The tannoy crackled to life and the whole class stiffened in their seats. Chris Patterson felt the hairs rise on his body as he heard Mr. Puck suck in a breath before speaking. Chris’ bladder tightened and he fought the irresistible urge to piss. Mr. Puck had a voice like a rattlesnake hiss.
“John Stephenson. Please report to the Principal’s office. John Stephenson. Thank you.”
The class simultaneously relaxed, a collective sigh, and the sound of pencils scribbling on paper resumed. Chris jiggled in his seat and raised his hand for the teacher’s attention. She kept him waiting for an age before she looked up at him from her book.
“Again, Mr. Patterson?”
Chris nodded. “Yes, miss.”
He felt his cheeks flush. The scrape of chairs on the stone floor as his classmates turned to stare and gawp.
“Make sure it’s quick.”
Chris stood meekly and walked to the door, closing it behind him. It was only then, out of the sight of others, that he began to run.
The toilets were empty and cold and damp. With the only light coming in through the small windows at the top of the cubicles, the place was dulled into semi-dark. Chris pissed wet, steaming patterns on the urinal. When he was done he washed his hands at the sink. Only the cold water worked, so cold water it had to be. The pink carbolic soap in the soap dish had congealed and turned to mush. The mirror was spattered in unidentifiable fluids, dried to a crust, white and yellow.
Chris’ footsteps echoed in the corridor with an occasional squeak from his scuffed sole. Cold grey light spilled in from the door at the end of the corridor. It was still foggy outside. The school was quiet, damn near silent. It had been like this ever since the new Principal came to the school. The Principal who was always in his office, who none of the kids had ever really gotten a good look at, except glimpses as he slid past the classrooms as he patrolled the corridors. His office door was almost always closed. All Chris knew about him was his voice, that rattly and breathy voice on the tannoy. Even the teachers had changed after he came to school. They spoke in hushed tones with each other and demanded silence in the classrooms. Chris barely went outside for recess anymore. The Principal had sent out a writ that demanded that the children stay in the assembly hall during breaks. There they were made to watch reruns of the same weird black and white film called Goochy and the Wretch. Goochy, the old, bearded man with huge eyebrows, was always dressed in an old-fashioned nightdress and slippers. He lived in a strange gothic castle and spent his nights searching for the Wretch, a small timid half-human thing that skulked in the shadows. Chris was never sure what the point of the film was. Goochy hunted the Wretch, whirling his club, rampaging up and down stone staircases at night-time in a fit of rage, using an oil-lamp for light. He’d corner the Wretch in one of the castle’s bare rooms and raise his club and bring it down on the Wretch again and again, pulping the Wretch’s body, pounding it to marmalade. The club would rain down over and over, the screen fading to white. Then the picture would re-appear and they would start over again. Chris could never figure out if there was more than one Wretch, or if it was the same pathetic creature made to suffer endlessly.
Chris usually fell asleep during the film. Most of the kids did. It was often hard to stay awake with a hundred or so children all packed into the hallway together, the doors sealed up and the lights off. It was hot and cramped and boring. Once Chris woke up to see the place in darkness. The film long since finished and everyone asleep. He could have sworn that the Principal was there, stalking amongst the sleeping children. He moved stiffly. It was like he was made of wood and could only move his shoulders and hips.
Chris rounded the corner, taking a left towards his classroom and saw Johnny Stephenson sitting on the bench outside the Principal’s office. Johnny once shared a pack of cigarettes with Chris that he’d stolen from one of the teachers. They smoked them out on the grass verge behind the football pitches. Chris kept smoking until he got dizzy and vomited. Johnny contorted in fits of giggles, slapping Chris on the back while he wiped the tears away. Here and now, Johnny sat on his hands and fidgeted. He spotted Chris and whispered to him.
“Hey. Chris. C’mere.” He waved Chris towards him, beckoning him to come quickly. Chris froze. Johnny beckoned him harder. Johnny looked pale. Chris shuffled towards him.
“Here. Take this. If anyone asks, you found it.” Johnny thrust something into Chris’ hand. It was hard and wet. Johnny’s hand was red and marked where he had been squeezing it into his palm.
“What is it?”
