The helmet had a finger-long gash across the top, ending in a broken face shield. The dull-gray plastic resembled a skull in the pale moonlight; the only color was a fine spray of blood that had dried on the outside. The tall man gently set it aside and aimed the narrow beam of his flashlight at the ground. The light made a cone in the cold mist. Just beyond the circle of light, things moved. He knew there were eyes out there watching – some of them perhaps human.
His companion used the edge of his shovel to knock a branch aside, sending a dry log down a small ravine.
“Quiet,” scolded the tall man.
The shorter man tossed the shovel to the ground, took a Beretta from his waist and pulled back the slide, making a metal click. “I thought your snitch said this area was empty?”
“They did. That doesn’t mean plans don’t change. Put that away before you hurt someone.”
“That’s what guns are for.”
“Not out here.”
“Then why you packing the 12-gauge?”
“That’s different. And it’s not for them…”
The short man picked up the shovel and stabbed it into the ground. “If I have to dig much more of these, I’m going to start putting the little bastards into them.”
“That’s not how we do things.”
The short man looked over his shoulder at the tall man. A layer of dirt and grime masked his face. He pointed a crusted fingernail at the shattered helmet. “These little bastards made their choice.”
The tall man sensed something more than greed in his companion’s voice. Beneath it all was a deep-seated anger and a desire for revenge.
Everything goes black in the library. The boy asking the odd questions vanishes in the shadows.
Red eyes appear in the darkness and stare at me – glaring eyes, filled with rage.
The first footstep is like a thunderclap as it slams the floor. The second brings the eyes half the distance toward me.
Two more and it’ll be upon me.
I see a huge silhouette in the dark. There are horns above the eyes. Not devil horns. These are the horns of an animal. The horns of a bull.
The Bull Man is almost on me. He grips the edge of a table and flips it into the air. Dictionaries and papers go flying. Chairs fall over and it lands with a CRACK, knocking into a shelf.
He’s one pace away from me. His shadow falls over me like an eclipse.
His shoulders lower as he prepares to run straight through me with his horns.
My first day here is about to be over less than an hour after I arrived.
I knew this school was weird the first moment I laid eyes on it.
I had no idea this was only the beginning.
An hour ago I was behind a bush a block away, changing out of my tight dress slacks into a pair of my dad’s old jeans. I had made a quick exit out of the apartment in the slacks so Mom wouldn’t notice they came above my ankles. There hadn’t been time to take me shopping and I didn’t want to make her feel bad. She cried enough already.
The jeans used to be Dad’s. He stopped wearing them after he got sick because cinching them up with a belt made them look like a potato sack. We all joked about the “farmer pants.” It was the kind of laugh followed by secret sadness.
When Mom sent me to the Salvation Army to drop off Dad’s old things, I slipped the pants out of the box and hid them in my moving stuff. I wasn’t being sentimental – just practical. Mom had more important things than taking me shopping. She had just started her job at the hospital, and money was tight and I was growing out of things fast.
I was terrified of showing up for my first day in high-water slacks. The jeans were way too loose and out of fashion, but at least they covered my ankles. Putting them on, I accidentally brushed up against the shrub and got treated to last night’s rainfall as the leaves dumped their water on my leg. It looked like I pissed myself. Fantastic. Great first day. It was only going to get worse.
Fifty minutes before the Bull Man came charging toward me, I was in the main office waiting for a student to show me around.
Everyone ignored me. Kids walked by without even a nod or a glance. The secretary didn’t ask me about my name. Nobody wanted to know why I was called Marv. I was dreading having to explain to people at the new school that it’s not short for Marvin. Now that no one cared, I wanted to grab someone randomly and tell them my dad was a big comics fan.
There were no annoying jokes, only silence. The silence was killing me. Of course I would have rejected the attention. Not having it makes me feel even more like a loser.
When I first saw the school straddling the hill, with tall redwoods looming over it, I got a chill as I noticed the morning fog clinging to the trees like a mysterious gray blanket. That was nothing like the chill I got when I stepped inside.
I used to have dreams where I was invisible and nobody noticed me. I’d trade that for this reality in a heartbeat.
As I walked up the path to the front doors, everyone seemed to look right through me. This was worse than being invisible; I was just the fog passing by.
There was nothing friendly in their eye contact. It wasn’t exactly hostile either. I was just a thing carried by the wind. A piece of trash blowing down the hallway.
The secretary who was uninterested in my name handed me a schedule and told me to wait for someone to come get me. I sat quietly and looked around the depressing office. It was tiny compared with my old school. The trophy case in the hallway was half empty and looked forgotten. The school was old, but not run down. The place kind of felt like something that slipped out of time. It was like an old wooden ship in a forgotten harbor where someone cleared the barnacles and repainted every couple years, but there wasn’t any love in it.
I felt a sinking feeling when I realized this was going to be my school for the next three years. Three years of being a nobody. Three years of haunting the halls like a forgotten echo.
