Go Now, You Are Forgiven
I took the back stairs to the front office from my classroom in the seventh grade hallway, more out of habit than for any logical reason. I never used the main stairwell at the front of the building, avoiding the corners where the district people congregated. I would rather run into a pair of teenagers making out than to make small talk with one of those suits.
The moon did its best to shine through the tall windows on the landing, although a crack running through the left pane blemished it slightly. The legend went that a gang tried to shoot up the school looking for a kid who had been running their weed for them, who played reverse hooky and spent the day in class for once. That story excited them, made them feel tough and real, like they were living in a war zone, like every day could be the last battle. I didn’t know if the story was true.
The faculty entrance to the office was locked; I jiggled my key in the lock a few times. A work order has been created, Dr. Ybarra had said in the staff newsletter a few weeks prior, then refused to give any further updates. We knew he just didn’t want us teachers using the faculty restroom when he wanted us to be hallway-monitoring, test-grading, lesson-planning, after-school-tutoring. We joked that using the bathroom apparently required a substitute request. We already had to pay for the number of copies we made over our monthly quota; we couldn’t afford the luxury of bodily functions.
Having given up on the back door, I walked down the hall a few more paces and turned right into the lobby to access the main entrance. Once inside the office, I found my mailbox, empty but for one sheet of paper: Dr. Ybarra’s write-up of his observation from today, neat and crisp and cruel as expected. Classroom management protocols not aligned. Student objectives posted, but illegible. Does not meet expectations. I crumpled it into my right hand, my class ring pinching the skin around my knuckle. Dr. Ybarra’s face came into clear focus.
Ybarra looked like an alien: small, round, bald-headed. His eyes slanted close together, a little too small. He could look straight ahead without the trajectories of his eyes ever crossing, just blazing forward like headlights. Their color eluded me; we had rarely looked each other in the eyes over the five years I had been working at Mendoza.
I had decided to become a teacher for much of the same reason I had joined the army. I had always wanted to escape from the world and its complicated expectations, its contradictory demands. Nothing was clear; everyone had to cut their own path through the wilderness of life and adulthood. I saw my parents being beaten down as this wilderness ground their lives into dust, into desert. I didn’t want adventure, I didn’t want power, I didn’t want to make a difference. I just wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do. Explicit rules and consequences. I needed a system to hold me up, and walls to hold me together. Without guidance, I was all alone out there, in the world. We all are really; we don’t have anybody to keep us going, or to keep us from going off of a cliff.
The crumpled sheet of paper in my fist reminded me that I was a failure even to meet the most direct of expectations, the most explicit guidance. It was all pointless, my quest for this world within a world. I had tried to do everything asked of me, tried to check every box, but the list of boxes was infinite. And some boxes, no matter how hard I pressed down with black or red pen, even marker, they resisted my efforts and remained blank, the ink soaking through the page and dissolving. The only way out at this point was to destroy the pages I’ve already completed. Start over.
At night, the office seemed abandoned, tasted dusty; the dark closeness reminded me of the raids. All of us in full gear, infrareds on, sweating, panting like dogs. We waited for the orders and then ran, the original plan always forgotten by the time the signal came to go, go, go. I just followed the man in front of me, head down, gun pointed and aimed, finger hovering by the trigger. The sand stuck in my eyelashes, turned crusty and heavy. The burning, killing smell lodged in my nostrils for days, attaching itself to every other scent that filtered through.
My kids, they knew I had been in the army. Their only frame of reference was the kind of cartoony drill sergeant they saw on tv. I played it up. Drill sergeants know that what they instill in their recruits can save their lives – responsibility, respect, discipline. It’s life or death out there. Here, too. I gave them speeches about how what they learned in my science classes could save their lives. Always noticed those kids in the back of the room with that look on their faces: glazed over eyes, expressionless. That look intimidated some of the teachers, I guess. Scared them. Since I’ve been at Mendoza, at least three teachers have left crying in the middle of the day and then never came back. Me, I know what that look means. It says, You think you can save my life? Lady, nothing can save my life. My life is already over. I’ve given up. And if you’re smart, you should give up on me too.
A light flickered across the reception desk. Ybarra’s office. He never stayed past 5:30, always left with an urgency as if he feared he would turn into a pumpkin. I could always see him shuffling to his car from my classroom, his bald head glowing orange in the glow of the security lights, wobbling back and forth.
I pulled my phone from my pocket, clicked the side button to check the time. 7:30. Why was he still here?
I tossed my observation eval into the recycling bin, although I knew the custodians just dumped both the recycling and the trash in the same dumpster at the end of the day. Didn’t blame them. I crossed the dark office and knocked on his door. I didn’t hear anything.
When I opened the door and saw him lying on the floor, my first thought was that he’d had a heart attack. He looked clammy and scared. I could really see how small he was, curled up on the floor like that. I thought I saw blood. I knew I saw blood. I knew what blood looked like.
Help, he said. Help me. He whined like a little kid, eyes wide. He licked his lips.
I have killed so many people, most on orders, and sometimes just because it felt right, felt good even. In the army, I had learned to channel this kind of karmic judgment power, to listen for the message, to know when it was someone’s time, to know when I needed to take action.
I have cystic fibrosis, he said. I need to get to a hospital. I need a breathing treatment. I think I have pneumonia.
Hm. I said. I wondered how fatal this kind of attack could be. I wondered what kind of injections they would give him at the hospital.