“Don’t know what it is, but I know he wants it back,” said Johnny.
Chris looked at the object. It was a small metal medallion of a snake twisting and turning. Its tail disappeared into its own mouth like it was eating itself. The snake pendant had a liquid sheen, lustrous grey and silvery-white.
“My uncle says it’s made from Indium and that it’s a rare metal, really rare,” said Johnny.
“Where did you get it from?” asked Chris.
“I stole it. From Puck. His office was open and it was sitting on his desk. I could see it from the door. It reflected the light like water, so I nipped in and snatched it. I wish I hadn’t now. He knows it was me that took it.”
“How can he know it was you if he didn’t see you?” asked Chris.
“I don’t know. But he’s called for me by name. Look, put it in your pocket and I’ll get it back off you later.”
Chris slipped the pendant into his jacket pocket. They both froze as they heard Puck’s footsteps approaching the door.
“Quick!” Johnny hissed at him, sitting to attention. Chris ran back towards the bathroom. He heard the handle of the door turn as he made it to the corner and spun himself round, flattening his back to the wall.
The door creaked open. Chris heard Johnny’s voice, soft, like it was far away. Then the door creaked closed. Chris heard the latch click shut. He took a few seconds to gather the courage before he glanced around the corner. The corridor was empty. Chris crept towards the Principal’s door. It was a very large door and had been fitted especially when the principal arrived. It must have been done overnight as one day it wasn’t there and the next it was. The old door that Mr. Johnstone, the old Principal, used was a normal classroom door with a frosted glass window but this one was big and black and reached from the floor almost all the way to the ceiling. It had a gold colored handle and a large, old-fashioned knocker.
It also had a keyhole.
Chris glanced up and down the corridor to make sure he wasn’t being watched. Satisfied he was alone, he bent at the waist and put his eye to the opening.
The Principal’s room was lit by yellow lamps that hung on the wall. The back wall was covered in large red velvet curtains. There were no windows that Chris could see. A large wooden desk sat off to the left. The floor was patterned in checked black and white squares like a chess board. Mr. Puck stood with his back to the door. Chris could only see the back of his brown suit trousers and his reddish cardigan and the ring of white hair around the back of his otherwise bald head. Johnny stood before him. There was something wrong about the way he just stood there, like he was sleepwalking or something. His mouth hung open slightly and the skin on his face seemed slack, like the muscles had given up their strength and let the flesh dangle. Mr. Puck lowered his hand from his face with his thick metal-framed glasses between his fingers. He placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and turned him around, walking him towards the back wall. They stopped before the curtain. Puck still had his back towards Chris. Johnny stopped in his tracks and swayed back and forth. Mr. Puck tugged the velvet curtain aside. He then motioned for Johnny to step behind the curtain. Chris could see Johnny stiffen physically, fighting the urge to do as he was told. He could also see the shimmering trails of tears on Johnny’s cheeks.
Mr. Puck lifted Johnny’s chin with his finger. Johnny looked into the Principal’s eyes and the last remnants of fight disappeared. Puck gave him a gentle nudge on the shoulder and Johnny vanished behind the curtain.
Puck let the curtain fall back into place and put his glasses back on. Then he turned and looked directly towards the door. The yellow-brown light filled his glasses. He smiled towards the door, like he knew that Chris was watching, and raised his hand and waved.
Chris fell back onto his ass. Hearing Mr. Puck’s footsteps approaching the door, he sprang to his feet and tore down the corridor.
For the rest of the day he sat behind his textbook, head buried somewhere near the desk. He kept an eye on the window on the classroom door. At one point Chris swore he could see a shadow moving back and forward, skulking across the wall. Chris had never been so grateful in his life when the bell rang and he made his way out of the school amidst the pack of other students. Standing in the fog, waiting for his father to arrive to pick him up in their rattly car, Chris couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.
Chris lay awake in bed for hours that night, unable to sleep. He left the medallion in his coat pocket. He didn’t want to touch it or look at it again.
Tomorrow you’ll go and leave it outside the Principal’s room. Maybe he’ll find it and he won’t come and look for you? You could ask to go pee again and if his door is open then you could run in and put it on his desk.
