SHORT STORY: Untitled High School

It was the 100th day of the school year. The brisk February air hung thick outside the fogged windows of my first-period geometry class. I sat in my assigned seat, the very back row, second to the right, far away from those crystallizing panes. Every other seat but one was filled. 23 awkward, sleepy-eyed old children trying to cope with the harsh mathematical realities that awaited them on that frigid Monday morning.

Our teacher, Ms. Fontana, sat with an impatient grimace on her face as the tinny din of the morning’s announcements squelched from the speaker above the door. The monotone murmurs of the bored student reading the announcements fell on my ears like some painful lullaby. My heavy eyelids tried to drown out the noise by shutting off my brain’s access to light. It didn’t work. Sleep felt like a guillotine, a quiet peace after a moment of unimaginable horror. But the moment was dragging on, an eternal Catherine wheel on my eardrums.

Once a suspicious silence filled the room, Ms. Fontana backed her chair out from her desk and rose, both her and the chair making squeaks and creaks that were indistinguishable from each other. This new pitch roused me from my tortured trance, my eyelids opened wide, lashed to my eyebrows.

“Good morning, class,” Ms. Fontana said, disturbing the few stragglers still caught in daydream. “Before we begin, I have a little announcement.”

There was a knock on the classroom door.

“Ah, perfect timing,” Ms. Fontana turned and shuffled to the door, a satisfied grin stretching over her thin face. She always loved it when her meticulous agenda kept to her schedule.

The door opened to what I first thought was no one. I didn’t see anyone enter at first. After a moment he waddled into my view.

A raccoon.

A fuzzy gray varmint with pointy ears, a ringed, bushy tail, and a frightened face with big dark circles around sleepy eyes. He was no more than two feet tall, and he slowly stepped towards the room’s center stage on his hind legs.

“Everyone, this is Rocky.” Ms. Fontana motioned her hand downwards in the animal’s general direction. Rocky the raccoon. Sounds familiar. Many of us in the way back stood or craned our necks to see his pointed snout and pliable paws, which gave a timid wave to the class.

“Hi, everybody,” Rocky said with an adolescent squeak.

“Do take a seat, Rocky.” The teacher pointed to the lone empty seat in the room, the very back corner right next to me.

The raccoon got on all fours and scurried his way to the seat in a flash, obviously wanting out of the spotlight. Some kids in the class murmured and quietly jeered. I even heard the word “weird” several times in just those few seconds.

He climbed into the chair and pulled out his math book and a notebook, both of which were quite cumbersome for his tiny form. Even his pencil looked gargantuan in his paws. The standard no. 2 was so long for him he came close to poking himself in the eye on multiple occasions before he started to tilt the top of his pencil in the other direction, away from his face. This made the pencil topple out of his clutch and clatter onto the desk. After several attempts, he was able to hold the pencil in the middle and at an acute angle to the desk. This did a number on his penmanship, which being a raccoon was already pretty sloppy. Nonetheless, he spent the whole class diligent as possible, scribbling down notes and shapes and equations. He never raised his hand, or rather paw, but he never stopped paying attention, either.

The next period was history and there he was again, sitting behind me in the very back row, pouring through the textbook, his mind devouring 400 years of America. I heard him sniffing at the pages with great interest along with a constant rustle of turning pages. He must like history, I thought.

In gym class, I saw him emerge from the locker room comically dressed in an orange gym shirt that was a little too big for him. We all had to wear orange for gym class so in a way he fit in, but it was weird to see a raccoon in an oversized shirt and such bright colors. Rocky innocently wandered over to a random circle of students, which just happened to be the popular clique of that period. He didn’t even get a chance to say anything before the cruel kids started shunning him away, pointing in my direction and saying he should go be with the rest of the weird kids.

I didn’t know what they meant by that. I was sitting on the gym floor with my back to the folded-up bleachers, my eyelids playing a slow-motion game of yo-yo. To me, it seemed like I was by myself, but I was in the vicinity of the foreign exchange student, the asthmatics, and that one quiet girl who spent most of her time in the library. And me, some kid who just always looked tired.

At lunch, I found him sitting all by himself at one end of a bench, nibbling at a sandwich clutched in his claws. Anyone sitting nearby seemed to be making a sort of repellent bubble around him, keeping him at an unspoken, quarantined distance.

He didn’t really seem to notice or care, but it was still a sad sight. I felt bad for him, and it’s not like I had any offers to sit anywhere, so I walked up with my lunch tray and sat down across from him.

“Mind if I join you?”

He looked up at me between sandwich bites and gave a shy smile. I thought I saw relief in his eyes.

“Please. I’m Rocky.”

“Nice to meet you, Rocky. I’m Eddie.” I sat down and stuck out my hand with the sudden urge to shake his paw. He was still holding his sandwich, so he turned, and a tiny furry elbow met my palm.

