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Authors: Caroline B. Cooney

Night School (6 page)

BOOK: Night School
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Mr. Phillips,
said Mariah quickly. Mr. Phillips, after all, was only a substitute person himself.
Mr. Phillips, alone in the library,
said Mariah quickly,
he’ll be the perfect SC.

There was quiet.

A rich satisfied quiet, like after a good meal.

Four students and an instructor contemplated the existence of Mr. Phillips and his perfection as an SC.

But what does SC stand for?
asked Autumn.

An SC?
repeated the instructor. Through the dark came a moonlike slice of smile.

That’s what the guillotine cut off when I came in the door, thought Mariah, that piece of smile.

An SC is a Scare Choice. Thank you, Mariah, for supplying tonight’s Scare Choice.

Chapter 5

T
HE FOUR CLASS MEMBERS
and their instructor were nothing but darkness, shifting and reforming. They filtered into the library like poison into a town reservoir.

Mariah tried to prevent her shade from joining the group. What was going to happen here? What were they going to do? She didn’t want to do it. But she no longer had control. She was merely part of a bleaker, deeper darkness.

Bevin is safe, Mariah told herself, that’s what counts. I didn’t give them Bevin’s name.

Through a dark now full of herself and the others, Mariah saw the Scare Choice. He didn’t know yet. They were at that fraction in time where things could still stop; where the victim didn’t yet know he was a victim.

Ned kept himself in the center of the class, for there he felt protected from his own weakness. What if the class realized that he was a lonely castoff himself? Only inches from being a Scare Choice?

Although Ned had never heard of an SC till a minute ago, he saw that Mariah had named a perfect one. The man reeked weakness, nervous fingers gripping a pencil too hard, shallow forehead wrinkled with worry that he might incorrectly grade some other teacher’s papers. Probably he felt protected by the knowledge that he was the only occupant of the building.

But he wasn’t the only occupant.

Night Class was there.

The Scare Choice sensed something. He shuffled two papers for no reason except to occupy his fingers. He looked out of the corner of his eyes without moving his head. A little twitch appeared in his cheek.

Andrew squinted into his camera. How metal and plastic could pass through a plaster wall fascinated Andrew. The class had not existed as they passed through the walls of the library and surrounded the SC, and yet the camcorder did exist, and somehow it had also moved through the wall.

The shadows he filmed seemed to have body, not merely light deflection. Andrew wondered how much would actually show up on the film. He circled the SC for a better angle.

The SC noticed. The SC held himself very still, trying to analyze the change in the atmosphere around him. It was an interesting reaction. Very primitive. Like a white rabbit freezing in the snow to hide.

Andrew focused, and now the thin nervous facial features of the SC appeared right in the little crosshatch. Sort of like aiming a rifle, thought Andrew. I’m shooting him.

It’s like joining a very exclusive club, thought Autumn, just as she passed through the library walls. She had always wanted to be in a club with passwords and secrets. Julie-Brooke-Autumn-Danielle did everything in public so as to be noticed and admired. But she, Autumn, would do things in the dark. It was so strange, to have no body. She who admired her body and its clothing, her body and its lovely hair, her body and its beautiful face—she had no body right now. She was not even a voice.

And yet, the SC knew she was there.

The SC wet his lips and began mouth-breathing, already too frightened to get enough air. Autumn could not get over how much like a little animal the SC was now: panting heaving chest, darting eyes, helpless surrender even before anything had happened. And he went on trying to look normal, still correcting papers, still moving his pencil, still hunched down close to the desk surface.

But every primitive response in his body—for the SC still had his body—had gone into high gear. His body knew while his mind was still rejecting it. There’s no evidence, his mind and his eyes were saying, calm down. But his body knew.

Autumn, too, knew.

She was comfortable in a tight group, had been part of a tight group for a long, long time. She liked the spread of groups: the way you were included in the action yet excluded from the blame.

If she let the SC’s name enter her mind, if she pictured his actual function, if she remembered him failing in front of a class, she felt sorry for him.

But as SC, he was merely a set of initials.

