By Karen Zlotnick

Posted on

When Leslie Bobeck was in fifth grade, a boy everyone called J.B. nicknamed her “Lezbo,”an obvious combination of her first and last names. Now a junior, sixteen years old, she occasionally heard “Lezbo” mumbled nastily in gym class or behind her in the cafeteria’s cashier line, but Leslie was relatively sure that J.B. and his friend, Bodie, were the only ones who used it. Her best friend, Larissa, tried to address it once with Bodie on Leslie’s behalf, but when Larissa approached him, Bodie spit his gum onto her shoe, and she backed away without saying a word. Leslie told the bawling Larissa that she was sorry Bodie had been such an asshole to her, but that the Lezbo thing was old and stupid, not worth their time. School was mostly safe, anyway, a daily break from the heaviness and angst of her family’s predicament: finances, obesity, tobacco, the dog’s mange. Nothing school could throw at her could be that ominous, not even Asshole Bodie. She distracted Larissa from the incident by summarizing the plot line of her latest fantasy: Friendly Martians abduct her right out of her bedroom and immediately put her in charge of redecorating the spaceship lounge. Which she does. With florals.

Every day, Leslie passed through the front doors of the high school relieved to escape, at least temporarily, the flavor of her house. Once inside The No-Parent Zone, she could block the sensation of her mother’s insistent morning hug, delivered to Leslie at the far end of the galley kitchen, her weepy face buried in Leslie’s fiery red hair. Once inside those massive double doors, Leslie wiped her nose repeatedly, a mostly-successful attempt to rid herself of the smoke-scent of her mother’s blue bathrobe. Every day, when Leslie had no choice but to acknowledge the persistent itch on the bottom of her feet (a symptom of the rash she’d developed after her father came home with the store brand laundry detergent), she noted that at school she was able to make a mostly-successful attempt to halt her escalating anxiety. No, a foot rash did not necessarily mean cancer. Or deadly parasites. Or MRSA. Leslie’s desire to be free of fear, along with moments of optimism that she could be just that, propelled her forward through her school day. With a skip in her gait and smile on her freckled face, she moved swiftly from first period pre-calc taught by the vibrant Mr. Connelly, to the 2:53 dismissal bell, when she met up with Larissa for the afternoon bus.

However. Later in the evenings at home, the hungry pulse of Leslie’s monstrous imagination fired itself up, and, like the Dream Eater in her newest Netflix obsession, Irrational, it threatened to consume her. In the tattered-rug den of the small, drafty cottage her parents rented on the ancestral estate belonging to a classmate’s family, inhabited by dread, Leslie sometimes passed the darkening hours unraveling the threads of an old throw. While she worked the fabric, she thought about the people who owned the property. Although they stayed largely out of Leslie’s sight, they were a great source of her worry. If her mother suffered symptoms of a pulmonary embolism while her father was out picking up KFC and all the Hudson Valley ambulances were transporting really sick patients who had real insurance policies to pay for their sirened rides, would she have to call them herself? So embarrassing. She imagined reports of that sort of event spreading through school — the details of her father’s greasy fingers and her mother’s hacking cough making their way into the hallways’ strained whispers.

Well into the night, the fraying blanket caused Leslie’s fingertips to burn a little, a strange signal to lay it down and head to bed. But in bed her mind wandered freely and dangerously before pulling Leslie into her regularly-scheduled nightmares. The dreams rooted themselves inside her, gastro-intestinally, esophageally. They scorched the lining of her stomach and throat and soured her mouth. They included parental blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks — never an ambulance to be found, cigarette-fueled fires, lethal dog bites, antibiotic-resistant skin infections, and rabid bats. Leslie deemed it a wonder that she could still speak in full sentences during the day after all she experienced at night.

Although each dream-state event wrecked the early morning hours and left a potent, bitter taste in Leslie’s mouth, by the time she got off the bus in her school’s parking lot, miraculously, she found herself able to savor the sweetness of the Gummy Worms she’d hidden inside her backpack. Headed safely into school, Leslie’s load lightened a little. Her eyes fixed on the day ahead, she devoted herself to the demands of school. A first-period math test. A practice Regents essay in social studies. The mile run in phys. ed. In spite of the occasional “Lezbo” remark, in spite of the rash on her feet, Leslie believed with all her heart that in everything school expected from her, she could find peace — away from the fountain of never-ending fears which plagued her at home.