Forty minutes before the Bull Man came charging at me, I was contemplating my boring future when I noticed a tall shape in the doorway. This was my student guide, Carrie.
Taller than my almost six-foot frame, she was an Amazon. Dressed in old jeans and a flat green army jacket, you could almost mistake her for a man from behind. She wasn’t the kind of girl who tried to act like a man. She just looked like she was trying to mask her femininity. When she handed me a photocopy map of the campus, I could see the remnants of nail polish on her fingernails. It was like she had tried it on then wiped it away out of embarrassment.
Athletic, yet awkward, with her high cheekbones, she was what my mom would call a late bloomer. She could be an Olympic champion or one of those models who have what they call an interesting look. It’s the look we make fun of in high school and then slap ourselves on the forehead later on because we couldn’t see the real her. I thought she was kind of pretty, but didn’t make eye contact.
Model, athlete or hitchhiking serial killer, as a tour guide she sucked.
“Lunchroom,” was all she said as she pointed through the window in the door.
I leaned in to look and couldn’t think of anything observational to say other than that there were more of the blue plastic chairs that hurt your ass than the red plastic chairs that hurt your ass. “Interesting,” I mumbled.
I think I got a flicker of her eyes as I made my comment. I sounded like more of a wiseass than I meant.
She moved down the hall in quick strides. I had to increase my pace to keep up.
“Computer lab,” she said in her monotone.
“Not yet,” she replied.
I should have known there was something about the way she said “not yet.” She knew what was coming. I was too busy trying not to feel depressed by the strange way people were acting and how much smaller this school was than my old one.
Smaller, yet it felt bigger – more intimidating.
We walked through a courtyard. A kid with long bangs that came over his eyes lifted his head up from his calculus textbook and stared at me. I saw what may have been a slight nod. Whether it was for me or for Carrie, I couldn’t tell.
A black fabric guitar case sat at his feet. Only there was something odd about it. The fabric was bent in where the base should be. At the top, a broken zipper revealed a handle inside wrapped in leather and ending in a pommel.
When he saw me looking at the case he slid it under the concrete bench. A raindrop landed in the middle of his equations and he turned back to his book.
Carrie was already through the doors into the next building. I hurried to catch up. Two girls, maybe fifteen like me, were coming the other way. I held the door open for them and they walked through without saying a word.
A sarcastic “Your welcome” died in my throat.
Both of them were wearing jeans and shirts that looked kind of plain. I had yet to see any of the fancier brands kids at my old school wore – the kind of stuff you bought at the mall where the salespeople looked like models.
All the shoes I’d seen were for the most part discount store brands.
After I had left my bush and headed toward the school, I noticed a neighborhood on the other facing side filled with three-story houses. My stomach did a little panic as I realized it was a wealthy neighborhood. And here I was walking in wearing sagging pants that were out of date even when my dad wore them.
Inside the school, however, I didn’t see anyone who looked like a rich kid. I thought about that as Carrie walked me down another corridor. Something hit me.
“Hey, um, is there another high school near here?” I asked.
She flung open a door. “Parker Academy is up the road.”
Ah, I got it. Parker Academy was the rich kids’ school. There weren’t any rich kids here because their parents sent them all there.
I felt slightly less self-conscious about my pants. Not that it changed how people were looking past me.
“Gym,” said Carrie, in case the sound of bouncing balls and smell of sweat weren’t enough of a clue for me.
I pretended to study the gymnasium. A group of teens playing half-court basketball stopped for a moment to look at me, then turned back to their game.
“Um, play any sports?” I asked Carrie.
She lead me down the hall as she thought about the answer. “Field hockey,” she finally replied.
“Cool. I didn’t know they had a team here.”
“They don’t,” she answered in a clipped tone, as if it was a stupid question.
Pretending we were having an actual conversation, I continued. “I do some martial arts.” I didn’t say which one, allowing her to ask me.
She didn’t. Instead she replied, “I know.”
That was interesting. How? I’d deleted all my online accounts a few weeks ago. I was tired of everyone telling me how sad they were and offering their advice.
I had to know. “Um, how do you know?”
“Venn,” she replied.
Venn? “What’s a venn?”
She stopped and faced me. “He’s who told me.”
Oh. “Is he a teacher?”
Somewhere under her high cheekbones and mouth carved from ice she cracked a smile. “He thinks so.”
We walked down the hallway and she turned to a set of double doors. “Here’s Venn.”
It looked like a library to me, but through the small window I could see a boy about my age sitting at a table with his fingers folded, looking back at me.
It wasn’t the blank stare I got from everyone else. He was looking at me. Almost into me. And he was smiling. It wasn’t a comforting smile. It was the smile of someone who knows something. Something important. Something about you.
I was ten minutes from finding out what the joke was all about.
I stepped inside and met Venn.
That’s when my life changed.
That’s when things got weirder.
That was minutes before the Bull Man tried to kill me.