Rhonda Strong Gilmour
Katie flattened her skinny back against the cinderblock wall and tried to shut out the raucous shouts from the school yard. She hadn’t been chosen for a kickball team—again. She yearned to go back inside and read, but Miss Craft wouldn’t let her.
“Now, Katie, the only way to get over your shyness is to play with the other children. Don’t you want to make friends? Of course you do.” Miss Craft’s smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Kids aren’t supposed to notice things like that, but Katie noticed.
“I’m not shy,” she muttered to herself. “They just don’t like me. They’re mean.”
One of the kids playing kickball turned to look at Katie, then whispered to a classmate and laughed.
And Mrs. Watson, the gray-haired recess monitor, never noticed. She only got off her bench if you were bleeding or screaming. And there was no way Katie would give them the satisfaction of hearing her scream. No way.
She checked her Princess Jasmine watch. Only five more minutes until the bell would return her to the safety of the classroom. She watched the puffy clouds scudding by. Just five more minutes.
Bam! The kickball whacked off the wall, clipping Katie hard on the ear.
“Home run!” Big Joyce crowed. Broad and thick and tall, Big Joyce was the meanest kid in the third grade, if not the whole school.
Blinking hard, Katie reached for her burning ear. Her hand came away bloody.
“Mrs. Watson,” Fat Luis called, “Katie’s bleeding.”
Mrs. Watson dropped her crossword magazine and heaved herself off the bench. The kids on the kickball court fell silent, except for Big Joyce’s knot of toadies, who huddled around their queen and giggled. Joyce squinted at Katie, grinned, and then spit a glob of phlegm onto the pavement.
“All right, all right, what happened now?” Mrs. Watson pried Katie’s fingers away from her ear and inspected the damage. Blood dripped down Katie’s neck and onto the Peter Pan collar of her white blouse.
The bell rang. Miss Craft’s third graders lined up, tittering like sparrows. Their teacher joined Mrs. Watson in the corner where Katie hunched, breathing hard in an effort to hold back her brimming tears. The teacher winced when she saw the bloody mess.
“Oh dear. What happened, Katie?”
“She missed,” Big Joyce called out. Huddled behind her, her toadies nodded vigorously.
“It was her turn to kick, and she missed.”
“She always misses.”
Katie shook her head, which made her ear throb all the more. “That’s not true! They wouldn’t let me play. And then Joyce kicked the ball at my head. On purpose.”
And the tears began to fall—Katie couldn’t help it. Her head throbbed, and her stomach wobbled. Doom settled over her like a smelly wet blanket.
Once Joyce made you cry, she’d come after you again and again.
“Nuh uh! You are such a liar,” snarky little Kelly piped up. “We let her play, Miss. She was on Mitch’s team.” She gave Mitch a poke. “Right?”
Mitch stared at his scuffed shoes. “Um, yeah.”
Big Joyce snorted, daring the other kids to contradict her story.
Miss Craft pushed herself to her feet. “Mrs. Watson, would you take Katie to the nurse, please?”
“Great. More paperwork. Come on, squirt.” Mrs. Watson dropped a meaty paw onto Katie’s shoulder and propelled her toward the office. Once the hallway was clear, the recess monitor squatted down on her thick haunches and looked Katie in the eye.
“OK, kiddo, before we talk to the principal, why don’t you tell me the truth.”
Katie sniffled and wiped her bloody hand on her skirt.
Mrs. Watson’s hands were warm on Katie’s shoulders. “It’s OK. Really. Just tell me how you got hit.”
Katie stared at her Mary Janes for a long moment before whispering, “Big Joyce.”
Mrs. Watson sighed. “That little turd.”
Katie’s jaw dropped. She’d never heard a grownup use such language.
Mrs. Watson leaned in. “You listen to me, kiddo. I know it’s hard, dealing with mean kids like Joyce. I’ll keep an eye on her. That’s a promise. But you know what? Kids like Joyce always get what’s coming to them.”
That night, her ear cleaned and bandaged and the pain dampened by a few baby aspirin, Katie snuggled awkwardly on her side, trying to sleep. From the living room, she could hear her parents’ voices.