It was during fifth period history class when Leslie asked Mr. Strayson if she could be excused to use the restroom. Her feet itched, and she thought maybe a quick stroll would soothe them. She knew by the way he often asked her to put her hand down (“I know you know the answer, Leslie!”) that she was already one of Mr. Strayson’s favorites, and she noted that he didn’t even grumble when he nodded permission for her to leave. As she scooted out of the room, it occurred to her to take a detour to prolong the relief she already felt from being out of her seat.

Leslie decided on the restroom outside of the art wing, a long way away from Mr. Strayson’s diatribe against critics of Andrew Jackson, who despite his Indian Removal Act and his support of slavery, Strayson insisted was “our most misunderstood president.” She absolutely had questions about that (for example, What could be “misunderstood” about a president who supported slavery?), but instead of staying to ask them, Leslie wandered toward the art wing, admiring the posted pencil sketches and watercolors — laced sneakers, bicycles, hands, flower pots. She remembered that Larissa once told her about a dark, infrequently-used corridor in this area that students called The Hookup Hallway, but Leslie couldn’t picture its exact location until it appeared suddenly on her left. Peering down it, she spotted two men pressed against each other, hooking up. Wow, she thought, The Hookup Hallway is real. Surprised that they weren’t students and consequently unable to tear herself from the view, she stood awkwardly for a few seconds staring, until one of them, whom she recognized as her seventh grade math teacher, spotted her, pulled away from the other man, and threw his head into the crook of his elbow before yelling, “Dammit! Get out of here!” Leslie’s rashy feet, though, didn’t comply, and instead, she stared for an extra second or two before the other man, her young pre-calc teacher, sneered at her and said with a tight jaw, “Leslie, you’d better go. Now.”

As Leslie hurried back to class, she thought first about her seventh grade math teacher, Mr. Ackerman. What was Mr. Ackerman doing here at the high school? When she remembered that her pre-calc teacher wasn’t in class today due to what he referred to as “district-wide staff development for all math teachers,” she heard her own voice remark wryly, out loud, “Is that what they mean by staff development?” She smiled to herself before the the reality of her discovery sparked the reflexes in her gut and flooded her mouth with a recognizable sour taste.

He saw me, he called me by my name, he knows me, he knows what I saw, he saw that I saw… Mr. Ackerman is married. Mr. Ackerman is married to a woman! I remember the picture on his desk. Shit. They both saw me. This is really bad. This is so, so bad. Mr. Pre-Calc — what’s his name? He’s my teacher… Why can’t I remember his name? Mr., Mr., Mr.,… What the hell is his name? Connor? Connelly? Connell? Connelly… Mr. Connelly — that’s his name — saw me and called me by my name and saw that I saw him hooking up with Mr. Ackerman and now I’m in the most trouble that anyone has ever been in. Shit shit shit shit fuck.

Leslie put her hand on her stomach, and forgetting to go to the bathroom, she made her way back to history, where Mr. Strayson was wrapping up on Andrew Jackson and assigning homework, which she jotted down in handwriting she’d never be able to read. By the end of the day, she couldn’t remember anything her teachers had covered or anything her classmates had said; she could only picture Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Connelly pulling away from each other and wonder why she hadn’t ducked out of sight before they had to ask her to leave. She wondered, too, what they must be saying to each other now, what they must be thinking about the problem she posed. She imagined them texting frantically, engaging in tense, whispered exchanges on their cell phones. This was all very big — very, very big — and because she didn’t have any facts and had no foreseeable way to get any facts, the monster inside her took over: Mr. Ackerman and Mr. Connelly would try to kill her.

On the bus ride home, through Larissa’s chatter about the ethnography her English teacher had assigned, Leslie imagined how they might do it. One of them might be waiting for her outside her home, a pocket knife in his jacket. One of them might sneak into her house while her family slept. (She hoped that wouldn’t happen; how embarrassing it would be if her teacher smelled the smoke, saw her father in his underwear, went to pet the dog on his mangy skin.) One of them might already own a rifle. She wondered how long it would take to die from a gunshot. Or multiple gunshots. Her throat burned with reflux. When the bus came to an abrupt stop in front of Larissa’s house, the thought hit her: Neither teacher would do it himself. Instead, naturally, they would hire a hitman. Wondering if she’d ever see her again, she waved her goodbye to Larissa and began the daunting process of imagining how she might spot a hitman hired to murder her.

