Chapter 3: A Bit Squishier
Seeing the evil in others can lead to murder…
…especially when it is a teenaged girl who sees it. When Jessica awakens from a brief coma, she sees labels of the terrible things that people can do, whenever she looks into their eyes. From ‘Thief’ to ‘Misogynist,’ she knows what they are: just not exactly what they’ve done. So when the eyes of her respected psychiatrist look back with a label that says ‘Murderer,’ where can a high school kid turn without even a body? The adults, all hiding crimes of their own, will not listen, so Jessica turns to the only person any kid can trust: her best friend, Marnie. By Chapter 3, Marnie has convinced Jess—almost—that their best bet is to report the crime, but Jessica will soon learn that the only help she can get is from using her new curse against her own doctor.
The drone of dates and events in my History class nearly convinced me that nothing was ever a real threat. With global conflicts and historic demonstrations flattened to statistics on a page, even persecution, espionage and nuclear calamity were doing no worse than stupefying me into a steady buzz. Thanks to Mrs. Parnham—my teacher, whose glance said ‘Tax Evader’—I was nearly convinced by lunchtime that the terrors my brief coma had revealed could no more harm me than Hitler or Mussolini could. If I was calm enough to look at Mrs. Parnham’s label without trying to get her audited, why should I worry about other crimes?
Why should I bother trying to jail my murderous, woman-hating psychiatrist?
Marnie, of course, had other ideas brewing behind her heart-shaped sunglasses. The moment I emerged into the calamity of our school’s hallways, she painfully took my wrist and dragged me after her in a sprint.
“What about lunch?” I asked, and was immediately sorry that I had.
Marnie slowed her pace just enough to dig two fingers into her pocket, and withdraw a Pizza Puff by its wrapper to hand to me. Technically, it was sanitary, because the wrapper was intact, but several cracks in the factory-forged pastry were oozing, into the plastic, an orange substance that barely passed for cheese. Marnie’s ploy had worked perfectly; I no longer felt the need to eat.
I freed my wrist from her hand, and quickened my pace to match hers. Avoiding the labels in everyone’s eyes caused some collisions as I ran, but several dropped books and angry peers later, we stood outside of a door, beneath a nameplate that read, Officer Kelvin Beaumont. Marnie had brought me to our school’s safety officer, a sad and disgruntled representative of a local police force that he now only served from within the walls of our asbestos-lined high school.
“Are you sure,” I asked her, “that you want to get mixed up with Officer Kelvin?”
“You said that the cops could handle it. Doctor Ukrenzian’s a murderer, and Kelvin’s a cop. Isn’t he?”
“Hmm.” I mulled over this rhetorical question, inundated by memories of self-defense classes that involved running laps and high-kicking dummies. Officer Kelvin’s approach to the protection of young girls seemed to involve making our hearts give out before anyone threatening could get to us. Ironically, I had never seen Kelvin himself move faster than a cheerleader on her way to Algebra class. “Barely,” I answered Marnie’s question, about him being a cop.
She was determined, though; she showed me her knuckles and pointed to them, before rapping them against the stripped and refinished surface of the door.
Three more knocks earned us a grunted response. “Come in.” I wondered if he’d been napping.
Marnie entered the darkened room like a flare from a gun, while I hung back in the safe fluorescence of the hallway. “Officer Kelvin,” she greeted, “we’re here to report a crime.”
As if she hadn’t spoken, Officer Kelvin asked, “Shouldn’t you both be eating?”
“Well, sure,” she agreed, perching coquettishly on a corner of his desk, “we could go check out the cafeteria. But if we did, there’d still be a murderer on the loose.”
The extremity of this word ‘murderer’ actually caused one of Kelvin’s eyebrows to arch a few millimeters. From him, this was a reaction equal to any one of my TV cops sprinting on her high heels into a warehouse filled with armed felons. He checked roughly through three drawers, then scanned the room before moving aside some papers to reveal a notepad. Just like my psychiatrist, he poised a pen above it, ready to record everything we said wrong.
“Who was the victim?” he recited from some police-interviewer’s handbook.
“We don’t know,” Marnie replied.
“Mmm-hmm,” he agreed, scribbling. “And where did the murder take place?”
“We don’t know.”
“Well, actually,” Marnie brightened, “it just so happens that we don’t know that, either.”
Kelvin sighed, and put down his pen to wipe his face with a handkerchief. “This is my last shot, kid,” he warned her. “Can you name the murderer?”
In triumph, Marnie hopped from the desk, and posed like a vaudeville performer in front of it. “Absolutely.”
