After a good five minutes, we hadn’t seen any movement inside the building. We were crouching in the shadow of the NIELS BOHR MIDDLE SCHOOL sign out front, watching the upper hall of the math and science wing. We’d scouted the perimeter of the campus, which comprised both the middle school and Bohr High looming next door, and this was the only section that was lit. Nik was resisting all my proposals for going inside, claiming the place gave him a vague sense of trouble. I was less inclined to listen to him now that I could get a better look inside. The nearest classroom had enough light leaking into it from the hall that I could make out posters, file cabinets, and the digits of pi circling the top of the wall. We had a possible connection back to normal Morrow Glen.
“There! Listen,” Nik whispered. I heard it too: someone had just opened and closed a door.
“What if it’s just Mr. Geraghty working overtime?”
“I wouldn’t get this feeling from him.”
I had to concede this. While one could have said our custodian looked like a grave robber from an old horror flick if one was feeling unkind, we all knew he was harmless. “What are you getting it from then?”
“That’s not how it works, I’m not psychic. All I know is there’s something dangerous in there.”
“The feeling’s not full blast though, right? Are there levels? How dangerous would it be to just sneak in for a minute and get a closer look?”
“Or we could keep going and try to find that third light.”
“But it was sooo far! I bet we can’t even see it from here. And think about it: if the power’s on here, maybe the water fountains work too. Would it hurt to at least get closer so we can hear better?”
I left the shelter of the sign, still keeping to the shadows and unconsciously crouching as I crossed the lawn. The stark fluorescence falling on it in patches from the windows, unmitigated by any friendlier light, gave a hostile aspect to the backdrop we took for granted every weekday. Hence why I may have jumped harder than necessary when I drew near a tree and something rustled its upper branches.
At this point, my conditioned response to things in trees was to reach for my pepper spray, which of course was languishing under a smashed bookshelf somewhere in the great beyond. I backed off as the rustler swiftly climbed down into view.
Nik walked past me in my retreat, staring at the creature in pure fascination and ignoring me when I said, “Careful.” It perched on the lowest branch with a set of spindly legs that looked like they’d been stuck on hastily, generously, and without much concern for symmetry. The trunk of its body split into three flexible branches, each with a large convex bulge that glinted in the light like an array of lenses. One was pointed steadily at the building, one at us, and the third roved, scanning the area.
“It’s okay,” Nik said. “Is this your buddy from earlier?”
“Maybe?” I cautiously approached the tree again. “Uh, hi? Have we met before?”
Its eyestalk focused on Great Red, who was stretching himself out from Nik’s arm toward the tree. The surface of its body began to flex and tremble, then its whole outline blurred and broke apart into a swarming mass of tiny particles. Like a big gob of hot glue congealing as it dripped, the swarm coalesced below the branch, reforming itself into a narrow, flexible tube. One tapered end wrapped around the branch while the other widened out into a head — roughly the shape of a snake.
Nik’s round eyes grew rounder. “Have you seen this before?”
“…This one’s new.”
The shape continued to refine itself, the head growing a mouth and sharpening to a snout, a skin forming that approximated Red’s scales, though its color remained uniformly dark.
“I guess it could be the same one that led me to your neighborhood. Maybe there’s others. How would I know when it can Ditto itself into anything like that?”
The pseudo-snake regarded us coolly with a fresh pair of eyespots, then let go of the branch. Its form was already dilating and blurring on the way down, and on landing it burst apart, making me jump back. It was tricky to see in the poor light, but fragments of all sizes were scurrying around independently until they joined up and began making a new shape. We might be dealing not with one creature but many.
Once it had four serviceable legs on a torso, it trotted toward the entrance. I took a few steps after it, then looked back at Nik. “You coming?”
“I don’t know…”
“This thing — things? — or something like it led me to you in the first place. It may not be smart enough to talk, but it knows stuff. You stay out here if you want, I’m taking the chance.”
The door, as I’d come to expect, was unlocked. I opened it in time to save the My Little Hellspawn the trouble of fully dissociating to trickle through the gap at the bottom. “You’re welcome,” I whispered as it scurried past my feet and into the lobby.
After easing the door silently shut, I crept closer to the nearest hallway, staying close to the wall. I held my breath in the dark and listened for any sign of movement besides the soft pattering of makeshift appendages down by my feet. The now-familiar feeling of disconnection was faint but growing slowly stronger the farther in I went.
