Authors: A. J. Hartley
chool,” Alex mused
as they sat in homeroom the next day. “Some days I can only go on by pretending I'm somewhere else.”
“Always so dramatic,” said Rich, rolling his eyes as he absently wound his old-fashioned watch. “Let's just get through the day. Then we can check out that address.Â .Â .Â .”
“That's what's so maddening,” said Alex. “We have serious stuff to do. Important stuff. But we can't do it because we are stuck here all day. Look around you!” Alex went on, gesturing so wildly that Naia Petrakis and Simon Agu flinched away. “Hillside Academy, ladies and gentlemen, the reason people invented truancy. And what will we be doing today? Well, I'm glad you asked. First we'll march to an assembly where we will see if Principal Thompson has mastered his impression of a robot with hair, and then we'll form another little zombie procession to our first class: English, taught by the oh-so-gifted Rumpelstiltskinâ”
“Miss O'Connor,” said Miss Harvey, the homeroom teacher, “if I hear you making fun of Mrs. Frumpelstein's name one more time, you will be in detention for a week.”
“Sorry, ma'am,” said Alex brightly. “I get confused. Every time I take my essays to her office, I expect to find her spinning straw into gold.”
“Miss O'ConnorÂ .Â .Â .” Miss Harvey warned, though Darwen could have sworn he saw the corner of her mouth twitch into the hastily terminated beginnings of a smile. Darwen had not liked Mrs. Frumpelstein since she had set out to rid him of his Lancashire accent, and he sometimes thought the other teachers weren't too keen on her either.
The assembly bell chimed and the students began their march down to the great hall, where they lined up again, and stood in silence while Principal Thompson talked about the installation of a new computer and communication system and the end-of-year talent gala. During this “celebration of all that Hillside is,” whatever
meant, a new stained glass window would be unveiled, and the students would perform for their parents “in ways befitting their creative gifts and proclivities.” Darwen thought it sounded ghastly, but he was not surprised to find Alex's mood much improved.
“Maybe I'll sing,” she was musing as the students lined up in the hallway. “Or dance. Or both. Maybe I could do a dramatic scene where the performance involved acting, singing,
dancing: you know, show my range.”
“It's not a freak show, O'Connor,” remarked Nathan Cloten. “We're supposed to be impressing our families with all the skills we've learned so they'll keep paying Hillside's ridiculous fees, not make them run screaming for the exits.”
“I don't know, Nate,” said Chip Whittley. “The school could probably raise a pot of money just putting her in a tent and charging admission. What do you suppose people will think she is?”
“Yeah,” said Barry “Usually” Fails, “some kind of mutant thing from the planet of theÂ .Â .Â .
“Real witty, Barry,” Alex shot back. “I assume there'll be a lack-of-talent gala as well, in which you three will be headlining. What will you be doing? Juggling with one ball, perhaps, or counting to ten with your hands in your pockets? Since y'all have the mental agility of mountain goats, you could demonstrate reading without moving your lips, but we've only got a few weeks to prepare, so we shouldn't be too ambitious.”
Barry, who apparently hadn't heard anything after “mountain goats,” was now stalking about with his arms spread like a tightrope walker.
agility, Usually,” said Nathan lazily.
“Who's mental?” snarled Barry, dropping the high-wire routine and giving Alex a menacing glare.
“Come on,” said Darwen, leading Alex away.
we going to do?” asked Rich as they moved off down the hallway, leaving Barry, Chip, and Nathan snickering behind them.
“What do you mean?” asked Darwen.
“The principal said
had to participate in the gala; weren't you listening?”
“Apparently not,” Darwen admitted. He had spent the whole assembly thinking about what they might find at Mr. Peregrine's address.
“Yes,” said Mr. Sumners, the math teacher, who happened to be passing. “I couldn't help wondering what your dazzling contribution would be, Arkwright. I assume you have a talent of some sort, yes?”
“Sir, I don't know, sir,” Darwen muttered, avoiding the teacher's smug gaze as he had done so many times before.
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Sumners, swaggering cheerily away. “This year's show will certainly be worth the price of admission.”
“Maybe I could do a lecture on science or archaeology,” Rich said, a slightly panicked look on his face.
“I suppose,” said Darwen. “But what am I going to do? Apart from being a mirroculist, I'm rubbish at everything.”
“No, you're not,” said Rich.
“Yeah?” said Darwen. “What else am I good at?”
“You're a decent soccer player,” said Rich.
“Not really,” said Darwen. “Not like dazzle-the-parents-with-my-ball-juggling-skills kind of good.”
“Then you couldÂ .Â .Â .” Rich tried.
“What?” Darwen pressed.
For a moment Rich just stood there, thinking furiously, but in the end he just gave a defeated shrug.
“Exactly,” said Darwen. “Give me portals to Silbrica to open, or I'm chuffin' useless.” He felt his stomach clench because if Lightborne was right, he wouldn't be doing that much longer either.
His gaze slid through the window to the central quadrangle, where the grass was partly covered by a scaffold erected against the clock tower, which was to be home to the new stained glass window. Darwen suspected it would represent something impressive and inspiringâor what Hillside thought was inspiring anyway, like the cringe-worthy statue of “Learning” in the entrance lobbyâand it would probably make Darwen feel more than ever that he didn't belong. He was starting to feel that Alex was right: they had real work in Silbrica to do. Being trapped in school, worrying about some ridiculous talent show, felt like a huge waste of time.
The sixth graders filed into their English class and took their seats, chattering about the upcoming gala and how they would dazzle their families. Mrs. Frumpelstein told them to settle down, though she seemed less keen to stomp out the conversation than Darwen would have expected. It was soon clear why.
“Some of you might be looking for ideas for the talent show,” she said, smiling with barely suppressed excitement. “We'll have a conversation about what everyone is planning to do. Andâfor those who are undecidedâI have some suggestions for dramatic scenes and monologues.”
Alex gave Darwen a look, one eyebrow arched high. Alex had long maintained that Ada Frumpelstein was actually an alien from the Crab Nebula. Rich groaned. He wasn't the only one.
“Is this going to be on the test?” said Barry.
“No, Barry, it's not,” said Mrs. Frumpelstein with a sigh.
“Phew!” said Barry, leaning back.
“Mr. Fails,” said Mrs. Frumpelstein, “not everything is about tests. Some things are about building you as human beings and giving you the knowledge civilized people are meant to have.”
Barry frowned comically, then held up his cell phone. “I don't need to know stuff,” he said, quite cheery. “I have Wikipedia.”
Mrs. Frumpelstein stared at him, lost for words, then turned for inspiration elsewhere. She found Naia Petrakis.
“Naia,” she said, like a woman recently washed overboard and looking for someone to throw her a life preserver. “What are your plans for the talent show?”
“I'm going to sing some Athenian folk songsâin Greek, of courseâand perform an ancient dance welcoming the summer after a long, hard winter.”
Alex rolled her eyes, but Mrs. Frumpelstein beamed with delight.
“Bobby,” she said, turning to Bobby Park, a quiet boy, friendly enough in his way, but private. He never spoke in class unless he was called upon. “What are your plans?”
Bobby shrugged and looked down. “I was going to play my violin,” he said. “But I don't have anywhere to practice.”
“You stay late at school, don't you?” the teacher asked.
Bobby nodded. “My dad picks me up after work.”
“So, why don't you practice in the music room?” asked Mrs. Frumpelstein.
“Yeah,” said Barry. “Violins are music, right? So play it in the music room.”
Bobby didn't look up. His shoulders moved in a kind of shrug, but he kept his eyes down. Sensing he was upset, the class became quiet.
“What's wrong, Bobby?” asked Mrs. Frumpelstein. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
Bobby shook his head emphatically.
“Come now,” said Mrs. Frumpelstein. “It can't be as bad as all that.”
Bobby took a little shuddering breath and, without raising his head, whispered, “The music room is haunted.”
Nathan Cloten gave a great bark of laughter, and as some of the tension evaporated, Barry started making stupid ghost noises and menacing the girls closest to him.
“There's no such thing as ghosts,” said Chip Whittley scornfully.
“What?” Barry exclaimed. “Ghosts are totally real! There's this one guy in London who walks around at night with no head and tries to bite youâ”
“With what?” asked Chip Whittley in his usual lazy drawl.
“What do you mean?” said Barry. “With his teeth.”
“Which he keeps where, in his pocket?” Nathan scoffed. “He has no head, remember?”
Barry looked uncertain.
“Maybe he carries his head around with him,” Barry tried, “or throws it at you, like a bowling ball with teeth. That would be cool.”
“Mr. Fails,” said Mrs. Frumpelstein wearily. “That's enough.” She turned her attention back to Bobby Park, her irritation shifting to concern. “Has someone been telling you stories, Bobby? Trying to scare you, perhaps?”
“No,” said Bobby Park. “The room is haunted. I know it is.”
Now he sounded both nervous and defiant. Everyone turned to look at him.
Mrs. Frumpelstein leaned forward. “You have some good ghost stories from your home country, Bobby?” she asked. “Stories your parents tell you?”
Bobby's parents were from Korea.
“I guess,” said Bobby, his eyes momentarily confused, “but this was different.”
There was a pause. The classroom had become tense and expectant. Bobby still looked uneasy, even scared, and would not make eye contact with anyone.
“Go on,” Mrs. Frumpelstein prompted carefully. “We're all friends here. I'm sure there are lots of fun stories about Hillsideâ” she began.
“I'm not talking about stories,” Bobby insisted, his voice only just in control, his face set.
“Not stories?” said Princess Clarkson, smiling sympathetically and moving so that she was almost in his line of vision. “Then what, Bobby? Come on. You can tell us.”
Bobby blinked, and Darwen was shocked to see his eyes were shining with unshed tears. Bobby glanced at Princess, who had her actress mother's good looks and blond, wavy hair, then muttered something Darwen couldn't hear.
“What, Bobby?” asked Princess, beaming angelically. “I didn't catch that.”
“It wasn't a story,” said Bobby through gritted teeth. “I saw it.”
Again the tension seemed to escalate like the surge of energy before one of the portals in the Great Apparatus opened.
“Where?” asked Melissa Young, craning to get a better look at Bobby.
“When?” asked her friend, Jennifer Taylor-Berry.
“Two nights ago,” Bobby whispered. “After school. I was in the music room practicing Haydn's Serenade. I had played the whole thing through twice, and I was just turning the page to start over when I looked up, and there it was.”
“What did it look like?” asked Melissa, her voice hushed.
“Did it have a head?” asked Barry.
“Shut up, Usually,” said Jennifer.
“It was shaped like a person,” said Bobby, his eyes still down, “but it wasn't solid: just soft gray light. I could make out arms and legs and bits of the face, but I could see the whiteboard and the music stands and the computer screen right through it.”
“What did it do?” asked Princess.
“It stayed still for a while,” Bobby answered. “Then it moved, sort of walking, but sort of drifting too, like its feet weren't really on the ground.”
“Maybe it was like a radio-controlled hovercraft thing,” said Barry. “Did it try to bite you?”
This time half the class told him to shut up.
“It didn't make a sound,” said Bobby. “Just sort of moved around the room, like it wasÂ .Â .Â . I don't knowÂ .Â .Â . exploring it or something, and then it saw me.”