Miss Wessel ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Rain had threatened all day but no rain came. Ragged horizontal clouds took on strange shapes in the sky and then merged with other shapes and moved on. The sun showed its face every now and then but mostly kept hidden. A gentle breeze blew into the third-floor classroom like a sigh, ruffling some papers, barely noticed.
It was Friday, the last day of October, Halloween. The children were restless. They wanted to be released from their bondage so they could don their ghost, devil, or cowboy costumes and go out into the world and make mischief and collect enough candy to last them through the winter that was coming.
Their teacher, Miss Wessel, also longed to be released. It was her day. She had been teaching ten-year-olds for decades. She was leaving for good, once and for all, at the end of the day. The time had come for her to fly off and live the rest of her life the way she wanted to live it. The children didn’t know they’d have a new teacher come Monday morning. That was the way Miss Wessel wanted it. Say good-bye to no one.
There was no need on this day to do any work, to put on a good face. She had designated this, her last afternoon, as a time for silent meditation. This meant reading, thinking, looking out the window, or whatever one wanted to do, as long as one did it quietly. If one wanted to sit and doze at one’s desk, so much the better.
All was quiet, but there seemed to be an unwritten rule that says a roomful of ten-year-olds cannot be perfectly still for more than a few minutes at a time, no matter what. An unusually large number asked to be excused to go to the restroom. Miss Wessel was inclined to tell them to hold on to it, but in every case she let them go because she simply didn’t care. If they didn’t come back right away she didn’t get up to go see what was keeping them. If they were wandering around the halls doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing, some other teacher would see them and send them back; if they never came back, that was all right, too.
A boy named Terry Hughie got up to sharpen his pencil and fell on his backside like the clown he was, causing everybody to laugh uproariously, which was exactly the response he was hoping for. A little while later, two boys were scuffling in the back of the room, apparently trying to strangle each other. When Miss Wessel threw a blackboard eraser at them, somehow managing to hit them both, they immediately desisted and sat back down in their seats.
With order restored, Miss Wessel slumped down at her desk and was just about to go to sleep when she heard footsteps approaching and someone standing beside her, breathing audibly. Opening her eyes, she saw Francine Quince standing inches away, looking at her with her strange dark eyes.
“Yes, Francine,” she said. “What is it? Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“I need to talk to you,” Francine said.
“What’s stopping you?”
“Can’t it wait until Monday?”
With a sigh Miss Wessel stood and motioned for Francine to follow her into the cloakroom. She turned and faced Francine beside the fire extinguisher, clasping her hands in front of her to resist the urge to slap her. Of all the students in her class, she liked her the least.
“Did one of the boys draw an unflattering picture of you again?” she asked.
“Yes,” Francine said, “but that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”
Standing close to Francine, Miss Wessel realized—and not for the first time, either—what an odd child she was. She was taller than the other children and seemed older in some unidentifiable way; more worldly, somehow, than her years would have allowed her to become. She had a very long neck and pale skin and, in spite of the pinched-up features of her face, enormous dark eyes that were like pinpoints zeroing in on all she saw.
“I’m listening,” Miss Wessel said, when Francine seemed to hesitate.
“I don’t know quite how to say this,” Francine said.
“Did you have a naughty accident? Do you need to go home?”
“No, nothing like that. I just wanted to tell you that I know what you are and I know what you’re going to do at the end of the day today.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Miss Wessel said, mustering as much indignation as she could on such short notice.
“I want you to take me with you.”
“Now why would I take you anywhere?”
“Because I’m one of your kind.”
“And what kind is that?”
Francine laughed her grown-up laugh. “I’ve seen,” she said. “I know.”
“Francine,” Miss Wessel said sternly, not caring if the other children heard, “I don’t have the time or the inclination for this kind of nonsense! Please return to your seat and don’t talk of this again!”
“Everybody who knows me would be glad if I went away and never came back. They’d look for me, of course, because that’s what they’re supposed to do, but after a while when they didn’t find any trace of me they’d figure I ran away or was abducted by aliens or something.”
“Would you like to spend the rest of the day in the principal’s office?” Miss Wessel asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Then return to your seat.”
“All right. I will. But I still want you to take me with you.”