“Very nice to meet you. You’re the first person to say hi to me all day.”

“Really? I’m sorry” I didn’t know what to say to that. “It’s hard being the new kid. A lot of people are talking about you, though.”

“Good things, I hope.” His jet-black nose twitched a bit at the thought.

“Uh, well…” I shouldn’t have said that. “Not really. Everyone says you’re…weird.”

His snout crinkled a bit and his whole face took a bewildered turn. “That’s not that bad. I wonder how they know about it, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m an insomniac. I’m up all night and then I can’t fall asleep when the morning comes. My parents thought if I went to public school for a while it would help me get some sleep.”

I must have looked dumbfounded, and I guess my jaw dropped at some point because Rocky reached out across the table pushed my chin up, shutting my ajar mouth.

“Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.

“Oh, yeah—it’s just—wow, that is weird.”

“Yeah,” he uttered as he popped the last bit of sandwich into his mouth. “So, what makes you weird?”

“What?” What a weird question, I thought.

“I told you what makes me weird, now you gotta tell me what makes you weird.”

“But—I’m not weird.”

“Oh, come on,” his face twisted into what I guess is the raccoon version of real talk. “We all have something about us that makes us weird. And you if don’t have anything weird about you, well then that would be pretty weird, wouldn’t it?”

“Hmm, I never thought of it that way.”

“I’m sure if you think about it, you’ll find something about you that someone else finds a bit weird.”

“I guess.” I supposed he was right. But I had no idea what was weird about me. To me, I felt pretty normal. A little sleepy, maybe. And I did have few friends, which is kind of weird. Plus, I was having a very public conversation with a raccoon over sandwiches and fruit juice.

We spent the rest of lunch talking about our classes. We had most of them together. He told me about how he really liked history and how little he really knew about it, and I started noticing the weird looks passersby started given us, especially when we would laugh or get real intense talking about something.

The bell rang and the teenage stampede to the next class began. Rocky jumped off the bench onto the floor and got tangled up in the blurry parade of sneakers and legs. He shrieked and scurried under the lunch table.

I bent down and poked my head under the table. “Want a ride?”

He nodded, and I reached in and picked him up. He crawled up around to my back and latched onto my backpack. Then he gave me two taps on the shoulder to signal he was ready to roll. I joined the throng of students and steered our way to chemistry class, all the while thinking if there’s nothing else weird about me, I can at least say my best friend is a raccoon.

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Murder at Zero Degrees

There always seems to be a drink in my hand. Why that is, I’m not quite sure. Every time I look down my fingers are clutched around a rocks glass or daintily hoisting a champagne flute. It’s like my hands have a mind of their own. They are always raising up the contents of some glass up to my lips, and then against my will I swallow the tasty burning liquid. Then things get wobbly. I don’t have any control over what my hands do to me.

            I swear I am not a drunk. I used to be a drunk, but I don’t think I am anymore. Though maybe I still am. I’m not sure. Moments ago, there was whiskey in this tumbler I am holding. It has since been replaced with melting ice and air. I’m not sure what happened to the whiskey. Maybe it sloshed onto my boots and ran down the grimy barstool to the floor. But I think, judging from my clouded vision and this wavering motion of mine at the moment, it probably went inside me. Now I just have air to drink from this glass. I get drunk on air from time to time. I can get drunk on just about anything if I put my mind to it. I suppose I am a drunk.

            I used to get drunk on murder. Still do, now that I think of it.

            Not committing murder, per se. Not your typical guns, poisons, bloody fingerprints on a dead body kind of murder. No. I get drunk on murdering other people’s chances of getting away with murder. That’s my livelihood. Detective Liam Parsons-Doyle, at your service. I solve murders. And I always get the job done.

            Interestingly enough, I always seem to do this job with a drink in my hand. I can remember what drink was in my hand with every murder I have solved. Sparkling brut champagne at Binley Hall the night I caught Nigel Everett, killer of the Hinkley twins. A half-empty pint of lager when I figured out Marie Shipton was the Boscombe Park Butcher (even I didn’t see that one coming). Gin and tonic that fateful evening five spoiled socialites each snuffed out their worst enemy at a dinner party in Bishop’s Stortford. Thank God I had no enemies before that night.

            There is one murder, though, now that I’m thinking of it, that I couldn’t solve. Strangely enough, I don’t even remember the drink I had the night of that murder. I was nearby. Very nearby, in fact. There was an early winter snow cascading down and covering the city in white. Just barely freezing out. Zero degrees Celsius at Zero degrees Longitude. How curious. A young girl was found dead in the alley just behind this pub. I was here, on my normal barstool. No one heard her scream or anything.

