EMILY STARED at the board covered with dates while Ms. Mumford droned. The dates blurred and faded, as Emily pictured the scene at dinner the night before. Her mother had brought Mr. Dempsey (“call me Mark”) home, and Emily was conflicted about it.
On one hand, Mark seemed nice enough. He showed a gentle strength under his quiet manner. He did not interrupt Emily or Katherine, which was saying a lot in Emily’s estimation. At twelve years old, she already understood her mother’s annoyance at being disrespected in conversation. It bothered Emily, too. That he was fit and handsome in a plain way also counted in his favor. Katherine Hampstead was a champion athlete, though she had left the professional marathon and triathlon circuit when Emily came along. And Emily could see that her mother was comfortable with Mark.
No, more than comfortable. She had not seen that look on her mother’s face since the day before her father had died in front of Colonial Elementary School five years ago. It made Emily feel happy and scared at the same time.
Happy to see her mother relaxing in a way she had not seen for more half of all the time that Emily could remember.
Feeling scared puzzled her. She was not afraid of Mark, so why this feeling that something threatened her and her life with Katherine? Was she afraid that Mark would die, too? Her heart sank at the thought that she and her mother might carry a curse.
“Miss Hampstead?” The blackboard came into focus, as did Ms. Mumford’s tight mouth and arched eyebrow. “Daydreaming again?”
“Sorry, ma’am.” Emily heard tittering from the rows behind her.
“See me after class.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Emily blushed fiercely from a combination of embarrassment and dreaded anticipation. Recess would feature more snide remarks and bullying from her classmates. Emily had only transferred to Chisholm Middle School this year, and quickly found herself out of favor with the cliques of girls who had grown up in Newton. Only three classmates, whose parents were stationed at the big Air Force base in Wichita, did not give her a hard time: two boys and one girl. Still, they would not be caught defending the new girl now that they were being tolerated by the others.
It did not help that she was one of the smallest girls in seventh grade. That most of the riders on her bus were eighth-graders made things worse. She had a bruise where Bill Medford had pinched her yesterday. She had slapped him, but he grabbed her wrist and twisted it until it hurt. The rest of the bus laughed until the driver stopped the bus and chewed them out. Still, the smirks and giggles went on until they reached the school.
After class, Emily approached the teacher’s desk. She stood there while the class filed out. Only when they were alone did Ms. Mumford speak.
“You weren’t daydreaming, were you, Emily?”
“You seem worried about something. Can you tell me?” Emily stood quietly, wringing her fingers. “Are you being bullied?” Emily nodded. “Who?” Emily looked down and closed her lips tightly. “They’re not your friends. You don’t owe them any loyalty. Who is bullying you?”
Emily looked up at Ms. Mumford. “Everybody and nobody in particular.”
“It’s more than the bullying, isn’t it?” Emily nodded. “Do you think you could talk to someone about it?”
“I don’t know anyone that well.”
“We’re here to help, Emily, not just push dates at you. Nurse Gibson told me that she likes you. Maybe you could talk to her. She won’t tell anyone, because that’s how nurses and doctors are. Would you go see her?”
“Can I go during recess?” The play period after lunch.
“You don’t want to go to recess?”
Ms. Mumford thought for a moment. “I understand, and I think that seeing the nurse instead of recess is a good idea. Here’s a referral slip.” She checked some boxes on the top page of the pad on her desk and gave the form to Emily. “You are a bright girl, and you seemed to enjoy this class at first. I would like to see you enjoy it again.”
Emily thanked the teacher, shouldered her backpack, and went down the hall. She heard the shouts and laughter of her classmates through the open windows to the schoolyard. Some of the deeper laughter drowned out squeals of pain. She was glad not to be out there.
At the little office that served as an infirmary, Emily found a note on the door:
For emergencies, go to the school office. The nurse will return tomorrow.
Emily dismissed the idea of going to recess immediately. This is not an emergency, so I don’t have to go to the office. Instead, she walked to the back of the building, where she knew the maintenance workers had their shops and storerooms. She heard the janitors and the maintenance men talking loudly over their lunches. Creeping behind the lockers and tables, she found a storeroom that she had discovered when she got lost the first week of school. It held a large quantity of very dusty boxes, which meant that no one ever came in the room. With a door to the outside and to the inside, it made a perfect place to hide. She cleaned off a pair of boxes by the window, and took out the Nancy Drew book that she had borrowed from her mother…
By using the outside door when the bell rang at the end of recess, she could join the other students in the schoolyard returning to class. Each afternoon, she returned feeling restored and ready to face the afternoon.