The afternoon continued to its inevitable conclusion without further incident. When the bell rang to go home, Miss Wessel stood at the classroom door and handed everybody a paper bag of candy as they left. She made a point of looking them all in the face and calling them by name, as she would never see any of them again, and wishing them all a happy Halloween.
When everybody had left and there was one bag of candy left, Miss Wessel realized that Francine Quince was still in the room with her, sitting quietly at her desk. She had forgotten for the moment about Francine. She held the bag of candy above her head and smiled.
“There’s one bag left, Francine,” she said, “and it’s got your name on it. Happy Halloween!”
“I don’t want it,” Francine said.
“Then take it and give it to your little brother.”
“He doesn’t want it either.”
“Go home, Francine! School is over for the day and it’s time for all of us to leave. Your mother will be expecting you.”
“My mother’s a drunk and a whore who doesn’t even know what day it is.”
“Suit yourself. If you’re still here when the janitor comes in to straighten up, he’ll make you leave.”
“I’m going with you.”
“Francine, do you think I want to be responsible for the disappearance of a young girl? I think that’s a fairly serious charge.”
“It shouldn’t matter to a witch.”
“Witch or not, I have some scruples.”
“I’ll bet you’ve cast many spells on people and turned lots of men into toads!”
“It isn’t like that!”
“Then take me with you so I may know what it’s really like. You can make me your protégé.”
“Francine, I don’t even like you. Why would I want you with me all the time?”
“If you don’t take me with you, I’ll go to the police and tell them everything I know about you.”
“Why should that make any difference? I’ll be so far away they’ll never find me and they wouldn’t even know where to look.”
“Then take me with you.”
“I’m leaving now, Francine, and you’re leaving, too, but not with me.”
“I’ll kill myself if you don’t take me.”
“Do you know what it’s like to fly a broom? It takes skill and coordination, not to mention balance.”
“I can learn. You can teach me.”
“Good-bye, Francine. You have my sincere good wishes.”
Miss Wessel went out of the room, turning off the lights and closing the door. She knew that Francine was still inside, but she didn’t care; she was finished with her. When she walked down the hall to the seldom-used door to the attic, she knew that Francine was right behind her.
“You’re not supposed to be in the building after school hours, Francine,” she said.
She went up the dark, narrow steps to the attic, brushing away cobwebs. Francine was right behind her like a shadow. At the top of the steps, the fluttering of bat wings caused Francine to let out a little scream.
“If a few little bats scare you,” Miss Wessel said, “you’re not really a witch.”
“I just wasn’t expecting them,” Francine said.
“If you’re going to be a witch, you’ll learn to expect anything.”
Miss Wessel changed into a long, flowing black dress. After she had fastened all the buttons and smoothed the dress over her bony hips, she put on a black pointed hat with a wide brim. Her face, at that moment, took on a different look. Her nose and chin became more pointed, more prominent; her skin, always the color of ivory, took on a greenish tint. The wart on her chin that was barely visible before became enormous, complete with a tuft of bristling hair.
With her preparations complete, Miss Wessel pointed a long index finger at Francine and laughed a cackling laugh. “Are you quite sure you want to do this, my dear?” she asked.
Francine, in spite of herself, drew back. “Yes, I’m sure,” she said.
“Then follow me.”
She picked up her broom and climbed the ladder that was built into the attic wall and pushed open the trap door that led to the roof. After they had both gone through the trap door and were standing on the roof, Miss Wessel let the door slam back into place. Then, with Francine watching her closely, she straddled the broom with her legs.
“Get on,” she said, “and hold on. I would advise you not to look down until you get used to flying.”
Francine got onto the broom behind Miss Wessel and wrapped her arms around Miss Wessel’s waist.
“Are you ready?” Miss Wessel asked.
“Yes,” Francine said.
“Do you want me to put a curse on your mother before we go?”
“No. Her life is already cursed enough.”
“Very well, then. We’re off!”
The broom lifted, carrying its two passengers. Miss Wessel flew in a broad sweep over the school and the town so they could take one last look at the place that had been their home for so many years. Then, with the full moon as a backdrop, they flew away to points unknown, never to be seen or heard from again.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp