My mother drank her coffee black each morning, hating the taste and the snake of hot fluids down her throat. "It builds discipline," she'd say, "to deprive yourself of wordly pleasures." I remember how she'd look at me as she said this, proud that her daughter was just as dark and morbid as she was on some level. I can't say whether I share this view or not, but I do, on occasion, tend to be a bit masochistic.
Don't believe me?
This morning I wandered into the kitchen and wondered just how long it'd take to drown twelve rats in a bathtub full of milk. Twelve rats. Vermin. No one would care. Can you imagine that? A dozen innocent lives are lost and the only thing people would bitch about would be the calcium deficiency of the fridge, and part of me wondered if that's really just what humans were. Pests. 'It doesn't matter if your cute, little lungs are collapsing with cow puss, that's my milk, I hope you're going to pay for it – oh but that's right you can't because rats can't keep a fucking day job! How dare you! Bad, filthy, evil little creatures!!'
Alright, maybe masochistic isn't the word. However it is undeniable that I love pain.
The hat shop was just down the road. My mother had owned it for several years now. We lived alone, a widow and her daughter, weaving together head dresses for anyone who'd request them. When the sun hits the window just right, illumination streams through the straw fibers like blonde hairs stuck inside of a ratty, old brush, five o'clock giving our skin a sallow glow. By seven, everything faded to grey, so we'd fold down the blinds until dawn and go home.
And there were rumors. God, there were rumors - about the thirty something year old, hat-making widow and her straight-from-the-crypt clad, black haired daughter. If you live in a large city, the old woman wearing sneakers and pushing the squeaky shopping cart usually gets the reputation for being the insane one. In a quaint, silent town like Macheville, Pennsylvania, it's us. Well hi there neighbor, nice to meet you - say, have you met the Manson family that lives next door yet?
English muffins sat on the table, crisp and shining with butter. My feet fell lightly down the stairs as I trudged toward them, my black night pants decorated in bulbous, red hearts, the matching tank top slightly askew. There sat my mother, a picture of feminine grace, eyes scrutinizing the paper like an editor searching for a grammatical mishap, proceeding to nibble one of the edibles upon her own accord.
"Ten minutes," she informed with an invisible scowl. I remember thinking she looked terrible in salmon.
The muffin half crunched under my teeth as I popped it in my mouth, clenching it there while my hands became entangled in charcoal, ferocious locks. It was becoming ever too clear that I'd gotten up way too late, even though I'd never really fallen asleep to begin with; just stared, for what seemed like hours, into a melanoid production playing out across my ceiling. Now my entrancement was costing time, starting my day off right as I practically ripped out what remained of my pony tail, to prepare for another morning in high school hell.
… However I did not know just what a hell it would become.
It probably took about five minutes to get dressed. I won't make a production out of it. Funny how when all you wear is colorless, it all looks the same, accept for when the cat vomits on your shoe or a jock throws spitballs at your back. I remember the first time I got hit with one of those; I started to cry. Now I pick them up and stuff them in my purse compartment, right behind my sticks of eyeliner but in front of the maxi-pads and tampons, for you know, scrap-booking. Years later, when psychologists ask me what finally made me snap, or when others ramble on about their glory days on the football team, I'll pull out my "Have a great summer!" filled year book, point to the wads of chewed notebook paper on the page, and glare, hissing, "Do you have any idea how much I wanted to HURT you?"
'Come on, Petronella. We were just kids!' Just kids my ass. Even children have a certain amount of self-control.
I had a car, but it was on the verge of a complete and total breakdown. I guess that made two of us. The radio only whirred in and out at it's leisure, and the tape deck had devoured my Siouxsie and the Banshee's recording like a pie at a Weight Watcher's convention. As for the necessary parts? Shady at best. It made this weird putta-put-putta-grrrrrrughhhh noise every time you stepped on the gas pedal and the brakes belted sounds that could put a baby to shame. 'Guess I had to take the bus, and you know what that means.
It means there'd be no escaping them again.
"Grab your coat," Mother cautioned.
"I don't need it."
Her scowl deepened to an actual, tangible expression. "Pet, you'll catch a cold." I just stared at her, the sound of wheels slowly coming into hearing range from outside, just beyond the panes of glass. Ever since I was little, I'd always hated my name. It sounded like petrochemical, or paternal, or vanilla, all of which I'm pretty sure I am not. The sounds were frilly and lacey, like one of mom's hats. I didn't like it. I despised it. It gave them all sorts of nicknames to bombard me with, even when their mouths worked longer hours than 7/11s as it was. The extra ammunition wasn't needed, I thought bitterly, and I turned to go, closing the door and plopping my backpack down on the cement porch as I waited for the giant, yellow tin can on wheels.
Maybe they weren't on the bus today. Maybe they'd stop the usual cat calls, pokes, and prods. Maybe they'd treat me like a human being for once, let me to sit in the emptiness of the engine rumbling, the rocks beneath the tires, the feeling of myself being jostled and jolted as if shocked like an inmate on the fryin' chair. Maybe they'd just fucking leave me alone.
