2021 Shortlisted entries Just Stay Connected by Natalie O'Keeffe. I’ve always hated Mr Baker. He has annoyingly smooth skin, and annoyingly perfect hair, and annoyingly white teeth - but that’s not why I hate him. I hate him because he acts like our class shares a single brain, like we’re a thirty-limbed octopus with a partially decentralised nervous system. When things go missing from the classroom, we all have to stay behind. If one of us gets detention, we all get detention. It’s pretty messed up, it’s not like I have a say in what they get up to when we’re supposed to be reading those fusty, old books that Mr Baker makes us read. The books he gives us are always filled with things we can’t relate to. And I don’t blame Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, and Catherine Earnshaw for that - they seem alright – I just don’t understand them as people. But I don’t think they’d understand me much either. And one thing’s for certain, they wouldn’t understand how to connect to our online English classes – not that they’re missing out on much. Unlike me. I’m missing out on everything. I miss seeing my friends. I miss their actual bodies. I miss sharing crisps, and passing notes, and just feeling the heat of them all around me. It’s becoming a bit of a nightmare. I’m starting to feel abandoned. It feels like I’m being isolated on purpose - punished, even though it’s just the way things are. At the end of his classes, Mr Baker always checks in with us. He always says: if anyone’s having a hard time, just stay connected, and we can talk. I think about it sometimes. I think about staying connected. Because even though I hate him, and even though he lumps me in with people I can’t stand, I know he’s a good person. Mr Baker is a great listener. I know this because he heard my best friend, Molly, crying in the girls’ toilets last year. He didn’t leave her alone, even though he could have. Even though he couldn’t physically go inside. He just stood outside and talked to her through the door - like an empathetic spirit. As it turned out, Molly’s crying wasn’t a big deal. She’d just had a fight with her parents about a party. Her dad, who also happens to be our Maths teacher, is especially strict about us being out at night. It was just one of those things. Sometimes, you have a breakdown over something, even though you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash about it on a different day. That’s life, I’m barely seventeen, and I know that. There are loads of pictures of Molly and I together, maybe five whole albums - mostly, they’re of us playing in the garden or eating messy food with mucky fingers. I looked at them the other day. I cried for ages. Thankfully, my parents and my little brother were out at the time. I phoned Molly, and I told her that I missed her. Molly came over. She stood at the bottom of the garden, and we stared at each other until we laughed. She called me a ‘silly mare’. That made me feel better because when she said it, it felt genuine. But that was a while ago, and even though we still talk and text, it’s not the same. I want to link arms with her and hug her. The whole time Mr Baker is talking, I feel floaty. He asks me a question about Bertha, who Rochester has apparently had locked in his attic, and I don’t really know what he’s asking me. I only hear myself say: I feel trapped, too. Mr Baker doesn’t say anything for a while; he just looks at me through the camera like he sees straight through everything. Mr Baker takes mercy on me and answers his own question. He doesn’t ask me anything else, which is just as well because I still don’t know what’s going on, and my brain feels kind of numb to everything. Before I know it, he’s telling us to have a good evening and to not worry about doing our homework. And then he says: if anyone’s having a hard time, just stay connected, and we can talk.I don’t leave. It’s like my body wants to stay, even if my mind still isn’t made up. One by one, I see the names of my classmates vanish from our virtual space. I see Molly disconnect. But I stay. I stay until there’s only me and Mr Baker left. ‘Honey,’ he says - not because he’s being weird, but because ‘Honey’ is the name my parents gave to me. ‘Do you want to talk? You seem a little down today.’ ‘I just feel strange,’ I offer, and Mr Baker smiles a sad kind of smile. It makes something twist deep inside my belly. ‘I miss being at school.’ ‘Yeah?’ He asks, closing the notebook in front of him. ‘Do you find it hard to be at home?’ ‘Sir, it’s not like that,’ I say quickly. ‘Not like what?’ Mr Baker asks, and I notice that his eyes seem a little off. It’s almost like I’m looking in a mirror. I wonder if we’re both going through something similar. ‘Bad,’ I say quickly. ‘I just miss my friends.’‘You feel alone,’ he says, and it’s not a question; it’s a conclusion. ‘Don't you?' I ask. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Sometimes. But I have classes, and I still get to see all of you and the other teachers.’ ‘But not for real,’ I whine, a needy kind of frustration bubbling up inside of me. It’s like I’m about to have a tantrum, but I haven’t had a tantrum since I was four. ‘Not for real,’ He agrees, and I’m glad that it won’t become some debate between us. I’m too exhausted to argue my point.