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Authors: Caroline B. Cooney

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BOOK: Night School
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Mariah was shocked. “Could that much happen?”

The smile was back. It had no teeth and no lips; it was just a curve like the blade of an alien knife. “It doesn’t take much. People are so very afraid of what they can’t see or understand. He was an excellent Scare Choice, Mariah. Thank you.”

Mariah did not want to be thanked. She did not want to feel any responsibility in this at all. “I didn’t do a thing,” she said quickly.

“My dear, you offered up the name. If there is any responsibility here, it is undoubtedly yours.”

“That isn’t true,” said Mariah. She did not want to be called “my dear.”

The instructor darkened, but not like shadow. Like the dank smoke of arson. “I do not advise that any of you contradict me. There are consequences. Come. Sit where your Scare Choice sat.”

And so the four teenagers were forced to sit at the long library table where Mr. Phillips had tried to correct papers. He had left fear behind like a scent, and they choked on it.

Ned stared at the floor. Mr. Phillips wasn’t actually hurt, so it doesn’t count, he told himself. He probably got to his car. He’ll be fine. He’ll drive home and calm down and he can think up a good excuse for losing the tests.

The instructor was no longer shadow, but thick, sucking mud that held them by the ankles. They tried not to breathe, lest they catch whatever he was. But they were already caught, of course. “Andrew, the video, please. Such a nice touch, and so thoughtful of you.”

Andrew did not want to show it, not now. He no longer knew what had seemed so brilliant, so cinematic. Now that the subject was no longer an SC, but pathetic terrified Mr. Phillips, Andrew wanted the film not to exist. Only minutes ago he had thought watching was a useful profession. Now he wanted to be rid of the evidence.

“Why, Andrew, you were so proud of your work. And I’m sure it is excellent work. You are always brilliant, are you not? You always excel, do you not? Show the film.”

It was not the dark that was under control, but the class.

Andrew felt obedient, and he was unaccustomed to this. His parents did not give orders; they had family conferences and came to decisions. But here, orders were proper, and following orders was more proper. Andrew showed the film.

It was brilliant. How vividly it displayed cringing and creeping and crying out—the change from man to animal.

“At the end of the semester,” said the instructor, “we will have a party. We will invite our Scare Choices. It is amusing to preserve this sort of thing on tape. People are ashamed to see how they behaved under stress. We will laugh at them. There is nothing quite so destructive as being laughed at.”

Ned knew the truth of that. He’d spent years being laughed at. People remembered you that way, too. They remembered your shame and helplessness and failure, and they remembered the pleasure they felt laughing, proving that you were crumby and they were worthy.

He looked at Andrew’s camcorder; the power of that horrible little machine. What kind of party did they have in mind? What other Scare Choices were they going to make? What if they chose Ned himself, who had been a Choice, a butt to be scorned, for so many years?

Andrew could capture Ned forever on film. Ned would be laughed at year in, year out, by each successive class.

“Stand up, Class,” said the instructor. His blue smile was so cold, so thin, so luminous.

How quickly and completely they obeyed.

“Was this good entertainment?” asked the instructor.

It was a club. Autumn had been correct. And this was the initiation. Admitting that the Scare Choice had been good entertainment.

Nobody wanted to say that. Nobody did.

“Look at Mariah,” the instructor said to the other three. How quickly they obeyed, looking seriously and carefully at Mariah.

Mariah didn’t look back. Her heart was pounding hideously; she was going to have a heart attack. She knew why she had been chosen. She had the most to lose. Bevin and her secrets.

“Mariah, was this good entertainment?” His smile lengthened beyond the edges of his face, extending out into the room to cut her. He was no hologram. He was a demon, and a demon wins by possession. He had her secrets. She could not let him possess Bevin.

It’s only a sentence, Mariah told herself. Just because I say it doesn’t mean I agree with it. It’s okay to say something if you’re in danger, or your brother is in danger. “It was good entertainment.”

“Thank you, Mariah.” The instructor exhaled like car exhaust. Mariah was breathing in poison; she might as well have been hooking her lungs to the exhaust pipe of a ruined car. “Tell us again, Mariah.”

