As October, the creepiest month of the year, skitters to a close, I find that I cannot send you guys candy over the wi-fi. I promise that I tried really hard
before I was forced to consume 300 Kit-Kats all by myself.
But--you guys know about the #allhallowsread
project, dreamed up by Neil Gaiman
, right? Where you give someone a scary book for Halloween?
Well, since I can't scan the text of all my favorite creepy books and hurl them at you via cyberspace, I present, instead, a creepy original short story, written by me and published here, free of charge.
It's called "Lines", and it's about an elementary school teacher whose students know something she doesn't about the woods that surround their playground.
If you enjoy it, I hope you will leave a comment and share the link with your friends. Or write a creepy story of your own to share with the rest of us. That would be marvelous too.
by Brittany Harrison
I'm a teacher. I don't get sentimental about children. Never trust a teacher who does, because that person isn't paying attention to their work.
I respect children. I love them the way I love thunderstorms that black out the sky and wind that tears branches from tree-limbs. In other words, from a wary distance.
Sometimes, when I look at my students, I think that if you could flip open the tops of their little cantaloupe-sized skulls and peer down inside, you'd find a miniature black hole or a tiny dark funnel cloud--a perfectly preserved fragment of the chaos in which they existed before their birth. It might explain why children are able to see the world as it is, unfiltered, while adults lose that clarity as they get older.
When I first started teaching, I didn't understand this as well I do now. I was very young. I felt superior to my students, in the same confident, assuming way that the third-graders feel superior to first graders. But any teacher will tell you that you have as much to learn from your students as they have to learn from you. And most teachers know this is something you can only understand by experience.
I was twenty-five. I was teaching fourth grade at a school on the outskirts of a large southern city. In October of that year, something strange started happening to my students.
First, their playground was vandalized. I didn't see this as being connected to what followed until much later, but that was where it started. I was the one who discovered the vandalism because I was, for no special reason, the first teacher to arrive at school that particular morning.
The windows of my classroom looked out over the upper playground. I raised the blinds, then froze, arrested by a vista of wreckage. Garbage lay scattered across the sand. A garden hose twined like a long green snake between the chains and poles of the swing-set. Amateurish profanity had been scrawled in spray-paint on every flat surface--words and phrases that made me think the vandals had been trying to shock someone, probably themselves. They'd lit a fire in a garbage can beside the plastic climbing structure my students referred to as "the fort". One whole side was black with soot. I had to look away because I kept seeing faces in the melted plastic.
I don't know why the sight of the ruined playground affected me so strongly, but for a few seconds I felt as though the universe had re-ordered itself while I slept, and I'd awoken in a world where cats barked and birds meowed. I was unnerved and strangely saddened. I knew the vandals were probably teenagers. I wondered if they had gone to school here once, if they had targeted their old play space because they had bitter memories of being children there.
Eventually, I tore myself away from the window and found one of the security guards. We walked outside to survey the damage up close. I stood at the edge of the playground while she took a few steps forward and kicked aside some of the trash. A glint of green caught my eye in the cold light of an autumn sunrise.
"Glass," said Rhonda, digging in the sand with the toe of her shoe to reveal more glimmering shards. "All over the damn place. They got to rake all this up and put some more down before the kids can play here anymore."
"Varmints," I muttered, meaning the vandals. "What the hell are we supposed to do with them now?" Meaning my students. I had a chilling vision of a future in which I spent recess after recess coaching kickball games in the gymnasium.
Rhonda squinted down toward the bottom of the field, out past the baseball diamond. "Nothing wrong with that old playground. Old as the school is. We played there when we was kids."
I followed her gaze and looked out at the little cluster of jagged metal structures flush against the dense pine forest that surrounded the school grounds on three sides. "It doesn't look very safe," I said.
"Hell," said Rhonda, "like it going to kill those kids, scraping they knees up. Won't a day of my life I didn't come home with blood running down both my legs. That's why these kids so clumsy nowadays, they sit around in front of they television and they computers and don't never fall down. They got to fall down some time, they better off to do it when they little."
