Julia Benally

The April Selected Writer is Julia Benally

Please feel free to email Julia at: sparrowincarnate@gmail.com


by Julia Benally

I stared at the freezing water roiling beneath the bridge’s thick wooden planks. The river had cut a little canyon over the years, so you couldn’t stand under the bridge. The river swept anybody away who tried to wade across. I glanced at the bucket of fish I had pilfered from the fish hatchery. They always had massive ones, no matter the time of year. The children loved the bigger fish. The small ones had too many bones to pick through. Laila had brought runt fish last year, so the children had taken her instead.

Closing my eyes, I started across. I had six fish, one for each child. The rules were that you never looked them in the eye, even when they rested their chins on your shoulders and stared hard at your face. You didn’t look at them when their fingers pinched your hands, or when they took fish from the bucket. You could only look after you had crossed the bridge.

Wet feet splashed on the bridge and pattered after me. A weight pulled my bucket down and then lifted, leaving the bucket lighter. Something cold slid across my fingers. I believed with all my might that it was a slimy fish body and not something else. More feet rushed from the sides, lifting a second, third, and fourth fish. Wet clothing and icy skin brushed my arm and clenched fist. Two fish left.

Thin fingers, as hard and frigid as metal left in the snow, bit on my free hand. A sharp chin rested on my shoulder and soft steady breathing tickled my cheek. My ears strained for the crunch of gravel under my shoes, the signal that I had made it safely across the bridge.

One more fish disappeared. Feet sped to the edge of the bridge, and then silence. The chin lifted from my shoulder, the fingers released, and the last fish vanished from the bucket. My shoes hit gravel and I opened my eyes with a gasp. My shoulder was wet.

“Rachel,” a soft voice called, “can you bring my homework after school?”

A cold pit formed in my stomach as I gave a slight nod. Setting the bucket in the bushes, I tore down the gravel road. The old oaks hanging over the path had lost most of their leaves. They covered my way like a crunchy carpet. Along that way came Jordan Salt, the naughtiest boy in the class. He’d gotten kicked out of school for yanking down Miss Roberts’ skirt to see her underwear.

His black hair had been cut in a military style. He wore cargo pants, muddy hiking boots, and a heavy jacket that made him look like a thug. A fishing pole was slung over his shoulder, but he had no fish. Nobody was supposed to talk to him, but he was striding straight for me.

“Hey, Rachel,” he said with a smile that made him look like an honest eleven-year-old. “I guess your offering was accepted.”

“Yeah.” I looked around to make sure nobody saw me fraternizing with him. “Where’s your offering?”

He chuckled. “I don’t need one.” He started for the bridge, which was just in sight among the trees.

“Hey, wait!” I hurried after him. “You’re crazy! Laila got taken by being stupid.”

“I’m not stupid.” Jordan reached the bridge, smiled at me, and sauntered across. I waited for the children to come out and drag him into the river, but they didn’t come. When he got to the other side, he waved at me and continued on his way. My mouth fell open. How?

The dreary school bell rang through the trees. Class was starting in five minutes. I dashed down the road, trying to count five sets of sixty seconds, but all I could think of was Jordan. Why could he cross unmolested, when nobody else could?

The road led me into the clearing where the school sat, in total isolation from the rest of the world. An old cemetery surrounded the ancient quarry-stone building. Some of the graves were sunken in and others lay open. Mesh pinned a pile of bones to the west side of the school.

The school used to be an old church, until the town had converted it into a two-story grade school full of stained glass windows and a basement with none. First and second graders had class on the top floor. Third and fourth learned on the ground floor. Fifth and sixth were buried underground. I was in sixth grade.

I saw the last of the students vanishing into the big red double doors. I sped up. The distance from the tree line to the school might as well have been a football field. By the time I got inside, the halls were alm ost empty. Ancient beams crisscrossed the high ceilings. The walls were made of whitewashed quarry stone. Cheap white tiles had been cemented into the floor.

Voices from inside the classrooms still chanted the jump rope rhyme: she chases when you scream, she chases when you run, she chases you round and round if you don’t have fun.

