James Mulhern’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in over one hundred literary journals and anthologies. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing has earned a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019, and a RED RIBBON WINNER, highly recommended by The Wishing Shelf Book Awards in the United Kingdom.
By James Mulhern
Helen threw the candy wrapper into the trash barrel, then walked to her desk as I read a line from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”: “For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay had been literally swarming with rats.”
She vomited. The other students screamed epithets, laughed, or moved their desks away as chunks of school lunch spewed from Helen’s mouth.
“You fucking loser,” Gabe said. He used the textbook cover to wipe bits of nacho off his shirt.
“Quiet down,” I shouted to the class. I grabbed some napkins from my desk and asked Sandy, who sat by the door, to get the school nurse.
I gave Helen the napkins. She wiped her face and said she was sorry.
“No need to apologize. Sit down and rest your head on the desk.”
She leaned onto crossed arms.
“Go to the bathroom and wash yourself up,” I told Gabe.
He flung the vomit-smeared textbook onto the floor.
“Gross!” Damien, a long-legged track star with frizzy hair, said.
When Nurse Sommers entered with Sandy, she appraised the situation with darting eyes. She was a tall black woman with golden-brown eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor. “I want calm in here. Listen to your music if you want.” Immediately cell phones and earbuds came out.
When she was next to Helen, she spoke softly and touched her forehead. “Are you still feeling nauseous?”
“Like you’re going to vomit again?”
“No. I think I got freaked out by the story, and those nachos at lunch were really nasty.”
“You feel warm,” Nurse Sommers said. “Are you strong enough to walk with me to my office?”
“I think so.”
“You, sir.” She pointed at Damien. “Assist me.”
“Why me?” Damien looked around at the other students.
“Because you look strong and responsible and kind.”
Damien smiled. “I’ll help.”
“Mr. Darnell.” She seemed tired. “Call Ms. Antonelli and let her know what happened.”
“I already did.”
The door opened. Ms. Antonelli, the school principal, a woman in her early forties, always dressed impeccably in designer clothes, entered. She had a serene presence and was well liked by the students.
“I’m taking her to my office. This young man will assist me,” Nurse Sommers said.
“Great. Thank you.” Ms. Antonelli turned to me. “Can I speak with you in the hallway?”
I said to the class, “Keep quiet while we talk outside.” Most of the students nodded.
After the nurse exited with her arm around Helen and Damien on the other side, I shut the door and met her in the hallway.
“Tell me exactly what happened.” Her voice was relaxed and her brown eyes concerned.
I told her about Helen Thano.
“You’ll have to make out an incident report.”
“Now?” I looked through the glass of my door. The students seemed fine.
“You can drop by my office after school. I’ll have the janitor clean the room. Just keep the students away from where Helen was sitting. Mr. Abbas will need to disinfect. I’ll have Valerie see if there’s a room where you can bring the class.” She looked at her watch. “Never mind. The bell will ring in five minutes.” She twisted her lips and looked up. “When is your planning period?”
“After this class.”
“Perfect. Mr. Abbas can clean the room thoroughly. If you want to get the form out of the way, stop by next period. It won’t take long. Valerie, as you know, is quite efficient. She’ll help you.”
The bell rang and the students exited quickly, excited to tell the story of “Heaving Helen,” I heard one student say. I waited for Mr. Abbas, a kind thin man with sunken cheeks and sparkly eyes.
“It’s always something.” He dragged a mop and bucket into the room. His hands were gloved. Another janitor, a chubby man whose name I couldn’t remember, followed with a cart of supplies—disinfectant, paper towels, plastic bags, cleaning solutions.
“You’ll be all right in here? I have to go to the office.”
“Sure. Sure,” Mr. Abbas said. The chubby man was already on his knees spraying a solution and wiping the puke up with paper towels.
“Ain’t nothin’ new. Always cleaning up a mess around this place. Sometimes I wish I could disinfect the school of students. They can be such pigs.”
“I understand. You’d be surprised how often I think of ways to get rid of them.” I laughed. The chubby man guffawed. His forehead was sweaty, his hair greasy. He probably needed to be sanitized himself, I thought, smiling at him.
I grabbed a pen and walked to Ms. Antonelli’s office.
“I’ve got the form right here.” Valerie pointed to the top of a pile of papers on her desk. Her cubicle smelled of Christian Dior’s Poison. Her fingernails, as usual, were perfect—a French manicure. Rumor was she worked just to get out of the house. Her husband was a rich contractor and they certainly didn’t need Valerie’s small salary.
I sat in the blue plastic chair while she watched me fill out the form. The top part was general information—student name, sex, grade, and a section about the observer (me). The second part was confusing.
“It says ‘Accident’ here.” I looked at Valerie who was shuffling through papers. “She vomited. Is that considered an ‘accident’?”
She sighed and waved her hand. “Well she didn’t do it on purpose.” She laughed. “And who the hell cares? No one looks at these things anyway. They get filed away in some drawer.” She fluffed her blond hair and rubbed a spot on her pink dress.
Most of the information was impertinent—“Burn, dislocation, puncture, concussion.” I was thankful for the comment section, where I wrote a succinct account of the event. As I handed the paper to Valerie, Ms. Antonelli entered.