After a few minutes of listening, I felt confident enough to venture down the hall toward the gym and turn on the flashlight, shielded by my hand. Everything was predictably bare, and the water fountains maddeningly dry. There was nothing here worth exploring. I’d have to get closer to the lighted area and whoever was in it.
I turned to go back but stopped in my tracks at the sound behind me. From out of sight around a corner of the hall I could hear a concerted clattering of metal, building in volume along with a growing light. The light turned the corner before I could run, an intensely bright ripple that swept down the hall’s length, slamming all the locker doors as it passed and leaving a momentary blackness in its wake. Silence resumed, not counting the racket that was my heart ricocheting off my rib cage.
I took some long breaths, tried to get a grip — and the security alarm went off.
The sanity–and eardrum–fraying blasts of sound were accompanied by violently blinking lights. Once my wits returned, I could see with each flash that my surroundings had dramatically changed. The lockers had locks on them. One had a shoelace caught in its door, and another had been covered in gift wrap for someone’s birthday, which had subsequently been shredded by bored passersby. There were posters and fliers on the walls — in short, I was back in the Bohr Middle I knew and tolerated.
On the Viking Pride wall, the framed photos and display cases commemorating sports victories were all back — almost all, rather. I couldn’t be bothered to check more closely when there was a water fountain nearby.
I don’t have any similes for how the water tasted. If you’ve ever been that thirsty, you already know. All that mattered was it was cold and pure and kept coming for as long as I held the button down. Once I was sufficiently waterlogged, I spotted the next miracle through the window of a coach’s office: the wonderfully dull glow of sodium street lamps outside.
The office was locked, but there was an exit door down at the corner. I ran for it, stomach sloshing.
EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY — ALARM WILL SOUND
A little late for that. I burst out onto the sidewalk by the faculty parking lot. Across the field, past a fence and a belt of trees, shone the lights of houses. The crickets’ droning and the distant white noise of cars instantly joined my short list of contenders for sweetest sound. I may have choked up a little.
For a moment, I followed my instinct and broke into a stumbling run away from the school. But Nik was still on the other side.
“AaaaAAGH!” See where putting all your faith in your Spidey-sense gets you? I had to go back for him.
The emergency door, likely my only way back in, had almost swung shut. With a frenzied sprint and a dive, I got a forearm into the gap before it closed.
Once inside, I took a moment to inspect the sports wall more closely when I passed it. I was right, there was a picture missing from the orderly rows, something I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought on its own. But that particular section of wall was one I’d cultivated a habit of ignoring over the past two years. A quick sweep with the flashlight confirmed it: the missing picture was of Esther’s gymnastics team.
I got the strangest of pits in my stomach. Making sense of it would have taken up valuable escaping-to-reality time.
Before I got halfway to the lobby, Nik appeared at the other end of the hall and caught sight of me. He caught sight of the drinking fountain a microsecond later, which put escaping on hold for a bit.
“What did you do?” he gasped when he was done making out with the fountain.
“Nothing, I was stealthy as all hell! The place just changed out of nowhere, then the alarm went off.”
“That’s why I came to find you. The front door wasn’t closed all the way, that might be it.”
“But listen, I found a way — ”
“Oh, and I found another one.” He pointed behind him to what I’d assumed was the same animal/s that had entered with me, only now in a more streamlined (and six-legged, I noticed) form. As he said this, the first creature reappeared in the lobby from wherever it had wandered off to. It immediately scuttled toward its counterpart, which was breaking down into a semi-blob. They both dissolved at the edges and began to merge. We knelt to look closer and could just barely make out the mite-like things that composed them crawling over each other and interlinking. There may be more unsettling things to watch under a strobing alarm light, but I’m hard pressed to think of any.
The new entity pulsated, stretched itself several times, and stood up on three fresh legs, just under twice as tall as before.
The many questions I had were all shoved out of my mind when I heard another approaching wave of clattering. We’d wasted too much time. “Oh no, no. Come on!” I bolted for the exit, Nik’s long legs catching up to me in no time despite my head start. But before we could reach it, the pulse of light and slamming lockers followed by blackness passed over us, with the alarm cutting out shortly after.
I flung the door open, knowing what would be outside it. We were back in the dead, empty world.
“Shhh!” Nik tried to silence my stream of expletives or at least keep the volume down. “They probably already know we’re here, what with the alarm. Don’t tell them where!”
“I was so close! We were almost back!”
