Principal Wallace was standing with his back to the door, leafing through folders in the top drawer of one of his filing cabinets, when she entered the office, quiet as a mouse, stealthy as a ninja, gentle as the wind, despite her size.
She smirked as she crossed from the door to the busy-but-organised desk, softly and swiftly like she was floating, and drew to a halt there, wondering how long it would take for him to notice she’d arrived. The window next to him was open and bright summer sunlight was streaming into the room along with the drone of cheering voices–probably from after-school practice on the nearby football pitch–and the sickly sweet smell of licorice or brown sugar, carried on a lazy breeze from whatever was making it in town.
She thought about clearing her throat or saying his name but worried she might scare him to death, and she was already in enough trouble. She knew why she was here, knew her latest ‘prank’ had almost gone too far and she was about to be read the riot act…but she was ready for it. Wally could admonish her all he wanted, she had plenty of ammunition to fire back. If he dared suggest anything she’d done was as bad as, or worse than, what Imelda and her goons had put her through for three years, he was going to hear all about how his inability to call everyone’s favourite pupil to account had made her life a living hell and been responsible for the things that had happened these last few weeks.
And would continue to happen until something was done about Imelda.
Thinking about how the silver-haired, tweed-suited, soft-spoken man who stood before her, oblivious to her existence as always, had failed in his job of making the school a safe, inclusive environment in which to learn, she grew angry, and just like that stopped caring about how much of a shock he might get if she surprised him. Maybe he would have a heart attack, and maybe he deserved it, and maybe it would make her feel better, so she licked her lips, corrected her posture and said:
“You were looking for me, Sir?”
Principal Wallace–Wally to the students of the Sacred Passion Secondary School, a long-standing nickname he was aware of–jumped as expected, startled by this gentle, ninja mouse who’d only recently decided to stop trying to be invisible, stop biting her tongue and stop taking shit from all and sundry. The ‘all’ being her fellow students, ring-led by the vicious Imelda Lane, who’d teased her and bullied her relentlessly since first year; the ‘sundry’ being the useless, look-the-other-way teachers and even more enabling Principal who stood before her, mouth agape, manilla folders slipping from his hands and fluttering to the floor like wounded birds spilling their guts.
“D-Delilah,” he stammered, forgetting himself momentarily and referring to her by her first name. “You...you’re here. I didn’t see you, um... T-take a seat, Miss Shay. Yes. Please.”
Delilah–Deely to her family and two friends–had no idea why he was so nervous, and as she did as told, shucking her school bag off her back and sliding onto the black vinyl stacking chair before the desk, she wondered if that was a good thing or a bad. On the one hand, him being nervous could mean he wasn’t going to reprimand her too severely, perhaps feeling guilty and somewhat responsible for what she’d done. And rightly so. If he’d taken her seriously when she told him about the bullying, things would never have gotten this far.
On the other hand, he might be nervous because he’d summoned her here to expel her and was anxious about having to do it. Principal Wallace hated confrontation, making his choice of career an unusual one. How he’d ended up Principal of an all-girls school on the outskirts of a small, side-stepped town in the country nobody had ever been able to fathom. Why he stayed in the job year after year as he got older and the girls got meaner was understood still less.
Better the Devil you know, Deely thought, an appropriate idiom considering she herself had become a bit of a devil these last few weeks and was probably the cause of his most recent spate of rapid ageing syndrome.
On the other other hand, the thought struck her, as she sat watching Wally place all but one of the folders he’d held onto on top of the filing cabinet then awkwardly manoeuvre himself into his high-backed, faded leather chair, going out of his way to avoid making eye contact with her, he could be acting like this because he’d called the police and was waiting for them to arrive. It was possible. Her latest attempt to get back at Imelda and co certainly warranted it, though it would have warranted it more if it actually worked.
“Going sans uniform, I see,” Wally muttered, settling himself in his seat and placing the folder on the desktop before him, still refusing to look at her. “Is it more comfortable for you that way?”
Of all the topics she’d expected him to start with, the state of her attire wasn’t one of them. She was so surprised he mentioned it she found herself looking down to remind herself what she was wearing–tight-fitting, ripped, black jeans, her favourite black and red ‘Pierce The Veil’ band tee, faded denim shirt and black onyx choker. She shrugged as she looked back up, opened her mouth to say something about her right to express her individuality even in an oppressive school environment but lost the thought when she found he was now looking directly at her, lips pursed together, tightly.
“Does it matter?” was all she ended up countering with, reminding herself she was a tough girl now, a no-shit taker, a bad-ass. She wasn’t going to be shy, geeky, socially awkward Deely Shay in class or on the bus or at home any more, and she wasn’t going to be it here either. “It’s not my clothes you care about, is it?”
