and a sob. “I asked Jordan Redman to the dance, and he called me a pig.”

Elm crossed her legs, waiting for more. Samantha succumbed to rhythmic crying, obviously reaching the end of her story.

“Look,” Elm said. “You came to me and not some other teacher because you want the truth, right?” Samantha nodded, her back curling like a parenthesis, doughy arms hugging her round middle. “I’m not going to spout some bullshit about how this is his loss or say that he called you that name because he has a crush on you.” Samantha nodded again. “Good,” Elm continued. “Jordan’s popular. He’s an eighth-grader. He’s beautiful. You’re fat. You smell musky like a rodent, and your mom gave you the worst possible name from Sex and the City.”

“It’s just . . . Samantha Jones was the best character!” Samantha argued.

“The good news is, you’re smart,” Elm said, nodding approvingly. “You picked up right away that you can lose weight and take a shower, but changing that name will be impossible until you’re older.”

“Mom says Samantha Jones started a sexual revolution,” Samantha whined.

“She was revolutionary, yes. Unfortunately, you’re a middle school kid and a late bloomer. Don’t delude yourself. Just because you’re named Samantha Jones doesn’t mean you’re destined to fuck your way through the Big Apple. Don’t be a character from some old TV show. Be you, but better.”

“But Mom says I look like her . . . Kim Cattrall,” Samantha said, sobbing again.

“Why’re we still talking about that show? You want to look like a cougar with venereal disease?” Elm asked, her question sounding harsher than she’d intended. “You can’t pull off that name—it feels ironic on you, like naming a Chihuahua Terminator. Ever considered going by Sammie? Sam? Or, better yet, your middle name? I’m sure you have some pretentious preppy nicknames in the family like Bitsy or Bunny or Muffy. Use anything except Samantha Jones.”

“Okay, sorry,” Samantha said.

“Stop saying sorry,” Elm said. “Stop saying ‘just’ and ‘I mean’ and ‘don’t you think?’—they’re weak words for spineless women. My life changed when I scrapped those submissive words my mom taught me.”

Samantha seemed to take a moment to think, squinting her puffy eyes down the hall. Elm savored the trace of shock lining her face. Most adults didn’t care enough to tell kids the truth because kids were viewed as delicate, but Elm understood that it was necessary to craft a stronger exoskeleton. Many would conclude that she shouldn’t work with children, but Elm believed she was the type of adult these kids needed most. She was more than their teacher but had zero interest in being a mother-figure. She was their Anti-Mother, sent to undo the coddling and lies of helicopter parents with too much disposable income.

“My mom did the same number on me. Elm Valor? My only act of valor is telling you dumb-dumbs the truth.” Elm stood and straightened her skirt. “I can’t sit here all day while you work out your reinvention.” She patted Samantha’s head. “Take a damn shower. Skip dessert. Lower your standards and ask someone less popular. Talk like a boss until you become one. For the love of God, stop dying your hair blonde and wearing that fake mole. You don’t look like Kim Cattrall.”


Elm unlocked her empty classroom and lounged at her desk without turning on the fluorescent lights; she preferred not to be bothered on her planning hour. She opened her laptop and continued watching YouTube videos of children coming out of anesthesia. Running the clips in slow motion, she pinpointed the exact moment the kids understood that their parents were liars. It usually happened in the eyes, a nanosecond flash of betrayal. Yes, the surgery had hurt, no it wasn’t easy like they’d promised. Their little worlds had fallen apart, and they woke up confused and emotional. Worst of all, their parents stood by and allowed it to happen.

Elm had considered a career in nursing, some kind of pediatric pre-op position where she’d tell the truth, give those kids a dose of reality, firm them up with the grit they needed to get through recovery. But passing a nursing exam would’ve been difficult, and teaching rewarded her with access to all kids, not only those needing surgery. Also, education was less litigious. Not that she hadn’t been in trouble at Rosemary Prep.

Last week she’d been forced to apologize to Zachary Barnes for telling him his dad was fucking the nanny. She truly was sorry that he wasn’t ready to hear that truth. One day, Zachary would be mature enough to realize that his family wasn’t precious, and marriage wasn’t a pact that protected children. He’d appreciate her truths later. Elm had felt righteous, even while playing at remorse with Zachary’s parents. Principal Hankins put Elm on probation, a slap on the wrist, but a warning that she’d have to ease up on the anti-mothering.