I jogged to the end of the corridor, where a dark cement stairwell wound down to the basement. It was empty. I stopped, anxiously scraping the tender skin around my thumbs. Mia liked to hang out in the stairwell when nobody was around. She often talked to the first and second graders during recess. They were the ones who’d named her Mia.

“One…”I whispered.“Two…three…” I tore down the steps and into the basement. My classroom was halfway down the next wood-paneled hall. The lights gave just enough light to identify the brass door numbers.

As I darted around the corner, I saw Mia standing in the stairwell, watching like she wished to speak to me. Her arms and legs tapered into needle points. She always wore the same black frock, and her dark hair cascaded over a pallid face.

Miss Roberts was writing something on the chalkboard when I shoved into the all-wood classroom and sat down. I pulled off my jacket and fanned my sweaty face with one of the sleeves.

Claudia, who sat to my right, leaned over and asked, “Did you see Mia?”


“Does she have eyes?”

I sighed in exasperation. “Do you think I stayed to look?”

The big bell in the steeple gonged the start of class, and Miss Roberts turned around on her pumps. She was a pretty lady with dark red hair and light green eyes. Freckles dusted her nose and rosy cheeks. As always, she wore pink and green. Even her perfume reminded me of pink and green. Miss Roberts was usually smiling, but today she was a storm cloud. She lifted a stack of papers from her desk and waved it in the air.

“All right,” she said, “who’s been turning in homework signed with Laila’s name?”

Everyone glanced at one another.

“I don’t like this joke.” Miss Roberts set the papers down. “Laila is dead. Respect the dead, and stop mimicking her handwriting and turning in her homework. It isn’t right, and you have to stop. If I get more homework from her, all of you are staying after school every day until the culprit fesses up.” She threw the papers in the trash as if they were made of slime.

Claudia’s hand shot up. “Miss Roberts, Rachel brings Laila’s homework to her!”

My chest tightened. “No, I don’t!”

Claudia wouldn’t shut up. “Rachel crosses the wooden bridge to get home, and she gives Laila’s homework to her.”

Miss Roberts’ face turned to stone. “Enough about that bridge. It isn’t haunted. I cross it every day. Rachel, is what Claudia says true?”

I stared at Miss Roberts in rising dread and I felt my head nod. “But I don’t do her homework. She does all of it. I don’t touch her homework after that.”

Miss Roberts glowered. “Rachel, that’s very wrong. I suppose you don’t know how the homework ends up in her cubby every morning?”

“She puts it there, Miss Roberts,” I said.

“And you don’t?”


Miss Roberts’ lips thinned into a hard line. “All right, Rachel, if that’s how you want it.” She brandished a paper from somewhere in her desk and began scribbling something on it. We all knew what that meant. She’d written them out for Jordan every day.

Miss Roberts stabbed a period into the paper. “Rachel, take this slip to the principal’s office.”
My mind raced to Mia in the stairwell. “B-but, Miss Roberts, I didn’t do her homework! She does it herself and leaves it here! She can leave the bridge at night. They can all leave the bridge at night. That’s why nobody goes there until after six in the morning.”

Miss Roberts shoved the paper into my hands and ushered me out the door. “That’s enough out of you, Rachel.” She closed the door in my face.

I stood in the small circle of light in a sort of shock that Miss Roberts had actually thrown me out. My eyes struggled to penetrate the gloom, and then I began to move. She chases when you scream, she chases when you run, she chases you round and round if you don’t have fun.

I reached the stairwell and peered into its dark recess. Light from the ground floor shone like a skewed triangle on the wall. I started up. My feet echoed against the walls, but halfway up, another set raced up the steps with a sharp clickety-clickety-clickety! Mia’s jet-black hair appeared at my knees.

My knees buckled and I stumbled against the wall, keeping the paper between my face and hers as she stood upright. Don’t run, don’t run. Small whimpers escaped my throat as I labored to the top of the stairs. I could just see the needle points of Mia’s “feet” stepping lightly beside me.

I reached the landing and walked into the corridor. The principal’s office was at the other end of the school. Mia clicked beside me the whole way. The paper quivered in my hand. Would nobody come out of their classroom? Nobody needed the bathroom? Of course not. Nobody used the bathrooms here. They would rather wet their pants.