In the storage room she escaped into the books she loved. She read novels, and books about explorers, survival, and real-life adventures from around the world. She tracked down books about the women in an article in an issue of The Guardian that she found in the library: “Top Ten inspiring female adventurers,” by Rosemary Brown. The biographies of Nellie Bly, Gertrude Bell, Bessie Coleman, and others became the stuff of her daydreams.
“Miss Hampstead, would you stay a moment?” Ms. Mumford glared at the other students who had stopped. They left quickly. Emily approached the desk.
“First, let me say that I am pleased that you seem to have recovered your spirits since I sent you to Nurse Gibson. But she told me yesterday that you never came to see her.”
Emily bit her mouth inside to keep from reacting visibly.
“There was a note on the door that she was out all day.”
“Yes, I remember that now. So, why the change?”
“They’re not bugging me at recess.”
“That’s good. Any idea why?”
“Not picking on someone else, are they?”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen anything.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, Nurse Gibson said she’d be happy to meet with you any time about anything. That goes for me, too, Emily.” She pointed at the door, and Emily walked quickly to the next class. She let out her breath at the door, surprised that she had been holding it.
“Mom, stop it!”
Katherine put down the phone and leaned her hip on the kitchen counter. Her eyebrows formed a question.
“I’m old enough to be a babysitter myself. Why are you trying to find someone to watch me tomorrow night?”
“Go out with Mark. Have a good time. I promise not to burn the house down or to open the door to strangers.”
“What will you do?”
“What do you think? Homework. Maybe work on that history paper that’s due next week. Maybe I’ll stream some pornography on the internet.”
“Just kidding, Mom.” She grinned. “C’mon. You worry too much. The only one likely to get in trouble is you without me there to embarrass you.”
Katherine sighed and opened the dishwasher. They put dishes away in companionable silence. Emily collected the trash and hauled the heavy bin to the curb. When she returned, Katherine was sitting in their small living room with a cup of coffee. Emily got herself a glass of orange juice and joined her mother.
“You’re starting your growth spurt, Emily.”
“How do you know?” She knew she was still shorter than everyone else.
“You’ve gotten skinny since we moved here, but you’re getting stronger in spite of that. Do you feel any different?”
“What about your emotions?”
“Only that I would like to break Billy Medford’s face.”
“Anger. That’s new. Who is Billy Medford?”
“Eighth grader on the bus. He pinches me when I go by. Sometimes it leaves a bruise. One time I slapped him, but he grabbed my arm and twisted it.”
“Emily! That’s assault.”
“No. Pinching you. What happened after that?”
“Nothing. The other kids think it’s funny. They laughed so hard that the driver stopped and chewed everyone out.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since the first week. Most of the kids on the bus are his friends or they’re afraid of him.”
“He was retained in sixth grade, so he’s older and bigger than anyone else. And he’s built like a football player.”
“You need to report this to the office.”
“And have him and his gang beat me up or something?”
“Is it that bad?”
“That’s what happened last year when someone tried to stand up to him at recess. After the fight Billy and the other kid were suspended for a week, but the other kid never came back. Apparently, he was mugged that night, and his family put him in private school.”
“Maybe I should look into private schools too.”
“No, Mom. That wouldn’t help. I have to live with these creeps later, so I’d rather figure out how to do that now.”
They sat in silence while Emily tried to picture ways of getting Billy Medford and the other bullies to leave her alone. For her part, Katherine admired Emily’s intention to deal with the challenge. I couldn’t afford private school anyway.
“Mom, what if I did break his face?”
Katherine started to reply then caught herself. She looked long and hard at Emily, then at the pictures of Charlie over the mantle. One in his Marine Corps dress uniform. The other, her favorite, taken as he broke the tape at a marathon race after she was pregnant with Emily. She saw the shape of Charlie’s head in Emily’s profile.
“I think you should report the bullying to someone first.”
“That’s whining, isn’t it?”
“No.” Katherine swung to her daughter, and a dark expression came over her face. “That’s a warning. You say he bugs you regularly?”
“When you report it, explain that you intend to defend yourself the next time it happens.”
“After you report it, I’ll add my complaint as an outraged parent. Then, when you break his face – or arm or whatever – your report and my complaint will come out, and they will be at fault for not taking action.”
“How do I break his face?”
“Now that’s the fun part.” Katherine rose and extended her hand. “Come downstairs.”
The next morning, Emily paused at the front of the bus. She took in the rows of expectant faces, some grinning, some looking worried. Billy Medford pretended to look out the window, his lips in a silent whistle like a cartoon character. The only free seats were in the back of the bus. She took a deep breath and started down the aisle.