“If it changes that fast, we might get another chance. Or we can try a different part of the school.”
The conglomerate creature accompanied us deeper into the building, having sprouted some more legs and keeping itself long and low to the ground. “Is this guy our pet now?”
“I’ve got enough already,” said Nik. “This one’s yours.”
“Do you think they just fused or were they already part of the same…the same — you know, we really need a name for it.”
“Boy or girl, you think?”
“I’m not checking, ick. And I bet it could be both if it wanted.”
“Any ideas then?”
“We could just go with Ditto.”
“Not very original. What about Wrigley?”
“What, like the gum?”
“Or because of, you know, wriggling.”
“Does he really wriggle, though? It’s more of a — ”
“Shhh! Hold up!” We were approaching the open, two-story central area of the school, which was dominated by a wide set of stairs and a balcony walkway on the second level. It was dimly lit from upstairs but still empty of the usual chairs, tables, and decorations. Men’s voices reached us, faint but growing.
“This way.” I followed Nik down the hall leading to the arts wing, while he glanced from side to side at potential hiding spots and muttered to himself, “Not there, not there…” The voices were getting closer. I strained to make out even a word or two of what they said, but I wasn’t getting any of it.
He carefully opened the door to a stairwell and descended to the basement level, where it dead-ended at a mechanical room. We slipped into the space under the stairs and waited.
Two voices approached the door above us. There was a brief exchange, and one set of footsteps continued down the hall. The door opened and a beam of light entered the stairwell.
I inched toward the mechanical room door and slowly turned its handle, thinking anything would be better than getting trapped in a corner like this. I resisted opening it when Nik put a forestalling hand on me. The man above us hesitated for an awful moment, then his footsteps began climbing toward the second floor.
Nik crept back up to the first floor landing to listen better. I was still gripping the door handle next to me, and for curiosity’s sake I swung it partially open as soon as the slamming of the second-floor door told us we were alone.
Wind brushed past me and into the opening, and I felt noticeably colder. Before I even clicked the flashlight on to look, I could sense the emptiness like vertigo. Beyond the threshold there were no walls or floor, only a drop-off into absolute blackness. I turned the beam every which way, but it penetrated no more than a few inches. There was nothing for it to illuminate. Still, it was hard to look away from that nothing.
If every public school had one of these underneath it, I somehow felt that might explain a lot.
“You don’t want to go that way.” Nik was leaning over the railing trying to beckon me up.
“Yeah, I got that,” I said, still staring. I finally shut the door and followed him.
From the sound and light farther down the hall, it appeared that the second man was searching the band room for us. Before we could get far in the opposite direction, Nik changed course again, ducking into the teachers’ lounge. Almost as soon as I followed him in, we heard the man reemerge into the corridor.
There came yet another pulse of light and dark, after which the fluorescents outside the room flickered on. In the glow from around the edges of the door, we got our first, dim view of the room that was our teachers’ secret hideout, now fully furnished. It was mostly disappointing, with one exception: the refrigerator.
“It’s not safe to leave yet?” I whispered. Nik shook his head, corralling his agitated snakes back into their pockets.
“Would opening the fridge blow our cover?”
He put an ear to the door. “Go for it.”
Desperate times demand desperate measures. If you ever read this, Mr. Muranaka, I’m sorry. Your chicken salad went to a good cause and could have used more dressing. A similar apology to the owners of all the unlabeled leftovers we raided.
“Are you hungry, little guy?” I asked the creature who’d followed us in. “What do you even eat?”
“He still needs a name. You haven’t said what you think of Wrigley.”
“I think it’s a snake name you were kicking around before your dragon obsession and you’ve been waiting for something to use it on, but I don’t have anything better.”
“Hey, do something if you want us to call you Wrigley.”
It cocked its “head” at him, like it heard but couldn’t yet understand. He held a palm out in front of it. “How about it?” It extruded a crude palm of its own, which he high-fived. “Good enough. Wrigley it is.”
Not sure if or when we would get another chance like this, I got greedy and gathered up some pieces of fruit from the fridge and miscellaneous snacks I found in cupboards. I unzipped the backpack to stash them for later, and flinched when I saw something move inside. It was the talisman.
When I pulled them out, the linked leather medallions were twitching. I let them dangle and they swayed back and forth of their own accord, then came to rest at a slight upward angle like a steel chain near a magnet. “I knew it,” I whispered.
“Whatever’s going on here has something to do with Essie. I think I’m picking up a connection to her.”
