“What’s Needed” by Ben Clement

2017 Open Division Winner

Mr. Fuller stares at the butterfly knife sitting on the middle of the desk between us. It’s folded away into its purple handle but it still looks dangerous.

“So, where did you get this?” he asks.

“You won’t believe or like it.” I tell him.

“If you tell me, maybe there will be a way around expulsion,” he says. He crosses his arms over his barrel chest and settles into his chair, ready to listen.

“Alright, I warned you,” I tell him with a shrug.

Mr. Fuller nods his head. “Your grades aren’t terrible, Leti, and you have two years to bring them up before you graduate. I know you think you are on this path to failure, but you can step off right here. If you tell me, if you let me try and help you, maybe we can turn everything around.”

It’s not me he should worry about. I always get a way out. If he was a responsible teacher, one that really looked after the interest of his students, I’d be sitting in the Vice Principles office as they called my mom or police. If this were any other teacher, they wouldn’t have me staying after class trying to cut a deal in my favor. I know Mr. Fuller is the type of guy who thinks he always gets what he wants. I also know I’m going to disappoint him, because I always get exactly what I need. I don’t have it yet, whatever it is that I need. So, I’m going to tell him what I haven’t told anybody before, the whole weird truth. If that’s what he wants he’s going to get it. Until what I need to take care of this situation falls into my lap.

“This morning a meat cleaver clattered on top of the kitchen table. It was old and tarnished near the wood handle, but the edge looked sharp. I considered it while my stomach was twisting with hunger. All I had to eat was stale popcorn last-night. Before that was Twizzlers and Carmella’s salad for lunch at school. So I was starving. It’s nothing new, but you don’t get used to it. It keeps me angry. Mom was in the front room, with the television yelling at her. A bowl sat beside her recliner. The milk inside stained pink from the last of my cereal. The fridge had nothing for me but condiments and sunken cartons of dried up take out. There was another dull ring as another knife hit the kitchen table. This one was like something out of Rambo. I asked him for something subtler

“A dusty box with faded, red writing fell on the table. Razors spilled out onto the floor. I peeked over my shoulder. Mom hadn’t stirred. Sometimes she heard things, but mostly she didn’t. In her golden years she was very successful groupie to a bunch of unsuccessful bands. When the partying finally folded up, along with her face, she ended up with permanent tinnitus and me. I told him that it wasn’t my style.

“One by one, knives rained down on the kitchen table. There was an orange box cutter knife with the razor slid all the way out. A Swiss army knife with both its blade and the scissors out and rusted in place came after that. An exact-o-knife with a broken tip and then a fish-gutter with damn fish guts still caked on. Mom yelled at me to knock it off before passing back out.

“Then the butterfly knife dropped on top of the pile. I’d only seen one in a movie before. It was elegant where the others were — I don’t know, just tools. I told him that was the one.

“I put all the other knives in a shopping bag and shoved them up in the cupboard. I picked up the butterfly knife. The weight of it felt right in my hand. I flipped it around a little, like I’d seen in the movie. I spun it around, opening and closing it as I walked up behind Mom’s recliner.

“Next to her leg she had tucked the empty bottle of vodka into the cushion. She had tried to hide it, but the neck was sticking out. And you know, even if I hadn’t seen it, she stunk so bad of booze it wasn’t as if I wouldn’t have known.

“The gifts he gets me, they are so intentional these days, you know? I mean they always just seem to be weapons. I don’t know if it’s because he’s getting worse or because I am.

“So anyway, I stood there, psyching myself up to do it. Usually he gives me what I need like right there in the moment. I’d never had a plan that he… I guess, helped me prepare for. I was going to miss my bus, so I took a breath, dropped the butterfly knife in my bag, and then ran out to catch the bus.”

Mr. Fuller’s jaw is working back and forth beneath his bushy moustache, chewing on the story. He blinks a lot, shaking his head. He’s probably sorry now that he didn’t just drag me to the Vice Principal and have me expelled for bringing the knife to school. But that’s not really what he wants, and so we stay there in his class.

“Someone, a man, gave you these knives to kill your Mom?” Mr. Fuller asks. “Are you going to tell me who he is?”

