The dead boy was always late for 8th grade English with Ms. Brix. On the May 4th, Timothy Harris shuffled through the doorway a full seven minutes after the bell. An embarrassed grimace was just visible on his face, despite the flimsiness of his maggot-eaten cheeks.
It seemed nobody but Joy ever noticed his perpetual tardiness. She tapped her pen against the edge of her desk. Her classmates scratched away in free-writing journals. Ms. Brix was hunched over her desk, grading papers from the previous hour. She glanced up.
“Stop abusing your pen and write with it, Joy. Let’s try starting on the right foot today.”
Timothy lurched towards the back of the classroom. Joy covered her nose in anticipation. He sat in the desk directly in front of hers. Bones cracked where his joints met. Dislodged flakes of dead skin drifted to the ground.
Joy watched Timothy unzip his binder. He pulled out a pencil, sharpened to a nib, and a battered notebook. As he leaned forward to write, part of his scalp peeled away from his forehead and fell to his desk. He looked around the room, neck cricking. Hurriedly, he swept up the skin and shoved it into his jeans pocket. Joy thought he would be blushing, had he any bloodflow.
The stretch of bone at the back of his head seemed impossibly white. Perhaps that was only due to his filthy hair – thinning now, but it had always been greasy. There was a long, spidery crack in the exposed patch of skull. Joy wondered if that was what had killed him.
“Why doesn’t anyone say anything?”
Several classmates stopped writing.
“What was that, Joy?”
Timothy turned around to look at her, what was left of his eyes wide and terrified in sunken sockets.
“Nothing, Ms. Brix. Sorry.”
“Get to work. You’re on thin ice, Ms. Hilt.”
Joy was aware of Timothy even before he started rotting.
Both the Hilt and Harris families lived on the rougher side of town. It wasn’t beyond the railroad tracks — their town was too obscure to warrant any railroads — but along the streets behind the sole grocery store. Back there was a smattering of shabby, 50s-era houses that appeared to specialize in chipped paint and missing shingles. Joy’s house was greenish and distinguishable from her neighbors’ only because her parents made an effort to maintain their lawn.
Timothy wasn’t the boy next door. He was the boy two streets down. He was the boy whose house was shabbiest. When they were children, her parents did not want them to play together.
On evenings when Joy rode her bike past the Harris home, Timothy Harris was rarely outside. Usually the yard’s only occupants were rain-damaged plastic toys, a rusting, disused swing set, and the occasional beer can, glinting in the long grass. She never saw his father — he worked construction jobs on a constant basis — and Timothy didn’t have a mother. But Joy did see his older sister.
When Joy was still riding her bike with training wheels, Claire was riding motorcycles behind a slew of bearded men who looked twice her age. Joy used to stare from the sidewalk. Once, Claire gave her the finger from the back of a Harley.
Inside the Harris house, Claire’s father was hollering for her to get back inside.
“Rubbernecker!” she shouted at Joy, before the motorcycle screeched away.
Over spaghetti dinner that night, Joy asked what a rubbernecker was.
“Where did you hear that?” asked her mother.
“At school.” Joy wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near the Harris house.
“A rubbernecker is a rare breed of very bouncy giraffe,” said her father, snorting in his beer.
“Hilarious, Hank.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “Rubberneckers are people who slow down just to stare at car accidents.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Rubberneckers are hoping to see someone injured, or worse.”
Joy’s older brother, Brian, stuck out his tongue and mimicked tightening an imaginary noose around his neck. Her father burst into hiccupping guffaws.
Even then Joy thought it was strange that Timothy’s sister considered life at the Harris home comparable to a car wreck.
On May 5th, Timothy accosted Joy at her locker. She smelled him before she saw him. He had never approached her at school before. He wouldn’t meet her gaze, especially now that his eyes seemed to be dissolving into gelatinous mucus.
“Don’t say anything to anyone,” he rasped. As far as she could see, he only had half a shriveled tongue left.
She glanced up and down the hallway. Most people seemed to be in their classrooms already. “Why shouldn’t I? You’re late every day. I would definitely have a detention by now, if it was me.”
“Then I’ll take the tardies.”
“I don’t really care about the tardies, Timothy,” said Joy, surprising herself.
“Then what do you want?”
Joy frowned. “I don’t know. It’s just…I think someone should do something about this.”
He crossed his arms; he was missing a few fingers on both hands. “Something about what?”
“Something about what you’re going through.”
