The first I knew about it was when Harry Arkus stopped me in the hall.
“Hey, Bess! Guess who has a crush on you? Alvin Oily.”
“No, it’s funny. He cornered me after math class and started babbling about how beautiful you are. I still have grease marks on my shirt sleeve.” He raised a blue denim arm and blew imaginary oil off it. “Hey, you know what Alvin Oily’s favorite juice is? Pimple juice.”
I tried to walk away, but Harry grabbed me by my ponytail and pulled me back again.
“Don’t you want to hear what he said?”
“No! Let me go! I’ll be late for English.”
“You’re such a good girl, Bessie.” Harry flashed a crooked grin at me. “Maybe that’s what Alvin loves about you.”
“Did he say so?” I bit my lip. I’d fallen right into Harry’s trap. “You know, you’d be an attractive boy if you weren’t so obnoxious.”
“Aw, Bess, can’t you take a bit of teasing? C’mere, let me tell you this one thing, then you can go to class.”
He put his lips close to my ear. I might have enjoyed the experience in other circumstances, say, the prom. Harry had been a favorite when we’d all played spin the bottle a few years back. If the bottle came to rest pointing at Alvin, someone would give it another little nudge. His acne hadn’t been so bad before high school, but even then, the girls would rather have kissed the proverbial frog.
“You can’t marry Alvin,” Harry whispered. His warm breath tickled my ear. “His parents voted for Eisenhower.”
That was the beginning. Over the next few weeks, every time someone came up to me with a big grin his face, he was going to tell me something Alvin had said about me. The girls were almost as bad as the boys. None of them would have wanted to be paired with Alvin Oily. But even my closest friends thought it was funny that he had a crush on me.
“It’s embarrassing,” I told my best friend Lynn one day, as we ate our lunch in the school cafeteria. “It’s bad enough he buttonholes them and harangues them about me. But it’s been going on so long people are beginning to think I must like him.”
“You’re making too much of it, Bessie,” Lynn said. She took a big bite of her tuna fish sandwich. “If you laugh it off, they’ll get tired of teasing you.”
“You don’t know how mortifying it is. It’s not just Harry and the other kids we’ve known since kindergarten. Six total strangers came up to me yesterday to complain that he’s been bothering them, ranting on and on about how I’m the most brilliant, beautiful girl in the school and nobody appreciates me except him. They wanted me to get him to stop.”
“So tell him to stop it.” Lynn licked tuna off her fingers and took a big bite of her apple. “If he’s so crazy about you, he should want to do anything you ask.”
“Lynn! I thought you were on my side.”
“I am. I think you’re making too big of a deal of it. Has he asked you out yet?”
“No! I try to make sure he never gets close enough to talk to me. If he’s this bad without any encouragement, think what might happen if I gave him the slightest reason to think I like him.”
“What’s so bad about Alvin, anyway?” Lynn had an annoying habit of playing devil’s advocate, honed on the school debating team. “He’s smart. He gets good grades. And he won’t always have acne. He’s a Republican, so that’s a minus. But maybe he’ll become a doctor.” She snickered. “You could do worse.”
“Et tu, Brute?” We were reading Julius Caesar in English. Right now I could have used a bunch of buddies with knives.
“Are you going to eat that oatmeal cookie?” Lynn asked.
“Take it,” I said.
I glanced over at the boys’ side of the cafeteria. I had started trying to keep track of where Alvin was at any given moment, the better to avoid him. At lunch, he was easy to spot, because he always ate alone. The boys didn’t like him any more than the girls did.
There he was, hunched over his tray of tomato soup and chow mein, today’s special for the kids who didn’t bring their lunch from home. Alvin’s parents had more money than most. His real name wasn’t Alvin Oily, of course, or even Alvin Ailey. He was the Scharfs’ only child, and rumor had it that they doted on him in an overprotective way. They wouldn’t let him ride a bike or go out for team sports, not that anyone would want him on their team.