At last, I reached the office. It was modern, with a bluish-gray carpet and all the newest equipment. The phones worked, there was cell phone service, the computers were shiny, and it didn’t smell like an attic.

Mrs. Granger, the secretary, smiled as I came in. “Good morning, Rachel, what are you doing here so early?” Mrs. Granger knew my name because I always said good morning to her whenever I saw her, which was when I wasn’t almost late for class. “Why didn’t your friend come in with you?”

Chills ripped down my spine. “She’s not my friend.”

“Are you two fighting?”

I shook my head and gave her the paper. I stole a glance behind me and released a long breath. Mia was gone. I seriously considered running home, but I would have to cross the bridge, and I didn’t have Laila’s homework. If I couldn’t get an extra set of homework, I would have to give her mine.

“Wait in that chair, missy,” said Mrs. Granger as she took my paper to the principal’s office. I sat in the chair farthest from the door and gazed at the autumn sky through the wide windows. The new windows had been built so that you wouldn’t have to see the ancient graveyard.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Granger returned. “Ms. Harrison will see you now.” Mrs. Granger gave me a look that said ‘you’re a bad girl, missy.’

I entered the principal’s office. Ms. Harrison sat in a large black swivel chair. She indicated the small seat in front of her desk. “Sit.”

I did so, and stared at her in abject terror. Ms. Harrison tapped her fingertips together. She never lacquered her nails like Miss Roberts. Ms. Harrison didn’t believe in frivolity. She kept her hair in a plain tight bun, parted down the middle, with absolutely no make-up. She said it was a mask that insecure women wore. She and Miss Roberts despised each other.

“Rachel McKenzie,” she said in a severe monotone, “let me tell you this once, and I do not want to repeat it again, do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Pretending that Laila is alive and turning in her homework is blatant disrespect for the dead. Do you know what I am saying, Rachel McKenzie?”

I nodded, hoping she would send me home early.

“Pretending that Laila is alive is not something we encourage here in Wilkins School. We expect our students to be bright and smartly dressed, with no superstitious shenanigans. Do I make myself clear, Rachel McKenzie?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“For your misconduct, you will have detention after school. If Miss Roberts finds more homework from Laila in her classroom, you will be suspended. Do you understand this, Rachel McKenzie?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now remain where you are while I call your mother.” Ms. Harrison picked up the phone and dialed my home phone. I tried to become as deaf as possible as Ms. Harrison accused my mother of raising a delinquent. Ms. Harrison dropped the phone in the cradle and fixed her sharp black eyes on me. “You may go, Rachel McKenzie. You will walk back to your classroom. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Go now.”

I hurried out of the room in rising dread. I would be alone at the end of the day in an empty school.


The bell rang, and Miss Roberts marched me up to the principal’s office without giving me my homework. She handed it to me after I was safely locked in a second-grade classroom on the second floor. It was the farthest one from the stairs. Ms. Harrison herself stood guard over me, but she didn’t stay in the classroom. As much as I hated that woman, I wished she would stay with me instead of patrolling the halls for trash. If she found any, she reprimanded the nearest innocent teacher and threatened her with her life.

One of the chairs scraped against the floor behind me, and my hands balled into fists. Whoever it was rifled through papers and pencils. Lead scraped on paper. What poor soul would read a note to themselves in the morning? Sharp steps approached from that desk and I threw my head into my arms.

Click-click-click crossed the floor to the blackboard. Chalk slid and squeaked on the slate for several minutes. My toes curled up in their shoes and my fingers gripped my elbows until the nails drew blood.

The chalk stopped and hit the floor. The door swung open and Ms. Harrison’s voice snapped like a high-pitched glass, soft but harsh at the same time.

“Rachel McKenzie, you may go…what have you done?”

My head jerked up. “Nothing.”

Ms. Harrison thrust her hand at the chalkboard and I almost screamed. In crooked writing were the words: She chases when you scream, she chases when you run, she chases you round and round if you don’t have fun.

“What is the meaning of this, Rachel McKenzie?” said Ms. Harrison.

“I didn’t do it.”

