The Fastest Thing in the World

by Don Norum

“Once upon a time there was a king with a beautiful wife and a brilliant daughter. One day while off at war, his queen was killed and his daughter kidnapped. The king sank into a deep depression.”

Elizabeth heard the footsteps of her mother in the hallway and flicked the flashlight off. She dropped it beside her in bed and pulled the covers up around her neck, hoping that it wouldn’t make any noise if it hit the book. The door opened and she could see the light from the chandelier glowing through her eyelids.

Her mother stood there for several seconds as Elizabeth tried to keep her breathing even. If they knew that she were still up, she probably wouldn’t get in trouble, but they’d take away her book and flashlight with a kind smile, telling her to get some rest, sweetie, and that would be just as bad.

Because she couldn’t help staying awake long into the night, reading. She loved her stories and besides – the sooner she went to sleep, the sooner it would be tomorrow.

#

“Elizabeth! Come on and wake up, I’ve got breakfast on the table.” She jerked at her mother’s call up from the kitchen. Her feet weren’t all the way awake yet, so they smashed into her desk and dresser as she jumped up and scrabbled for her clothes. She hoped that her father had already been out to the driveway to get the morning paper, so she’d have something to read over breakfast.

Teeth brushed, face washed, and glasses cleaned – Elizabeth was unfortunate enough to wear glasses in an age of contacts, at an age when children are cruelest – she put on a clean dress and went downstairs for breakfast.

“What’s been taking you so long?” Her mother smiled at her. “Up late?” There was a little wryness in her voice, a little friendly nudge.

“Morning, mom,” Elizabeth said with a glance to her dad, who was engrossed in the paper, “I’m sorry.”

“We just want to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. Growing girl, and all that. If you’re having trouble sleeping, we could -“

“No, that’s all right,” Elizabeth said as she dug in to her French toast. She read about the new wing of the Air and Space Museum, the return of the horseshoe crabs to Briscoll Bay, and the opening of a subway station over on Park before her mother tapped her lightly on the head to remind her of the time.

Elizabeth went to the shoe-bin and picked up her backpack. It was heavy, the thin straps digging into her shoulders under the weight of her books.

They got in the car and pulled out of the driveway. She sat in the front and looked at the pine trees lining the road to the bus stop. Normally she’d read, but she’d forgotten and tucked her book into her backpack, and to get it out now risked her mother seeing just how many books she stuffed in there to take to school.

So she sat and stared, and repeated in her mind the story she had been reading by flashlight five hours ago.

“Years later, a knight came to the court. He knelt and told the despondent king that he could find his lost daughter. The king promised the knight that he would be richly rewarded if he could, but if he were found to be lying, he would be drawn and quartered.

“The knight led the king to the castle of a minor duke just outside of the kingdom’s borders, and reported how he had heard that the duke often took in foundlings. There were three beautiful young girls just old enough to be the king’s lost daughter inside.”

She stopped the car and turned to Elizabeth as she got out at the bus stop. The air was cold, and it felt like it was almost dawn as the air swirled around Elizabeth’s jacket and into the car.

“I’m getting off a bit early, so I’ll pick you up here at three. Okay? Maybe we can go to the park, downtown for some ice cream?

“Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Sounds good.”

“Good. Oh, and could you tell your teacher that I can’t make it to the parent-teacher conference this weekend, but I could do it anytime next week? All right, have a good time at school. Love you.”

Elizabeth nodded mutely as her mother gave a tense smile and drove away. She waited until the car was out of sight beyond the bend before beginning to rummage through her overstuffed backpack to get out the book of fairy tales.

As for telling her teacher about the conference, she would do no such thing. As much as she loved her mother, the less she talked to Mrs. Moorhouse the better, least of all when bearing bad news.

The bus ride to and from school was always bad. Usually Elizabeth could count on the other children being subdued in the morning, but the afternoons, when they were riled up and heading home… She was in fifth grade, old enough for the other boys and girls to notice her differences but not old enough for them to dismiss her because of them.

Sometimes she sat in the very front, but that left her with her back to the entire bus and closest to the bus-driver, an unpleasant man with rolls of fat underneath a stained shirt who sometimes looked at the kids in the rear-view mirror a bit too closely. So most days she sat closer towards the middle, with her back twisted against the cold fogged window if she could help it.

As the wheezy pneumatics slung the folding doors open she let the other kids file on ahead of her. Elizabeth stepped on and felt a little droop as she saw no empty benches. She sat down next to another little girl that she didn’t quite recognize. The bus lurched into motion and she had to grab the seat in front of her to stay upright.

