(A single chapter from somewhere in the beginning of my NaNoWriMo project. I’ve been pounding on the keyboard, trying to get all my ideas down so I haven’t really put anything in order yet. For those who are interested, the foreign words are Korean and the definitions can be found here.)
Neisha couldn’t stop watching the big, round, black and white clock, glancing up from her math paper every few seconds to mark the smallest amount of time that had passed and inhaling so deeply that her nostrils pinched together before bowing her head over the problems again. At this rate two-thirty was never going to get here. Pausing in her calculations she slipped a hand into her straight, black hair just behind her left ear and absently separated a strand which she began to twirl around her fingers. She had made a private vow to stop twisting her hair just that morning as she had noticed it was much thinner on the left now than the right. She wasn’t just twisting it, she was breaking it off. The idea of pulling out her own hair was offensive to her. The problem was, she wasn’t always aware of when she was twisting it.
“Neisha? Can I assist you with something?” Mrs. Kanger’s voice, harsh and a bit too deep for a woman caught her by surprise.
“Huh?” Blankly Neisha stared at her teacher.
“Don’t you mean, what?” Mrs. Kanger’s thick, over-penciled eyebrows rose high into her forehead, nearly touching the slightly curved and well bleached widows peak.
Pulling the strand of hair tightly across her upper lip Neisha tipped her head to one side and forced her eyes to sparkle and dance. “Huh?”
Chuck Simmons, who sat to her right, snickered softly into his own math paper. Neisha didn’t spare him a glance, preferring to not encourage the chunky redhead to take her side, ever.
“You are not amusing, Neisha.” Mrs. Kanger’s eyes sharpened to points. “Finish your math before the bell rings or you will miss your bus and be forced to call your mother for a ride.”
It was an empty threat and Neisha knew it. Mrs. Kanger would rather lay in a box of spiders than have Nema Kwon come to pick her up because of an unfinished math paper. Still, she felt it wouldn’t be wise to push things much father. Mrs. Kanger might be afraid of her mother but there were many ways the jot bab could get back at her. Releasing her strand of twisted hair she lowered her eyes to her paper and moved her hand like she was going to write something down, at the same time she pressed out a small fart that popped against the metal of her seat like a Fourth of July banger. She looked up in feigned surprise to see Mrs. Kanger glowering at her.
“Excuse me,” Neisha said politely and bent to her paper. To her right Chuck snorted laughter onto his stomach and she couldn’t quite stop the corners of her mouth from twitching with a smile.
After the small volley of attitudes, the clock seemed to kick into high speed and suddenly Neisha found herself jamming her books into her bag and getting ready to leave. The math paper was finished and laying on the top of her desk, each answer correct. As the final bell of the day rang out Mrs. Kanger stood up from her own desk holding a stack of papers and called for attention.
“Before you leave I need most of you to come get your JOC page. It’s that time of year again and these papers need to be delivered to your parents as soon as you get home.” Tapping the stack on its side to square them Mrs. Kanger stepped to the front of her desk. “As I call your name please come forward.” Starting with Charles Albright, a.k.a Chuck the snorter, she moved quickly down the list. Each student rose when their name was called and took the paper from Mrs. Kanger’s hand before heading out the classroom door. Neisha ignored her teacher and headed for the door, her mind filling with ideas for food and advancing her progress on her current video game.
Neisha’s head snapped toward the front of the room, her eyes popping in their sockets. “What?”
Mrs. Kanger shook a sheet of paper at her.
“But I’m thirteen,” she said. Her arms felt weak, like french fries after the starch had been soaked out of them. Her classmates stood stock still, their faces blank with surprise. Some of them had celebrated her birthday with her and knew she was now, officially, beyond the age requirement of the JOC. A few of them looked scared. “I don’t have to enter.” Mrs. Kanger met her eyes and Neisha got the impression that, despite their earlier clash, her teacher wasn’t any happier about giving her the paper than she was to receive it. Mrs. Kanger never said a single word about the JOC but her required participation was openly minimal and her instructions to her students was exactly what they needed to be and nothing more. Her legs moved of their own accord and Neisha found herself reaching for the paper. “My birthday was in March,” she said softly. Mrs. Kanger nodded her acknowledgement.
“Go straight home today and give that directly to your mother.” Mrs. Kanger looked firmly into her eyes. “Don’t waste time, Neisha.” The implication was clear. Neisha nodded and ran for the door.