Later that morning, Dr. Tandy, our principal, poked her head into my classroom long enough to tell me exactly what Rhonda had already told me, that we were to take our classes down to the lower playground for recess until further notice. I had drawn the blinds over the windows before the kids arrived, knowing that if they had the ruined playground to look at they would pay even less attention to me than usual. When I led them outside after lunch, they had to be threatened on pain of in-school suspension to keep away from the yellow caution tape Rhonda had looped around the swing, the see-saw, and the fort. Judging by their fascination and their reluctance to walk away, they seemed to think the vandals had made a major improvement on their play space.
"We're over here today," I said, gesturing to them to follow me down the slope of the field.
I'd thought that as soon as the kids realized they had new ground to explore they'd be on it like a pack of puppies, sniffing around and marking territory. To my surprise they approached the old playground gingerly, surveying the bare metal jungle gym, the enormously tall slide, the rusted swing set, and most of all the encroaching forest, with dubious expressions.
I sat down on the wooden bench and opened my grade book. As long as I didn't look at them directly, the kids always seemed to think that I wasn't paying any attention to them. This encouraged them to say and do things not meant for adult eyes, which was how I maintained my reputation for godlike omniscience. Pretty soon, three or four of my students had gathered beneath the shelter of the climbing structure, just within my earshot. I looked down at my work and tuned my ears to the frequency of their whispers.
"My brother," said a boy's voice, "he went here, and he said that a long time ag0, some kids--"
"--would he know?" A girl's voice, scornful.
"--they dared him, so he went way out in the woods, and he saw--"
My curiosity was piqued. I strained to hear, but they were talking lower now, and I could only catch disjointed fragments.
"--didn't want to--" said the first boy. "They made--never come back--"
Silence. Then a girl, speaking in a hushed voice: "Did they hurt him?"
"Must have, or--"
"That's not what I heard." The skeptical girl interrupted. "I heard--too close to the woods--"
"Maybe that's why--"
"Maybe." The first boy sounded unconvinced.
"--it's still there?" said the breathless girl.
"Dunno," said the first boy. Then, more authoritatively: "Probably."
"So what if it comes out?" The breathless girl spoke louder.
"It don't come out. It live in the woods, that's where it stay at."
I stirred involuntarily, and looked at the tress. I would never have admitted this to my colleagues, but ever since we'd come down to this end of the field I had been imagining that I heard noises coming from the trees--not enough to do anything about it, just enough to worry idly about wild animals or lurking pedophiles. When you're responsible for children, you cultivate a certain degree of paranoia, to keep you watchful.
I remember thinking at the time that if the kids were scaring the bejeezus out of each other by telling creepy stories about the forest, at least I wouldn't have to worry about them sneaking into it behind my back.
In retrospect, I suppose this was rather naive of me.
The next morning, I stopped Dr. Tandy in the hall and asked if she had any idea when the upper playground would be cleaned and ready for use again.
"Not until after fall break, I'm afraid," she told me, sounding so harried that I didn't dare press the issue.
All that day, whenever the kids were left to themselves, at snack time, at lunch, at activity stations around the classroom, I seemed to catch snatches of an ongoing conversation, in which the phrase, "--lives in the woods" was repeated at intervals. But I was so far from suspecting them of getting up to anything that at recess I sent them outside with my TA, Whitney, so I could get their spelling tests graded. I worked quickly in the quiet and went out to join them about halfway through the period.
As soon as I stepped onto the field behind the school, I knew something was wrong. It was too quiet, and the childish figures in the distance were clumped together, unmoving. I tried to catch sight of Whitney, but she was nowhere to be seen. My pace quickened.
As I drew closer, I heard radio static, whispering, and the low, quiet sobs of a child who'd been frightened or hurt. I dodged around the swing-set and saw that the kids were all clustered around two kneeling figures: Whitney, and Ben, a short, round-faced boy, pale beneath his light brown skin.
"What happened?" I asked, stooping beside them.
