Chloe was not normally excited about any lessons, particularly English lessons. She liked school well enough, but it was so boring and formulaic and did not really link to her own passions. At twelve years old she had decided that what she wanted to do was to write and tell stories. Mr. Murphy had told them that all their “work on all the boring stuff,” the capital letters, use of punctuation and paragraphing was going to “coalesce,” into writing a story. She thought, thank goodness, if he tells us one more time to paragraph properly, she found herself imitating him “TipTop, new paragraph if there is a change in time, topic or place,” she would go mad.
The bell rang and before she knew it, she was sitting down in his class, the whiteboard displaying a slide explaining the task. She carefully took out her pencil case, laying out her pens and ruler, writing the date and title and underlining it in her best red fine liner.
Mr Murphy was standing at the front of the room and giving some final tips. He was at least a little funny, he said: “right now there are only two rules, no flipping zombie apocalypse and no random weapons cache, I don’t want you suddenly finding an RPG under the slide at the park.” In the way he always did, he was moving backwards and forwards at the front of the room like a pendulum in a cheap suit and mismatching tie.
She was itching to get the pen digging into the paper leaving its black inky furrows on the white that held so much potential.
Chloe had hoped that she would get to write about whatever she wanted, and her heart sank as Mr Murphy revealed it had to be about something scary. She rolled her eyes; he was always banging on about this kind of thing. Absent mindedly her hand fished into her pocket, delicately finding the open bag of skittles, gently excavating one and popping it into her mouth. Mr Murphy droned on for a little while, at least they could write about anything they liked as long as it ended with “the door slammed shut, never to be opened again,” her pen was in her hand and she had started scribbling.
“Miss Orchard, please refrain from touching pen to paper just yet,” his voice was thick with that sarcastic tone he thought was hilarious but all her friends thought was eye wateringly cringey. Why couldn’t he just say don’t write yet. Moron.
“So make sure that you plan effectively first, and also please…” Mr Murphy took time for a dramatic pause, he even ran his hand through his thinning hair, making a small torrent of snow on the dark blue of the shoulders of his suit jacket. Sounding bored he droned on “As I said before, no zombies or random weapon caches.”
“Sir, what do we write about?” Great, it was that idiot Harvey, he never bloody listened.
“As I said, a story that you plan and begin writing, try to make it something scary,” during this Harvey had begun sighing and flapping his lips, smacking them together with arrhythmic percussion.
“I don’t get it.” Harvey had not even looked up from the backs of his hands while he spoke.
“Because you don’t listen!” Mr Murphy raised his voice, it was now on a knife edge if he would laugh it off or go ballistic, that’s why the other students were always a little wary of the tall bearded man.
It was inevitable really, “I don’t get it,” again the parroted response, Mr Murphy drew breath and shuddered gently.
“Right, for the hard of thinking! Here it is, pens down, listen! That’s all of you!” He breathed in. “I want you to capture the feeling of fear in your stories.” He had begun pacing on the thin carpet, up and down between the rows. “Imagine you are at home and it is getting towards bedtime.” One or two students looked warily at one another, not sure where he was going with this, “and it is dark you are getting ready to sleep,” as he spoke he flicked the switch, turning off the light; leaving the room looking pale and elongating the shadows. His voice dropped and the class listened intently for the first time in weeks. “You are lying there, in your safe room. Then the tip of your foot accidently comes out from the covers.” Some of the class winced and drew in breath, knowing collectively the unsettling feeling. “You thrash around until your foot is back under the magic duvet. Why? Because it will get you.” The tension that had been ratcheting eased and people laughed as they agreed with him. The anxious feeling dissipating, as they giggled nervously the teacher stood back, pleased with himself, thinking he had scored an academic victory. It was all smiles and willingness. Though they could not admit it, there was a collective understanding they were all afraid of this, even knowing it was a silly fear really.
What the children did not know was that it was not the lingering memory of some ancient ancestors who were scared of the dark because of a bear or wolf. No, it was nothing so mundane as an aggressive carnivore. It was something deeper, something that knitted itself in the dark, formless until that point at which it struck. Struck particularly the vulnerable, the old the young, the sick and the dying. Those who could not hope to counter it. Those who were lost in their naivety or unable to bring the knowledge and wisdom any longer to face it.
“Right, crack on you have forty-five minutes, any questions raise your hand, and I will come to you. My expectations, as ever are silence and try your best.” The voice brooked no argument. Like one of those armies marching past on faded grey film the students moved in unison, uncapping pens, opening book smoothing a fresh page and indelibly marking the pristine white surface with slashes and stabs of black and royal blue. Even Harvey joined in.
