Detective Arthur Benson twisted the key the janitor had given him, and felt the padlock spring open in his hand. The heavy chain jangled as it slid out of the handles. His partner, Detective Wilma DeLacy, pulled the door open and stepped inside, and Benson followed behind her.
Mockingbird Elementary School appeared to be deserted. The floor mat in the entryway squelched under their feet, soggy with melted snow. Somewhere down the hall, an old radiator hissed and clanked. The stillness had a looming, expectant quality, and Benson was relieved when DeLacy spoke up beside him.
“Do you think there’s any chance this is a joke?” she asked, tugging at a curl of reddish-brown hair that had sprung loose from her bun. “Some kind of elaborate prank the kids came up with?”
Benson shook his head. “I don’t see a hundred and fifty or so six-to-ten-year olds being able to coordinate something like this. Plus, they would have had to convince all their teachers to go along with it, and unless Ms. Rathbone has loosened up considerably since my days as a fourth-grader, that seems unlikely.”
DeLacy snorted. “Good old Rathbone. Did she ever make you wear the Chapeau of Shame? That big velvet top hat with ‘Dunce’ written on it in glitter?”
“No, but I fell asleep in her class once, and she spritzed me with the spray bottle she kept on the windowsill for misting her ferns.”
They were both dressed in street clothes in an effort to avoid attracting attention, although it was only a matter of time before a lot of people would notice something was wrong. Benson checked his watch. It was 1:17; in another hour, the school buses would be lined up outside, two-by-two, like giant metal Twinkies.
A few minutes earlier, Benson and DeLacy had pulled their unmarked car into the parking lot of Mockingbird Elementary, which had been dotted with hatchbacks, minivans, and mid-size sedans, just as it always was on a school day. The snow on the playground had been tracked all over with boot prints. A lopsided snowman with pebble eyes and bark-chip teeth had been loitering near the swings, one twig arm sporting a small purple glove.
The janitor, who had been waiting for them, had rolled down his window and waved for them to stop. Benson had pulled up alongside him, rolled down his own window, and flashed his badge.
The janitor—a stocky young man with the improbable name of Jim Beam—had leaned out and handed him a small brass key. “This’ll unlock the chain around the front doors,” he had said. “Your boss said it would be best if no one wandered in there ’till somebody figures out what’s going on. ‘Course, all the exit doors would still open from the inside if anyone needed to get out. But if that was the case, you two wouldn’t be here, wouldja?”
“I suppose not,” Benson had agreed. “Mr. Beam, were you alone when you discovered the situation?”
“Yup. I went out to grab a sandwich at Cheesy Pete’s right after the kinnergarners went home—they have a half-day on Wednesdays—and when I got back, everyone was just . . . gone. I did a quick walk-through, and I double-checked the schedule in the office to make sure there wasn’t some sort of field trip planned for this afternoon, and then I called the police.”
DeLacy had leaned across Benson to address Jim Beam. “Did you notice anything else unusual while you were in there?”
He had cut his eyes down and to the side. “No. Nothing.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” she had prodded. “It could be important.”
“I’m sure.” Then he had added, softly and to himself, “Badger won’t squeeze my chicken-pox jelly forever.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Benson had snapped.
“It doesn’t mean anything.” Beam had sounded flustered. “I don’t know why I said it. I think I’m just tired. S’okay if I go home now?”
Benson had glanced at DeLacy, who had made a dismissive fly-shooing gesture.
“You can go,” Benson had told him. “But we may need to ask you some follow-up questions, depending on what we find in there, so don’t disappear on us, all right?” He had winced at his own thoughtless word choice.
“I won’t. Listen, I—I hope you figure out what happened to those kids. The teachers too.”
“We’ll do our best,” DeLacy had said.
