The day that Kathy died, my harmonica broke.
I'd pressed it firmly to my lips intending to play her a goodbye. Instead, it gave one mournful twang and guttered out. Everyone stared as I tossed it uneasily into the waste bin. I didn't know why these things happened, but I knew that I hated them. Timing was always bad with me. Especially since Kathy had needed that tune.
She was old, and slow, and lived alone in a small house on the edge of the main road. Her husband had died, and her children moved away. When she taught us, her hands shook as she held the chalk. She wore dark clothes, and spoke to our class in a whisper, conjugating English verbs like a marriage vow. It was so solemn no one dared yawn.
Sometimes I thought I'd see her freeze, and a little flicker run through her eyes. Her hand would pause as her breathing quickened, and I imagined it was Death warning her to finish up the bucket list and give us less homework. Everyone knew she was unwell, yet thirty six review questions were sentenced every week. It seemed unfair someone so frail could be so mean.
The other students played tricks to get back at her. John told me to stick gum behind my sheets so her hands would get sticky. Oliver suggested burning holes into my answers with a pocket lighter. Yet every Friday my review emerged from the lair of my rucksack unscathed, a gulp working its way down my throat as Kathy's soft hands closed over it.
Thank you she'd say. Our eyes would meet, and her iron gaze burned through me. Kathy wore glasses. They were the large, and thickly rimmed, and sat directly on the bridge of her nose. When she blinked, you blinked with her, the size of her pupils magnified to four times their size.
Everyone knew that stare. It was the look she gave when she tried to be intimidating. Some students stuck their tongues out at her, while others stared haughtily back. I did neither, barely managing a mumbled you're welcome before hastily looking away.
Her lessons were awful and long, and for every minute she held us back from lunch, we concocted new pranks. Tacks for her chair. Shaving cream in her purse. Ink on her coat.
No one expected her to die. We knew our grandparents would someday, and then our parents, and then one day maybe even us. But not Kathy. Kathy was trapped in grade four third period English class. She would stay there forever, and one day our kids would sit in those desks too. We made a pact we'd never make them do their homework, and then give them all the best tips for avoiding review.
But she did die. She raised her hand to correct a verb ending in the past tense on a Friday morning and collapsed. We watched her crumple on the floor, our eyes wide as she moaned. Then there was silence.
"Heart attack," John said authoritatively.
We looked at him, and back at her. Suddenly there was a scraping of chairs as students rushed toward the front, peering curiously down at the gray haired woman curled on the floor.
"She wasn't that mean," Oliver said uncomfortably.
"I liked her glasses," another student offered.
"We should sing something," John said.
I stared at the confused faces surrounding me, then looked at Kathy's loopy cursive scrawled over the board.
"I have a harmonica," I offered. John nodded.
I pulled it slowly out of my pocket, wondering if Kathy was watching. Then I held it to my lips and blew one note. A screechy one followed.
"It's broken," Oliver said.
"I know," I answered. I walked awkwardly to the waste bin, aware of the eyes on my face.
"What now?" Somebody asked.
"It's a heart attack," John said again.
"She's dead," Oliver clarified.
There was an uncomfortable shuffling.
"There's still review," I said.
Everyone looked at each other. Then we walked back to our desks.
"So how does past tense work?" Oliver asked as he picked up his pencil. "She didn't finish."
"Yes she did," said John. "She finished very well."