I shake my head and laugh. It’s not a good time to laugh, but it comes out anyway. “Nah, I wasn’t going to kill her. She doesn’t need my help. And the guy? I mean, I’m guessing it’s a guy. Guys like to give girls presents, right? But he, or they, or whatever it is, they’re not like here, you know. The presents drop out of nowhere. It’s like you blink, or were looking somewhere else for a second, and then there it is.”

“I’m sorry, Leti, I don’t understand. You are telling me the knives came from nowhere? Like Magic?”

I fold my arms around my stomach. “I said you wouldn’t believe me.”

Mr. Fuller rubs his cheek with a sigh. “I’m looking for honesty here, Leti. If you want to feed me b.s. then I guess we should walk over to the Vice-Principal’s office.” He tells me, but doesn’t move an inch. It’s just a threat or a last resort if he decides to give up on me.

There’s a picture in a homemade frame of twigs and dried flowers on his desk. Him, his wife, his two daughters in-between, cheeks all squished together in happy family sandwich. Mr. Fuller looks like the sort of guy who would be a real good father. I don’t know if it’s the big, toothy smile under that bushy mustache, the fluffy hair, or the scratchy sweaters, but he looks fuzzy. Like a teddy bear that’s always good for a warm hug. I bet that gets people to trust him. I bet that gets people to forgive him too. Everyone probably makes excuses for him because they want him to be the good guy they thought he was.

“I wish it was b.s. Before I killed my Step-dad, I used to think it was angels. After, I thought it was demons. Then I read about it online. It’s this paranormal thing called an apport.”

“What do you mean you killed your Step-dad?” Mr. Fuller has his hands on his desk.

That got his attention, but on the wrong thing. He’s acting like he’s getting ready to drag me out of his class, to make me someone else’s problem. Hell, he actually might be considering it. His butt stays in his chair though, because he still thinks he’s in control. Plus, now that he thinks I’m crazy, he wants to know how crazy.

“I was like ten or something. My Step-dad, Mike, was a worse drunk than my mom. Back then, when she drank, Mom cried until she passed out or until Mike knocked her out. Mike was always slapping and pulling at Mom sober, but when he got drunk his fists turned into hammers.

“So, one night he’s hammering away on Mom because she was crying because he was hitting her. I know, it was stupidest cycle, but they were stupid. I’m hiding behind the couch watching, screaming my eyes out. When she finally drops to kitchen floor sniffing back tears and blood, he turns on me. I know if I can be quiet, he’ll stop. All he wants is quiet. He just wants to sit back at the kitchen table and drink his rum and cokes in silence. But I can’t stop screaming. I want to, but it was like my stomach was full of screaming and I couldn’t get it all out.

“I ran for my room, trying to get away from him. But he planted his boot into my back and I went stumbling down the hall. I ran into their room, slamming their door and locking it behind me. The door rattled and bent in its frame as he pounded on the other side. I remember him not saying a word, but kept slamming against the door. He got that way when he was super drunk. Some part of his brain shut down, his face would go blank and he turned into, like this silent statue that hit.” I shudder. After all these years of telling myself I’m over it. Thinking that part of my life doesn’t faze me anymore. God, it still terrifies me to tell it.

“The door started making splintering sounds. I crawled under the bed to hide. There’s this lockbox. As I’m looking at it, a key drops down on the carpet right in front of me. The door broke open as I unlocked the box and grabbed the gun inside. Mike stumbled in cross-eyed and sneering with this white spittle hanging on his lip. I pointed the gun at him from beneath the bed. The gun snapped back with a loud pop. It hit me in the mouth, and knocked some baby teeth. I got out from under the bed, holding my hand over my mouth, blood pouring out between my fingers. Mike fell down clutching at his throat, blood pouring out between his fingers.”

Mr. Fuller rubs his face. His hand stops over his mouth and he breathes into it. When his palm slips off his chin, he asks, “So you’re saying that’s when this started? When your Stepfather was coming after you, the ghosts gave you the key to the gun box?”

“Nuh-uh. I mean, for as long as I can remember, candy would fall into my lap after I got a spanking. Cough drops fell on my covers when I was in bed sick. When I got bored and lonely little toys would appear. Whenever I needed something, there it was. There’s that song, right? You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.”

