Friday, 17 July 2009

The New Boy

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On twitter I occasionally get myself involved in the Friday Night Writers Chat. Last week, a challenge arose out of discussion on there. The brief was as follows:

"Your voluntarily accepted mission is to write a 5k or less short piece with a silent villain - no dialogue, no laughing, NO SOUND. Just to further make your life difficult, no thoughts either, you have to show his/her super scary and intense nature through his/her actions and appearance alone. Now, your non-villain characters can talk all they want; scream, cry, grovel, mock and then get killed, whatever!"

Never one to refuse a challenge, and always ready to try anything that I might enjoy doing, especially if it's likely to be of benefit to me, I made my attempt. So I present to you, 'The New Boy' - an everyday (well not quite!) tale of life in a primary school. (4,998 words, not including the title, so I managed to come in just within the 5,000 word limit. Maybe I should have added 'The End' - at the end, obviously.)
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The New Boy


The school was unusually silent for the time of day. Frank Challis opened the main doors to the playground and was immediately confronted by a tumult of children’s voices. He walked out and looked over a sea of almost identically clothed children and located his colleague Mavis Gates. She weaved her way amongst the children until eventually she reached the clear area of the playground adjacent to the school buildings.

“All clear,” Frank said as she walked within hearing distance; then as she drew nearer to him, he lowered his voice saying: “I’d have bet my life one of the little buggers had set off the alarm, but it looks like it was an electrical fault.”

“Are you certain?” She asked, as they walked back to the area occupied by the children. “We have to be sure it was a false alarm before we let the kids back in.”

“I’ve done a thorough test on all the smoke detectors Mavis, and examined every alarm point,” he said. “None of them has been tampered with. It has to have been a fault with the system.”

“Even though,” Mavis said, “Can we be certain that it isn’t a real fire? Perhaps we should wait for the fire engines to arrive before we decide anything.”

“Mavis, it isn’t an automatic system. There are forty alarm points in the school. If a fire does break out, it relies on someone to either break the glass on one of them, or open one with a screwdriver. None of them has been broken or tampered with, so nobody raised the alarm. If the alarm went off without anyone’s intervention then it must be a fault.”

“I’d rather let George make the decision to go back inside though,” Mavis said. “I wish he were here now.”

“It would look best for us all if we got all this sorted out before he returned,” Frank replied. “Show him we can cope with a crisis like this without needing the headmaster. I’ve called the fire station to explain. They insist on sending someone round, but the kids are going to be disappointed if you’ve promised them a fleet of fire engines. Let’s just get the others to start lining the kids up.”

Frank signalled to the other teachers who were standing amongst the youngsters. It was enough for him to catch their eye, then nod and wave his whistle. They all knew the signal, and one by one, they moved to the edge of the playground to the clear area in front of the school. Frank blew his whistle. One long sharp blow and the children’s chaotic behaviour suddenly changed. There was a frantic rush by most of them to be first in line as they separated into files facing the school entrance, each line facing its own class teacher. One or two of the more boisterous ones continued to play, until a sharp blast on their teacher’s whistle stopped them; then as the teacher called their name, everyone else in line turned, looking at them and shaming them to join the queue. This left only a handful of hard liners, who stood around on the playground not queuing up for entry. Frank would deal with those few as the others filed into the school.

It was safe to say the new boy stood out a little. Where the other children all wore burgundy sweatshirts, he wore a crew necked pullover which was more of a maroon colour: different, but not enough to stand out from the crowd when given only a cursory glance.

While most of the other boys wore long charcoal grey trousers and the remaining, younger ones wore short pants of a similar colour, the new boy wore shorts that by modern convention looked oddly young on a boy his age; they were longer than the younger boys’ shorts and were a lighter shade of grey. His pullover just concealed the grey shirt that he wore beneath it, in contrast to the white polo shirts underneath the sweatshirts of the other children.

Footwear amongst the children appeared to be of two types. Most of the girls wore sensible black pumps though a few wore sports training shoes. The majority of the boys wore trainers, with only a handful wearing smart polished shoes. The new boy’s shoes were of this type, though clumsier in style and design. There were various socks on display, but none quite like the plain grey knitted ones that the new boy wore.

He stood the farthest from the class lines, not playing, just standing, staring with glazed eyes at the school’s entrance, and though he stood out from the others in so many ways, nobody amongst the children or the teachers seemed to notice him. As a new boy, one would have thought the staff would have paid special attention to him, except that none of the teachers had met him yet; indeed, before the fire alarm had sounded, he hadn’t even been inside the school. It was as if he’d simply appeared on the playground as everyone had emerged from school during the evacuation.

