"WAIT!" Robin gasped, as she ran up the steep driveway. The massive oaken doors were already swinging ponderously shut. "Wait!" Robin's book bag banged against her hip, as she sprinted the last few yards. She desperately reached for the closing door, catching the handle in a hand slick with rain and sweat.
Max, the door guard, seemed not to notice the rain. He was in the process of hauling the schoolhouse door shut; he had to use both hands. Gnarled, old man's knuckles stood out underneath white, kid-leather gloves. His perpetual scowl deepened into a sneer, as he ponderously swung the door open. "Tardy again, Miss Townsend," his voice seemed to vibrate dryly in his throat. It was an oddly arid sound, for such a rainy morning. "Perhaps I shouldn't let you in? Perhaps I should let the constable pick you up and take you in as a truant?"
"Please, Max," Robin panted, swiping at the clumps of wet, brunette hair that hung in her face. "I'm sorry, I ..." She trailed off, fighting the tears that threatened to mix with the rain already running down her round cheeks.
"Well," Max took his time stepping out of the doorway. "If you insist. But you are very tardy, Robin. Very tardy ..." Robin blinked water from hazel eyes, momentarily wide with surprise; she hadn't known Max even knew her first name.
The echoes of the slamming schoolhouse door chased her down the corridor, as Robin dashed toward her classroom. Her thick glasses fogged up immediately, upon entering the overly warm building. Her galoshes squeaked on the polished linoleum, as she skidded around the corner, and into the room. With a sob of relief, she tossed her book bag on her desk, and sank into the too-small chair behind it.
Robin was painfully aware of her harsh breathing. Of her rain-soaked, bedraggled appearance. Of the silence of the other students. Even Mrs. Carmody, standing at the head of the class, radiated disapproval. Finally, she couldn't stand it. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Carmody," She almost whimpered. "I know, I'm late--tardy, I mean ... Again ..." Her voice echoed in the strangely muffled air of the classroom. For a moment, vertigo swept over her, and she reached out to catch her balance against the edge of her desk.
"Indeed, Ms. Townsend," Mrs. Carmody's back was still turned to Robin. "You are, once again, tardy." We have all been waiting for you ..." The last word stretched out. It became a buzzing sound. It reminded Robin of the sound of cicadas on a summer night.
Robin took off her hopelessly fogged glasses, and began wiping them on her sweater. Her nostrils flared, as the weight of the heavy frames left the bridge of her nose. She became aware of a disturbing smell in the room--something rank and foul seemed to lurk, for an instant, under the usual smells of chalk dust, old paper, and the steaming of damp clothing. Then, it was gone. She inhaled deeply, trying to catch the faint olfactory wrongness again, but couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary. She shivered, suddenly chilled, despite the stiflingly hot room.
Around her, the low murmur of conversation resumed. Robin squirmed self-consciously in the hard chair that was too small for her. She hid her embarrassment by pretending to dig through her book bag, looking for her history book.
Ever since her family had moved to this small British town, with its one-room schoolhouse, she had felt like a stuck-out sore thumb. She hadn't adjusted to the new rules, the strange expectation. Even the language was weird--tardy, for example. Not late. She was always tardy. The word had a spooky, sinister sound, to Robin.
She placed her newly polished, finally un-fogged glasses back on her nose. Someone behind her was making an annoying clicking noise. It sounded like a ballpoint pen, whose nib was being repeatedly extended and retracted. Was his name Alan? Albert? Robin wanted to turn and glare, but she didn't dare. The clicking turned to a harsh, moaning buzz, then faded. It didn't sound like a pen, in that last instant. It sounded hollow, like a shaken gourd filled with ancient seeds. Robin had to fight the impulse to turn around. Something base and primal in her mind warned her not to
"Class," Mrs. Carmody called out. The sibilance of the double-S seemed to hang in the air just a shade too long. Again, Robin felt dizziness and disorientation sweep over her. "Class, please open your history texts to page one hundred thirty two." The "ooh," sound at the end of Two seemed ... wrong.
"I thought we were on page forty-six," Robin heard herself say, in a voice that was far too bright--far too chirpy. Her question fell into the renewed silence, like a stone clattering down a well; far too loud. The disapproval that surrounded her was palpable. From somewhere, a derisive snicker came, followed by a series of scraping noises. It sounded like nails scratching on wood.
This time, Robin did, despite herself, turn to look for the noise. She couldn't find the source. In the quick, furtive glance, which was all she dared, before casting her eyes down once again, and focusing on the book open on her desk, her eyes tried to tell her brain ... something. Her brain steadfastly refused to listen. Her brain insisted on seeing rows of restless students, sitting at identical desks, in straight, hard chairs. They were clad in proper uniforms. Open books hid years of carved initials, numbers, doodles, and other graffiti, that Robin could clearly recall, from looking at her own desk. Her mind knew what it should see, and it filled in the gaps. Her mind craved the comfort of normality. It sought to burrow into that comfort, like a baby kangaroo burrowing blindly into it's mother's pouch.
"Did you," said Mrs. Carmody. The teacher's back remained turned toward Robin. "Did you really? You were tardy, though, weren't you?" Robin ducked her head. Again, that dry snicker, like dice in a cup. This time, it was closer, from more sources. It surrounded her.
Even as the flush of embarrassment brought points of color to her cheeks, Robin protested, feebly, "I haven't been that late ..."
"Oh, really, Robin?" Mrs. Carmody's skirt rustled (too much?), as she finally turned to gaze at Robin. "Are you sure?" This time, when Robin looked up, her brain could not ignore the message her eyes were trying to send. The "R," sound in "Sure," tapered, and morphed into a low, sinister growl. It was the sound a very big, very hungry dog might make, before it sank its teeth into your flesh. "We've been waiting for you. For you, for years, and for years, for you ..." Mrs. Carmody's voice scaled up, and up. It became a shrill, siren, skirling with desperate hunger.
Robin could no longer keep from seeing that something was wrong with Mrs. Carmody's face. She had always been an austere woman, thin to the point of emaciation. Never before, though, had her bones been so clearly visible. In fact, Mrs. Carmody was nothing but bones.
Robin felt her eyes going wide, then wider still. The dizziness that had fleetingly come and gone before came again, and did not fade. Her brain could no longer take refuge in comforting, familiar patterns. Pupils dilated with shock, Robin was forcibly, brutally bludgeoned by reality, however ... altered ... that reality was. Robin saw the creature of bones and tattered flesh that was--used to be--Mrs. Carmody.
Something with too many legs and jaws full of serrated teeth crawled from between the skeletal ribs of Mrs. Carmody, and fell to the floor. It scuttled away, chittering. Trembling, Robin felt her eyes, of their own accord, slowly survey the rest of the classroom. Empty eye sockets stared back, accusingly. Rib cages, long arm and leg bones, skulls perched stop vertebrae--all poised in hard, straight chairs ... "Tardy," someone to her right chuckled. The dry laughter of bones swept around the room. "Robin is very tardy..."
A wet plop came from between Mrs. Carmody's metatarsals. The rat that scurried out seemed very well-fed. It was shortly joined by others. They converged, from under the desks, moving toward Robin. "We've been dreadfully hungry for a dreadfully long time, Robin," Mrs. Carmody said. Her words were formed from the staccato rhythm of old, dry bones. "Haven't we, class?"
All around the room, bony hands were raised. Then, they reached toward Robin, eagerly.
Robin began to scream. She's still screaming. Can you hear her? Her broken mind comes through most loudly on cold, rainy nights--perhaps when you've been up too ... late?