On her computer screen, a mother’s hand stroked the sweat-curled hairline of a hysterical boy. Elm clutched her rock and slipped into the worn memory of her own mother petting her hairline in the same rhythmic pattern. Elm had been ten years old on the day she’d earned her Demon Rock.


Stepdad Number Four, Elm had quit bothering to remember their names, had shown up at the public pool with Mom and two men from his congregation. Mom had waved her out of the pool to the edge of the park, where the dried grass crunched under Elm’s bare feet.

“What’s wrong?” Elm asked. She wanted to rush whatever this interruption was to get back in the water before the break whistle.

“Sorry, my Sapling,” Mom cooed, pulling Elm’s suit from her butt and adjusting the straps. “About your tummy aches…Garth just thought you could benefit from the exorcism they do at—”

Elm turned to run, but the men grabbed her, pinning her to the ground. Stepdad Number Four brandished a pocket-sized bible while he stood over Elm, prone on the grass.

“BY THE BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST, YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE IN HERE,” he shouted. His capped front tooth and oversized belt buckle refracted sunlight, making Elm squint.

“Not so loud,” Elm said. “My friends are in the pool. They’ll hear.”

“Honey, don’t squirm.” Mom stroked her hair. “This won’t hurt.”

Even at ten years old, Elm was beginning to understand that her powerful stomachaches weren’t caused by a demon but by the rotating door of stepdads. But she knew the best way to get whatever it was that Stepdad Number Four was doing over with faster was to stop squirming. When Number Four performed exorcisms on Sundays, they were usually fast, harmless-looking, and uneventful.


He strutted in circles like a barnyard rooster, kicking up dead grass with his cowboy boots. His double-chin wattle quivered in delight. Mom propped Elm’s head up to a red Solo cup.

“You know the drill. Spit in here,” she instructed. “If your demon’s strong, it’ll send up saliva, mucus, vomit, maybe blood.”

Elm rolled her eyes at her mom but dribbled spit into the cup that would be burned in a ceremony later. She’d never witnessed anyone vomiting during an exorcism, and the blood thing had only happened once when a parishioner was acting overzealous and bit their tongue.

The men from church must have viewed her eye-rolling as a sign of the Devil. They clenched their sharp jaws and held Elm tighter, even as sweat beaded and ran from their matching crewcuts. They wore khakis and button shirts with ties, and Elm wondered if they’d taken long lunches from their banking jobs to perform the poolside exorcism.

“Spit. Spit the Devil out,” Mom demanded.

“We fill you up with the love of Jesus Christ. We fill you up with the love of Jesus Christ,” the men whisper-chanted. Their sentences fell out of rhythm, and the effect was that of gibberish. They were speaking in tongues.

Lifeguards hovered at the edge of the pool deck with whistles in their clenched teeth. Normally bossy, they seemed unsure of their authority to stop an exorcism. A few stout mothers in skirted swimsuits approached Number Four.

“It’s okay,” Mom said. “We’re her parents.”

The crowd seemed to accept Mom’s word as authority, retreating to their beach towels, paperbacks, and snacks. Mom nodded at one of the men, who held up a quilt to shield the rest of the exorcism from the public pool.


Mom clutched the new crucifix trembling at her collarbone. They’d only been married for a few months, but Mom had adopted Number Four’s style sense. She wore cowboy boots under long skirts, boxy denim shirts, and always a crucifix.

“We hug her with the love of Jesus to tear out her willfulness, rebellion, and denial,” Number Four said.

Elm was so relieved at the change in his volume and content that she sighed.

Number Four crouched, cranked his arm, and slapped Elm. Her face was on fire, and she raised a trembling hand to her cheek, wondering why Mom and Satan would obey such a vile piece of shit. She was too stunned to fight back.

“This is the worst of it,” Mom said, catching Elm’s tears in the Solo Cup. “We’ll make you better.”

“Demon, cast yourself out of this human form, and enter my rock,” Number Four said on repeat, waving the jagged rock past Elm’s face.

