In October, the life of Alexa Manzoukas was made more difficult by another student in her class at Vincent Arborio high school. The other student, Vanessa Pafnadopolis, took a photograph of herself, lips pursed; behind her in the photograph, a bichon frise pooped onto the sidewalk. Vanessa posted the photograph to Instagram, and tagged the fresh feces with Alexa’s Instagram handle.
Alexa was devastated.
The Instagram post was just one insult among many. Vanessa had previously led a group of girls in hammering at Alexa’s Twitter and Snapchat accounts, sending her awful messages and making inappropriate posts that caused distress among Alexa and her family circle. Vanessa had also told Deni Hawthorne, who made Alexa blush and smile, that Alexa had been intimate with carnival workers at the state fair the previous summer. These rumors fostered widespread alienation. The Instagram photo was just the drop that made the bucket overflow.
When Alexa did not unlock her bedroom door and go to school the next morning, no one noticed except for her great-grandmother, Sophronia. After everyone had left the house, Sophronia knocked on Alexa’s door. “Things at school are not so good, eh?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” said Alexa.
Grandmother Sophronia made a little clicking sound with her mouth. “Oh, honey,” she said, “I hear things. I know these assholes are so mean to you. It is not right.”
Alexa sighed. “At least it’s only two more years till I graduate, right?”
Sophronia sat down on Alexa’s bed and took her hand. “There is a thing that can be done for this,” she said.
“What do you mean, Geemaw?”
Sophronia sat in silence for a moment, and then spoke. “When I was a girl, your age, there was a boy. Ivan was his name.”
“Yes. You never knew him, but oh, he was so handsome when he was young. And there was a girl, Penelope. She hated me more than anything. She did not even like Ivan, but she pursued him to snatch him away. She stole him from me.”
“Okay,” said Alexa.
“And I was like you. I stay in the house, I do not go to school. I cry. So my grandmother came to me– your great-great-great-grandmother, Ianthe, who was a witch. And she sit with me, like I sit here with you. And she told me how to fix Penelope.”
“Yes. She taught me how to perform a spell. It worked for me. Maybe it works for you, maybe not. Couldn’t hurt, might make you feel better.”
“I guess… why not, right?”
“Okay. I will help you. Times are different now, so we have to do it different, maybe. The things we had then, we do not have now. The old gods are weak in this country. But we will make do.”
Sophronia and Alexa spent the day working. They gathered: an clay garden tile from Home Depot; Alexa’s father’s bronze-capped ballpoint pen; an onion; a rusty piece of iron; a few other small things. Then Alexa followed her grandmother’s directions.
At the end of the afternoon, Alexa examined the tile. On it, she had etched a frantic wild-eyed horse, mid-gallop, with a bell around its neck and VANESSA across its back. A word balloon coming from its mouth contained a simple scream, four capital letter As and an exclamation point: AAAA!
“Yes, this is good,” said Sophronia. “Now under it, write something like this: ‘Give her the heaving of the sea, total wakefulness, and give her punishments. O worldshaker, fortunate one, I call upon you, because I am she, Alexa. See me, in this ritual, O great one; Attend this magical operation which I am performing, because it is your great and honored personage that I am saying and writing.'”
“I don’t think I have that much room, Geemaw,” said Alexa.
“Okay,” said Sophronia, “What do I know? New century, new country. It’s your spell.”
Alexa thought about it for a few minutes, and then carved, below the horse and in all capital letters, SUFFER SLEEPLESS GUILT.
“That’s pretty good,” said Sophronia.
Finally, Alexa took a picture of the tile and posted it to Instagram. She tagged the horse with Vanessa’s handle.
Ten minutes later, Vanessa commented on the photo. After three emoji of a laughing woman, she wrote “freak. No wonder no 1 likes u.” Then three more laughing-woman emoji.
Despite the comment, Alexa felt better. She joined her family for dinner, and slept well for the first time all week. She woke up late the next morning– a Saturday morning– and actually had an appetite. She ate eggs, and bacon, and constructed a Lego castle with her younger brother, and spent a few hours alternating between video games and homework. She didn’t notice until early evening that there was a new comment on her Instagram post, left by Vanessa twelve hours prior: “fuck you [cow emoji].”
Alexa “liked” the comment. Then she and her family went to see a movie. The movie was pretty funny.
The next morning after church, Alexa’s mother made ebleskiver and her father made scrambled eggs with gyro meat inside. Everyone sat around the large table and ate, smiling and eating and talking, until there was a knock at the door. Alexa’s mother had started a new batch of ebleskiver, and was working at the oven. “Can you get that, honey?” she asked.
“Sure, mom,” said Alexa.
When she opened the door, two middle-aged people stood on their mat, a man and a woman. The man looked at Alexa and sighed. “You must be Alexa,” he said. “My name is Milo Pafnadopolis, and this is my wife Kristy. May we come in and speak to you?”
“Eek,” said Alexa. “Uh, okay, yeah, come on in.”
Alexa led Vanessa’s parents into the kitchen, where her mother had just finished the ebleskiver. Alexa’s siblings stared. “Uh, hello,” said Alexa’s mother. “I’m Kelly. What can I do for you?”
“Well, uh,” said the man, “Our daughters are in the same class. Ours is– her name is Vanessa, if you know her, Vanessa Pafnadopolis.”
“Oh,” said Alexa’s mother, pursing her lips and folding her arms across her chest. “I’m familiar with her, yes. I’ve seen her on Instagram.”
“Yes, well, that’s one of the things we… I mean, we’re here because…” the man trailed off.
“Our daughter confessed a lot of things to us this morning,” said Vanessa’s mom. “And she requested that we come over here and apologize. To you, Alexa. She’s… we didn’t know that she’d been treating you poorly, that she’d been bullying you.”
A small flame of pride and satisfaction bloomed in Alexa’s chest. “I appreciate that,” she said.
“Why didn’t she come herself?” asked Alexa’s mother.
Vanessa’s mom looked at her dad. “She’s not feeling well. She’s at the hospital right now, under observation. It’s been kind of a rough time for all of us since her brother got sick. She can’t sleep and she won’t eat. We didn’t want to come and bother you with this, but it’s all she talks about, and she made us promise. She wants you to know that she’s sorry.”
The bloom of pride and satisfaction died in Alexa’s chest. “Oh, no,” said Alexa. “Oh, jeez. Uh, tell her… tell her I hope she gets well soon, and I’ll be doing everything I can to help.”
After some handshaking and declined offers to share breakfast, the Pafnadopolis parents left. Alexa ran upstairs and brought the tile out from the top closet shelf. She hammered it into pieces, shattering all of the etched words and pictures, and then threw the pieces into the sewer drain in front of the house.
Vanessa came back to school on Thursday. There were dark rings under her eyes, and she was unusually skinny and quiet, but she quickly reintegrated and soon things were back to normal. She never bullied Alexa again, and her cadre steered clear as well.
Alexa still didn’t really fit in, and didn’t make any friends. She floated on the surface of the school’s social life, quietly outcast, until she left to go to college.
Art provided by the late, great, wonderful Bill Latham.