I Swear

You want to know what’s happening in the room across the hall. Instead, you’re stuck in this room, with two other girls. You’re told you can’t speak to each other; none of you are in the mood to talk, anyway.

Those girls are in fourth grade, like you. Gwen, who’s a year older, was called first. She’s in the room across the hall now.

A long time passes before Gwen re-joins the group. Her eyes look like they’ve been stung by bees, and her face is all pink. The weight that’s sitting in your stomach grows heavier.

Gwen is not a crier.

Your name is called.

You need to go outside.

You need to breathe.

But you can’t leave; they won’t let you.

What’s going to happen?

You want to know.

You hate not knowing.

* * *

I sit up straight on the wooden bench; my hands pressed firmly on my lap. I lift my eyes from my sparkly nail polish and look out at the room; it’s big, with rows of pews. The judge is sitting to my right, higher than me, and there is a woman with a typewriter off to the side. Everyone, except the typing-woman, is looking at me.

I’m not looking at them; I’m looking at him.

I was told not to, but my eyes can’t pull away.

He sits in the first row with his hands neatly folded. He’s wearing a suit instead of the uniform he usually wears; his hair is combed smooth to the side.

His face is different.

I take a long breath, letting it out when my chest starts to hurt.

Then comes the part with the Bible. I lift my hand and there is a wet print left on my pants. My mouth feels like there’s a giant cotton ball in it.

I repeat the words I was told to say, “I swear.”

A chubby man with a funny-looking mustache walks up to where I’m sitting. He starts asking me questions. At first, they’re easy to answer. But then, they get harder.

I close my eyes to collect my thoughts, which are scattered in my head like blown confetti. Trying to put the pieces together is hard; trying to make sense of them is even harder.

 

I wasn’t always uncomfortable around Mr. Heathslip. When I was younger, all I saw was a smiling old man with a mop. He whistled while he cleaned the school, and I knew he loved his job because every time he saw me he smiled. When I’d pass him in the hallway he’d stop to tell me a joke that would make me laugh.

He said he liked making me laugh because I had a beautiful smile.

He said my smile lifted him up.

I liked running into him so much, I’d do it on purpose. In first grade, whenever I was picked to bring the attendance to the office, I would take the long way, hoping to see him.

Then, he started inviting me to the boiler room. The big steel door was always closed and off-limits to students.

The boys in my class told stories about what happened in there, which usually had something to do with blood and guts.

They said the place was haunted.

The room was dark and made lots of noises. Mr. Heathslip would hold my hand and tell me not to be scared. I wasn’t scared. I knew he wouldn’t let anything bad happen.

He said I had to keep it a secret that he brought me there because it was against the rules. I thought it was cool that I was the only one who got to see the boiler room.

He trusted me.

He made me feel special.

 

When I was in fourth grade, things changed. Instead of telling me jokes, he started telling me how pretty I was.

He said he liked it when I wore dresses, and when I pulled my hair back.

I used to like when he said nice things to me. It made me smile inside. But now, it didn’t – not anymore.

I felt bad for feeling this way; he was only being nice. He was Mr. Heathslip. The same man he’s always been all these years.

Then, he started touching me.

At first, it was just a nudge or a hand on my back. But then, his hands would stay on me a little too long, in places that made my insides somersault. I’d hold my breath until he moved his hand, or until I took a step back, making it fall away.

Was this my fault?

I couldn’t tell anyone because no one would believe me, and I was scared that everyone would think I was bad; I didn’t want to get in trouble.

Everyone loved Mr. Heathslip.

 

There were two stairwells on opposite ends of the school, which made it easy to hide from him. When I saw him in the hallway I’d turn around, even if it meant being late for class. Sometimes I couldn’t tell that he was in the corridor until I rounded the corner. When this happened, I’d stick close to the wall, with my head down, counting the steps.

I stopped wearing dresses.

I stopped pulling my hair back.

I kept my feelings about Mr. Heathslip to myself for a long time, until I found out Marianne’s secret.

And Rachel’s secret.

And Gwen’s.

All this time I thought it was just me. But when I found out it was happening to other girls, I had to say something. We had to say something.

It wasn’t my secret.

It was our secret.

* * *

At last, you’re told you can leave the stand.

You walk up the aisle toward the double doors, looking straight ahead.

You feel his eyes on you, long after you’ve left the room.

Before re-joining the other girls, you need fresh air. This time they let you.

You go outside.

You breathe.

What’s going to happen?

You want to know.

You hate not knowing.

Diana-Marie Bombardieri

About Diana-Marie Bombardieri

Diana-Marie lives in downtown Toronto. Her love for writing children’s stories and poetry lead her to take creative writing at George Brown College. She’s currently working on her first collection of short fiction. When a character hijacks her stories, she knows she’s onto something worthwhile.

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