Part of a YA fantasy novel I'm trying to perfect and publish.
To say Tess abhorred math was extreme but accurate. It was like math was some ancient, and evil, definitely evil, ritual they were required to participate in.
Unfortunately for Tess and every other student in the 8 a.m. Algebra I course, Arkham High School was pretty ambivalent to her loathing for math.
Tess decided that her hatred for slackers was where her issues with math stemmed from. She didn't ask for math to solve her problems, so why did she have to solve math's problems?
Still, it wasn't like she was the only one who had to deal with it. Most of the kids who had entered the classroom had gone to the same middle school as Tess.
She always heard everyone changed between eighth and ninth grade, but so far, everyone appeared the same.
Seth Pitcher was first to class, just like last year. He would be the first student every day for the rest of the year. She beat him only because was Mr. Carpenter's class was her homeroom.
The cliché clique of mean/popular girls entered next, the three alpha queens in the lead. They were the same as last year too, cold centers wrapped in warm and beautiful exteriors. Abigail Saint, Kelly Fitch, and Ashlee Prince managed to keep a gaggle of four other girls in line with constant snips at their insecurities, like watching a pack of wild dogs heard sheep.
Tess didn't have anything against them. They were always polite enough to her face. She knew they definitely made jokes about her behind her back. She was on the girls' soccer team, and never had a boyfriend. In her defense, something about her dad carrying a gun and badge had deterred many would-be boyfriends.
Though since her dad had died two years ago, she guessed that wasn't as much of an excuse anymore. She focused on the next arrivals to the class before old memories she wished would stay buried surfaced.
Jeremy Damon was next to arrive. Tess didn’t like him, and she was sure he hadn’t changed either. Jeremy was the complete bully package rolled into one. He was big, smart, and worst of all sadistic. He was followed by his second and third in command Logan Kahn and Dereck Little, Compared to Jeremy, his friends were nothing but a bunch of simple minded goons.
A couple more kids entered. The twin Gannett sisters came in wearing practically identical outfits, arguing. The three stoners, Chelsea Cotton, Ethan Whitman and Andy Newman, came in bringing with them the distinctive smell of cigarette smoke.
A small boy peeked in the class and hid again when he spotted sight of Jeremy and his friends. Tess recognized him, Nick Molneux, Jeremy's all-time favorite punching bag, though Tess wondered how much of his torment was actually physical.
Jeremy believed physical violence was below him unless someone wasn't scared of him, then it was perfectly acceptable. Jeremy's dad was the head of the Arkham General Hospital's psychiatric ward, a fact Jeremy liked to remind people of. Jeremy knew more about psychological warfare than most CIA interrogators, and unlike them, little things like the Geneva Convention didn't bother him.
Nick ducked back out of the class. Tess imagined he would wait next to the door until the teacher arrived.
The classroom was almost full. A rush of several more students entered meaning the bell marking the start of class couldn't be far off.
“Good lord, my homeroom is on the opposite side of this school,” Jenna Adcocke said, dropping into the seat next to Tess, out of breath.
“It can't be that bad,” Tess teased, “you've run further.”
Jenna and Tess had played soccer together for as long as she could remember. Neither of them expected to play past high school, but they enjoyed the opportunities it offered.
Jenna enjoyed getting to see the school's star soccer player, Brayden Clay, who she had a crush on since third-grade, practice on the adjacent field during the same time. For Tess, soccer was a bit different.
Tess wasn't on the team for any skills save one: she was the team's enforcer. If someone was playing dirty, she set them straight, which usually involved elbows and misplaced slide tackles. Something about people cheating had always lit Tess’s fuse. She didn't like seeing people cheat the system.
“Ya, that's true, and it's not like we have to carry lots of books,” Jenna said, taking a couple more deep breaths to slow her heart rate.
That was true, Tess hadn't thought about it. Arkham had received a grant to get all the students tablet computers. The systems were locked, but all the school's books, homework, and everything was loaded on them. You could even take notes if you could type on the screen fast enough, which Tess couldn't. She didn't like the feel of the screens over pen and paper. She guessed in some way she was just old school like her dad had been.
Tess saw motion out of the corner of her eye, near the door. She expected to see the tall narrow frame of the teacher she had met during orientation, but the person walking in the door wasn't Mr. Carpenter or anyone Tess recognized.
He was average height and average weight. In fact, everything about him screamed average. His hair was cut in a typical, short style for guys their age. His face was a little on the attractive side, but only slightly. He definitely wouldn't have stood out in a crowd. He dressed in a pair of plain jeans, a plain gray T-shirt, and a pair of sneakers.
The only thing about him that didn't seem normal was the way he furrowed his rust colored eyes and scanned the room. The gaze made him appear like he was judging everyone, one by one. It wasn't an arrogant look, but it was calculating for certain.
Upon seeing the boy, Jeremy nudged Logan and pointed. He whispered something, and the boys laughed.
The boy at the door watched them callously but didn't say anything before crossing the room and taking one of the few remaining seats immediately behind Tess without a word.
The new boy, as people were invariably going to call him, set his elbows on his desk and massaged his temples.
Up close he was a little less average. His eyes were more feminine than most boys’ and were ringed with heavy bags as if he hadn't slept in days. His lips were thin, and drawn tight. He wasn't unattractive, simply not distinctive.
The boy mumbled something crossly to himself. Tess hated when people mumbled. It made them look guilty of something, even if they weren't. She watched his mouth again waiting to see if when he mumbled again if she could read his lips.
Jenna hissed at her. Tess felt her face heat up as she realized she had been staring over her shoulder at him.
I should introduce myself to play it off, she decided.
She spun in her seat, but paused when a pained expression crossed his face. His look of pure annoyance stopped the words in her mouth.
“Please, stop looking at me,” the boy said in a strained voice.
“Oh, sorry,” she said realizing she had been staring again. “I didn't—”
“I don't care. Turn around and quit looking at me.” Tess felt her face heat up again, but this time she was sure she wasn't blushing from embarrassment.
What flew up his shorts? She fought the urge to punch him in the face before slowly spinning forward again.
“Shade, stop it,” the boy hissed.
“What was that?” Tess growled, turning on him.
“Alright, class quiet down,” Mr. Carpenter said entering the room.
The teacher reminded Tess of Abraham Lincoln, with less facial hair and no mole. Jenna liked to joke that Mr. Carpenter was apparently still waiting for his last growth spurt after she saw him at orientation. His clothes didn’t fit him right, hanging loosely from his body.
He made it to his desk at the front corner of the class as the bell rang.
“Alright, everybody,” Mr. Carpenter said, “Welcome to Algebra One. If you aren't supposed to be in Algebra One, please find your way to your correct class now.”
One of Abigail and Kelly's clique gasped, grabbed her things and dashed from the room. A round of laughter erupted, mostly from her friends, and Jeremy's troop.
Mr. Carpenter shook his head. “There's one every year.” He walked over to the board and began. “Algebra is a branch of math, which you must learn to graduate. Through the use...”
He picked up a marker and wrote on the dry-erase board at the front of the class. The students frantically flipped tablet covers off or opened notebooks. Tess followed suit trying to keep up with Mr. Carpenter's brisk pace.
The room grew quiet; quiet enough that Tess could hear murmuring. Jenna glanced over at her then they both glanced back at the boy behind her.
He wasn't taking notes at all. He was sitting there with his head in his hand.
“Shut up,” he whispered again softly. Jenna and Tess met gazes again. Jenna shrugged, deciding to keep her nose out of the one-sided conversation that was going on behind Tess.
Tess wondered if there was a guy muttering in the back of class every year also. She sighed and shook her head.
“I don't care,” The boy whispered.
Why'd the only crazy person in the school have to sit right behind me? Tess thought. But that wasn't fair—maybe the new kid was an absolutely average person, maybe he wasn't crazy at all, maybe he was talking on a Bluetooth or using his tablet to chat with someone. Tess was sure there had to be a different side of his story she wasn't seeing. She needed to learn not to judge.
A cold chill like an icy hand ran up her spine. She shivered, involuntarily dropping her pen on her desk in the process.
“Shade,” The boy hissed, struggling to keep his voice low. She eyed him irately, willing him to shut up. She wasn't the only one—most of the back row was looking at him.
He matched her glare then put his head down in his hand and pretended to watch the teacher. Most of the other students turned back, but Tess watched him a bit longer.
He’s just doing it for attention, she decided spitefully. Tess studied him again, but the boy pretended that she didn't exist, which for some reason irked her more. She wanted him to know that she knew he was merely pretending to be different.
Her dad had always told her not to let annoying people to get a rise out of her because they won when that happened.
She turned around in time to see her pen roll off the desk onto the floor. It rolled away, then made a sharp turn backward.
She peeked at the boy behind her, but he didn’t seem interested in helping her.
Mr. Carpenter was going on about the early Greeks and their contribution to math. He had managed to cover the first millennia and one-half of the board with his small, looping handwriting.
Tess bent to retrieve her pen, quickly, before she fell further behind. She could touch the pen from her seat, but not grab it.
The boy's shadow moved.
Finally, he's going to help. It took him long enough.