Mr. Fuller arcs an eyebrow at me.

“Look, I know you don’t believe me. It doesn’t matter. Because…”

“I want to believe you, Leti.” He reaches over the desk and puts his hand on top of mine. “And I think you do care.” His hand feels like a warm fidgeting blanket. “I want to help you, and I want us to trust each other. His hand gets heavier, like someone’s pulling down the corners of the blanket. He looks me in the eye. “I want us to be friends.” His smile is not sympathy.

Before I can yank my hands away, Mr. Fuller releases me. “I’m worried about you, though. I know you don’t get along with most of your classmates. And now you are bringing weapons to school? And if you really believe ghosts are giving you things… you might be a danger to other students.”

“What do think I’m going to do?”

“That’s the problem, I don’t know, and that has me worried.”

“If people behave themselves around me, then there is nothing to worry about,” I snap back.

“Okay, but I have to think about what happens when you defend yourself against the other students. Your idea of self-defense sounds like violence.” Mr. Fuller’s takes his eyes off mine for a moment. He leans back in his chair and lets his gaze drift over me. “How are you going to make me believe that I don’t have to worry about you?”

The resolve I thought I had, crumbles. I made a promise to myself this morning that I was going to be strong and in control, that I was doing what needed to be done. I swore up and down to myself he wasn’t going to make me feel the way I’m feeling right now — vulnerable. It’s only for a moment. Something settles in my coat pocket and my confidence comes back.

“I’ve had opportunities, you know? He’s giving me things that… he’s given me opportunities. Like a month ago, I was in the cafeteria. Carmella bought me a breakfast burrito and I was going at it, you know? Carmella was telling me all the awful shit she heard Alyssa Cole had been saying about her. Racist crap. I know, I know — all you teachers, and most the school, thinks she’s some perfect gift sent down from heaven. Honest and kind as she is blonde and beautiful.

“Anyway, I am struggling to swallow down the half chewed beans and egg when Red Warren passes by, grinning at me. He goes, ‘Es bueno burrito, eh?’ In this crappy fake Mexican accent he always does when he says something to me. He thinks because he’s this tasty dude, he can get away with it. But no, I’m sick of it. I know Carmella and I aren’t the only Hispanic kids in school, but since we dress like Cholas, since we embrace our heritage, they think they can trash on us.

“I jump up to get in his face. But I got up too quick and knocked my hip against the table so hard it sent our trays rattling on the ground. So now everybody in the cafeteria is looking at me when I started to choke.

“Carmella is sitting there screaming, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ over and over. Red straight up drops his tray, comes wheeling back, grabs me, spins me around, and gives me the Heimlich maneuver. With one squeeze, SPLAT, a gob of chewed egg, sausage, cheese and tortilla lands on the floor. Red is petting my back as I’m bent over, sucking in air. When I can stand up straight, he’s staring at me all wide eyed, like he was really worried. He brushes the hair out of my face, and asks me if I’m okay. It’s the first time he has talked to me in like a normal voice. He was close enough — I just wanted to… whatever, it’s stupid. Then he’s all, ‘Ok, you take it easy, Senorita.’ He laughed and patted me on the shoulder. It made me feel like such a loser.

“The crowd around us starts to break up. Red goes to pick up his spilled tray. He left his bag leaned up against a table. I see a little bag of pills drop into it. I don’t know what they were, but I can imagine they’d be bad enough to get him expelled if I told a teacher. Then I thought maybe I wouldn’t tell anyone. Maybe he’d find them in there and try them. Who knows what they would do to him? But no, I grab his bag, pull out the pills and hand it to him. He gives me this smile, that — I don’t know, I just had to walk off.

“So then later, that same day, after lunch I’m still all pissed off walking to my locker. Some kids are grinning at me. Others are whispering to each other and laughing about how I almost died, until the school’s number-one-hero wide receiver saved my life. My face feels like it’s burning, I’m so embarrassed. I see Alyssa walking into the bathroom, and I decide to follow her in. I’m thinking about letting out some rage. When she comes back out of the stall, I’m waiting for her by the sink. She gives me this quick weird look and goes to the sink to wash her hands and check herself out in the mirror. I think she’s ignoring me, but then she asks ‘Do you need something?’ I tell her I heard what she said about Carmella. I tell her to keep her fake-ass mouth shut or else I’ll break her jaw.