Exhaust poison you could see only in certain weather, at certain temperatures. And the temperature here was more terrible than anything Mariah had ever known. But she had to breathe it in anyway, or expose her brother and open her secrets.

“It was good entertainment,” said Mariah. It was easier to say this time. After she had said it five times, she hardly even knew what it meant.

Then it was Autumn’s turn.

Then Ned’s.

Finally Andrew’s.

They were exhausted from saying it, as if they had just come from gym. Perhaps they had. Night Class was truly a workout.

“Your homework,” said the instructor, his smile expanding to a half moon, hideously blue, “is to choose an ETS.”

They knew now how class worked. They did not argue. They did not say, But we don’t want to do this again; it was mean and it was pointless. Instead, they said, “What is an ETS?”

“An Easy To Scare. Remember that you are beginners. You want to find somebody who is already fearful, whose life is already difficult, for whom the dark is already a threat.”

Four teenagers tried to keep out the images of victims: pitiful people. Any school has its share. The ones nobody cares about, the ones chosen by the pack to rip and tear.

Now the smile was the whole moon: fat, bloated, backlit with pale evil. “We will meet again next Wednesday.” They were escorted out of the library, moved down the hall, brought to the outside door. “Do not forget your homework. If you fail to bring a good ETS, I will pick one myself. How unfortunate it would be if I were to decide upon one of you. Ask yourself if you wish to choose the next SC … or be chosen.”

Chapter 6

I
T WAS LIKE LEAVING
a movie.

Plot and actors stayed inside the theater, flat on the screen.

Moviegoers emerged into the warmish, coolish air that was California in winter, surprised to find that everything outside was normal. Cars were parked, traffic was moving, restaurants were open, red lights blinked.

There was that moment of standing on the sidewalk while the movie evaporated, pulling themselves out of the pretend and into the real. Night Class was nothing but a movie they had watched, or read the script for.

They said pointless things: It’s nice out, where are you parked? watch the step. Autumn felt as if she should have had popcorn. And just the way she felt when leaving a gripping horror movie, where heads were wrenched off living bodies and sharp blades slashed from behind shimmering curtains, Autumn was swept with relief that it didn’t count. That was the neat thing about scary movies; you could go in there and be absolutely terrified, and maybe even scream a little bit between handfuls of popcorn and sips of Coke, but then you walked outside and it was nothing. Nothing at all.

“Well,
that
was weird!” said Autumn, in a larger voice than usual, to fill up the space.

“I think we got hypnotized or something,” said Ned, laughing loudly. “Who was that teacher anyway?”

“She never said,” Autumn remembered.

“Did you think it was a she?” asked Ned. “I thought it was an it.”

“I think it was all three,” said Autumn. “I think it was she, he,
and
it.” Autumn stretched, her whole long slim body a yawn, and embraced the easy soft California night, fingertips thrust to the sky.

“You look like a rain dancer,” teased Ned.

Autumn giggled. She giggled well. It was always possible to join in on Autumn’s giggles. Even for boys like Ned who did not know how to giggle. “We just walked out of a building where the teacher is gender free and face free,” Autumn pointed out. “I’m spooked. So I’m
de
spooking myself.”

Andrew stayed spooked. He’d had years of training to be photogenic. His mouth and cheeks and eyes were always in the position he required of them.

Unlike Mr. Phillips.

Andrew swallowed. He touched his hair, which was straight and neatly trimmed, and ran his fingers along his jaw, which was strong and certain. They felt like props. Like makeup.

For Andrew the movie they had just left continued to play in his mind, exactly the way he had filmed it. He saw the dim light like a sick halo behind Mr. Phillips’s thinning hair. He saw the peeled back face of a man reduced to a gibbering animal banging into walls and scrabbling for switches.

Andrew’s face did not quiver, did not tense, but his cheeks, without permission, went hot and red. He controlled only the muscles, not the blood pressure. I’ve made my first movie, thought Andrew. And it was mean. We were bullies. I’m not on the film, though. I was behind the camera, not in front of it. It’s great work, my first film. I can be proud of it, I can be—

He was not proud of it. The color stayed in his face, marking him out, although in the dark of night, none of the others could see.