As she passed Billy, she felt his fingers on the back of her thigh. She reached down, clamping her right hand on his arm and reaching out to grab his other wrist as he brought it up. That put her face an inch from his.
“Do that again, Medford, and I’ll break something!”
The shock on Billy’s face gave way to red fury and embarrassment, but by then Emily was already two seats away.
“Sit down, Billy,” the driver called. “Let the others get on.”
When they arrived at school, Emily went in search of Ms. Mumford before class. The teacher was coming out of the faculty lounge.
“I want to report bullying, Ms. Medford. Where do I go?”
“At last. I have a form in my desk. Come.” She led Emily to the social studies classroom.
That afternoon, the Air Force girl told her that Billy was looking for her at recess.
Katherine disengaged and looked into Mark’s eyes. He smiled and tilted his head to the house.
“No lights on.”
“Why do I feel like a teenager creeping in after curfew?” She reached into her purse for her keys.
“Because that’s what you look like.” He kissed her gently. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He waited at his car while she opened the door, then he drove silently away. Inside, she found a note taped to her bedroom door.
Your bathrobe is too long for me, the rolling pin got heavy, and I couldn’t find any curlers.
I went to bed.
A smiley face with crossed eyes grinned from the bottom of the page. She smiled and sighed quietly as she took down the note and went to bed herself.
Saturday morning, the smell of coffee snapped Katherine awake. The sun was well up. I don’t remember setting the coffeemaker last night. She leaped out of bed and went to her closet. Her bathrobe was hung inside out. She grinned and put it on. After a quick peek in the mirror, she followed the aroma.
Emily sat at the kitchen table with the morning newspaper. She got up and went to the coffeemaker.
“Good morning, Doctor Hampstead. I take it you had a satisfactory evening.” She handed her mother a mug. “I hope it’s okay.”
Katherine smelled the rich brew and took a careful taste. “Perfect. Where did you learn to make coffee?”
“Of course. I still don’t think of that first.”
“Well, how was your date?”
“You’re pretty cheeky for a twelve-year-old, you know.”
“Call me a liberated teenager. Some of my classmates are already dating.”
Emily nodded. “Judging from the litter in the girl’s room, there are a lot of periods too.”
“Isn’t sex education supposed to be in high school?”
“It’ll be too late for some of them. I hope they have something new to teach us by then.”
Katherine shook her head. “Well, the date was wonderful.”
“I guessed that. I watched Bride of Frankenstein until two-thirty, then gave up.”
“In my bathrobe?” They laughed. Emily sipped her milk and looked steadily at her mother.
“How serious are you and Mark?”
Katherine paused, “I don’t know. I only met him at the new faculty orientation party when we arrived. He’s an adjunct professor at the Institute for Aviation Research. What? Two dates?”
“Yes, but long ago, I resolved to bring any man I dated home. They need to know that I come with baggage.”
“I’m a suitcase?”
“No, but they have to pass the Emily test.”
“I get it. I like Mark. But I also liked the Army colonel in Fredericksburg.”
“He was nice, but there was no spark there.”
“It’s different with Mark, isn’t it?”
“I think so – no, I know so.”
They sat for a while.
“Mom, if it makes any difference, I don’t mind having him hang around all you like.”
“Good, because I’d like to have him over again tomorrow. Okay with you?”
“Are you testing the way to a man’s heart through his stomach?”
“It’s fine with me.”
Katherine stood. “Speaking of food, I need breakfast. What have you planned for today?”
“I had some oatmeal already, but we could fix more. Or we could ride to that waffle place downtown.” Emily was wearing a bicycle kit.
“Let’s do that. I am so sick of driving all week…”
Emily shivered at the bus stop Monday morning. It wasn’t cold, but she was terrified and excited at the same time. She hoped a stern look would dissuade any moves from Billy, but she also hoped she was ready if not.
Pausing at the top of the steps, she spotted Billy in his usual seat. The others were staring expectantly, and Emily could feel the frisson of anticipation in the bus. Billy was looking directly at her this time. She felt her stomach jump before her steady breathing took over.
“Don’t, Billy,” she called as she started down the aisle.
Sure enough, the pinch came as she passed him.
Emily reached with her left hand, and pulled the boy almost out of his seat as she whirled to the left, drawing his left arm across the aisle. She pulled up her right knee into his elbow and heard the pop as it dislocated. Then she turned back and walked to the open seat in the back of the bus.
An hour later, she sat in the sergeant’s office at the police department, waiting for her mother to arrive. The driver had called the police. The officers who responded were careful not to ask her any questions.