He shook his head. She couldn’t quite read his expression. He had so little face left. “That’s family business.”
“Please don’t say anything. I can look after myself.”
He limped away before she could say another word, bumping into unfortunate stragglers who paused to wipe his residue from their clothing.
Joy slammed her locker shut.
A week after the rubbernecking accusation, Joy mustered the courage to pedal past the Harris house. She meant to sidle by, but for once Timothy was in the yard.
There he was, a boy her age, standing outside in overalls with no shirt on underneath. As if it was summer, in late October. He leaned on the railing of his porch with a hammer clutched in his hand. He was a scrawny thing, and the dirty fingers he curled around its handle were as delicate as rodent bones.
Joy squeezed her handbrakes.
If Timothy saw her, he made no sign of it. He swung the hammer up and down and swished it through overgrown grass. The expression on his face was one of extreme concentration.
From inside the house, someone shouted his name.
He tossed the hammer into the air and caught it. Even from the road she could see his knuckles were white. As he turned to go inside, Joy saw that one of his eye sockets was bruised dark purple.
He must have been alive then, those few years ago. But she could not say when that stopped being the case. She didn’t notice until he was tardy. Until he was falling apart.
On May 6th, Timothy carried the hammer into the English classroom with him. Joy added carrying a blunt instrument to the list of things that everyone else refused to notice about him.
Inevitably, he sat in front of her again (no one else ever wanted to sit with the behind-the-grocery-store kids). Her attention wandered from Ms. Brix and the storyline rollercoaster sketch on the board to the hammer on Timothy’s desk.
“Why’d you bring that to school?”
He didn’t turn. Perhaps he didn’t want to lose any more skin. He was looking less whole every day. She could almost see bones through his sodden t-shirt. She wanted to know if he had anything left underneath his clothes, but thought it might be weird to ask.
Joy bit her lip and tried to grab the hammer from Timothy’s desk. His limbs were too stiff to stop her entirely, but he knocked the hammer to the floor.
“Don’t — !”
“Joy Hilt!” Ms. Brix looked exhausted. “I could send you to the office, but I believe you already have four counts against you and I would rather not be responsible for awarding you your second suspension of the year.”
Timothy sunk into himself.
“But I wasn’t the one who –”
“Wait here after class.”
Joy was in 6th Grade when Claire, riding her boyfriend’s motorbike, slid right off an icy freeway overpass and died in a snow bank. Rumor had it she’d sped away from home after a violent argument with her father. Some people said they had both been drinking. Some said it was suicide. It was the talk of the town. No one seemed terribly sad.
Joy knew that riding her bike past the house would make her a rubbernecker for real, so instead she told her mother she was going to get the mail and slip-walked along the ice to the Harris residence. She had a homemade card in her pocket in which she’d written “I’m really sorry,” because she had no idea what people were supposed to write on this kind of occasion, or whether people were supposed to write anything at all. No one she knew had ever died before.
She stopped on the sidewalk, scarf moist against her mouth, nose numb.
The house looked like no one lived there. The neglected swing set was buried in snow. She could see the old toys jutting from the thick white: here the handlebars of an old tricycle, there the upper-rim of a plastic kiddy pool. The house was silent, eerie.
Joy would have run the entire way home, if not for the ice underfoot.
The card went through the wash the next time she washed her coat.
Seen up close, Ms. Brix’s eyes were ringed with dark circles.
“Believe it or not, Joy, I don’t want to get you in trouble. I’m just frustrated. How can I help you?”
“I’m not the one who needs help, Ms. Brix.”
Joy bit her lip. But Ms. Brix was a decent person, for a teacher, and Timothy had it coming after he let her take the fall for the hammer. “Timothy Harris does.”
“Timothy? He turns his work in on time. He’s a bit quiet, yes, but he works hard. You could take a page from his book, if I’m being honest.”
“But he’s always tardy.”
Ms. Brix pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know. But we do make allowances sometimes, Joy. You know about his sister?”
“Yeah. That’s why –”
“Many students have troubled lives at home, Joy. Sometimes we may suspect that things are worse than troubled, but we are powerless to do anything without evidence. So tell me, Joy — is there reason to believe that Timothy is in danger at home?”
“Can you say for certain that he wasn’t always dead to begin with?”
Joy blinked. “What?”
“Maybe you weren’t paying attention. It’s hard to think of others when you’re young.” Her lips curled upwards a bit. “I remember what it’s like.”
