Grace always wore a hat to school.
Even in 90°F weather, she had that knitted, black beanie pulled down to her eyes. Rain or shine, hot or cold — always the hat.
It wasn’t long before the rumors started. Since she was new, the rumors were especially cruel. “I bet she’s bald,” Marie said, watching Grace sit alone at the lunch table.
“No, I’ve seen some blonde hair poke out,” I said. “She’s not blonde.”
“Maybe it’s a style thing. Like goth or something,” Marie replied.
“Hey. Don’t bring us into this,” Cara shouted from the end of the table, twirling a lock of dyed-black hair.
“Maybe her head just gets really cold. She could have a medical condition –”
“No. I’ve got it.” Lara, the nerd of our little group, leaned forward. Her brown eyes gleamed with excitement behind her glasses. “It’s a psychological experiment. This is exactly what she wants us to do. Focus on it, form theories about it, obsess over it. It’s brilliant, actually. I bet she got Mr. Hernandez to sign off on it.” Her fist slammed into the table. “Dammit, she’s totally going to get an A in psych –”
“Stop it,” Marie said, rolling her eyes. “Not everyone is obsessed with grades like you.”
After lunch was Algebra 2. It went terribly, as usual, and I made a fool out of myself when Mr. Giordano called on me. I walked back to my locker in a foul mood, when I heard a voice call out behind me.
It was Grace.
I’d never really seen her up close before. She was pretty, in a delicate sort of way; pale skin, pale blue eyes, tufts of blonde hair sticking out from underneath her hat. She wore lipstick, but no other makeup – a refreshing look, compared to the rest of the girls at school.
“I saw you get that question wrong,” she started. “Sine is opposite over hypotenuse –”
“So?” I asked, bristling.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean – I just wanted to help.” She passed me a piece of paper. “This mnemonic helped me a lot. I thought it might help you with the test.”
She gave me a small smile and walked away.
I watched as she disappeared down the hallway, and felt a pang of dread. Something about the shape of her head looked… wrong, somehow. The contours, and the shadows they created looked out of place.
That’s when I realized the truth.
She wears the hat because she has some sort of deformity. And here we are — laughing at her, mocking her. She must feel awful.
I felt rotten inside.
After that, I never talked about Grace at the lunch table. She was a nice person. Not only did she help me, but she also ignored the derisive laughs, the pointed fingers, when any other teenager would have fired right back.
We should have looked up to her, not made fun of her.
Days, then weeks, went by. Every day, Grace wore that black beanie on her head. But each time, it grew a little less shocking, a little more normal. The others slowly got used to it. We didn’t talk about it anymore. Things were getting back to normal.
Then it all went to shit when we got the substitute teacher.
“I’m Mrs. Chang.” The chalk scraped against the board as she wrote her name in fine cursive. “I’m your substitute teacher for U.S. History. We’ll be starting with World War II, so please open your textbooks to page 264.” She turned around and faced the class.
Her eyes fell on Grace.
“No hats in class,” she said.
Grace’s eyes widened. She went pale. The rest of the class broke into hushed whispers. All the other teachers had just grown used to it. Or were sympathetic to the fact she was the new kid, and let it slide.
Not Mrs. Chang. “Well, what are you waiting for? Take it off,” she said, with an annoyed chuckle. “Now.”
“I can’t,” Grace replied, in a small voice.
My heart pounded in my chest. Grace didn’t deserve this. Never.
“You can’t take off your hat, huh?” Mrs. Chang paced through the rows of desks until she was right in front of Grace. “Why not?”
Grace just shook her head in silence. Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to roll down her cheeks.
“This is awful,” I whispered to Marie.
“Yeah, it kind of is.”
“Mrs. Chang,” I started, stuttering, “Grace always wears that hat. Mrs. Suresh allows it, and I think –”
“Silence!” she snapped, glaring at me. She turned back to Grace. Taking her silence for defiance, not fear, she continued: “You’re being disrespectful, holding up the entire class. Now, please — take the hat off.”
Grace brought her eyes up to Mrs. Chang’s. “I can’t,” she said, again. Her voice quavered.
“You can’t? Or you won’t?”
Mrs. Chang became enraged. Her nostrils flared; her eyes grew wide. She reached forward. Grabbed the hat. Yanked.
It popped off.
For a moment, there was silence.
Then the room erupted into chaos. Screams. Vomit. Terror.
The back of Grace’s head was blown open. Jagged bits of skull gave way to blood, brains, darkness. A small, matching hole sat on her forehead, near her hairline.
She’d been shot in the head.
Mrs. Chang stood in front of her — pale, frozen, terrified. Grace got up, snatched the hat back from her. For a second, she locked eyes with Mrs. Chang. As if she was going to slap her. Attack her. The classroom collectively held its breath.
Then Grace ran out of the room, sobbing.
We never saw Grace after that day. She stopped coming to school. I still don’t fully understand what happened, and we don’t talk about it. We’re too scared to. No one can explain exactly what we saw within the walls of that history classroom.
Well, we didn’t talk about it, until senior year started a few weeks ago.
There’s a new kid in our class.
Who always wears a scarf.