Mrs Gates, co-ordinated the return to class, giving a number of sharp whistle blasts signalling each class in turn, from the youngest on the far left, through to the eldest on the right, to march in line behind their teachers through the main doors. Mr Challis wandered around the far reaches of the playground rounding up remaining stragglers. One boy stood well away from the school. At first Challis thought there was something wrong with him because he was standing so still. He didn’t recognize the lad, but then he couldn’t be expected to know all the faces in a school of nearly nine hundred kids. As he approached the boy he noticed the half smile, half sneer on his face. Something made Frank stop before he reached the boy. “Come on sunshine,” he said from a distance, “back to class.” The boy’s gaze momentarily switched to Challis from the school entrance; his smile increased slightly, then he returned to watching the last few classes filing into school. Frank felt uncomfortable for some reason and turned away from the boy to concentrate on the rest of the wayward kids. It was seconds later when he turned back to where the boy had been standing; he wasn’t there anymore, but Challis knew he hadn’t passed him, neither to enter the school, nor to make a dash for the school gates. It was strange, like he’d just disappeared. Frank shrugged and followed the last of the children into the school.

~o~O~o~

Judy Cooper rummaged through the paper on her desk. Her class were taking their seats around the craft tables again; there were about fifteen minutes of the lesson remaining, and little chance for them to finish the task she’d set them, but what really bothered Miss Cooper was that she realised she’d left the ‘big’ scissors on her desk when they’d evacuated. Each of the children had access to plastic paper scissors; health and safety regulations insisted that they had to be supervised even when using these; but for the more intricate cutting tasks that couldn’t be handled by the children, she had a large pair of dressmaking scissors she kept locked away in her desk. She’d taken them out and had been using them when the fire alarm had sounded, and it was only while standing outside she’d realised that, in her hurry to evacuate, she’d left them unattended on her desk. At last she located them underneath a few sheets of multi-coloured paper. She sighed with relief and placed them inside the drawer of her desk and closed it. She’d lock it later when the lesson ended. She looked up to address the now seated class, but still standing, at the back of the room was a small boy that she didn’t recognise. He certainly wasn’t one of her class; he looked lost, standing still with a faint smile on his face as his eyes glanced around the room. Just as she decided to say something, his eyes darted toward her, as if he knew she was about to speak before she did, almost like he was actually commanding her to.

The boy’s eyes regarded her and narrowed slightly. He frowned a little as the smile on his face turned into a sneer. “I’m sorry dear,” she said, “I think you must be in the wrong classroom. You’re not one of mine.”

The boy gazed back at her, without speaking. The other children turned toward him and some giggled. He glanced down momentarily at the boy who laughed the loudest; that boy looked worried and suddenly fell silent. Miss Cooper spoke again: “Which class should you be in, love?” she asked, “Are you year three or year four?” The boy turned his attention to her again, but apart from a narrowing of his eyes, and an upturning of the edges of his mouth as though mocking her with his smile, he showed no signs of answering, or that he even understood what she was asking him.

“He’s really stupid,” mocked a girl sitting at the edge of the craft table, furthest from the front desk. “He can’t talk, or he doesn’t understand. Either way he’s just plain stupid.” The other children all laughed out loud at this, and the boy clearly reacted, glaring at each of them in turn, his mocking smile still somehow there, but now also resembling a snarl. His gaze was suddenly directed at the little girl who’d spoken out, but she was happily enjoying the attention she’d earned from the class and didn’t even see him glaring at her.

“Shellie, that isn’t nice. You mustn’t be unkind to people.” Miss Cooper finished reprimanding the little girl and turned her attention toward the strange boy intending to say something to comfort him. She heard a terrifying scream. Her attention darted back to little Shellie, who had jumped from her seat and was now standing with the ‘big’ scissors sticking out of the back of her hand; she screamed, spinning around so that it was plainly visible that the blades had gone straight through her hand and out through the palm. Judy Cooper couldn’t understand it. She’d put those scissors safely away in her desk, so how the hell could they have got to the opposite end of the classroom.

