Luke stared across the classroom in disbelief. She was there. Melanie Peters, the girl who’d gone missing two weeks before, was sitting there. Everyone else in the classroom stared at her, too, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by it, something which was slightly surprising to Luke and, most likely, everybody else, too, given that she had always been a little short-tempered. She’d see someone looking at her and would expect that they were going to make fun of her, so she’d snap at them before they’d have a chance to say or do anything. Now, however, she looked content while having so many other children looking at her, watching her.
He made his way towards his seat next to Adrian, not taking his eyes off of the girl.
“She’s just… back?” Luke questioned, glancing at Adrian as he sat down. His friend looked mesmerised while gazing at Melanie.
“Apparently,” Adrian replied, not taking his eyes away from her until he grew slightly bored, glanced at the table and then looked at Luke. “It’s been two weeks and she’s just… back.”
Luke didn’t understand it. The teachers had made such a big deal out of the situation, had squashed any rumours about what had happened to her, showing all of the children that it was a serious matter. So why was she back? It was an unprecedented return, completely random, it seemed. No-one in the classroom seemed to have had any inclination that she’d be coming back, so it must have been abrupt, spontaneous. How come she’d just returned?
Miss Walters sat behind her desk, looking slightly perplexed. She was talking on the phone, her hand raised very slightly, ready to tell the children to hush if they’d start making noise. Luke could hear the faint voice of what sounded like a distressed woman on the other end of the line. He guessed that Miss Walters was talking to Mrs Peters.
The classroom was quiet for a few moments before Sheridan, sat on the opposite side of the table to Luke and Adrian, beside Benny who sat just opposite Adrian, decided to put her hand in the air, catching the attention of Miss Walters.
She said something quickly into the phone before lowering it, hesitating slightly and then hanging up, placing it onto her desk again. She looked at Sheridan. “Yes?” She asked, seeming slightly relieved that the phone call had been interrupted. Luke didn’t know why, but guessed that Melanie’s return was making Miss Walters feel just as uneasy as it was making him feel.
“Why is Melanie back?”
Miss Walters stared at Sheridan, clearly contemplating the same, slightly impolite question. She looked at Melanie as if asking her to explain before shrugging. “She just is,” Miss Walters stated, clearly not knowing the correct answer, either, and clearly not wanting to barrage the girl with questions regarding her return.
The entire classroom was about to say something- or various things- in unison, Luke knowing that he wanted to ask Melanie about what had happened, before Miss Walters stood up and walked to the cabinet where their workbooks were kept, pulling out the box for their English work and placing it at the edge of her desk which faced the classroom of students. “Come and collect your books,” she said before moving to the whiteboard to write their work out.
“I’ll pass them out,” Melanie interjected, jumping up from her seat and rushing to the box, startling everyone including Miss Walters who simply watched her, stunned.
“Um, Jamie? Alex? Joshua?” Melanie recited, pulling book after book from the box and placing them on the closest table for the respective owners to collect, though no-one moved. Melanie wouldn’t have done anything like that before. She would have expected somebody else to pass her book to her, so what was going on?
It took a moment before Jamie, Alex, Joshua, Courtney, Philip and Stephanie stood up to collect their books, Melanie having progressed through the box more and more while everyone had processed just how strange she was acting.
As soon as their breaktime came, everyone in the school knew about Melanie's return. Many of the children from different classes crowded around her, asking about what had happened, Luke included, though she only remained quiet about it, not saying much though answering the occasional question which was posed to her.
"Were you taken by aliens?" Benny pushed, Luke able to see Sheridan rolling her eyes from the other side of the crowd.
Melanie shook her head and giggled lightly.
"How come you're so different?" Sheridan inquired, making the buzzing of the crowd dissipate.
Melanie looked at Sheridan, almost seeming perplexed. "What do you mean 'different?'" She asked. "This is how I've always been."
The people who knew her glanced at each other, confused.
"You handed the books out this morning," Joshua stated, giving the squinty-look which he did when contemplating something. "You've never done anything like that before."
Melanie remained quiet, looking fairly stunned by the statement. "I don't..." her voice trailed off. She looked very strained while trying to think. Then she pushed through the crowd and rushed away, everyone watching her waiting for something to happen, the crowd so silent that Luke couldn’t even tell if any of the children who were stood behind him were still alive or not judging from the level of noise.
"She's weird," Luke heard from behind him, making him spin around and look at the girl who'd said it. He didn't want to admit it, he felt mean for doing so, but he had to agree. Melanie had disappeared for two weeks, had been a troublesome girl when she’d gone missing, then had returned as what seemed to be the total opposite. She’d become well-mannered. During their lesson-time before their break, Melanie had made much more of an effort to take part in the lesson than she ever would have considered making two weeks prior. It was as if she’d been taken away to have been fixed, as if her parents had taken her out of school to change her for the better.
“What if her parents took her out of school?” Luke asked Adrian, though more children than only him heard the question.
“What do you mean?” Sheridan questioned, to which Luke paused, unsure about whether posing the thought would be a bad idea while so many other people were listening. What if, like Miss Walters had told them two weeks before, his idea would be perceived as a fact instead of a theory as to why Melanie had disappeared?
“Well, she was bad before,” Luke stated, trying to think of the best way to word the explanation. “Maybe her parents sent her somewhere to be made into a good kid?”
Everyone processed the idea, then a few people nodded lightly, the thought adding up in their minds. It didn’t matter to any of them that Melanie’s parents had reported her as missing when they’d found out from Miss Walters that she hadn’t been in school.