The shadow shifted and looked down at the pen. She could plainly make out where the boy's eyes were on the shadow, which was strange. They seemed darker than the rest of the shadow. But that was no stranger then what happened next. The shadow turned from the pen and looked right at her, then it smiled.
Tess nearly fell out of her seat. She lunged for the pen and recoiled back into her seat in time to pretend like nothing happened by the time the Mr. Carpenter stopped to check on the sound. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he returned to his lecture.
“In the 18th century . . . “ he continued.
Great, I only missed 18 centuries of notes, Tess thought.
She glanced over her shoulder at the boy to glare at him for startling her, but he sat in the same position, staring angrily at the board as if it were to blame for his insanity.
Her mind burned. His shadow definitely moved. It even smiled. That wasn't right. It had to be her imagination, she firmly decided.
The boy pinched the bridge of his nose, and his pained expression returned, this time more acute.
“In the early to mid-1800s another significant contribution to mathematics and engineering was discovered by Claude-Louis Navier and George Gabriel Stokes.” Mr. Carpenter started drawing a picture of water in a tube on the board. The drawing was atrocious, but Tess could discern the water by the small wave symbols. “The two discovered a series of equations used to determine the flow of fluids and gasses in—”
The teacher never finished the thought, because the boy behind Tess shot to his feet and roared, “Oh, would you shut up!”
The class went deathly silent, every eye trained on the crazy boy behind Tess. Nobody seemed more surprised at the outburst than the new kid himself. The class turned in unison to the teacher.
Mr. Carpenter was red from his shirt collar to his hairline. He swallowed with emphasized effort and stared with such intensity Tess half expected the boy to burst into flames.
“Do you have something to add to this conversation?” Mr. Carpenter asked, his voice strained. The boy shook his head and took a sudden shamed interest in his desk. Mr. Carpenter bent over to his desk and checked something.
“Mr. Fogg, is it? I was going to say that you wouldn't have to know about this ‘til probably Algebra two or three, but why don't you come up here and explain to the class about the Navier-Stokes Equations.”
The boy looked like he had been caught stealing.
“I would prefe—” the Fogg boy began. This time Mr. Carpenter interrupted.
“And I would prefer you do as I said.”
This comment elicited a laugh from Jeremy.
The room stayed eerily silent as the boy rose and walked to the front of the class. He took the marker from the teacher and gawked at it oddly, before studying the image.
“Well, I can't tell you about those Stokes and Nav fellows,” he admitted. A smile spread across the teacher's face. “But,” the insane boy continued, “It looks like you're trying to describe the flow of fluid through a piping system of some type. So using this as our basis . . . “ he scribbled a formula on the board. Tess didn't know everything about math, but she didn't recognize any of the symbols he wrote, besides the occasional addition and subtraction signs.
Several students laughed, like they were in on some joke that the others were too stupid to get, and maybe they were. It all looked Greek to Tess — or, when she thought about it, it didn't.
None of the symbols on the board resembled Greek letters at all. They were combinations of triangular shapes forming strange symbols.
At first, Mr. Carpenter's smile grew broader, but when the boy neared the end, the smile began to fade, slowly replaced by a mixture of curiosity and confusion.
“So, using this....” The boy wrote, and wrote, and wrote, filling the remaining space on one board with numbers and started on the next adjoined board.
Every student's expression became a reflection of Mr. Carpenter's. Tess didn't understand at all what was going on.
The boy stopped and circled several numbers through the jumble. He stood at the opposite side of the board waiting.
Dumbstruck, the teacher studied the volume of work. He put a finger up and used it as a guide, scanning each line individually. When he came to a circled number, he nodded slightly before continuing.
Everybody waited expectantly, not daring to laugh at the boy or the teacher for fear of being wrong.
Mr. Carpenter walked back to the start of the problem with the original formula the boy had written. “What are these symbols?” he asked, pointing.
The boy creased his brow at the question as if it was something difficult to understand. He bobbed his head once then spoke again. “Forgot, everybody's big on the Greek alphabet now aren't they?” He took a couple of steps over and erased one set of symbols. “Uh, fluid density?”
“Rho,” Mr. Carpenter provided, surprised. The boy wrote a figure that appeared like the letter P to Tess. He erased another symbol.
“Nabla,” Mr. Carpenter answered absently, as he checked each line of the problem again. The two repeated the process until every symbol had become Greek or Roman counterpart.
When they finished, Tess still didn't understand even what the problem had been asking for, but she felt like she had witnessed something extraordinary, like a toddler dunking on LeBron James.
“Sorry, those were old.”
Mr. Carpenter cupped his hands in front of his mouth as he looked the equation over.
