The bell eagerly rang only moments before warning all the students to get to their assigned rooms for class. However, Ashley sat at the back of the room sketching into the cover of her notebook poorly disfigured flowers. She took less than a minute to travel between the two adjoining doors combining her last class with this one.
“Attention everyone,” Mr. Swisher urged his voice to explode over the obnoxious young teenagers chattering among themselves. As he demanded the attention of the room, including the room next door, Ashley already knew from her study hall exactly what he would be saying. In fact, without looking up from her scribbles she repeated the same words she heard not so more than half an hour ago, “This is our new student teacher, Mr. Bradford. He will join our class for the next two weeks. During the first week of his visit, he will sit quietly, learning, just like all of you, but the second week, he will teach the class on his own. For those of you who have never had a student teacher before… Ashley, is there something you would like to say?”
Without missing a single beat Ashley continued aloud, “Please show Mr. Bradford the same respect you would show all your teachers. So if you feel like speaking out of turn or without raising your hand, throwing paper airplanes, spit-wads, or just blatantly refuse to obey all rules. Please, do so. He is here to learn how to teach you disrespectful heathens and only has a week to do so.”
Pausing briefly Ashley finally looked up from her desk to find not only the rest of the class staring directly at her but also the student teacher, Mr. Bradford. When she first entered the room, he conversed quietly with Mr. Swisher and after overhearing the entire class last period, she never once thought to look at him. Personally, she felt no need to care either. But now as their eyes met something resembling fear stuck deep into her stomach.
Mr. Bradford, although he dressed himself up as though he were a teacher didn’t seem much older than herself. When their brown eyes met through the crowd of students between them, Ashley felt the impulse to run from the room. Clean shaven with a perfect shade of dark, nearly black hair matching her own, Ashley found him handsome. In fact, other than the mismatch of their skin tone with her being nearly as white as paper and his being almond, they were alike. So much alike it frightened Ashley, which is what forced her finally ask, “May, I please be excused? I think I need to go to the nurse.”
“Very well.” Mr. Swisher fumbled through his desk for a hall pass. Books shifted uneasily inside Ashley’s denim backpack as she threw it over her shoulder causing the tear in the corner to cringe and let go even more. She refused to look up at Mr. Bradford, even though she wanted to, just to make sure he caused the twinge in her stomach. Mr. Swisher held out the paper as Ashley passed by. Quickly taking a hold, Ashley pulled, but Mr. Swisher held it firm until she looked up. His beady black eyes looked her over as she did the same to him. The remaining bits of his gray hair seemed more disheveled than she remembered and he seemed rather unkempt in his attire. She found it odd his shirt had wrinkles, and he hadn’t shaved for some time. She pushed the thought aside thinking maybe he had a long weekend and wasn’t ready for work. “Ash, don’t forget about the game tonight.”
“I’ll be there.” The hall pass finally found its way freely into Ashley’s hand. “And don’t worry, I’ll be ready.”
Mr. Swisher’s toothy grin took over his face as he looked down on Ashley. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
Before Ashley could open the door, the gnawing grotesque feeling came screaming back into her guts and as she looked back, Mr. Bradford sat comfortably at the desk watching her. Once he noticed her looking back directly at him, he smiled, unlike Mr. Swisher’s, there were no teeth visible. Only a slight curve up from his lips. The light danced in his eyes as he looked her over once more. Biting the inside of her own cheek, Ashley turned without the slightest kindness of looking delighted.
Halting her footsteps once she turned around the corner from the classroom, she glanced down at the yellow slip of paper in her hand. Everything looked normal about it, the date, the time, names, except one thing, which Mr. Swisher did for her sparingly, the location didn’t say the nurse’s office. Now the slight curve of her lips appeared as she read the location of her destination, ‘Girl’s Locker Room.’ With him setting her aim in a new direction, she followed it willingly.
The full-length mirror greeted her as she entered the locker room. Ashley looked herself over with near the same glare she gave to Mr. Bradford. Wild black hair fell down around her shoulders to just above her waistline, hiding the white tank top she wore. The black cargo pants with matching colored combat boots ultimately explained why she didn’t fit in with the rest of the softball team. She would always be different, but she knew they would never deny her a place on the team. She was after all the best catcher the school will ever have in attendance.
