I looked at Jenna. She winced and massaged her own neck as the redness faded. At least she’d stopped crying.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She could barely get her voice above a whisper. “I think so.”
I glanced back at the corner, where merely the sound of flies buzzing made me sick. They’d massed into a larger, darker cloud. Their collective presence hovered there – gloating, mocking. It leered down at me in flickers of wall behind the teeming flies.
By now, the students had more-or-less huddled back together. Jenna rejoined the group, clinging to Shelby and Erica. I looked back at the dark, swarming shape in the corner.
“What do you want?” I asked it; although, I doubted that thing had any terms to negotiate.
Its rumbling laughter shook the air again. I wanted to throw a shoe at it – just not one of my Louboutins.
Not even a shoe, necessarily. There had to be something in the room we could use to attack it. My mind ran through its canon of Classical literature, historical knowledge, and obscure facts. Based on the evidence, I had to accept it was a demon. There was no rational, sane explanation.
So what the fuck repels demons?
Not crucifixes, apparently. That probably ruled out holy water, too. Clearly not chalk, since it already used that. Chalk dust, though, chalk dust reminded me of something – but what?
Salt. Salt repels evil spirits. Blood contains salt, and blood contains life. For that reason, it was a valuable commodity to the Romans (soldiers were even paid in salt, which gives us the term salary).
That logic seemed tenuous, at best – but then again, logic had no place here anymore.
Meanwhile, the fly-cloud loomed like a spider in the corner. It drained the weak light from the room, and waited.
What has salt? Of course. Food has salt.
“Does anyone have any snacks?” I asked my students.
They exchanged puzzled glances.
“You won’t let us bring food in here,” said Erica.
She was right. I’d been forced to ban any kind of food items in my classroom, after that one time Diego – who else – didn’t just bring leftover chicken wings from lunch. He also had to unwrap them noisily from their tin foil and eat them during my lecture, which caused both a distraction and a red fingerprint-smeared mess all over his paper.
I frowned; this time, at myself. It seemed I’d trained them too well. Now my own draconian rules had turned around to bite me in the ass.
“Perfect,” I muttered, “just perfect.”
“Wait,” said Iosephus, reaching into his pocket. “If I take this out, can I not get in trouble?”
I sighed. “Yes, today you are granted immunity from any and all food violations. So what have you got?”
With a guilty look, he dug out a plastic bag full of those awful processed crackers sandwiched around an orange cheese-like substance. Disgusting, yes; but at least it was a sodium bonanza. (A later Google search would tell me that, as a natural purifier, salt can also cleanse a room of negative energy.)
I frowned. “That’ll work.”
The fly-nebula’s collective consciousness must have been onto me, because the insects dispersed faster than a flock of pigeons.
Shit! I covered my face with my hands, and through my fingers I saw all the kids do the same. Not only did the flies spread to every corner of the room, but their population at least tripled in size. I kept an eye on my students, especially Iosephus and his bag of solidified trans fats. We kept our heads down and weathered the buzzing black-pepper sandstorm.
“What do I do with it?” That was Iosephus’ voice, straining through the noise and the darkness.
I used my hand to make a barrier over my mouth, which kept the flies out. Thinking on the spot, I said, “Just break it into crumbs. And scatter them.”
“Try making it into a circle,” said another boy’s voice. Nick Whattley.
Of course, a circle of protection! The kid must have read it somewhere. He’s always reading weird, fucked-up shit.
I heard crackers breaking, crumbs pouring out like sand. Some of the flies made shrill, buzzing screams as their numbers diminished. They didn’t “drop like flies” either; from what I could tell, they just vaporized back into the nothingness they came from.
When the insect-fog cleared, I could see that the “protective circle” was really more of a short, uneven line. Still, the flies were gone, so it must have served its purpose.
At the same time, I could sense this wasn’t over. Even though sunlight warmed the windows, the ceiling and walls were darker than before. Immediately, I rushed to my students.
Before I could get to them, though, the now-vacant desks began to move on their own. They ground across the floor in a heavy, droning herd. I almost worried they’d crash into me. Instead, they formed a solid barricade around the salt-line – trapping the students in, and keeping me away from them.
Shit. I stopped when I could go no further.
