Drawing Miss Hiller

The old bag will never get caught. She knows it, too. My teacher, Miss Hiller, did it, and she pulled it off as slick as snot. You can see the sly look on her face, now that she’s turned away from the blackboard. The corners of her mouth are starting to twitch. She knows she got away with it and is trying not to smile.

I’m not copying the vocabulary words Miss Hiller squeaked out with her stub of white chalk. Instead, using my crayons, I’m drawing a picture of her inside the back cover of my phonics workbook. I’m going to name it “Hag-face Hiller, the Fourth-Grade Killer.”

So far, it looks just like her: whiskers, wrinkles, and big weenie nose. It wiggles when she screams, “Imbecile!” at me or some other kid, in her mean witch’s voice. She likes to whack us all too, especially us girls.

I drew her glasses. I’m trying to draw her eyes, but I can’t get them right. There, that’ll do: circles with booger-green blobs in the middle and red squiggles all around for blood veins.

Miss Hiller is ripping a page off the calendar. It hangs on the wall, under the clock. September’s ripe apples have had it. Now the calendar shows dry cornstalks and tipped-over baskets of pumpkins, and says it’s Friday, October first, 1954.

The clock has a wasp crawling on it, and says the lunch bell will ring in three hours and twenty-nine minutes. Recess comes first, but lunchtime lasts longer.

Outside, the sky’s pure turquoise and reminds me of Roy Rogers movies. A wriggle of wind is ruffling the lawn. It’s so green it looks like the fake funeral-grass they use at the graveyard.

Here in Room Six, the windows are shut. Though it's still morning, the sun pounds on the glass. The heat and the moldy b.o. of our hand-me-down textbooks make me pray some kid playing hooky will chuck a rock through a window and let in the breeze.

My best friend, Ruthie Jarvis, did just that, on a day just like this.

A week ago last Tuesday, Ruthie and I were munching cherry cough drops and playing hopscotch on the playground at morning recess. It was Ruthie’s turn to hop. She scooped up her puck, a lump of granite as big as her fist, then lobbed it into square three and lifted one skinny leg, getting ready to spring.

She sighed a big sigh. Then the screwball bent over, snatched up her puck, and winding her arm, pitched it straight at the windows of our classroom.

Ruthie grabbed hold of her sand-colored pigtails and squeezed her eyes shut as a windowpane shattered. It was one of the small windows at the bottom that crank open.

“Cripes!” I hollered out in a whisper. “What’d you do that for?”

Grinning at me, Ruthie shoved her hands into the hip pockets of her boys’ dungarees. “There,” she said. “Now we can breathe.”

The other kids on the playground had quit swinging and sliding and banging the seesaws. Eyes popping, they all stood staring at Ruthie.

“So, what are you gawking at?” I yelled at them. “It was an accident!”

Ruthie flipped a cough drop into the air and caught it in her mouth. “Nice try, Patty Pie,” she said with a crunch. “But hey, I’m a crack shot. They know I broke it on purpose.”

“Quit bragging, you dumbhead. You shouldn’t have done it.”

“Look, Pat, it was so hot in there we were ready to croak, and the old lizard knew it. But would she open a window? Ixnay.”

“Ditch the pig Latin. This is no big, funny joke. The window. What if somebody tattles?”

“No one will have to. I’ll tell on myself.”

I knew she would, too. The first Friday of school, afraid some other kid would get blamed, Ruthie owned up to heisting the frog from the garter snake’s jar the Wednesday before.

The jar stood on the floor, by the globe. Around two p.m., when Miss Hiller was in the restroom, Ruthie copped the frog and stuck him down her undershirt. After school, she let him go in the pond at Bunny Keefe Park.

On Thursday when the last bell rang, Miss Hiller still hadn’t seen he was gone. If she had, she’d have screeched, “Who purloined the Rana pipiens?” Or she’d have raved on about how thin the snake still was. Yep, if Ruthie hadn’t nabbed the frog, soon the poor squirt would have looked like a knot on a rope.

When the bell shut off and we kids were set free, Ruthie swiped the snake on her way out the door and turned him loose in a ditch. She admitted that, too, at the very same time. Holy cow, did she get clobbered!

Then Miss Hiller started blaming her for everything. If a toilet plugged up, Ruthie had flushed something bad down it. If a kid was whispering in class, it was Ruthie. On top of that, she got accused of snitching homework on account of being jealous. Why, when Leonard Trout’s beagle, Fritz, ate Leonard’s book report, Ruthie–yep, Ruthie--caught the rap.