She watched his growing agitation as time passed, enough time that Elm’s swimsuit and hair started to dry. He gnawed at his thumbnail, in what Elm would later learn was the ultimate sign of danger. Like a flash, he punched her in the jaw. Elm lolled into unconsciousness, which seemed enough to convince him that the demon had entered the rock. Upon waking, she vomited into the cup. Number Four clutched his knees, panting.

“Here’s your demon,” he said, tossing the rock into the grass beside Elm. “You can go baptize yourself in that chlorine again. You’re welcome.”

“Congratulations, my Sapling. No more stomach aches.” Mom tenderly stroked Elm’s jaw that they’d later learn was broken.

Elm had grasped the rock so tightly her hand ached. She slapped away her mother’s touch and scrambled a few feet out of their reach. Dizziness did little to mute the growing fire of hatred inside. She wanted to hit Number Four in his fat fucking face, but more than that, she’d wanted to hit her mom.

“I’m not your Sapling,” Elm had mumbled. “I’m as dried up as you are.”


“Doctor Valor? Doctor Valor, you’re bleeding.” Marcy Strep stood in front of a pack of sixth-grade girls. She tapped Elm’s bloody hand with a chipped purple nail.

“Shit,” Elm said, releasing her cutting grip on the Demon Rock. She blotted her wound with a tissue. “Didn’t hear you ladies come in. It’s still first period. Why aren’t you—”

“We need help,” Marcy said. “All of us.”

“The wrestling C team, the boys in our grade,” Leigh Duncan cut in, “they’ve started calling us ho. Never by our real names, always ho.”

“They also set up GoPro cameras in the bathroom. They have video of me changing my tampon,” Marcy said. “That wrestling coach, Mr. Jenn—”

“Harold?” Elm asked.

Marcy shrugged. “Mr. Jenn’s their coach, and he told them all these pranks they should try on us. I don’t mind being called a ho, but I want to go to the bathroom without being filmed.”

The other girls verged on tears, curling their shoulders and trying to take up as little space as possible. Elm appreciated Marcy’s stony demeanor and ramrod straight spine. She looked like an innocent girl, but there was white-hot rage frothing under those braids. This kid was ready for war.

“What do we do?” one girl asked.

“My mother would say to marry the little misogynists, that they have a crush on you,” Elm said, standing to pace. “She followed her own advice six times that I know of, and it’s proven horrible.”

Elm stopped pacing, allowing herself a moment of stillness to recognize a dangerous brittle feeling in her chest and stomach. When she moved again, the sound of her legs against her skirt was like dried corn husks rubbing together.

“I’m going to hand you the ultimate retaliation, but if anyone asks who gave you the idea, it wasn’t me,” Elm said. “Do you all understand? I’ll deny this to the end.”

The girls mumbled in the affirmative. A few of them looked too confused and hurt to plan revenge, but Marcy waited eagerly, a wolfish glint in her eyes.

“My stepdad number six thought I was getting too fat during sophomore year, so he regularly dosed me with Ex-lax. Let me tell you, no one wants to be in public when a laxative starts working. Go home tonight, and bake a pan of brownies. Throw in three or four doses of chocolate laxatives—”

“Where do we get chocolate laxatives?” a girl interrupted.

“I’ve seen all of your constipated moms—look in their medicine cabinets. They look like little squares of chocolate, hard to miss. Or, go to the convenience store. Set up cameras of your own in the boys’ bathroom. At a minimum, you’ll have footage of the little pigs with diarrhea. Best case, one of them will shit their pants in public and learn what humiliation feels like.”

“What about Mr. Jenn?” one of the girls asked. “That’s his wrestling team. He’ll help them get revenge.”

“The good thing about explosive diarrhea,” Elm said, “is that no one wants to talk about it. If you get a video of these boys, they’ll be humiliated. They won’t share their gastrointestinal issues with Coach Jenn.”

She paused, considering Harold and the danger he’d become. Why would she be willing to teach boys a lesson but let a grown man get away with the same behavior? Hadn’t that been the problem all her life, her mother’s coddling of grown men with behavior issues?

“Marcy? When’s this going to happen?” Elm asked.

