by Trilby Plants
Mary Trull believed in duty. Her most important duty was grading student papers in a timely way. By the time she finished, the impotent winter sun visible through her classroom windows had sunk behind snow clouds. She put on her coat, gathered her things, turned off the lights, and locked the door.
Shadows flooded the second-floor hallway of Andrew Garner High School, the only illumination the soft glow of every third or fourth light. The florescent fixture above her buzzed and dimmed. Mary shivered at a breath of cold air that caressed her cheeks. The heat had been turned down several hours ago, at dismissal time. One of the school board’s money-saving measures.
Perhaps she should have left earlier. She’d forgotten how early darkness came this close to Christmas. She hitched her purse strap up on her shoulder and set off down the hall. Her sensible, soft-soled shoes made shushing sounds as she walked.
She paused at the top of the dark stairwell and reached for the railing.
A rustling sound from below halted her. A tiny red glow on the landing below blossomed and faded. The acrid odor of cigarette smoke overrode the smell of cleaning products.
That idiot security guard Mendoza didn’t even have the courtesy to go outside to smoke because it was cold. Mary would report him tomorrow. She peered over the railing. Two shapes were barely visible on the landing. Students? A cigarette passed between them.
“Ya know….” A male voice. “Ol’ Troll’s gonna drive me nuts.”
Mary winced. She knew from other teachers’ guarded conversations in the staff workroom what students called her. Children had nicknames for most of the staff.
“Yeah, dude.” A deep male voice. “She’s too old to teach.”
Mary recognized that voice: Benjamin Powell. Fourth hour freshman English, two years older than the other freshman. A wannabe gang banger from the Projects with a long record of school offenses. He was often absent. When he was in school, he swaggered and postured and made obscene gestures which morphed into running his hand through his hair when Mary turned to him.
“My mama had her in school.” The other boy.
Mary put a name to that one: JaMarkus Wilson. One of the more ridiculous made-up names that were prevalent nowadays. He was a delinquent from a single mother home. Mary remembered the mother vaguely from her early days of teaching: a stupid girl who had gotten herself pregnant before she was fifteen.
“One o’ these days the ol’ Troll’ll croak right there at her desk,” JaMarkus said.
“Nobody’ll notice. She won’t look any different.” Benjamin sniggered. “Might look better.”
Laughter echoed in the stairwell.
“Can you believe she forgot what she was talking ’bout today?” Benjamin said.
“That’s cuz of what Kevin was doin’.” JaMarcus said.
“Holdin’ a pencil under his nose with his tongue? That’s nothin’. I once seen him balance an apple on his head in history. Pirate Johnson didn’t even ask him to quit. Just kept rollin’ his eyes. That apple stayed there till the bell rang. Pirate Johnson ain’t playin’ with a full deck, neither.”
That did it. Mr. Johnson could not help it if one of his eyes was smaller than the other and he looked like he was always squinting one eye. Mary Trull would not allow students to disrespect teachers in her school. She would definitely report them to the assistant principal in the morning. They would be suspended if she had any say in the matter.
But Mary didn’t move. She was alone, and there were two of them.
“I’ll tell you what oughtta happen to her,” Benjamin said, his tone conspiratorial. “I saw it in a TV movie. There was this creature that lived in the swamp and grabbed people and ate ‘em. Course, the local sheriff was stupid. He couldn’t figure out what happened, cuz there were no bodies. Turned out it was the spirit of people who’d been murdered by some guy the sheriff disrespected.”
JaMarkus laughed, a vicious, cruel sound. “It could eat the Troll. I saw that movie. Had a stupid ending, though. Some do-gooder killed it. Burned it up with gas or holy water or something.”
“Yeah. Hey, I got it. How ‘bout the creature hides under her car and waits till it’s dark? When the Troll goes to get in, it grabs her and drags her under the car and eats her guts out while she’s still screamin’.”
“Awesome, dude,” JaMarkus murmured. “Only she’s prob’ly too tough for it to eat. She’s gotta be eighty.”
