Leaden within the Lines

By Jennifer L. Collins

From CHM #36 June 2023

Fenton shrugged his blue crayon along the outline of the giant’s shoulder. Maybe ninety percent of the blue stayed within the giant’s form, just that extra ten percent jittering outside the thick black line.

Was that about what she saw? Ten percent?

A slick of warm sweat thickened along her spine, tacky in the humid classroom. Fenton was always cold, always complaining that the classroom was as freezing as Frosty the Snowman even when the thermostat read eighty and the other children complained, and so she’d opened up the windows that day while he practiced. Opened up the windows and sweated full beads of adrenalin-ridden awareness while the boy smiled over his crayons and they waited for Fenton’s father.

“Can I…”

Get it together, Gaylie. Your voice is cracking. He’s five, for fuck’s sake. You want your nerves to bleed off you and into him? Defeat the purpose here?

“Fenton, can I get you some water? A snack? I’m sure your father will be here soon, but while we wait…”

The boy hummed to himself and exchanged his sky blue tool for a forest green one. He didn’t look at her to answer, remaining focused on his coloring. The giant’s fingerless glove went green beneath his fingers.

Ten percent. No more than ten percent outside the lines.

“No, Miss Gaylie. I’m fine. Thank you very much.”

Her phone buzzed, the senior Fenton’s number—long since memorized in blood—blazing at her from her screen. She took a breath before she picked it up. “Hello?”

“Ah, Miss Gaylie, there you are! Remind me, do I head left or right to reach you and Fenton?”

She swallowed bile, toxic in her throat. “Left, Mr. Knox.”

“Oh, call me Fenton, Gaylie! Be there in a jiff.”

The phone clicked silent, and she fumbled it back to her desktop.

Fenton looked up from his coloring, eyes squinted with focus. The image of the man whose voice echoed in her brain, too calm to be believed. “That Dad? He comin’?”

Her tongue ran against her teeth, once and then twice and then three times, hard as she could bear the pressure. “He’s coming. Be a good boy and keep practicing, alright? For me, Fenton?”

For the love of god, for me, please.

As agreeable as ever, the boy grinned and turned back to his giant.

The green crayon in his hand jittered, taking a long foray outside the line of the giant’s arm. God, but he was painting the giant’s glove and forearm both green, as if he’d not noticed the line of the glove along the giant’s wrist.

Damn, damn, damn, damn. Not today, Fenton. Please.

“Fenton—” She choked on her words, jarring the crayon further. “Fenton, why don’t you start on a new picture? Fresh for your daddy to see your best work?”

He glanced back down to his giant, frowning.

“You can finish the giant tomorrow,” she promised. “First thing.”

His little cupid lips pursed, but his hand shifted toward the crayon box as if with new ideas. “You won’t let anyone else have this book? Till I’m done with him?”

Footsteps echoed along the hallway outside the classroom, loud in the emptying school. “Promise.”

That decided him. Fenton flipped pages forward to some picture he must have already had his heart set on. She stood, smoothing the pencil skirt she’d bought just for this afternoon, and saw he’d landed on a picture of the harp that Jack stole from the Giant. Elegant strings slung between graceful limbs of the frame, a damsel’s face and arms outstretched in greeting of her new white knight.

Fine lines, thinner than those of the giant. And with more detail to the expressions and shapes, god help her.

“Fenton!” The boy glanced up, a maroon crayon clenched in his fist. “Focus on your lines, remember? Gentle on the page. Just like we’ve been practicing.”

The boy sat up straighter, and grinned and nodded as if she’d just set him up on a military mission.

“Miss Gaylie, how are you?” Fenton Knox’s narrow frame all but filled the frame of her door, one gloved hand solid on the doorknob. “And, Fenton! Boy, did you grow since this morning?”

She forced a smile, watching Fenton drop his crayon and bounce up to his feet and toward his father. The high neck of her sleeveless blouse felt like a constrictor around her throat, but she stood still and waited as the father hugged his boy, as loving a parent as might have been glimpsed in a Hallmark movie.

Except that one of his hands shut her classroom door behind him, and twitched shut the deadbolt, before finishing the embrace of his son.

Her eyes darted to the harp in the coloring book. Fenton had barely started. From where she stood, no color shifted beyond the careful lines of the illustration. None at all.

Smile growing more honest, she focused back on the father and son. The father was whispering in the boy’s ear, honest love all over his face and in his gentle hands. He patted Fenton on his lower back and sent the boy back to his desk before standing, his eyes landing on the teacher. He gestured toward the little meeting area by the window, set up just for these parent-teacher conferences. As he well knew. “Shall we?”

