Go to your room.
Close the door.
Light a candle.
Turn out the lights.
Before you read further, recite aloud the following words.
I cast aside the shadows that follow me. I shed myself of all that is unholy. Cloak me from the ones who seek to do me harm. Protect me. Guard me. Keep me.
Good. They won’t be able to watch you now. Under no circumstances read beyond this point unless you’ve followed my directions. Otherwise they’ll know I’ve told you. You’ll start to hear them. At first you’ll think they’re just voices in your head, but they’ll grow louder, whispering in your ears all sorts of horrifying things that will keep you awake at night. Then you’ll see them. Everywhere. In the eyes of your friends, down dark alleys, when you’re alone. They’re always there when you’re alone. Keep the candle burning. Keep the door locked. And whatever you do, do not turn on the lights.
It began with a book. It was bound in leather and stuffed with worn, yellowing pages. It sat just out of reach on a top shelf in the school library. Its torn spine caught my attention as I searched the fiction section for the next crime novel to help me fall asleep at night.
My psychiatrist had recommended reading to put an end to my insomnia. Yeah, I see a shrink. I know, right? What thirteen-year-old suffers from insomnia? Give me a break. At least I found a cure. An hour of reading at night clears my mind enough to lull me to sleep within seconds of setting the book aside. Without a book, I’m like Dracula, except instead of wandering the hills of Transylvania looking for girls, I lurk the halls of my house searching for entertainment to waste away the boring hours.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out this book wasn’t a crime novel. Yet something drew me to it. It was calling my name. I didn’t just want this book. I needed it.
I dragged over a nearby chair, pushed it against the bookshelf, and climbed onto its cushion. On my toes I could just reach the heel of the book. I poked at it, trying to drag it from its spot on the shelf. Instead, I accidentally pushed it deeper, beyond reach.
“Excuse me!” a shrill voice sounded from behind me. “You can’t be up there!”
Great. The librarian from Hell. Miss Murphy. She’s so evil she made the Guinness Book of World Records for most detention slips handed out in a single school year. Check it out if you don’t believe me.
Time was running out. I put one leg on the back of the chair, grabbed onto the bookshelf, and lifted myself up. With a desperate swipe of my free arm, I snatched at the top shelf. I missed, connecting instead with a collection of paperbacks. Books rained down on me as I dropped to the cushion, dodging Mary Higgins Clark and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
While I swatted at the onslaught of books, I steadied myself against the bookshelf. Though I regained my balance, the shelf began to teeter. Miss Murphy shrieked and ran in the opposite direction. Another batch of books slid loose and pelted me. I was in the middle of a dodgeball game, except novels had replaced all of the balls.
Not wanting to be crushed by several hundred pounds of literature—I didn’t like reading that much—I threw my body into the shelf, forcing it in the other direction. With my added weight, the entire thing tipped over.
You see, Monroe Junior High once won recognition by the local newspaper for having the best selection of books in Monroe, Wisconsin. Row after row of bookshelves lined the library like dominos. And I had knocked one over.
I watched in horror as one bookshelf after another crashed into the next. People scrambled for safety, Miss Murphy screamed, a seventh grader dove for cover and barely avoided being buried alive. Bookshelves splintered upon impact, and the glass case in the center of the library that held the bust of our school’s founder shattered. I closed my eyes and cupped my ears as every last book plummeted to its demise.
Then the screams stopped and a shocked silence settled over the library. I chanced a peek at the destruction, knowing I couldn’t put it off forever. I immediately regretted it. Books littered the floor, loose pages polluted the air like ashes, terrified faces peered through windows and from behind tables tipped on their sides to form barricades. The “Quiet, Please” sign above the librarian’s desk hung from one metal hook.
“Oops,” I said, the sound enough to bring the sign clattering down.
Not again. Call it bad luck, klutziness, or pure stupidity, but this wasn’t the first time I’d been in a situation that ended with everybody staring at me in horrified silence. At my last school I’d gotten a little too curious with the Bunsen burner in the science lab. Turns out nail polish remover is, in fact, flammable. I had to paint my eyebrows on for two months before they finally grew back.
The school before that, we were on a field trip to the town’s oldest museum. I wandered into an “under construction” exhibit honoring the local fire department, flipped the light switch, and sent the whole place up in flames. Apparently the exhibit was under construction due to faulty wiring. Hey, you can’t honor the fire department better than that, right?