Kelvin slanted a look at the ridiculous glasses she’d bought to protect me from her label. “You can?”
“We can,” she confirmed, then leaned toward him. “It was The Feminator himself: Doctor Ukrenzian.”
Startling us both back into childhood, Officer Kelvin responded with a sound that reminded me of a bear who had once visited our family campsite. He rose to his feet, exposing a belly that looked like the same bear’s. “Young lady,” he bellowed, polite in word but not tone, “are you referring to Doctor Anton Ukrenzian?”
Marnie backed up a step, and so did her certainty. “I guess. We didn’t exchange business cards…”
“Anton Ukrenzian, the founder and director of the Shady Acres psychiatric facility?”
For this, my friend had no answer but to nod.
“The same Anton Ukrenzian whose wife donates her time to work with Jim? Right here at our school, whenever young girls are at risk?”
This time she shrugged, hiding behind the hearts over her eyes. Marnie had never needed much help from our school counselor, so she was no expert about Mr. Tomlinson’s community volunteers.
“You listen to me, Nancy Drew. If you want an excuse to skip classes, then you had better think of something more plausible then slandering one of our community’s most upstanding health-care professionals.” He dissolved her gaze with acrid eyes, causing Marnie’s head to droop abnormally, until she was looking from stooped shoulders into ancient, school-board linoleum. “Is that clear, Nancy Drew?” the bear in him bellowed again.
Marnie nodded furiously, and uttered, “Yes, sir. But it’s Marnie—”
“Is that clear?” he repeated to me: but, when he repeated it, Officer Kelvin made the mistake of glaring in my direction.
I nodded respectfully and looked at the floor, but too late; the label I’d seen in his glare made me feel a pinwheel of other emotions toward him. Not one of them in the blur was anything like respect. There he was, standing over me, labelled a ‘Killer.’ There I was, standing under him, still alive.
Somehow, in this new mind of mine, I wasn’t afraid of him.
“Sit down.” Kelvin’s voice propelled Marnie backward into a waiting chair, where she folded her hands and squeezed them between her knees. Returning to his own chair, he mopped at his face, and told me, “Both of you.” I was just glad that he told me this without looking up, so I quickly complied.
Officer Kelvin rested his hand on the telephone receiver, then patted it three times and stood up in afterthought. He told us to wait, and crossed through his doorway into the threshold of light that awaited him outside—light that washed over his uniform, staining the black shadows in the fabric blue again as he distanced himself from us.
No sooner was he gone than Marnie rattled in a breath. “Oh, Gemini,” she breathed out, “I think I’ve screwed up. I’m sorry, Jess.”
I was focused on the certificates and photographs that Kelvin had framed of himself—one getting a medal from the chief of police, another shaking hands with the mayor—and I thought about the differences between that alert, young officer and the beer-gutted version who had just left us there.
Marnie, though, was too busy freaking out to notice. “No, it’s not—we’re up for slander now, or libel, or whatever it is when little girls mouth off about big, rich doctors. He kept calling me that name, ‘Nancy Drew’—is that some notorious mobster or something?”
I leaned forward, away from her landslide of words, trying to concentrate on a newspaper article calling Kelvin Beaumont a ‘hero’ in a local drug bust.
She pointed at the venetian blinds, closed against the daylight outside. “Look, he’s got a window.”
“Marnie, I’m telling you, it’s all right.”
There was something else, too; something Kelvin had said. Ukrenzian had a wife. Before the label in my doctor’s eyes had said ‘Murderer,’ it had said ‘Misogynist,’ but someone had married him anyway.
“You can boost me through the window, and I’ll pull you over…” Looking up and down my build, she reconsidered, “Or the other way around. We can hoof it interstate. We’ll be in Sacramento by next week.”
“Will you please just chill?” I asked her in a lower tone. I was past comforting her, and really just wanted her voice to stop so that I could think about the things I was seeing and hearing around me—about a Killer label, and about the wife of a misogynist.
Marnie’s voice, though, rarely cooperated with anyone. “Sacramento, right? That’s where fugitives go when they’re on the lam.”
“Marnie! He’s not going to arrest us.”
Something in my certainty cut her off mid-aneurism, and I felt her stare boring through her glasses and into the side of my face as I tried to concentrate. “He’s not?” Marnie waited for another response, then prompted me again. “How do you know?”
Of course, the truth was that I didn’t know; Officer Kelvin could be out there right now, talking to police dispatch about sending over a squad car to scare us straight. What I did know, though, gave me confidence that Marnie couldn’t possibly share. What I did know gave me the strategy I needed to control the scariest man in our school.