“Of course.” She smoothed her skirt and followed him back past her desk, allowing herself to breathe in the fresh autumn air of the outside, so much cooler than her classroom, before taking a seat across from the father. The chair was cozy, cushiony and built so that she could pull it sideways and sit in comfort for storytime. Today, she sat with her back straight and her legs and knees and ankles all pressed together. Ready.

Well…theoretically ready.

“Fenton tells me there’s been more coloring in class this last week.” The man’s blue eyes twinkled, in on the joke, and her cheeks warmed in response.

“Well, just a little bit. Given your concern…”

A perfectly formed shoulder twitched. “I didn’t mean for you to change your lesson plans, Miss Gaylie. That was…not the point of my last visit.”

She forced a smile, holding her gaze against his.

Do not look at the harp. Do not look at the harp.

Don’t you fucking dare look at that fucking harp.

“Mr. Knox, I assure you the children are learning what they need to learn. Lesson plans sometimes shift…for many reasons. And given your concern, I wanted to make sure we were covering all bases. Any good teacher would do the same, particularly when…well, when only one concern is being communicated by parents.” She forced a laugh that sounded too high by full decibels. “If I had different parents complaining about different things, you wouldn’t get such service.”

The man’s eyes squinted in the same way his son’s did when examining a particularly difficult line. “And you’ve had cases where different parents were communicating different concerns?”

Her fingers clenched her skirt. “No, Mr. Knox, but—”

“Let’s look at his coloring, shall we?”

The man rose as if he’d been unfolded from a box of building materials, brought to full form in one terrifying instant of expectation. Before she could breathe again, he’d moved over to Fenton and leaned in to loom over him. As supportive of his son as he was a terror to the teacher. “What’s this, Fenton? You started a new one for me?”

Fenton shifted his purple crayon around the edges of the harp. No more than three percent’s out, I’m sure of it. He positively glowed as he nodded agreement. Just for his dad.

“And what were you working on before?”

“Mr. Knox—”

The man raised his hand fast, cutting her off in a single gesture as words constricted in her throat, knotting themselves in a braid along her windpipe.

“I was working on a giant, Dad. Miss Gaylie said I can finish tomorrow.”

“Show me?”

The pages flipped, one by one. She tried to speak, but choked on the sounds before they matured into meaning. Her legs glued themselves together, one fingernail tugging and tearing into the chair’s armrest as the elder Knox let out a little huff of air upon seeing the long, errant line of green that marred the giant.

Encouragement came from his lips, and then he patted his boy’s shoulder and came back to the teacher.

Fenton picked up his purple crayon and went back to his giant. Gaylie did what she could to breathe.

“Miss Gaylie, that giant doesn’t show us much progress as I would have hoped, especially considering your change in plans. Shouldn’t such a course correction have had an effect?”

The man smiled, dimples showing, and Gaylie thought she might be sick. If he’d let her.

She tried for words again, but they caught in bubbles of air constricting her throat.

“Let me finish.” He took his seat again, crossing one leg over his other and tugging at the knee like a man three times his age. Focus never leaving her, lips never unsmiling. “You do understand how important lines are to my son, don’t you? This is about his heritage. About my legacy.”

Her mouth opened, but the air she inhaled drained into a hard line of leaden pressure that entered her throat and headed downward, into her esophagus and lower. Eyes going wider, she gasped for what molecules of air she could find along the line that now searched downward, aiming for a straight path downward until it dead-ended and resumed course through other organs. Forced to her feet by the weighty line of air running down her body, she shivered straight, wobbling on her little heels.

Before her, Mr. Knox grinned and stood, coming a touch closer. He raised one hand and traced it in front of her, six inches from her arm, down the line of what she knew to be veins and arteries, but now felt like lead. Molten lead drying in her body, melding her into a gasping statue before him.

At the back of the classroom, Fenton colored on, humming to himself. His father stepped between Gaylie and the boy.

Her fingers extended from their fists, flexed and straightened with the leaden air still forcing itself down her throat and throughout her body, until her muscles strained to hold the natural curvature they’d become used to over three decades of life.

“Miss Gaylie, you know my business. Know I create and destroy. Know I form and de-form. Know that I use lines and need them in all their uses, and my son will, as well. What if I were less familiar?