“Is everyone all right?” I asked. I could still watch over them, but other than that I was useless.
Some said yes; others nodded. Jenna still looked a bit red around the neck, but other than that she seemed fine.
“What does It want?” cried Shelby.
“I don’t know,” I said. I really didn’t.
Yet, Something Else did have an answer to her question.
Whatever that Something was, it grabbed hold of me. It lifted me several feet into the air. I kicked my legs, even though I clearly had nothing of substance to kick. It also must have obstructed my mouth, because I couldn’t scream at it to put me the fuck down. At least I could still breathe through my nose, though. I hoped that wouldn’t change.
Meanwhile, the students could only watch in dumbfounded horror as it took off my glasses and threw them to the floor. It undid my hair, shaking it in loose in soft waves past my shoulders, and smacked me repeatedly in the face. With each lashing sting, I had no choice but to “turn the other cheek” as I lost control of my shoulders and neck.
“Hey, put her down,” shouted Diego, climbing easily over the barrier of desks. “Don’t you dare hurt her!”
The entity shoved a chair into him, knocking him down.
Then it pushed me back against the blackboard, right into the chalk drawing. My nose breathed the fine dust in, and I couldn’t cough it out. At first, I was afraid I might choke.
Instead, it released my mouth from its control. At least, it seemed to. When I tried to speak, though, only blood came out. It poured out in red lines down my buttoned white shirt. Then my nose bled, then my ears. Soon, I was bleeding through every orifice, and I do mean every.
Of course, all I could think was, Not my Louboutins! It was no use though. I couldn’t even turn my neck, but I saw the purplish-crimson pool beneath me growing on the floor.
By now, the phantom chair had trapped Diego in a corner, far away from the line of protection. He tried shoving it away; but his unseen enemy turned the chair on its side, held it lion-tamer like, and used the sharp metal legs to parry him back.
I panicked when I thought of what the chair might do to his young, unmarred face.
“Diego, don’t fight it,” I shouted. “You’ll only get hurt!”
Luckily, he listened; even though he probably would have liked to keep on fighting. The chair stayed suspended in front of him, poised to strike him if he moved.
He looked at me, with a deranged fear in his eyes I’d never seen before. I could only think of one reason why – that he seriously had no idea what to do. He had no solution to the problem before him. Suddenly, his knowledge, wits, and teenage charisma were useless.
Even worse: For the first time in the four years he was my student, I had no answer for him. Or any of them, for that matter.
The other students stood behind the salt line, bewildered. Their necks turned back and forth from me to Diego, as if watching a ping-pong match. I didn’t blame them for spacing out, either. How the hell are a bunch of high school kids supposed to even accept this as real, let alone react to it? At least they seemed unaffected by the disturbances if they stayed behind the line – for now.
Of course, the moment I thought about that, an invisible sharp-clawed hand scraped against my collarbone. It slashed through the buttons on my blouse, flinging them in all directions. It left my blouse hanging open like two curtains, while my students continued to stare in paralyzed shock.
To my immediate horror, I remembered which bra I was wearing. It just happened to be my black bra with red lace trim, with a clasp that opened in the front instead of the back.
I know. You’re probably shaking your head in disapproval right now, wondering, WHY is a 28-year-old woman, who spends all her working hours with teenage boys, wearing a bra that opens in the front!? In my defense, it was the only clean bra that matched my Louboutins – and yes, my bra must always match my shoes.
It also matched my blood, which continued to spatter against the floor beneath my feet.
That got me thinking, why would the spirit want to wring my blood out like water from a rag? Did something in blood inherently repel them? Salt, for instance? Or maybe blood was stronger than salt.
It was worth a try. I bit down hard on the inside of my mouth, like I usually do when I’m frustrated. Only this time, I sank my teeth all the way into each other and tore off a substantial chunk of skin. Of course, it hurt like a bitch. My eyes blurred with hot tears, which only melded the darkened room into worse chaos. I felt the spirit’s presence, though, like an electric charge crawling through me. Grimacing with pain, I spit my own bleeding skin at it.
Then I heard an unreal, maddening screech. The spirit pulled back and took its chilling aura with it. In the process, it dropped me and I landed with a splat in the pool of my own blood.
I sat there for a moment, reeling from the iron-flavored pain in my mouth. Scarlet saliva oozed rabies-like from my lips and I could do nothing to stop it. This must have shattered the nonreactive spellbinding my students, though, because they looked at me with horrified concern.
A chorus of, “Oh my God! Miss Spence, are you okay?” issued from the kids that weren’t too shocked to speak.
“I’m calling 9-1-1,” insisted Jenna. She took a step toward the phone on the wall.
“No,” I shouted, nearly choking on blood. “Stay behind the line, all of you.”
Jenna paused, just on the edge of the line. She sighed, took a step back — she knew I was right.
“Does anyone have a phone on them?” she asked the rest of the class. Strangely, everyone’s battery had died at exactly the same time.
“Of course the phones are dead,” said Whattley. “That’s the first thing they do, is mess with our phones!”
Shakily, I rose to my feet, steadying myself against the chalk tray. I silently lamented the invisible bloody stains on my beautiful black Louboutins.
“Nobody step outside the line,” I repeated. “It’s probably the only thing keeping you safe.”
I reached down to re-button my shirt, only to realize that all the buttons were gone. Son of a bitch! I ignored the curious looks from the boys in the class.
“What about Diego?” asked Whattley. “We can’t just leave him there!”
Sure enough, the chair still held Diego hostage in the corner, bobbing up and down to show that some intangible force still controlled it.
“Nah, I got this,” said Diego, which I doubted. He craned his neck in hopes of finding a way around the chair, but I don’t think there was one.
Without thinking about it, I crossed my arms. I’m not sure if it squeezed my breasts together at the expense of covering up my risque lingerie; I was too deep in thought.
The baculus. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?! The second I reached for it, though, that spirit could be on me again. I had to distract it.
Just then, I had an idea with just a flicker of a chance of working; but that was enough. I turned to my students behind the salt-line.
“Everyone, listen up,” I said. “You have a writing assignment.”
Some of them made scoffing gasps.
“Seriously?” the girls demanded. “Are you for real?”
“Real doesn’t mean shit anymore,” I snapped. “Now face the chalkboard and do exactly as I say.”
In my four years as a teacher, I’ve learned that unruly children can always be put back in their place with profanities. I just have to make sure their phones aren’t recording the whole thing. No chance of that here.
The six kids behind the line did turn around, each grabbing a small piece of white chalk. They waited, poised to write.
Diego gave me a weird look, genuinely confused. I ignored him.
“Now,” I said, “this is the time to practice your imperatives. Tell this thing to leave in as many ways as you know how.”
Immediately, their hands flew to the blackboard.
All of these translate roughly to, Get the fuck out.
Would it work, though? Did I imagine it, or did a touch of bruised sunlight crawl back into the room? That gave me some reassurance – at least, enough to step closer and closer to the animated chair, baculus in hand.
It might be better to hit the spirit with the thicker side, I reasoned. I turned the stick with the handle pointing out instead. The wood was riddled with my bloody fingerprints.
The students were noisily at work, chiseling ancient words into a slab of chalk-covered stone.
This had to be my chance. I swung the baculum into the space of air behind the chair, and it connected with something almost-solid.
Whatever it was, it let out a horrendous shriek. It threw me back, crashing me down on the surface of my desk. I probably would have broken through, had I been heavier. Unfortunately, while being flung backward I dropped the baculum. It hit the floor and rolled against the wall.
Sometime when that happened, the spirit released the chair in the corner. It fell harmlessly to the floor. Once it stopped moving, Diego kicked it aside.
He should have tried to grab the fallen baculum. Instead, he sprinted toward my desk, jumping over chairs. Wasn’t he on the track team this year? I couldn’t remember. He stopped just before he reached my desk, leaning over me.
The whole room was spinning, it seemed. My eyes could only fix on his color-drained face, draped in crow’s wings of black hair. His widened dark eyes held twin images of my battered face.
He said something, but his words escaped before I could catch them. It sounded like, “Are you alright, Miss Spence?”
The force of being thrown back had knocked the wind out of me. I made a feeble groan in place of the word No.
His arms tried to lift me, but I shook my head as violently as I could. Don’t touch me, I wanted to say. I’ll lose my job if you do. I knew this, and he knew this.
That didn’t stop him from trying to rescue me, though; Something else did.