“When will she learn to stand up for herself?” Her father rattled his newspaper. “Why doesn’t she just punch that bully girl in the face? That would solve the problem right there.”
“John, you were never a shy kid. You don’t know how hard it is for her.”
“I know it’s not going to get any better until she grows a pair—a backbone, I mean.”
As Katie drifted off to sleep, Big Joyce’s sneering face floated before her. Pulling the covers over her head, Katie remembered Mrs. Watson’s promise: “Kids like that always get what’s coming to them.”
But what about kids like me? What do we get?
It was still dark when she awoke. The autumn wind rattled dead leaves against her bedroom window. They made a funny scuffling sound. The wind sighed, stirring Katie’s hair. She lifted a corner of the blanket to peer out. Had Mom left the window open?
She hadn’t. The sighing and scuffling came from the big glistening glob in the corner of her bedroom.
Katie blinked hard. Mom said that sometimes everyday things made scary shadows at night. But this was no shadow—it was a fat blob of translucent, quivering jelly, like an enormous jellyfish, or a chest-high loogie. It glowed faintly in the moonlight.
“What are you?” Katie whispered, clutching the blanket with trembling hands.
The blob shifted a few feet toward Katie. It smelled of damp earth, mold, and something rotten, like Grandpa’s garden shed.
“Are you gonna eat me?”
The blob shifted backward, pressing into the corner, just like she’d done at recess. Faint glimmers danced within its mass.
“Are you a dream?”
The blob shivered all over for a moment, then was still.
Katie sat up in bed and clutched the quilt to her bony chest. “What do you want?”
The blob slid forward again and shifted, growing taller. Within the jelly-like interior, something was taking shape. A face—a sneering, mocking face.
“Big Joyce,” Katie whispered, scrunching down into the covers. “Then you are a bad dream.”
She yanked the covers over her head and rolled into a ball. From the corner, she heard snuffling and slurping, and then silence. She lay there shivering for a long time before going back to sleep.
The next day dawned overcast. The sunlight was watery and pale, like the big glob of snot in Katie’s bad dream. She giggled a little at the memory of Big Joyce’s face suspended in the blob. “Booger snot on you, Big Joyce,” she muttered.
As she approached the school yard, Katie slowed her steps. The idea of facing Big Joyce made her stomach hurt, but Daddy said she had to do it.
“A bully like that won’t leave you alone until you stand up to her,” he said. “You just hold your head up high. If she threatens you, punch her right in her ugly nose.”
“What your father means,” Mom said, “is you go to Miss Craft if Joyce bothers you again. Your teacher will take care of things if you give her the chance. No one can help you if you don’t speak up, Baby.”
“Just speak up,” Kate chanted softly as she entered the school yard. “Just speak up.” But a shiver danced down her spine all the same.
The first bell would ring in five minutes, and Mrs. Watson hunched on her bench as usual, half-watching the kids who ran and squealed on the leaf-littered blacktop. Katie squared her backpack, raised her head, just like Daddy said, and marched resolutely toward her class’s line-up spot.
As Katie passed, Mrs. Watson looked up from her crossword puzzle and winked. Katie blushed, but managed a wee smile in return.
Luis stood at the head of the line. “You OK, Katie?” he asked. “How’s your ear?”
Katie’s mom had arranged a soft pink headband to cover the bandage.
“She can’t hear you. She’s deaf.” Snarky Kelly, Joyce’s number-one toady, sidled up behind them. “You better look out, Katie-Pie. Joyce will get your other ear today.”
And suddenly, there she was—Big Joyce, scowling down at Katie. Her stubby freckled nose wrinkled as her chapped lips pulled back into a sneer.
“You got me in trouble, stupid punk. Can’t you take a joke?”
Joyce loomed over Katie, her fists clenched. Katie’s feet were rooted to the blacktop, but she managed to glance over her shoulder. Mrs. Watson pushed her bulk up off the monitor’s bench and strode toward the third graders. Big Joyce backed off, but pointed a grubby finger at Katie.
“After school. At the bushes. Be there, or you’ll be sorry.”
Katie’s day passed in a blur, with Big Joyce’s words echoing in her throbbing ear.
“After school…you’ll be sorry.”
