How Long Have You Known Hester Bluet? ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The police were questioning all of us. I was pulled out of third-period history class and taken into a classroom that was empty except for a desk and two chairs. A man sitting at the desk gestured to me to sit down.
“I want to ask you a few questions,” he said.
He had red hair, freckles and thick lips. I was trying to think who it was he reminded me of and then I realized it was Howdy Doody.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Give me your full name.”
I told him and he wrote it down.
“How long have you known Hester Bluet?” he asked.
“Since I first started to school. Kindergarten. She was there, along with everybody else.”
“So you’ve known her most of your life.”
“Do you consider yourself a special friend of Hester’s?”
“Why is that?”
“I suppose it’s because she and I never liked each other very much.”
Howdy Doody shifted uneasily in his chair as if he had a pain. “So, you’re saying you don’t like her.”
“Why don’t you like her?”
“I’ve never thought about it. She’s just somebody I don’t like. There are also other people I don’t like. Do you want their names?”
“Do you hate her?”
“Your dislike for her is not hatred?”
“No. Why bother?”
“What do you mean ‘why bother’?”
“If I started hating people, I’d never stop.”
He frowned and folded his hands. “If you could describe Hester Bluet to me in a few words, what would you say?”
“She’s the prettiest girl in school, or at least she thinks she is. She dresses like a fashion model, she’s been all over the world and she has the highest scholastic average in the history of the school.”
“Would you say she’s a popular girl?”
“But not with you?”
“Do you know of anybody else who feels the same way about Hester Bluet that you do?”
“Sure, lots of people don’t like her.”
“Why is that?”
“She’s smug and superior. When people see a perfect thing, they want to smash it. Some people do.”
“Do you want to smash a perfect thing when you see it?”
“I don’t see that many perfect things.”
“When was the last time you saw Hester Bluet?”
“The last day she was at school, I guess.”
“Do you remember anything unusual about that day?”
“The heel on my shoe came off and I had to get it fixed.”
“I mean about Hester.”
“It was just another Thursday like all the others. If I had known it was The Day That Hester Bluet Was Going To Disappear, I would have paid closer attention so I could have given more interesting answers.”
“Can you think of anything else you’d like to tell me before we conclude the interview?”
I looked down at the floor and swallowed. “No, except that Hester Bluet and I had an argument in the library the day before she disappeared. Several people heard it. If I don’t mention it, somebody else will.”
He leaned forward as if the conversation has suddenly become interesting. “What was the argument about?” he asked.
I took a deep breath and looked at the wall over his shoulder. “Well, she was always so perfect in the eyes of the world, but she wasn’t above stealing.”
“She stole something from you?”
“She had a poem published in the school newspaper. It was my poem that I wrote two years ago in ninth grade. She stole my poem and passed it off as her own.”
“And that, of course, infuriated you.”
“I don’t know if ‘infuriated’ is the right word, but I didn’t like it.”
“So you confronted her in the library?”
“And what did she say?”
“She denied it.”
“Can you prove it was your poem?”
“It was mine. I shouldn’t have to prove it.”
“What did you want her to do about the poem?”
“I wanted her to admit it was mine and that she stole it.”
“Did the argument become physical in any way? Did you strike her?”
“I wanted to smash her perfect face in. I wanted to splash her blood over all the books in the library, but I didn’t touch her.”
“Did she touch you?”
“She pushed me.”
“Pushed you how?”
“I was blocking the way, keeping her from leaving. She pushed me into the wall.”
“And there were others who witnessed this altercation?”
“After she left the library, what did you do?”
“Were you planning on getting back at her or hurting her in any way for stealing your poem?”
“No, by the next day I had almost forgotten it.”
Howdy Doody seemed satisfied with what I had told him and let me go. He told me not to discuss the case with anybody, but that was a joke because that’s all anybody was talking about. They might as well have shut down school until the whole thing was over and Hester Bluet was once again among us.
When news of my argument in the library with Hester became widely known and that the police had questioned me, the idea began to circulate that I somehow had something to do with her disappearance or that I at least knew what had happened. People began to look at me with suspicion—with admiration or hatred—according to how they had felt about Hester.
