A short story in under 1,000 words.
Eva was panting already. The road slipped beneath her like an endless grey headache. Her legs hurt and sweat dripped into her eyes but she didn’t slow down. She couldn’t be late again.
It was an overcast day, but heavy, unusually warm, as if the sky was pressing down on her. Eva began to wish she hadn’t worn her jacket zipped all the way to the top. She rounded the final corner and the school, white and oblong, came into focus in front of her. She slowed just enough to jump off the bicycle and throw it onto the manicured lawn before bounding up the marble steps. She prayed she would have enough time to get changed and slip into class before Miss Merrell noticed she wasn’t there. Because if she missed the register, if she missed the warm-up stretches and the pliés and the passés then Miss Merrell would ask questions. It had happened before. Eva couldn’t bear to see that look in Miss Merrell’s eyes, the one that made it seem like she’d remembered a pet who had died.
She was in such a hurry to get inside she didn’t even notice there were no cars parked outside the school today.
The left-hand door of the main entrance opened as it always did, with resistance and a low creak. As Eva pushed it to behind her she realised the hallway was strangely dark. A dim glow filtered in through the windows, but the lights weren’t on and all the doors were shut. It looked like a watercolour painting where everything but grey had run off the page.
“Hello?” she called. Her voice sounded thin and unsure. She tried again, louder this time, but the only response was an angry echo.
Eva began moving from room to room. Every door she tried opened onto an empty studio full of mirrors and shadows. The blinds were closed. The barres were stacked in the corners. There were no classes here today.
She felt the frustration begin to bubble inside her, an emotion so often quelled it seemed almost rebellious to let it rise to the surface. Once again she was the last to know, the idiot left behind, always on the back foot, stupid and ugly and poor and all the other words that had transmuted from the playground to the inside of her head. It hadn’t even been her fault. She had been sat on the living room floor crayoning, amusing herself, lost in a make-believe world. Like always, she drew her mother, tall and pretty with long golden hair that shone in the sunlight. Shouting was coming from the other room, but Eva was pretty good at drowning it out.
Her mother appeared, hopping on one foot as she attempted to put on a shoe. Her hair was dark and wet from a shower, her shirt not properly buttoned. “Eva!” she yelled. “Have you cleaned the dishes like I told you? Eva! I have to leave in one minute.”
“I’ll do it in a second,” Eva said, still drawing.
“Jesus Christ. The things I do for you Eva, and this is the attitude I get. Who do you think works two jobs for the clothes on your back? Those crayons you love so much? Those stupid ballet classes and the fucking tutu and all of it? Christ almighty.”
Eva just kept on crayoning. When she thought about it, the mother she drew didn’t really look anything like her real mother anymore. She had been that way once, but the memory had turned into a distant dream. These days her drawn mothers, hundreds and hundreds of them in precise detail, looked a lot more like Miss Merrell.
When her mother returned she had woken Eva with the sound of bottles smashing and the TV blaring, a racket that she couldn’t imagine away. A whole restless night had melted into the moaning and sobbing that drifted in under her bedroom door, and a small dark place inside herself told Eva that her mother was doing it on purpose.
Eva returned to the hallway. She slammed the door behind her, and it felt good, the heavy noise reverberating deep into the silence. When she turned around there was a figure watching her in the far shadows. She didn’t know how long it had been there, standing silent and unmoving. A pang of guilt went through her. She made to speak but something stopped her, something in the precise outline of the human shape emerging from the gloom, the way it looked so unquestionably female, womanly, motherly, the way its hooded eyes gleamed darkly with something that was comforting and hideous all at once. She couldn’t tell if she wanted to run into its arms or hide from its gaze forever.
Overcome, Eva staggered backwards and found herself falling to the floor. A whimpering sound she hadn’t realised she was making filled her ears and her vision, fixated on the dark figure, swam with tears until she couldn’t tell what was shadow and what was not.
Then suddenly the world was full of light. Miss Merrell was above her, stroking her hair, speaking.
“Is everything alright?” she was saying. Her voice quavered with concern. “Thank God I came back for my keys or I would have locked you in. What are you doing here? Didn’t your mother get the letter?”
Eva collapsed into her arms and breathed in her smell of lavender and warmth. When she raised her head the figure was gone. She looked back at Miss Merrell and saw that look in her eyes, the dead pet one. It burned a hole in her heart so badly that later, thinking back on the whole strange event, she couldn’t decide whether the dark figure had been the most awful thing to ever happen to her or the most wonderful.