Thomasina Tull clomped down the school bus steps, head lowered, books clutched tightly to her chest, and waited for Mr. Earl to lever open the door. She always hated these few beats of time that seemed to last forever before she could escape the yellow monster filled with mean grins and even meaner eyes.
On the ride to and from school—as well as on the playground—the other kids’ relentless teasing, contemptuous looks, and sometimes shoves or kicks had lessened as she and they had gotten older but had never stopped. Only in the classroom was she free of harassment. She was always assigned the front desk in the center row so she could see the blackboard. All the faculty at Blackburn Elementary knew she couldn’t see worth a flip.
The doors whooshed open, and Thomasina quickly stepped to the ground and strode away. She knew she shouldn’t look back, but she did and saw Jackie Carter’s fuzzy face hanging out the window, making those disgusting smacking noises before yelling, “What’s up, doc?” his top lip poking out and his bottom lip pulled back in a bad Bugs Bunny imitation.
The bus pulled away, trailing hoots of laughter and a swirling cloud of dust.
Thomasina sighed, well past the point of being hurt—or told herself she was. After all, it was nothing she hadn’t experienced a thousand times before.
She grabbed the mail from the listing, rusty mailbox and started the quarter-mile walk down the little-used lane to her home. She stuck to one of the two parallel tracks that were bisected by tall Johnson grass and crowded on both sides by thick trees whose limbs twined their leafy fingers across the road, keeping it in perpetual shade. Wouldn’t do to brush against any stray stalks; though it was mid October, there hadn’t yet been a hard freeze to kill off the seed ticks and chiggers that clung to grasses and brush in shady spots, laying in wait to transfer to some unlucky warm-blooded host.
So, Thomasina stepped carefully, bunching her long, faded skirt in one fist to keep it from touching the grass, remembering her first run-in years ago with chiggers, the scratching and misery. When she had told Daddy about the itching, he had rubbed the wide scar that parted his dark hair on the left side, frowned, and studied the small red bumps on her legs for a time. Then his sky-blue eyes, which she had inherited, brightened, and he’d grinned. “Them there are chigger bites, Tom.” And in his limited way, had told her about chiggers and seed ticks—she had already known about regular-sized ticks—and smeared her legs with calamine lotion.
Sometimes, Daddy knew things, and sometimes he didn’t, but all in all, she knew more than he did. At one time—and this was so long ago she barely remembered—he knew everything, but the accident at the sawmill had stolen the bigger part of that knowledge. And it had even stolen Mama, who’d slipped away in the dead of night after Daddy came home from the hospital, leaving four-year-old Thomasina with a daddy that had trouble even tying his shoelaces. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Daddy didn’t know, hadn’t known since the accident, that Thomasina was anything but a normal-looking girl. He doesn’t see me as I am, she thought. He doesn’t see the buck teeth, stringy, oily hair, and acne. He doesn’t see the clothes I wear—stuff Mama left behind. He doesn’t see the me the mirror and the world sees.
As she came into the yard, Thomasina saw her daddy out in the garden patch, his tall, lean form blurry because of her nearsightedness. She wanted to see things like she used to: the individual leaves far up in the trees as other than green blobs, the words in books without practically having to bury her nose in it, and Daddy’s welcoming smile at the short distance from the house to the garden. But if she told him she needed glasses, she didn’t know where the money would come from; the two of them barely eked out an existence as it was.
So, she’d kept to herself her vision problem, just as she hadn’t told him when she’d started bleeding “down there” a few months ago. She’d stuffed a wad of toilet paper into the crotch of her old cotton panties and had somehow worked up the courage to go to Miss Donna, the school nurse, and with her face red as a beet, describe what was going on.