Before I could tell her what I knew, though, someone even scarier arrived.
“Girls,” said Mr. Tomlinson from the doorway, “I understand that you’re feeling upset.” Standing aside to gesture toward his office, our Guidance Counsellor made the invitation that every student at Parkwood High had learned to dread.
“Come with me, and we’ll explore that.”
* * * * *
“We didn’t mean any disrespect,” I told Mr. Tomlinson, hoping to end this quickly.
“That’s all right,” he promised. “Let’s just put that in one drawer, and open some others.”
This was an infamous technique of Tomlinson’s: to tell students that they could choose to open and close ‘drawers’ on their different emotions. It doesn’t take a high-school student to imagine how much that image—his choice of the word ‘drawers’—earned him the wrong kind of respect.
Marnie was targeting that, now. “Mr. Tomlinson,” she asked, “if we look into Jessica’s drawers, do you think that we’ll see anything upsetting?”
His trusting response made me sad for him. “I think we will, very likely. I understand that she’s been through quite a bit.”
“Mm-hm,” Marnie nodded, deadpan. “And do you think that whatever is inside Jessica’s drawers could frighten—”
“It was a challenging week, yeah,” I answered his question to shut her up.
It’s not that Mr. Tomlinson himself was scary; he was actually a very nice man, who gave the impression of caring about students in distress. The problem—the really creepy part—was how forgiving he felt like he needed to be all the time. He ran his sessions as though he had never met a teenager: as though the animalistic instincts by which students our age lived were just a disguise for the sweet kindness we really wanted to practice. Mr. Tomlinson spoke sympathetically to everyone, no matter what they flung back in return, and he never, ever raised his voice. You could stand on his neck and call his mother a wombat, and he would ask you to describe how her marsupial nature made you feel.
I should have seen his response to my comment coming. “And how did the challenge make you feel?”
I looked up from the floor at Marnie, who had more than recovered from our encounter with Kelvin. “Um…challenged?”
“She felt a bit squishier, to me,” Marnie quipped. Her recovery from the recent scare was largely due to our change in environment; Mr. Tomlinson’s office was like an antithesis to Officer Kelvin’s, with every corner of it lit from direct or reflected natural light. Mobiles made of mirrors and glass spun and sparkled around us, casting their glare in tiny dots that salted us where we sat. Mr. Tomlinson thought that light could heal any emotion, and I had to admit that it seemed to be working on my friend. Glints of reflection passed through the plastic strips on her sunglasses, to tease the lenses underneath.
None of it, though, had begun to put a dent in my darkness. “Actually,” I told him, looking at the nice, safe floor again, “I’m seeing people differently, now. It’s harder than it used to be to look past their…” I paused, sifting through myself for honest words that would not reveal my new condition.
“Their challenges?” he prompted.
“Their mistakes,” I corrected him, choosing the closest word that I could to describe the sinful labels in everyone’s eyes. Avoiding his eyes was beginning to feel awkward, but he just treated me as though staring at the floor was perfectly normal. With his clients, it probably was.
Mr. Tomlinson nudged a dish of Skittles toward us, inside which I watched the colors until Marnie’s hand plunged into them. A clock on his wall ticked away the last seconds of our lunch break, and I watched my friend for a moment, making up her lost nutrition with refined sugars and neon dyes. It almost made the congealing Pizza Puff in my lap look appetizing, so I looked at it, too. I was determined, in fact, to look at anything but Tomlinson’s eyes.
“Mistakes,” he repeated. “And did you see any mistakes in Doctor Ukrenzian?” His voice took on an oddly energetic tone, as he added, “Did you follow what you saw to seek help from Officer Beaumont?”
“Actually…” I was on the verge of an answer that was tempting me from the very depths of truth. Tomlinson was so close to that truth, and so hungry to help, that all I would have to do was tell him—tell him everything—then let him take care of whatever might come next. The little girl in me reached up from my past, begging me to let the adults solve my problems. “Actually…I followed Marnie there,” I finished.
I had already tried sharing with too many others, and it hadn’t worked out very well.
Marnie had frozen, with her jaw gummed shut through Skittle-power. Until then, she had thought she was just an audience during this session.
As I’d calculated, Tomlinson turned his attention toward her. “Perhaps…perhaps Marnie is more in tune with your ordeal than she realizes.”
