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Authors: Rin Chupeco

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BOOK: The Girl from the Well
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“How—how—” The young teacher stutters, then remembers the sea of inquiring faces before her. She checks the ruined bulb hastily and seems relieved that none of the glass has flown out of the tape. “This is why you mustn't try this at home without any parental supervision,” the young woman finishes, but it is clear that she herself is distressed over what has happened, though she fights hard not to let it show.

The boy's shivering has also passed. Color returns to his face, but he, too, is unnerved. The peculiar shadow seeking to fold itself around him has disappeared.

“Experiment's over for now! Who can tell me what the difference is between a positively charged atom and a negatively charged one? Brian?”

The lessons continue until the bell rings again and the children file out of the classroom, eager to be off. “I want everyone to leave the room through the back door!” the young woman warns. “Just to be on the safe side, in case there's glass on the floor that needs sweeping up!”

“I'm sorry,” she tells the boy after most of the students have left. “I have no idea how that happened.” The boy's backpack has fallen off the table, some of its contents spilling out: one binder, three books, and two sharpened pencils. The young woman bends to pick them up.

“Oh, these are good, Tark!” She holds up the binder, now opened to pages of quick sketches and rough drawings: landscapes, animals, miscellaneous people.

The boy snatches it back. “Thanks,” he says, more embarrassed than angry. He stuffs it back into his bag. “I really gotta go, Callie. There's a shrink waiting to see if I meet her minimum requirements of crazy.”

“Stop that,” the young woman says with a natural firmness that she often adopts with her charges. “You're not crazy, so stop saying you are.”

The boy grins at her. Something unnatural lurks at the corner of his eyes, something not even he seems aware of. “Sometimes I wish I could believe that, Callie. But my own mother's batshit crazy, and I've seen so much other strange crap in my life that there's no doubt I'll be following in her footsteps soon enough.” He glances up at the ceiling again, but there is nobody there. “I don't think your attempts at immersing me in the sanity of the general population's hive-mind are going to work here, but thanks anyway.”

“Tark!” But the boy has already walked out of the room, a hand raised in farewell.

The young woman sighs, sinking into her chair. She picks up the broken bulb and turns it sideways. There is no doubt that the glass inside has been smashed, like a hammer has been violently taken to it. A shield of tape still holds some of the shards in place.

“What happened to you?” she whispers, her tone wondering. She lifts it to get a better view and sees her own slightly distorted image on the surface, tiny and unfocused.

As she watches, another reflection within the bulb moves beside her own.

She gasps, whirling around.

“Miss Starr?”

It is the girl called Sandra. The young teacher's heart is pounding. “Sandra! You startled me…”

“She's really sorry,” the child says sincerely.

“Who is?”

“The girl who broke the lightbulb. I know she's sorry. It's 'cause you brought nine a' them. And she really, really doesn't like the number nine.”

The young woman stares at her.

“I still like her better than the other lady, though.”

“The other lady?”

“The lady with the strange face. The one with Mister Tarquin. She scares me.”

She skips out, leaving the young woman staring after her, and on her face I can read her terror.

There is a crackling sound. Something is on the floor, trapped underneath a table leg. It is a piece of paper from the tattooed boy's binder.

The young woman picks this up with shaking hands. Unlike the other detailed drawings the boy has drawn, this is a mass of uneven loops and spirals. It is a rough drawing of a lady in black wearing a pale white mask, one half-hidden by her long, dark hair.

Black and White

The therapist is named Melinda Creswell. That is the name written on a small golden plaque on the door: Melinda J. Creswell and, underneath that, Psychotherapist. Past the door is a room with two armchairs, two footrests, one couch, and one long table filled with folders. Two windows look out onto the busy street below. There are three certificates framed on the wall and one leafy plant in the corner.

The tattooed boy walks in with an air of expecting to be pounced on and devoured. He stares at a large painting of a summer meadow like he believes a wild beast is lying in wait for him amid the painted weeds.

Melinda Creswell herself is smaller than the room implies. She has graying curly hair and a rosebud mouth, and she is pouring tea the wrong way into two small, unadorned cups. She uses no bamboo whisks or caddies, and so the steam rising from the resulting mixture is of unsatisfactory sweetness. Finally, she smiles at him. “Hello, Tarquin. How was school today?”

The boy says nothing. He slumps into one armchair, and the woman sits across from him in the other, offering a cup and a plate of small, round cookies that he halfheartedly accepts. I begin counting the books behind her, which fill numerous shelves spanning from one wall to the next.

“I've just had a talk with your father,” the therapist says, “and I understand you've been having difficulty adjusting to Applegate since moving here. Do you want to talk about it?”

The boy blows noisily into his cup and takes a small sip. Then he sets the tea to one side.

“All right. Let's cut to the chase.”

“What do you mean?”