I gagged on my cough drop. It had started to taste like vomited Jello. “Jeez, Ruthie,” I muttered, fixing my gaze on the windowless window.

Ruthie shrugged. She was trying not to show it, but I could tell that she was scared.

Some third-grade boy yelled, “Man, oh, man, are you going to get it!”

Ruthie threw back her head and pretended to laugh. “So, what else is new?” she yelled back.

After recess, all of us “imbeciles” shuffled into the classroom and plopped down at our desks. A breeze wearing grass perfume had snuck in through where the window had been. It was rattling the calendar and jiggling the apples on the month of September.

Miss Hiller stood by the flag, arms crossed, ruler in hand. “The vandal will rise!” she commanded, scowling at Ruthie and tapping her foot.

We “imbeciles” stared down at our desks.

“I’m waiting, class.”

Ruthie’s desk is right in front of mine. I could see her start to squirm. Then she stood up.

My pencils clattered to the floor as I stood up too. So did Leonard Trout, whose dog ate his homework. His desk is by mine.

Probably on account of the racket, Ruthie looked over her shoulder. Then, her mouth hanging open, she gaped at us in surprise.

“Well, I never!” squawked Miss Hiller. She glared at Leonard and me, wrapping us up with her eyes, like a spider cocooning a fly. Then she stomped to her desk and sat down. “Get out your science books,” she snapped.

All three of us plunked our butts down and did.

“Miss Strausser,” she hissed. I hate it when she calls me that. “Miss Strausser, since you enjoy standing, stand and define the word, ‘lever.’”

I stood up and cleared my throat. “A lever is a board...a thing...a...” I scratched my head and squinted.

“Imbecile!” Miss Hiller snorted. “Sit!” I did. Then she called on poor Leonard.

I gulped for Leonard and stared out at the lawn. Soon I spied Mr. Carr, the janitor, on it, toting a pane of glass. In no time at all, he put in a new window. I felt like konking his head with a lever.

The lunch bell rang. Miss Hiller dismissed us all except for Ruthie. As the other kids brushed past me, I stood looking through the classroom doorway, gripping my lunch pail and chewing my lip.

Miss Hiller, her face squinched up and her jaw sticking out like a bulldog’s, was shaking her junky old finger at Ruthie. Ruthie, eyes shut, shoulders hunched, was sitting all squashed down in her desk.

“I’ve reached the brink of my endurance, you hoodlum!” Miss Hiller grabbed Ruthie’s arm and yanked her to her feet.

Ruthie let out a gasp as Miss Hiller brought back her hand to slap her.

“No!” I heard myself shout. I rushed into the classroom, my lunch pail clanking against the desks. “You’re always hitting her! Leave her alone!”

Dropping her hand, Miss Hiller whisked toward me. With a jerk she spun me around, and, twisting my ear, marched me out the door and down the hallway, to the exit.

“Insolent brat!” She pushed open the big metal door and shoved me outside. “Misfits, the pair of you! Oh, yes, you’re birds of a feather, all right!”

As the door inched shut behind me, I heard the clacking of her heels on the tile floor as she hurried down the hallway. With I-hope-you-drop-dead tears burning holes in my cheeks, I turned around and watched Miss Hiller tromp into Room Six.

Sniffling, I wiped my face and trudged to the swings to wait for Ruthie. My ear felt hot. It throbbed when I touched it, thanks to Miss Hiller. My eyeballs sizzled. My stomach spit in my throat like a mustard volcano.

I set my lunch pail on Ruthie’s favorite swing to save that one for her and sat beside it, on the one I like best. I looked around the playground. All the other eat-at-school kids were chowing their lunches and playing Red Rover. I was too mad to eat or play games.

The ropes creaked as I launched my swing forward. Reaching down, I swooped up a chunk of concrete that had broken from one of the slabs that hold the swing poles. With the chunk clenched in my hand, I swung back and forth and glared at Miss Hiller’s new window. The swing’s creaking was now a voice squealing, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

By now, I was boiling inside, but I threw the chunk down. Then I jumped off the swing and ran across the grass to the school. Stretching out on my tiptoes, I cupped my hands on a window and looked into Room Six.