“I was looking at Helen Thano’s file. She has an I.E.P.” An I.E.P. is an Individualized Education Program, a document for students with special needs or concerns.
“Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Crohn’s disease, seizure disorder. . . . This young lady’s a mess. Have you read her I.E.P., Mr. Darnell?”
“Of course I have. I read all student documentation.” Does she think I’m negligent? I felt my cheeks burning and removed my glasses. I hung them on my shirt pocket. I noticed a speck of puke on my chinos.
“Her file also records that you’ve had a few meetings with her Exceptional Needs Facilitator, Ms. Stillman, and the school counselor and Mrs. Thano.”
“Yes.” I folded my arms. She stared into my eyes, as if waiting for me to say something else. Valerie said she had to use the restroom and excused herself.
When she left, Ms. Antonelli said, “She wears too much perfume” and coughed.
“Yes, this place reeks with the smell of Poison.”
“Ms. Stillman said there was some friction between you and Helen’s mother at the last meeting. She said you ‘had words’”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so. I simply stated facts about Helen’s performance in class, her speaking out of turn and making snide comments. I suggested to Mrs. Thano that perhaps Helen might be seeking attention.”
“Ms. Stillman said you seemed irritated, and after the mother left, told her that Helen was a . . .” She looked at the pad she was holding. “‘rat and her mother was a pain in the ass.’”
“That sounds accurate.”
She sat down in Valerie’s chair. “Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh?”
“No. I believe my assessment is spot on. Besides, I said those things in confidence to Ms. Stillman. Sometimes we need to vent. You understand that.”
“Yes, I do.” She put her elbows on the desk and rested her head in cupped palms.
I said, “Helen likes to be the center of attention. She often says she has a problem with the workload in my class and talks about colleagues in a disparaging manner. I think something may be going on at home. Did Ms. Stillman tell you that I also expressed that concern? I was hoping she could look into it.”
“That’s not the point, Mr. Darnell.”
“What is the point, Ms. Antonelli?”
“I think you could be more empathetic.”
I snickered. “And helping her wipe up her vomit or calling the school nurse immediately is not empathetic?”
“Other students have complained you can be mean,” she said, almost sympathetically.
“First time I’ve heard that. Why haven’t you mentioned this before? Are you afraid of me, Ms. Antonelli?” I glared at her. She scratched her neck. Her mouth quivered.
“Not at all.”
I feigned a sweet voice. “I understand. I will try to be more warm.” I rose from the chair. “Have you spoken with the nurse?”
“Nurse Sommers says Helen’s fine. Her mother is coming to pick her up.”
“That’s good. The poor girl could use some rest. . . . Will that be all? I have to prepare for my next class.”
She stood up. “Yes.” She smiled. “And thank you for taking care of Helen.”
“Certainly.” I smiled and left for my classroom.
A while later, Ms. Antonelli entered, followed by Helen and Mrs. Thano.
“I want to thank you for taking care of Helen today.” Mrs. Thano’s face was white, her auburn hair a mess. She pushed bangs away from her glassy blue eyes. The end of her nose was red and she held a tissue in a fist.
“Helen gets nervous sometimes. I think that horror story got to her.”
Helen pouted. “I told you it was mostly the nachos from lunch.”
“Okay, sweetheart. All that matters is you feel better now.” Mrs. Thano kissed her forehead.
“Poe can be pretty graphic. I understand how the part about rats might have bothered her.” I smiled at Helen who was holding onto her mother’s arm as though her life depended on it. She looked away.
“What do you say?” Mrs. Thano glanced at her daughter.
“Thank you, Mr. Darnell.”
“No need to thank me. I’m glad you’re OK.”
“I hope the rest of your day is less hectic.” Mrs. Thano laughed. “We’ll leave you alone.” She opened the door and began to leave.
Ms. Antonelli said, “I’m happy things worked out all right.”
“We’ll be fine. Probably just a small case of food poisoning.”
“That seems likely,” I said.
When the two left, Ms. Antonelli said, “I want to apologize. I was a bit accusatory earlier.”
“Apology accepted. And I understand how I may come off as ‘harsh.’ I’ve been told I can be too blunt. It’s just that I like to be direct. I enjoy getting things done and coming up with solutions for problems.”
“You’re a good teacher, Mr. Darnell. Keep it up.” She looked around the classroom. “I’m glad to see Mr. Abbas cleaned things up.”
“He always does a good job.”
She looked at her watch. “God! You only have ten minutes before next period. I’ll leave you be.” She opened the door. “Enjoy your evening.”
“You too. . . . Would you like a piece of candy before you go? Peppermint?” I held one up.
She placed a hand on her abdomen. “No thanks. I’m trying to avoid sugar. Those hard candies are so addictive.” She laughed.
“True. And if you eat too many, they can make you sick.”
When she left, I took the Visine out of my drawer. I found the paper listing the poisonous effects from tetrahydrozoline, the active ingredient in the eye drops. If swallowed: difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and coma, among other effects.
I thought of the care I had taken to lightly rub Visine onto the candy before rewrapping it. Then I searched through the trash barrel for Helen’s wrapper. I placed it in the zipper pocket of my satchel with the printout about the drug.
I retrieved the peppermints from my desk drawer and placed them in my satchel. I would share them again another day.