Katie didn’t earn any gold stars that day. She was too worried to concentrate on the spelling quiz, and her pencil kept slipping out of her trembling hand and clattering to the floor. Five minutes before the final bell, Katie ripped a corner off her math worksheet and scribbled a message to Miss Craft. Carrying it to the teacher’s desk meant walking past Big Joyce, but she wouldn’t do anything in front of the teacher, right?
As Katie passed, Big Joyce snorted and the toadies giggled. Katie felt a drop of cold sweat trickled down her back.
“What’s this, Katie?”
Miss Craft had a pretty smile, but she didn’t always look at you when she talked to you. She opened the folded note, then closed her eyes and sighed.
“OK,” she whispered, “just a minute.” Then aloud, she said, “Take the hall pass, Katie, and please be quick.”
Katie waited in the empty hallway, tracing cracks in the linoleum with the toe of her shoe. A moment later, Miss Craft joined her.
“OK, Katie. What’s up?”
“Um,” Katie squeaked, and glanced at the door.
“Speak up, dear. It’s almost time for the bell.”
“Um, Miss Craft, Joyce said…at the bushes, after school…um…she said I’d be sorry.”
Miss Craft raised one eyebrow. “Oh, did she? Well, we’ll just see about that.” She turned back to the classroom door. Katie grabbed her teacher’s skirt and tugged hard.
“No, please! Don’t tell her. She’ll know it was me.”
Miss Craft squatted down and looked Katie in the eye. She leaned in so close that Katie smelled her rosy perfume.
“I see. Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll wait at the gate and watch until you’re past the bushes and on your way home.”
“And if she follows me?”
“Then I’ll stop her. I promise.” This time, the teacher’s smile did reach her eyes. Katie blew out the big breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
Miss Craft kept her promise. She stood at the schoolyard gate while Katie quick-stepped toward the cave, a thick patch of scratchy junipers where generations of kids had burrowed tunnels and hidden from teachers. Katie had never worked up the nerve to peer inside.
The looming green mass cast a shadow on the walkway. As she passed, the branches shimmied. Something was scrabbling and whispering in there.
“Katie!” a voice hissed.
She squeaked and jumped, then threw a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder. Mr. Cricks, the principal, was talking to Miss Craft. The teacher waved, then turned to her boss.
A hand clamped onto Katie’s arm and yanked her inside the bushes. Another hand, cold and clammy, pressed over her mouth. Sharp twigs scratched her face and bare legs, and her backpack caught fast on a branch. For a moment, there was a tug-of-war between the backpack and the hand, but eventually Big Joyce won, and Katie was dragged inside.
The cave smelt cool, and damp, and earthy—and a little bit rotten. Deep-green junipers arched overhead, leaving just enough room for the shorter kids to stand. Big Joyce’s hunched posture only made her more menacing. Surrounded, Katie whimpered and wrapped her arms around her shivering body. Kelly and the other toadies grinned at her like hungry dogs waiting for a treat.
Big Joyce glowered. “Thought you could just walk on by, huh? Told you I’d be waiting for you, bitch.”
Katie could only stammer. She’d never heard a third grader say the B word. But that didn’t matter now, because she was going to die here, in the bushes.
Big Joyce yanked off Katie’s pink headband. “Nice bandage,” she sneered. “Want another one?”
“Give her lots more bandages,” Kelly yapped. The others chimed in.
“Yeah, cover up her ugly face.”
“Stupid little …Katie.”
The snarling pack encircled Katie, blocking any chance of escape. Everything seemed to slow down. Her vision blurred as she swayed on rubbery knees.
Joyce twirled Katie’s headband around her thick finger. “Think I could choke her with this?”
The other girls snorted and cackled.
Just behind Joyce, Katie saw a movement on the ground, as if water were flowing from the wall to pool around Joyce’s feet. Goosebumps prickled Katie’s skin.
“Look at her shaking. She’s gonna pass out.”
“Hey,” Kelly asked, “can you really die of fright?”
“Let’s find out.” Joyce lurched toward Katie. But her feet didn’t follow, stuck fast in the clear, thick goo oozing up her scabby legs.
“What the hell?” Joyce looked down, screamed, and toppled, landing atop Katie with a bruising thunk. The toadies scattered, scrabbling out of the bushes like rats. Kicking hard, Katie managed to wriggle free from Joyce’s grasp.