Oh, no! He looked up. Before I could turn away, he caught my eye. I turned beet red and turned my back on him, standing so abruptly I knocked over my chair with a clatter that raised heads all over the cafeteria, like prairie dogs popping up out of their holes.
“Come on!” I snapped at Lynn. “Let’s get out of here!”
“What’s the rush?” Lynn brushed cookie crumbs off her chest, which was developing more rapidly than mine.
Maybe Alvin was my punishment for wanting a figure that would attract male attention. Be careful what you wish for!
“Just come!” I linked my arm through hers and practically dragged her out the door.
“Hey, you wanna go for a soda after school?”
“No!” I was still annoyed with her for not getting it. But it wasn’t her fault Alvin was a jerk. Maybe Lynn was right, and I should tell him to stop bothering me. “I’m going to run. Want to come?” I always asked, and she always said no, which was just the way I liked it.
That afternoon, when I went to my usual seat in history class, a sealed envelope with my name on it lay on my desk. I ripped it open and scanned the writing scribbled on a sheet of blue-lined paper ripped from a spiral notebook.
Dear, beautiful Elizabeth,
When your eyes met mine in the lunchroom today, I knew for sure what I only hoped before, that we are destined for each other. I saw my soul mirrored in your eyes, and I know your soul was mirrored in mine. I am so happy to have made this connection with you, my soul mate. I long to share more of my deepest self with you, and I’m sure you feel the same. I already understand you so well. People think that you’re stuck up and aloof, but I know that you’re only shy. When you feel sad and lonely, remember that I am yours and you are mine.
Your devoted admirer,
I was right the first time. I should never have let him catch my eye. I made sure it didn’t happen again during class or when the crowd of kids surged out the main door of the school at the end of the day. I held my head high and looked straight ahead. Stuck up and aloof, huh? I couldn’t help wondering if that’s what everyone really thought. I’d never heard it before. No, I didn’t believe it. Alvin was just trying to separate me from my friends and establish himself as my only champion. I was furious.
To make matters worse, as I turned in the opposite direction from the gang who were going to the soda shop, Lynn called out after me.
“Enjoy your run!” I didn’t want to look around to see if Alvin was within earshot. But I sure didn’t want him to follow me. That would spoil everything.
My family lived near the edge of town. A swathe of new suburbs surrounded it, but beyond that lay a broad expanse of farmland and stretches of unspoiled woodland. When I wanted to be alone, I headed for the woods. When I ran, my everyday existence fell away. The ribbon of track unrolling beneath my flying feet, the rush of wind in my ears as the trees flashed past, the scent of fern and humus and musty pine needles became my whole world.
“You can’t outrun your feelings, Bessie,” my father would say when I hurried in late for supper with flushed cheeks, ruffled hair, and a faraway light in my eyes.
“I don’t want you wandering in the woods alone,” my mother would say. “Some day you’ll meet trouble that you can’t outrun.”
“It’s okay, Daddy,” I would say, turning away to hide my secret smile. “Don’t worry, Ma. You don’t know how fast I can run.”
“Don’t boast, Bessie,” my father would say in that disappointed-in-you voice that made me feel worse than any scolding. “Why don’t you join the track team?”
“I like to run by myself, Daddy. I don’t want to go around and around a track. It would drive me crazy.”
“Oh, Bessie, you’re still such a child.” My mother would sigh and slip an extra lamb chop onto my plate. “You think you’re invincible.”
Ma was right, in a way. I had a good reason not to fear physical danger. And I had always been able to conquer any challenge, whether it was trigonometry or another girl’s catty remark or a teacher who didn’t like me. But I couldn’t make Alvin go away. The morning after that first letter, I found another one on my desk in homeroom. I almost threw it away unopened. But that would be like turning my back on an enemy. I needed to know what he was up to. I opened the envelope under my desk as Mr. Benny took attendance.
My beautiful Elizabeth,
I knew that we were soul mates. I didn’t know you ran. Did you know that I’m a runner too? From now on, I think I’ll call you Diana. I picture you as Diana the huntress, a fleet-footed goddess who hunts as she runs through the forest. And you can call me Colin. Colin is the boy in a story called “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” You have to read it. Then you’ll understand what running means to me. Some day we’ll run together, and we won’t be lonely any more. I dream of you and your creamy, muscular thighs flashing as you run.
