Carter Novack pulled hard on the school front doors. He pushed, tugged again, and pounded on the door with the side of his fist. “What the heck?!”
Thick chains were wrapped around the handles. A heavy Master Lock sealed the deal. Carter was locked inside—trapped in Buzz Aldrin Elementary on a Friday night. He yanked again on the front doors. The clatter echoed in the corridors, bouncing off pale green walls and tiled floors.
A girl in jeans and a North Face jacket stood watching him. Her name was Esme. She was tall and string-bean thin and wore a frown.
Esme cleared her throat. Carter turned his head to look at her. “What?”
“You’ll break it,” Esme said.
“Are you my mother?” Carter asked.
“I … what?”
“I asked, ‘Are you my mother?’ Because if you’re not, then you can stay out of my business,” Carter said.
Esme’s lips tightened to a narrow line. She didn’t know Carter, but she knew his type—boys who made rude jokes and interrupted in the classroom.
Carter vibrated with frustration. He suddenly kicked out at the lock, hard, three times: WHAM, WHAM, WHAM! The violence frightened Esme Millstein. But it also made her heart quicken, pitter-pat. He was very strong.
Footsteps approached from the east wing of the building, coming from the music room. A small, gum-chewing boy named Arnold Chang soon arrived. His baseball hat was screwed on sideways.
Esme knew Arnold from her fourth-grade class last year. Arnold was very clever, but strange. Most boys were. At least, that’s the way Esme figured it.
Now, three fifth-grade students paused in the main hallway.
“It’s locked?” Arnold asked.
Carter shot him a look. “Ya think, Sherlock?”
“So, we’re trapped?” Arnold asked. He looked to Esme.
“I guess,” she mumbled.
“There’s got to be another way out,” Carter announced. He stormed off in the direction of the library and the K-2 classrooms.
Esme sucked on a strand of hair. “Do you have a phone?” she asked Arnold.
“At home,” he answered. “You?”
“I’m not allowed, I mean—” Esme corrected herself, “I don’t have a phone, not at the moment.”
A smile snuck across Arnold’s face. “Not at the moment?” he repeated.
Esme ignored Arnold’s tone. “Where are all the teachers?”
Arnold glanced at the wall clock. “It’s nearly six o’clock on a Friday night. They’re probably all home by now.” With a dip of his left shoulder, he let his backpack drop to the floor with a thud. The top part of a skateboard poked out of it. “I cruised by to get some books,” he said. “I was surprised the place was even open.”
The sound of rattling chains came from around the corner, followed by a scream.
Arnold didn’t wait. He scooped up his backpack, leaped on the skateboard, and pushed off down the hallway.
Esme caught up with the boys outside the library.
“Locked!” Carter fumed. The muscles in his neck twitched. “Every door, it’s the same thing. Chains and locks.”
“Chill, dude,” Arnold said, laughing. “We’ll figure it out.”
Esme tried the library door. It opened. “Don’t worry. We can use the phone.”
Carter nodded. Arnold rolled forward on his skateboard.
“You know those aren’t allowed in school,” Esme said. “Skateboards are against the rules.”
A look of disbelief passed between Arnold and Carter. Was she for real? Esme extended a long arm across the doorway, blocking their path.
“Seriously?” Arnold asked.
“This is the library,” Esme whispered with a slight quiver in her voice, as if talking about a sacred place. “No skateboards.”
Carter ducked under Esme’s outstretched arm. But Arnold stood at the threshold, thinking it over. He finally said, “I remember you from Mr. Hotaling’s class. We called you ‘Little Miss Perfect.’ You used to remind him when he forgot to give us a homework assignment.”
Carter looked at Esme in astonishment. He laughed out loud.
Self-doubt weakened Esme’s resolve, but she stood firm. A rule was a rule was a rule. At last, Arnold surrendered. He left his skateboard in the hallway. Esme stepped aside.
Carter tried the phone on the desk. “No ring tone,” he said. “It’s dead.”
Arnold sidled up to a row of new iMacs, dropped his pack onto a chair, and started punching keys on one of them. He read the message on the screen aloud: “Sorry, we have failed to connect to the Internet. Please try again.”