“We’ll let the right people sort this out, but let’s get her out of here before the media shows up.”
Billy had been taken off the bus by ambulance, screaming. The others got off the bus at school a half-hour late.
Outside, she could hear a commotion.
“What’s going on?” she asked the sergeant.
“Reporters and TV crews. Not every day we have this much excitement in Newton.”
Emily looked out the window. The reporters were mobbing her mother as she tried to walk to the door. To Emily’s surprise, Mark was with her, plowing a path to the door for her.
“Come with me, miss.” The sergeant led her to a conference room down the hall. The police chief, Mark, Katherine, the school principal, Doctor Morgan, and a man she did not know were seated around the table. A lawyer?
Katherine rose and hugged her daughter. When they sat down, the police chief did the introductions. The stranger was a lawyer, on retainer to Mark’s company. Oh, right, Emily thought. Adjuncts are part-timers. He would have another job.
“This could drag on indefinitely with the media interest,” said the police chief. “I wanted to get the principal characters in this affair together without the Medfords. They are threatening to sue the school and Ms. Hampstead—”
“Professor Hampstead or Doctor Hampstead,” said Mark. He had cut off both the police chief and Katherine. Emily had picked up on the policeman’s dismissive tone. Mark rolled his hand for the chief to continue.
“Anyway, it appears that young William initiated the exchange that led to his dislocated elbow. And apparently Emily has reported him for repeated assaults over the last six weeks.” He looked at the principal, who nodded, keeping her face as impassive as she could manage. “What is your take on this, Ms. – Doctor Hampstead?”
“The school has a problem with bullying on the bus and at recess. If they can get a handle on the problem, I’d rather not see anyone sued. Doctor Morgan and her teachers are my colleagues. I would be willing to work with them on that.”
“And the Medfords?”
Katherine exchanged glances with the attorney. “I don’t know them personally. If their son stays in the school system, he’ll come under whatever measures are put in place to deal with bullies. I heard reports of earlier bullying and even assaults on another student outside school. You may find yourself dealing with William, so you might want to be ready for that. Emily has used the minimum force needed to end a threatening situation, while bringing the attention of the right people to the problem.” She looked at the attorney. “Anything to add?”
“Chief, the Medfords could be ruined by taking this to court. They should spend their money on help for William.”
The chief looked around the table, then consulted the papers that he had brought with him.
“No one is willing to testify to what happened except Emily and William, so we have nothing to give the prosecutor. The school system will have to deal with William based on the reports, and my people will watch out for any misbehavior outside of school.
“You are free to go. I’ll let you know if we need anything else.”
“Emily, where were you during recess today?” Emily stopped in the hall. Her mother was never home before she was. “The school called me at work because they looked everywhere for you.”
Emily looked down. She started to speak, then clamped her mouth shut. She repeated that sequence twice before squeaking out, “Hiding.”
“Why? Who from? Where? – no! Let’s sit down first.”
They sat at the kitchen table, Emily with a glass of orange juice, Katherine with a glass of Pinot Grigio. Emily explained the storeroom.
“So you haven’t been to recess since the second week of school?”
“So you don’t know who is there or what has been happening, especially since Billy Medford was expelled?”
Emily shrugged. “After Billy left, most of the other seventh graders got friendly. They tell me what’s going on in the afternoon.”
“Dear, you don’t have to hide now.”
“I know, but Mom, you should see the place. No one has ever gone in there but me. I dusted and swept it, moved a nice leather chair in from another storeroom and a table for my lunch. I even built a bookcase from some orange crates.”
“This is how you manage to read so many books?” Emily nodded.
“Please, Mom, don’t tell. I like it there. It’s the only place in school where I can be alone, and I need that.”
“Emily, you need to develop social skills on the playground too.”
“I know.” Emily felt a great sadness. She hung her head and tried not to cry. “I need to be alone sometimes.” Her eyes were glistening when she raised her head.
Katherine thought for a while. “You say that you can go either indoors or outdoors?” Emily nodded. “Let’s try this. Keep track of the time, and halfway through recess, ease out among the others. Half a recess is better than none for those social skills. Does that sound like a plan?”
Emily nodded. “Why didn’t they make an announcement? I would have heard that.”
“Doctor Morgan wanted to talk to you, and said it was not urgent enough for an announcement. Go see her tomorrow.”
“And I never heard of this room.” Katherine smiled.
© 2021, JT Hine
Thank you for reading this story. There really is a Chisholm Middle School in Newton, home of the Railers. I made up everything else.
Any thoughts on why the title is “bullies” and not “bully”?
Please comment below.