Mockingbird Elementary was a brick building with a simple design in which all of the high-ceilinged rooms branched off of a single hallway, ending in a set of double doors that opened into the cavernous space that served as a combination gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium. Although this was the first time he had entered the building in sixteen years, Benson still carried a detailed floor plan of the school in his mind, one that showed not only spaces but the objects and people that had filled them during a particular time, right down to which desk had been his inside each classroom. He guessed that DeLacy, who had been two grades ahead of him in school and had a pachydermic memory, probably had an even more detailed version of the same mental blueprints at her disposal.
“Why is it so hot in here?” Benson asked, loosening his scarf.
DeLacy shrugged. “You know how these old heating systems are. Pressure cooker or blast freezer; nothing in be—what was that?”
The light had changed. Only for a second, but that had been long enough for their hands to drop reflexively to their guns. They were standing under a domed skylight, and during that instant the thin winter sunshine straining through the reinforced glass had shifted to a putrid yellow-orange blaze that looked as if it could set flesh bubbling like acid.
Benson gave a nervous chuckle. “No idea. It happened so fast, I almost thought I imagined it.”
“I’ve seen light like that once before,” DeLacy said. “My high school physics teacher electrocuted a pickle to show us how electrons glow as they return to ground state after being charged. Some of the kids complained about the smell, saying it made them feel sick, but it wasn’t the burnt brine and garlic that got to me, it was that awful light. It was like watching a toad with a candle burning inside it.”
“Gross.” Benson made a face.
“Yeah,” DeLacy agreed. “Anyway, we should get started. I’ll take the rooms on the right side, you take the left. Sound good?”
“Sure. If you see anything, or if any more weird shit happens, just zap me on the two-way, and I’ll do the same.”
Benson went up to first door on the left, opened it, and stepped into the principal’s office. Everything seemed to be in order. The large flat-screen display of the principal’s computer had reverted to screensaver mode and was playing a slideshow of soothing pictures of tropical islands. The only suggestion of an unexpected departure was a mug on the receptionist’s desk. A teabag tag dangled over the edge, and the liquid inside was as dark as bittersweet chocolate.
On one wall was a long whiteboard divided into five rectangles representing the days of the work week. There was nothing written under “Wed” except that day’s lunch menu: chicken fingers, potato salad, peaches, chocolate-chip cookie. How many times had Benson eaten that exact meal himself as a boy? He could visualize it perfectly, each food item nestled in its own compartment: chicken like breaded fiberboard, cubes of boiled egg and potato suspended in paprika-specked mayonnaise, canned peaches glistening with sugary slime.
There was a crackle of static, and then DeLacy’s voice was coming out of his radio. “Benson, I’m in the first-grade classroom. Come here and take a look at this.”
He held down the PTT button long enough to reply, “I’m on my way.”
The door to the first-grade classroom was covered with pink and red hearts, undoubtedly clipped from construction paper with safety scissors. Benson studied them for a moment, remembering tagboard mailboxes stuffed with platonic valentines and held together with paste that tasted just like those pastel candies printed with “Be Mine” and “Love You” and “UR Cute.” He smiled as he stepped inside.
DeLacy was standing in front of the teacher’s desk with her hands clasped behind her back, gazing at the blackboard as if it were a landscape painting in a fine art museum. She did not turn to face him but jerked her chin towards the blackboard. “Read that.”
Written with yellowish chalk in a first-grade teacher’s elegant script was a single sentence. Benson’s lips formed the words as he read them: Watch Jack squirt zinfandel into Humpty’s glovebox.
“Ugh,” he said. “Despite the inclusion of nursery-rhyme references, that seems highly inappropriate for this age group.”
“It’s a pangram.” DeLacy’s voice was strained. “One of those sentences that uses every letter of the alphabet. Sometimes teachers have students copy them to practice their handwriting.”
“Like, ‘A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’?”
“Exactly. Now for the really weird part.”
“You mean that sentence on the board isn’t it? Hoo boy.”
“I’m only telling you this,” DeLacy continued, “because we’ve been working together for a while. Long enough for you know I’m not an overly imaginative or fanciful person.”