Your beloved Colin, aka Alvin
I crumpled the letter and shook it off the tips of my fingers as if it were covered with slime. I couldn’t stand the thought of Alvin thinking about my thighs. He must be watching me in gym class. Maybe I could get myself transferred to another class. But he’d probably find a way to lurk and watch me anyway.
The letters kept coming. After a while, I stopped opening them. But by that time, I could imagine what was in them, so it didn’t help much. I didn’t throw them away. I hid them in the bottom of my closet, behind my shoes. Maybe some day I’d need them to prove that he was crazy. I wished they would lock him up. Then he’d have to leave me alone. But what crime had he committed? When I told my mother that a boy I didn’t like was writing to me, she said I’d better get used to boys admiring me. She said I was lucky that I was so pretty, and some girls would give their eyeteeth to get letters from a boy.
“He’s obsessed with you,” Lynn said.
Her father was a psychologist, and when I slept over at her house, we would sneak one of his psychology books and read it aloud to each other, giggling, under the covers with a flashlight after her mother had ordered us to pipe down and go to sleep. We even read a marriage manual that way. I wasn’t giggling now, though.
“There’s got to be something in your dad’s books about the way Alvin is acting,” I said.
“I already looked,” Lynn said. “I think it’s an obsession or a delusion, but there’s nothing about the way he keeps following you around.”
“It’s the 1950s, for heaven’s sake,” I said, “not the Middle Ages. You’d think they’d have a name for it.”
“Maybe he’ll have a nervous breakdown,” Lynn said. “Then they’d have to put him someplace he can’t bother you. In the meantime, you have to make sure you don’t encourage him.”
“I’m not encouraging him!”
“I know, I know. But it doesn’t take much to set him off. You have to avoid him. Sit far away from him in school. Don’t let him catch your eye.”
“I hate this!”
I did stay far away from him, and for a while, he left me alone. But I had to think about him to make sure I didn’t give him the slightest reason to believe we had a relationship. I wanted him out of my head and out of my life. It poisoned what should have been a wonderful time in my life. I got accepted to my first choice college, Smith, and my parents said I could go. I hadn’t dared apply to any coed schools, for fear Alvin might follow me there. He was a good student, and he got accepted to Harvard, which was paired with a girls’ college. Needless to say, I hadn’t applied to Radcliffe. Harry Arkus asked me to the prom, but so did two other boys. I decided to go with a boy named Tim Schneider, who had never teased me about Alvin. The senior class play was a condensed version of Romeo and Juliet. I got the part of the Nurse, which was a lot more fun than Juliet. I didn’t even try out for Juliet, because I was afraid Alvin would decide that he was Romeo. He didn’t try out for the play. I heard his parents didn’t let him.
While he didn’t bother me directly, Alvin’s obsession with me was still escalating. He would corner not only other kids but also my teachers. When they asked me to talk to them after class, my heart sank. I never broke rules or failed to turn in my homework on time, so I knew it had to be about Alvin, and it always was. Like the kids, they thought it was funny. I could tell, even while they called it “inappropriate” and suggested I get him to stop.
I finally broke down in tears in front of Mr. Benny, my homeroom teacher, who taught history and was my favorite teacher.
“Can’t you do something?” I asked. “Tell the principal? Talk to his parents? I’ve tried everything.”
Mr. Benny patted my shoulder and handed me a tissue. He shook his head.
“The school can’t do anything,” he said, “as long as a student is doing well in his studies and not a behavior problem.”
“He is a behavior problem!” I said.
“Not from the school’s perspective,” he said. “He hasn’t committed any crimes or broken any school rules. I’m sorry, Bess. I suggest you get your parents to talk to his parents.”
I was ready to scream with frustration. Instead, I thanked Mr. Benny and went out in the woods to run as soon as school let out. I no longer told anyone, even Lynn, when I went running. I made sure I knew when Alvin ran. He probably hoped to cross my trail, but he would never see me if I didn’t want him to.