“Tomorrow,” Marcy said. “We’ll cook the brownies tonight.”

“Good. Bring me a big one for Coach Jenn. I’ll take him down a notch too,” Elm said. “Remember, I never gave you this idea.”

A sense of justice ran through Elm’s limbs like a hydrating tonic. She’d wanted to hurt Harold for a long time now but hadn’t seen past the obvious trap of succumbing to his sexual advances and reporting it to the administration. It was an impotent move that would get Elm fired and likely increase Harold’s inflated sense of sexual prowess.  It was also a move that Elm couldn’t stomach; sleeping with Harold would give her nightmares. Slightly poisoning Harold? That would be a delight.


In Zed’s basement apartment that night, Elm rolled off of him, wincing as the bar on the pull out couch dug into her back. Zed clamped a neon pipe between his teeth and fought to light the bowl without burning his hand, something Elm had never seen him accomplish. She rummaged through her clothes on the floor, found Demon Rock in a pocket, and sat naked on the flimsy mattress.

“Do you believe in revenge—that it can be successful?” Her voice was sharp in the quiet basement, and she lowered her volume. “I know all the tired literary themes surrounding the idea speak of a spreading poison, but there have to be successful revenge plots, right?”

“Woah, she speaks!” Zed said, lowering the pipe. “You’re usually slamming the door behind you by now.”

“Big day tomorrow, need to clear my head,” Elm answered.

“Well, Plankton has never had success with his revenge against Mr. Krabs. His restaurant is in shambles, and he doesn’t even seem to care about his Computer Wife Karen, it’s all vengeance all the time with that dude,” Zed said.

“Astute observation, Zed,” Elm said, tugging on her shirt. She’d chalked up Zed’s SpongeBob tattoo to a nostalgic and whimsical nod to childhood, and was disappointed to find out he was currently a fan. “Shouldn’t have asked a man with a SpongeBob kink about adult themes, not until you move out of your parents’ basement anyway.”

“Name’s Francis.”

Elm froze with the waistband of her jeans at mid-thigh. “What?”

“I’m Francis,” Zed said, holding his hand out for shaking. When Elm didn’t respond, he lowered his arm onto the sheet. “You’ve always called me Zed because of that joke nametag I wore the day we met, but my name’s Francis.”

“What? Why didn’t you—”

“Also, this isn’t my parents’ basement. I own the whole house, but this is where I screw the superficial girls who don’t care to learn my real name.”

Elm finished buttoning her jeans, slipped on her shoes, and clutched Demon Rock, itching to swipe at Zed or Francis or whoever the hell she’d been sleeping with.

“Here’s some advice from your boy-toy: don’t treat people like shit and expect any different in return. If you’re hatching vengeance plans, make sure it’s between you and whatever asshole wronged you. Don’t drag those kids at school into your bullshit.”


The next day Marcy slipped into Elm’s room twenty minutes before the first bell.

“Special delivery for Coach Jenn,” she said, placing the plastic-wrapped brownie on Elm’s desk. “Better give this to him now. If he hears that the boys are getting sick, he won’t eat it.”

“That’s smart,” Elm said.

“Also, I slipped into the teachers’ lounge and put OUT OF ORDER signs on the private bathrooms. If it works, Coach will have to use the boys’ restroom where we have the cameras. If it works,” Marcy repeated, crossing her fingers.

Elm forgot she was looking at a sixth-grade girl. Marcy’s steady gaze, her clipped and purposeful actions, and her no-nonsense posture exuded the confidence of a woman who had experienced the worst of life and figured out a way to kick life straight in the balls. When Elm was that age, she’d never considered plotting revenge. She just reacted.

She’d used the Demon Rock in self-defense when Stepdad Number Five had tried to slip into her bed, smashing it into his temple. But that attack hadn’t been premeditated. It didn’t hold the same restorative powers as planning revenge.

“How could you let him do this to me?” Elm had screamed as her mother rushed into her bedroom.

“It’s a misunderstanding,” Mom sputtered, her sheet-creased cheeks hanging slack. “He’s the head of our family now. Maybe he was coming to check on you?”

“Without pants?” Elm shouted.