He shushed me again. The man who’d been looking for us down the hall was returning. As we moved farther away from the door and waited for him to pass, I felt the talisman pull a different way. Then it relaxed, swung freely again, and stiffened in an entirely new direction. What could it be latching on to besides its missing half or its owner?
Questions would have to wait. Once the coast was clear, we stepped out and moved toward the nearest exit, the courtyard doors by the central staircase. We passed a scattering of photocopied fliers reading WE CAN LIVE IN A WORLD THAT WE DESIGN or UNLEASH YOUR TRUE SELF, put up by the kids who were trying to start a Transcenders Fellowship student group. Nik tore them all down.
My attention was elsewhere. Since noticing the missing picture, I was forcing myself to look for all the things about this school that I’d become an expert at avoiding: the marks Esther had left on it.
The idea was that if I didn’t notice them, didn’t point them out or draw any attention to them in connection with myself, maybe someday the rest of the school would stop doing it. And to some extent, it had worked. These days the adults didn’t mention Esther in the same breath as me anywhere near as often, but it had taken a couple years of letting their expectations down. I personally thought they should have gotten the memo a lot sooner, but hope dies hard.
Near the end of the hall was a wide display case labeled BOHR MIDDLE WALL OF LEADERSHIP, honoring students who made some outstanding contribution to the school or the community. As we approached, I was mildly surprised at how much I hoped the Esther Emberley section would still be there.
This time hope died fast. Her name, all the text and pictures, and the local newspaper clipping were gone without a trace except for a speckling of pinholes on the blank red background.
That weird pit in my stomach got deeper, and now I began to suspect that what was making it so weird just might be a touch of guilt.
Nik and Wrigley walked right on by while I stood gaping. He looked back and whispered, “What are you doing?”
“Look at this! They took her down. Are they trying to erase her from the school?”
“We gotta move.”
“What if it’s not just pictures and stuff? What if they can actually make us forget her?” My travels had messed with my memory enough to convince me it might be possible. A thought crossed my mind that has never really left it since, one that still churns out the occasional nightmare: Who’s to say it doesn’t happen to people all the time? We’d never know.
“Reid, they’ll find us, we have to go now,” Nik hissed.
When we emerged into the open space around the stairs, now furnished and back to its regular self, it looked like we had a straight shot across it to freedom. We broke into a run, but we were too late. Nik was almost there, outpacing me by a good margin, when a surprisingly tall man wearing overalls, what looked like a tool belt, and a stern expression stepped into view between us and the exit. Nik cut to the right and made for the lobby only to be blocked by a second, almost equally tall man with a gray beard and a complicated pair of goggles. Overalls advanced toward me, forcing me back and cutting me off from Nik. I turned back the way we’d come to find that yet another man had moved in to block that hallway. This one looked younger than the other two, wearing a kind of vest and with his hair in a short ponytail, and yes, he was also vertically gifted.
They approached us slowly, methodically, each of them with a beam of light trained on one of us. Wrigley was nowhere in sight. The talisman in my hand was flipping erratically back and forth.
Ponytail spoke to us, harsh and distinct, but to my dismay I still couldn’t understand any of it. It didn’t sound like any language I’d heard on Var or Earth. Overalls said something as well, equally incomprehensible. It finally clicked for me that here, in my own domain, all my inwords might not have any effect.
Goggles must have acquired some of his own, because we both got the gist when he spoke. “How did you get in here?”
“This is our school,” I said.
“Yeah, how did you get in here?”
He said a few things I missed, then, “Stay where you are.”
There was another flash, a rattling of doors and windows, and everything went black. I heard a set of sprinting footsteps that had to be Nik, followed immediately by what sounded like Overalls and Goggles scrambling to try and intercept him in the dark. I picked a direction, begged my spatial memory not to fail me, and ran.
After the Columbine massacre a year ago, my main friend group and I had spent more time than was healthy discussing how we would evade and bring down a shooter at our school. A disproportionate number of our fantasy scenarios involved this part of the building, though of course now all the furniture we planned to use for cover had just vanished. There remained an odd freestanding wall that ran parallel to the stairs with shoulder-high openings in it, an architect’s statement of something or other. That wall, the staircase itself, and the columns around the room’s edge were the only real cover available.