"I was just about to call you," said Whitney, looking guilty and slightly tearful. "He--I didn't see, I don't know what--"
"Ben, what's wrong?" I said, in my calmest voice.
Ben mopped the tears from his eyes, and as he raised his arm, I saw the bloody tear in the sleeve of his yellow windbreaker.
"Jesus," I muttered under my breath. I raked the other children with my gaze, and the looks I gathered in return were unmistakably guilty, as well as fearful. "Ms. Griffin, why don't you take everyone inside. Ben, you come with me."
I waited for the rest of the class to get a little ahead of us before I helped Ben to his feet and started walking him toward the office. I was hoping he would be more forthcoming, without his classmates glaring accusingly to warn him against breaking ranks. But he met all my questions with silence and head-shaking.
When the nurse had patched him up and called his mother, and I'd filled out the accident report, I returned to my classroom to put the fear of God into twenty-five ten year olds.
"I know that one of you saw what happened," I instructed them from behind my lectern. "This is no time to worry about being a tattle-tale."
Everyone looked down at their desks--including Whitney, still sniffling at the back of them room. Then a voice piped up from the middle row.
"We didn't see," said Samuel. He was a tall, serious red-haired boy, one of my brighter students. "He went in alone."
"Went where?" I demanded, pinning Sam with my gaze.
An uncomfortable silence. Then: "The woods."
"What was he doing in the woods?"
Chelsea spoke from beside Sam. She was tiny, bright eyed, and her many beaded braids bobbed when she spoke. "He was looking."
"Looking for what?"
But no one broke the hush that followed this.
"All right," I said, "listen up, because this is your only warning. I better not catch anyone else anywhere near the woods. You better not dare anyone to go into the woods, or see how close to the woods you can get before I catch you, or you'll spend every recess for a week scrubbing off the lunch tables in the cafeteria. Am I understood?"
They nodded in unison.
"I can't hear you."
"Yes, Ms. Bradford!" they shouted in unison.
"All right," I said. "Take out your reading books."
Just above the rustle of everyone reaching into their desks, I was sure I heard someone mutter, "We told him it was still there."
After school that day, I found Rhonda again. "Listen," I said, "would you mind taking a look around in the woods by the lower playground? It's probably nothing, but one of the kids got hurt playing there today."
"You don't figure he fell down?" she said skeptically.
"No, I'm sure he did," I said hastily. "But I hear noises sometimes, and I'm worried someone might be hanging around out there. It happened at my friend's school. Some guy kept coming up to the fence, trying to talk to the kids."
This was, technically speaking, a lie. But I figured it was a more convincing story, and I didn't want her to think I was wasting her time on my nervous hunch. Even though that was exactly what I was doing.
"Yeah," she said vaguely, in between bursts of static from the radio on her belt. "Kids was all the time going up in those woods and getting hurt. We'd dare each other, you know. Thought we was something."
Suddenly, I felt guilty for asking Rhonda to go down there in my place--what if there really was someone down there? But then, she had a gun, and I didn't.
I left her and went home, figuring I'd see her the next day and she would set my paranoia at ease. But when I got to school that morning, Rhonda was nowhere to be found. I stopped Karl, another security guard, who, to my knowledge, didn't usually come into work until lunch.
"Yeah, Rhonda." He scratched his head. "She quit."
"She call me last night, said I better go on and cover her shift."
I gaped at him. "Did she say why? Was she all right?"
He shrugged and ambled off down the hall, leaving me to stand and stare after him in bewilderment.
All the rest of that day I was distracted, trying to imagine why someone might decide in a single afternoon to quit her job. Maybe she'd been planning it for awhile. Or maybe she decided she was tired of getting sent on pointless errands by nervous teachers.
Deep down I probably knew better, even then. But it's not enough to understand that your reality is changing. You have to change with it, for the knowledge to save you.
I took the class out for recess myself that day. I let Whitney stay inside and make photocopies. She seemed relieved.
