Something about my history teacher Mr. Vavilov has always creeped me out. The enormous dark rings under his eyes and the slight tremor in his voice don’t help matters. On the first day of class when he called roll, he paused before saying my name. Not long enough for anyone else to notice but just long enough to give me chills. As he lectured about the Civil War, I kept getting that prickly feeling of being watched. When I looked up from my notes, his eyes would flick away quickly enough to make me question myself. The people I told about it questioned me, too.
“You’re imagining it, Jenny.”
“You read too much, Jenny.”
“You’re a hysterical female, Jenny. You should go to the seaside. The air will be good for your health.”
Today, something is different. I can tell as soon as I enter the classroom. The atmosphere presses on my skin, and the shadows in the corners of the room seem to shift whenever I blink. I force myself to walk stiffly over to my desk and sit down.
“Hey, Jenny! How was your weekend?” asks Leah, the girl who sits next to me. I mumble something vague. I can’t concentrate. Is no one else feeling this? Leah launches into a story about visiting her grandmother over the weekend. I glance at Mr. Vavilov. His eyes flick away. Was he watching me?
I sink down in my chair and try to breathe. The hard plastic digs into my back, and the metal chair legs creak as I shift my weight. I’m imagining this right? I have to be.
Mr. Vavilov claps his hands, and the chatter dies down. “Okay class! Pop quiz.”
A collective groan rises and people shuffle to put their books away. I forgot to take mine out in the first place, so I stare at my desk and click my mechanical pencil.
“It shouldn’t be too hard,” says Mr. Vavilov as he makes his way down the aisle, placing papers face down on each desk. “This is just a quick review.”
I can’t help cringing away from him when he reaches my desk, but he gives me my quiz and moves on without comment. Mr. Vavilov walks back to the front of the room and waits for the talking to quiet again. He clears his throat. “Begin.”
Papers rustle as we all turn our quizzes over. I write my name at the top of the quiz, then read the first question.
1. Who was H. P. Lovecraft?
That’s odd. I don’t remember covering Lovecraft in this class. I glance over at Leah. She’s already halfway down the page, pencil scratching furiously. Hmm. I guess we did cover Lovecraft in my Lit class, so I know a little about him. I shrug and write, H. P. Lovecraft was a horror writer in the 1920s and 30s. His particular type of horror often dealt with fear of the unknown. He is famous for his weird mythological creatures like the Cthulhu.
Ok, next question.
2. Some of Lovecraft’s short stories reference a play called “The King in Yellow.” What is unusual about this play?
I write, The first act is normal, but anyone who reads the second act is driven insane. Once you start reading the second act, you are drawn in and cannot stop.
3. “The King in Yellow” was not the only writing of its kind. Various manuscripts have surfaced over the years, inflicting different curses on their readers. Some readers are driven insane. Some hallucinate. Some even experience effects that alter their appearances. Many of these curses are permanent, but not all of them. Sometimes, if the cursed person can get someone else to read the manuscript, the curse is transferred to them.
Umm… there’s no question to answer. I guess I’ll leave that one blank. Goosebumps run up my arms. I don’t like this.
4. True or False: You are the only student in this classroom.
What? I look up, and my breath catches in my throat. The desks around me are empty. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. I look over to Mr. Vavilov, and his eyes don’t flick away this time. He stares at me intensely. The corners of his mouth slowly curve upward in a predatory smile. He points at my quiz, and I look back down.
5. True or False: You can’t move your legs.
I can’t move my legs. I’m hyperventilating. I need to calm down; I need to think. This can’t be happening. I try to scream for help, but I can’t get enough breath. I look back at Mr. Vavilov. He is now standing directly in front of my desk. He leans forward.
“True or false,” he whispers. “You are compelled to read the rest of the quiz.”
My chin jerks downward without my permission. My eyes land on the final question in the quiz.
6. No one sees the waves,
Vultures crouching in the pavement cracks.
A man slipped in up to his neck.
He never noticed
But wondered distractedly
Why his clothes were soaked.
Every night, millions sleep to the murmur
Of rising tide
While cracks spread.
When I finish reading, I am cursed.
And now Dear Reader, thanks to you I am free. I hope you will forgive me. Whether you do or not, it’s too late to change anything. You have read the poem.
It’s nothing personal. I had to transfer the curse to someone, and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m not going to tell you what the curse is; you’ll find out soon. You may start to notice your heart rate increasing. Don’t worry, that’s normal. Just try to relax. All you have to do is transfer the curse to someone else. Then you’ll be free, too.
I’m not mad at Mr. Vavilov. He wasn’t evil, just desperate. My desperation has also driven me to do things I’m not proud of. What about you? Will your morals hold up? I suppose you’ll find out.