“I do recall you criticizing the Harry Potter series as ‘unrealistic.'”
She glared at him. “I’m trying to be serious here, Benson.”
She kept her eyes on the blackboard and spoke low and fast, as if she were making a confession. “When I came in here, the board said something else. Same handwriting, different words.”
“What did it say?”
“A wacky pig stabs me with a jinxed sliver of quartz.”
“Huh.” He paused. “That’s a whaddayacallit, pangram, too, isn’t it?”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Of course I believe you. I was thinking about our janitor buddy’s non sequitur. ‘Badger won’t squeeze my chicken-pox jelly forever,’ if memory serves. I would need to see it written down to make sure, but isn’t that also one of your magic alphabet sentences?”
“Balls.” DeLacy’s eyes scrunched shut in concentration for a moment, and then popped wide open. “Yeah, it is. So what does that mean?”
Benson elbowed her and gestured towards the blackboard, where the perfect cursive letters now spelled, Jockstraps quiver in the bleeding halls of a waxy maze. “It means this party is just getting started, apparently.”
“Maybe it’s some kind of hidden projection system.”
Benson walked up to the board and slid his index finger through the word Jockstraps, leaving a long smear. “Nope,” he said, wiping the chalk dust on his pants. “Come on. We’ll worry about what to write on the report later—”
DeLacy interrupted with a groan. “I hadn’t even thought about that.”
“—but for now, let’s just concentrate on finishing our inspection. Think about all those kids’ parents, and the teachers’ families. We’ve got to at least try to come up with a theory about what happened.”
“Yeah. Okay. Let’s Mulder and Scully this thing.” DeLacy managed a determined smile that almost completely covered her fear.
“That’s the spirit.”
The next room on Benson’s side was the second-grade classroom. Back when Benson had been a tow-headed seven-year-old, the teacher had been a soft-spoken, pretty young woman named Miss Mills, and Benson and all the other boys had been in love with her.
Now, according to the nameplate on the door, the second-grade teacher was someone called Mr. Pitfield, and he had apparently taken it upon himself to replace Miss Mills’ print of two goldfinches on a thistle plant with an unsettling engraving of a naked man with the wings of an angel and the head of an owl riding a slavering wolf and waving a spear in the air. As Benson stared at this troubling piece of art, the image shivered before his eyes, and for a second he could see the Audubon print he remembered through it, wavy and distorted; it was like trying to focus on a familiar face beneath the ripples of a swiftly moving stream.
He was thinking about calling DeLacy in to look at it when he was distracted by an urgent thumping sound emanating from one of the desks, which were the old-fashioned pelican style with a hinged top that closed over a metal compartment for storing notebooks, pencils, and whatever small treasures students snuck into class with them. Benson had a vision of a ghastly variation on Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” in which all of the school’s occupants had been ritually slaughtered and stuffed inside their desks, only to have their organs reanimate and drive the butcher mad with their relentless beating.
Moving with careful deliberation, Benson approached the desk that seemed to be the source of the sound. He pressed his palm to the lid, noting as he did so some strange symbols—an ouroboros, a ram’s horn, something pointy he didn’t recognize—scratched into the wood among the usual childish carvings. Whatever was inside thumped two more times, and then stopped.
Benson waited for a moment to see if the thumping would resume. It didn’t. He took a deep breath and lifted the edge of the lid. A greenish blur launched itself into his face, scratching his forehead and tearing out a clump of his hair. He dropped the lid and swatted at his attacker with both hands. It shrieked like an angry parrot and flapped away.
It wasn’t a bird, but some sort of flying lizard. Benson grabbed his gun and fired at it. The bullet whizzed between its leathery wings and hit the canvas roll of a pull-down map, releasing a puff of dust. Before he could line up a second shot, the creature had disappeared, seemingly dissolving into the air.
DeLacy came bursting through the door with her gun drawn. “What happened?”