Maybe what he had planned with the class would work. He needed it to, for at least one of them for God’s sake. Mr Murphy sighed inwardly, he knew the vast majority would be awful. In fact, when ‘marking’ them he would scan the length and neatness of the writing, perhaps glancing at the odd sentence or two. Then in red, he would give the child a mark. This would be deflated or increased depending on his view of that child at that time.
He did not care that one girl was increasingly anxious about writing her story down, Chloe had hoped for free reign in terms of what she was writing. Now there was a focus and the talk about the dark had set her on a path of overthinking and worry. Something tickled the corners of her mind, fine as spider silk. She wanted to wipe it away, see the strands collect from feather like threads into fat sticky balls that could eventually be flicked away. This was not going to be the case.
Mechanically her pen began to write, as if guided by another’s hand. Her inner voice changing again as it so often did in tone and sometimes in words that she did not understand but inferred meaning from the sound.
Mechanically she wrote and wrote and mechanically she got through the lesson. Throughout the day she could not fix on what the problem was. She went about her day, a pale shadow, like a mirror that has become misted because of a hot shower. You think it is you in the reflection but it is blurry and distorted, you without the details. Her friends noticed something. “What’s wrong?” Jess asked her over lunch, each one taking food from matching blue tinted lunchboxes. Chloe snapped back enough of herself to convince her she was fine and Jess launched into how she was back to “training for the team,” after her leg injury. She sounded disappointed that Chloe had not noticed the brace she had been forced to wear for months had finally come off.
And that was her day. She walked in and out of rooms, walked amongst people and walked home, she did not wait for her big sister outside the front gates and even carried on walking despite calls from Mrs Croft, her tutor who only wanted to ask if everything was alright. She went home. She needed to be home but was not sure why. Subconsciously perhaps it was for the security for shutting the world out. All she knew was that finally, when she was home, her anxiety melted away. She was too young to understand but now she was safe.
Her phone buzzed and she looked at the screen, it was a less than pleasant message from her sister demanding to know what had happened and why she had spent over twenty minutes waiting for her. Chloe replied in a way that would placate Grace. It seemed to work, seconds later a reply with okay and a series of happy looking emojis flooded the screen.
The evening passed nicely enough, Chloe and her family had dinner, watched some rubbish television and even played a few games. It was nice, she had forgotten about her day and the feelings that had flooded her. She was fine, the world was fine, all was…
Her Dad had begun the process of locking up the house for the evening, checking the front door, letting the dog out of the back. Chloe heard him swearing when she would not come back inside, she had found a hedgehog and was gently probing it with her nose then skipping round it, excitedly barking and hoping this new living ball would play.
Chloe was in her room, it was flooded with light and she ensured that the bedside light was on, clicked off the light and hopped into bed. She scanned the room, clothes neatly piled ready for tomorrow; tie on the doorknob of the wardrobe that would never quite close enough; phone plugged in and charging; alarm already set for the call to consciousness in the morning. She plunged into sleep, only once twitching herself awake by dreaming she was about to this the floor. That twitch meant her foot briefly escaped the confines of the duvet. The wardrobe doors crack seemed wider in the dark than it had been in the light. She pulled her foot, trying to retreat it under the magical protection of the duvet. In this split second a moaning thrust into her mind, panic for her and it all flooded back the talk, the teacher, the thing.
Paralyzed she thought about the thing, focusing on it, her subconscious mind trying to erase it from her memory. It came thick and almost solid, like when in a cooking class she had pulled a chicken breast from a plate and the juices had coagulated and stuck and stunk. A thing of danger and teeth and fetid breath. In an instant it was over. She was being silly. Chloe again had control of her movements and pulled her foot again. This time paralysis did not prevent her from pulling in the foot.
This time something else did.
Mr Murphy sat back, rubbing his eyes, one more crap story to glance over. It was that precocious one, what was her name, Chloe. He prepared to summarily glance over and quickly apply a mark. He began and then actually began to read. He wished he hadn’t.
Taking a lighter from a drawer that he rarely opened he lit it and dropped it in the steel sink of his kitchen, ignoring the questioning from his wife, ignoring all of them, he went into the bathroom and drew a very hot bath. What he had done was wrong, but now, at the very least he should be rid of that thing. That thing that had followed him since his Grandfather had pointed and screamed, a stroke his parents had said. Well Mr Murphy knew the truth. He was sorry it had been Chloe.
The clothes in Chloe’s room were never used again, the tie remained unworn. The start of the day did begin with an alarm, this one a human cry that penetrated all the rooms in the house.