‘Although, I don’t miss everyone - like those no-hopers in our class,’ I scowl, and he laughs. ‘I see,’ Mr Baker says, his annoyingly white teeth on display. ‘I suppose that is nice.’ ‘Sir, I really hate it when you treat us like an octopus,’ I confess. ‘An octopus?’ He asks, confused. ‘Yeah, when you act like our class shares a brain. I don’t understand why we get punished for something we haven’t done,’ I explain, encouraged by his calmness. ‘Ah,’ he says, like he’s been expecting someone to bring it up. ‘It’s just a technique. It’s meant to make you all feel more responsible for your actions.’ ‘All it makes me want to do is cause trouble. If I’m going to be punished anyway, why shouldn’t I just do what I’m being punished for?’ I ask, and Mr Baker is silent for a moment. ‘I don't want you to feel that way,’ he says eventually, and he sounds like he really means it.Through the laptop, I hear a door open and a cluster of keys jingle. Mr Baker sighs and says, ‘I’m sorry, Honey, I’ll find a different way.’ ‘That’s it? That’s all it took?’ I say, surprised by how easy it was to unravel his system. ‘You’re not an octopus,’ Mr Baker smiles, his eyes shifting to something else in the room. He keeps talking, although he’s starting to look a bit different. His eyes are getting weird, kind of cautious. And he’s not focusing on me like he usually does when we talk. ‘You’re your own person, Honey. And you’re a good student.’ ‘Sir?’ I ask, surprised by the sudden shift in his voice. He sounds barely there, like he has a bad throat and he needs to be quiet. ‘Are you okay?’‘I’m fine, Honey,’ he says, a little brighter. He forces himself to look at me, to look at his laptop, even though I can tell it’s still hard for him to focus. A thud echoes through my speakers. It’s loud. I flinch, but not as hard as Mr Baker does. ‘Hi, love,’ he says brightly, as footsteps draw closer and grow louder. He doesn’t get a reply. Instead, a hand comes out of nowhere and slaps him hard across the face. It takes me by surprise. I feel queasy. I manage to hit the mute button before I let out a disorientated gasp. The manicured hand comes back into view. It rushes towards Mr Baker’s cheek and stops. He finches again, his eyes are screwed shut. He’s waiting for it, and the other person knows he is. As soon as he opens his eyes, he’s struck again. Mr Baker lets out a painful mewl, and my heart starts pounding. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop it. ‘Why aren’t you finished?’ A woman’s voice asks. She sounds smug, like she’s pleased with herself for hurting him. ‘I’m just… making a few notes,’ Mr Baker says. He spares me a glance and tilts the screen down. He doesn’t want me to get involved. But it doesn't seem like he wants to be alone either. He hasn’t disconnected us. Although I can’t see what’s happening, I can still hear everything. I hear another slap, followed by the dull thud of a mug hitting the floor. Then, it’s quiet. I'm barely breathing as Mr Baker brings his hand down, into the gaze of his camera; I can see blood on his fingertips. Did she hit him with the mug? I start sweating. I have to force air down in my lungs as my fingers scramble to pick up my phone. I have an unread text from Molly. It says: Are you alright, babe? You seemed a bit out of it today. Without thinking, I call her. She answers after one ring, like she’s been waiting for me.‘Honey!’ She beams. I can hear her smile. ‘Is your dad home?’ I ask her in a bluster. ‘Yeah, why?’ ‘Put him on,’ I say urgently, and I must sound desperate because she doesn’t even ask why. I just hear the rustle of her handing me over, and then I hear her dad say, ‘Honey? What’s happening?’‘Do you know where Mr Baker lives?’ I ask breathlessly. I glance down at my laptop. There’s still a strip of visibility, but I can’t see him anymore. ‘I do,’ Molly’s dad says, and I feel relief rip through my body. My legs feel weak. I fall back onto my chair, but I don’t remember standing. ‘He needs help,’ I explain. ‘I was talking to him after class, and someone started hitting him. A woman. Please, help him.’ ‘I’m on my way,’ Molly’s dad says, and he hands me back to his daughter. I end up explaining everything again, but it’s more jumbled this time, like the adrenaline is taking it out of me. I put her on speaker and focus on the screen in front of me. I still can’t see anything. But Molly’s name reappears just below mine. She’s re-connected. I find comfort in no longer being alone, but the wait is agonising. It takes ten minutes, but the next face we see through the screen belongs to Molly’s dad. He says, ‘He’s okay. He’s coming to stay with us.’ I'm so thankful. But then it feels weird. It seems odd that they’re in the same room – even though I know it’s okay in emergencies.I start crying as soon as I see Mr Baker’s bloody face. He doesn’t look annoyingly perfect anymore. He looks hurt. I don’t hate him; I don’t think I ever truly did. I just hated being treated like the arm of an octopus. I wonder what would have happened had I not been there. If lockdown hadn’t happened, would it have been better or worse? I don’t know. But suddenly, I have Mr Baker’s voice ringing in my head: if anyone’s having a hard time, just stay connected, and we can talk.