He wasn’t somebody. He didn’t matter.

Andrew zoomed in close, enlarging the SC’s frightened features. Shadows moved around the SC like smoke in the wind. The eyes of the SC scrambled, looking for an answer, and yet wanting none.

He thinks if he doesn’t really move, nothing will really be here, Andrew decided. Guess what, SC. We’re really here.

A single ceiling light had been enough for Mr. Phillips to work by, but now it was too dim, broken by the shadows crossing beneath it. The Scare Choice shrank, hunching into his ill-fitting cardigan. He pressed his lips tightly together and forced himself to look left and right. But he saw nothing, because there was nothing to see.

Andrew circled the victim. He had no idea what was going to happen to the SC, but he wanted to get it from the right angle. He had to improvise, and it brought out the best in him.

The instructor turned a page in a book. It was a distinctive sound. Paper against paper. Only fingers leafing pages could have made that sound. But the SC was the only person there. The SC gasped a little and whirled to see who had turned that page.

But of course nobody had. The library remained empty.

Silence gathered. The SC twitched. He rubbed sweaty palms against his trousers. Once again he picked up his marking pencil.

The instructor coughed.

The SC leaped to his feet, stumbling twice in a circle, struggling to catch a glimpse of who was behind him, coughing. Of course, nobody was behind him. Nobody was in front of him, either. He braced trembling fingertips against the table rim and looked back and form so often and so quickly he must have gotten dizzy from it.

The shadows swirled, but nobody existed to cast those shadows. The SC whimpered, “Who’s there?” His voice was strangled, though nothing had touched his throat.

Yet.

A chair scraped.

“Who’s there?” said the SC desperately. His eyes flitted toward the only exit. He was terrified of standing still and terrified of moving. How thick the dark was between him and the way out.

Andrew was riveted. If fear kept accelerating at this rate, it would be like filming the collapse of a building. It would be classic. He could hardly go on filming for thinking of what he had already captured on film.

Mariah thought of the times she had been alone in the dark. Lying rigid in bed when her parents were out, listening to the creaks and groans of her own house as if there were goblins and monsters. Picturing rapists and burglars with knives when the wind scraped branches across the glass of her window. Seeing horror lurk where there was only a coat hanging from a hook.

I’m that easy to scare, thought Mariah. What are we doing? Why are we doing it?

This is night school, Autumn reminded herself. So even if it doesn’t seem right, it probably is. The instructor is in charge. He knows these things. Probably this is going to teach the SC that he shouldn’t have a teaching job. After this, he’ll work with computers in some fluorescent-lighted office. Or maybe it will make him strong and after this, he’ll be tough in the dark.

But he was not getting tougher. He was getting weaker. And it was very quick, like a nature film of jackal versus newborn antelope. How easy it was to terrify an adult to whom absolutely nothing was happening.

Autumn was slightly disappointed. Why wasn’t the SC putting up a fight? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to observe if he fought back, instead of dissolving like powder in water? She found herself getting irritated with the SC. If he was such a weakling, he deserved it.

Ned yearned to help the SC. But nobody else was objecting, and after all, not a whole lot was really happening. It wasn’t as if they were putting a knife in him, or hanging him by his ankles in a shark tank. Ned decided that things were a matter of degree, and this was very little, and so he didn’t have to help.

Mariah found she’d been holding her breath, and even though she was shadow and didn’t have lungs, she let out a long, fat huff of air. Since there was no body to do any breathing but the SC, he stared at Mariah’s shadow in utter horror.

Andrew clicked his tongue in appreciation. The film of this was priceless; he would blow this one up; it would be the trailer for the movie he’d follow it with; it would chill the hearts of people who loved scary stuff.

Of course the tongue click scared the SC even more. Andrew was laughing into the camcorder. Imagine being scared of so little!

Following the age-old need of people to turn the lights on, the SC summoned his courage and headed for the far wall on which the bank of switches lay.

He did not make it.

A shadow reached it first, extinguishing the only existing light.

Autumn’s shadow.