I made for the space between the stairs and the freestanding wall, which had a few seconds ago been occupied by a handful of study tables and chairs. Our vision was back but we were still in near-total darkness, filled with the echoes of everyone else’s running and confused shouting. Judging by Ponytail’s flashlight beam, he had retreated toward the nearest hall to cut me off if I tried to escape that way. Seeing that I hadn’t, he now ran out into the middle of the floor, sweeping his light in all directions.
Overalls and Goggles had gone after Nik into the language arts wing, and it might sound bad but I wasn’t overly worried about him. He could sense danger and was one of the fastest kids in school. I had a backpack full of useless items and an apparently busted talisman. I was almost certainly in more trouble on my own than he was.
It seemed these people didn’t have a way to track us like Neery and Bugsen, or to shift rooms around. All they could presumably do was switch parts of this space from one state to the other, if in fact anyone was controlling the transitions. It was hard to tell. The point was, they were on our turf, and as long as we could avoid detection by normal means, we had a chance.
The wall was still shielding me from Ponytail’s searching flashlight, but he was closing in, circling around toward the foot of the stairs. I backed away and slipped into the shadows under the staircase just before he shone his light into my former hiding spot. The talisman was wadded up in my hand to keep it from flapping and possibly making a sound. With every move, I had to be careful not to let the contents of the backpack jostle against each other too much.
After a pause, he advanced toward me, forcing me to move to the opposite side of the staircase. I was prepared to go around the mulberry bush like this as many times as I had to, but after checking under the stairs, he seemed satisfied and took off to search the lobby area.
All the lighted sections of the ground floor had gone dark. Even if we made it out of the building, we likely wouldn’t be any closer to home. The only light I could see was coming from upstairs, and all the enemies I’d seen were downstairs. No-brainer.
I hurried up the steps as lightly as I could and paused at the top to consider my options. To my left was the long passage connecting us to Bohr High, which for once in my time at this school looked like a viable escape from something. But the talisman was twitching harder in my hand now. I let it hang free and it stretched out taut, tugging me firmly to the right. It had finally made up its mind.
Footsteps and voices were returning downstairs, and I had nowhere to hide on the balcony. With no time left to deliberate, I went with the talisman.
It led me into the second floor main hallway, which was barren and featureless except for a pool of light — not fluorescent, but yellow, almost natural-looking — outside the doors to the library. I approached on tiptoe, hugging the wall, and got just close enough to view a slice of room through the glass.
There was still a library on the other side, that much was clear. But it was neither my school library nor any western-hemisphere Earth library, not if that really was daylight streaming in through the nearest window. The ceiling was high, the shelves imposing and made of carved wood, and here and there they contained scrolls mixed in with more conventional books. Some of those books looked so antique you could go to jail just for opening them. As impressive as parts of the Institute Holistic had been, this was a class of library I exclusively associated either with Hogwarts or with a typical British person’s country manor.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but when I didn’t hear anyone inside, I decided to risk a closer look. The door, though unlocked, took some effort to open. Air rushed in as soon as I cracked it, more aggressively than in the basement — I was fighting a difference in pressure. I slipped through and tried unsuccessfully to close it without slamming.
I was mildly disoriented at first. Each step felt ever so slightly like being on a down elevator. I didn’t think too hard about it, chalking it up to the effects of crossing over rather than considering nerd things like gravity.
The walls and floor were made of what looked like smooth, dark gray stone. This end of the room was apparently a reading area with tables and some expensive-looking but comfortably worn seating, all a little too high off the ground.
The talisman pointed toward the other end of the room. Having no better ideas of where to go, I continued following it, staying between rows of shelves. It wasn’t long before I heard voices, a man’s and a woman’s. They were almost certainly speaking the same language as the men downstairs, only now I could understand more of it.
“…dealing with intruders…main bond focus…complete separation without any further disruption…”
If I hadn’t been so intent on their conversation, I might have paid better attention to my surroundings. A blade pricked the side of my neck and a hand gripped my shoulder from behind. Someone had entered through another door and snuck up on me. When I jumped, the blade pressed harder. “Still,” a female voice ordered.
“Who’s there?” called the man.
“We have a visitor!” The woman behind me shoved me forward, all the way to the end of the shelves and out into the open, to face two looming figures across a massive table.
“We were wondering what became of you.”
“You know what, I have a name.”
“I apologize, Master Reid.” Only then did I realize they were speaking to me in perfect English. “You’ve caught us in the middle of a pressing — and I’m afraid still experimental — operation. We’ll have to forgo the usual hospitality.”