Benson’s eyes were darting around the room. “Lizard-bat. Might still be in here somewhere.”
“Sure, that sounds about right. But let’s not wait around to find out,” DeLacy said. She grabbed his arm, pulled him into the hallway, and closed the door. Then she produced a rumpled Kleenex from her pocket and started dabbing at the scratch over his eyebrow with it. “Could have been worse,” she said. “It’s not too deep, and it missed your eye.”
“It must be my lucky day.” He touched the top of his head and winced. “Damn thing tried to scalp me.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, you definitely won this round. The teacher’s lounge was a bust. The microwave turned itself on for a few seconds, and afterwards there was a fishy sulfide smell, like a really bad fart, but that was it.”
“How many rooms do we have left?” Benson asked.
DeLacy counted on her fingers. “Four more each, plus the gymnafetorium.”
“We might have to rock-paper-scissors for that one. I’m still trying to work through my traumatic dodgeball experiences with Dr. Norwood.” Mabel Norwood was the staff psychiatrist for their station; each of the detectives met with her a couple times a year.
“Seriously. What sadist came up with that game? Whenever we had a choice, I always picked Red Rover.”
“As in, Red Rover, Red Rover let Wilma come over? That’s surprising. You strike me as more of a Capture-the-Flag type.”
DeLacy considered this. “I did like Capture the Flag, actually, but Red Rover was my favorite. I loved how the tension would build up while you waited to hear the other team call your name. And when they finally did, there was that brief moment of sizing up the line, looking for a likely weak spot, someplace where the grip of sweaty hands might slip and let you break through the other side.”
“And then you just barreled straight toward it with everything you had,” Benson said. He remembered the feeling; it was an exhilarating blend of wild uncertainty and intense purposefulness, the way salmon must feel when they pushed their sleek bodies against roiling currents to answer the call of some mysterious biological imperative. It was risky—foolish, even—yet somehow essential.
“Exactly. There were no half-measures in Red Rover; you either triumphed and got to bring someone back with you to your side, or you failed and were absorbed into the opposing line, forced to serve the enemy against your will.”
Her words hung in the air, growing heavier with each passing second, like overripe fruit.
Eventually, Benson cleared his throat. “Well, Pilgrim, we should start moseyin’ if we want to be back at the ranch by sundown.”
It was a terrible John Wayne impression, but DeLacy’s chuckle sounded genuine enough. “You said it, Cowboy. We’d best be gettin’ these little doggies along.”
Benson’s next stop was the boys’ bathroom, where he discovered a cluster of hexagonal blue mushrooms growing on the side of a urinal and read a sign on the mirror reminding students to wash their hands and tails after using the restroom. When he blinked, the part about the tails disappeared. That was when he felt the first stirrings of a headache in his temples.
As he left the bathroom, he noticed his mouth had gone very dry, but he was afraid of what might come out of the water fountain if he turned it on. So he continued on to the next room instead, which happened to be the fourth-grade classroom. According to the nameplate on the door, it was still the dominion of the formidable Ms. Rathbone. Seeing her name lifted Benson’s spirits, and when he stepped inside, he nearly wept with relief.
The room was exactly as he remembered it. There was a giant potted fern in front of each of the tall, narrow windows and a leather chair towering behind the teacher’s desk. There was no computer, just a gradebook, a pencil holder filled with red pens, and a stack of fourth-grade textbooks: math, social studies, science, language arts. Even the anti-smoking poster featuring an assortment of farm animals puffing on cigarettes beneath the caption It Looks Just as Stupid When You Do It was still on the wall. And in one corner, as far as possible from the neat rows of student desks, the Chapeau of Shame rested on a three-legged stool. It looked a little threadbare, but its sparkly insult was still legible.
Benson took out his radio. “DeLacy, come to the fourth-grade classroom. You’ll want to see this.”
When DeLacy stepped into the room, her face lit up, and she exclaimed with delight over the dunce hat, picking it up and trying it on. “How do I look?” she asked.