My friend’s jaw began to work again, congealing masses of Skittle until she could swallow the lump of sugar to answer. Her lips curved upward at me, but I couldn’t call it a smile. “Oh, yes,” she answered smoothly. “I think that was it. I was just caught up in Jessica’s fear of Doctor Ukrenzian…”
“Fear?” Tomlinson snapped the word between his teeth, startling us in our seats. The Pizza Puff gave a little hop in my lap, then sagged over my shin as it landed. Then, just as I shot a look at Marnie, the calmest man we had ever met nearly shouted a very unusual question. “Did you fear Ukrenzian?”
There was something in the phrasing that framed his question with much bigger questions. He had asked, ‘Did you fear Ukrenzian’—not, ‘Were you afraid of him,’ nor, ‘Did he scare you,’ nor a thousand other phrasings that would have been more natural—but did I fear him.
It was strange enough, even, for Marnie to mock. “Oh we feared him, all right. We feared the crap outta him.” In response to my warning glare, she added, “What? He was a scary dude! I mean, for the love of Pastrami, he’s got a freaking statue of himself outside. He scared you, he scared most of The Accessories, and he even scared someone who wasn’t his patient.” Into a pause, she clarified, “I mean, you know…me.”
Tomlinson was fascinated to the point of excitability by now. Leaning forward so far that he was nearly off his chair, he asked me—not Marnie—to clarify details of what she had said. “What scared you?” he fired, then, without resetting, fired again, “Who are The Accessories?”
I took a breath, still trying to choose my words carefully despite my friend’s indiscretions. “The Accessories,” I began, “are a dozen or so patients there—all fairly young women. It’s a nickname I gave them, because…” A gap formed around my reluctance to reveal my labels to him. “…because they were all pretty, and all out of it.”
As I heard myself avoiding the truth, I realized I was telling him some. Aside from their label, ‘Accessory,’ they were all pretty: all The Accessories had lived their former lives as lovely redheads. They were all out of it: all wandering in circles, searching for absent answers. I was beginning to relate to them.
Marnie was watching me carefully, trying to decide what I was deciding. Was it time to admit what was happening? Could this man’s enthusiasm be a sign that he would be willing to believe me?
Still enthusiastic, he pressed, “And what is it that scared them about him?”
That question was it: the trigger that demanded my payload of truth. Whatever it was that our Counsellor was seeking, he was the only one so far—well, the only adult, anyway—who seemed willing to hear what I had to say without judging me. With a nod from Marnie, I braced myself against a fear that the last few days had developed in me—one that had nothing to do with Ukrenzian, or any psychologist.
“I don’t know,” I explored honestly, “whether anything scared them. But I will tell you what scared me about him.” I filled my lungs with air, and raised my face to look at Tomlinson. “I saw, in his eyes—”
Then, my lungs emptied from what I saw in this other pair of eyes. I glanced away from Tomlinson’s label, past Marnie and toward the closed door, seeking a way to escape from my words and from this office. Standing in a shot, I knocked the Pizza Puff to the floor, then stepped on it twice before retrieving it apologetically.
Mr. Tomlinson, our own school counselor—the one trying to comfort me with candy—was a ‘Kidnapper.’
Tomlinson stood, too, genuinely concerned by my response. Only Marnie remained in her seat; she seemed almost amused by the scene that was unfolding. “Jessica?” Tomlinson prodded. “What’s wrong? What is it you saw in his eyes?”
An idea erupted from the recesses of my creativity. “Cataracts!” I shouted. “He had cataracts.” I started toward the door, and Marnie rose to follow.
Tomlinson wasn’t nearly ready to let me go. “Cataracts? Those scared you?”
“Yeah,” I muttered, looking at the knob as I opened the door. “I’ve got a phobia about them.”
I heard Marnie covering for me. “It’s true: Jessica’s always hated eye doctors.” I was distracted, though.
The open doorway should have been my grand exit, but there was another obstacle there; Candace Bellingham had arrived for one of her many appointments with the counsellor, ready to avoid Algebra by spinning him some tales of her wealthy woe. She had her knuckles raised to knock, and they were too familiar. I recoiled, but, surprisingly, so did Candace; my lifelong bully hadn’t expected me here. I managed to escape around her without suffering one blow from her fist or her tongue.
Marnie called, “Thanks for the Skittles,” behind her, as she two-stepped with Candace to catch up to me in the hallway.
Then, when she saw where I was going, she stopped in place again. “Chesty, you can’t be serious,” she told me.
“Have we met?” I asked. “I can be a lot more serious than you can.”
