by Judith Quinney
Gerald was so good he never volunteered to be It. But he hadn’t been in quite a while. Everyone, from director to teachers to staff, acknowledged his turn in silence. Their heads dipped slightly as they met his gaze and then looked away quickly. The cook made only half as much food as needed for lunch on a normal day. Few of the children had an appetite when the game was played.
The adults vacated the school grounds promptly at noon when early lunch concluded. The director and teachers got into their economy models and hybrids. They played Audible in their cars to muzzle their thoughts as they drove away. The staff carpooled to Elkton Village or Beechwood in their old gas guzzlers, talking loudly and overlong about cookouts, game nights, and church events.
The nurse and weekend staff left together in the school van. They planned to take in a movie and visit a local amusement park to fill up the afternoon. Anything was better than talking about what could not be contained. The game was scheduled to end promptly at six. They would drive through the gates no earlier than 6:01 pm.
The day was cool, sunny, and pleasant with trees just beginning to lose their leaves in earnest. On a typical Friday in October, the children would have half-day lessons with plans to go boating or hiking after lunch. But the game was played every other month, on the third Friday. Today. As tradition required, all lessons were suspended. The children could sleep as late as they wished. But no one slept late at Pembroke School when the game was played. Everyone woke early with their sheets corkscrewed around their legs, having run through nightmares visited upon them the night before.
Gerald waited until he heard the last car pull out of the parking lot. He was among the oldest group of children at Pembroke, having turned sixteen the previous summer. He was tall and slender, more suited to basketball than football in both body and spirit. Gerald squeezed his brown eyes shut. An errant lock of wavy brown hair brushed his forehead as he bowed his head in silent entreaty. Maybe he wouldn’t find anyone. Maybe he wouldn’t find any of the small ones, at least. He lifted his head. No use thinking that way. It would decide what happened, not he.
Gerald was a fair boy and always gave the children five full minutes to hide, counting down slowly without opening his eyes. He stood still in the center aisle of the dining hall, located in the great house. After he started, the children scrambled for places to hide. Some ran outside, seeking safety in the boathouse, barn, workshop, and dormitories; up a tree; in the Grotto; and in the tangle of prickly bushes at the foot of Blackberry Ridge. Some, like Sasha, liked to hide in the great house known as Piedmont Hall.
Sasha ran over to the grand staircase as quietly as possible while Gerald counted loudly and slowly. She had prepared for the game by running sprints and wearing sneakers and comfortable clothes. She did not scout out hiding places in advance, like some of the children. She was afraid she might remember them when it was her turn. Sasha and Gerald were about the same age, and had arrived at the school within a year of each other. This year, they were lab partners in advanced biology. Gerald was intelligent and very meticulous in everything he did. She knew she needed to find a really good hiding spot.
Noah and Jonah, the eight-year-old twins, followed close on her heels, holding hands. They always hid together. They only split up when it was their turn to be It. That should have been against the rules, but it wasn’t.
“You can’t hide with me. Find your own spot,” Sasha hissed at the twins.
“No, we’re scared. What if It finds us?” said Noah, or Jonah.
The twins did everything to look as alike as possible – same blue shorts and yellow striped t-shirts, same socks and shoes, same blond bowl haircuts. She was never sure who was whom. Right now, they had identical looks of terror on their faces. Wide blue eyes, tongues licking thin dry lips, and skin paler than normal. Briefly, Sasha wondered what fear would look like overlaid upon her own face – her dark brown eyes, generous mouth, and forthright nose and chin. Would she look as frightened?
“Okay, you can hide with me. But-Be-Quiet,” she whispered. The twins nodded in tandem.
Sasha considered her options as she ascended the stairs with the twins trailing behind her. With them along, she wouldn’t have time to get all three of them into her preferred hiding spots – the crawl spaces between the walls or underneath the floors. No, they’d have to risk hiding in furniture, leaving them more vulnerable to being found. On the second-floor landing, she turned to look at the twins, and pointed to the left.
“To the library.”
The library was one full floor and one half-floor above, with separate entrances on the second and third floors. There was a spiral staircase at the far end of the room that provided a bridge between the floors. The library seemed immense to the children, filled with books, maps, portfolios, bookcases, library carts, desks, and odd chairs placed here and there that you straddled backwards in order to sit down.
Sasha walked quickly through the library, looking into alcoves and behind curtains, and discarding one after the other as too exposed. She made her way to the rolling book carts. They were not open like normal book carts. Instead, they were tall cabinets with doors on wheels. The director did not approve of the disorder and chaos of open library carts. He did not tolerate chaos at any time, except when It was loose. Then chaos could not be helped. She found three carts fitted for large portfolios that were close to empty. With one per person, there was enough room for them all to hide.
“Good, we’re in luck. Noah, get in this one. Jonah, that one. I’ll hide here. Get in and I’ll close the doors on you,” she said.
“…Ten…Be Ready…Nine…Be Ready…Eight…Be Ready…”
“No! Jonah and I hide together,” Noah protested quietly. Now she knew who was whom.
“Shit, we don’t have time for this! Okay. Jonah, get on the bottom. Noah, you’re next. Quiet!”
Sasha closed their cabinet door and hopped into her own. She held the door closed from the inside as best she could. She tried to stave off a feeling of panic by slowing the pace of her breath to the countdown. She needed to keep her head clear.
“Three…Be Ready…Two…Be Ready…One! Ready or not, here It comes!”
As the countdown ended, Sasha’s body broke into an involuntary cold sweat, drenching her face, neck, and back. The worst part of the game was waiting to see whether It found you or you got lucky.
It climbed the stairs, step by thundering step, taking Its time, building suspense, planning Its attack. It stopped on the second-floor landing and paused for a few moments, looking up the staircase to the third floor. Instead, It turned to the left, heading for the library. It stalked down the hall. The carpet muffled Its steps only slightly.
It flung open the double doors, banging them against the luxurious wood paneled walls with the most awful boom, so much more frightening in a room where quiet, order, and logic normally ruled. It entered the room and took in two deep whiffs with monstrous nostrils.
“It knows where all of you are. But who will It scrape? Who will It bite?”
It roared and dragged long, sharp, left nails against those on the right, sounding like sword drawn upon sword. The twins began to whimper and cry, trying without success to silence their sounds against the t-shirts they clutched in their mouths.
“Sasha, you were weak in helping the twins. It heard them. What happens now is the result of your choice. Remember that the next time It walks!”
It growled. Its heels crashed down upon the floor as It stepped closer. It flung open Sasha’s cabinet and grabbed her by the arms, lifting her easily. It flung her across the room, her thin body wrapping itself around a leg of a map table as she slid to a stop. Out of air, she rolled over to protect herself as best she could from Its onslaught. Its eyes were wild and unrepentant, so unlike Gerald’s kind and steady gaze.
“Gerald….help,” Sasha gasped.
But Gerald was as lost to her as he was to himself.
She knew that. It said nothing and stared at her without moving, for the moment. Sasha smelled Its acrid odor of power and ill intent.
No one would come to her aid. Yet her body would survive. The tradition of the game required physical survival. But her center. Her spirit. Her soul. Sasha screamed in a low strangled voice, her eyes wide and frozen in a mask of fear.
© Judith Quinney, 2020