He couldn’t even say my name, or maybe he didn’t even know my name, or maybe he was in such distress that he couldn’t come back to this reality. Maybe he was already that far gone.
I wondered if anyone knew he was still at school, that he hadn’t made it home.
Do you want me to call someone for you? Your wife, or…?
No, he said. No, there’s no one.
There was no one.
Let me take you to the hospital, I heard myself saying, felt my shoulders stretch and flex as I curled my arms beneath his prone body, felt my back contract as I handily lifted him from the ground. Everything about me felt certain, like an expected package had been left at my front door, like I was slicing through the thick plastic tape already knowing what waited for me beneath the corrugated cardboard.
Driving away from the school in the dark, I thought about a few days ago, when I was considering driving my truck across the median on William Cannon into the pre-rush hour traffic, the construction trucks half-lumbering half-screaming down the hill towards the new housing developments on McKinney Falls Parkway. Ugly boxes stacked on top of each other had replaced the horses and goats that once grazed in the eerie pre-dawn. Metal caped every edge of the houses, sent sharp light breaking through my windshield. It felt apocalyptic, not only because of the houses and the white women pushing jogging strollers and the group workout classes suddenly appearing in my Texas wilderness, but because everything seemed poised to end – everything. Apocalypse. Desperation.
The sounds of the ranch: wailing bugs in every tree, hooting coyotes across the property. I lifted Ybarra into the murky, heavy air. He seemed to understand what was happening now, or what wasn’t happening, that he had no strength to fight back, that we were at the end. He took a shaky breath. The ranch has more air, out here, so you’d think breathing would come easier, but my chest always contracts as soon as I arrive, overwhelmed by the amount of oxygen, like my lungs would rather inhale the smog and dirt and haze of the city than the fresh, full air of the east coming through the buffalo grass.
It’s so dark, he said. I didn’t respond.
The ranch house had a basement, which I used for storage and not much else. Like most people. I was usually just like most people. I carried Ybarra down the stairs. He whimpered, like a stillborn puppy trying to come back to life. I found a rag, crusty and hard; I shoved it in his mouth. His pupils were huge. Tears clustered in the corners of his eyes, started sluggishly inching their way down his face. I set him up against a pole, tied his hands behind his back with electrical tape. Nudged and adjusted him until he sat mostly upright.
Did you learn this in the army? His voice cracked. I could see how hearing his own voice pained him.
The army isn’t about respecting authority, it’s about fearing it. I said. It’s about power.
Did you hurt people? He asked.
Sometimes, I said.
Did you like it?
In the Gulf, I hadn’t told anyone in my unit I was a lesbian. That’s the time we were in. Not that it wasn’t obvious. We were good at pretending; you had to be in the army. Pretending the war would end soon. Pretending the war was doing something good.
I don’t know exactly how it happened. I hadn’t been drinking and neither had she. We started talking. Celeste wasn’t even in my unit, and I only saw her occasionally when all of us came back to the base to catch our breath and wait for our next assignments. We kissed; I thought that someone saw. I was good at pretending. Get away from me, you fucking dyke, I screamed. I pushed her away from me, hard, felt the palms of my hands connect with her collar bones. She didn’t seem hurt, disappointed – just blank, resigned. An ending. A confirmation of solitude.
I didn’t know who had seen; I wondered who she had told. I didn’t know her at all, really. Just her name, Celeste McAfee, and that she grew up in Wisconsin. Joined up right after high school, like me. Had to get out. Ended up nowhere.
I found her in her tent, alone. Tied her hands together in front of her, so her thumbs dangled right at her pelvis. I had expected her to scream, had almost wanted her to. If she screamed, someone would hear, someone would come, someone would stop me. It would absolve me from having to take this action to fruition. It would be a sign of a different direction I should take, a reversal of my life so far instead of an affirmation.
No one heard; no one came; no one stopped me.
Officially, they labeled Celeste as AWOL when they couldn’t find her the next day, or the next one. They didn’t have any evidence of foul play, no reason to believe anything bad had happened to her. By then, I could cover my tracks pretty good; I knew what to do and what not to do. There, you couldn’t distinguish between the desert and the wilderness. The landscape was a place to get lost and a place to hide.
There’s just a lot of pain in the world, you know? I said. People die all of the time. They kill each other. They kill themselves. What’s the point of trying to prevent it or separate from it? You would be the only one not participating. Might as well enjoy the life you’ve got while it lasts. Get away with what you can. I licked my lips.
I’m not, he heaved, a bad person.
I shrugged. I guess not.
I hit him once with my closed fist, before I even realized what I was doing. It felt good. His face was softer than any face I’d ever hit, softer than Celeste’s. I think I wanted to hit him more than I’ve ever wanted to hit anyone.
Stories always end badly for people. It’s why I didn’t get into English class. Math I liked okay. Every problem had a solution, and it wasn’t moral or judgmental but it just was. In science, though, every problem had hundreds of potential solutions, and it all depended on how the variables interacted in time and space, and how well you conducted the experiment.
Killing Dr. Ybarra wasn’t a random act of violence. It wasn’t premeditated, either. And both of those lacking descriptors made it so pure, so perfect: the right balance the world needed right now.
About the Author
Robin Lanehurst grew up in St. Louis, MO and is now a professional school counselor in Houston, TX where they live with their wife and their menagerie of animals. They identify as queer and gender non-binary and prefer the pronouns they/them/theirs. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Coe Review, Mindfray, Cooperative Catalyst, and Wanderful. They are also proud to work as the Copyeditor for The Offing Magazine.