The combination for her locker skittered from her mind for a minute and she spun the black dial around several times, her eyes vacant, staring emptily at the air slats in the metal door. Why? How was it possible? She was too old now! Her fingers and eyes moved together in muscle memory and the locker opened without her realizing she had dialed in the correct numbers. She still couldn’t recall what they were. Dropping her books onto the bottom shelf Neisha snatcher her blue fleece from its hook and slammed the door closed.
The buses were already lined up outside, uncharacteristically prompt on this auspicious day. Not bothering with farewells she made her way out the main door and down the short set of steps, not thinking to count them as she went. There were exactly thirteen of them, the top one being a bit thinner than the others but not really noticeable unless you looked carefully. Neisha had a rhyme that she liked to hum as she moved up or down the stairs, a rhythmic poem she chanted silently to herself that fit perfectly into the activity of thirteen steps.
Snap the neck, crack a bone, peel the skin, run for home.
This was not something Neisha ever said out loud, knowing instinctively that her peers would not understand and the adults would all make notes. Nema had warned her repeatedly to keep her inner thoughts and ideas safely in her head. Never write anything down or confide in anyone. What you do can be judged by anyone who sees you. What you think can only be judged by you. Neisha took this advice to heart and the stepping poem lived only in her mind.
Children poured from the building, the younger students bolting from the doors of the elementary wing and racing for the bus line. Sixty-three B was her bus number. Spotting it down the row she made for it quickly.
Lining up behind the other students that lived on her route she noticed the small, curly haired boy from the apartment complex next to hers. He was smiling and holding his own copy of the JOC paper in his fist. She watched him struggle to make his short legs bridge the gap between the sidewalk and the first step onto the bus, her mind shifted into attack mode. Neisha watched him enter the bus and grin like a little Ddorang at the bus driver, Mrs. Karr, then take a seat close to the front. Thinking that his pudgy, white, cheeks looked like dough that needed to be punched down before the yeast ran away with it Neisha slid into the seat behind him. Her day couldn’t get any worse now, she might as well indulge herself a bit. Settling into her seat she looked up to see Mrs. Karr watching her in the wide rear view mirror, her dark eyes narrowed and suspicious. Neisha assumed a blank expression and turned her head to stare out the window, frustration tearing at her stomach. Softly, in the back of her throat she began humming her poem.
More children loaded onto the bus and fanned out into the seats. Neisha noted Chuck’s light red head jogging past her window to get to his own bus which went down by the canal. He was always talking about fishing with his dad and giving graphic descriptions of what cleaning fish was like. The first time she had asked him if they ate the eyes he had looked at her like she had sprouted a second head.
“Who eats the eyes? They’re tiny. Nothing there to fry.”
“Get enough of them and you can have pudding. See?” Neisha had laughed and raised her lunchtime cup of tapioca for his inspection. Chuck glowered at her.
“That’s just tapioca,” he said. “Those aren’t fish eyes.”
Neisha shrugged and spooned some onto her tongue, giving him a clear view of the mess as she slurped it down her throat.
The bus doors swung closed and Mrs. Karr gave a last look into her rearview before putting the big engine into gear. Neisha remained still, her head turned away, her eyes focused on the scene outside. As the bus pulled away from the curb she shifted ever so slightly toward the front of her seat, looking intently at nothing out the window, pretending to keep it in view as they drove away. By the time the bus turned onto the main road she was sitting right at the edge of her seat, her hand on the tall back of the seat in front of her.
“Do you know what gwishin are?” Neisha whispered to the little boy. When he didn’t respond she continued as if he had. “Gwishin are ghosts, spirits of the people who have died. Sometimes a gwishin doesn’t leave as it should, it hangs around trying to be known to the people it left behind.” She was talking through the thin crack between the seat and the wall of the bus, her voice measured and quiet. With her hand on the back of the seat she could feel the boy move as she talked, shifting toward crack. His voice whispered back to her.
“Do gwishin know they are dead?”
“Sometimes. And sometimes they think they are still alive and try to do the same things they have always done.” Neisha smiled as she spoke, feeling her prey within her grasp. “You can hear them, moaning and whistling around the corners of buildings every time the wind blows. They are looking for a way in.” The boy inhaled audibly, his sudden tension as much a sensation to her as if she were touching him.
“Jeffrey, don’t you listen to a thing that girl tells you.”
Mrs. Karr’s voice cut off further communication but Neisha didn’t mind. She sat back in her seat smiling. She had a name to go with the doughy face.