His eyes sqinted at her, the smile twitching, and then he reached up one long-fingered hand and placed it over her mouth. He pressed, hard, but the leaden line of her body anchoring her to the floor no longer had any give in it, and so she didn’t move. Desperate little bits of air made it around the concrete line of air running into her nostrils, and her eyes leaked with awareness.

“Can’t have the boy hearing.” He leaned closer, the smile becoming a thin-lined threat. “Because what if I were to color outside the lines? When engaged in such detailed work?”

He glanced over his shoulder and huffed a sigh.

“I appreciate creativity, truly. But with colors. Not lines. What were we at last week, fifteen percent outside? I’d say we’re at twenty now.” He turned back to her, and his mouth twitched. “That’s not progress.”

His hand pressed deeper into her skin, pressing on the line of air running into her and straightening her past human limits, and then his free hand came to her shoulder. Three inches away, then one, he held it straight…and then balled it.

The line of lead that had run from her neck and throat and spread downward and out, into her shoulder and further, vibrated in her shoulder, the line of lead filling her growing unstable, bumpy and shivering within her, until it pressed against her bone and she felt her skin shifting around it, working to accommodate it.

No scream could have communicated the agony, and any rare air had to get around the lead in her lungs, feeding her as Knox held her still and shuddering straight.

“If I couldn’t color within the lines, Miss Gaylie…” His hand balled again, this time near her stomach, and the line of lead which traced her organs and held her stiff as a bar of steel vibrated. She heard a rib break, and her shoulder finally gave up on containing the pressure to its side, and cracked. “What a mess I would have.”

“Dad, can we have cheeseburgers tonight?”

Knox stood still before her, hand still pressed to her mouth, and then he stepped back, and the lines of lead slowly, inch by inch, drew up from her feet and her veins and her arteries. She gripped her stomach with her good arm, fighting down a scream, but moisture dripped from her face. The back of her blouse was soaked with sweat. Her rib shifted as she leaned on the chair behind her, and her shoulder screamed, but the voice she knew remained balled in her throat like a coiled snake held down by a heavy net. Pressed backward into her throat at the pleasure of the father before her.

“Yes, son, I think we can.” The man twitched his hand, and a band of air caught her shoulders and pressed her back into her storytime chair, hard enough to bruise.

Her brain had gone numb with pain, but she met Knox’s eyes, and closed her own when she saw the intention there. The line holding her shoulders straight down, her body to the chair, grew needled fangs and punctured her skin.

“If I don’t color within the lines, things don’t go well.”

Her scream coiled, but wouldn’t release more than a hiss of dribbled air through her barred teeth.

“Ten percent in two weeks, Miss Gaylie. Ten percent. We can’t have my boy coloring outside the lines, after all.”

A line of leaden air leaked into her nostrils and spread, straightening her throat once more, and then bending her head once, then twice, in a jarring nod that vibrated her spine below it.

When the man released her, she clutched her arm below her ruined shoulder. From experience, she knew it would reset itself overnight. Be fine tomorrow, back together within its lines. Her rib would be healed, straight and true. She’d be able to breathe, and speak, and scream if she had to.

The man nodded at her, formal once more. “Fenton must be able to color within the lines when he needs to as he grows older. Just like I can. You see that, don’t you?” And then he grinned the loving expression he saved for his boy, and turned away from her toward the door.

The boy pulled on his coat and waved. “Thanks, Miss Gaylie! See you tomorrow! Don’t forget to save this book for me!”

She found a way to nod, making sure her shoulder remained still. At the door, the father turned back to her and twitched a wave that sent a line of air weaving into her nostrils, gentle and ticklish and true to its lines.

His reminder gentled its way through her body as he disappeared out the door with his son, relaxing her back into her chair as it drained down to her feet and anchored her there like lead, heavy and still until they left. It tickled at the inside of her soles, a bare vibration of false metal, and she breathed out.

Ten percent.

The line vibrated its reminders, as insistent as the father’s tilted smile. Anchored still, she could only close her eyes against the lead remaining within her own lines. The lead teaching its own lesson.

End.

* * *

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 Jennifer is a tattooed poet and animal lover who grew up in Virginia and has recently relocated to Cape Coral, FL., where she and her husband have five rescues. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart by Puerto Del Sol, as well as Silver Blade and Abyss & Apex, and her first poetry chapbook, Oil Slick Dreams, is available for sale from Finishing Line Press. Her short stories are appearing for the first time as of this summer, in Cosmic Horror Monthly and the HOWLS anthology Howls from the Wreckage, and her first novel is currently under submission to publishers through Sarah N. Fisk at Tobias Literary.

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