The first time I saw her I came upon her in the hallway where my home room was located. I was headed there from the auditorium where they were holding the Homecoming Dance to grab my laptop charger. She was crouched down in the dark on the tan and white speckled tile, leaning against the green lockers. I stopped as I rounded the corner and held my breath, debating what my next step should be. Was she conscious? Doing drugs? Breaking into that locker?
She was shaking, her dress making swishing noises with her every movement. Her dark hair was up in a twist and the skin on her back glowed white in the darkened hallway. Her shoulder blades stuck up from her narrow sloping back like wings. Part of her hair was draped across her face which was halfway turned toward the locker.
My feet were frozen to the floor, not sure whether to continue down the hall past her as though she weren’t there, turn and walk away or go to her and make sure she was okay. I closed my eyes and sighed silently. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help; it was just the fear of being alone in the dark with a troubled teenage girl. When I opened my eyes a moment later I saw that she had spotted me and was looking at me through a veil of hair.
Mascara had run down her face giving her a horror movie look. Her eyes glowed in the filtered light coming from the parking lot. She hiccupped a sob and tried to scramble to a stand by pushing herself off of the lockers with her long thin arms. Unfortunately the cumbersome dress she was wearing had gotten stuck under one of her silver strappy sandals and I heard a small rip in the swishy material right before her feet slid out from under her and she landed on her back with her legs splayed into the middle of the hallway.
Eyes averted just in case, I rushed over to help her up. I had no idea who this child was but she clearly needed someone’s help if for nothing more than to get up off the floor. I reached her in four long strides offering my hands out to her while mumbling “hush now” and “there, there” noises as though she were a toddler who had just awakened from a nightmare.
She had looked askance at me for a moment, then with a wry twist of her mouth resignedly placed her small hands in mine and allowed me to pull her up. Once on her feet – holding my hands just long enough to stop herself from teetering on her very tall spiked heels – she ran her hands down the skirt of her dress, head hanging, chin on her chest. She said something that I couldn’t quite understand and when I asked her to repeat it she yelped in a childish voice that she needed to wipe her face.
My first instinct was to invite her into my classroom to splash water on her face and gather herself together. I looked up and around with a panicky feeling fluttering in my chest and decided there was just no way I could invite this small, vulnerable child into a darkened classroom in the middle of the night. Instead I reached into the pocket of my jacket and pulled out a small packet of Kleenex I had stashed there before I left the house that evening. My mother’s voice came to me as I did so saying “You should always carry Kleenex no matter what!” With an internal chuckle, I made a mental note to call and thank my mother in the morning.
I leaned against the locker next to her surreptitiously watching her as she scrubbed her face and blew her nose. She was taller than she’d looked when she’d been squatting on the floor. Even leaning against the locker I could tell that with those heels on her feet she would be taller than me. I estimated her stocking feet height to maybe five eight. Her hands were skeleton thin and she had long fingers that were red all the way down to the second knuckle. Her nails were blunt, flat and wide like a man’s. Now that she was standing and the light from the parking lot was shining more clearly on her I saw that her hair was a very unlikely shade of purple and she wore a banana clip in it to hold it up. Some of it had fallen out and was hanging down the left side of her face and curling into the scoop neck top of the dress she wore. Her too large dress had thin spaghetti straps and one strap was hanging off her shoulder against her upper bicep, or what would have been a bicep if the girl had any muscle tone at all. She was skin and bones, actually frail and sickly looking. The vulnerability of that strap made me want to cry and I had to resist the temptation to pull it back up over her shoulder and wrap her in a big hug. She was still shaking although not as violently as she had been and had not said a single word since that initial utterance about wiping her face.
I asked her, more sternly than I probably should have, what she was doing in the hall and who her home room teacher was. She looked at me full on for the first time and startled a short gasp from me as I saw that she had the clear beginnings of a black eye, a bloody lip and the tell-tale darkness to the left side of her face that portended a very bad bruise. She looked me straight in the eye and with that baby voice said “I don’t go to this school yet and my name is Raquel.”
It was then that I realized for the first time just how very young Raquel was. She had fancy clothes and a grown up hairstyle and had worn lots of make up to look older but standing in C Hall at 9:45 PM on Homecoming Night wearing a dress that was too large for her, heels that were too old for her and the make up scrubbed from her face she looked about thirteen years old. I cringed as I asked her the next question, not really wanting to know the answer. “Raquel how old are you?”
She said “Almost fourteen Mister!” vehemently and defiantly while hiking herself up to her full height and forcing her shoulders back in a childish attempt to make her body fill more airspace and as such appear older. I instinctively slid on my back down the lockers so that there was more space between us as I watched her fold back into herself as though suddenly afraid of me. I turned so that my right shoulder was touching the lockers, slowly so as not to startle this mouse-like girl and, speaking softly, asked her what she was doing there in the hall.
Just then we both at the same time heard the sound of heavy boots hitting tile floor as at least two people walked down a nearby hallway, one of them rhythmically hitting lockers as they walked. One of the unknown males was telling a story that he found very amusing although I was unable to discern the content. I turned to the girl to ask her to wait while I dealt with this and found that she had dissolved into the darkness, the only evidence that she had been there at all was a sodden Kleenex lying on the tile floor next to my foot.
I struggled for a moment, trying to decide if I should go after her or not and then shrugging I moved around the corner to wait for the boys I had heard coming. There were three of them and I knew them by name. They were part of what the wrestling coach, Frank Fields called the “Has Beens From Birth” or HBFB. The nickname had resonated with some of the teaching staff and had become sort of a standing joke. A student who earned the HBFB title was usually a stoner with no ambition. They smelled like stale cigarette smoke, spent most of their school careers in In School Suspension and wore an inordinate amount of black.
