Lily is too pretty a name for a girl like that. Lily-White, Lily-Pure, Lily-Innocent, lovely, do-no-wrong. This Lily should have been named Roxie or Regina or Priscilla. Something to warn you when she enters your classroom. To tell you exactly what kind of problems she’s going to cause.
The walls of the school turned her into a wild thing, a feral mountain creature that slept in caves and hunted other girls from the shadows. Lily. Not Lily-of-the-Valley. Not Lily-Plucked-from-the-Garden-and-Potted-Perfectly-in-the-Windowsill. Lily, as in the color of her fangs.
I try to be optimistic on the first day of school. Or, at least, I try to look it. If I look it, the girls might treat me and one another with a little decency, at least while they’re in my classroom. They’re not bad kids, just mean. No one knows how to spit vitriol like a fourteen-year-old girl. All those raging hormones and change going on in their young lives.
The girls meander in. Each one is prim and proper. School is a show, a pageant where the girls compete, trying to outshine the others stuck in the same uniform, the winners decided by smooth and silky eyeliner, streamlined eyebrows, glittering white teeth. They come in chattering like a flock of flamingos, and they pay me no mind. One girl comes in, and she’s completely silent. She’s a couple of inches shorter than the others, with smooth dark-brown hair that strays out from behind her ears. There’s a white glint in her black eyes, like that of a shark. The girls take their seats, and I put my sweetest smile on my face.
“Hello, girls. My name is Ms. Hale, and I’m so excited to be your history teacher this year. To start off, I’d like each of you to create a nametag so I can get to know you. You can be as creative as you’d like, as long as it’s legible.” I hold up the one I made with my name. “Something like this.”
Slowly, as if the whole thing were terribly draining, the nametags go up one by one. Rosalie. Caroline. Jeanie. Trinity. Piper. Two Kates. Mallory.
The shorter girl with the dark hair crumples the paper up into a ball. She perches it on the end of her desk. Her name is scrawled awkwardly on the side of the ball, the letters forming a shape like a tiger’s grin. Lily.
My stomach flips, and it’s harder to hold my smile. I don’t want to let this child know I’m scared. First rule of teaching teenagers: You can’t let them know they scare you. I resist the urge to clear my throat. “Thank you, everyone. There seems to be a lot of creativity in this class, and I’m excited to see what you’ll do this year. For this first month, we’ll be studying the Enlightenment, then moving on to the French Revolution, and the American Revolution—”
Lily shoots up, slamming her open palms on the desk. “Ms. Hale, we did all of this! We learned all of this last year. Aren’t we going to learn anything new?”
A light snickering flits through the room. I smile at Lily. “That’s a great question, Lily. You may have studied these events before, but most likely not in the level of detail we’re going to be discussing them in now, and—”
“What about what we want to learn? I want to learn about the Egyptian queens and pharaohs and the Vikings, not a bunch of old dudes in wigs.”
“Oh, shut up,” Rosalie says. All the girls giggle. All of them except for Lily.
I purse my lips. “Okay, that’s enough. Those are all wonderful ideas, and maybe we can squeeze in a lesson on those things, but we have to stay on top of the eighth-grade curriculum. Like I was saying, we’ll be focusing on the history of Western civilization, finishing the year off with the U.S. Civil War. Let’s go over the syllabus, then after lunch, I’ll pass out your textbooks….”
When the lunch bell rings, Lily doesn’t follow like a normal girl. She walks quietly behind, her feet barely grazing the floor, and her neck bent low with her eyes on the others’ backs. It looks to me like she’s hunting them.
My class is late returning from lunch. I’m unboxing the used textbooks, twenty-two in total, four more than I need this year. It’s three minutes until the bell, and I’m still missing six or seven students. Lily slips into the room and takes her seat, but she’s all alone. I’m getting worried that the rest of them aren’t coming back when two girls come running in, panting, with blotchy red cheeks. Mallory and Jeanie, I think — or maybe Caroline and Jeanie. I’m not sure.
“Ms. Hale! Ms. Hale! She locked Rosalie in the bathroom— She trapped her!”
“Girls! Slow down, please. What happened?”
The girl flicks her eyes back toward Lily. “It was her.”
I look over their heads at Lily. She’s sitting there quietly, looking peacefully out the window at the trees.
I turn back to the girls. “Where is Rosalie now?”
“Kate went to get Mrs. Harrington to get her out. She said she needed pliers to break the padlock,” Mallory — or Caroline — whispered. “Can you imagine what she would’ve done to her? Freak.”
“Girls, please, sit down. I’ll take care of it.”