Miss Donna—who didn’t look old enough to be out of high school, let alone a nurse—had pulled a book off a shelf, sat down next to Thomasina on the cot, and referring to drawings in the book, told Thomasina about uteruses, fallopian tubes, eggs, and periods. Miss Donna had taken her home from school that day, stopping by the drug store on the way and buying pads and an elastic belt to anchor them. Sitting in the car on Main Street, she had explained how to use them. Thomasina had never been so embarrassed in her life. But she had been thankful she didn’t have to ask Daddy what was going on with her body. And who knew if he would have been able to tell her?
She didn’t buy more pads when the ones Miss Donna had bought ran out; instead, she used old rags to fashion her own. And she washed them out each month, doing them after the regular laundry, using the tub and scrub-board balanced on the rickety table on the back porch. Come rain or shine, heat or cold, that’s where she washed and rinsed Daddy’s and her clothes, then hung them on the line to dry. Daddy didn’t even notice the extra rags flapping in the breeze. Daddy didn’t notice much of anything.
Sometimes, Thomasina felt a little mad at her daddy, but the mad never lasted long. He was no more at fault for how he was than the sky was for being blue. And she was too proud to ask any of the adults she knew for help, the only exception being when she had gone to Miss Donna about the blood. She had been so scared she’d had to ask someone for help, though hated to because then they’d feel even more sorry for her than they already did, and she couldn’t abide their pity. Better to be scorned than pitied, in her book. If Mama had stayed, or if Daddy hadn’t gotten hurt, maybe there would have been money to fix her teeth, to get glasses, to buy medicine for the horrible acne and greasy, flaky hair, and new clothes that hadn’t been washed so many times the colors had faded away. But Thomasina had known that her life would be a hard one; she had learned that ugly fact when she started school.
She waved to Daddy, and he waved back, then he bent back over, picking red blobs she figured were tomatoes, scrounging some of the last of the scrawny, ripe ones for supper. She ducked inside the house, plopped her books on the old library table just inside the front door, and went into the kitchen. Snagging an apron of indeterminate color from a nail on the wall, she put it on and set to work peeling potatoes.
That night, as she did most, Thomasina Tull propped herself up in bed and read. A coal oil lamp lit the pages of the borrowed book from the school library. Daddy had forgotten to pay the electric bill again, and the power had been shut off.
Thomasina had a curious mind and had soaked up a wealth of knowledge from the library’s set of encyclopedias, spending much of her recesses (when the teachers allowed her to stay inside) the last three years pouring over the thick volumes. And she always had the limited two books that she could bring home checked out.
This year—her sixth grade—had been focused on the otherworldly, everything from hard science fiction and fantasy to mythology and folklore, all subjects that helped her escape from the here and now. And while Daddy softly snored on the other side of her bedroom wall, Thomasina turned up the lamp’s wick, pulled up her legs, propping the book about Greek mythology on her knobby knees, and bent her head over the open pages close enough that the words came into focus. Soon, she was lost in the tales of gods and goddesses and heroes: Perseus slicing off Medusa’s head; the love story of Eros and Psyche; the Phoenix bird rising out of its ashes to live again; Pandora opening the box and letting out all the evils and hardships the gods had placed in the box, being scared when she saw what was happening, and closing the box, with only hope remaining inside.
Hope, Thomasina thought. Hope didn’t get away. She laid the book on the table beside the coal-oil lamp, raised the glass globe an inch or so, and blew out the flame. She fluffed her flat, sad pillow, scrunched down beneath the threadbare chenille bedspread, and closed her eyes. Hope is still here…hope…I hope…
And Thomasina Tull dreamed…
She is a great bird, the legendary Phoenix. She’s flying over the hills and valleys, her reddish-gold feathers flaming, rivaling the brightness of the morning sun. She soars over Blackburn Elementary, over the kids on the playground who look up at her, mouths hanging open in awe of her beauty. They bow down, even the teachers, humbling themselves before her. She screeches, and dips low over their heads, smells singed hair.
They all sink lower, cover their heads, and cower in fear. “Don’t hurt us, Thomasina,” someone implores in a boy’s quaking voice. Others join in, begging for mercy.