How dare they? Mary was not yet sixty.
“Fuck yeah.” Benjamin’s voice grew husky. “But it could rip her up. Like early retirement.”
“Shit,” JaMarkus said, his voice low. “That’s scary. I saw a movie once ‘bout a guy who made things real by talkin’ bout ‘em. I gotta go home alone, an’ it’s gettin’ dark….”
Demerits for swearing. And for not speaking correctly. These boys were like most of their peers: brains fried by too much television. Not to mention computers and texting.
“You know what really pisses me off?” Benjamin said.
Another demerit, Mary tallied.
“That paper we hadda write last week. Mine wasn’t bad. My sister helped me. she’s a senior, and she’s a straight A student, dude, and she fixed all the capitals and periods and shit. The Troll didn’t even read it. Gave me an F.”
“How d’ya know she didn’t read it?”
“Cuz in the middle I wrote, like it was part of the paper, ‘If you’re reading this paper, please underline this sentence.’ Nothin. She just put the grade at the top and gave it back.”
Mary nodded. Of course she did that. There was no need to read students’ papers. She skimmed the first sentence or two, looked at the names, matched names with faces, and assigned grades based on her opinion of them.
She didn’t remember having the sister in class. Probably lazy and stupid, too. Girls like her fooled teachers with cute smiles and short skirts. Dishonesty ran in families.
Mary’s patience stretched to its limit. She leaned over the parapet above the boys. “What are you doing here?” she said. “School is closed. Get out this instant.”
Benjamin Powell was tall and muscular, and he always wore a black leather jacket. He held a glowing cigarette pinched between his fingers. JaMarkus leaned against the wall, his dark skin blending into the shadows, eyes bright.
“We’re just talkin’,” JaMarkus said.
“Everything all right, Miz Trull?” A raspy voice drifted down the hall behind Mary.
“No, Mr. Mendoza.” She let a note of triumph creep into her reply. “There are two ruffians smoking in the stairwell who need your attention.”
“Shit,” Benjamin hissed. “Let’s get outta here.” His cigarette left a red trail as it fell. “Don’t worry, man, fuckin’ Mendoza’s too fat to catch us.”
The two boys left in a flurry of shadows, their sneakers squeaking on the marble steps. Mary pursed her lips in disapproval at the smoke smell.
The uniformed guard thundered up to Mary, holding his belly that bulged over his belt line. A huge ring of keys and a walkie-talkie dangling from his belt flapped and clanked as he puffed to a halt beside her.
“You okay, Miz Trull?” Mendoza wheezed. He touched his walkie-talkie.
“Yes, I’m all right, Mr. Mendoza. But there were two vandals here polluting the air with smoke and foul language—which I shall report in the morning. You should do a thorough search of the building to make sure they’ve left.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, Miz Trull,” Mendoza said, his fat cheeks puffing in and out as he panted. “They prob’ly came inside to get out of the cold. I’m sure they’re gone.” His breathing slowed. “They’re kids. Nothin’ to worry about.” He huffed as he clumped down the stairs.
Mary wrinkled her nose at the renewed assault on her senses: he smelled of sweat and cigar smoke.
Mendoza ground out the glowing cigarette butt with his toe. “You’re working late, ma’am.”
“I had a meeting after school and papers to grade, young man.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll walk you to your car.” Mendoza wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of a beefy hand.
Mary Trull drew her scrawny frame up straight and began to descend the stairs.
“No, thank you, Mr. Mendoza,” she said. “I’m quite all right.” She held her breath and breezed past him.
“I’d be glad to….”
His voice was lost as she moved down the last flight of steps and turned the corner into the first floor hallway. Darkness pooled at the end of the corridor. Had something moved in the darkness? Mary blinked, looked again. Shadows. The boys’ conversation had unnerved her. There were no monsters.
She should have taken the papers home for something to do alone in her tiny apartment, but duty prodded her to give her students a quick turnaround on their work. After a few days at the beginning of the school year, she knew what kind of student each of them was, and didn’t have to read any of their work. She meticulously marked their grades in bright red marker.