The girls take their seats as far away from Lily as possible, scooching their desks away from her. I put my hand gently on the corner of Lily’s desk. I’m afraid to touch her.
“Lily, can I speak to you for a moment?”
Lily doesn’t answer, just silently rises to her feet. I walk her outside and shut the door so the others can’t hear.
“The girls say you locked Rosalie in the bathroom. Why would you do that? Did Rosalie do something to you?”
Lily says nothing.
“You can tell me. I want to help.”
“If you’re not going to tell me, I have no choice but to give you detention. This Saturday, 8 a.m.”
“Lily, did you hear me? I said I’m going to have to give you—”
“I heard you.”
And she goes back inside.
Every day is more of the same, if not worse. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Lily limits herself to shouting at the other girls “for having stupid ideas” and even me when something “doesn’t make sense.” The girls laugh more openly now. On Thursday, Jeanie comes back from lunch crying so hard I can barely understand what she’s saying. Lily has chopped off huge handfuls of her hair.
I’m sitting on a stool at the far end of the lunchroom, eating a tuna salad sandwich without taking my eyes off the students. Blink and you can miss something. Though I wish I had lunchtime to myself, there are limits to the freedom we can give them. We know what they do with it.
On Sunday afternoons, my mother would go to the sunroom and sit in the windowsill and knit for hours, until my father came home with dinner. My sister and I would be left to ourselves, given free rein of the rest of the house. Those were always the worst days. The house would be quiet, except for the drone of cartoons or the washer. Boredom would set in.
Come here, my sister would say. Bella was older than me, and two years made a world of difference in size back then.
“No,” I would reply. “You’re going to hit me.”
She’d chase me down and sit on me. If she couldn’t pin me down, she’d hit whatever she could reach. My head was always tender from her yanking my hair. She usually left my face alone; it was an unwritten rule that she couldn’t leave a mark. She couldn’t leave proof, because proof would lead to consequences.
I would run quietly to the sunroom. I knew better than to wail or scream. “Bella hit me,” I would whine. Every Sunday, without fail, I would have the same complaint.
My mother never looked up from her knitting. “You look fine to me,” she would say. “You have to learn to let it go. She’s just doing it to rile you up.”
“I know,” I would say. That’s the problem.
Caroline struts up to the empty table where Lily crouches over her lunch. Three other girls are beside her. Caroline is all hips in her uniform skirt — she could be sixteen, or even older, if I didn’t already know she’s barely fourteen.
“Look at her. Look at the way she eats,” Caroline says. “Fuckin’ sick, like a damn pig. Don’t you know eating like that will make you fat, dumbass?”
Lily barely looks up. “What’s your excuse?”
Caroline flinches, the movement so slight you might miss it, although I’m sure Lily didn’t. Caroline smooths her skirt over her round hips. “Didn’t your mom teach you not to eat like an animal?”
“Didn’t your mom teach you that fuckin’ with the wrong people will get your teeth knocked out?”
The other girls blanche. But Caroline doesn’t back down. She leans in and sneers, so loudly the whole room can hear. “You’re disgusting, a fuckin’ animal. I heard you ate your mom. Creepy fuckin’ pig.”
Lily lifts herself up, her shoulders poised to pounce.
Another teacher, Mrs. Gertie, steps in. “Caroline, we don’t use language like that. Both of you, sit down and eat your lunch, or you’ll be serving detention for the rest of the semester.”
Caroline turns her back. Lily stares at her from a table away. With her eyes trained to the back of Caroline’s head, Lily sticks her fork deep in her meat patty and rips into it with her teeth.
Frankie passes the serving spoon to Lily, who uses it to load her plate with a mountain of Stouffer’s lasagna. It is twice the size of Frankie’s portion — Frankie is too small to eat like she does. Even Father can barely consume what Lily can. He’s stamped that part out of himself. Before Frankie can reach Lily’s age, Father will have stamped it out of him, too. But not Lily.
Lily takes after her mother. What she remembers of her, anyway. It’s been seven years since she passed away. But Iris was powerful, too. She was big like a bull — like a minotaur. She was all-consuming. She wanted her life, and she inhaled it greedily. (“Waste not, want not, darling.”)
There were no tea parties or dollhouses when Lily was young. There were walks in the woods and fishing trips and hours of make-believe. Lily takes fearsome bites. The food is too hot, and whatever taste buds survive the molten morsels are only met with a disappointing blandness. At the end of dinner, she will still be hungry.
“Hold your fork right, Lily. I raised you better than that.”