When I caught sight of the lower playground, I thought the vandals had struck again. The bare, scuffed earth was scattered with debris. I was relieved; I would have been happy to coach kickball games in the gym from now till Christmas, if it meant never having to step foot on that playground again. But before I could recall my class and herd them back inside, I realized that what I was seeing was not trash, but leaves, dirt, and tree branches.
I wondered if there had been a windstorm in the night. I couldn't think how else to explain the haphazard pattern of the debris. It was almost violent. It made me think of a child who'd had a tantrum flinging its broken toys far and wide.
I started picking up some of the larger branches, and my students began to pitch in without my even asking. Instead of piling the wood in a neat heap, however, they arranged the sticks carefully end to end in an unbroken circle, a barrier dividing the playground from the woods and the field.
"What are you guys making?" I asked Samuel, as he passed me, carrying an armful of long, skinny twigs.
"We're building a wall," he said.
I opened my mouth to point out the logistical difficulties inherent in this project, then shut it again.
There was so much material to build with that by the time recess was over, my students had succeeded in constructing something not unlike a low, jagged wooden fence all around the edges of the playground.
"Good work," I couldn't help observing. But no one seemed to hear the compliment. As we walked away, I saw Samuel look worriedly over his shoulder at the meager fortification he was leaving behind, as though he felt the work was incomplete.
I kept the blinds open all the next morning. I watched the glowering clouds in the sky, praying for the rain to arrive. But the weather remained determinedly dry, and after lunch I took the kids outside.
When we got out to the playground that afternoon, the fence had been flattened on all sides. The damage looked deliberate to me. But I assured the children that it could only have been the wind.
"What about that?" said Chelsea.
I looked where she was pointing. There was a breach in the fence where it lay closest to the trees. The gap was narrow, and there were brush marks on the ground, as though something had been dragged through.
Everyone was staring. I wanted to say something reassuring, but I was disturbed, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to hide it.
I decided to call Karl on my radio. I would ask him to come down here and look around in the woods, in front of the kids. It was the only thing I could think of to reassure them. And, in all honesty, I didn't want to be the only adult down there anymore.
I turned my back on the children for less than a minute. I shouldn't have done it at all, but I didn't want them to hear me make the call, in case it scared them more. I was walking a few feet away, out of Chelsea's earshot, when the screaming started.
I pivoted: Samuel was lying on the ground a few feet away from the edge of the forest, on the wrong side of the flattened stick fence. As soon as I saw him, I realized he must have been trying to close the fence up again. I was furious with myself. I should have known he was going to do that, seen the danger coming.
I stared at his still little body for a few seconds. I was stunned, trying to make sense of how it had happened. Then the shock wore off, and I ran over, skidding to a halt at his side.
"Sam." I grabbed his shoulder and bent low over him. Something unclenched in my stomach when I heard him breathe. I straightened and examined his head for blood or bruises.
"His back," said Chelsea, in a shrill voice. Immediately, I turned him onto his stomach to look.
There was a long rip in the back of his shirt. The flesh beneath it was torn, the edges of the wound jagged. Bright red blood was seeping onto the pale blue cotton of his t-shirt.
"Did anyone see what happened?" I said, struggling out of my jacket so I could cover him up. I pressed the call button on my radio, trying to reach Whitney, who didn't respond. "Did he fall?"
"No," said Chelsea, insistent. She was standing at my shoulder, while the rest of the kids formed a hushed perimeter around us. "He was just standing there, and he turned around, and then I heard--"
"What?" I looked up at her. Her cheeks were tear-streaked.
"Something from there," she said, pointing at the trees.
I reached for her hand and squeezed it, and picked up my radio again, trying to reach the front office. It took a long time, as though something were interfering with the radio, but finally I got through, and told them I needed paramedics.
As I knelt there, waiting, applying pressure to the wound on Samuel's back, I became aware that the children were whispering amongst themselves.
It started with Chelsea. She'd stopped crying. I heard her gasp, and when I glanced up, I saw a flash of startled awareness cross her face.
I thought she'd seen something. I jerked upright and looked around for the source of the danger.