“My Sapling, open yourself to trust the good intentions of Norman. He’s your father now.”

“Call a fucking ambulance,” Number Five whined, writhing naked on Elm’s Cabbage Patch Kids sheets.

Waxen skin pulled taught over his potbelly but managed to hang loosely around his butt. Hair sprouted in dense patches over his chest, neck, and cheeks but never reached his cracked head. His face, contorted to resemble an angry infant, led Elm to question why her mom had chosen this man-baby over her own flesh and blood.  

She should have felt angry, violated, enraged, but she was floating on pure liquid joy. She squeezed Demon Rock, salivating at the sight of Number Five’s dark blood and trying not to worry about what would happen when her happiness evaporated, when she was dangerously parched again.


Elm shook off the memory, unwrapped the brownie, and walked to the art room, certain she was glowing. This was the first dish of revenge she’d served, and it felt symbolic like she was poisoning all of the shitty men who mistreated kids, not just Harold.

The art room was cool and earthy-smelling, full of eighth-grade ceramics students trying to mold lumps into vases. As much as Elm wanted to leave the brownie and run, she had to ensure Harold ate the whole thing.

Hiding her revulsion was a practiced skill she picked up at countless family dinners with fake fathers, and it was no different with Harold. Elm pocketed Demon Rock and held up the unwrapped brownie. She tossed her hair over her shoulder, put on what she hoped was a cute pout, and motioned to the supply closet with a tip of her head.

Harold offered no resistance to her invitation, almost jogged into the closet with her. His behavior was on par with what she knew about men like him. Elm smiled at his lapse in judgment, almost laughed that he believed himself this irresistible.

“I knew you’d change your mind about—”

Elm silenced him with her free hand, pressing her body against his. “One condition. Let me feed you first.”

Harold shrugged. “You young kids have weird kinks, but I’m game.”

Elm’s hand itched to clasp the Demon Rock, but she knew she’d smash his skull. Instead, she clutched the doorknob with her free hand, ready to flee.

Harold ate the brownie quickly, and then licked the melted chocolate from Elm’s palm. He sucked all five of her fingers clean, and just as Elm worried about what could happen next, the bell rang. Harold reached for her ass, and Elm opened the door. She left him facing stunned students, wiping chocolate from his mouth and trying to hide an erection.


Hours later, in third period, gossip of a sickness swept through the school. The thought of Harold shitting himself buoyed Elm’s mood as she paced in front of the sixth-grade AP Lit class.

“Quiet down. Today we’re continuing with the themes in Wuthering Heights,” she said, slapping the paperback against her palm. “So far, we’ve covered the themes of love and suffering, which you geniuses likely took straight from the CliffsNotes, but I’ll forgive because they were great discussions. Anyone else come up with another theme?”

She stopped pacing and stared at the kids. Some of the boys were visibly pale and sweating. Three boys were absent.

“Revenge,” Marcy said.

“There it is,” Elm said. She uncapped a dry erase marker with her teeth and wrote REVENGE on the whiteboard. She continued pacing, stroking the Demon Rock in her cardigan pocket. “Give me examples of the joy Heathcliff experiences from his victims’ suffering. Shout them out, and then we’ll talk about the moment when Heathcliff’s obsession with revenge pushes him beyond any hope of redemption.”

A retching noise filled the classroom in the seconds of silence that always followed calls for class participation. One of the smallest sixth-grade boys puked on his desk.

Elm rushed to open the windows to air out the cloying scent of vomited chocolate.

“Go to the office,” she instructed. “Tell them we need the janitor.”

“We used too much. I told them it was too much,” shouted a weeping girl in the back.

Elm was about to tell her to shut up when Señor appeared at the door.

“Jesus, they puke in here too?” Señor asked, covering his mouth and nose. “Hankins wants to see you and all of the sixth-grade girls in the office. Everyone else, follow me to the library for fresh air, por favor.”

Elm fought the urge to question Señor. Instead, she trailed the girls to the office, mentally preparing her defense and wondering which one of the little rats spoke her name. The girls paused at the front lobby, and Elm walked into the back of the group before she understood what they were staring at. Outside the two-story windows, EMTs loaded boys into the back of ambulances. More boys sat on benches, getting IVs. Elm was disappointed not to see Harold prone on the sidewalk.