I squint against the white sunlight and look out at the school yard. I hate being yard monitor. I hate hearing what these girls do to each other, and I hate it even more with Lily in my class. I’m afraid I might have to step into something more serious than teenage name-calling. I’m afraid I might get caught in the crossfire.
I always tried to stay out of my sister’s way. I would play with Barbies in my room or roll around in the grass in the backyard. I learned to be happy that way, and I didn’t bother our mother.
I see my students waltzing aimlessly around the schoolyard. Some throw a basketball back and forth — not competitively, just as something to do with their hands. A couple lean against a bench, their poreless faces pointed at the sun. Caroline, Jeanie, and Mallory laugh and chat as they make their way slowly around the barren soccer field.
My sister always found me. She was always looking for me. She wanted it that way. If she could have, she would have ground my body into dust. If she could have, she would have buried me alive in the backyard, stomping ruthlessly on my wrists and my stomach as she piled the dirt into my mouth. I think she would have liked to have been an only child.
I see Lily emerge from the fence line, but I am too far away to do anything. She moves silently, with the speed of a predator, and buries her teeth into the place where Caroline’s neck meets her shoulder.
Caroline had to be carried to the nurse’s office, then driven up the road to the emergency room. Mrs. Gertie said she needed ten stitches.
I lean against my desk. My knuckles are white from clenching the edge of the wooden board. I almost feel like I could swipe it off with one move, but I don’t test it.
There’s a knock at my door. The knob turns, and Lily’s small shape is outlined in the doorway, flanked by two matronly teachers. When the faculty — half a dozen teachers, at least — pried the girls apart, I asked them to let me speak to Lily before sending her home. However, now that she’s here at the door, I’m not sure I made the right choice. I take a deep breath.
“Lily, come in for a moment — I’d like to talk to you.”
She takes a step in, but only one. The door closes behind her. Lily glares at me. “I’ve somewhere to be.”
“Lily, I really need to speak to you. Please, just listen.”
“I told you, I have somewhere to be.”
“Lily, your behavior is inexcusable. Speaking out of turn is one thing, but biting another girl? If there’s even one more hint that you might hurt someone, I’m going to have to have you removed from class for the rest of the year, placed in a remedial class. You don’t want that, do you?”
Lily grips the straps of her overstuffed Jansport with a vengeance. She clenches her jaw. She stares straight ahead. She won’t look at me. I’m relieved. I don’t know if I had it in me to take another evil, angry look from her and stay standing.
“I know you’ve had a hard time getting along with the other girls. I know you’ve been fighting. First you trapped Rosalie in the bathroom, and you chopped off Jeanie’s hair. Any one of those things could get you kicked out of school. I’m trying to have mercy here, but this violent streak has gone too far, and I have to do something.”
It’s like talking through the glass at the aquarium. Talking through inch-thick, break-proof glass to the fishes and the rays and the sharks swimming by, staring back with their deep, depth-perception-less eyes. “Lily, I don’t want to do this. I really want to help you. Tell me what I can do.”
Lily turns away and stares straight ahead at the tiles in the corner of the room. Her voice is soft but impenetrable at the same time. “Why can’t she just let me be?” Lily says, speaking as if I’m not there. “I need to get home. I need to meet Frankie at the bus stop. I need to make sure the kitchen is straightened up. I need to get the Stouffer’s out of the freezer—”
“Lily, you’re thirteen.”
“Doesn’t she remember what it was like being a kid? Doesn’t she remember how early it ends?”
“Lily, where is your mother?”
“I have things to do. I need to get home.”
“You’re a girl. You’re not a mother.”
“That’s what she thinks. I am my mother. That’s why he’s scared of me.”
“Lily, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that there’s so much going on at home — but this acting out in class, bullying other girls, I can’t allow it.”
“Ms. Hale doesn’t listen to me.”
“Lily, please, I want to listen. I’m sorry for not listening before. Please—”
“I don’t have time for any stupid books or stupid math problems or any stupid homework.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what to do anymore.”
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Lily echoes.
“There must be something I can do to help,” I insist.
“There’s nothing anybody can do but me,” she replies.
A tear slips out from my eye. The surety in Lily’s voice drains the surety from mine. I shake my head. “Lily, I don’t understand — why bite another girl?”
This time, she turns her dark, glinting eyes on me. “I’m hungry.”
I’m terrified. I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I want to tell her. I want to get down on my knees and tell her, “Please, I’ll listen, there’s still time,” but I don’t. Instead, a voice inside me says, “If you’re going to bite anyone, I deserve it. Bite me.”