These three were some of the worst we had seen in a long time. Grady, the only senior, was the ring leader and had a quiet intensity that scared some of the younger teachers so badly they refused to have him in their class. Bobe and Mick were the other two and it was Mick who was desperately trying to tell a story to the other two as they walked along the hallway scuffing the tile with motorcycle boots. Grady spotted me standing there first and stopped short comically allowing Bobe and Mick to bump into his back. Mick stopped talking and spluttered for half a second before Bobe smacked him on the arm and he looked up to see me as well.
“What’s happening guys? You know you don’t belong back here right?” I said with more bravado than I felt. Grady smiled unpleasantly, smelling my fear, and in a smooth baritone voice said “Yeah sorry Mr. Morgan we’re heading to my locker to grab my math book”. Clearing my throat I told him he could come back in the morning when the janitorial staff could let him in and asked them to head back to the dance. I noticed while Grady and I had been talking that Bobe and Mick were trying to look past me and around the corner into the hallway I had come from. Mick asked “So, what were you doing all standing there in the dark Mr. M? Talking to someone?” Bobe and Mick both giggled as though Mick had told a dirty joke but I noticed that Grady’s minions were looking very nervous. “Not that it’s any of your business Michael” I said using his given name “but I was going to my classroom when I heard your racket. Now move along okay?”
After standing there for another moment Grady spun around on his heel and wordlessly began walking back toward the auditorium, friends in tow. I realized I had been holding my breath as I let it out in a loud whoosh of air and turned back around to see if Raquel was still there somewhere in the darkness. Finding no one lurking I proceeded to my classroom to get my charger and headed back to the auditorium.
I’m embarrassed to say by the end of the night after last song, pushing the kids out the door, clean up and a last minute chaperone’s late night happy hour I completely forgot about Raquel. I did however drop an email to the Vice Principal telling him of my late night run in with the HBFBs.
By late November Bobe and Mick had been expelled for fighting and Grady had found a new gang of idiots to tag along behind him attempting to emulate him. Most of these boys and a few girls were just lost souls with learning disabilities, drug addicted parents or no parents at all. Out of curiosity I had pulled Grady’s file his Freshman year and found that he was a ward of the state. He lived with a foster family right outside town. I had considered showing his file to my psychologist sister because I had an inkling that behind Grady’s charisma might be the personality of a psychopath.
So here it is January and it’s snowing outside. School starts again Monday and I’m sitting in the breakfast nook of my apartment finishing the dregs of my coffee with the newspaper lying on the table in front of me, unopened.
On the front page above the fold is the face of Raquel, the lost little girl from C Hall in October. Above her face is the caption “Thirteen Year Old Girl Arrested in Slaying of Two Orion Youths!” The picture is obviously a school photo. In it Raquel’s sharp emaciated features don’t look quite as sickly as they did in the hallway that night but there is no mistaking that face. The hair in the photo is down and curled attractively around her head but it’s still that same purple color. She has what my brother Lawrence used to call a “school picture grimace” on her face and her face is fresh with no touch of make up. The blouse she’s wearing is worn and faded, maybe a little gray from too much wear although it’s hard to tell from a newspaper photograph.
I had seen the photo and headline about half an hour before and turned the paper over to read the article while eating my eggs and toast. Now here I sat food pushed aside congealing on the plate untouched while I stared unseeingly at the picture and drank my coffee. Sentences from the article were flying around the room and around my head like words from an episode of Sesame Street. “The suspect claims that the victims Michael “Mick” McRea and Robert “Bobe” Lurkins both Juniors at Orion Central along with a third unidentified male had been abusing her for months”. “Her court appointed attorney told this reporter that his thirteen year old client had been tricked into attending an Orion High function in the fall and there was set upon by three young men, McRea and Lurkins being two of them and brutally beaten and raped.” “Self Defense” … “Domestic Abuse” … “Boys parents denying the accusations” … “Search for third male underway”.
I placed the coffee cup down on the table and bolted down the hall to the bathroom where I threw up the coffee I’d just drank. Flushing the commode I sat back on the cold floor and ran the tub spigot, splashing water on my face and finger brushing my teeth to get the taste out of my mouth. Hitching up the pajama pants I wore I sat leaning against the wall with my head in my hands and my elbows on my knees trying to recall every detail of that night.
Sitting there I could remember vividly the shadow on her face where the bruising was beginning to appear. I remembered her spindly ankles and long Ichabod Crane face. I saw the way her body had been shaking and her split lip as she dabbed at it with the last of my tissues. I had a fleeting thought of self pity when I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to stay out of this. This was immediately replaced by the guilt of knowing that the little girl I had helped that night had more than likely just been raped and brutalized by three young men all seventeen years old at the time of the attack. Should I have seen it? Was I so worried about my reputation that I let a damaged child leave in the cold fall night to suffer her pain in silence? Could I have done something? What if I had reported it? Would there have been an investigation? I know I couldn’t have stopped the attack but could I have done something to change the course of Raquel’s life so it didn’t end in murder, or man-slaughter or whatever the DA decided to charge her with? Did they believe her story? Had she already told them of the “after the fact” witness to her attack that night?
Leaning forward onto my knees I threw up again then pushed myself off the floor and tossing my pajama bottoms into the hamper jumped into the shower.
My life was never going to be the same again.