Chelsea dashed away from me. She seized the nearest child, yanked her forward, and whispered something in her ear. The child turned white. Then she wheeled around to face the forest.
Chelsea ran on to a cluster of three children a few feet further away. They reacted with the same look of terrified revelation. In a matter of seconds, everyone but me was in on the secret.
One by one, my students walked up to the ruined fence, where it bordered the trees. They stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the woods. For a moment, I thought they were playing a game, but their rigid backs told me that the stakes were much higher than that.
"What is it?" I shouted at them. "What are you doing? Come away from there!"
A minute later, Whitney arrived. I almost cried when I saw her. The children were still standing with their backs to me, their faces to the trees. A few of them were holding hands. The forest beyond groaned and swayed. In the darkness beyond, I thought that I heard something moving.
"Where were you?" I demanded of Whitney furiously. "Take them inside."
I felt cold as I said it; I didn't want her to go and leave me alone with only a wounded child for company. But more than that, I wanted to get the children away.
Whitney called to the kids. They didn't respond at first. But gradually, they turned away from the woods, trotting back toward the school. Chelsea was the last. As she passed me, she stopped. Her dark eyes were wide.
"Don't turn around," she whispered. "Keep watching the trees."
She held my gaze for a moment, as though trying to decide if she should say something more. Then she ran to catch up with the others, and I was left alone with Samuel.
In the distance, I heard the wail of an ambulance siren. I turned my face away from the forest and looked out over the hill, toward the parking lot where the ambulance would be pulling in.
"They're almost here," I told Samuel, who was still and silent. "You just hang on."
Two things happened at once.
I heard a noise: a rushing in the trees, a crack of shattering limbs. A warm stench of animal decay wafted toward me from the forest, as though it had breathed on me with a damp mouth full of rotten teeth.
Then I remembered what Chelsea had told me not to do.
I looked up. For an instant, in the space between blinks, I saw a shadow. A small, child-sized knot in the dark trees. Moving fast. Toward me, and Samuel, who had fallen on the wrong side of the fence-line.
I heard the whispering of a deep, angry voice. I felt it vibrate in my stomach. My mind, housed in the nerve-centers of my body, was no longer safely intangible. It was prey, being violated by a hatred so strong that it possessed shape and dimension.
Fear, at its purest, bypasses every higher impulse and commands the body to survive at any cost. I believe that is why, though I would wish to believe otherwise, I sprang to my feet in that last moment. Not to fight. Not to protect the unconscious child at my feet. To flee.
But I was already too late. All the sensations I have described occurred in the space of a second. The crucial moment had already passed. I had spent it wrongly. I had looked away.
Whatever it was that lived in the dark of those woods had already caught me by the roots of what was left of my mind. I couldn't run. I couldn't do anything, except feel all that it wished to make me feel: the heat of its breath, the tearing fire in my stomach, the world I had known falling away as surely as the earth under my feet, as it dragged me away along the path it had prepared.
The paramedics were close. When Samuel awoke, and asked where I was, they found me at the bottom of a culvert, only a few yards deep in the woods. I lay tangled in the leavings that carpeted the forest floor, my abdomen torn open, like a rabbit abandoned by a hawk before its meal is complete.
Nearby, they discovered the partial skeleton of a child, indistinguishable at first from the bones of other small animals washed into the depression of the earth. When they told me, I understood the mistake I had made. I had thought that in turning their faces to the woods, my students were staring down a predator, protecting themselves with a show of defiance.
But it was simpler than that. Something unspeakable happened to a child in those woods. He had died alone, with no one to see, no one to pay attention. It made me think of every student who ever hung on my arm, crying, teacher, teacher, and refused to be silent until their need was met.
I think the child who died in those woods would no longer endure us looking away from him.
I teach at a different school now, in an urban district, where there are no trees on the grounds, only a small garden. My first-graders grow carrots there.
I think I am a better teacher now than I used to be. I have learned the most important thing, which is that the only way to be a good teacher is to listen to my students.
And never to turn my back on their needs. For my sake, as much as theirs.