They had almost come to the last stop before the school when the bus swept around a steep curve, forcing Elizabeth to scrabble with her feet at the seat’s support post to try and stay in place. She felt herself lose her balance and stumbled out into the aisle, her backpack sliding out behind her. It hit her at the knees, and the heavy books inside battered her down onto the floor so she fell and ran into the boy sitting across from her.

Laughter rose from behind her over the throaty grumble of the diesel engine, a drowning swell that choked her throat. She grabbed for the books that had fallen out of her bag as the first of the balled up pages of looseleaf came raining down, sharp pens and pencils hidden within the cloud, and the bus driver was screaming at her to get up and shut up.

Elizabeth thought of how after one prince’s wedding to a beautiful princess, the wicked girls and boys of the village who had been so cruel to her had been invited to a wedding feast at the church, only to have the door barred and the building burned.

She wished she were standing outside, looping a lock through the doors of the bus and putting a torch to the gas tank. The heat of the burning students screaming inside the metal and glass coffin might match the heat that rose from her belly across the back of her neck and slapped her across the face, a writhing, coiling heat that tore at her guts.

Maybe.

#

“The king went and supped with the duke. When the feast was over, and the servant girl was clearing the plates, the king said that he had heard praise of the man’s daughters. The duke nodded, and bade the girls to come out and present themselves.

“Upon seeing them, the king decided on a test. His daughter had been taken so long ago he could not hope to recognize her, but he remembered how smart his queen had been, and how she had spent long evenings playing the Riddle Game with her toddler.”

Elizabeth’s homeroom teacher was Mrs. Moorhouse, an ancient woman with prim glasses and curled-back hair. When her teacher had been a little girl, she had picked on girls just like Elizabeth, and the intervening decades had changed nothing.

“Class, assemble. I want your homework out and ready, and your textbooks opened to page seventy-eight.” Mrs. Moorhouse started to walk down the aisles stacking up the homework papers, floral patterned dress whipping around her legs like a burial shroud. Elizabeth laid her papers out with trembling fingers on top of the textbook – trying to cover up the bent and battered corner that had hit the floor of the bus.

Moorhouse picked up Elizabeth’s paper and stopped. The silence after her clicking gait sucked Elizabeth’s breath out of her lungs.

“What. Happened. To. Your. Book.”

She couldn’t look up.

“It f-f-f-fell, on the b-b-b-bus. I’m sssorry, it –“

“You dropped it. Don’t you have any respect for the school’s property?”

“Nnno, I didn’t –“

“Of course you don’t. You’ll have lines tonight, one measure for damaging school property and another for lying.”

The other classmates snickered and Elizabeth quivered in her seat until the sharp nose hovering above her moved on. She flicked her eyes to where the sea of flowers ebbed and flowed. What would it be like, she thought, with a thicket of rosebushes laden with thorns? She imagined her Roland with his flutes, playing an irresistible melody while Mrs. Moorhouse danced on into the thicket, the dress vanishing into shreds in her wake as the thousands of blades sawed through her flesh until, slick with blood, her torn and bloodied body hung suspended from the thorny vines, upright and in mid stride.

When it came to her turn to read, she got another measure of lines assigned for her voice failing her entirely, and she sat in her chair hungry without lunch, kept behind by Moorhouse to start on those lines, Moorhouse who sat at her desk and consumed her sandwich, apple (poisoned taste death and die) and diet soft drink.

Elizabeth kept silent at her desk, eyes down but head up and out of trouble, until story-time.

“He posed to the girls one of the old riddles – What is the fastest thing in the world?”

Moorhouse was talking, and Elizabeth was listening. Not listening to anticipate and avoid punishment, but simply listening. The story of The Kidnapped Princess and the Riddle-Game was one of her favorites, and she closed her eyes to savor it – even if the ending would probably be different.

“The first girl dipped her head and answered, ‘The cheetah of Africa, for it can run faster than any man or beast.’ The king nodded and thanked her.”

The image of the duke’s daughter standing in the middle of the feasting hall overlapped with the swift cheetah, dust clouds churning as it moved like quicksilver towards an antelope whose legs were even now twisting and failing lingered for a second after the voice stopped, then vanished as the first syllable of her name split the air.

“Elizabeth Mercer. What are you doing?”

She opened her eyes to see Moorhouse.

“I was l-listening to the ssstory.”

“With your eyes closed? I’m taking time out of the busy day to read you stories, and you disrespect me by falling asleep? Disrupting the other students?”

Elizabeth panicked.

“No, no, no, I wasn’t asssleep, I was j-just trying to –“ she wanted to say how the pictures were clear, how it stopped being a mash of words read in a papery thin voice and became a magical court in a far-off land, but it all turned to stone under her teacher’s glare.