“My dad paid you money to get me sitting in this chair—probably overpaid you, too, since his solution to every problem is to throw money in its face until it chokes from taxes. I'm pretty sure you have all my vital statistics—height, weight, eye color, allergies, my favorite breakfast cereal. You know we're from northern Maine, which is the coldest part of the United States except Alaska. There should be a government mandate preventing anyone other than yetis and hobbits from living in northern Maine, that's how cold I think it is.

“And now we're in Applegate, where the sun is actually doing its job but where the people are all so. Damn. Friendly. I can't take two steps without someone asking how I'm doing, or what my name is, or why I'm wearing thick clothes in this kind of weather, as if they're all required by the government to introduce themselves to everyone else like friendly, neighborhood child molesters.

“We're here because Dad found a bigger and better-paying white-collar job—you'd think he was the only investment banker up north the way he carries on—and so we could be closer to my mother, who is clearly crazy and who has on occasion declared her undying love for her only son by nearly strangling me to death. So yes, I am thrilled at the prospect of putting myself within spitting distance for her to try again. And the absolutely mind-blowing conclusion you've reached is that I may be having ‘difficulty adjusting since moving to Applegate'? Really, Sherlock?”

The woman waits placidly until he is done with his spiel before speaking again. “Do you hate your mother, Tarquin?”

The boy looks back at her, and some of the anger leaves his face. “No. I've never hated her.”

“Are you afraid of what she might do to you?”

“Only because what she does appears to be catching.” A pause. “I killed someone, you know.”

The therapist sounds calm and unworried despite this admission. “Who did you kill?”

“Some boy at school.”

“Was he a friend?”

“Only if you're the kind of masochist that enjoys being beaten up by ‘friends.'”

“I was told by your father that the police investigated what happened to you at your old school. They said there was no possible way that you were responsible for that.”

“Still my fault he's dead.” The boy shifts. “I really don't want to talk about it anymore.”

“That's all right. I don't want you talking about anything that makes you uncomfortable. How about telling me something about your relatives here in Applegate, instead?”

“You mean Callie? She's great. She and Aunt Linda are the sanest and nicest people I know, which is another reason Dad decided to take the job and move here.”

“I've heard she works as a teaching assistant at Perry Hills Elementary.”

“It's something you'd expect someone like Callie to do. Callie loves kids. At least three times a year they visit us in Maine, despite weather that can freeze your toes off, and she never complains. We've always been close, for two people who live several hundred miles away from each other. She's like the big sister I never had. Callie's always taken care of me, even back then.”

“How so?”

“She gets me out of trouble, for one thing.”

“And are you often in trouble?”

“Got a knack for it. When I was six, I decided to eat crayons—I wanted to see if it would, uh, come out the other end in different colors, and my repeated failures made me all the more determined—and she made me barf them all out every time I did, before I could get sick. Another time I nearly sliced off my thumb making dinner, and she got me to a hospital before I was done hyperventilating. Little things like that.” The boy smiles faintly at the memory. “I always joked that she was born old. She said it's because one of us had to grow up, and it wasn't likely to be me. I'd always been a stupid kid. Probably still am.”

The boy pauses again. The woman is quick to pick up on the sudden change in his manner.

“Have you asked her for help recently?”

“Not…not recently, no. I decided not to.”

“And why not?”

Again he hesitates. His eyes drift back to the painting. Ninety-eight, I count. Ninety-nine. One hundred.

“Because she won't believe me.”

• • •

But the young woman has a strong capacity for belief.

“They're kids, Callie,” her friend objects, a woman with short, black hair and a round face, nearly six years older. They are preparing to leave for the day, the school corridors empty of the students who swarmed out only hours before. “Of course they're going to say they see dead people. Didn't you watch the movie?”

The teenager is far from amused. “I'm serious, Jen. There's something strange going on.”

“Sandra's one of my students, too, remember? She's always been a little spaced out. I don't think she's been weaned off imaginary friends yet. There's one of those in every class.”

“No. I mean, yes, she's a little unusual, but I meant Tarquin.”

“Your cousin, the Halloway boy? The one they say has all those tattoos on his arms? Poor kid. The one with the crazy mother? No offense,” she adds quickly, but Callie shakes her head.

“I've never met Aunt Yoko. Uncle Doug told me it wasn't exactly abuse, but he didn't explain how it wasn't. It's not something they like talking about, and Mom always felt we shouldn't push.”

“He'd say that, of course. Kid's got a hard enough life without having to advertise to the whole school that his ma's got several screws loose in the brain department. Have you seen them? The tattoos? He's always wearing those big shirts so I couldn't get much of a look. Not that I blame him for wanting to hide them.”

“A few times, and always by accident. There are some small circles, right above his wrists, with very peculiar writing. I…I got chills just by looking at it. You know that cliché about the hairs standing up at the back of your neck? I feel that every time I see those tattoos, and I don't even know why. I have a feeling there are more of them he isn't showing.”

“Have you asked Mr. Halloway anything more about them?”

“Where would I even begin? ‘If you don't mind my asking, Uncle Doug, I'd like to know exactly how many tattoos Aunt Yoko gave Tarquin during her mental breakdown. Oh, no reason, they just scare the bejesus out of me.'”