Autumn had turned into a cat, perhaps, teasing the mouse she would eventually strike down. She knew how badly the SC needed light, so she took it away. There wasn’t enough going on for Autumn; she wanted to up the ante.

Now not even the shadows could see the shadows.

And the Choice—he could see nothing. He barged into a tall stack of books, which gave Andrew an idea, and Andrew pushed a book off a shelf. The heavy book fell flat with a thud like a fist hitting a jaw.

The SC banged into a wall. They could hear his fingernails scrabbling against painted surfaces. “Please!” he cried, admitting that the dark was in control, and he was not.

A single light came back on and the SC was revealed, cowering, hair and cardigan askew, back pressed up against a wall.

The single light came from Andrew’s camcorder: a camera suspended in midair, filming without human hands and without robotic fingers.

The SC’s long wavering scream started at the top and broke like glass at the bottom. Abandoning his papers, the SC fought his way to the exit, battling shadows, his fingers leaping like little separate people.

Finally he was out, sobbing in the hall, trying to reach the exit from that dark place, too. He would only find more dark. But at least, different dark. Not trapped, indoor dark. Wide, unknown, outside dark.

Andrew lowered the camcorder. The minute his eye was removed from the camera, he returned to reality—such as it was.

Papers were scattered across two tables. Clearly, quizzes for a social studies class, the kind with long answers that take forever to grade.

My class! thought Andrew, startled, seeing his own paper in the stack. And that was no SC. That was Mr. Phillips.

I didn’t do it, he thought quickly, as if answering a judge. I was just the cameraman. I just videotaped what the others did. You can’t count it against me. All I did was bump into a book and click my tongue. Nothing. Doesn’t count.

The class members had returned to normal. They had flesh and bone and blood once more, and were clothed, their feet encased in shoes.

Andrew had almost lifted the camera again when he decided not to film the class. He would edit them out. Pretend they hadn’t been part of the story. He rested the camcorder on his shoulder. It gave him something to do, made him official, removed him from responsibility. Reporters didn’t have to worry about what happened, they just had to record it.

“Well done!” said the instructor. Voice was back. Sound and volume and texture had returned.

Autumn still could not really see the instructor. She rubbed her eyes, to see if it was her. How blurry the instructor was; how distant, even though he was right there.

I wanted more to happen, thought Autumn Ivers. I wasn’t satisfied. I was a predator and I wanted the kill, not just the trembling. “What happens now?” she said quickly. I’m not coming back to this class, she thought. I don’t care if it is school, and I don’t care if I will get control of the night, and I don’t care if I do want to be friends with Mariah and Andrew and Ned, I’m not coming here to, well—watch—

“To watch yourself,” said the instructor pleasantly. “The Scare Choice awakens interesting appetites, don’t you think, Autumn? It leaves a taste for more, Autumn. Tell me, Autumn, what was the best part?”

Autumn put her hand over her mouth to stop her answer from coming out. She wanted the rest to like her.

“The best part was turning out the single light, wasn’t it, Autumn, and knowing that your move started his scream. It was an excellent scream, wasn’t it?” He showed his smile, a cold bluish white like the thinnest sliver of disappearing moon.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said quickly, “and I’m not coming back. There was no reason for this, and I’m not the type of person who—”

“But you are, Autumn,” said the instructor. “You
are
that type of person. And this is just the beginning. You will be an excellent student. One of my best, I am sure.”

“I’m dropping out,” she said.

“There is no possibility of dropping out.”

As shadows had filled the library earlier, now cold—true wintry cold—cold the California coast rarely knew—filled the room and their veins.

“As for what will happen now,” said the instructor, “that is out of our control, isn’t it? I will dispose of these tests. The SC will have no explanation. He can hardly say he was too scared to finish correcting. I wonder what he will say to the regular teacher. I wonder if they will hire him here again. Perhaps this is his only job, and he will no longer have it. Perhaps his life will be ruined. You can never tell where small things will end up. They snowball. You, an excellent class, true achievers, you have started the snowball.”

BOOK: Night School
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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