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Neuropathy can result from exposure to toxins. It begins with the gradual onset of numbness due to peripheral nervous system damage.
First block students file out. Second block students file in. They cross paths in the doorway, brushing shoulders and backpacks. You take the first sip of water from your reusable bottle. Up until now you’ve had coffee, coffee, coffee, and now that first block is over, you’re dehydrated.
You don’t let the water go down your throat, though, because there’s more than just water in your mouth. You feel chunks of something on your tongue and pull the largest piece of it out with your thumb and forefinger. It’s white-grey, pea-sized, but not pea-shaped. More like a broken disc that’s been dissolving for a while. Its edges are diffusing, softening like a crushed pill. You flick it to the floor then extract smaller pieces the size of plastic pinheads. One by one, you flick them to the floor, too.
Instead of worrying about what was in your mouth, you’re thinking about your next block class. You look at each student as they are walking in and manage hellos, call them by their names. You think about your lesson for the day and how this class will require a different approach than your first block.
The class is half full now. Most kids settle into a fling with their phones before class starts; a few talk. You don’t take the substance in your mouth seriously until your tongue begins to numb. The lack of feeling begins at the tip and crawls to the back of your mouth. You unscrew the top off your water bottle to examine its contents. Floating at the top are more chunks of the white-grey substance and a collection of fine dust.
Interrupted signals between the central nervous system and other parts of the body result in increasing numbness and sporadic, prickling pain.
A student approaches you and asks if she can still submit her late assignment. You nod your head. She probably thinks you’re annoyed, but you are just distracted.
You gnaw on the edge of your tongue to make sure you’re not imagining this – not exaggerating the effects. You realize in some distant part of you that someone has put something in your drink. You remember the fear of being drugged in your college days, but this isn’t happening here. Not in your high school. Not where you work, where you teach, where you, yourself, went to high school.
Adding to the disconnect, you have a history of not taking your own pain seriously. Once, you hurt your leg in a clumsy stair incident. After having four boys, pain is relative. You taught all day with a broken leg until a colleague persuaded you to go to the doctor where you received a cast up to your knee.
Another time your ring fingertip was smashed in a door – truly flattened. You wrapped it in a dish towel and went to work. You showed the bloody mass to the school nurse. Do you think I should go to the doctor? you asked. She blanched. Not at the sight of blood, but at your in-shock stupidity. Clearly, the finger was broken. Shards of bone and fabric floated in your bloodstream, contaminating your reason.
When it’s someone else’s pain, it’s serious. When it’s your pain, it’s not real, somehow. Not to be taken seriously. Drama. Drama queen. Don’t want to be a drama queen.
Numbness continues but pain increases as it becomes sharp and jabbing. The signals present crackle like hot electric wires.
But the numbness doesn’t go away. Is it possible someone put a pill in your water? Something else? What would cause your tongue to go numb? All your second block students are in the room now, and you’re imagining what will happen when you blackout in the middle of the lesson.
You walk down to your husband’s room, two doors down. You’re wide-eyed, and he knows something is up right away. What happened? You don’t know how to say this. You’re worried your fiery husband will cause a scene. I think someone may have put something in my water, you say. What do you mean? You tell him about the substance but don’t tell him your tongue is numb. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. Please come in and check on me in fifteen minutes or so, you say. Just to make sure I’m okay. He agrees. Who had access to your water bottle? he asks.
Your bottle is not easy to get into – takes a good three seconds to screw off the lid, so no way someone did that during class.
The only time you weren’t within sight of your bottle was when you left to use the restroom before first block started. There was only one student in the room at the time, the same student who is always first in the room and sits close to your desk. Every day you make small talk with him while you prepare your lesson and he looks at his phone. Five or ten minutes before class, you leave to use the restroom and chat with other teachers in the hallway.
He knows this. It’s your routine.
You leave your laptop behind, your water bottle, your phone. You teach at a small school. This isn’t unusual. Teachers leave their doors unlocked and their coffee cups behind when they step out to make copies. It won’t happen here, you tell yourselves.
Who had access to your water bottle? Your husband asks again. You cringe, knowing the answer won’t be one that calms him. So-and-so, you say. But he wouldn’t do that, you add. Your husband and this kid have a history. You watch the heat rise in his face as he starts to pace his office. Yes, he would. I’ll be down to check on you soon. You nod, move to walk out the door. You need to tell the principal, he says. Not yet, you tell him. You don’t want him or anyone else to know about this until you’ve ruled out all other possibilities. You need time to think.
Your husband peaks in several times during your second block class, but your symptoms don’t get worse or better. Your tongue is still numb, but your faculties are intact. Clearly, that’s debatable.
On your way home for lunch, you tell your husband about the numbness. He drags a hand over his head.
He strains out the contents of your water bottle. Chunks of white-grey stuff, pocked and dimpling, sit in the wire-mesh strainer. That’s a crushed pill, he says. Several of them.
The only time the bottle was out of your sight—the only time. The only time. The only time. That thought rings in your ears. But you still don’t want to believe a student of yours would do such a thing. Not at your school. Not to you.