She was right to be concerned, though. I was heading for a place that neither of us would find very pleasant, but I had really had enough. I couldn’t trust the eager dynamo we’d just left, after the label I’d seen in his eyes. In fact, there didn’t seem to be an adult left alive I could trust, so I would have to get help from one I didn’t—one whose secret was frightening enough that I could hold it for ransom.
So, with Marnie oscillating in the hallway, I burst back into the darkness, through the door of Officer Kelvin Beaumont.
“Well,” he greeted, raising himself from a slouch to look past me at Marnie. “If it isn’t Nancy Drew.”
“It isn’t,” Marnie squeaked quietly.
He stood, then, probably as a part of his standard routine: intimidate the suspects. “Have you girls worked it all out with Mr. Tomlinson? Do you agree to stop accusing Doctor Ukrenzian of those ridiculous crimes?”
I could have just agreed with him, and escaped into the anonymity I craved. The Killer I saw in his eyes, like the labels in so many eyes, repelled me enough to do just that. My friend, though—my only friend, the way things were going—was cowering in a way I’d never seen her cower, so I stepped into his office, and into the slime of his sins, to ask him a question in my most menacing tone.
“Did he shoot first?”
Officer Kelvin faltered, the way that bear might when punched in the nose. “What are…what do you mean?”
Channeling the hours of cop shows I’d been watching while in the institute, I recited a clichéd scenario. “I think, maybe, that he shot first, and you just overreacted.”
The room rewarded me with a silence that seemed to mute even the outside rush of students to Fourth Period.
“It’s probably for the best,” I granted him, raising my palms. “I’m sure that he was a dangerous criminal, or whatever. Still, it must be hard. The guilt.” I turned left, then right, to gesture toward the heroic photos framed on his walls. “Could even drive an ex-cop to take a gig in a high-school.”
Kelvin sat again, shakily, and put the handkerchief he’d been wringing back to his face. “I’m still a cop.”
“Whatever you say, Jump Street.”
He looked at the pad, reached toward it, and then changed his mind to ask me a question that sounded like a deal. “What is it you want?”
I told him, “We’re not accusing anyone of anything. Not yet.” Not quite believing the dialogue that was oozing from me, I added, “We just need to know about anything shady going on at Shady Acres.” Without waiting for a reply, I walked out in the direction of Student Services, where I would sign in late for Fourth Period, and face a lecture from some teacher while trying to ignore the worst in their eyes.
Marnie, however, had never been quite so adept at keeping quiet. Slicing her hands together at him, she rapped, “Nan-cy Drew, in da house! Oh, yeah,” before racing, for the second time that day, to catch up with me. “I think I’m in love with you,” she lampooned. “I’ve never liked girls before, but I’ll turn for you. Just promise me you’ll mess with authority, just like that, every single day that we’re married.”
“That,” I pointed, turning on her, “was a mistake.”
Her face was caught somewhere between beaming at me and calling for help. “Why?”
The chatter of other students stretched past us, as deep as silence, both ahead and behind. I knew that each of them dragged a vile word behind them, and I avoided looking at most, but at times something would draw my eyes to them; a ‘Plagiarist’ called my name, then a ‘Bully’ purposely bumped my shoulder, like Candace would: like my mother probably had. Each time I looked at them, I saw them. These were my peers, and the worst part of knowing this was knowing that I was just like them.
I ran a hand over my own face, and tried to explain something Marnie couldn’t possibly understand. I couldn’t handle telling her about both men, so I focused just on Kelvin. “Because I took advantage of him. I saw his label.”
We both knew that I was here because of Marnie; as much as my condition had fed me data, Marnie had been the one to insist that we use it. Without my permission, Marnie had chosen a direction for us both: not only through this hallway, but also into a situation that I was too young, too scared, and too messed up from my coma to manage. I didn’t need super-powers to see her struggling with a question. “Well?” she finally asked. “What was his word? Was it ‘Nancy’? Or ‘Drew’?”
I shut down her sarcasm with the word she was seeking. “‘Killer.’”
Having dropped this, I left it rolling freely behind us to head us back on our way. “Wow. Killer Kelvin. Who knew?” Even Marnie seemed concerned enough to ask, “Shouldn’t…shouldn’t we report that, too?”
“I don’t think so.”
I laced my answer with false certainty. “Because it was ‘Killer,’ not ‘Murderer.’ I think there’s a difference, and, thanks to you, we’re busy chasing the one who’s worse.”
Our footsteps measured the distance to the Student Services office, and we had almost reached it before she replied. “Well, then. That leaves us with only two questions.”
Marnie stopped me in the hallway to puzzle over something with her.
“Who’s Nancy,” my friend asked, “and what did she draw?”