“She was so fast I didn’t even see her. It was like I blinked, and then she had me up against the wall, holding me by my throat. She poked me in the gut, squeezed the fat on my stomach and told me, ‘You’re soft, Leti. You play at being this hard-ass Chola, but you’re the fake one. You’re not some gangster bitch from streets of LA. You’re just poor. I run track, I’m on the basketball team, I play soccer, and I do Kickboxing. I never stop moving. What makes you think you’d ever be able to even touch me?’

“Out of the corner of my eye I see brass knuckles drop into the trash next to me. Alyssa didn’t see them. She’s too busy telling me off. ‘It’s a shame, you could be so pretty if you put in the effort. Stop with all the dark make-up and smile once in a while.’ I could have reached them, the brass knuckles sitting on top of all the crumpled paper towels. Then she said, ‘There’s probably shit going on in your life I’d never understand, but you’re being what people expect you to be, a dumb bitch. I never said any of that shit about Carmella.’ She Pulled down a paper down and handed it to me. She told me to hold it to the corner of my eye so the tears wouldn’t smudge my make-up. When she opened the door, she was smiling. I sat on the bathroom floor holding tissue in the corner of my eye until the bell rang.”

Mr. Fuller looks impatient. What I told him is not what he wanted to hear. “You want me to believe that your ghost friend was giving you these things to hurt Red and Alyssa, but you resisted the temptation? It sounds like is that you brought drugs and another weapon to school and considered using them against your classmates.”

As he talks I reach down into my pocket. There’s a slick piece of paper in there, like a picture. There’s tape on the edges. I hold my pocket open to see the photograph, my get-out-of-jail-free card. I hate it, don’t even want to take a second look, but it’s exactly what I need.

Mr. Fuller stands up and comes around to sit on his desk in front of me. I pull my hand out of my pocket. His hands are on his hips, his legs spread. “It sounds like you are disassociating yourself from your hostility so you don’t have to feel at fault. I do want to help you but you may be beyond my help. It might be best to report you, so you can get the help you need.” He licks his lips. “Unless there’s a way you can help me help you.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” I tell him.

Mr. Fuller shakes his head, more frustrated than disappointed. “Alright, I guess we have to bring in the Vice Principal and your counselor. Mrs. Wu, is that right?”

“Hold on, one last thing. Last weekend, Carmella and I went to this party. People were a little weirded out by us being there. I share the endless supply of those little airplane alcohol bottles that keep dropping into my coat pockets, and soon everybody’s my friend.”

“Well, I’m glad you connected with people. But you’re just digging yourself a deeper hole. I mean, come on, Leti you’re telling me about underage drinking. You’re tying my hands here.”

“Hold on, it get’s better. I’m outside, smoking a joint I found in my pocket. I had lost Carmella. Last I saw, she was making out with some dude as short as her. I’m going to leave but then Alyssa stumbles up to me. She sits down on a bench and drags me down next to her. She’s out of her mind drunk. Then she’s crying and apologizing. She says she’s feeling like shit all the time, that she hates herself. There was some things she did she wasn’t proud of. Things that she made me promise not to tell anyone else. Truly gross shit, Mr. Fuller. She said she was angry with herself, but that she had no lashing out at me the way she did. Then she does that typical popular-girl thing where she hugs me and tells me she loves me. Like all of a sudden we’re friends. I mean, I still don’t like her, but I do forgive her. That stuff she did, it sounded more like it was done to her.”

Mr. Fuller’s eyes widen. He’s turning red, from the tips of his ears to the neck above his collar. “That’s enough…”

“No, you wanted me to be honest! Besides, I haven’t even got to the best part. It’s like the ghost doesn’t want me to get caught. He gives me what I need to get out of anything. He knows what I want to do, and makes sure I get away with it.