The goo thickened as it expanded, throbbing like a great translucent heart. It slid over Joyce’s waist, then her chest, then her shoulders, slurping wetly as it swallowed the squirming child. She bucked and thrashed, her clawed hands scrabbling in the dirt, her eyes wild. The goo flowed up her neck. She gasped, her face purple, her mouth wide—but no sound emerged, for now the goo had filmed her face, stopping her screams.
Joyce fought a long time, her motions jerky, then sporadic–and then she was still. As Katie watched, the outline of the child inside the blob began to blur and run.
The creature shivered, slid like a great slug back toward the wall, and then extended a thread of clear slime toward Katie. She scrabbled backward like a crab, “No! No please!”
The thing paused, then slowly extended its—what?—tentacle?—and gently brushed Katie’s leg. She braced herself for pain, but it felt cool, gentle. And though it made no noise, somehow she heard it say, “You’re welcome.”
It slithered back under the wall and was gone.
And so was Joyce. She didn’t come to school the next day, or the day after. Kelly and her crew kept well away from Katie, but whispered behind her back whenever she passed.
Katie didn’t know what to think. Was she safe now? Was that blobby thing a dream? If so, where was Joyce? Would the blob come back for Katie?
Every night, as she huddled beneath her Dora the Explorer quilt, Katie saw Joyce’s mean face dissolving in a mound of goo—running like melting wax, screaming with no sound. Katie woke up wailing again and again, but when the lights went on, the blob was never there.
Thursday was the day when Katie and her mom visited Grandpa in the retirement home. Grandpa had a bad fall a few years ago, and now he sat in a wheelchair all the time. But his eyes still sparkled when he saw Katie. He still tickled her and told her funny stories about when he was a little boy.
“Dad, would you mind if I dashed across town to the pharmacy while you visit with Katie?” Mom asked.
“Why, you go right ahead. I reckon I can keep up with this young one.” Grandpa gestured toward the dining room. “I hear we have ice cream this afternoon.”
“Can I please, Mom?”
Mommy smiled. “One scoop.”
Grandpa finished his dish of rocky road and patted his belly. “So, Katie Bug, your mama tells me you’ve been troubled by bad dreams.”
Katie chased the last bite of vanilla with her spoon. “It’s weird. I don’t like to talk about it.”
“I used to have all kinds of strange dreams when I was your age. Tell me, what’s troubling your sleep?”
Katie sighed. “Grandpa, did you ever dream you killed someone?”
“Well now, let’s see. I might have. Is that what you dreamed?”
“Sort of.” She sucked on her cold spoon for a moment. “There was this monster—kind of a blobby thing. Clear, like snot, but really big. I dreamed it…it sort of ate someone.” Katie lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think maybe she’s dead now.”
Grandpa raised one bushy eyebrow. “And you think you’re responsible?”
“Maybe. I mean, she was gonna beat me up. In the bushes at school. And then the blobby thing came.” Katie folded her hands in her lap. “Did I make it come, Grandpa? Is it my fault?”
Grandpa squeezed her shoulder. “Katie Bug, was this a dream, or did this really happen?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “It seemed so real. And I still have the scratches on my legs from the bushes.”
She hiked up her pink jeans to show him the long welts. Grandpa let out a whistle. He leaned in closer.
“Little one, you may have summoned up a vengeance.”
“It’s a sort of monster that appears when you’re really scared and really mad.”
“Does everybody have one?”
“Oh no, no indeed. A vengeance is a rare thing. If we all had one, why, there wouldn’t be many of us left.”
Katie thought a moment. “Grandpa, do you have a vengeance?”
Grandpa looked off somewhere far, far away. “Not anymore. I did, once, and it caused me a lot of grief.”
He took both of Katie’s hands in his. “Here’s the thing, little one. If it ever comes back, you have to send it away. Otherwise, it could end up hurting someone you like, or even someone you love.”
“Will Joyce come back?”
“Is she the girl who went away with the vengeance?”
“Darlin’, I just don’t know.”
On Friday Miss Craft called a class meeting. “Boys and girls, I have some sad news. It seems Joyce J. is missing. Her mother is very worried. Here is a flier for your parents. If you know where Joyce might be, please let us know.”