“How much did you use?” she whispered.

“Two boxes for each boy,” someone said. “We didn’t know—”

“We decided on three because Coach Jenn is so big,” Marcy interrupted.

Boxes?” Elm hissed. “I told you two or three doses. You could’ve killed them.” A few of the girls began crying, but Marcy stood straight. “Don’t ever ask for help again,” Elm continued. “Not one of you is capable of following instructions. I can’t bail you out. You’ll have to face the consequences.”

Normally, conversations about bullying, respecting privacy, and other middle school bullshit took place in Principal Hankins’s office. When Elm bypassed the snobby secretary and strutted down the short hall for his door, Hankins walked out with Harold and motioned to the wiggle chairs lining the hall.

“Not enough room,” Hankins said. “Take a seat.”

The girls balanced on the multi-colored wobbly stools, falling into soothing rhythmic movements. Only Marcy looked dignified, perching tall and confident on the humiliating chair.

Elm scanned Harold’s face for signs of distress. Surely the giant brownie he’d eaten had taken effect. He sipped from an oversized Carson County Ambulance Service mug and grimaced.

“Coffee bad today?” Elm asked.

Harold’s face purpled. “It’s prescribed activated charcoal to counteract the poison your little bitches cooked—”

“Harold!” Principal Hankins interrupted. “Please return to the EMS team. They wanted to monitor you along with the boys.”

Elm watched Harold shuffle down the hall, a flood of joy overtaking her. She soaked in the feeling, sure that Marcy’s half-lidded gaze implied the same satisfaction. Elm took a steadying breath and launched into her prepared defense.

“Hankins, I understand that something went on with the girls, but I’m not sure why you pulled me down here. I have a class to teach.”

“Mrs. Valor—”

“Doctor Valor. I earned that title; you pay a premium for it, might as well use it,” Elm said, meeting Principal Hankins’s eyes until he looked away.

“Doctor Valor,” Hankins said, “I have a conference room full of pissed-off parents, a parking lot that looks like a crime scene, and I’m told the press is on the way. Oh, let’s not forget, there are horrendous bathroom videos of our students online tantamount to kiddie porn. Have a seat.”

Principal Hankins, normally a nondescript lump of a man, suddenly had a lethally sharp jaw and forehead veins that bulged like earthworms. His resemblance to Number Three startled Elm into silence. She obeyed, sitting on a clown-orange chair and clutching Demon Rock.

As Hankins spoke and the girls confessed one by one, Elm’s elation evaporated and left behind dusty remains. She’d expected more from the revenge plot, not such an immediate low. This arid feeling was quick to return, and Elm feared what she might do to experience the high of vengeance again.

Going this far had likely been a mistake. Now she was beholden to an extreme cycle. She usually kept her retribution at a quiet level—harboring ill-wishes toward her stepdads via social media and celebrating each rocky decent in their shitty lives. Her biggest outburst as an adult had been to cut her mom out of her life after she divorced Number Six. There were probably more stepdads out there, but Elm would never know.

 Cutting her mom off had hurt and ultimately cost Elm because she hadn’t been there when her mom died of cancer. She didn’t know if her mom had changed and grown into a complete person as she aged. She wondered if her mom recognized the cancer as a death by her own poison. Elm knew it for what it was—painful justice for a very flawed woman.

Elm stared out the window. In the distance, Zed popped a wheelie on his gold bike in the Arby’s parking lot and fell on his back. He looked small, child-like. The fluorescent lights reflected the image of the girls sitting in a line on wiggle chairs. She took too long to recognize that she was there also, curled into herself and hugging her middle along with the other children in training bras, her heels planted wide for balance.

Principal Hankins excused the girls to sit in the lobby, within an observable distance of their wounded prey, while the secretary called their parents. A sick smile flitted across Marcy’s face as she walked away.

“Elm, let’s cut to the chase. I have a voice recording of your instructions to the girls. I’d ask what you were thinking, they’re so impressionable, but it doesn’t matter now. You’re fired. If I were you, I’d retain legal counsel. These parents,” Hankins said, slowly, “they smell blood in the water.”

