I glanced up from my world history textbook, and when my gaze met Ms. Neal's, fear slithered up my spine. Her eyes were dull and lifeless. For a moment, she held me captive. I tore my gaze from hers and cast it onto my book. The words jumbled together while I sucked in a jagged breath.
Erin, the closest thing I had to a best friend, nudged me from behind. "What page are we on?"
I half-turned to her and shrugged, still processing what I'd seen, or at least what I thought I'd seen, in Ms. Neal's eyes—like they weren't hers. Obviously, they were her eyes, but it looked like she'd plucked them from someone else's head. A dead someone else's head.
"The Aztecs believed that sacrifice kept the universe going. They believed that the gods sacrificed for them so they were required to pay the endless debt by sacrificing back to the gods," Ms. Neal said in her raspy voice. Her arm jerked slightly.
I struggled to calm down, hoping to reel in my famously overactive imagination and convince myself I'd only imagined that look in her eyes. I forced my eyes to focus on the passage in my book.
"I think it's so disgusting that the Aztecs did human sacrifice," a girl said from across the room.
"Many ancient cultures, not just the Aztecs, practiced human sacrifice, including sacrificing children," Ms. Neal said.
A chorus of groans sounded through the room.
"For your project assignment, I want you to choose one of the civilizations we've studied and do a presentation on how sacrifice figured into their religious belief system. You can do an oral presentation, a Power Point, a paper, or something else creative." She paused. "You may work on this with a partner or in a group."
The room turned to commotion as students started talking and moving around. Erin tugged on my shoulder. "Come back here and sit in this empty desk so we can work together."
I gathered up my things and moved next to Erin. She chomped on her watermelon-scented gum and played with her large, silver hoop earring. "What should we do?" she asked, tapping her neon pink nails on her chin.
From my peripheral vision, I could see Ms. Neal walking around the classroom. I tried to suppress my overactive imagination about her soulless, zombie eyes—eyes that sent icicles through my veins.
"Crystal?" Erin waved her hand in front of my face. "What's with you? You look all freaked out or something."
I didn't dare tell her that I thought Ms. Neal had corpse eyes. Even saying the words in my head sounded ridiculous. Just my imagination. This is high school, not a horror movie. "I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
I nodded, and Erin began thumbing through her textbook.
I'd already taken a world history class at my last school, but it was the only history class that fit in my schedule and I had to take it to graduate from Silver City High School. Though I liked this part of Colorado, as soon as I graduated, I was off to college to study theater and then my final destination: Broadway.
"We should do a scene." Erin's vibrant green eyes brightened while she placed her thick, brown hair into a loose ponytail.
"Maybe." I shrugged. "But with prom this weekend, and late nights for play rehearsal starting next week, I don't think we'll have a lot of time." Adding another big project to my already overgrown to-do list overwhelmed me.
"I'll write it and then we can work on it while we get ready for prom on Saturday. You're still coming over, right?" She looked at me with her over-sized eyes and dark lashes. If I were to ever covet something, it'd be Erin's eyelashes. She didn't even need mascara, unlike me, who needed an entire tube every day just to make my lashes show up.
"Of course. I'm excited to get ready with you." I was counting down the days until my first formal dance. A formal dance with my boyfriend. I loved how that word danced my tongue.
Ms. Neal walked past us toward the front of the classroom and I noticed a strange tattoo on her neck, next to her hairline. My stomach cramped, like someone was grabbing it from the inside and twisting it. Why am I feeling weird all of a sudden?
"Hey, what're you thinking about so hard?" Erin said, pulling me out of my stupor. I blinked. "Sorry."
"Hey, Ms. Neal," a guy yelled from across the room.
"Yes, Paul?" Ms. Neal said.
"Can we do something on virgin sacrifices?' He laughed. The guys sitting around him started laughing too.
"There has been some debate as to whether the Aztecs, Incas, or Mayans sacrificed virgins. That has been the common belief, supported by recovered mummies wearing jewelry, but some now believe those remains are actually of young men."
"Bummer," Paul said.
"However, the Sumerians did sacrifice virgins," Ms. Neal said. "Then afterwards they consumed their flesh."