It was Mr. Benny’s fault that the letters started up again. He didn’t do it on purpose. I got to history class late one day and sat down in the one remaining seat, which was right in front of Alvin. Mr. Benny was giving out corrected quizzes. When I arrived, he had already handed the papers to the students in the front of each row to pass back. I took my paper and glanced at my grade, a 96. That meant I’d gotten one question wrong. I looked down the page to see what I’d missed.
“Bess, pass the papers back to Alvin,” Mr. Benny said.
I stuck my hand out stiffly, passing the papers behind me without turning around. But the damage was done. To Alvin, Mr. Benny had confirmed we had a relationship. When I walked into English, my next class, a small printed clipping was taped to the desk at my usual place.
There is a lady sweet and kind
Was never face so pleased my mind
I did but see her passing by
And yet I love her till I die.
I wanted to run out of the room. I wanted to take a baseball bat and pound Alvin into a pulp. I wanted to rip his throat out. But I couldn’t do any of those things, especially not in school. I slapped my big loose-leaf binder down on top of the poem. I would try Mr. Benny’s solution. I’d tell my parents.
I waited till after dinner, when we would sit around the table with a cup of coffee and talk about our day or something interesting we’d read or heard on the radio. At first, they didn’t understand.
“Are you sure you don’t like this boy, Bessie?” Ma asked. “You’re at a very sensitive age right now, and adolescent boys can be clumsy in how they express their feelings.”
“Now, now, Minnie,” Daddy said. “Still waters run deep. Remember?”
They exchanged a reminiscent glance and smile. They had been high school sweethearts, and the way they looked at each other had been how I’d always hoped first love would come to me. Now I realized that I’d expected it to happen that way. Alvin had spoiled it for me. I hated him.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “He’s disgusting. He follows me everywhere. He’ll go up to a teacher or even the principal and say the most awful, embarrassing things about me. Everyone’s laughing at me. Everywhere I go, I’m afraid he’ll be lurking. I have to keep looking over my shoulder. I’m hardly sleeping, because I’m scared he’ll push his way into my dreams. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. It’s ruining everything.”
“Bessie,” Daddy said, “are you sure you’re not giving him any encouragement? Girls like to flirt, and sometimes a boy can get the wrong idea.”
“I’m not flirting!” I shouted. “I spend every moment trying to get away from him. I’m telling you, nothing works. You’ve got to believe me!”
Ma put her arm around me.
“I believe you,” she said. “Try to calm down, sweetheart. How bad can it be?”
I burst into tears.
“Would you like us to talk to his parents?” Daddy asked.
“Please, Dad,” I said. “Tell them they’ve got to make him stop.”
“We’d better hear exactly what he’s done,” Ma said. “Parents don’t like to hear anything bad about their kids.”
“I’ll show you his letters,” I said.
After they read the letters, they finally got it how crazy Alvin was and that I hadn’t done anything to provoke him. But they couldn’t convince the Scharfs, who got very huffy and wouldn’t listen to a word against him. They wouldn’t even read the letters. When Daddy said that if they couldn’t control their son’s behavior, he and Ma would have to take it to the principal, they threatened to sue us all for slander if we did any such thing. Daddy called the school anyway, but they refused to do anything, saying that it wasn’t their job to interfere in spats between a boy and a girl. It was only puppy love, it would soon blow over, and in the meantime, my parents should tell me to take it as a compliment. Like Alvin’s parents, they pointed out that Alvin had been accepted by Harvard. They said it was their duty not to jeopardize a smart boy’s future.
“What about my future?” I cried when Ma told me. “If I have a nervous breakdown, I won’t even get to college.”
Ma stroked my hair.
“I know it’s not fair, Bessie,” she said. “But we’ve done all we can. I’m afraid you’ll have to handle it yourself. It’s only till June, then it’ll all be over.”