Although she was only thirteen, Ashley felt as though time continually slowed for her, and she always felt older than she was on paper. Her body, remained that of a teenager, but in her mind, she has seen more things than any teenager which caused her to age much faster. On paper and stuck in this body, Ashley knew in her life someday, life would free her of this, but she would have to wait the time out. She would have to grow, learn, and ultimately wait the next five years for them to say she was ready to enter the world on her own. In her mind, she was ready to face the world alone, but for the rest of the world, they saw a teenager unable to do anything.
The image she stared at faded before her as she closed her eyes. Carefully contemplating the entire horrid blue and white uniform, Ashley looked back into the mirror to find herself dressed in uniform and ready to start practice. Twisting her lips to the side she pulled the hair band from her wrist and gathered the unruly mess into a ponytail. Looking into the mirror, Ashley shook her head knowing this wasn’t her, but she loved to play the game.
Never had she ever used her powers to win, and tonight wouldn’t be any different. This would be the game to set the team up for the playoffs. One ball right after another shot straight out of the pitching machine and with each one she told herself, no powers, no cheating. Each time a ball would come flying towards her, the bat landed causing it to crack and send the yellow circle flying in the opposite direction. After the machine ran dry of ammo, she turned her attention elsewhere.
Looking around to the surrounding space she instantly gathered up all the balls and reloaded the machine. Instead of waiting for them to come flying out again, she turned it off and headed out the side door. Stepping out into the sunlight, she could see the softball field waiting for the game tonight. Prepped and ready to go, she anxiously expected the first throw. Lighting up the cigarette she brought with her she sat down in the grass and leaned against the warm bricks holding together the building.
“I may be wrong, but this doesn’t look like the nurse’s office,” A smooth voice came from around the corner of the building. This voice, Ashley, couldn’t place it, but the feeling she knew immediately. The same nagging, irritable pain in her gut she felt only twenty minutes ago came flying back with intensity. “Nor do I believe they allow you to smoke on school property.”
Tossing the half inhaled cigarette she got up from the ground and readied herself to leave. “Bite me.”
Before she could open the door, Mr. Bradford placed himself right in front of the brown metal door. “What are you doing?”
“What do you care?” Ashley let go of the door handle and huffed as she turned to walk away. “Aren’t you supposed to be learning how to teach?”
Mr. Bradford’s hand reached out and grabbed ahold of Ashley’s arm stopping her, “Maybe I heard the same rhetoric speech for far too long and decided I had enough.”
“Let go of me now.” Ashley glared at the hand now grasping her bicep. An odd intensity ran through her veins she never felt before as Mr. Bradford released his hand from holding her in place. “And if you can’t sit through the same bullshit for eight classes, you will never make it as a teacher.”
“My father is a teacher, and my brother…”
Ashley cut him off, “Good for them. Now go away.”
“I can’t.” Mr. Bradford hurriedly stepped ahead of Ashley blocking her path, “I think I have a civic duty here to turn you in, not only for skipping class, but smoking on school property.”
Ashley threw her head back so she could laugh in Mr. Bradford’s face, since he was nearly a foot taller than her, “With what proof?”
“Mr. Swisher sent you to the nurse’s office,” Mr. Bradford turned to face the direction where Ashely casually discarded the cigarette, “Plus, you left evidence.”
Before the young student teacher could turn around, Ashley disappeared. Closing her eyes, she envisioned herself back safe inside the locker room. Sighing with relief she sat down on the wooden bench just as the final bell rang for the day. Almost instantaneously Ashley’s teammates filed into the locker room to get ready. Shrill voices echoed throughout the hollow room with only metal lockers and wooden benches to fill up space.
Although Ashley played for the team for just over a year now, only one person greeted her coming through the doors. The only person knowledgeable enough to understand how important Ashley was to the game, the pitcher, the team captain, Mindy. Her perfect blonde hair bounced around as she smiled her perfect smile towards Ashley, “Are you ready?”
“Always.” Ashley forced a grin back, but in reality, this new student teacher turned her stomach into knots. Cursing the first moment she looked at him she tried to push the angst that continually built since then. Hoping the ease the anxiety she headed back to the batting cage. It helped before, but since their meeting outside the door, she could feel the tension cultivating below the surface.
The guttural growl bounced off the water unlike the baseball size rock plummeting into the center of the lake. Ashley released another one trying to liberate herself from the rage inside her mind. Running every play through her mind, she wanted nothing more than to realize that the loss couldn’t put on her.