The crowd disbanded, all of them unanimously thinking about how strange they found Melanie. If she really had been taken out of school to go through some sort of behavioural-corrective-therapy, they didn’t like the idea of it. It just felt strange to them, weird to think about being around a girl who wasn’t being herself, either by choice or something else which was forcing her to act differently. Luke could only imagine how it would feel to be walking around, forced to act in a different way to how he wanted to act. It would be a struggle. He knew that, but it didn’t make him feel any empathy towards Melanie. Instead, it almost made him feel afraid of her. What if the situation was making her angrier and angrier? Hanging around her would only risk being in the blast-radius if she’d explode in rage, and he definitely didn’t want to take the chance of being the outlet for her anger.
When breaktime ended, everyone filed into queues, lining up outside so that they could take attendance and make sure that everyone was there. There was a gap purposefully left around Melanie, at least two children able to fit in front of her and behind her, but no-one moved to fill the gap. The teachers took notice and most likely assumed, Luke guessed, that they were giving her space in case that she was anxious after having been returned to her home. In reality, however, they were avoiding her, scared of her, unable to understand why she’d changed and, honestly, some of the children were scared that they’d change, too, if they’d stand too close to her.
It took a few minutes for everyone to funnel into the building, one queue at a time, heading to their classes. Luke’s class was one of the first to go, being the second-youngest year-group in the school who were allowed to go outside for breaktime.
Once they’d arrived in their classroom, sat down, Luke turned his attention to the whiteboard, Miss Walters writing what they were going to be doing on it when Adrian tapped him on his right arm.
“Look,” Adrian whispered, having moved uncomfortably close to Luke to breathe the word without anyone else hearing.
Luke glanced at Adrian, confused until he saw the finger which Adrian was subtly pointing towards Melanie. Luke’s gaze shifted towards the girl until he noticed what Adrian was referring to: she was sat alone. Well, as alone as she could be while sat at a square table, other children surrounding it. The two who sat close to her usually- Ralph and Thomas- had shifted their seats, having sidled them away from Melanie.
And the look on Melanie’s face proved that she’d noticed.
Luke looked away, feeling slightly bad for the girl but also understanding why Ralph and Thomas had moved as far away as possible; they were scared of her. They didn’t want to change as well, so they were keeping as far away from her as possible. Just as everybody had in the queue outside.
Miss Walters was too busy with writing the work on the whiteboard to notice the alteration at the table, though once she’d turned around and scanned the class, telling them to write the title which she’d put on the whiteboard into their books, she noticed the change.
“Thomas, Ralph,” she almost called, her tone loud though her voice quiet, not wanting to shout at the boys. “Scoot closer to Melanie. You can’t write properly on the corners of the table.”
“But she’s weird,” Thomas retorted, making Miss Walters pause and stare at him, evidently taken aback by the insult which was aimed at the young girl a foot away from him. “She left and came back and is different now.”
“Well, I’m sure she’s just anxious, aren’t you, Melanie?” Miss Walters countered, clearly trying to stay calm, the expression on her young face showing just how upset the situation was making her despite it not being herself nor anyone whom she knew personally in Melanie’s position. “You’re scared about what happened and that’s making you act differently, right?”
Melanie stared at Miss Walters, light tears in her eyes. “No,” she whimpered. “This is how I’ve always been.”
There was a moment of silence in the classroom, all of the students either finding the situation slightly funny for whatever reason or annoying because they didn’t like Melanie.
Miss Walters looked at the girl, her eyes seeming pained as she tried to empathise with Melanie’s feelings. Melanie simply looked hurt as she sat there, looking at the teacher, alone.
Melanie stood and rushed out of the classroom, letting out a light “excuse me” as she did so before running in the direction of the bathroom.
Miss Walters hesitated for a moment, unsure as to what to do, scared that she’d spurred the reaction within the girl, before she placed the whiteboard marker on her desk and followed Melanie out of the room, telling the class to behave while she was gone, the door closing behind her.
Everyone was silent for a moment until one of the girls started talking to the boy next to her about something. Then more and more children broke out into small conversations, barely considering what had just happened except for the fact that they deemed it to have been very strange and, in some cases, slightly amusing.
Once Miss Walters had returned to the room with Melanie- the young girl’s blue eyes puffed and bloodshot due to the tears which had been leaking from them- she led Melanie to her seat, motioned for Thomas and Ralph to scoot closer to her, then continued with the lesson, making sure to single-out Melanie occasionally, asking her for the answer to the occasional question, something which Luke could tell annoyed Sheridan as she always threw her hand into the air yet was sometimes ignored for the suddenly-favoured girl.
When the day had finally ended, Luke hopped into his mother’s car and immediately informed her that Melanie was back, how everyone was treating her, what had happened in the lesson following their breaktime.
“Really?” Poppy questioned, an eyebrow raised as she pulled out of the school’s carpark. “How come she’s back?”
Luke shrugged. “She didn’t say what happened, but she’d acting different.”
Poppy paused. “She’s probably… scared because of what she went through,” she murmured, her face growing slightly paler, her eyes getting a little wider as she considered the possibilities of what the poor girl had experienced.
Luke couldn’t see the look of horror on Poppy’s face from the back seat, instead turning his attention to the sights out of the window, resting his chin on the palm of his left hand, gazing at the houses which they passed.
“She isn’t naughty anymore,” Luke continued after a moment. “But that scares everyone.”
“We’re just confused,” Luke said. “I think her parents took her somewhere to be changed.”
Poppy processed the idea but almost immediately shrugged it off, knowing that a lot of things didn’t add-up with that explanation. Still, though, why would she act so different? Was it really just trauma?
Poppy kept the questions to herself. “Yeah,” she said, almost too quietly for Luke to hear. “That’s probably what happened.”