I couldn’t wait till June. I stopped fuming about the fact that nobody would listen. I could even see how they might think it was funny as long as it was happening to somebody else. What Alvin was doing wasn’t a crime. But that didn’t mean I had to endure a hundred more days of torture without doing something about it.
I thought of inviting Alvin to go running with me. That would have shocked him out of his skull. But it would be hard to do it without somebody overhearing, which meant that soon everybody would know. Anyhow, it was practically guaranteed that Alvin would tell anyone he could latch onto that my heart was softening toward him. By the time he finished spinning his lies, the whole school would have us picking out baby names together. So instead, I just made sure he was within earshot when I told Lynn I was going to run in the woods after school and asked if she wanted to come with me. Of course, she said no, the way she always did. There were some other kids around, but they were used to Alvin lurking in my general vicinity and me ignoring him. I made sure they didn’t actually hear me say anything about the run, just in case. If asked, Lynn would swear on a stack of Bibles that I would never meet Alvin in the woods or run with him, because I loathed him. But if things worked out the way I hoped, it wouldn’t come up at all.
Spring was just beginning in the woods. The trees that leafed early were in bud or showing puffs of green. Birds fussed and twittered as they built their nests. Chittering squirrels set a good pace up and down the trunks of trees as they chased each other and tried to remember where they’d hidden last fall’s nuts. Fiddleheads were beginning to uncurl, pushing up from the dank earth. As my sneakers pounded over the leaf mold underfoot, my nostrils caught the faint tang of decaying vegetation and an acrid hint of musk, probably a fox. I could have known for sure, but I wasn’t ready. I ran straight ahead between the trees to a point where they opened out into a little clearing with several trails branching off it. I didn’t want to risk missing Alvin when he came along. I flopped onto the ground under a giant oak, its branches still bare. Sitting with my back against the far side of its massive trunk, I was hidden. He wouldn’t see me, but I would hear him coming.
I only had to wait ten minutes before he came lumbering along, already breathing hard. I knew from his letters that in his mind, he was practically an Olympic distance runner. Even if he had been, it wouldn’t have mattered. I gave him a twenty-minute head start so I’d get a chance to stretch my legs before I caught him. Then I stood up, kicked off my sneakers, held out my arms, and summoned up the change. It started at my feet, the golden fur starred with dark spots rippling up my legs as my fingers and toes stretched out into claws. I could feel my haunch muscles bulging with power and my tail lengthening. I lashed it back and forth a few times simply because I could. I no longer looked at mirrors in this state, but I knew my golden eyes were wild and my fangs shimmering with menace. I was cheetah.
I raised my neat round head and sniffed. I could smell him on the wind, raging hormones and tangled mind, sweat and sebum and yearning. Now I could distinguish the other animals I scented clearly: a doe with two fawns on the right, a fox on the left trotting toward his vixen’s den, voles and mice and rabbits scurrying about their business. They were not my prey today. I flicked my tail once more and bounded after Alvin.
Running in this form was always joyful. Past and future dropped away along with human anxieties and fears. Man is the only predator that hunts in anger, and it was hard to remember mine. I had imagined taking him as he ran, and if I had come upon him running, I would probably have let him go. But he had stopped. He was carving his name on the trunk of another great oak with a penknife, so absorbed in the task that I could have come up behind him, deliberately scuffling through the leaves, without his noticing. I could hear the great tree moaning as he cut into it. I don’t know if natural cheetahs can hear the trees, although their hearing is keen. Shifters can.
I still might have let him go. But as I watched, he finished “Alvin,” dug his knife deeper into the bark to carve a wavering heart around it, and continued cutting. Under his name but farther left, he began to carve an “E.” He was going to write “Elizabeth.” I couldn’t let him do it. He hadn’t completed the first letter when I sprang, sinking my teeth into the back of his neck.
Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series and the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a variety of anthologies including Sisters in Crime New York’s Murder New York Style series, and Mysterical-E among other e-zines. Liz’s work has been nominated three times for the Agatha Award and for the Derringer Award for Best Short Story. A standalone story, “A Breach of Trust,” was listed among 50 top stories in Best American Mystery Stories 2014.