She has lost track of time.
For all Claire knows, she may have been hiding in the small cubicle for five minutes - or half an hour. The world had turned into a blur, and so did all the sounds. The taste. The smell. Her spirit had drifted off to another world, far away from the physical realm, away from her trembling body releasing the occasional muffled sob.
Then it happened.
A black, shadowy movement forces her to look down, near the slit of the door. Crawling in ever so deliberately, with its eight hairy enormous legs, the black tarantula squeezes its way into the tight cubicle with the girl. The cubicle seems to have gotten smaller and tighter with the presence of the creature - which is merely centimeters away from Claire's feet now.
An instant scream tears out of the girl's lungs, as she instinctively jumps back and hoists herself up on the toilet. Her big, wide eyes are fixated on the big, wide creature, almost fearing that if she looks away for a split second, it will suddenly pounce on her. She claps her clammy hand against her mouth, trying to stifle her scream, hoping not to grab the tarantula's attention.
Then it begins to crawl towards her.
She breathes in and out, but air wouldn't enter her lungs. Starved for air, her heart races at tremendous speeds, as her body shakes violently with ragged gasps. She watches every movement of the tarantula with terrified eyes, wondering whether her mind is playing tricks or if this is reality.
Then the large, hairy spider begins to crawl up the toilet. Claire's heart stops as several, vivid images flash before her eyes. The tarantula climbing up her legs, then trekking up her body effortlessly, creeping up to her shoulders, and clinging to her face, with its poisonous teeth ready to attack. Another horrified scream rips out of her throat.
Claire takes a giant leap forward, swings the door open and races out of there with lightning speed. She bustles into her classroom in no time, as she slams the door shut with her back pressed against it. She is drenched in sweat and her face is flushed a crimson red. She lets out a loud sigh, uncaring of the class staring at her.
"Is something the matter, Johnson?"
"There's... a... giant... t-tarantula... in toilets," Claire manages to choke out. She shudders exaggeratingly, as her body tingles with nerves, almost feeling the weight of the huge spider on her.
The class gasps, some students seem excited while others seem fearful.
"Tarantula?" Miss Gay echoes.
Claire nods viciously.
"Alright, everyone, stay here. I'll be right back," the teacher says, as she grabs her big, black bag. Pointing at her students with her finger, she adds sternly. "Nobody move. If I catch you out of your seats again, I'll double your homework for tonight."
With that said, the teacher exits the classroom briskly.
Claire is unable to concentrate.
Her mind is still thinking about the tarantula.
It is nearing towards the end of the painfully long lesson, when suddenly, a ruler slams down on her desk harshly. Thwack!
The loud, unexpected noise makes Claire jump in her seat, fully alert to her present surroundings. The students also seem shaken by the abrupt noise vibrating through the tensed atmosphere. Right in front of Claire and towering above her, while holding onto the ruler like it is a whip, is her unamused teacher.
"Whoever answers the question on the board correctly will spare everyone from doing a test tomorrow morning," Miss Gay booms.
Instantly, several hands fly in the air, with students eager to answer the question. However, the teacher taps her ruler against Claire's desk. "Go on, Johnson. You're a bright one. Tell us the answer."
Claire reads the scribbled message on the whiteboard: Rosa Parks' arrest after her refusal to move to the back of a bus triggered a citywide boycott of what city's bus system?
"Um..." Claire mumbles, looking around hopelessly at the other students. Everyone focuses on her with such fierce intensity, like they're snipers concentrating on their target, ready to shoot if she makes a wrong move. She looks back at her teacher, her blue eyes conveying a desperate, pleading expression. However, her teacher's eyes are a fathomless onyx and bottomless like burning pits of coal. Cold and merciless.
Claire feels doomed. Then she shakes her head. No, you've got this. You know Alabama is famous for its landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. What cities are in Alabama...? Think, goddamnit, think!
"Um... Birmingham?" Claire squeaks out.
"Wrong! The answer is Montgomery," Miss Gay roars. She adds with a faint smirk, "Make sure you all prepare for a morning exam."
The class groans in unison, throwing dark looks of detest towards the blonde girl. She shrinks in her seat, despising that she is openly placed in the middle, as she feels like fresh meat enclosed by hungry tigers.
The bell rings.
Thank God! Claire thinks, relieved. Immediately, she springs to her feet and hurriedly races towards the exit.
"Claire! I'd like to speak with you for a moment," Miss Gay calls out, as she plops down onto her chair behind her desk.
It is home time. Claire steps outside slowly, as her mind is spinning rapidly. For her, the world seems bigger with less vibrant colors. It's like everything has lost the essence of its soul, and it's just washed over with a tinted, faded gray.