You remember how the student held his phone during class—right in front of his face, elbow propped on the table. Any other day he’d try to hide his phone on his lap while pretending to do work. Sometimes you’d give him a little teasing, remind him to get back on track. Other days you’d pretend you didn’t see it. He’s a tough one. Prone to outbursts and anger. That morning, you reminded him of his missing work and he put his phone down only to pick it back up again five minutes later and hold it in the same position – poised and ready for something.
If he did put something in your drink, something intending to numb your mouth, to take away your ability to speak, it would have made an entertaining video, you suppose.
If you don’t call the principal right now, I’m going to, your husband says. He hands you the phone but you can’t do it; you can’t say it out loud. Your husband calls him. He explains in words you don’t possess, what you have been afraid to say. Someone tried to poison my wife. Poison her. Poison. Is that an exaggeration? Your heart is pounding and it tells you no, no, no, it is not an exaggeration.
Only a little bit passed your lips. Numb. What if? What if? What if?
After lunch, your tongue is beginning to feel again. You go right to the principal’s office. The nurse comes in. The school officer, too. You retell your story, turn over the grains you strained out. It’s all informal. They say the right words and shake their heads in sympathy.
You are not asked to turn over your water bottle. You are not asked to give a formal statement. Your room is not searched for evidence, but you are assured the authorities will look into this. This doesn’t seem right, but what do you know? You’re just an armchair detective trained in the art of deceiving yourself.
You should have gone to the doctor, should have taken the rest of the day off, should have taken care of yourself. You don’t know it’s okay to do these things. You sleepwalk to your last block class and pretend everything is fine.
Someone checks the hallway cameras. The principal questions the boy who was in your room and searches him. The boy denies any wrongdoing. I would never do that to her, he says. I like her. Her husband, on the other hand . . .
The school police officer sends the substance off to the state lab for testing. The principal assures you the student in question won’t be in your classroom again until they figure this thing out.
The next day, nothing is said at school about the incident. Staff is not warned. Rules about privacy and all. You tell your principal he can tell the staff. If he doesn’t, you will. People need to know. This can happen to anyone.
For another week you pretend everything is okay. You lock yourself inside your room during downtimes. You’re skittish in the hallway, jumpy during lunch duty. You cannot have your back to anyone. Startling noises put you on edge.
You get flowers from the teaching staff. The card reads thanks for taking one for the team. You don’t know what that means.
Before first block one morning, you hear students talking from behind your locked door. They are waiting for class to start and assume you’re not at school since it’s almost 8:00 and the door is still shut. They don’t know you’re a few feet away and can hear everything.
You find out the student in question told kids he was accused of putting a roofie in your water bottle. Also, his parents threatened legal trouble and withdrew him from school. A couple of boys talk about how he is lucky. Doesn’t have to go to school anymore, they say. Lucky. Senior year over early, they say. Lucky. They chuckle. Keep things light. One voice expresses concern for you. I’m worried, she says.
For the first time since that day, you cry. The starting bell rings, and you can’t bring yourself to open the door. One minute. Two. Three. Five. You try to compose yourself. Wipe your face. You open the door and prop it with the door jam. They know you heard. They see you’ve been crying. You can see the knowing on their faces.
But it’s time for class, and you teach the lesson in a monotone that scares you. You are in your body and outside it simultaneously. You grasp the podium to ground you, to keep yourself from dissociating altogether.
Between first and second block you have a breakdown in a bathroom stall and can’t bring yourself to go back to class.
Now everyone at school knows. That makes pretending harder.
Pain gives way to constant numbness as messages are no longer received. Though no cure exists, treatment for neuropathy includes antidepressants.
For the first time in your life, you fall into a deep depression. You can’t make yourself do anything other than lie in bed. You sleep. You shuffle to the bathroom. Sleep some more.
Your husband encourages you to talk to a therapist. You’ve never done that before, but agree you need to do something. The therapist gives you some coping strategies for anxiety and depression. She writes you an excuse for a week. So-and-so has a medical condition that impairs her ability to work and/or presently requires more intensive treatment. The doctor says she’ll renew it as many times as you need.
You don’t take the prescription she offers. Instead, you settle your feet in the October chill of the river and let the waters draw away the lingering pain. You don’t feel the cold.
When you eventually go back to school, only your body is there. Your principal checks in every week to see how you are doing, but no words of support can fill you back up.
Complete loss of feeling. Full nervous system error.
Four months later, the test results come back. It’s nothing illegal, the officer says, but they know for sure it was some kind of tablet. You think: lots of dangerous things aren’t illegal. Fear, anger, and apathy to name a few.
The county attorney doesn’t think we have enough to pursue the case, he says. I’m sorry.
It doesn’t matter anymore.
You don’t feel anything.
You’re not even here.
Staci Mercado won a Midwest Book Award for her historical fiction novel, Seeking Signs (Four Feathers Press, 2013). She has published work in Broad Street, Barely South Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fiction Southeast and has work forthcoming in Canary. Staci is a professor for Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Creative Writing program. She also teaches writing for Eastern Iowa Community Colleges and Central DeWitt High School. Staci was awarded the 2017 Outstanding Literary Arts Educator Award from the Midwest Writing Center and was a top-five finalist for The Iowa Department of Education's Iowa Teacher of the Year for 2022.