Some of the other children were beginning to scream in fear and terror now as little Shellie cried more and more, though a couple of them seemed calmer than the others, almost enjoying the excitement. The new boy was acting as though nothing had happened. His mocking smile had returned and he was once again staring at the teacher. “Robert,” she said, “Go next door and ask Mr Culkin to come in and supervise you. I have to get Shellie down to the front office. She needs an ambulance.” Robert ran from the room immediately. Miss Cooper had to think quickly. Not only did she need to deal with this emergency, but she knew that she couldn’t leave this strange little boy with the rest of her class. “Joe, you’re the fastest. Run down the corridor and ask Mr Trent from the special needs unit to meet me at the office; then you go there yourself and ask Mrs Kirk to call an ambulance. Tell her there’s been an accident with some scissors.” Joe ran out of the classroom and went to find the special needs teacher. Trent could take care of the new boy whilst Geoff Culkin looked after her class, leaving her to concentrate on the Shellie crisis. She didn’t know if she should remove the scissors from Shellie’s hand. Alice Kirk, the school secretary and resident first aid expert would know what to do.

She gently manoeuvred Shellie toward the classroom door. As she passed the new boy, she took him by the hand saying “You’d better come with us,” and attempted to lead him outside. His hand was much warmer than she’d expected. It was positively hot. She looked down at him and attempted to walk with him from the room. He resisted at first and suddenly his hand became so hot that she was unable to keep hold of it. She felt an intense burning pain throughout her entire hand. She let go just as Shellie was walking through the door. She had to follow, with or without the new boy. He regarded the look of shock on Judy’s face and his smile became even more mocking. Then as she left the room to escort the sobbing Shellie, he walked out through the door, and followed slowly behind them. Miss Cooper walked briskly along the corridor, knowing the new boy was following, and feeling positively unnerved by that knowledge alone.

~o~O~o~

Moments later, Judy and Shellie were sitting waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Alice had done what she could and Shellie’s crying had reduced to a low sob. The new boy was standing in the centre of the office. Alice Kirk was on the phone, calling Shellie’s parents. Martin Trent searched through the student records to find some indication of who this odd quiet boy might be. He insisted he had no idea of the boy’s identity, though the inability or refusal to speak would certainly have put him within the scope of ‘special needs.’ Martin prided himself on being familiar with each of his students, and aware of every one of their problems. He’d never seen this boy before. He must be new, and if he was, that would be evident from the records.

Alice led Judy and Shellie out to the ambulance when it arrived. The new boy attempted to follow, but Martin dashed after him and stopped him in the corridor. At first, the boy glared at Martin standing in his way, but then as Miss Cooper and the little girl left the building, he stopped trying to follow and stood still in the corridor. “Alice surely there’s some record of a new starter today. He can’t have simply walked in off the street,” He said.

“There’s no record at all Mr Trent. If we had a new boy today, then one of the teachers would know about it. I can’t imagine the headmaster not informing anyone.”

“Where is George?” asked Trent, as Alice joined them in the corridor, “He may have some idea about all this, so when’s he due back?”

“He called about ten minutes ago. It should be within the hour. If he calls again I’ll ask him if he can shed any light on this, but otherwise, all we can do is look after the poor little lad.”

Martin Trent was worried. He opened the door of the nearest classroom. It was a room for the reception year children, and was empty at the moment, save for the rabbit and the guinea pig in their cages in the corner. He urged the new boy into the room. “Just wait in here a bit, mate,” he said, “We have things to sort out.” He closed the door and turned toward Alice Kirk. “What worries me is that if we can’t identify this boy by the end of the school day, what do we do with him then?” The boy attempted to open the door from inside the classroom. Trent called out as he re-closed the door: “Be with you in a moment son. You have a look at the animals while you’re waiting.”

Alice tried to reassure him. “George will sort it out,” she said. “It will all be a simple mix-up. By teatime the poor little mite will be at home with his family.”

The classroom door rattled again, this time a little more violently.

“Anyway, he’s only about seven or eight. I’m sure someone will be here to collect him, come three o’ clock.” It was at that point she noticed the look of surprise on Martin Trent’s face. He was staring over her shoulder, toward the door of the front office. “How the hell did he do that?” he said. She turned and saw the new boy standing just inside the office door. He was staring at both of them. The look of anger on his face was noticeable now. All signs of the smile he’d worn so far had disappeared. Now his face was contorted into a snarl. “He must have got out through the fire exit and climbed in through your office window,” Martin continued. Alice was about to tell him that her office window was locked, but by this time, the boy had turned and walked back into the office, and Trent had gone to pursue him.

Had either of them entered the classroom, they’d have noticed that in the corner of the room, the rabbit and guinea pig cages were still closed, but their occupants weren’t inside them anymore. They were lying on top of the cages, where someone had left them, still and dead, but with no sign of injury, as if all traces of life had just been drawn out of them.