Thomasina’s sharp blue eyes picks one voice from the chorus of many, the same one who had first spoken. “Please…we didn’t know how beautiful—” His voice ends in a wail of terror as Thomasina snatches him with her mighty purple claws, and with flaming wings beating the air, hauls Jackie Carter skyward. Up and up, she flies until blackness surrounds them, and the Earth is a tiny blue marble far below. Then, she uncurls her claws and lets him drop-drop-drop, listening in satisfaction to his terrified screams that go on and on, like his punishment of her for being who she is has gone on and on.
At first, the Phoenix Thomasina Tull caws laughter at his terror. And the phrase “payback is hell” that she’s heard but can’t recall where fills her angry mind. But then…then…she remembers what it feels like to be scared, how when she had first started school, the kids mean remarks and nasty looks had scared her. She doesn’t want anyone feeling like she did back then, like she still feels at times—a niggle of that left-over fear mixing in with hurt and resignation. Nobody should have to feel like that.
Thomasina darts earthward, wraps her claws around the still-screaming boy seconds before his body would have splatted on the playground, and sets him gently down on the patchy green grass.
Jackie Carter stands, none the worse for wear other than his sandy-blond hair being a bit scorched. He grins, then yells, “Thomasina, Thomasina, Thomasina!” And the students and faculty take up the chant, “Thomasina, Thomasina, Thomasina!”
And in her sleep, Thomasina Tull smiles.
School the next day was awful. The ride there was uneventful, everyone seeming half asleep and in no mood to talk, let alone bully. But once at Blackburn Elementary, over the course of the day, Thomasina was tripped on the stairs, her school and library books knocked out of her hands, and spitballs lobbed at the back of her head; and that was just the highlights.
The coup de grâce occurred at the end of the day when the three o’clock bell rang. Thomasina waited for most of the kids to make a mad rush for the door (as was her usual), then reached inside her desk to pull out her library books and assigned homework. Her hand encountered something crinkly and wet. What in the world? Her fingers closed around the object, pulled it out, revealing a sheet of bloody notebook paper folded around…
She froze, blue eyes widening as she pulled back the paper’s edges and took in the dead rat, its open mouth lolling wide to reveal oversized front teeth. Blood had run from its nose and ears, had erupted from a split along its side, making red, wet patches on its body.
An infinitesimal shriek spilled past Thomasina’s lips, but she quickly pulled it back inside herself. No matter what was done to her, she always did her best to present an unruffled façade, and this time was no exception. With her face as placid as a calm lake, she read the big, block letters printed on the page—some splotched with muddy red: THOMASINA TULL REST IN NOT PIECE. Inside her shocked brain, a part of her idly wondered if that last word had been misspelled intentionally. But either way, it didn’t matter; she got the meaning. Someone, possibly the entire class, possibly everyone, wished her dead.
She risked a glance at the school door, saw Jackie Carter looking back at her, grinning. And she supposed he saw what he was looking for, though she was doing her best to hide it, by the expression on her face. He flipped her the bird, then disappeared after the other kids.
Thomasina cut her eyes to the front of the room. Mrs. Greg was looking at papers on her desk, hadn’t noticed the exchange. Good.
Thomasina re-wrapped the rat and stuck it in her skirt pocket. Then she retrieved the books she wanted that had been shoved to the back of the desk’s cubbyhole, stood, and walked out the door as if nothing in the world was wrong, that this was just an ordinary day in the life of Thomasina Tull, that the dead rat christened with her name meant nothing to her. Nothing at all.