No matter which way she looked at it, she felt the pressure bearing down on her. With all eyes on her for the entire game, Ashley refused to cheat. She denied herself any justification for using the powers she owned. Even as the last batter came up to the plate, the burden fell on her to call the next three pitches and catch them all. The two runners took their lead while Ashley called for a fastball, and just as the ball came flying, the intensity constructed itself deep within the pit of her stomach again. Frozen with trepidation Ashley watched as the softball came faster and faster. With each inch it came closer, Ashley urged herself to move, but the ball collided with the leather. She found it rolling complacently between her cleats.
Pulling herself together after the tragic fail, Ashley tried to keep her own rules, no power, no cheating. When the second strike followed the same path, Ashley quickly called for a timeout. She needed to gather her nerves. The player leading off third base would easily crush Ashley if she dropped the ball again. Dropping the third strike automatically put the ball into play giving the runner a chance to bulldog her way through Ashley giving the other team the win.
Coach Swisher and Mindy came jogging towards the home plate. Pushing up her mask, Ashley wiped the sweat pouring down her forehead. All she wanted to do at that moment was leave the field and head straight to the dugout removing herself from his stare, but it would never be an option. She had to finish this last pitch. This last pitch meant the beginning of the playoffs or it would be the end of the season. One last catch of the ball could make or break her for this season.
With both the coach and the pitcher speaking to her, their words were inaudible. She calmly lifted her hand pausing them both. “I need a minute.”
Ashley beat her hand into the leather and each time she grasped at her own fist, making sure her grip would be tight enough to catch the softball. One strike after another Ashley closed her eyes picture the man who tied her nerves up into a ball, and she felt him standing right behind her at the fence. Turning around causing her hair to whip, she saw him. Their eyes met briefly before she turned back around. Right now she wished she could bat and use the anger and pent-up frustration out on the pitiful little yellow ball. Instead, all she had to do was catch the thing.
“Coach, make him leave.” Ashley pointed towards the lonely Mr. Bradford standing behind her. “I can’t concentrate with him right there. You need to make him leave.”
“Really?” The coach concerned for his player’s wellbeing left the field immediately. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Ash,” Mindy placed her hand on Ashley’s shoulder pulling her attention back, “One pitch, one catch that’s all we need. I’ll pitch it, you catch it. She hasn’t hit all night, just keep it in your glove.”
“We got this.” Ashley threw her mask back down and set herself into place. Coach Swisher did as she wished, and the antagonizing feeling set free from her stomach. This time as the ball came flying, it disappeared from her sight. A bat flashed through her line of sight colliding with the ball she had to catch.
Watching the ball sail through the air Ashley prayed as she stood over top of home plate waiting for someone to catch it. If it hit the ground, she must catch it because the play could be any base. Praying for someone to catch the ball Ashley glanced in the runner’s direction. Time slowed down as the ball fell back down to the field. Holding her breath, Ashley felt the hush coming over the field.
The runner on third base came barreling towards her with her feet pounding off the ground pushing all of her weight forward. Ashley stepped back and out of the way unwilling to become tackled. Ashley watched as the runner’s foot planted perfectly in the center of home plate. She scrambled to look up to make sure the ball was in fact caught, but the umpire called it a foul. A sense of ease rested on her shoulders as everyone went back into their stances.
Blocking out the screams from the dugouts, the random taunting from those on the field, Ashley focused her direct attention to the only thing that mattered. The batter rocked back and forth set herself in the box. Swinging her bat way above her head she nodded towards the pitcher, letting everyone know she was once more ready for action.
Every muscle tensed up in Ashley as she held her fist down ready to give the signal. Closing her eyes, she imagined the next pitch coming towards her. She wanted a Curveball to send this batter home wishing she could have hit it again. As her eyes opened, the signal went down and the ball wound around in the air from the pitcher’s hand. Never taking her eye off the ball, it came once more. Much faster than before, the ball missed its mark. Ashley unable to move as quickly as the ball, it flew right past her ear. She wanted to scream as it crashed into the metal fence, but she held her composure as she got to it as fast as she could.
The mask to protect her face went careening through the air while the ball found itself firmly in Ashley’s fist. When she turned to find Mindy rushing in she tossed the ball. Right before her eyes Mindy and the third base runner collided together on top of home plate. Squeezing her eyelids tightly together Ashley waited for the umpire’s call.
Another stone splashed down into the rippling water as Ashley left the stony beach. With, a simple thought, she stood at the end of the driveway. Heading towards the falling sun, Ashley stepped closer to the place she called home for the past year. With the school year ending, it wouldn’t take long before she would be on a journey to a new direction. The end of every school year brought another end for Ashley and they would send her somewhere else to live.