When the vehicle pulled up beside me, revealing thrust out tongues from behind the windows and the nice, clean cut butt-crack of a 12th grade boy, freckled cheeks smashed up against the window so they looked like two balls of pizza dough, I knew that 'maybe' was more like a 'no chance in hell.'
Here goes the morning ritual. Just get on the bus. Don't think about the people in the back. Look away, hold on to your things, no don't stop walking, just keep your eyes on the ground and take a seat. It doesn't matter where. Look for an empty one. Ignore the laughter, it's just a sound, they're not really laughing at you…
But you know they are. Every day, every damn day, they make some remark about the how the vampire just rose from her crypt, how dark your make up is even though the tone they're seeing is only from sleep deprivation, they shriek, make ghostly "Oooo!"'s and "Muahahaa!"'s, and pretend to fear touching you because you are a witch. They will make your insides twist into horrible little knots, your intestines becoming friendship bracelets whom you have no one to share with because you are alone in such poor company. Alone with the teasing and the bullying and the pain. All thanks to them.
I messed up in my routine this morning – I looked up, and my eyes lingered. I like to call her Blondie. With a healthily rounded figure and just as dark make up, I don't think she was used to the usual persecution and Salem reenactments just yet, the way their remarks still managed to leave a physical impression on that pale and saddened face. Her hair is what gave her that nick name with me: it was bleached platinum, with a couple pinstripes of black shucked right down the side, gasoline rainbows in an otherwise clear pond. Oh, and I liked her. I liked her a lot.
"Look, it's the witch." One boy mocked, the first vulture to swoop for the carcass. His face was chubby and black. He triggered a bunch of the usual exclamations of fake fear, the bottled ones, the ones that teenaged boys store in the testes for bar fights; the ketchup blood instead of hemoglobin. But did Ozzy know the bat wasn't plastic when he bit it's head off in front of a live audience? No. And like our Black Sabbath performer, these children still had yet to learn that artificial, cotton spider webs can still house black widows.
They did not know just how close true terror was at the time.
I blame myself whole-heartedly for what happened afterwards. There's no one else who could have done this… I must have… so I will shoulder the responsibility. In retrospect, I should smile, because these actions are far more chilling than any sort of locker room prank or wedgey. I beat them all. I conquered. For once, after years of suffering and pain and torment, I won.
"Petty Petronella, don't cast a spell on me!" – another mocking voice, sounding somewhere in the back of my head, flickering around my ears like a mosquito. "Witch, witch, WITCH!" – another, and HEY, a spitball. I ripped it out of my hair, threw up my sweatshirt hood, and stared out the window, pondering if a jump from 30 mph would be fatal or just a scratch.
So now the tumblers were set in motion. The endurance test had begun. My schoolbooks were clutched awkwardly to my chest like they were precious, my feet were tingling, and I could have sworn that I heard a little shriek from someone behind me –"Rat!" – (okay, that's a new one) as the bus thudded onward.
The laughter in the back was ripping through the air like a chainsaw. When it's all directed at you, it's a lot less like the "tinkling of bells!" that poetry often describes. Picture the hounds of hell, fighting over the viscera of a victim not quite dead yet. Yeah.
I can't take this much longer, please make them shut up. (Close your eyes. Count the beats of your heart and) - "FILTHY FUCKING RAT!" - (Yeah, I get it, I look like shit this morning, shut up!) (listen to the screams of terrified cheerleaders as feet are suddenly picked up from the aisles, backpacks scuttled aside and…)
… They weren't talking about me.
There really was a rat scurrying down the aisles. At me. In my direction! I smiled. There was a bottle of milk in my purse for lunch. Milk.
"Get it AWAY from me!" Jerica cried, pulling her knees up against her perky, probably-fondled-within-the-last-five-minutes breasts. The creature stopped mid aisle, black eyes beady with curiousity, staring up at the pink panties that her ankles barred. Are rats even color blind? I'm not sure. The answer probably lied within the text book in my arms, significantly loosened from the previous death grip of anxiety. This was just… this was just priceless.
I reached down and snatched up a handful of boney, brown fur. They were all so busy laughing, carrying on, fighting over who'd get to see the nurse first and dislodging comments from the bus driver that they hadn't seen, hadn't noticed, hadn't cared about my action. "Hey, where'd the rat go?" Pizza-dough ass asked. His red hair looked like the liquidy film on ketchup.
"I don't know," I shrugged, turning back to the window. I slipped the creature inside my purse, grinning a grin that would make a jack-o-lantern look darling. "I really don't know." Now I was a liar, liar. I could feel the twisting and churning of a small body within the cotton of my sack, little bones, a heart pumping blood, nails scratching against the jug of milk, and I thought Hey, maybe this could work….
When the bus reached the school yard, I had the mentality of a psycho killer, and a plan that would make the school counselors have nightmare's for weeks, only to awaken to a mound of therapist bills and the shrieking, terrifying memories.
But at least they'd fair better than the students.