“Then who did?”

Sweat collected in my palms. “Mia.”

Ms. Harrison seized the chalkboard eraser. “You have another day of detention. Now go.” She began erasing the mess with a hard hand, but the words still remained in faded lettering. Ms. Harrison set her jaw and struggled to erase what was left. She would be there for a while.

Slinging on my bag, I hurried out the door while trying not to break into a run. As I rounded the corner and came in view of the stairwell, I stopped dead in my tracks. Mia was peeking at me from the top step. Something glittered where her eyes should have been.

Ducking out of sight, I leaned against the wall and squeezed my bag straps. It was no use trying the fire escape. It was padlocked and Ms. Harrison carried the key. I hazarded a glance around the corner. Mia had gone. Finding what shreds of courage I possessed, I made my way to the stairs.

Click-click-click sounded behind me and I spun around with a startled cry. I’d have done anything to take that scream back, but it was too late. Mia, who’d been walking behind me, smiled. The grin took the entire bottom of her pallid face. The bulky sharp teeth clasped perfectly together. Her eyes bulged open, lidless and red. The blacks of her eyes looked like messy ink blots. Two points of light gleamed in their depths.

Dropping to all floors like a giant bug, Mia rushed me, clickety-clickety-clickety! I tore for the stairs. My legs flopped like rubber and I almost hit the floor, but caught myself with one hand. My bag hiked over my head, and for a second I was running blind. Crashing into the wall, I felt Mia’s teeth snap on the back of my shirt. I flung the bag off my head and the teeth ripped free as the bag knocked Mia down.

My feet tangled on themselves and I skidded across the floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mia bound towards me. My vision darkened and I could only see her. Hands and feet slapping the pale tile, I regained my footing and lunged for the stairs. Mia’s pointed arms dinged the floor like knife tips where my shoes had been. Through a haze, I saw the stairs were three classroom doors away now. Two doors. One door. I darted recklessly down the steps and jumped the last three to the landing.  Mia dropped behind me, pointed limbs pinging the tile.

The walls echoed with the sounds of panic as I rocketed down the next flight and hit the ground floor sprinting. Mia yanked at my backpack, but her grip slipped off as I burst outside. I slammed into the janitor.

“Watch it, kid!” she snapped.

I couldn’t remember if I apologized or not. I sped through the cemetery, across the field, and onto the gravel road. I halted at the bridge and slapped my hand over my heart. I didn’t have Laila’s homework. Tears stung my eyes. My nerves couldn’t take this much longer. I bit on my nails, but suddenly remembered that I did have homework. Mine. Grabbing the bucket, I put my homework inside and approached the bridge.

“Okay, okay,” I murmured. “One…two…three…” I closed my eyes and crossed the bridge. This time, only one pair of wet feet approached and yanked the homework out of the bucket.

“Thank you, Rachel,” Laila whispered.

I reached the other end and tore for home. Under an especially ancient oak, I spotted Jordan swinging his fishing pole in one hand. Three large fish and a small one hung on a Y-shaped stick.

“You got detention today?” he said.

I swallowed a breath. “Yeah. What’s it to you?”

Jordan smiled. “That’s how you get out.”

My brows knit. “What do you mean?”

“Get kicked out of school and you’re free.” Jordan leaned his pole against the tree. “Once you get kicked out, you can cross the bridge any time you want, and Mia will stop brothering you. The children only like the kids who go to the school. You saw me this morning. Nothing happened.”

I licked my lips. “How do I get kicked out?”

“You have to do something pretty awful. I tried everything I could, but when I threw up Miss Roberts’ skirt, that was the end for me. You could start kicking Ms. Harrison and then bite her. That should do the trick. She deserves it, too. You have to be brave enough to do it, though. Are you brave enough?”

I didn’t know about brave, but I was certainly desperate enough. Besides, I had seen Jordan cross the bridge in total safety. It had to be the same for me.

“How many fish do you have to catch now?” said Jordan.


“It used to be four. I got some big ones you can use tomorrow, but you’ll have to catch the last three by yourself.” He took the three large fish from the stick and dropped them in my bucket.