~o~O~o~

George Inkerman was a few hundred yards from the motorway exit when he heard his mobile phone signalling that he’d received another text message. He picked it up from where it was lying on the passenger seat next to him, and glanced at the display. ‘SMS Received from Judy C,’ it read. Why would Judy Cooper be texting him? He certainly didn’t expect that. About an hour earlier he’d received a text message from Mavis Gates: that was one he hadn’t been surprised to receive. Mavis was a worrier: she’d often panic over the smallest problem. If he was out, and something slightly out of the ordinary occurred, it was likely that Mavis would either call him or text him. He’d pulled off the motorway into the first available services to read Mavis’ message, which had read: ‘Alarm! Fire! Evacuated school. Fire not found, all sent back inside.’ Had that been from anyone else, he might have worried, but being from Mavis, he knew it wasn’t worth a panic until he’d verified how serious the problem was. He’d called school and Alice Kirk had assured him that it had been a false alarm, that the correct procedures had been followed, and there was nothing to worry about. He’d told her when he’d be back at school, and had continued his journey.

By now he’d left the motorway and driven a long way down the road he was now on. He finally found a lay-by and pulled into it, to read Judy’s text: ‘Accident in class. Taken injured child to hospital. Thought best to inform you.’ This did worry him. He called Judy’s number; if she was still at the hospital, she’d have turned off and he wouldn’t be able to get through, but he had to try. It rang; good, she must have left the hospital.

Judy answered: “Hello George,” she said. “I thought you’d call. Don’t worry. The little girl’s fine. I’ve left her at the hospital with her mum.”

“What the hell happened, Judy?” he replied. “I want all the details.”

On the other end of the phone, Judy realised that the details, weren’t as clear in her mind as they had been. She knew Shellie had stabbed her hand with the scissors, but couldn’t remember exactly how it had happened. That was strange. How could she have possibly forgotten? She told George what she could remember.

“How the hell did she get hold of the scissors anyway,” he demanded. “You know I’m not happy about you having those things. You’re supposed to keep them under lock and key!”

“There was a fire alarm George. I must have left them on the craft table without thinking, when we evacuated.” But something in her mind told her she hadn’t; she had a vague recollection of putting them away, but of course she couldn’t have done. “There’ll be an inquiry won’t there George? Will I be suspended?”

“Yes Judy, I think there’s a good chance of an inquiry. It depends on the attitude the girl’s parents take. Don’t worry about being suspended. We’ll sort it all out.”

“I know it was negligence really,” she said, “but with the fire alarm and everything, and then the strange little boy...”

“What strange little boy?” George interrupted her. He didn’t know why it seemed so important to; it was as though the words ‘strange little boy’ had triggered something in the back of his mind. Something that he felt he should remember, but that for some reason, he desperately didn’t want to.

Judy explained about the little lost boy in her classroom. She described his physical appearance, but there were details she left out: the sneering look he had, the burning feeling when she took hold of his hand, the uneasiness she felt being near him. She didn’t omit these details by choice: it seemed her mind had begun to shut itself off where this information was concerned and had started to repress the unpleasant parts of her memory.

George felt the same sense of unease Judy had felt earlier. George too had repressed memories; memories of experiences from long ago, that for some reason were now coming back into his mind.

He finished his conversation with Judy and hung up. For a moment he sat quietly in his car as memories of his own past came flooding back to him.

Twelve years ago, he’d been on playground duty and had observed a group of boys teasing a younger child about how old-fashioned his clothes were. He’d gone over to intervene, but as he’d been making his way through the crowds of children, suddenly the group around the boy had been flung outward, as if from an explosion. Each of them had fallen awkwardly on the concrete; there’d been injuries: a head wound, a broken leg and two broken wrists. The little boy who was being bullied hadn’t been seen after that. That had been the same day that his old friend Harry Jefferson, had been found dead in the school. It was odd that he’d seemed to have forgotten any of the events of that day, until now.

Just over seven years ago, he’d been called out of school at ‘going home time’ to deal with a problem. A motorist had missed or maybe even ignored the school crossing patrol at the gates, swerving to avoid hitting a couple of children. When George had arrived at the scene, old Alfie, the crossing warden was arguing furiously with the driver of the car, who’d got out and was threatening all kinds of violence toward Alfie. The attendant parents were also ‘making their opinions known.’ That incident had ended tragically. A little boy, who George assumed was his child, had taken the motorist by the hand to lead him away, and for a moment he fell silent. It looked like the trouble was all done with. Just then the motorist had some kind of seizure and collapsed to the ground, dead. George had tried in vain to find the little boy. It was only now that he realised, that the missing boy was the same little boy who had been bullied five years earlier.

George suddenly felt an urgency to be back at school. He started his car and drove on. Eventually he turned into the school drive and parked his car in the staff car park.