“Class, thanks to Elizabeth we won’t be finishing the story. Jennifer, watch the class until I get back.

“And you,” she said pointing at Elizabeth, “Come with me.”

When Moorhouse dropped her off at the detention room, full of students all chattering and laughing and all much older than Elizabeth, all she could see was the image of the blurred red figure striding frozen in the midst of the rosebushes, a soft crimson mist suspended in its wake while a beautiful melody played.

When the bell rang and the teachers relinquished their stranglehold on their students, Elizabeth was the first to board the bus. She ensconced herself in a seat by the window at the very front of the bus and, as this had been a particularly bad day, didn’t read. Reading was her escape, and she clung to it dearly, but on a day like this escape was impossible. You could try, of course, but the very act of trying did nothing but conjure up that which you wished to escape.

She stayed in her room that afternoon, writing out her lines until her hand cramped and twinged. After dinner she sat on the couch and watched the news with the adults, then read through the lesson for the next day.

When it was time to wash her face and brush her teeth before putting on her pajamas, she let the water run scalding hot until steam billowed and watched as her forearm reddened underneath the spout. There was no pain – that would come later – and she was comfortably numb as she lay in bed. She had to hide it from her mother when she stared down at her in her bed with kindly concern, lest her parents see it and panic.

That night she had a nightmare, worse than usual. Her mother was standing over her with a shovel screaming, and Elizabeth screamed twice when she realized this was a dream. Mother shouted at her in Mrs. Moorhouse’s voice for being such a willful, disobedient, horrid little child, and as Elizabeth started to scream that no, no, she was sorry, the first spadeful of dirt came pitter-pattering across her chest.

She tried to crawl her way upright, to sit up and beg, but invisible bands pinned her into the bottom of her grave. Shovel after shovel fell on her, covering from her legs to her neck. First comforting like a heavy duvet, then pressing her down uncomfortably, arms and legs unmoving. She could feel the pebbles and clots break apart and trickle inside her clothes, feel her chest compressing and stopping.

Dirt poured across her face and she started to choke on it through her screaming. Her mother’s voice was as harsh as ever, unmuffled by the smothering dirt. One arm came free and she pushed it upwards, the clay sloughing off like a sunburned blister until it hit air and all of a sudden felt dirtier than it had when buried. There was another scream and then a sharp cracking pain as the flat of the shovel come down on her hand, fingers snapping like bundled twigs and now the wrist was exploding and she blacked out and woke up.

The fall from the bed as she writhed in her grave in the Dreamtime landed her on her left hand, and she bit her lip hard enough to flow blood down the back of her throat as she kept herself from screaming. Tears ran down her face as she rocked herself back and forth in silence and wished for all of it to go away.

When she heard no footsteps in the hallway she relaxed somewhat and climbed back into bed, knowing that she had managed not to wake her parents, managed to avoid their sad eyes and worried glances back and forth. Sleep was a long time coming, and morning farther still.

“The second girl curtsied and replied, ‘The sound of a cheetah, for if one could not hear it coming no man could live to tell of its speed.’ The king thanked her, too.”

Elizabeth hurt the next morning and struggled to stay aware of things in the classroom. There were no group readings to do that day, piles of worksheets taking their place, and she fell into the work with a numb relief. Mrs. Moorhouse stayed behind her desk and stayed quiet, only speaking to remind them of the time or mention a change she’d made to the worksheets after they were printed.

There was a teacher’s meeting for a few minutes after lunch, and as soon as Mrs. Moorhouse had told Hannah to make sure the students stayed in the class while she was gone, Elizabeth brought out her notebook. The one thing she looked forward to was the special English class she had twice a week with Mrs. Watts. For this week, she had been working on a story of her own, scribbling scraps of it here and there in the margins of her mind and maths until she could spend an evening copying it all down cleanly.

She didn’t notice that Mrs. Moorhouse had been gone longer than expected, even when the expected sneer and snide dismissal failed to emerge from behind the desk at the head of the room. Elizabeth noted the time, gathered her books and filed away her worksheets and fled quietly to the door.

“Stop it! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Uh? I’m just…” Elizabeth stopped and turned at the interruption, one hand poised at the knob.

“You’re not supposed to leave,” Hannah said as she stamped up from her chair and walked toward her, “nobody’s supposed to leave! Teacher said so.”

“But I have this class every week. You know that.”

“Teacher said. Now sit down.”

Elizabeth wanted to say that it was fine, that even Mrs. Moorhouse let her go to this, that this was the day they would be showing off their stories, but she couldn’t, not to Hannah.