Gripping her shoulders, Miss Hiller was shaking the tar out of Ruthie. Her head was snapping back and forth so hard that her bows had popped off and her hair shot out, flying. Her eyes were pinched shut and her face was all scrunched. I could hear her screaming.

I froze. I wanted to bang on the window and shout, “Let her go!” but I couldn’t move, couldn’t shout.  Skin crawling, all I could do was stand there.

Suddenly Miss Hiller let go of Ruthie’s shoulders. Ruthie wasn’t screaming anymore. Her eyes were open. Her face looked calm. I knew there was something wrong. I could tell Miss Hiller knew, too.

Glancing this way and that, she scurried to the cloakroom, then scurried back, clutching Ruthie’s lunch pail. She jammed it into Ruthie’s palm and wrapped her fingers around the handle. Then, with her hand on Ruthie’s back, she hustled her out the classroom door.

I raced to the exit. When I got there, Ruthie was standing in the dirt just outside the door. Her lunch pail hung open and her food had spilled on the ground.

“You okay?” I asked softly.

Ruthie didn’t answer. She stared straight ahead. I noticed blood was trickling out her nostrils.

I grabbed a wad of tissues from my shirt pocket and held them out to her. “Here, kiddo. Kleenex.” I was trying not to sound scared. “Your nose is bleeding a little.”

She didn’t take the tissues. I dabbed her nose with one, gave it a toss, and tucked the rest into the waistband of her dungarees. Ruthie looked past me, her eyes out of whack, like that movie star dead guy’s who the giant ants got in Them.

“Your lunch fell out.” My heart in my shoes, I squatted and picked up her Velveeta cheese sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. Her fig bars weren’t wrapped. I left them in the dirt. Her apple looked clean. I dumped it and her sandwich into her lunch pail and clamped the halves shut. “I–I left my lunch on your swing,” I said, pointing across the grass.

“Swing,” Ruthie murmured, half whispering.

Surprised to hear her talk, I looked up at her. Why, her nose had even quit bleeding! I grinned. “You want to swing? Well, then, holy smokes, let’s scram, before the bell goes off!” I jumped to my feet.

“Swing.” Without blinking once, Ruthie looked right into the sun.

That gave me the willies. I knew now she wasn’t okay. My throat got tight and I had to swallow hard to keep from bawling. “Maybe you need to lie down,” I said, my voice cracking.

But she’d started to limp toward the swings. I hurried up and went with her. She stumbled twice. I caught her both times and she didn’t fall.

Without taking my eyes off Ruthie, I set my lunch pail on the ground and helped her sit down on her swing. I took her pail and laid it next to mine, then put her hands on the ropes and sat down on my swing, beside her. “Feel better?” I backed up slowly. Not a speck of me wanted to launch.

Ruthie didn’t peep, didn’t move.

I slid down from my swing. Kneeling, I held onto her ropes to keep her swing steady and looked up at those round, zombie eyes. “Ruthie?” Blood was starting to ooze from her ears.

Her hands flopped down and she crumpled forward. Quickly I flung out my arms and tried to catch her as she toppled over.

Ruthie wasn’t breathing when the ambulance came. Later, as I stood by her, crying, Dr. Shay got up from beside her and took hold of my hand. He said, “Ruthie hurt her neck when she fell off the swing. That’s how it happened. That’s how she died.”

Oh, sure.

That night, I told Mom and Dad the truth, that Ruthie was murdered. I told them who did it. Then I said, sobbing, “I’ll bet that last year she killed Bunny Keefe!” Before they could stop me, I hightailed it out the door and ran down the street to the jail and told the cops on Miss Hiller. But even they wouldn’t listen.

My crayons keep breaking. How can I finish drawing Miss Hiller when my crayons keep breaking? I hate them. I’d like to smash them. What good are they? What good is anything? Ruthie is gone. The only bird of my feather, Ruthie, is gone.

Day comes, it goes. The Earth twirls on, with my best friend inside it, four rows from dead Bunny Keefe. Life comes, it goes.

It hurts.

And the old bag will never get caught. Never. Never. Never.



Eleanor DeHaai

Eleanor DeHaai was born in India but has lived most of her life in Nebraska. Set in India and elsewhere, the handful of stories she has written range from the humorous to the intense. "Drawing Miss Hiller," while fictional, would not be among the handful had she skipped the fourth grade.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, May 27, 2024 - 21:26