There was an entrance to school adjacent to the car park, so George entered there. As he walked the corridors past each classroom, he noticed the afternoon’s lessons seemed to be going on as usual. He took the long way around the corridors to the office. He wanted to avoid Mavis’ classroom. He was certain she’d come rushing out to him if she saw him, and he had to get to the office without delay.

As he walked into the main office he saw Alice. She was sitting at her desk. She had her hand on the phone as if to lift the handset, but the only movement she was making was a slight swaying, and a quivering of her bottom lip. “Alice,” he said. There was no response. “Alice!” he was louder and more urgent now, “What’s the matter with you? What the hell has happened here?” She still didn’t answer. It was almost as though she was asleep with her eyes open. The look of intense horror on her face implied that she was maybe engrossed in some kind of waking nightmare. George noticed that her eyes were staring, past him, to the seat that had been obscured from his view by the door as he’d opened it to enter. He turned. Sitting there was Martin Trent. He was clearly dead. His eyes were wide open, though only the whites were visible. His jaw hung. His skin seemed to have a slight greyness to it, and looked odd in other ways. It was as if it were stiffer on his face, as though it had somehow shrunk to fit his body more tightly.

George moved Alice’s hand from the phone, and was about to pick it up himself, when he heard a sudden noise from behind the door to his own office. He moved his hand away from the phone and walked slowly toward his office door. It was as if he knew something awaited him there, but still he felt he had to investigate.
He walked into the office to see a small boy sitting at his desk. The half smile, half smirk on the boy’s face took on a more sinister turn as he seemed to recognise George. One side of the boy’s mouth curled up in a kind of sneer as he lifted himself from the chair and walked around the desk toward George.

George recognised the boy immediately as the same one from the bullying incident so long ago, and as the one who’d been holding the angry motorist’s hand just before he’d died. Suddenly other vague memories came flooding back to him: memories of other incidents over his years as a teacher. They were all incidents that ended in death or injury, and the boy had been present in each of them. They were all incidents that somehow had been forgotten by all the people who’d survived them, including George himself, until now.

George’s feeling of unease had given way to one of fear and apprehension as he’d made his way into school. He’d experienced horror when he’d discovered Alice’s catatonic state, and then the body of Martin Trent. Now as the little boy stood before him looking up to him, George was experiencing a feeling of terror. He knew that his fate was to be one similar to that of Alice or worse still, Martin, but there was nothing he could do about it. He wanted to turn and walk away. He wanted to run from the school, never to return; but for some reason he couldn’t. All he could do was look down at the boy as he carefully took George’s hand in his own.

He felt warmth first, only warmth, just the warmth of a child’s hand. The warmth changed, turning to a definite feeling of heat. At first he only felt it on his skin, uncomfortable and then positively painful. But by now he was feeling it within his hand rather than upon it, and he knew there was no point trying to withdraw his hand from the child’s.

The feeling of heat moved inside him, at first up his arm and into his shoulder, then began to spread across and down his entire body. As the pain increased, so did the little boy’s smile. He was looking at George’s hand now, but suddenly he looked up at George and though he made no sound, the appearance on his face made it seem as though he were snarling.

Gradually the little boy’s eyes darkened, so that it was difficult to see where the edge between the white and the iris was. Now the face looking up at George wasn’t one of a little boy: it was more one of a demon, a fiend, a devil. George knew then that this was the end. His entire body from the neck down was burning in intense agony now. He looked upward toward the ceiling as the pain became more and more intense, then he made one last downward glance toward the face of the evil creature that had him. Whatever it was, suddenly stopped smiling. It frowned as if contemplating something. Apart from the darkness of the eyes, it resembled the look George had seen on so many small children’s faces as they struggled with something they needed to learn. Then it stared back into George’s eyes. Its own eyes rapidly changed again, this time leaving them totally black; no iris, no pupil, just two single patches of darkness. George actually seemed to relax at this point, despite the agony he was feeling. He knew that it would soon be over. Suddenly he felt the heat, the burning, and the fire inside him, erupting up through his body and into his brain. And then it was over.

~o~O~o~

The bodies of George Inkerman and Martin Trent were discovered that same day, as was Alice in her stupefied state. Of course, the tragedy made the papers and the police investigated. Alice spent a few days in hospital before she recovered entirely with no memory of the incident. Nobody asked about the new boy, and strangely, nobody even remembered him. After a while the newspapers lost interest. Even the police investigation eventually faded away without any conclusions. At school things returned to normal; but buried deep in the minds of certain members of staff was a memory of a small lost boy; for each of them, that memory would return one day.

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