He tried again, and again on different Macs. Nothing worked. “That’s strange,” he said. “Wi-Fi’s out.”
Esme drifted toward the main windows, which offered a view of a small interior courtyard. She watched as crows alighted on the ground, one after the other. The black birds seemed agitated. They screeched and nipped at each other with sharp beaks. Fog hung in the air, as thick as soup.
“We could smash one of these windows,” Carter suggested. He picked up a chair, as if ready to hurl it.
“Dude, hold up!” Arnold said. “Let’s think about this a minute. The chains were put on from the inside, right? Somebody has to be in the building.”
“A night janitor!” Carter agreed.
“Yeah, he probably didn’t realize we were here,” Arnold reasoned. “Nobody saw me come in, I know that much.”
Esme now counted thirty-seven crows—cawing, calling, screeching in high-pitched shrieks. It gave her a nervous feeling, as if the world had somehow gone wrong. “Guys, come look at all these crows.”
“Um, no,” Carter replied. He turned and led the way out the door in search of the night janitor. Arnold followed at his heels. Esme cast one last worried look out the window, sighed, and hurried after the boys.
They explored the dark, empty corridors until they stopped at a stairwell that lead to the basement.
“I’ve been in this school for five years, but I’ve never seen these stairs before,” Arnold said.
Esme had no memory of seeing the stairway either. “It’s bizarre. I don’t think—”
“What’s the big deal?” Carter interrupted. “It’s a stairway. So what?”
came from below. It was followed by a rumbling, hacking cough. A cold draft rose from below and brushed up against Esme’s legs like a cat. She shivered, as if touched by something evil.
Carter took a couple of wary steps downstairs, then stopped. Perhaps he felt the same chill in his bones. He looked up to Arnold and Esme, who remained rooted where they were. “You coming?”
LIGHTS FLICKER AND DIE
The stairs led to a metal-plated door. Behind it, Esme heard what she imagined to be the shuffling of boots, the jingling of keys, and a man sitting heavily in a chair. Carter knocked twice and, receiving no reply, pushed the door open.
An ancient man sat in the corner of the room at a gray metal desk. He stared at his visitors through red-rimmed eyes. His skin was grayish-yellow, and his sunken, narrow cheeks gave off a skeletal appearance. Thin hair grew from his otherwise bare skull in wisps, like odd tufts of white grass. He wore blue workingman’s trousers and a red flannel shirt.
He looked half dead, and Esme stifled a gasp at the sight of him.
The ancient man did not appear happy to see three students appear in his small, cramped office. He held a glass jar in one hand, and a fork in the other. He stabbed at a blood-red cube of meat from the jar and pushed it past his lips. He never moved his eyes from the uninvited guests.
“Venison,” he spat with a gruff voice. He speared another cube of meat and held it before his face. “Deer meat. Kill it and butcher it myself. Care for a taste?”
No one accepted his offer.
“Didn’t think so.” He chomped on the bloody flesh. A trickle of blood dribbled down his chin.
“Are you the guy who locked us in?” Carter finally spoke up.
The ancient man leaned back in his chair, reached to his belt, and splashed an enormous key ring on the desk. There had to be fifty keys of every size and shape.
“Are you going to tell us which one?” Carter asked.
The ancient man wiped the grease from his lips with the back of a sleeve. “No,” he replied.
“Excuse me?” Esme asked.
“You don’t want to go out there,” the night janitor said. “Not tonight, no.” He rose painfully and shuffled toward the heavy door, which he shut behind them with a firm hand.
Arnold grew alarmed. “Ha! Well, yeah. I’m not sure you understand, Mr.—”
“Van Der Klemp,” the old man said.
“Mr. Van Der Klemp,” Arnold repeated. He helplessly pointed a thumb toward the ceiling. “We accidentally got locked in the school, see, and—”
The old man didn’t seem to be listening. He rubbed a large hand to his stubbled chin, noted the time on his wristwatch, and closed his eyes as if waiting for something to pass. He counted in a dry whisper, “Three, two, one.”
The lights flickered and the room went dark.
Text copyright © 2013 by James Preller