I was never a very diligent student in my school days. I had all too good an idea of how smart I was, and this made me lazy. If I could blow off my work during class, I would. If I could avoid doing homework, I would. I never got in trouble for any of this, because I had a system. Books inside textbooks, breaks spent filling pages with scribbles that would pass a teacher’s “I’m coming around to check your homework!” glance, and every other trick you can think of. I worked hard at hardly working.
But one day, I slipped up. At around 8 o’clock in the evening, I realised I had totally forgotten to do something about my maths homework. What’s more, I had left my books in my locker at school.
This wouldn’t have fazed me, but for two points:
- Maths was my first period class the next morning, giving me exactly no break periods to work with.
- The teacher had that very morning thrown a very memorable fit about uncompleted homework and vowed to thoroughly check and go through the class’s work the next day. I assumed she was having some personal problems, and of course it didn’t help that three students consecutively admitted to not doing their homework while we were going through it.
I may have been lazy, but I wasn’t stupid. I had no desire to call unnecessary attention to myself or spoil my perfect detentionless record. I could minimise the amount of work I did, but there was always some above-zero baseline that had to be completed.
Fortunately, I lived just down the road from my school, close enough to walk there and back most days. Opting not to give my parents anything to worry about unnecessarily, I snuck out of the house and headed down the road to the school, my mind on my locker.
I got to the school fence and made my way to a well-known section off to the side that had recently been damaged. I scaled it easily, landing on my feet. Phase one of my mission completed, I headed to the school building.
A soft thump sounded behind me, freezing my bones. I turned my head, panicked.
The sound came from a figure crouched by the damaged part of the fence, who quickly stood up and walked towards me. As the figure stepped close, I recognised a streak of bright pink in a mass of wavy black hair. This was Jane, a girl in my grade.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered, once she had come within whispering distance.
“I left my maths books in my locker,” she replied.
I remembered then that Jane was in my maths class. “Same,” I replied. “Under normal circumstances, I actually make a point of locking them up before I go home.”
Jane smiled at this. “I know, right? But Mrs Pound really freaked out this morning. I don’t need that in my life.”
I nodded in fierce agreement, and we both crept towards the school building.
“Want to go halves?” I whispered to Jane. “I’ll do the first part, you do the second, we copy each other?”
“That might not be safe,” she replied.
“No, see, it’s brilliant. We don’t sit near each other, so she’ll never notice. Like, we’ve never even had a conversation before! It’s the perfect crime.”
A couple of lights inside the school building were on, creating an uneasy mixture of glee and dread in the pit of my stomach. Bading Jane to stay in the shadows, I crept towards the front door and tried the handle. It was unlocked.
Slowly, carefully, I slid it open, making no noise. I turned to summon Jane, but realised that she was already next to me. “Woah,” I said.
“Sorry,” she whispered. “My parents always complain I’m too good at sneaking up on people.”
We made our way inside. The main hallway was clear. Cocking my head to the side, I heard a faint ruffling of papers from one of the offices. Clearly a teacher or one of the admin staff was working late, or had also returned to obtain some vital paperwork.
We proceeded cautiously to the locker area, thankfully without incident. I quickly found my locker and seized my maths textbook and exercise book, clutching them to my chest in triumph.
I shut the door of my locker and turned to Jane, who had already shut hers. “Ready to go?” I asked.
Jane nodded. “Do you still want to do half-and-half?”
“Psh, of course. Anything to do the minimum amount of work.”
“It would be nice to avoid doing maths until midnight tonight.”
“Great! Then I’ll do the first half and you do the second half!”
Jane cocked an eyebrow. “Nice try, but I’m not getting stuck with the difficult questions. We’ll alternate questions.”
I raised my hands in admission of defeat, and then snapped shut the padlock on my locker. “Let’s maybe not argue about it here.”
Jane assented and we turned to leave.
The light above our heads flickered.
“What are you two doing out of class?” A severe woman with tightly pulled-back hair and small spectacles resting on the bridge of her nose stood in our path.
I glanced at Jane. Her expression was as dumbfounded as I imagined mine to be.
“Come now, enough dawdling,” the woman continued. “You both should be in Mr Attridge’s class now.”
There was no teacher by the name of Attridge at our school, but that was the least strange thing about our current situation.
“Pull your jaws up! Don’t gawk like imbeciles!” the woman barked.
I clamped my mouth shut at once, my teeth audibly clacking.
Jane and I looked at each other for a split second and then, with no other option, turned and marched. As bizarre as this situation was, there was something in the woman’s tone that made it impossible to anything but follow her orders. We walked down the hall like automatons, the stern woman’s shoes clacking behind us.
“Stop!” the woman commanded, after we had marched a few metres. She then rapped a knuckle against the door of Mrs Granger’s Science classroom, eyeing us sternly all the while.
A muffled male voice from the interior said, “Enter.”
The woman opened the door and called in, “I found these two skulking about in the hallways, Mr Attridge. I fear they lack appreciation for your lessons.”
Mr Attridge, a large man with a face that could have been carved out of stone and a tweed suit that looked like it belonged in the depths of an unused closet, said nothing as we entered the classroom. But I wasn’t really looking at him – I was more focused on the class.
There was a whole class of students, occupying all but two desks at the very front and centre of the class. All wore uniforms of a faded brown colour similar to that of Mr Attridge’s outfit. All had the same blank expressions. The boys all had undercuts, and the girls shoulder-length bobs. They seemed almost to be clones of each other.
I glanced rapidly from the students to the pitch black night-time sky outside the window, hoping the cognitive dissonance it offered would wake me from this strange nightmare.
“Take your seats immediately,” Mr Attridge said coldly.
The only open desks in the class were two in the centre of the front row, which Jane and I quickly proceeded to. “What the hell?” Jane hissed in my ear.