Joy tried to remember a single instance in which she had seen Timothy get hurt. Evidence, apart from the simple unease that the Harris house instilled in her, that something was amiss. Evidence apart from one glimpse of a black eye (what kid didn’t get bruises?).
“Joy. If you’ve seen any sign of domestic abuse, you must tell me. And I have to report it.”
“I can just feel it.”
“That isn’t enough, Joy.”
Joy plopped herself down on a desk. She thought she might tear her hair out.
“Fine,” she said. “Let’s say I saw something. If I tell you I — I dunno — I saw Mr. Harris beat Timothy, would that be enough to get someone to check out his house?”
Ms. Brix narrowed her eyes. “If that were true.”
“It’s true, then.”
“Joy, if you’re lying –”
“I’m not lying.” Joy stood up. “I saw his dad hit him. With — with that hammer. Report that.”
Joy closed the classroom door quietly behind her. The hallway was empty, almost. Timothy was waiting.
“You said something to her.” The hammer dangled from his left hand. His right arm was missing from the elbow down.
“What happened to your arm?”
“It’s never your business.” Was he baring his teeth, or was this just how lipless corpses look? “What did you tell her?”
“I just told her you needed help.”
“Why would you do that?!” He made a noise like a spitting cat. One side of his jaw had come loose from his skull. “You don’t know anything about me or my family. Everyone talks about us, and no one talks to us. You’re just another nosy idiot!”
Joy drew herself up and shoved him in the chest; something inside him cracked beneath her palms. “I’m the only one who cares enough to help you!”
“I’m already dead! Did you care before that? For all you know I tripped down the stairs!”
“You didn’t,” said Joy, but her voice wavered.
“How do you know? How do you know I haven’t been hanging around all this time because my dad shouldn’t have to lose his wife and his daughter and his son! God, why couldn’t you leave it alone?” He spat again. “I just wanted to keep going to school and coming home again.”
“Timothy, I –”
He lifted the hammer — Joy recoiled — and slammed it down on his own knee. His leg snapped like a branch and he crumpled to the floor.
“Will you blame that one on my dad, too?”
Joy tried to wrench the hammer from his hands, but he held tight and swung it into his other knee.
“Stop it!” Joy yanked the hammer from him at last, although his hand came away with it.
He lay there, a whimpering pile of bones. “What will he do without me?”
The sight of him made her hot with shame. She set the hammer on the floor beside him. “I’ll tell Ms. Brix it was a lie. I’ll tell her it was a joke. I didn’t mean to –”
As she turned away, eyes welling, she heard him say: “People always said to stay away from the Hilts.”
Timothy’s funeral was scheduled for the following Friday. The social worker that was sent to his house took one look at him and called a coroner. The coroner proclaimed him dead and introduced him, as kindly possible, to a mortician who promised to fix him up nicely and replace his missing appendages. A young funeral director tried to help Timothy and his father pick out a casket, but his father insisted on building one himself. Everyone expected Mr. Harris to get arrested, but it seemed Timothy had died from accidental head trauma, and there was no reason to suspect foul play.
All of this was common knowledge, but no one heard it from Timothy. He didn’t come to school during that last week. At first, Joy was relieved. By Wednesday, she wanted to think he was simply tardy again. On Thursday, she asked Ms. Brix whether or not he planned on returning.
“He wants to spend his last few days with his family, Joy. Wouldn’t you?”
When Joy got off the school bus that evening, she stared hard at her home. Now that she looked at it, it seemed just about as shabby as the Harris house.
Leah Thomas currently lives and teaches ESL in Taipei, Taiwan, where she frequently loses battles of wits against her students and her stories. A graduate of Clarion 2010, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Fiction Review, and Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction. She says:
There came a point during university when I seriously questioned my decision to pursue teaching as a career. I had spent a semester being mentored by a local area teacher who seemed content to ignore a “problem child,” even when it was obvious that this student was going through hell at home. In some ways, I could not blame her: teaching can be thankless, despite all the work it entails, and this teacher was tired, jaded.
This is also a story about the strange, false intimacy of small-town-life. When I was in high school, a boy died in a car accident; the entire school attended the funeral. But the sensationalism of it! I remember how girls who had hardly known him threw themselves on his casket. On some horrid, human level, his death was a means to break the tedium.
I guess this is a story about being incapable of striking the balance between neglect and indulgence, and hitting the impossible middle ground: caring for someone, selflessly.
Illustration is Jarno Saarinen on ice in 1963 and is in the public domain.