None of the children said anything, but Katie had a funny tingling feeling on the back of her head. She turned around and saw Kelly and the other toadies glaring at her.
When the final bell rang, Katie shrugged into her jacket and scooped up her backpack, but Miss Craft laid a hand on her shoulder. “Wait just a minute, Katie.”
Katie gulped, then sank down into her seat.
“Remember last Tuesday when you told me how Joyce threatened you?”
“Well,” Miss Craft gave another of her almost-smiles, “I need to ask you some questions.”
“OK,” Katie whispered, clasping her hands tightly on the desk. Silently, she mouthed, “This isn’t real. It’s just a dream. This isn’t real. It’s just a dream.”
But the hand Miss Craft laid over hers was warm and heavy, not at all like in a dream.
“Listen, Katie, I’ve been a teacher for many years, and I know sometimes children have big imaginations.”
“Kelly and her friends told me a pretty wild story about last Tuesday. They say you did something to Joyce, made her go away.” Miss Craft took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Tell me, what really happened last Tuesday?”
Katie’s heart thundered in her chest. “Nothing happened.”
“Did you see Joyce on the way home?”
Katie’s lips moved, but no sound came out.
Miss Craft lifted Katie’s chin. “Look at me, dear. Tell me the truth. Did you see Joyce after school?”
From the corner of her eye, Kate caught a flicker of motion along the baseboards, behind the teacher’s desk.
“Kelly and the others say you did. They say you met them in the bushes, you made Joyce fall down in there. Is that true?”
A shadow slid along the wall. Something glistened in the late afternoon sunlight behind Miss Craft.
“Look, Katie, I know Joyce could be mean sometimes, but she’s just a kid like you, and her mom’s so worried about her. Is there anything you can tell me? Anything?”
“No, Ma’am,” she whispered. The shadow was now pooling around Miss Craft’s feet. Katie drew back in her chair.
“Are you still afraid of Joyce?”
Katie’s eyes grew wide as she saw the shadow creep up her teacher’s stockinged legs. “No, Ma’am. But…”
The teacher’s smile evaporated like breath on a frosty morning. “I was hoping you’d be honest with me. Maybe when your mother gets here, you’ll tell us the truth.” Miss Craft rose from her chair, but the shadow held her feet fast, sending her toppling over the row of student desks. Thick goo crept up her slender calves.
Katie’s heart pounded. Remembering what Grandpa said, she gulped a deep breath and plunged both hands into the goo. It was cool and sticky, but it didn’t hurt.
Miss Craft, on the other hand, writhed in pain. “Get it off me! Take it off, please!”
The glop thickened and rolled upward, plastering the teacher’s wool skirt to her thighs.
“Go away, Vengeance.” Katie hissed. “Don’t hurt my teacher!”
A thin layer of goo flowed up Katie’s arms, and she heard a soft, silky voice behind her eyes.
She doesn’t believe you. She doesn’t even like you. She’ll get you in trouble.
Katie’s head throbbed, and her arms felt so cold, so cold.
The goo slid up to Miss Kraft’s waist, squeezing. The teacher struggled and gasped like a landed fish.
Katie took a deep breath, focused, and stomped her foot. “I said no!”
The goo receded, sliding down Miss Craft’s body like a coating of oil, retreating, draining away beneath the floor. Miss Craft’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she flopped limply to the ground.
Katie liked her new school, mostly. Sister Margareta, her second-grade teacher, was soft-spoken and gentle. Sister Mary-Catharine, the P.E. teacher, made Kate laugh when she ran around the gym with her long skirt flapping. And most of the girls were okay, except for Angela, who sneered and called her “New Girl.”
“I told you, my name is Katie,” she said, her head high.
“Whatever, New Girl. Like there’s anything you can do about it.”
Katie gritted her teeth and smiled.
Maybe just one more time.
After many years of teaching in Germany, Rhonda Strong Gilmour returned to make a new home in Tacoma, Washington and start a new chapter as a full-time writer of mystery, romance, and short horror stories. The Northwest rain doesn’t get her down; rather, it gives her the perfect excuse to spend hours at her desk, letting her spider brain spin its web of stories.