Should he edit out Mr. Phillips’s terror? But there was no film without the terror.

“Great idea!” said Mariah.

Andrew thought she meant his film, and was shocked. How could sweet nice Mariah think that film was great?

But she had meant Autumn’s
de
spook dance. She joined in, and again Andrew saw the world like a film, and the girls were half morning television exercise video, and half strangers in the night, beckoning to men.

Ned and Andrew joined them, awkwardly and ineptly. And with that, whatever had happened inside the school became absurd. Something to jump up and down about. Something to laugh about.

“The Night Class Dance Troupe,” Mariah named them.

Andrew knew a cue when he heard one. He swung Mariah in a ballroom dance step, twirling her beneath his extended arm. “It’ll take more than this to
de
spook us, guys. We need a bigger dose of normal. Let’s get pizza. My treat,” Andrew added, because you could never tell who was apt to have cash and who wasn’t; who was rich and who was pretending. Andrew was not pretending.

Ned liked how Andrew referred to “normal” as if it were a thing you could be served, or an object you could buy. It wasn’t true, in Ned’s experience. He’d struggled all his life to be normal and accepted. Neither experience nor money did it if you were one of the outsiders.

Ned thought very briefly of the weirdness back inside the school, and decided never to think of it again. Normal was what he wanted; he’d do anything in Night Class to get it.

“Pizza!” cried Autumn, who had never gotten pizza except with Julie-Brooke-Danielle. “Great idea! Extremely normal. But no anchovies. That’s not normal.”

“Count me in!” said Ned, who had never gotten pizza with anyone.

Andrew danced with me, thought Mariah. And tomorrow he’ll call me up, and love me, and date me, and need me, and want me. You
can
will things into being. You
can
preplan your life, and one night turn a page in your calendar and there it is: waiting: lined up: ready for you the way you were ready for it. The boy you adore.

“I’d love pizza,” said Mariah.

This will be the new group, she thought. Us. People will admire us in the halls, and wish they could be part of us, the way they used to be part of Julie-Brooke-Autumn-Danielle.

“Settled,” said Andrew. “Anybody need a ride?”

“Me,” said Autumn.

Andrew nodded, sticking his hand in his pants pocket to fish out his keys. The keys were there, but the motion reminded him of the object that he no longer had.

He didn’t have the camcorder.

The knowledge hit him fast, without preparation. He could not remember setting the camera down. But he must have. It must be back inside. Camcorder, film, and proof were back in the building.

Proof, thought Andrew, and the hands he had thought were under complete control turned soggy and marshy with sweat, and the hot cheeks and throat iced over.

He did not want anybody to know that he, Andrew, had contributed to Mr. Phillips’s collapse. People respected Andrew. They thought he was better than other people, and Andrew prided himself on accomplishing that. I am better than other people, he thought.

Except that better people, if they ever picked on somebody, at least picked on somebody who could fight back.

Andrew, alone of the four teenagers, would see Mr. Phillips in the morning. For Mr. Phillips was subbing for Andrew’s teacher, and those papers were Andrew’s class’s papers.

He imagined his own class finding that film. His own class playing it over and over during the forty-five minutes in which Mr. Phillips was out of control at the best of times. Andrew knew his class well. How they would laugh at Mr. Phillips, hounding him like a pack of wild dogs. Biting his tendons, bringing him down. Cheering and jeering.

He had to go back in and get the camera. His first priority was not to be exposed as the one who choreographed and filmed that, and his second priority was not to let Mr. Phillips get hurt all over again.

Andrew looked back at the school. In all their dancing, they had never looked back, never allowed their eyes to focus on the building they had just left.

He could not distinguish bricks from windows. The presence of Night Class covered his mouth and nose like Saran Wrap. Clear micro-thin plastic through which he could not breathe.

A stench like car exhaust enveloped Andrew.

But no car engine was near. Yet, he could actually see the exhaust: a grimy black soot that would stay on him even when he showered.

He had to get the camera. It took physical effort, as hard as doing that final chin-up, to look once more at the school. Nothing could be that dark. And the dark was
so occupied.
Every shadow was living, exhaling murk.

BOOK: Night School
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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