Authors: Michelle Knudsen
Ryan arrives and sees at once that something new has happened.
“What now?” he asks, dropping into the seat beside me.
“Principal Kingston is a demon.”
“Yeah. He’s teaming up with Mr. Gabriel. They’re going to share the school, I think. Until it’s time for them to try to kill each other.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
We sit there for a few minutes, not talking.
Finally, Ryan pokes me in the side. “Want to help me run lines?”
I shrug. “Okay.”
We run his lines until Mr. Henry starts rehearsal proper. Today they’re running all the chorus scenes. They begin with “God, That’s Good!” in which all the townspeople are loving the meat pies, having no idea about the central secret ingredient. It’s also the number in which Sweeney’s fancy chair first makes its appearance. As much as I would love to, I don’t have time to sit and watch. I grab my notebook and head backstage.
It is chair time, my friends.
I collect my tech minions and bring them out into the hall so we won’t have to whisper.
“Okay, you guys,” I say. I spread my notebook pages out on the floor before them. “This is what we’re going to do.”
There is minimal chatter. I have trained them well. A few intelligent questions and they are off and running.
I love my minions.
The new design is actually pretty simple. No crazy twisting, no backward flip down the trapdoor, no disembodied meat hooks that swoop down from above and impale the victims. (In my defense, I only
briefly entertained that last idea. It would have been cool, though.)
It’s all about atmosphere this time.
Once Ryan has slashed his customer’s throat, he’ll pull a lever to open the trapdoor, which will reveal the pulsing red light of the fires — of the oven, and also a metaphoric representation of the fires of hell — below. Then the chair itself will tilt forward, letting the still-dying victim see exactly what is waiting there for him before he plunges down, terrified and bewildered, into heat and flame and death.
The stage lights will dim simultaneously each time this happens, and Sweeney (who is often singing and looking out at the audience while he murders people in the chair) will be partially bathed in a hellish red glow himself.
The flames, of course, will just be red and orange and yellow gels over lights, and there will be cushiony soft things for the victims to land on. And they’ll be going front-first, so it will be even easier for them to land safely and correctly once they’re out of view of the audience. It’s going to work, and it’s going to be awesome.
Mr. Henry wanders out with a cup of coffee; the cast must be taking a break.
“That the new chair plan?” he asks, nodding toward my papers.
“Yup.” I gather them swiftly together and stick them back in my notebook.
“Not going to show me?”
“Nope. You’ll have to wait and see.”
He gives me a long, considering look as he takes a sip. “Is it going to work?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Is it going to be awesome?”
I grin. “Yup.”
He nods. “All right, then. I trust you. Can’t wait to see it.” He starts to turn, then turns back and points at me. “Demo by Friday, yeah?”
“You got it, Mr. H.”
He nods again and gives me a flourishy carry-on wave and wanders back into the auditorium.
I carry on.
The next morning, both Mrs. Foster and Miss Daniels are absent.
I push past more and more blank-eyed students in the hallway, making my way slowly to the library. It’s ridiculously stupid of me, but I can’t seem to stop myself.
Mr. Gabriel is in there alone, sitting at the circulation desk.
I walk up to the desk. “Did you kill them?”
He holds up one finger in a
just a moment
gesture, then finishes typing something at the computer before finally looking up. “I’m sorry, Cynthia. What were you saying?”
“Did you kill them?” I ask again.
I try to give him a withering glance, but I don’t really have it in me. Mostly I’m just feeling numb.
“Are you guys just going to keep killing people? Like, daily?”
He scoots over on his tall wheely chair until he’s sitting opposite me.
no. Maybe every other day. We do have to kill people occasionally to maintain the gateway and stuff.” He says this like he’s explaining some library policy to me, like why the borrowing period is only two weeks (one week on audiovisual materials). “Besides, I told you someone extra was going to die because of your little extracurricular activity over the weekend. Did you like those two nice teachers? I do hope so. They died screaming, you know. Screaming and begging for mercy. It was fun.”
“I really, really hate you,” I say.
He smiles. “Oh, Cynthia. I can’t wait until I win the throne and can really start in on cultivating Annie for her new life as my queen. I think, if I haven’t already killed you, which is still kind of a toss-up, FYI, I’m going to see to it that we come visit you sometime. So you can see what I’ve done to her. You know, once it’s really started.”
“You’ve already started, you asshole.”
He laughs, actually throwing back his head to guffaw with abandon. I wait until he regains enough control to speak.
“Oh, my dear girl. I haven’t started at all. You wait. You’ll see. I think I might have to leave you alive just to have the pleasure of showing you what real starting will look like.”
I pick up my bag and wander back out into the hall. They are easy to spot all the time now — the students who just drift along, there but not-there, drained of some essential ingredient in their personalities. Here and there I see other kids who seem aware enough to look around them in confusion, wondering what the hell is wrong with everyone else. Some of the affected ones will come back to themselves later, or tomorrow, or the next day. They’ll be relatively fine, like Leticia, or like Signor De Luca was, until he was dead. The ones who spend the most time around Mr. Gabriel, though, and now Principal Kingston, too . . . they probably won’t really come back. They’ll just keep getting worse, little by little, until there’s nothing left of them at all.
I walk past Mrs. Foster’s room, where another sub is writing some notes on the board.
I stop and lean against the wall.
This isn’t going to work.
The deal we worked out, that
worked out — that deal with the demoness only comes into play when the actual fight for the throne takes place. Which seems to be at least a week and three-quarters away, because Gabriel and Kingston both seem pretty hell-bent on seeing
Which means more and more people are going to get pieces of their souls sucked out.
And more and more people are going to die.
We can’t just sit by and let that happen.
We have to try something else.
In Italian, I tell Ryan about Mrs. Foster and Miss Daniels. This is feasible because Mr. Hubbard is a complete joke, and there are no consequences for talking or changing seats or anything else. Every once in a while he’ll look up from whatever he’s doing up there at Signor De Luca’s desk and say, “I hope all that talking is being done in
” then stare around the room with what I suspect he believes is a very meaningful expression. Then he’ll ignore us for a while again and pretend he thinks we’re working on whatever lame textbook exercises he gave us to do.
“We have to do something,” I say when I have brought Ryan up to date.
doing something,” he says. “Or you are, at least.” He is somewhat frosty on this last point. We haven’t really talked about my demoness deal since the night it happened. Clearly, he still does not think it is a wonderful idea.
“That’s too far away. At least until after the show, and they’re going to keep killing people until then!”
He looks around, I guess to make sure no one heard me. I suppose that is not really the sort of thing you should shout out in the middle of class. But no one is paying any attention.
“So what do you suggest?” he says finally.
“We could make Aaron contact the demoness again. We could ask her for advice.”
“No way,” he says. “Are you crazy? We can’t trust either of them. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s too dangerous not to!”
It goes on like this all period.
It continues throughout the day, via text and one semi-heated whispered conversation in the hallway after seventh period. He is making me crazy, and not in the usual good-crazy way. This is bad crazy. This is angry crazy. I don’t understand how he can be so stubborn. Also, it’s confusing to feel both kinds of crazy at the same time. I still want to tear his clothes off, but now I also want to punch him until he sees reason. (And no, FYI: I’m not advocating violence as way to solve your differences. Just because I
to punch him doesn’t mean I
[Just as I am not, alas, tearing his clothes off just because I want to.] But he sure has been making the idea tempting today. [The punching idea. The tearing-off-his-clothes idea is always tempting.])
When the bell rings, and Ryan appears to be inclined to make his way to his eighth-period class, I grab his arm. “We’re not done here.”
He looks at me, then sighs and nods. “Okay. Come with me.”
I follow him down the stairs and past the gym and through what I guess might be the gym teachers’ (currently unoccupied) office and then into a large closet that appears to be the final resting place of a lot of old sports equipment no one has had the heart to throw away. Ryan closes the door behind us. We sit among the torn hockey nets and deflated basketballs. We’re each leaning against opposite walls, but the room is narrow enough that our legs come to about the same place in the middle. They’re not quite touching, but they could be.
There’s only a little dim light coming in through the door’s tiny window. For a moment we just sit there, and I can’t help it, for a few seconds I forget about all the terrible demon crap and even that I’m angry and just feel excited to be hiding with my hopeless crush in a dark, dirty closet, cutting class and sitting in close proximity. I can feel my calves straining to close the few inches that separate them from Ryan’s. My nerve endings are so greedy.
He’s right there,
I tell them silently.
Can’t you just be happy that he’s right there?
They cannot. They want more, and I can’t really blame them. They want to touch him. They want to mingle in codependent bliss with his nerve endings. They send suggestive messages about what can happen in dark rooms when a boy and a girl are alone together and at least one of them has the wherewithal to make a move. I try to block out these very appealing images. Now is not the time.
If not now, when?
they whisper back at me. My left leg twitches, trying to edge closer.
I tell them more firmly. No one is making a move. No one is just going to “go for it” here in the old-sports-equipment graveyard; no one is going to lean in and kiss anyone; and no, absolutely not, no one is going to very slowly just casually begin to take off their clothes
NO THEY ARE NOT STOP BEGGING STOP IT!
I clear my throat awkwardly. I have no idea what Ryan has been thinking about while I have been struggling against my baser impulses. I have no idea what he thinks about ever. I know he doesn’t think about the kinds of things I think about, or else there would totally have been kissing that night when we were about to try to kill Mr. Gabriel. It is known among teenage girls (although not always acted upon, often to our eventual sorrow) that the best course is to judge boys by their actions, not their words. It’s so easy to imagine what you want to imagine, to pretend that the things they say mean what you want them to mean. But when they have a chance to kiss you before they think they are about to die, and they do not so kiss you, it is a pretty clear sign that they are not secretly in love with you.
Of course, he knows now that
am secretly in love with
Unless he thinks Mr. Gabriel just made that up. I try to believe that is possible. Ryan hasn’t ever mentioned it or asked me about it or anything. And, as must go without saying, I have certainly not brought it up myself.
his deal? I suppose he really could just want to be my friend. Not “be my friend” in the sense of just not wanting to be my boyfriend, but actually
be my friend
— get to know me better, hang out with me, talk about stuff, whatever. But he’s got so many friends already. I can’t imagine he really needs another.
“So?” he says finally. “Got any other ideas that I can shoot down?”
I smile despite myself. “I’ve really only got the one,” I say apologetically. I proceed cautiously. “I know you hate this plan, but I really think Aaron is our best chance.”
“It’s not a plan.”
I don’t say anything to this.
“Are you sure they’re going to keep killing people?” he asks after a minute. “It wasn’t just — just to punish us for the other night?”