But what if the door is closed? What if you can’t get in, or what if its open and he’s in there waiting?
You could just leave it outside his room, leave it on the ground. If his door is shut, put it down and knock on the door and run as fast as you can. He’ll find it and leave you alone. Just give it back. It’ll all be better.
With his plan of action resolved, his eyelids began to feel heavy and they slid closed.
“They took my insides out,” came the husky whisper. Chris’ eyes snapped open, his blood freezing in his veins and his heart hammering. He pulled the covers up over and around head, pinching his lips to stop the squeak of fear escaping.•
“’To make room,’ that’s what they said. They need the room, you see. It kind of feels good, Chris. It’s painful at first, but after a while it feels okay. You’ll see what I mean when they do it to you.”
It was Johnny’s voice. Chris slowly turned over and peeked out from under the covers. Johnny was standing at the window holding the curtains open. He had his back to Chris and the yellow glow of the street-lights lent him a sepia halo, like he was in an old-time photograph.
“You can have your medallion back, Johnny. I don’t want it.”
Johnny didn’t move a muscle. “I don’t need it anymore. Puck doesn’t want it back either. It was never about the medallion….” Johnny trailed off.
Chris sat up, letting the covers fall around his waist. Johnny turned towards him. He was smiling, despite the fact that he had no eyes. Blood tears spilled over his pale cheeks. His sockets were two craters, bored into the bones of his head. Johnny started to open his white shirt, which had a splash of dark blood across the front of it.
“There’s tons of room inside me now. Plenty of room for them to breed and grow. Soon they’ll hatch.” He pulled his shirt open. His chest was sewn up with thick steel wire, garishly sewn and twisted in clumsy knots. His stomach moved and distended. There were shapes beneath his skin moving around and clambering over each other. Despite the rictus grin on Johnny’s face he began to heave and sob. Chris turned over and pulled the covers over his head again, holding it tight over his ears. Johnny cried for hours into the night.
“Christopher Patterson. Please report to the Principals’ office immediately. Christopher Patterson.”
The class turned to look at Chris. His limbs felt dead. The room began to swim. Eventually the teacher raised her head and glared at him.
“Chris. Don’t make the Principal wait…please.” It was the please that snapped him out of his stupor. She was begging him. Chris looked at the teacher with her pleading face and at the other faces that made up his class – the curious, petulant faces of children. He felt in his pocket for the Indium amulet and squeezed it as he began his march out of the classroom and down the corridor.
The Principal’s door stood open. Chris inched his way towards it. He peered around the frame. The Principal stood in the middle of the room with his back to the door.
“Come inside and close the door, Christopher Patterson,” came the hoarse whisper. Chris looked down at his feet, his toes barely a few centimeters from the threshold of the Principal’s office. A small ridge of rubber separated the corridor from that tiled floor.
If I step over that line…I’m dead.
Chris held out his hand, the Indium medallion in his open palm.
“I-I have y-your snake m-medallion. Johnny gave it to me yesterday. He stole it, not me. I’m giving it back to you, sir.”
“Good boy,” came the death rattle voice. “Bring it inside. Bring it to me.” The Principal didn’t move. It was like he was carved out of stone. When he spoke it was like the wind blowing through a hollow. Chris did not want to go into that room. The image of his old dog Ajax flashed into Chris’ mind, the whimpering noise Ajax made from inside his carry basket when they took him to the veterinarian’s office that last time. The dog knew what was coming just like Chris knew what was coming. Animals can always smell death.
“Step into my office, Christopher Patterson. Come, let me take a good look at you.” Chris began to tremble. “Step inside and come let me see you.”
“I don’t want to, sir.” Tears sprang in Chris’ eyes.
“Come. You can join John Stephenson. He’s waiting for you.”
“No!” Chris lifted his arm and threw the medallion with all of his strength. The Indium ingot spiraled wildly in the air, missing the Principal by a couple of feet and striking the green lamp on the desk. The glass shattered into a thousand shards with a sharp crack leaving the bare bulb intact. The white light threw shadows across the room. Mr. Puck was lit from the side and his shadow was cast on the far wall, long and distorted. Chris saw the shadow dancing where Puck’s head was, slender glooms fanning back and forward like seaweed under water.