And who could forget my first school? In P.E. we were swimming laps at the high school next door. A girl I liked lost her ring somewhere in the deep end. Being the hero I am, I ran to the athletic closet for goggles. Except in my rush, I didn’t think to check the sign on the door. Let’s just say it wasn’t the athletic closet. To this day, I’ve never heard so many girls scream at once. I also haven’t seen so many—never mind. You get the point.
That’s enough negativity, though. I always like to look on the bright side. The book with the leather cover, the one that had caused this whole fiasco, lay atop the wreckage like a victorious soldier after a hard-fought battle. I crouched down, grabbed it, and tucked it into the back of my jeans, adjusting my belt to keep it in place. Maybe my luck was starting to turn around.
You know you get into trouble a lot when the school librarian knows your full name after your third week at a new school. But like I said, I’m an optimist. At least I hadn’t finished unpacking at home.
Now where would my family move? As you can imagine, blowing up the science lab, burning down a museum, and walking in on… well… you know… all led to the one school-related thing I ever had success in. Suspension. And anything as major as that would give my parents one more reason to relocate. Let’s just say we tended to change addresses more than a baby changes diapers. My parents called it a “new beginning.” Funny how every new beginning had the same ending.
More than ever, I needed to stay out of trouble. I made sure the book was hidden and thought, please don’t let me get suspended again.
“First I find you feasting on potato chips in the biography section, leaving crumbs everywhere.” I’d had a hard time making friends this time around. Apparently my reputation preceded me, and I had a tendency to eat my feelings. “Then I catch you on the computer looking at—I cannot even speak of it without blushing!” It’s not what you’re thinking. I love horror movies. Despite the rumor that Miss Murphy is a vampire, it was a bit too much blood for her to stomach. “And now this! Go to Principal Rhodes’ office this instant!”
With my reputation, I think I disappointed the small crowd that had gathered when I stuttered a brief apology and made for the principal’s office with my head hung low. People never believe me when I tell them I’m not really a rebel. I’m just unlucky.
When I reached Principal Rhodes’ office, a girl was sitting in one of two chairs outside his door. I filled the other. She looked unfamiliar, which I found strange since her short hair was the color of an abnormally bright Smurf. It took me a few seconds to pry my eyes from it. I wound up staring into her eyes. Blues and greens mixed together in a way that practically had me dabbing drool from my lips. She cocked an eyebrow and smiled. A single dimple marked her left cheek and grabbed my attention, saving me from drowning in her eyes.
“What’re you in for?” she asked.
“You don’t wanna know.”
She folded her arms. “Of course I do. Why else would I ask?”
“Thousands of books attacked me.”
“Well, I guess you could say I started it.”
“Right. And since you’re here, I’m guessing the books won?”
“They had an unfair advantage.”
“They had Miss Murphy. Total bloodbath… minus the blood.”
“You bathed in the library with Miss Murphy?” She smiled. “And here we all thought she’d be single forever.”
My face flushed. “You know what I mean.” I shifted nervously in my chair. “Man, I’m not looking forward to another lecture from Principal Rhodes.”
“Really? You have to ask? Haven’t you ever talked to the dude before?”
“Once or twice.”
“Then you should know.”
“He’s terrifying! The way he looks at me with his beady eyes makes my skin crawl. Every time I see him, I think he’s going to sprout talons, grab onto me, and claw me open or something. For once in my life, it’d be nice to have a pushover for a principal.” Like the bookshelves…
“Yeah, he looks like a—”
Principal Rhodes’ door swung open and he stuck out his head. Beady eyes, arched eyebrows, and a brown rim of hair around a shiny bald head made him look a bit too much like a—
“Vulture,” I said before I could stop myself.
“Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Mathews, I prefer to be called Principal Rhodes. Come in and have a seat.”
“She was here first, sir.”
Principal Rhodes turned his attention to the blue-haired girl. “This won’t take long, pumpkin. Will you be okay?”
Pumpkin? Was this guy colorblind? Her hair was clearly blue. Blueberry made sense, but pumpkins are—
“And daddy? Don’t be too tough on him. He’s still recovering from his recent battle.”