As dusk fell on Ashley’s home, she saw quite a different vehicle parked in the driveway behind her foster parent’s generic minivan. Coming up the winding stone driveway the brand new sports car shimmered compared to the world around it. This vehicle did not fit in the backward country driveway, let alone the fact it didn’t belong in this county. Ashley marveled at the shiny white car. She had never seen a Ferrari before, but she recognized the horse emblem displayed on the back side of the car.
“Once again, I’m sorry for the intrusion. I wasn’t aware of the situation.” Mr. Bradford’s voice once more graced Ashley’s ear causing her to cringe at the horrid sound. Looking up to the porch, she saw underneath the glow of the light from the house, Mr. Bradford standing in the doorway. Quickly she ducked behind the car, grinding her knee into the gravel. Knowing she couldn’t use her magic to appear inside the house with the possibility of an occupant being in every room, she searched for another source of escape. Hoping to avoid his sight, Ashley crawled towards the passenger side of the car. It was all for naught as the grinding came back into her gut, “What are you doing?”
Trying to seem inconspicuous Ashley acted as if her boot had come untied. Glancing towards the porch she hoped at least one of her foster parents would be there to help remove the intruder, but the door had already been closed. Throwing her denim backpack back over her shoulder she finally looked at the man who made her shudder. She shot daggers through her eyes as she glared at him, “What is your problem?”
Mr. Bradford stepped back away from Ashley and raised his hands as if to surrender, “I came to talk to you and your, well, your parents.”
“I don’t have parents, so leave.” Ashley turned around and headed to the porch the opposite way of where Mr. Bradford stood.
“I know what you are.” Once he spoke Ashley froze in her steps. Refusing to look back she could feel his eyes burning into the back of her head waiting for a response. She knew at once what he was talking about, but no one ever confronted her like this before. Unsure how to respond she found it necessary to force herself to leave getting no more information from him. Questions whirled through her mind, but if she would get any answers, they would not be from him. Something inside told her to stay far away from him and that’s exactly what she planned to do. “I want to talk to you. I don’t think you understand the danger...”
Mr. Bradford’s words faded into the night air as Ashley pulled the wooden door shut behind her. Just like her foster parents, she brushed his words off and continued on with her unpleasant evening. Entering the house didn’t make it any better. The silence filling the house was unsettling. John, her foster father sat across the room in his blue recliner. She smiled at the sight of him leaned back with his hands held together on top of his bulging stomach. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh,” John sat up in his chair causing his white hair to stand on end for a moment until the air settled around him, “Sylvia took them out snipe hunting.”
“Snipe hunting, huh? I would suggest getting your gun because I believe there is one standing out in the driveway.” Ashley chuckled to herself, until the rapid thumping came on the oak door, “Never mind, he is on the porch.”
John tilted his head towards the stairs, “I don’t know what he wants, but he isn’t going away till he gets it. Gun is in the cabinet.”
“Bullets too?” Ashley questioned as she gave a quick smirk before turning around.
“No, I put the bullets up,” He laughed, “But if he doesn’t listen with a shotgun pointed at his face, then I will take over.”
The demand on the door became louder as Ashley opened the cabinet below the stairway. Quickly she pulled out the largest gun she could see and took it straight to the door. With the turn of the knob, she found Mr. Bradford knocking on nothing but air. Leaning against the gun a grin, the first smile she ever flashed his way came happily, “I am asking you politely to leave.”
Mr. Bradford’s posture rapidly changed with the gun pointed in his direction. A demanding tone came over his face as he took a hold of the barrel of the gun. Ashley looked towards John for help, but he had already climbed out of the chair. Mr. Bradford forced the gun backward as he stepped into the threshold of the house. An automatic response came through Ashley’s muscles contorting her trigger finger. She closed her eyes as the rifle blasted back against her shoulder. Thunder roared around the room causing her ears to ring against the deafening sound.
The shotgun crashed against the floor and out of pure fear Ashley pictured herself back at the lake where she had been only a few moments before. Collapsing on to the stones leading up to the water Ashley felt the full blow of it ripping into her legs. Salty water filled her eyes and fell out into the air. The amount of energy she spent trying to get away crippled her. Unable to move she laid there frozen on the large rocks as the moon rose above her. Only her lips could move in the darkness. “I killed him. I killed him.”