“You’ve been a bad boy, Christopher Patterson.” Puck began to pirouette slowly on his heels, his arms still by his side. The side of his face crept into the light. Chris knew that if he looked upon Puck’s face, if he looked into those eyes then he was lost. Before the light revealed Puck’s terrible face, Chris turned and fled down the corridor. He ran full tilt into the door at the end, the emergency exit bar banging into his hip. Pain bloomed in Chris’ side, radiating up and down his body. He didn’t care, he kept running out into the grey foggy morning and headed in the direction of home.
He hid in his garden shed till darkness fell and the headlights of his father’s car came sliding up the driveway, beacons of light in the freezing gloom. Soon after Chris crept out of the shed and towards the house. Slipping in the front door and up the stairs to his right, Chris could hear his father muttering in conversation. He was on the hallway landline.
Chris sat in the dark at the top of the stairs listening, catching snatched half-phrases on the air.
“Tomorrow…yes…he’ll be there…”
He heard the creak of the bottom stair as his father rested his foot on it. Chris looked down between the bannister beams. The silhouette of his father looked up towards him.
“Chris. The Principal rang.”
Chris’ heart sank.
“He wants to see you tomorrow first thing. He says you stole something. He wants you to apologize face to face. I’ll drop you at school and you will go right in. Understood.”
Chris could barely whisper “Yes, Dad.” He listened to his father walk away towards the lounge room.
Maybe if he knew what happened, with Johnny and the curtain? Maybe he’ll understand and you won’t have to go to school?
Chris crept down the stairs and across the landing into the lounge room. He pushed the door open. The room was dark. His father was seated in his favorite chair. The television was on and the room was dark. A black and white film played almost in silence. His father’s glasses reflected the screen, the images dancing across the lenses, like his eyes were projecting the movie.
“Yes, Chris?” his father croaked, his voice hoarse like sandpaper.
“I don’t want to go see the Principal. It wasn’t my fault. Another boy stole something and gave it to me to look after, but I gave it back to Mr. Puck. I don’t want to go see him. Please don’t make me?”
His father was quiet for a moment before he replied. “Okay. I’ll call him back and let him know. There’s supper on the kitchen table for you.”
“Thanks, dad. Do you want anything?”
Chris’ father didn’t answer. He hadn’t moved once. It was like he was dead.
Chris ate quickly from a plate of cold chicken and took a glass of milk upstairs. He placed the milk on his side-table and went to the bathroom and drew a bath. As he soaked, he could hear his father talking, muttering through the floorboards.
Dad’s telling Puck that I’m not going to see him tomorrow. A flood of relief swept over Chris. He sat back and let the water close over his head. Floating in the warm water, Chris imagined he was in the ocean. He smiled.
He was dressing for bed when he heard the creak of a door. At first he thought it was his father, coming to say good night. But glancing over his shoulder he saw that his bedroom door was closed.
“Christopher Patterson.” The voice slid on the air, crackling, like it was in an old radio. Chris began to tremble and tears sprang into his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but they came in a torrent. He turned and saw his closet door standing open. Where his jackets and shoes and toys used to be was now the interior of Mr. Puck’s office with its checked floor and dark red curtains. He stood with his back to Chris.
“It’s time for your appointment. Come now. Don’t keep them waiting. I have so many things to introduce to you.”
Chris sniffed the tears back, his bottom lip trembling as he stepped into Mr. Puck’s room and stood before the Principal. He looked up at the ancient face, its lines like roads on an ancient map. Mr. Puck’s flesh shook as he raised his hands and grasped the frames of his spectacles. Chris tried to scream as Puck exposed his real eyes but all of his strength had gone. His arms fell by his side. He couldn’t even tear his eyes away from what grew in place of Puck’s eyes. Piss ran down his leg as his bladder let go.
“Come, let me see you,” said Puck.
Puck smiled and put his hand on Chris’ shoulder. He maneuvered Chris towards the curtains. “Time you met my friends. They like to meet good boys…”
Puck hooked a finger around the side of the curtain and pulled it aside. Chris felt a rush of bitter wind, and with it came the stench of ash and sulfur. Puck gave him a small nudge in the back and Chris slid behind the curtain.