“Who?” Elm asked. She intended to find out who ratted her out but somehow knew it was Marcy. She couldn’t help but feel proud. As her thoughts whirred, she focused on another problem. “What will you do about Harold, his harassment of the girls? Surely you aren’t letting him skate by without—”

“Harold is being dealt with too,” Principal Hankins said. “He’s been stripped of his coaching duties.” She must have made a face because Hankins nodded kindly. “I know, it’s lopsided justice. Harold has friends in high places. It was the best I could do. Could you wait in my office for a few moments? I’ll have you sign some paperwork, but first, I need to pop into the conference room and tell the parents I’ll be just a few more minutes.”

Elm shuffled into Principal Hankins’s office and leaned against the wall, clutching Demon Rock until her hand burned. Her eyes stung. She was not an Anti-mother at all, but the blind leading the blind, a kid herself. Remembering her mother, the sad and hopeful grin she always wore at her weddings, made rage prickle Elm’s body. Mothers should be made of tougher stuff than a naïve belief in true love. Mothers should be a source of power, not give it away to any man offering a fast food dinner date. Her mother invited the predators into their home. Elm jumped out of her reverie when the office door clicked closed behind Harold.

“Stupid bitch makes poison brownies and takes away my coaching job?” Harold asked, creeping close. “Doesn’t seem fair that you get away without a little payback, does it?”

Harold moved forward until she was cornered. As Elm’s eyes blurred with tears, he morphed into a representative stepdad with all of the worst features: Number One’s slightly crossed eye, Number Two’s jaundiced jowls, Number Three’s labored breathing, and so on. Elm was a kid again, afraid and unprotected, offered up by her mother to this man for the taking.

“That fuckin’ rock,” Harold whispered into her ear, sounding a lot like Number Five. He nudged her fist holding Demon Rock with his knee. “You’re nothing but a joke here.”

Elm adjusted Demon Rock sharp side out. The weight of it, powerful with possibility, evaporated her fear and replaced it with boiling hatred.  Harold moved forward, aggressive with his sloppy mouth, and Elm allowed the anger to flow through her limbs. She sliced into his temple, his blood splattering her shirt and face. He howled and staggered back. Elm moved fast, her arm slicing again and again. When Harold hit the floor, she took a steadying breath and opened the office door.

“I’ve been attacked. Call 911,” she shouted to the secretary.

At first, the EMS workers and police officers believed the blood belonged to Elm. By the time they attended to Harold, prone in a crimson pool, he was unresponsive. Elm was handcuffed, standard procedure, they assured her, until the story could be verified. As an officer led her through the lobby toward the front doors, the waiting group of sixth-grade girls ran forward.

“Are we being expelled?” one of them asked.

“What should we do now?” another shouted.

Their faces were upturned and expectant. Were these dumb-dumbs really asking her advice while she was covered in Harold’s blood and being led away in handcuffs? She barked a dry laugh. She started the day as the only honest adult but ended as a child reenacting her trauma.
Elm stopped moving and the officer leading her looked back.

“These are my students, let me talk for a minute. What you should do now,” Elm said, addressing the girls, “is listen to your parents.”

Her voice was weak. One of the girls snorted and a few laughed, as if Elm were telling a joke. They quieted and waited for her to speak. Elm thought of Demon Rock, bloody and laying on Hankins’s floor, and wondered how she’d sleep without that critical piece of her. She scratched at the drying blood on her face with her shoulder.

“Don’t let them take a piece of you. Whatever that means to you, do it,” Elm said.

She scanned the faces of betrayal and sadness, finally landing on Marcy’s. There was something that looked like pride and respect, a look of hunger in her eyes. Elm nodded at the young protégé, and as the officer gently tugged her away, she saw Marcy nodding back.





BIO: Melody Sinclair graduated from the MFA program in creative writing at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. She’s been published at Heavy Feather Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Avalon Literary Review, KAIROS Literary Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, and more. She’s won the Denver Women’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest and was a two-time finalist in the Adelaide Literary Award contest. She’s on the Fiction Reading Committee for Carve Magazine. Melody lives in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, with her husband, dog and two kids. www.melodysinclair.com