Wally looked away again, spent a moment fidgeting with the items on his table, rearranged a stapler, a mug and a pen before taking a deep breath and sighing it back out, preparing himself for a difficult conversation.
“No, no, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. Sorry for mentioning it. I’m sorry for…a lot of things. Especially for not trying to reach out to you after the, um, incident. I suppose I didn’t know what to say. I did see you around, and I thought about making contact, especially in light of your recent behaviour and what you’ve been doing to Miss Lane and the others but…well…I suppose I thought I’d give you time to get it out of your system. I...I thought, maybe if I left you alone, to deal with things your way, you might, eventually…stop. But you haven’t. And, well…things are getting out of hand.
“Locking the girls in the bathroom and sabotaging the sprinklers. Filling their lockers with glue or…whatever that was. Vandalising their uniforms and school bags while they were playing the county final? And all those other things. Mean things, Miss Shay. But what you did yesterday… What you tried to do was… I’m sorry, this is very difficult, but you’ve forced my hand and made it necessary for us to have this conversation. That's why I summoned you here."
Having finished his monologue, one he’d clearly been rehearsing for hours, Principal Wallace removed his spectacles, placed them on the desktop before him, tugged a handkerchief from his jacket’s breast pocket and dabbed at the beads of sweat that had formed on his brow. He clearly found speaking to her stressful.
Deely just found it annoying. She sat there opposite him, breathing through her nose, seething at his words, her cheeks burning up with frustration. Through the open window, the sun seemed to shine even brighter, the sound of girls playing football seemed to draw nearer, and the smell–which now reminded her of candy floss and honey–intensified. Where was that coming from? Was there a carnival in town?
“The ‘um, incident’,” she repeated his words back to him, shifting forward in her seat and crossing her arms on the edge of the desk. “And which ‘um, incident’ would that be, Sir? Would it be the ‘um, incident’ where Miss Lane and her dickhead friends cornered me in the toilets and knocked me down, held me on the floor until I pissed myself?
“Or could it be the ‘um, incident’ where they hid my clothes and towel while I was showering, so the whole class could have a laugh at the fat girl running around naked trying to find something to cover herself with? Oh no, wait, maybe you mean the time they put my bike up in a tree, or poured coffee in my bag, or stuck pictures up all over school of my face on Jabba the Hutt's body. I wonder if it could be any of those ‘um, incidents’, which I reported and which you ignored because it was just ‘teens being teens’. Because why else? Because I ‘asked’ for it by not being sociable or joining any clubs? Because I was overweight? Because I was introverted and quiet and didn’t like boys and didn’t take part in sports and liked grunge and anime? Because I was a loner, outcast, weirdo not worthy of your attention or being listened to or helped. Not when Imelda Lane was a pretty, blonde, suck-up soccer bitch with rich parents and loads of friends and a bullshit fake personality that was convincing enough to make everyone think she was an angel!”
And there it was. Her ammunition. Locked, loaded and launched at him in an ever-increasing salvo with as much anger and emotion as she could muster. And she could muster a lot. It had been a long time coming, and it felt good to finally get it off her chest.
Wally was staring back at her, eyes wide, looking more than nervous now, looking terrified, afraid to move, and she didn’t blame him. She’d have been afraid too, if she met herself now, because this was not the Delilah Shay she’d grown up as, this was not the shy, retiring, anxious Delilah Shay everyone expected. This was someone new. And she liked it.
“But no,” she said, straightening up in the chair and forcing herself to grow calm. “I know none of those are the incident you’re talking about. Those were all horrible things they did to me, Sir, but what happened three weeks ago, on the roof... None of those things come close to being as bad.
“Have you any idea what it was like, being stuck up there, in the rain, with no shelter and no way to call for help? Can you imagine how that must have felt? How scary. Worrying about what my parents would be thinking when I didn’t come home and they couldn’t contact me because those bitches threw my phone off the roof before locking me out.”
Hand trembling, Wally reached out to take his cup, lifted it slowly, took a sip of whatever it held. The shouts and cries of the girls outside were now so loud they might have been here in the room, and it sounded more like they were having fun on a roller coaster than playing football. The sun had arrived at such an angle Deely had to squint to make out Wally's face and that syrupy smell had become so strong she really did believe a carnival had come to town.
“I understand,” said Wally, placing the cup down and moving his hands to his laptop, focusing his attention on its screen. “I do. It must have been awful, stuck up there on your own for so long. Traumatic. And I know you’ve convinced yourself that’s how it happened…”
Deely scowled as she slumped in her chair, deflated by his words.