None of them had any imagination. She thought of the two boys in the stairwell. All they did was watch stupid movies on television, and engage in unsavory criminal hobbies. If she were inventing creatures, she would conjure ones that would eat stupid children. If words could become reality, such a monster would never go hungry.
She buttoned her coat and tied the practical wool scarf around her neck. No sense getting pneumonia walking to the car.
Eighty, indeed. She was 59, but the school board was forcing her to retire. The principal, Mr.—Mary could never quite remember his name—had said she could not remember important things, like staff meetings and turning in attendance and lesson plans. It wasn’t her fault. The students were loud and rude. They made her forget things. But she knew what grades they deserved.
Mary stepped out of the building into the netherworld of twilight. The cold stopped her. The lights in the parking lot were coming on, not yet bright enough to dispel the encroaching darkness.
Her car sat on the other side of the lot under trees in deeper shadows. She should have gone out earlier and moved the car closer to the building. Oh well, the walk would be invigorating.
Saying it made it real. The boy’s words whispered in her mind. Nonsense.
She put on her gloves and adjusted her purse strap more firmly over her shoulder, then ducked her head into the breeze and started across the parking lot.
A few dirty patches of ice and snow lingered on the asphalt. Once she was out of the lee of the structure, the wind bit into her cheeks. Leaves skittered across the pavement, sounding like noisy mice.
A faint sound rose above the wind. Mary stopped and listened. Had someone called to her? Only the wind blowing the leaves.
Nearer her car, trees shivered in the breeze, their bare branches clacking against each other. Ghostly shadows trembled like living things. She pushed the thought away.
Words became reality.
She paused, clutching her purse against her breast. She had heard something. But what? Dry leaves blowing across the pavement. Branches rubbing together. Nothing else.
Wind-driven snowflakes stung her cheeks.
Mary trudged the few remaining steps to her battered old Ford. She removed a glove and rummaged in her purse for her keys. Stupid. She should have gotten them inside where it was warm. Finally, she found them, and fumbling with cold fingers, she pressed the remote. The door lock clicked.
Her teeth rattled from the chill.
A tiny sound, different from the clacking branches or the rustle of dry leaves. It sounded like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard.
Words became reality.
She froze. A chill coursed up her back. Those dreadful children had unnerved her.
Trying to dismiss them from her mind—and not succeeding—Mary yanked the door open, tossed her purse across to the passenger seat, and gathered up her coat to sit down. Something cold brushed her ankle. She almost jumped back from the safety of the car.
A cat must have run right by her legs. It had probably been sheltering under the car. Luckily, it had heard her, or it would have been killed when she started the engine.
Anxious to get out of the bitter wind, Mary stepped into the car. She sat down on the seat, one leg still on the ground. A gust of wind made the trees’ dry-bones rattling louder. An icy grip closed on her ankle. Pain shot up her leg.
Mary opened her mouth, but sound died in her throat, squeezed by the vice of fear. If she looked down, she knew she would see claws grasping her. Something from a nightmare, not from the reality Mary Trull knew. Talons dug into her flesh, and hot blood spurted.
Something preternaturally strong dragged her from the seat. Her head cracked the edge of the door. Spots exploded in her vision. She was sliding on the icy pavement, sliding under the car. Dragged by both ankles held in an inexorable grip of claws. No way to get loose.
Mary flailed for something that would save her. Tried to scream. Throat locked in terror. Grabbed the edge of the car. Her hands slipped. Pain slammed her breath away, and darkness consumed her.
Saying it made it real.
Trilby Plants wrote her first story when she was ten. It won a blue ribbon at the Montana State Fair. She’s been writing stories ever since. Besides children’s books, Plants writes dark fantasy about giant spiders. Why spiders? Because she loves Magic, and spiders are her worst nightmare. She is the co-author of Double Danger, a romantic suspense. A proud member of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, Plants lives in Murrells Inlet, SC, where she writes, knits and creates video book trailers for authors.