That night, Thomasina dreams again of being the Phoenix. But instead of the playground being front and center in this dream, this time, she’s high in the branches of the old pin oak that stands guard over the outhouse in the backyard. She feels tired, so, so tired, wants nothing more than to lie down and rest forever. But she can’t, not until she’s gotten the nest built. Using tiny twigs and herbs and spices, Thomasina labors throughout the night, and finally, as the sun is breaking over the horizon, chasing away the morning mist hovering over Palmer Creek that meanders through the woods behind the house, the nest is finished. She folds her great wings and settles upon the nest, waiting…waiting. She raises her voice in song to the rising sun. And it happens—the nest bursts into flames and ignites Thomasina. But the fire doesn’t hurt; instead, it wraps her in a warm, comforting blanket of peace, of love, of acceptance.
And in time, the Phoenix Thomasina is nothing but a pile of ashes.
Two weeks later, Sheriff Andy Jones pulled his black-and-white onto the scorched grass in front of the house where the only thing left standing was a soot-covered stone fireplace. Blackened, half-burned ceiling joists and rafters rested on a pile of ashes from which a few items stood out: a cast-iron cookstove, a set of box springs, a half-melted bed frame, two withered metal buckets, and other small objects too twisted and burned to identify.
The sheriff eased out from behind the wheel as another man got out on the passenger side. Don’t know why in hell he wants to see the place…. But that’s just what Billy Tull had wanted the minute he’d stepped out of the hospital, and Andy Jones had obliged. At one time, before the accident had taken a good part of Billy’s memory along with his sense, they had been good friends. All that had been lost when that damn board had bucked from the saw and laid open Billy’s head. Damn shame…
Billy stared at the house for a while, and then silent tears started running down his red, blistered cheeks. Andy stepped up beside him and laid his hand on his shoulder, giving a gentle squeeze. And the two of them stood there for a time, one needing comfort and the other trying to give it.
Using his bandaged hands, Billy scrubbed the tears from his burned face. “I could see my Tom just laying there with a book open on her chest and a smile on her face. And the bed was burning, God above, the whole room was burning around her! The fire was so bad I couldn’t get to her, Andy. I kept trying and trying and kept getting burned. If Josh Barns would’ve just let me be, maybe I could’ve got her out.”
“No way you could’ve got to her, Billy. And you would most likely be dead too if Josh hadn’t been driving home and seen the fire.”
“But she burned up!” Billy wailed. “My Tom burned up! Oh, God…”
“From the sounds of it, she’d passed on from the smoke before the fire touched her,” Andy said. “I hear-tell that’s a peaceful way to go, Billy. She didn’t hurt none.” Andy hoped he was right, hoped Billy’s girl never felt them flames. But he seriously doubted it.
“I see her, you know, when I’m dreaming,” Billy said. “And Andy, she’s this great big bird, all red and yellow and fire. And that there bird, my Tom, has the biggest grin stretching her face that you’d ever wanna see.”
“Now see there, wherever your gal is, that dream is telling you she’s happy, in a better place.”
Billy’s wet, red eyes met the sheriff’s. “Think so, Andy?”
“I know so.” Whatever makes him happy. “I surely do.”
Billy turned his eyes skyward, a small smile playing across his lips. Again, he swiped at the tears tracking his face. “You be a good gal now, Tom, and do what God tells you. And don’t go running off nowhere. Wait for me…I’ll be seeing you directly.”
Sheriff Andy Jones heaved a sigh of relief, squeezed Billy’s shoulder again. “That you will, Billy…yes, indeedy.” No need to relate that the fire marshal had said he thought the girl had deliberately set the fire, that there was evidence coal oil had been poured on the floor around the bed. No need to tell a father his daughter had built her own funeral pyre. No need at all.
©2021 KT Workman
(Note: When I was in the 10th grade, there was a girl in my French class who Thomasina Tull is loosely based on. This girl looked like I described Thomasina, but her life is pure fiction drawn from my imagination. She was smart as a whip, made straight A’s, but was unable to look anyone in the eyes, let alone speak to them. Lord, I felt sorry for that girl. I tried a few times to draw her out but had no success. Down through the years, I have thought of her from time to time, and wondered how her life turned out. I wish I had tried harder to be her friend. She so needed one…)