I thought at times the police were watching me when I left school and when I was at home, but maybe it was only my imagination. I figured if they had any evidence against me, they would lock me up in prison without bail. I could see myself in a courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit with my wrists and ankles chained. Maybe I had seen too many crime movies on television. I wasn’t really worried, though, because I knew I hadn’t done anything. Not that I was sorry that somebody else had done it—I was only glad it wasn’t me.
With all the talk that was going on, there were several interesting theories. One theory had it that Hester Bluet had fallen into another dimension and that someday one of us would hear her crying out to be let back into this one; another that she had been abducted by a flying saucer and that when the aliens who took her got tired of her big mouth they would bring her back and leave her where they had found her. Others believed she had realized there was no future in being a small-town beauty and had run off to pursue a career in show business, or that she had been kidnapped by gangsters and forced into prostitution. Everybody had their own ideas.
After a week, according to the newspaper, the police still had no credible leads. They were calling in the FBI. Hester Bluet’s family was offering a substantial reward, not only for her safe return, but also for any information. If such a thing could happen to a lovely girl like Hester, who among us was safe?
Then one day it happened. Somebody noticed a bad smell coming from the vicinity of Hester Bluet’s locker. When the janitor was summoned with his passkey, Hester’s desiccated body was found stuffed into the locker. She was in a crouching position, her body bent double, her knees under her chin, her blond hair covering her face.
When the police came, it was as if the marines had landed. There were hordes of them. They cordoned off the school to keep people out. It was now a crime scene.
Everybody was sent home and the school closed. Instead of going home, though, most of us hung around outside, talking in low voices. This was by far the most sensational thing that had ever happened and everybody wanted to be a part of it.
It was learned through a friend of a friend of Hester’s that she stayed late on Thursday afternoon to catch up on some work in the biology lab, so that, for a while at least, she would have been the only person in the school. Milt Frissle, the middle-aged janitor’s assistant, was also present that time of day, after everybody else had left. It was his job to make sure all the windows and doors were locked and the lights turned off.
When police questioned Milt Frissle, he denied seeing Hester or knowing she was in the building. They wouldn’t let him alone, though, and after hours of questioning he broke down and, in a tearful confession, told them what had happened.
When Hester went down to the first floor from the biology lab, she encountered him. He startled her and she startled him because neither one knew the other was in the building. They began talking in a friendly way. He had seen her before, of course, and he thought she was so pretty. He invited her to have a drink with him in his room in the basement. She laughed at him and said something like, “Why would I want to have a drink with you?” She acted like she was a queen or something and he dirt under her feet. When she started to walk past him, he grabbed her and began kissing her. He thought she would like it but she didn’t. She struggled and screamed. He was afraid somebody would hear her and he would get into trouble and might even lose his job.
He tried to calm her down and get her to be still, but she kept whimpering and pushing away from him. He put his hands around her neck and squeezed, with no other intention that to quiet her. He was very strong and with what seemed like only a small effort on his part she went limp in his arms. He never meant to kill her or even to hurt her.
He hid her in the furnace room but decided after a few days that if she was found there, everybody would certainly know it was his doing. He had to find a better place, so he stuffed her in her locker. He knew she would eventually be found there, but he hoped it wouldn’t happen for several days at least. Those several days might be enough time to deflect suspicion away from him, he believed.
Everybody went to Hester Bluet’s funeral, even people who didn’t know her but had only heard about what happened to her. It was the largest funeral ever in the history of the town. All the people wouldn’t fit into the church. She was buried alongside her grandparents in the cemetery on the edge of town. The people who adored her in life visited her grave frequently for a couple of years but eventually stopped going. People just want to forget the terrible things and move on, I guess.
For years, anytime I went back to my hometown, I stopped by her grave, if only for a minute, and looked at the weathered headstone that bore her name and the dates of her birth and death. I had forgiven her for stealing my poem and I hoped she was in a better place and was able to laugh at her life. As for Milt Frissle, I’m sure you know what happened to him.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp