The story so far:
Pete took his time answering the question, choosing to smile instead and give first me, then Robert, a slow eyeballing. “No children here, Ms. B.”
My fingers instinctively tightened on the gun. “Don’t play games with me, Pete,” I seethed. “Where are my children?”
To my chagrin, Pete seemed entirely unconcerned. He aimed a languorous finger at Robert. “Did’n’ he tell ya? There ain’t children here.” His smile grew sharper as he straightened, seeming to shed the old, folksy janitor persona. “There’s nothing here, Maribel, but inhuman mistakes, soon to be rectified.”
His voice, clipped and intelligent, threw me for a moment. But only a moment. So he could play roles; it was nothing different than what I’d done hundreds of times. “I don’t have time for games,” I said. The gun clicked as I cocked it. “Tell me what you did to the children, and tell me now!”
Robert quietly slid past me, keeping a steady eye on Pete. “You hold him here, honey. I’ll go look for the kids.”
Pete laughed. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
The fact that Pete looked so pleased at the idea stopped Robert cold in his tracks. I took a step forward, needing none of my acting skills to look furious. “I swear by all that is good, Pete, if you do not tell me where they are RIGHT NOW, I’ll spray your brains across the hall!” It wasn’t exactly ‘teacher’ language, but it fit the situation.
However, Pete only looked amused. “And then how will you know where your precious ‘children’ are, hmm?”
The temptation to pull the trigger was growing by the second. I clenched my teeth so hard they hurt, then gave in.
Robert shouted in surprise as the shot echoed through the empty hallways, though his cry was almost completely drowned out by Pete’s howl of pain. He hit the floor hard, already curling into a ball to clutch his foot in anguish. The string of words that came from his mouth was also not ‘teacher’ language.
I cocked the gun again. “You want to keep the other foot, then you tell me where the children are and what you did to them. NOW.”
The smile was gone, replaced by a mixture of pain and fierce malice, but I could see in his eyes that he knew I had him. He hadn’t thought me capable of torture, apparently. His mistake.
“I’m losing patience, Pete,” I said quietly, taking aim at his uninjured foot.
“The gym,” he spat out through gritted teeth.
“And what did you do to them?”
He glared for a moment, but his eyes wandered to the clock above my head. “Hasn’t happened yet.”
My heart picked up its frenetic pace again as my feet began moving, almost without orders, racing toward the gym. Robert caught me before I had gone two steps, however, and pulled me back.
“What’s in the gym?” he asked Pete, stopping my protest dead on my lips. Of course. Pete had looked delighted at the thought of Robert going off alone to find the kids. There must be something in the gym, something dangerous. My fury was rising again.
Pete’s face was a few shades paler than a moment ago, making his wrinkles stand out in sharp, harsh lines around his eyes and mouth. “Go and find out.”
I raised the gun and fired without thinking. Pete howled again, his face etched white and his eyes wide as they tracked from me to the bullet hole in the nearby wall. “You crazy b-”
I interrupted sharply, my rage at him tempered by my anger at myself. I was losing control, and I couldn’t let that happen if I was going to be any help to those kids. “The next one won’t miss.” It was the most solemn promise I’ve ever made.
Pete’s face twisted and his lips twitched a few times before he finally spat it out, one tight, low, angry word. “Bomb.”
I was running again.
Robert finally caught up to me when I came to a stop outside the gym’s doors. I was vaguely aware that he had been hollering my name as we ran, but my focus was too intent on my goal to slow down, even for a moment.
“Maribel!” he gasped, panting, as he stumbled beside me, leaning against the wall beside the door.
“Don’t you try to stop me,” I snapped, short of breath myself. I tugged on the doors, but they didn’t budge. “I’m getting those children!”
“Me… too…” he wheezed, yanking on the door handle. “We have… to get in…”
The lockdown curtains had been drawn over the windows in the doors, keeping us from seeing inside. My mind was shooting through possibilities faster than I could track. Go for one of the other doors – no, we’d have to run around the entire building to reach those. Not enough time. For all we know, anyway. Shoot the windows – no, there are kids inside there, I could hit one. Break the windows – now that could work.
My eyes searched the hall for something heavy as Robert continued the futile tugging at the handles, but there was nothing. If only we were in the other hallway, the one with the trophy case…
I clenched my teeth. I had no idea when the bomb was going to go off, so I couldn’t afford to sit there muddling much longer. “Get out of the way!” I barked, taking a step back and bracing myself. Robert was starting to ask a question, who knows what, when I put all the power I had in my little frame into a fierce forward kick aimed straight at the window. Pain jolted through my body and I landed on the floor, cursing some at the pain but mostly at the fact that the window was still intact.
“Maribel!” Robert dropped to my side, but I waved him off.
“The window,” I grunted. “Break the window!”
It took him a few bone jarring tries, but finally the reinforced glass gave way with a satisfying shatter. As Robert stumbled back, wincing in pain, I shoved the curtain aside and stared, momentarily stunned by the sight inside the auditorium.
The first shock was the device in the middle of the room. It was small, but I could see the red, glowing numbers clearly enough. 2:31. Steadily counting down. My heart constricted, but that was nothing compared to the second shock, which came when I looked around at the children.
They were all seated in the bleachers, silent and calm, all staring peacefully at the device. No one moved, no one spoke. No one even sniffled. I could see Jake, Amy, and Lucy among them, staring the same as everyone else. Flashbacks to events earlier this evening, of scenes played out under flickering streetlamps and while Lockley was holding me at gunpoint, rendered me immobile as my chest constricted even further.
“Maribel?” Robert asked, his hand squeezing my shoulder. I jumped a mile, my heart kicking into overdrive to make up for the temporary stop. He frowned at me. “What is it?”
“The – the children,” I managed to say.
He peered past the curtain I was still holding aside, then nodded as if nothing was wrong. “It’s okay, Maribel. Don’t worry.” He reached through the broken window and popped the lock on the door. “Hold it open, okay?”
My mind was off at full speed again, this time leaving my body numb to do anything but obey. I braced my back against the undamaged door, keeping it open and watching as Robert strode into the gym, seemingly unperturbed by the creepy, blank stares.
“Children!” Robert bellowed. The heads turned toward him as one. A shiver rippled through my spine.
“Stand up and follow me,” he barked out, his voice booming through the gymnasium. There was a single, sharp thump as every child stood in unison. Images of military drills floated through my mind as they marched in perfect lines toward Robert.
He turned and began walking toward me. “Robert,” I managed to say, my voice weak. I couldn’t take my eyes off the children.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, putting a hand on my arm. “It’s okay.”
The children were forming a single line behind him, eyes forward, not one out of place. There were times in my classroom that this would have been my dream. Now it felt more like a nightmare as the zombie-like children drew closer.
A shout rang out in the hallway, followed by the sharp report of a gun. Robert fell and screams drowned out my last sane thought. I lunged forward, grabbed Robert’s arm, and dragged him back to relative safety behind the door. I caught a brief glimpse of agents in bulletproof vests swarming the hall while I was out there. Pete must have called them, rightfully afraid that we’d free the children before the bomb went off.
The screams broke through my haze and I realized that the children were panicking, screaming in terror, no longer frozen in the strange zombie masks. “Get to the door!” I shouted, pointing across the gym. The device on the floor made me pause, but it was clearly safer to risk running past a bomb than try to brave the hall full of agents behind us.
Several of the older kids were already leading the way, pulling the younger children behind them. Robert was groaning, but a quick glance proved that it was only a leg wound. I didn’t envy him the pain, certainly, but at least he would live. I tore my sleeve off and used it to make a quick, tight bandage over the injury.
Shouts and gunshots rang behind me as I followed the children out, moving as fast as I could with my husband half-draped over one shoulder. A couple of the smaller children had paused by the device, studying it curiously. “Run!” I shouted, struggling toward them. They looked up with large eyes. I could see they were too confused by everything to really understand what was going on.
“You get outside right now or I’ll write you a frowny slip!” I barked out.
That did the trick. They bolted for the doors at top speed, following the others outside. I caught a glimpse of the numbers as I passed the device. 1:03. Dear Lord, let us get out of here in time. That’s all I ask. Just let us get out.
The gym seemed to stretch interminably, but I finally staggered through the doors to find myself faced by a mob of children. “Run!” I shouted. “Come on, get out to the trees!”
There was some hesitation. The trees, which bordered the playground, were off-limits, but there was one area of fence that had been broken for years. Any kids who tried to sneak through that area to play in the forest got frowny slips.
But we had bigger things to worry about than frowny slips. “Do it!” I barked out, leading the way with Robert gritting along beside me. “Get in there, now!”
I had only used that particular tone in the classroom once, and that was when I had to out-shout a room full of second and third graders. It had left absolutely no room for argument or even hesitation then, and it had the same effect now. The children rushed for the fence, piling up at the broken area as they scrambled to get through.
How much time had passed? My heart was pounding. At least there weren’t any agents after us now. If they were smart, they had vacated the building in the opposite direction. We would have a little time before they could work their way around toward us.
I passed the monkey bars. The slide loomed to my left; after that, it was just a dozen more yards and I’d be safe in the forest with the children. I could see them on the other side of the fence, watching me with large eyes, their faces glowing ghostly from the single light on the building behind me.
I don’t know which I noticed first, the sound, the feel, or the sight. Either way, the blast left me deaf, the sight of the ground leaving my feet was terrifying, and the feel of my body shooting through the air only compounded the previous pains. It took a few moments before I could hear the children’s screams, now much closer. I was half-laying on the fence, which had crumpled some from the blast. I dully noted that it was considerate of those blasted feds to keep the explosion fairly contained. All they wanted was to kill the kids, after all.
“Ms. B!” The wailing of voices brought me back to myself and I struggled to my feet. The children crowded close, sobbing. I noted with relief that they seemed more scared than injured. Aside from a handful of scrapes on each child, there were no injuries. It seemed the trees had shielded them well.
Robert groaned in pain as I pulled him to his feet. The blast hadn’t done much good for his leg wound, but we could deal with that later. The agents would be rounding the building soon now.
As I helped Robert into the forest, the children clung close to my side. “It’s okay,” I reassured them. “Don’t worry. Come on, we have to keep going. We’re going somewhere safe, okay? Just keep walking with me, and you’ll be okay.”
I thought I heard a strange whisper on the breeze, and the children abruptly slowed, then resumed walking at a steady pace. I stumbled at the sight of the zombie faces around me once more. “Robert?”
“Oh, thank God,” he groaned, gripping me tightly. “They’re here.”
A cold wind tickled the hairs on the back of my neck and I could hear rustling sounds all around. My eyes stared wide in the darkness and began picking out figures, dark robed and silent in a circle around us. “Robert!”
The children had stopped, and Robert tugged for me to stop as well. “It’s okay, Maribel. We’re safe now.”
A low thrum filled the area, making me shiver. “Robert, what’s going on here?”
“It’s okay.” He turned to me, and the look in his eyes made my guts twist. “I didn’t tell you everything about the Society, Maribel. You always were so, well, so rational, and I knew you’d have a hard time understanding. But not everything can be understood rationally, Mari. Not everything can be explained by science.”
The robed figures were clearer now, though I still couldn’t see any faces. “What do you mean, Robert? What are you talking about?” This was crazy. “Robert, we can’t just stop here! We have to get to safety!”
“They’ll keep us safe.”
He spoke the words quietly, but they thundered in my ears and I shivered, feeling like I’d just fallen down the rabbit hole. “Robert…”
“Come on, Maribel. You know there’s only so much science can do. I mean, it’s not like I’m Dr. Frankenstein, shooting electricity through corpses to make them come alive!” He chuckled. “A person, a real person, is more than just a body and nerves and a brain. It takes something more that science just can’t provide. So we were working together, the Society and I. My part was the hard science, like I said before. But they brought so much more to the table than I ever could. I gave them replicated bodies, and they took care of the… intangible.”
My eyes roved over the zombie children and I couldn’t stop shivering. “What are you talking about, Robert?” I couldn’t bring myself to speak louder than a whisper. “What’s wrong with them?”
He laughed loudly, and I heard the echo all around. No, it wasn’t an echo. Most of the laughs were deeper, some higher. The robed figures were laughing, too.
Robert smiled and stroked my chin. “There’s nothing wrong with them, Maribel. They’re just in their ‘ready’ state. This is how they rest, and how we teach them. This is how they,” he motioned to the robed figures, “make sure the children are healthy and whole.”
“Healthy?” My head spun. “Teach?”
“Of course. It’s the intangible things, Mari, like I said. The society’s work keeps them whole in essence, and they teach them right from wrong. So there’s no difference between the children we’ve created and anyone else on this planet.” His face darkened. “That’s what the feds just refuse to see.”
“They claim the children are dangerous, that there’s too many flaws and too much risk of misuse. It’s ridiculous. They think the Society is some sort of medieval-style Illuminati, planning to take over the world or something.”
Looking around at the robed figures and the empty stares of the children, I couldn’t help but understand the feds’ point of view.
“But we’re helping people, Maribel. We’re rescuing parents from the despair we went through.” He clutched my hands. “Just watch and see for yourself. Children!”
The children turned as one to face him.
Robert gave me a smile like a toddler showing off a new toy. “What is the most important thing?”
“Do what is right,” the children stated in unison, the chorus ringing through the circle.
“And how will you do that today?” Robert asked, pleased.
“Kill Ms. B.”
Everything froze. I was trembling again. Robert shot me a startled look, then turned back to the children. “What?”
“Ms. B must die by Monday.”
I stumbled backwards a step, half-expecting the children to leap after me, but no one moved a muscle. The calm, empty stares were all fixed on Robert.
“That’s not right,” one of the robed figures said, taking a step forward. His voice was deep and rumbled like Christopher Lee’s. “It is evil to kill, children. You must do what is right.”
“We must do what is right.”
“That’s right,” the man said, his tone satisfied.
“We must kill Ms. B.”
Robert turned, giving a helpless look first to me, then to the robed man. Distressed murmurs spread through the circle of robed figures. For a moment I could have sworn I heard a gunshot, but then I only heard the thrum.
“Why do you believe you must kill Ms. B?” robed-Christopher-Lee-man asked, his voice carrying the unmistakable tone of someone who is trying to reason with an unreasonable child.
“It is evil to kill animals. Those who kill animals must be punished.”
“The safeguard,” Robert murmured, still staring at the robed man.
I bravely leaned closer. “What?”
He glanced at me. “We can’t be everywhere these children will be. So if they see one of their own doing something evil, they must kill that person the next time they’re in the ‘ready’ state. It – it’s to keep everyone safe.”
I took an immediate step back. “And they’re in their ‘ready’ state now, aren’t they?”
Robert hesitated. “Partially. They’re like this because it was triggered by the safety word. They won’t really enter that state until one A.M.”
Another step back. “They’re going to kill me tonight?” My voice squeaked a little on the last word.
“No!” Robert hesitated, shooting a cautious look at the throng of staring children, then lowered his voice. “There’s some kind of mistake. We’ll figure it out, I promise.” He shook his head. “You’re not even one of them. The safeguard shouldn’t be triggered by anything you do.”
“Children,” Christopher Lee said, “Ms. B is not one of you. You do not kill her.”
“It is evil to kill animals. Those who kill animals must be punished.”
“Ms. B hasn’t killed any animals!” Robert snapped. “You do not kill her!”
Silent, solemn eyes turned to me. “The frog.”
Robert and Christopher Lee stared at me. “Frog?”
My heart was sinking faster than I thought possible. “I knew they shouldn’t have added that to the second grade curriculum,” I managed to say, my voice barely a whisper. “I knew the second graders wouldn’t be ready for it.”
“What?” Robert asked, gripping my arm painfully. “What did you do, Mari?”
“I…” I looked up at the solemn stares. “We’re going to dissect a frog on Monday. It’s part of the new science program. They… the parents can have their children sit in the library if they choose. I sent an information sheet about it home with the students today.”
“It is evil to kill animals. Those who kill animals must be punished,” the children chorused.
“Ms. B is not one of you!” Robert shouted. “You do not kill her!”
A quiet beeping sound disturbed the air, and Christopher Lee slid his robe aside to look at his flashing watch. He drew in a sharp breath and his head snapped up, toward the children.
I looked and my throat closed. The dull, empty eyes had been replaced by fierce, glimmering ones lowered in my direction.
“Children! Stop!” Robert howled. “Herhaling! Herhaling!”
“The safety word won’t do any good,” Christopher Lee breathed. “They’re already in their state.”
It wasn’t until the first child moved that my feet kicked into gear. As the children lunged at me, the entire crowd of robed figures rushed forward to meet them, regaining the moments I had lost while standing there like a moron. My feet tore into the earth as I ran blindly, weaving through the trees as fast as my legs would take me. I could hear feet behind me. Small feet.
An explosive went off just behind me, knocking me flat. Arms yanked me upright, dragging me. I grunted, struggling as much as my battered body would allow.
“…bel! Maribel!” The voice, I thought as my hearing returned, seemed very familiar. I blinked into the face of Hiram Lockley. “It’s okay!” he said, still pulling me along and trying to stop my struggling. “You’re safe now!”
I blinked again at all the agents around me. Flashes of light testified to the shots they were firing into the forest, but my hearing was still a bit foggy.
“She’s clear!” Lockley shouted.
I could feel a rush of warmth across my back. The building in front of me, one of the homes near the school, was suddenly brightly lit, but only for a moment. Lockley turned me, lowered me to a seat in a car, and I could see flames and smoke rising from the forest. “Maribel, are you okay? Maribel?”
“We’ll have to check her,” one of the nearby agents said. “She was in there with them for quite a while.”
“Right,” Lockley nodded. “Maribel, can you hear me?”
A grim look crossed his face. “We hoped that we wouldn’t have to kill him, but we couldn’t risk those… creatures getting loose. I’m sorry.”
Words failed me, though that didn’t stop my mouth from trying to form them.
Lockley put a hand on my arm. “Take it easy, Maribel. Just take a deep breath, okay?” He saw the question in my eyes as I obeyed and sighed. “The bureau sent me in to work for the Society some time ago. It was all supposed to come down to this…” He glanced back, and I could see the still-smoking shell of the school. “We were going to get them all at once. I just had to keep Robert and the Society from knowing until it was too late. But then he found out about you, and I couldn’t refuse to bring you to him without him getting suspicious…” He sighed again. “I’m sorry, Maribel.”
His face hardened, but he looked more sad than angry. “They aren’t children, Maribel. They – they aren’t right. That’s why we had to destroy them.”
“They wanted to kill me.”
I shook my head. “The children.”
Lockley was silent for a moment, then patted my shoulder. “It’s okay now, Maribel. You’re safe. It’s all over.”
My eyes rested on the burning trees as Lockley straightened. I put a hand on his back, stopping him. “Consider this my resignation.”
“Can’t say I blame you.”
I nodded, my eyes still fixed on the trees. Robert wasn’t the only one who could bring back the dead. It was time for Rachel Lynn Baker to live again.