“Well, that was kind of the point,” she said, taking it off again.
As she was setting the hat back down, the P.A. system clicked on. There was a short squeal of feedback, and then the stuttering, popping sound of a scratched record album was drifting out of the speakers. A child’s voice began to sing.
Girls and boys come out to play;
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper, and leave your sleep;
Come and play with the rest of the sheep.
The recording began to slow down, and the vowels were stretched to excruciating lengths as the voice deepened to a growl.
Come with a whistle . . .
The fronds of the fern plants were writhing like tentacles, swaying to the sound of the music, which was gradually increasing in volume.
Come with a call . . .
Feeling utterly helpless, Benson watched the color drain from DeLacy’s face and followed her gaze to the three-legged stool, where the velvet top hat had been replaced with a coronet woven of thorns and delicate bones.
COME WITH A HOLLER; COME ONE AND ALL.
Then there was a muffled sound of movement, and the recording was replaced by an authoritative woman’s voice. She spoke with a trace of some exotic accent Benson couldn’t quite place. “We hope you enjoyed today’s musical selection. It’s almost time for our special assembly to receive all the visitors who have traveled so far to be with us today. The ceremony will start in ten minutes, followed by the trials and the feast. Anyone who isn’t in his or her place by the time the opening chant begins will be severely punished. See you soon!”
The P.A. system clicked off.
“Do you think we should try to make a break for it?” Benson ventured. “Drive back to the station, say we couldn’t find anything, and try to forget this past hour ever happened?”
DeLacy frowned. “I don’t think that’s an option anymore.”
Instead of answering, she put a hand on his cheek—her palm felt wonderfully cool against his skin—and turned his head so he was looking out the nearest window.
There should have been a view of the playground, but instead a shadowy forest extended as far as he could see. The trees were very tall and covered with shaggy black bark like tangled fur. Their branches were bursting with silver leaves, long and crescent-shaped and glinting like scythes. A large animal lumbered in the distance. Benson thought it might have been a bear, or something reminiscent of a bear, but its outline was too indistinct to be sure. The few shafts of light that penetrated the overlapping branches were the same shade as the amber glow that had briefly enveloped them in the hallway shortly after they had entered the building.
Nothing could live in that light and stay sane, Benson thought. “Electric pickle light,” he said with a weak laugh.
DeLacy took his hand. “Come on,” she said. “Something tells me we’ll regret it if we aren’t in our places when the assembly starts.”
“And something tells me we’ll regret it if we are,” Benson said, but he allowed her to lead him into the hall, where they collided with a figure in a gray uniform pushing a mop bucket.
“Sorry! We didn’t see . . . ” DeLacy trailed off, staring at the janitor who was not Jim Beam.
“Better hurry along,” the figure rasped. As it spoke, Benson caught a glimpse of a bifurcated tongue.
“Yes. Thank you. We will,” DeLacy murmured.
As they neared the double doors at the end of the hall, the sound of the janitor’s talons clicking against the linoleum was gradually eclipsed by the babble of hundreds of excited voices inside the multi-purpose room. Benson reached out and grasped the handle of the door on the right. “Are you ready?”
DeLacy squeezed his other hand. “No. Let’s do it.”
Summoning reserves of self-discipline from some secret well inside himself, Benson managed to keep his voice even. “Red Rover, Red Rover,” he chanted.
“Let the good guys come over,” DeLacy finished. Her grip tightened on his fingers, and she drew her gun with her free hand.
Benson opened the door, and they barreled through it together. He hoped they would be able to break through the other side, but no matter what happened, he knew he wouldn’t let go.
Laura Garrison is creeping slowly southward like an unstoppable fungus that subsists on caffeine and gummy bears. Her hobbies include skulking under bridges, freeing horrors chained in castle dungeons, and burying treasure on desert islands. Visit her at brainsylvania.wordpress.com, or catch her stray observations and loose haiku on Twitter @pickleboots.