“Rachel!” Miss Roberts screeched and slammed a bunch of papers over the quiz on my desk. Laila’s name was printed neatly at the top of each page. “What are you trying to do to me?” Her face had gone pale. “This isn’t funny! And where, may I ask, is your homework? I gave it to you right before detention. I can’t believe you signed Laila’s name to your homework. You will sit at the front of the class for the rest of the day. Now scoot!”

I grabbed my things and moved shop to the lonely desk at the front, where everybody could see me. I wasn’t allowed to play at recess, and I sat at the isolation table during lunch. My mind was made up. I would do as Jordan instructed and get myself kicked out of school.

Detention time rolled around, and I entered the dreaded room where Mia lurked. The kids said she used to go to school in this classroom, or something. I buried my head in my arms and waited for Ms. Harrison to tell me when I could go.

Once more, the same chair scraped the wooden floor. I stiffened but didn’t dare look up. The clicks approached the chalkboard. Scrape, scrape, scrape grated on my ears. I began to hum to myself, but another humming joined in. I fell silent, but the other humming continued.

Click…click…click… She was coming towards me. A scream rose to my throat, but I clamped it down, remembering her hideous smile. She stopped beside me and ran her needle arm through my hair.

Don’t scream…don’t scream…she chases when you scream, she chases when you run, she chases you round and round if you don’t have fun.

The door opened and Ms. Harrison cried out in rage. “Rachel McKenzie, you ornery child!”
Mia vanished and my head snapped up. Ms. Harrison was staring at the chalkboard, where the jump-rope mantra was written in the same handwriting.

“Rachel McKenzie, you come here right now.” Ms. Harrison held the eraser out to me. “Get this off, now. You are not allowed to touch the chalk, do you understand?”

I walked over. “I didn’t touch the chalk.”

“Enough of these games. I will suspend you. Now apologize. I want to hear it.”

My chance had arrived. “No.”

Ms. Harrison’s brows went up. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not apologizing! I won’t!”

“I’m giving you one more warning, Rachel McKenzie!”

Snatching the eraser out of her hand, I flung it at her face and it puffed on her nose. As she sneezed and fluttered her lids, I shoved her into the door and bit her hand as hard as I could. Was this enough to set me free? I made doubly sure and kicked her shins. Ms. Harrison opened the door, caught me by the hair and flung me into the hall.

“Get out, you little devil child!” she shrieked. “You’re not coming back to this school, ever! You’re gone! Get out, get out, get out, you little brat!” She chucked the eraser at my fleeing form and continued after me. “I don’t want to see you here ever again!”

Skidding around the corner, I sprinted to the stairwell and another eraser hurtled past my head. I darted down the stairs, but Ms. Harrison stayed at the top, still screaming in helpless fury. I reached the ground floor a few seconds later and dashed into the autumn air. I swerved around the janitor and high-tailed it for the bridge.

When it came into view, the ecstasy of my escape snuffed out and I halted at the edge of the wooden planks. Laila had wanted her homework again, but I had nothing but my backpack. Now was the moment of truth, when Jordan’s words would ring true, or I would become a child under the bridge.

Taking a deep breath, I began to cross. My ears readied for wet steps to splash towards me. I waited for Laila to ask for her homework, and then feel her steely fingers clench my arms in fury. Suddenly, my feet hit the gravel on the other side. I had crossed unmolested.

I scurried several yards from the bridge, just in case the children changed their minds, and dared to look back. Only the evening mist settling on the iron railings rose from beneath the bridge. I thought I saw a figure standing near the middle, hands over her face and weeping, but then she was gone.

I ran home.

Julia Benally is a wild Apache lurking in Arizona, wandering the mountains with her trusty nunchucks, Harley Quinn, at her side. Besides writing and killing zombies, she enjoys playing the piano, dancing, and singing.

She's the ecstatic author of the dark fantasy Pariahs, which is the first installment of the Ilings series. The second book, Embers, will be debuting this year.

Julia loves to write horror, fantasy, thrillers and sometimes romance, when she’s feeling funky. Her short story “Seven Floors” was selected to be featured in Schlock Magazine’s best of the year anthology in 2019.