Standing behind our desks now, we both took a moment to realise that Mr Attridge’s exclamation was directed at Jane, whose surname was not Reed.
“Y-yes,” Jane replied, head snapping to attention.
“Yes ‘sir’,” Attridge growled.
Attridge exhaled a derisive snort through his nostrils. “Too little, too late. Correct me if I’m wrong, Miss Finch, but I believe that brings this young lady to five counts.”
“You are quite correct as always, Mr Attridge,” replied Miss Finch, the stern woman from before, her tone thrilling on the man’s name. “Let us enumerate them, beginning at the final infraction: failure to use an appropriately respectful form of address.”
“Whispering to a classmate during class-time,” added Attridge.
“Dawdling in the hallways during class,” continued Finch.
“Not wearing the correct school uniform.”
“And finally, this.” Finch strode right up to Jane and reached out a hand to her, snatching between two bony fingers the streak of pink in her fringe.
Jane flinched. Finch tugged. Jane let out a gasp.
“Non-regulation hair colouring,” said Finch. “An insult to our establishment.”
At a command that seemed to come from nothing more than a couple of quick glances from Attridge, two girls left their desks and moved into position on either side of Jane. I watched motionless as they grabbed each of her arms.
Finch released Jane’s hair, flicking it disdainfully into her face. Then she spun around and marched out of the classroom. Wordlessly, the two girls followed her, holding Jane between them.
I heard the brief sound of shoes dragged along the floor as Jane attempted to resist, but this soon ended when the girl to her right roughly shook her. She shot a hopeless glance back at me as she was led out of the room.
The classroom door shut firmly, and I was alone with Mr Attridge’s class.
“Let us not waste any more time!” bellowed Attridge.
The class, which had been standing until now, took their seats, I along with them. There was a ruffling sound as the students took their books out of their desks. I followed suit, at a loss for what else to do.
There then came then a low buzzing noise from outside the classroom. It was quiet at first, but rapidly grew louder. I recognised the sound as that of an electric razor.
My hands shook as I placed a book on my desk. The buzzing grew louder, until it was almost unbearable. Mr Attridge began to speak, but his voice was drowned out by the incessant buzzing.
A scream pierced the air, overpowering even the buzzing.
My heart pounded in my chest. The buzzing continued. I watched Attridge’s mouth flap, like he was on a TV with the volume turned down. I looked down at the book on my desk. I’d opened it to a random page, which was filled with gibberish.
That moment, a switch toggled in my head. I slammed my hands down on the desk and rose to my feet. Mr Attridge yelled something at me, but I couldn’t hear it over the buzzing. I ran for the exit.
My shoulder slammed into the door and I frantically pulled down on the handle. The door didn’t budge. I jerked the handle and slammed my shoulder into the door again, managing only to hurt myself.
The door was locked. I turned back to the class. The students were rising out of their seats, eyes on me. I cowered at the door, a cornered animal.
As Mr Attridge stormed towards me, I noticed it. A big open window at the far end of the room. The night breeze rustled a blind that hung next to it.
Another scream tore through the air, briefly displacing that awful buzzing.
I’d like to say that the scream galvanised me into heroic action. I’d like to say that I tried again to break that door down, or at least to stand my ground against the students stalking towards me.
But I didn’t.
I ran for the window.
I ducked Mr Attridge’s looming arm as it moved to pin me.
I dodged and brushed off the students who grabbed at me as I ran across the room. I shoved more students aside and beat off their hands.
Finally I reached the window, and dove through it, landing hard and rolling on concrete. I got up, adrenaline overpowering the pain of my cuts and bruises, and ran from the school. I stumbled over the damaged part of the fence, gathering further bruises, and then ran home.
Not until I was back in my bedroom did I stop to notice that the buzzing noise had subsided.
But for the bruises, I might have called that incident a nightmare. I woke up sore the next morning. Sore, and without my maths homework.
Naturally, I and most of the rest of my class got detention for not completing our maths homework. No-one but the most diligent students had done more than one or two questions.
Only one student had completed all the questions. Mrs Pound loudly extolled Jane, who sat at the very back of the class. Still feeling immensely guilty and not a little confused, I couldn’t bring myself to turn around.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
At break, I looked for Jane’s friends. I found them talking with a girl I hadn’t seen before, one with a haircut similar to those of the girls I’d seen in Mr Attridge’s class the night before.
This, of course, was Jane.
“Jane,” I asked, interrupting her conversation with her friends. “What did they do to you?”
Jane looked at me quizzically. “Who are you?” she asked.
Her friends giggled at this, and I felt hot shame rising to my cheeks. “I’m– you– the school–”
Try as I might, the words would not come, and I stood there stammering as Jane’s friends led her away from me. Her two friends. Who took her by the arms.
Over the course of that year, I tried to talk to Jane about what happened that night a few more times, but with little more success than that first embarrassing attempt. Eventually, I gave up and resolved to avoid her.
A few times, I tried to return to that strange nocturnal school. This became more difficult once they fixed the campus’s outer fence, but I still managed to break in a few nights. However, every time I was greeted by nothing more than an empty school building at night.
Jane Reed was the top student in Mathematics that year. She was a quiet student who did her work conscientiously and kept to a small circle of friends. But the Jane I briefly knew, the one with the pink streak in her hair, who was in my Maths class for the first few months of that year did not have the surname Reed.
At the beginning of that year, our seats in that Maths class had been arranged alphabetically. My surname starts with an S, but she was behind me, right at the back of the class.
I spoke to a few of my friends about this, but teasing and accusations soon made me drop the subject. Seating arrangements change all the time was the consensus, and that should have been enough to convince me.
That, and how I couldn’t, as hard as I tried, remember what Jane’s original surname had been.