Despite reminding me of a bird that eats rotting carcasses, Principal Rhodes had been patient with me so far, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t get out of trouble with nothing more than a slap on the wrist this time. I followed my usual path to the chair in front of his desk and awaited my fate. Mountains of paper, a tray of pencils, paperclips, and tardy slips, and a half-eaten jelly donut cluttered his desk. I eyed the donut. Blue jelly. What were the odds? Blueberry, perhaps?
Principal Rhodes walked across the room, his dress shoes clicking against the wood floor, and sat across from me.
He didn’t look mad. Of course, he didn’t look thrilled either. Instead, he seemed concerned, as if he couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would destroy an entire library. I opened my mouth to explain what had happened, but he silenced me with a lift of his hand.
“How many times have you sat in that chair, Mr. Mathews?”
“Do you mean this exact chair, or any chair in your office? Because I’m pretty sure I sat in that one the last time, sir.” I pointed to a chair in the corner of the room.
Principal Rhodes leaned across his desk, close enough I could smell the jelly donut on his breath. “Now is not the time to be funny.”
Funny? Who said anything about funny? I was serious. “This is the third time, sir.” After the first school I attended, I began adding “sir” when I talked to authority. It backfired at my second school when the principal was a woman.
“And do you know what they say about the third time?”
“Third time’s a charm, sir?”
“Three strikes, and you’re out.”
“Oh, that one,” I said, and when I realized I’d forgotten it, I added, “Sir.”
“Yet you don’t seem to learn your lesson, do you?”
Logic told me to say no, I hadn’t learned my lesson. If suspension didn’t work, then he’d have to find a different punishment. But then I’d have to take responsibility for a total accident, and could I really do that? Obviously the logical thing to do was to choose logic.
“Actually, sir, I did learn my lesson.” What’s so great about logic anyway? “Ever since my first school suspended me, I’ve tried really hard to stay out of trouble. I never do anything wrong on purpose. I’m bad luck. Bad things happen to me and people around me.”
“Really?” I pointed to where his left arm rested on the desk. “Pick up your arm.”
He lifted his arm to reveal a squished jelly donut clinging to the sleeve of his white button-down shirt. Principal Rhodes nearly sprang from his chair, which tipped backward and balanced on its hind legs.
Too late. The chair tumbled backward with Principal Rhodes in tow. With an uncharacteristic yelp, he landed back-first on the floor. I jumped up to help him, but the look in his eyes told me to sit my butt back down.
Even though he didn’t actually say anything, I found myself yelling, “Yes, sir!” anyway, as if responding to some invisible drill sergeant.
He climbed to his feet and dusted off his clothes. When I tried to speak, he cut me off with a lift of his jelly-covered arm; like his daughter, blue was a good look for him.
“You will join Helping Hands, a club that does community service around town, and serve with them for the remainder of the school year. If I see your face in my office for anything except the delivery of a present on Administrator Appreciation Day, you’ll be on the next bus out of here, do you hear me?”
“I’m guessing it won’t be a school bus attending a field trip, sir?” Idiot, I told myself, knowing he wouldn’t appreciate my comment. Still, I added, “Personally, I prefer those coach buses. They come with a toilet. It saves precious travel time.”
“Out.” His face turned red. “Get out!” All I could see were talons. Long, sharp talons.
Without another glance at the vulture’s beady eyes or invisible talons, I jumped from my chair and hurried to the door. I smiled at Blueberry, who mimicked being attacked by books, and speed-walked down the hallway. I chanced one last look at her. She clutched her heart, made her body go limp, and slid lifelessly out of the chair. Then she snuck a quick wave as if to reassure me she’d survived. With a smile on my face, I rounded the corner, took a deep breath, and pulled the book from where I’d tucked it into the back of my jeans.
A silver medallion embedded in the worn, black leather glinted against the overhead lights. A cursive ‘A’ marked the medal, a snake coiled around its base. Other than that, it had no title. I checked the spine. Torn, but blank. I opened the book at its center. The yellow pages were empty, not a single word written on them.
All this trouble for nothing? I risked being suspended for this? Desperate, I flipped through page after page only to reveal more blank space. Finally, I turned to the first page to see if it held any publishing information. The words I saw sent a chill trickling down my spine.
One handwritten sentence. Seven words. Familiar words.
Please don’t let me get suspended again.