"Hey, Claire!" Stephanie chirps, skipping by her side, as her pigtails bounce around her shoulders. "You won't believe what happened! My tarantula escaped from the off- wait, what's wrong?" The brightness from her face has vanished, while her glasses magnify her honey-brown eyes that are glazed with worry. "Why do you look so... upset?"
Claire shakes head softly, rubbing her arm. "It's nothing."
"Are you sure?" Stephanie presses on.
"Yeah... I just need some rest and I'll be fine," Claire says, forcing a thin smile. She tilts her head in curiosity. "So... your tarantula escaped?"
Stephanie chuckles lightly. "Ah, yes. Unfortunately, I couldn't bring her in for Show and Tell. During fourth period, Mr. Whitehorn spotted the tarantula and took her off me. I wasn't violating any school rules, as I pointed out to him, but he vehemently argued that I was causing a disruption in the classroom. Then he called for Miss Gay, and she came along and confiscated her."
"Wait... Miss Gay took the tarantula?"
"Yes. She took her to the reception office," Stephanie answers. "The tarantula was kept in the cardboard box. Someone must've opened it accidentally, not knowing she was there, and that's how she escaped! That's what I think is the most likely explanation."
She took the tarantula, Claire thinks. Of course.
"Claire! I'd like to speak with you for a moment."
The girl stopped in her tracks, frozen to the spot. The remaining students have vanished, leaving just Miss Gay and Claire in the small space of the classroom. A heavy silence settled over them, thicker than the uneasy tension in the atmosphere. Claire shuffled her feet awkwardly against the carpeted floor, as she clung to her desk nervously for support. The stern woman beckoned the girl to come closer with her claw. Timidly, Claire walked to her and stopped in front of her desk, while her frantic heart was threatening to explode.
"Yes, Miss?" She questioned meekly.
"Did you speak to the headteacher about me?" The teacher inquired, her nostrils flaring.
Claire felt her throat drying up. "Um... yes...."
The girl gulped, trying to swallow down the lump that was forming in her throat. "Because... you were being unfair... and you were too angry to properly listen to us, so we had to inform someone else-"
Miss Gay laughed spitefully - a strange noise that reminded Claire of a witch's cackle. It was a laughter that promised pain and torment. Claire found it difficult to look at the teacher's eyes, which were flashing with indignation and anger, much like lightning on a pitch black night.
"You do realize that's a terrible mistake you've made, right?" The woman asked condescendingly, as tilted her head. Her high bun was scraped back tightly, revealing her broad forehead, which was throbbing with a bluish vein. "As your teacher, I can't stand by and watch you make these silly mistakes. In fact, if you make any more silly mistakes, your secret might just come out in the open."
"Secret?" Claire whispered. She played with her golden hair, trying to find comfort in the softness of her natural blanket.
The sound of the chair scraping against the floor could be heard clearly, as Miss Gay stood up. She was a small woman, 5'3 in height, yet she seemed to loom over Claire like a skyscraper. She leaned forward against her desk, her white predatory teeth baring out, as she hissed one word that chilled Claire to the core.
Claire flinched, as if the woman had slapped her. That was when she saw her teacher's expression. An evil smirk that destroyed all innocence. In that moment, Claire knew that her teacher, who is supposed to protect and nourish her, wanted to see her suffer.
"That's right. I know about Clark. How do you think everyone else will react when they find out about Clark too?" Miss Gay questioned. Claire looked down at her feet, avoiding her black gaze. "Do you think James would still love you if he really knew? Would your best friend see you in the same way?"
Miss Gay leaned closer, her face portraying an expression of dark thunder, as her sinister smirk expanded wider. "And what about your peers - Courtney, Katie, Jack and the rest of them? They love to pick on you already as it is. Can you imagine how they'll make your life a living hell if they knew?"
Claire's bottom lip wobbled, as those words cut her heart deeply. It had been a long time since she felt this way - so tiny and so fragile that she was a touch away from being broken. She felt utterly hopeless under her teacher's penetrating, mocking stare, like a soldier in a battlefield without weapons.
"So, feel free to run and tattle to the headteacher and your parents," Miss Gay said, sitting back down on her chair with an air of confidence and superiority. "But just know that I've been keeping your little secret hidden for so long. If you turn against me, everyone will learn the truth. About you. About Clark. Understood?"
Claire nodded her head sorrowfully. She always had a gut feeling that Miss Gay wasn't completely fond of her. However, she did not ever imagine in her life that their relationship would take such a dark turn.