“I think you're worrying too much about things that shouldn't be your problem, family or not. Know what my solution is? A boyfriend. I know this really cute guy a couple of years older than you. His name's Everett. Works part-time at the gym, planning on being a rocket scientist, literally. Aerospace engineering major. Has this sort of Jake Gyllenhaal vibe going…”

The blonde makes a face. “I'm serious, Jen. I don't like this.”

“Neither do I, but we don't get to pick the kids they give us to teach, either, and we still have to like it. If we could, maybe I wouldn't have to read book reports that start: ‘
begins when Johnny Depp goes into this weird town and gets chased by some guy with no head.'”

Both women laugh. “I have to go,” the older one says. “Speaking of the hypothetically questionable upbringing of family members, I'm already running late. Jackson's working 'til eight, so it's my turn to pick Sean up from day care. I have no idea how they're both going to manage things here without me.”

“So you're really set on going on that cultural studies program?”

“Absolutely!” Jen grins, excited. “Practically a month in France, all expenses paid—what's not to like? Well, most expenses paid. I don't think any planned shopping trips will count as research. Jackson's not happy about me not spending the summer here, but he agreed I shouldn't pass this up. You were accepted, too, weren't you?”

“I was—but I haven't decided on a country yet. Spain, Australia, India…they all sound tempting. I just feel a little guilty about leaving here before the school term officially ends.”

“Well, it's not like a teacher's assistant is such a glamorous, well-paying job. Felicia Donahue's coming back in two weeks, anyway, so you won't have anything pressing to do. Think about going to France with me, instead. Just imagine—reclining with cups of
café noisette
at a gorgeous little café, you being serenaded by a group of cute French boys while I'm waited on hand and foot by a charming waiter who looks suspiciously like Jean Reno…”

“Okay, okay, I'll at least
about it. Now stop daydreaming about inappropriately aged men and get out of here! Don't keep Sean waiting.” The girl shoos away her friend, who walks on after one last wave. Only when she is finally out of sight does the teacher's assistant sigh, her face troubled.

It is then that she notices Sandra by the swings, singing softly to herself.

• • •

“And what makes you think she won't believe you?”

The boy snorts. “Some days I wish I didn't believe me, either.”

“Would you like to tell me all about it?” the psychotherapist asks. The boy glares at her with a suspicious eye. One hundred and twelve, one hundred and thirteen.

“And what's going to stop you from putting me in the crazy bin if I do?” he accuses.

“I'll believe that it's something
believe,” the woman says, and believes her own lie. “And if you're worried about me telling anyone else, I won't. Everything you say in this room will be strictly confidential. Not even your father has to know. The only reason for me to divulge information to anyone is if I have reason to believe that you are a danger to yourself or to the community, and I believe you are not a threat.”

The boy considers this for a few minutes, then laughs. It is not a humorous sound.

“Sometimes when I look in mirrors, I see a strange lady.”

To her credit, the woman does not blink.

“She's in a black dress, and she wears a mask. All she does is watch me, and not with that I've-got-a-crush-on-you kind of stare. Less infatuated, more homicidal. I always get this feeling like she's waiting for something, but I don't know what that is. She pops up in places I don't expect—mirrors, usually. She's fond of mirrors, unfortunately. If that makes me crazy, then you better have a straitjacket ready, because that's the truth.”

“I see.” The woman's voice does not change. She picks up her cup again. “How long have you been seeing this lady?”

“I don't know. For as long as I can remember, I guess. Maybe since I was five, six years old. Sometimes I don't see her for months at a time, but now I see her almost every day, especially after moving here. It's—have you ever had the sensation of feeling eyes looking at you, except you know they're not really eyes?”

Even the woman's detachedness hesitates at such a description. “And you've never told anyone about this?”

“Dad's got some fuzzy notion about what's been getting my goat, but he doesn't believe me. He never does. He thinks I'm imagining things. It's hard to talk to him about anything, really.” The boy's tone is surly. One hundred and twenty-eight, one hundred and twenty-nine.

“Has anyone else ever seen her?”

“I'm not sure. I don't think so.”

“What about Callie?”

“Sometimes Callie looks at me funny, like she knows there's something wrong. But she's never said anything. And I don't want her knowing, anyway. Whatever this is, I want her out of it.”

• • •

“Hello, Sandra,” the teacher's assistant says.

The girl smiles back at her but says nothing. The young woman takes the swing beside hers.

“I was wondering about this woman you told me about. The woman standing behind Tarquin.”

“Oh, that woman,” the girl says. She stops swinging. “The lady with the funny mask.”

“A mask?”

“I thought it was a face at first, but it's not. It has holes instead of eyes.”

“Why don't you like her?”

“Because she's in prison. And she's been trying to get out.”

This does not make much sense to the young teacher, so she tries again. “When did you first see this woman?”

BOOK: The Girl from the Well
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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