"You mean they ate them?" one of the girls sitting near me asked.
"Yes, they did," Ms. Neal said.
"Why would they do that?" another girl asked.
"They believed that virgins represented purity and only a pure sacrifice was appropriate for their gods." Ms. Neal scanned the class, but I cast my gaze downward before she looked at me. "Many myths and accounts through history denote a special power connected to virginity. The Sumerians believed that eating the virgins' flesh would give them strength and power."
"Pretty disgusting, huh?" Erin whispered.
"Totally." A strange sensation crawled up my back and settled at the base of my neck. My skin pricked and sent tiny impulses through my scalp. I tried to shake it off, but I couldn't. I figured I needed to stand up and move around.
I stood too fast and the room started to tilt, so I moved toward an open window. The air felt heavy against my chest, as if I were hiking through deep water. I'd never experienced such a bizarre sensation. I gazed out the window.
Under a large evergreen tree, not far from the classroom, stood a tall guy who looked like he was in his twenties. He had black hair, and his gaze was locked on me. I felt someone come up behind me so I spun around and faced Ms. Neal. When my eyes met hers, fear blasted through my veins. I took a few steps back.
"Are you lost, Miss Scott?" she asked in an ice-filled tone, a facial tic flashing across her right cheek.
"Um, no." I swallowed hard. Her eyes again. They were flat and glassy, like she was in a coma or something. And, even though the lights were on, there was a shadow across her face. I rushed back to my desk and plopped down. Definitely not my imagination.
"What's wrong?" Erin asked.
"I don't know." I stared at the floor.
"What does that mean?"
I cupped my hand to my mouth and whispered, "Ms. Neal."
"What about her?"
I looked quickly between Erin and the floor. "I can't explain it. She freaked me out, that's all." Not to mention the guy staring at me from under that tree. Why were these bizarre things happening today?
"Did she say something?" Erin jolted me out of my thoughts.
I leaned in to Erin and peered at her. "Just the way she looked at me. Her eyes were . . . and her face was . . ."
"Huh?" Erin gaped at me like I'd grown another head.
"Her eyes are all weirded out, and her face looked dark." As soon as I said it, I realized I sounded like an idiot. Make that a crazed idiot. I wanted to forget what I'd said because out loud it sounded even more absurd than it had in my head. "Never mind."
"Her eyes were weird and her face was dark?" Erin crinkled her nose.
Erin craned her neck to look at Ms. Neal.
"Stop it. I don't want her to come over here." I wiped my moist hands on my jeans.
"You think she's gonna do something to you?" Erin smirked.
I shielded my face with my hand trying to hide from Ms. Neal. It used to work when I was a kid—if I couldn't see someone, she couldn't see me. Actually, it never worked. I just wished it would. I muttered, "I don't know. Let's—"
My heart back-flipped in my chest. I didn't know why I was suddenly so petrified of a teacher I'd had for months. She'd never bothered me before, but now I wanted more than anything to bolt out of the classroom and never come back.
Erin studied me. "You look like you're going to—"
"Miss Scott, may I speak with you?"
I didn't know what to say, only that I didn't want to look at her eyes. Or at her. I wanted to run.
Erin whispered, "Crystal is feeling sick. She needs to go to the bathroom. You know, girl problems."
I mentally hugged Erin for thinking so fast.
"Can't you wait?" I could hear hesitation in Ms. Neal's hoarse voice. "Class is almost over."
"It's an emergency. And she needs my help. Please?"
"I suppose." Ms. Neal paused. "You may both be excused to the restroom. Don't forget your hall passes."
"Thank you," Erin said with a big smile.
I nodded but didn't make eye contact with Ms. Neal. I couldn't leave the room fast enough.
In the Pepto Bismol-colored bathroom, I said, "Thanks for getting me out of there." I splashed some cold water on my face, the chill shocking my skin and stealing my breath.
Erin studied me. "What's going on?"
I shrugged, because I really had no idea. A teacher had never freaked me out like this. No one had ever freaked me out like this. Ever.
"Whatever it is, you'd better get over it before play rehearsal this afternoon. You know how Mr. Jordan gets when rehearsal's off. Like a rabid dog." She laughed.