The pulse of her imagination deepened into a thunderous beat. She tried to conjure up hitmen in movies: What did they look like? What were their sounds? But the beat took her elsewhere, and the only images she could muster were twisted versions of people she already knew: Jeanette, the crossing guard from her old elementary school — a benevolent woman in her sixties who now appeared to Leslie to have knives for fingernails; Jorge Suarez, the talented valedictorian of last year’s class who, Leslie had heard, left Harvard to pursue acting, and in her vision came at her wielding a medieval sword; and last, Larissa — how clever of them to hire her friend! — who, in Leslie’s spiraling mind, had the skills of a military-trained sniper and looked really good in camo. It could be anyone.

Leslie’s imagination kept her awake for six nights in a row. In that stretch of time she had to change her sweaty sheets four times. Her parents, unaware of their daughter’s plight, unaware that she’d skipped school on Wednesday in order to avoid facing Mr. Connelly, spoke to her in raspy voices about now-meaningless topics: “Les, where are the Gummy Worms?”; “Les, don’t forget to give the dog his bath.” She could only answer in her head: My life is at stake. Give him a fucking bath yourself.

For Thanksgiving, her mother put Leslie in charge of the green bean casserole, but she was so pre-occupied that she forgot the crispy onions. From the way her Aunt Gerry reacted, you might have thought the hit had already taken place. Inside her head, Leslie fired back: You’ll regret this, Aunt Ger. I’m not long for this world.

When Monday morning’s light flittered through the floral flat sheet-turned-makeshift window curtain and landed softly on her eyes, Leslie groaned. Unsure about how to proceed, she stalled in bed until the image of her mother’s blue bathrobe in her doorway caught her attention.

“Leslie,” her mom rasped. “School today.” “I know, Mom. It’s just —“

“Leslie. Before you go. Talk for a sec? Please.”

Leslie groaned again, this time as a statement for her mother to hear. But instead of a response, the only sound Leslie could make out was a succession of short sniffs as her mother tried to stifle her weeping. Again, Leslie thought. Tears. More menopausal tears.

Leslie readied herself for school by deciding not to shower and by consciously rejecting her hairbrush’s plea to engage with it. Instead, she swept her red mane into a sloppy bun near the top of her head, dabbed some CVS brand scent on her neck, and threw on an old lumber jack flannel over the t-shirt and leggings she’d slept in. Right before she left the house, her mother caught her in her daily embrace, but this time, before turning away to let Leslie walk out the door, her mother faced her, put her left hand on Leslie’s shoulder, and tenderly took Leslie’s chin in the soft, round fingers of her right hand. “I don’t say it enough, my love, but I’m so thankful for you.” As her words floated in the air, she pressed a small bag of Gummy Worms into Leslie’s hand before turning away. Leslie thought her mother smelled a little sweeter than usual.

Just as she approached Mr. Connelly’s room for the first class of her day, she peered through the open doorway and saw that he was on his cell, straining to keep his voice low. Having learned a little bit of a lesson about staying out of sight, she put her back to the wall outside the door and stretched her neck to expose only her ear to the classroom. The hallway was filling up with students’ chatter about to-die-for Thanksgiving mac-and-cheese and pecan pies and plans to storm the fitness center immediately after school, and it was hard to make out what Mr. Connelly was saying. But Leslie decided she would die trying. Better that, than…

As luck would have it, Mr. Connelly moved toward the door while he talked, and with every step his words sharpened. By the time he was only a few feet from Leslie’s exposed ear, she could hear him say with clarity and conviction, “I’m not worried, Marty. She’s a good kid. Let’s just move on.”

Leslie felt the sting of relief pestering the backs of her eyes, the same sensation she might have had if she’d remembered to slice the onions for crisping on Thanksgiving morning. But a quick press of her fingertips into her lids quieted the sting, and for the first time in days, she lifted her head confidently — gruesome images of her own demise, absent.

As she slid into her seat in the middle of the room, Leslie studied Mr. Connelly. Revealing a row of straight white teeth with his benevolent smile, he welcomed his students back to pre-calc, kidded Leslie about her Gummy Worm breakfast, and announced that they would be ending their unit on irrational numbers. “The unit on functions is often a hit,” he said. “So onto that.”

Karen Zlotnick

Author’s Note“Hitman” is one of a collection of linked short stories set in a fictional school district in New York’s Hudson Valley. I was lucky enough to have two more of these stories published earlier this year: one in The Avalon Literary Review and the other in The Literary Nest.