“...but it’s not right, is it?” Wally went on, ignoring her, craning his head closer to the screen as he tapped on the keyboard with one hand and replaced his glasses with the other. “And even if it was, what you did, sabotaging the bus, damaging the brakes… I mean…that goes beyond the realms of payback, regardless of how cruel they might have been. There’s no excuse and I… I just can’t allow it.’”
“If Mr. Hicks hadn’t taken it upon himself to check the oil before leaving, if he hadn’t seen the damage you did…and we know it was you…you could have killed a lot of people. But you know that, don’t you? You did it deliberately, knowing the team had an away game. You knew Imelda and Katie and Roisin would be on the bus.”
Having found what he was searching for, Wally straightened up and looked her way again, licked sweat off his lips, turned the laptop around and pushed it towards her.
“I’m sorry, Delilah,” he said, using her first name again as she flicked her eyes to the video playing on the screen. “I really am. I should have taken your complaints more seriously. I know that now. It’s to my eternal shame that I didn’t.”
Deely was only half-listening, her eyes riveted to the laptop screen and the grainy footage playing on it, footage of the school roof, recorded by a mounted surveillance camera she didn’t know existed. The time stamp in the bottom right showed it was from the start of the month, the sixth to be exact, the day of the incident.
“Miss Lane came to me after what happened. Even before you started…tormenting her. She was devastated. Admitted everything, about what she and the others did. What they put you through. They blamed themselves. Her in particular. And then…so did I.”
At first, the roof was vacant, the image static, then the door from the stairwell burst open and she saw herself rush out. She remembered as if it were yesterday, as if she was back in the moment, running to the centre of the rooftop, crouching down with what felt like a dagger in her gut as she cried while staring at her phone. Reading the messages that were popping into the group chat, in response to Imelda telling everyone she’d been tricked by Celine into revealing she was gay, tricked into a kiss, which Celine said was absolutely awful. Celine, the French exchange student who’d been nice to her, Celine who she’d started to love and who she’d really believed liked her back. Celine who’d done it all for Imelda.
“I know I could punish them. Give them detentions, suspend them, but…it’s all after the event and honestly…they’re punishing themselves every day, more than I ever could. More than you can too, unless you…really hurt them. And I think you want to.”
In the video, the recording of a heartbroken, devastated fourteen-year old pushed herself upright and screamed silently, hurling her phone off the roof.
“This is not what happened,” Deely said, drawing the laptop closer. “Imelda was there. Katie, Roisin… They were there. It was them.”
In the video, she watched her past self run back to the stairwell where the security door hung open–and slam it shut.
“No. It was them. They did it.”
“I think you got confused,” Principal Wallace began, opening the folder that waited before him. “I think you wanted to get back at them, not just for that, but for everything. Years of bullying and humiliation. With your phone thrown away and the door locked, with you trapped out there for God knows how long, it would have been believable. If not for the cctv…”
Deely reached out to the keyboard, used the mousepad, pressed fast forward on the recording. She watched herself milling around the roof from 4pm to 5, from 5pm to 6, watched the regret sink in, watched the rainfall start, watched her try to open the door, over and over. 6pm to 7, 7pm to 8, nowhere to take cover, she was like a drowned rat cowering under rusty air-conditioning pipes. She remembered how much she’d cried, how scared she’d been, how angry.
She clicked on the mousepad when the time stamp shot past 9pm. The rain had stopped. She watched herself climb the parapet at the edge of the roof, wave at cars passing on the nearby road, try to get someone’s attention. Nobody saw her gesture. Nobody saw her cry. Nobody saw her open shoelace get caught on a jagged piece of concrete.
Nobody saw her fall.
“I’m sorry I had to show you that, Delilah,” Wally said, with obvious pain, and though she looked up to regard him, tears streaming from her eyes as she acknowledged the truth, the sunlight blazing through the window was now so blinding all she could make out was his silhouette, as it lifted a stamp from an inkpad. “And I’m sorry I have to do this. But it’s time for you to leave this place now and move on. Please know…I’ll never forgive myself.”
She opened her mouth to speak but words didn’t come, and her attention was drawn to the stamp coming down on the top sheet of paper in the folder, her school record, her name and address and passport-sized photograph, her timid awkwardness at twelve on full display.
A loud bang, a word in red ink across the page, her fate was sealed.
The warm light embraced her, the sweet smell of candy filled the air, happy, laughing voices called her on. As the word on the paper declared, before it faded from sight, she’d been expelled from school, from the world, from this life, and it was time now to run to the Carnival.