So she didn’t say anything and just tried to turn and open the door to leave, but the bigger girl’s hand grabbed her and pulled her back around.

“I told you not to!”

Other students were getting up now and coming over to help Hannah keep the teacher’s peace, and Elizabeth shrank away, trying still to turn and escape.

A hand grabbed the arm that held the books and papers, and they spilled out across the tile floor. A child’s sneaker stamped down on the first page of her story, and as the boy twisted to pull her back the lined paper crumpled and tore.

That was when Mrs. Moorhouse opened the door from the hallway and saw Elizabeth trying to twist out of the door, classmates holding her back, tears welling in her eyes as the other children told her how the teacher had said, she Said! Elizabeth was on the way to detention in five minutes, and seated sniveling ten minutes after that. This was what she had needed to get Elizabeth pulled out of the enrichment program for good, and she wasted no opportunity.

There was a fairy tale in one of Elizabeth’s story-books, about a prince who was promised a beautiful princess, but after completing his trials was given a frog. He lay in bed cursing this misfortune when a fey came to him and told him that in the morning he must cut the head off of the frog immediately, or else it would hop off and he would never have his true love.

As dawn began to tap the eaves, the frog was jumping towards the threshold, but the prince had been awake and made quick with his sword. As the frog’s head fell to the dirt outside, there was a huge crack and before him stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The princess, now freed from her enchantment, married the prince and they lived happily ever after.

Elizabeth thought about this story often, and this night as she fell asleep curled up around her pain, the last thing she saw before the blackness fell was the flashing swing of the steel and the glory of the princess revealed.

The next morning, Elizabeth woke early and was up and about certain parts of the house before her parents were up, getting back into bed before her mother called her. She wasn’t hungry at breakfast time, which was just as well because they were once more running late. The wait at the bus stop didn’t seem so cold, just as the sun didn’t seem as bright and the straps of her backpack cut into someone else’s shoulders.

In the classroom, Elizabeth took her seat and stared forward, wondering when it would happen. It didn’t seem right during the opening announcements, nor during the warm-up exercises for the day’s lesson, but after recess Mrs. Moorhouse decided that it was time.

“Elizabeth. Before we continue with the lesson, you will make up for your misbehavior the other day by finishing the story I was reading.”

Elizabeth stared at Mrs. Moorhouse and stayed in her seat. Her throat had closed up and she felt like it was impossible for her to speak. Not just that she couldn’t, but that she had lost the very conception of voice. A bead of sweat rolled down the back of her neck.

“You heard me.” Moorhouse half rose. “Since you were so rude the other day and disturbed everybody’s story-time, you can finish reading to the class.”

There was nothing else to say as Elizabeth got up and walked forward to accept the proffered reader, cheerful cartoon characters on the front pasteboard, which was just as well, for she had little left to say. She cleared her throat and began to recite from memory in a small, high voice.

“The third girl bowed deeply and gave as her answer ‘A lightbeam, for as we can hear a cheetah before it reaches us, we may see it before we hear it.’ The king accepted her answer and was trying to decide when…”

“Elizabeth Mercer,” Moorhouse said tersely, with the cords in her neck starting to stand out like guy wires, “I told you to finish the story. Now read what’s written there and finish it properly.”

“Okay.”

She drew her father’s revolver from her jumper pocket, and as serenely as a child watching swans she sent the first shot through the heart of the hideous Mrs. Moorhouse. The fat woman looked down at the blooming rose on her left breast, and Elizabeth thought that it looked better than any of the other dresses the mean woman had ever worn.

The children screamed at their desks, a few getting up to run away, some tumbling alongside the body of Mrs. Moorhouse as fear ensnared their legs.

The book of fairy tales slipped from her fingers.

It fell slowly through the air as the last bullet in the gun went through Elizabeth’s temporal lobe trailing peace and stillness, the book’s pages still open to the end of the story.

“ ‘Death.’ One of the servant girls was standing, looking defiantly to the king. ‘Death may reach any of us in an instant, no matter where on the earth we are, and there exists neither man nor beast nor god that may escape it.’ At this, the king wept tears of joy for having found his lost child and had the duplicitous duke and his conniving daughters burned alive for mistreating the princess.

As for the princess, she fell in love with the young knight, and the two were married and lived together in her father’s castle.”

Muscles relaxed on Elizabeth’s face, her hair matted with blood on the exit side, and she looked to be smiling. Beside her, a single drop of blood had fallen onto the last page of the fairy tale and was soaking its way through the paper as the police and firemen and ambulances screamed up the drive to the school.

“Happily ever after.”

The End