“Like later at the party I decide to take off. I go around the house and when I get to the front yard, a light shines in my eyes. This cop grabs me and zip-ties my hands behind my back. There are a few of them sneaking up, getting ready to raid the house. The cop sits me down next to the fence, tells me a paddy wagon is on its way. She stands in the driveway, ready to catch anybody else trying to run. A pair of scissors falls in my hands. I use them to cut the zip-tie. I was going to jump the neighbors’ fence, but then I hear the jingle of keys. They’re lying there on the ground, right beneath the door of the cop car.

“So yeah, I steal the car. I’m swerving all over the road as I press enough buttons to get the lights and sirens going. I get out where it’s just fields on either side of me, but by then the cops have caught up. I guess I wasn’t going as fast as I thought. I thought about pushing down on the pedal until… I don’t know. Eventually crash and die, I guess? But I was cool with getting caught, you know? This relief came over me. It was like, if I got arrested, I wouldn’t be dealing with my Mom, with school, or worrying about grades or what the shit-heads in the halls are saying about me. Just less shit to worry about, right?

“My foot is hovering over the brake. But remember, he doesn’t let me get caught. SMASH! A fucking claw-foot bathtub falls on the windshield of the cop car behind me. They spin off into the field and disappear into the darkness behind me. I’m laughing my ass, until I drive off the road into a ditch.

“I must’ve black out for a second. When I came to, the windshield was all shattered and the roof crumpled. The car rolled, but it landed on its wheels. I pushed the away the airbags away and felt a burning pain across my chest from the seatbelt. Shit, I didn’t even remember putting it on, but those things are for sure lifesavers. It left a nasty bruise across my chest, but besides that, I walk away without a scratch. Somehow, I walked home and crawled into bed. The police never came. I just woke up hung-over to a rainy Sunday and watched movies all day.”

“Is that it?” Mr. Fuller asks.

“Well, recently, yeah.”

Mr. Fuller walks towards the door. I grab his arm and slide my hand down it. “Wait.”

“You are a seriously troubled girl, Leti. I’m getting the Vice Principal and we are calling the police.”

“I know what I can give you to, you know, help you help me,” I grab the hem of my shirt, pull it up a little. “I know what you want.”

“There’s no help for you, not anymore,” He says, but doesn’t sound so sure of it. He’s licking his lips like he’s getting ready to help himself.

“But, I wanted to show you something,” I say, giving him my best little pout.

He stares at the little patch of skin I’m showing him and gets so close I can smell his deodorant mixing with his sweat. His head lowers. His coffee-sour breath slimes over my neck. Gooseflesh rises up on my chest. It stings on my seatbelt bruise. There’s a wet smack of his lips getting ready. I pull the photograph out of my pocket.

“Alyssa will be so jealous,” I whisper.

He whips back. “What did you say?”

I show him the photograph. “I mean, she doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself in the picture, but you know the way us teenage girls can be.”

He grabs my wrist and yanks the photograph from my hand. Pulls me close to his face. “How did you get this?”

I get up on my tiptoes so I can whisper in his ear. “He gave it to me. Like he gave me the knife I accidentally dropped in your class.”

“You crazy little bitch,” he growls crushing the photo in his fist. “No one is going to see this. It ends right here, right now.”

“Maybe for you.” Another photograph flutters down beside us. Another brushes down off his shoulder. Another falls on my head. The tape sticks it to my hair. I pick the photograph off and stick it to his chest. The girl in the picture is trying to cover herself. She looks so ashamed and barely older than his daughters in the picture on his desk. “But not for me.”

The photographs are falling like snowflakes around the class. There are a few of Alyssa, like the one that fell into my pocket, but there are all sorts of girls, all ages. Mr. Fuller is different ages in them as well. There’s a long history in those photographs. They all have tape on the corners, as if they came out of some hidden photo-album.

“What is happening?” He whimpers, snatching at the Polaroids.

“There’s no help for you, Mr. Fuller, not anymore.”

There’s a loud thump on Mr. Fuller’s desk. We both look at the revolver rocking on his monthly planner.

I walk past him out the door. “See, there’s always a way out.” I shut the door behind me.

I decide to skip the last twenty minutes left of Chemistry. I still have English and Economics, but I have a feeling we might get out early today.