            She was found by some drunken bum who came bursting through the door, screaming, “Murderer! Murderer!” He was pointing a finger wildly at just about everyone in the pub. We all thought he did it at first, but careful deduction from yours truly proved he was too distraught upon finding the poor girl in a pool of her own blood that he couldn’t have done it.

            I wish I could solve that one. I wish I could remember what I was drinking, too. Perhaps the barman might remember what I had consumed that night.

            “Oh, barkeep.”

            “Yes, sir, detective?” There was a sigh in there. Interesting.

            “Remember the night that beautiful girl was found dead behind the pub?”

            “Of course, sir. How could anyone forget a night like that?”

            “Quite. Do you by any chance remember what I was drinking that night?”

            “Yes, I certainly do, sir. You were drinking Singapore Slings. I remember it distinctly as I thought it was such an odd drink for you to be having. Very out of the ordinary.”

            “Singapore Sling, eh? That sounds very good right now. Could you make me one now?”

            “Uh, certainly, sir.”

            What a magnificent drink, the Singapore Sling. Delicious London gin, cherry brandy, fruit juices. It’s simply tantalizing on the taste buds. Sipping on one right now might help me solve this baffling and all too familiar case. Maybe because it’s a drink I don’t normally have is the reason why I am clueless about this whole thing. There were very few clues, except some staggering footprints in the snow leading into the back door of the pub. Everyone inside was questioned but they were all either too drunk or too inside themselves to have noticed or recalled anything suspicious. I couldn’t even locate a home or family for the poor thing.

            “I thank you kindly, barman.”

            “Sir, you are in here every night, and I keep telling you to call me Colin. That is my name, you know. A little decency toward your fellow man would do you some good.”

            “Quite right, barkeep. Colin. Sorry. You know how formal I am.”

            “I know, sir. It takes away from your courtesy.”

            “I have no time for courtesy tonight. I am trying to solve this murder. What do you remember from that night?”

            Colin the barkeep has always been sort of a grimace, especially since that night. His typical frump of a frown has now turned into a scowl. He’s gone awfully silent. He knows something about that night. I can feel it.

            “Are you sure you want to know, sir? Wouldn’t you rather take a sip of your drink? You know how miraculous your deducing skills can be when soused.”

            “Quite right! You know me all too well!” A smile and a compliment can always make a barman more cordial to you. Most of them, anyways.

            A few quick glugs of the fruity elixir have already gone past my lips. My hands were forcing the drink down my throat leaving me unawares yet again. Those tricky devils.

            “You know something, I had quite a few of these that night. Candy in liquid form as I recall. My, my, several of these can certainly spell danger, wouldn’t you say?”

            “That’s all they can spell, sir.” Colin always had such a dry sort of humorless jest about him. He could so be capable of murder with that sort of demeanor.

            My glass is suddenly empty. “Well, look at that. I didn’t even realize. Kindly make me another, please, Colin?”

            “I don’t think so, sir. We don’t want a repeat of last time.”

            “Oh quite. Uh, what do you mean, last time?”

            “Are you starting to remember more of that evening, sir?” Colin’s face is twisting into a sinister grin. You never saw his teeth, but now he is smiling so wide I swear I can almost see tiny fangs in there. More importantly, the fog in my memory is starting to lift.

            “Yes, I do remember something now. I was outside in the snow. I was holding hands with a beautiful woman whose acquaintance I just met here at the bar. Then…then I staggered back in here and sat back down. Then that poor, crazed bum burst in here with the cold and the snow and all that shrieking.”

            “Is that all you can remember, sir?” A toothy grin, now. My, Colin, those definitely are some fangs.

            “Uh…yes I suppose that’s it. I wonder what happened to that woman. I must have her telephone number around here somewhere.”

            “It wouldn’t do you much good, sir.”

            “Why not, Colin? Has she been disconnected?”

            “She’s dead, sir.”

            “Dead? Surely you joke. She can’t possibly be dead. Unless she was—“

            Colin, you evil demon. What else was in this Singapore Sling besides my beloved alcohol? There must be some fabrication agent or something in here. Or maybe, that’s truly what happened. I do remember a knife in my hand, dripping blood onto the snow. I slipped it into the storm grate and heard it clatter in the sewers below where no one would find it. I killed that girl. Yes, it’s clear to me now. I suppose I must turn myself in, now. Let it be known that no matter how much of a scoundrel I could be, I have always done things by the book.

            A fog is falling over me again. I’m feeling a bit ill. Colin is just staring at me now with fire in his eyes and flames are jutting out of his face. This can’t be good. The fruit juices must not be agreeing with me. Suppose I should go to hospital. The legs don’t want to work. I need help, Colin. Why aren’t you helping me? I finally remember your name you bastard and you go ahead and poison me? You must have known all along. You’re the devil, Colin. If I ever open my eyes and make it off this floor again, you’ll be sorry!