“You've added to it?” It was more of a statement than a question, but he looked at Fogg for confirmation, which he didn't offer.
Mr. Carpenter pulled the top drawer of his desk open and removed a piece of paper to write on. Tess could tell he was copying the formula by the way he kept glancing back at it.
“May I sit down now, sir?” the boy questioned.
Mr. Carpenter looked directly at the boy he called Fogg, then at the rest of the class as if he just remembered that they were there.
“If you would, Mr. Fogg, please stay after class. I need to talk with you. And no more outbursts.”
Nobody laughed as the boy returned to his seat.
Tess watched him walk past her. She heard his weight drop into the seat and waited a second before glancing back at him.
He hid his face in the crook of his arm with the other wrapped around to protect the side like he was trying to sleep. Everyone watched him, but he didn't venture to peek out of his arm-fortress.
Mr. Carpenter looked back at him before erasing the board, pausing with a bit of hesitation at the formula. He took it out with one swipe of the eraser.
“Alright, class let's continue. In the late 1800s...”
Tess glanced at Jenna, who shrugged.
One thing still bothered Tess. If Fogg really was smart, what was he doing in a freshman Algebra class?
Something else bothered Tess too, but she couldn't remember what. Something to do with his shadow, but what? No matter how hard she thought she couldn't remember. It remained just outside her grasp.
She gave up thinking and began copying from the board before she fell too far behind.
He was an idiot.
He got caught off guard by the simplicity of the problem and let his pride confuse him. He should have said he didn't know, like a normal 9th grader.
Titus picked his head up from his desk as the other students gathered their things and began to leave the classroom.
Titus stood unenthusiastically, picking his tablet and notebooks. One or two students hung around speaking briefly to the teacher.
Titus hung back until the room was vacant except for him and Mr. Carpenter.
“I'm sorry about the outburst in class,” he began. He studied the shoes his uncle bought for him, or gave him money to buy anyway. Uncle Phineas didn't leave the house during the day in his condition. “It won't happen again.”
A wispy chuckling voice filled his ears. He ignored it.
“Never mind that for now.” Mr. Carpenter sat at his desk. “Titus, where did you learn math?”
Great, I’m never going to live this down. Stupid idiot.
“Home,” he stated bluntly.
“Hasn't anyone ever told you you're talented at math, your parents maybe?”
Titus inspected the man. Was he mocking him?
Titus thought everybody in town knew about him. There was even an article published in the paper about him. People came from all over demanding to study him.
“I've never had a teacher before. I didn't attend school until this year. I've been in the hospital since I was five,” he elaborated, purposefully leaving out several details.
Mr. Carpenter appeared shocked, or he was skilled at acting, but Titus thought he seemed too honest for that. The man looked as if he had stepped on a landmine.
Titus wanted to leave before he dug into the tender area much more.
“Titus.” The man said his name as if he were using it to buy himself time to think of how to proceed. “You have a gift. You solved a problem which is more advanced than most graduates can solve, and not only did you solve it but you added to a nationally recognized mathematical process, improving it.”
Faex. That curse was the single thought passing through Titus's head. The chuckling in his ears grew to a roar of hysterical laughter. Titus felt his ears glow red.
I’m an idiot. I should have refused. Getting kicked out for disobeying a teacher would be better than what I did.
“You added calculations to make the equations apply in more situations, I mean, the ramifications of this are exponential.”
“That wasn't my intention. I just solved a problem so I could sit down.”
“Titus, you're not in trouble,” the man said. Titus kept staring at his shoes.
If I’m not in trouble, then why am I getting set apart from the other students? I’m supposed to be normal. He remembered some saying about a nail that stuck up getting hit down.
“I'm saying you shouldn't be in this class if the problem I gave you didn't challenge you at all. You should be in a university course where you can get an education at your level.”
“I don't need college classes,” Titus said firmly. “I'm just a normal freshman, and normal freshmen take Algebra One.”
Mr. Carpenter studied him, trying to gauge his reaction. Titus just wanted to leave. Every second late to the next class meant more time he had to be the center of attention when he walked in late.
“Titus, you're special.” The word hurt like driving a wooden stake into his heart. Titus didn't want to be special. He wanted to be normal, wanted it with every particle of his being. He had already had enough of being special.
Mr. Carpenter continued, “There is a professor at Miskatonic who is a friend of mine. I'm sure he'd be happy to see you in his class. You have a gift. It would be a shame to let it wither. You don't have to answer now, give it some thought. And no more outbursts,” he added with a smile. The smile made Titus feel a little better.
Mr. Carpenter wrote a note on a piece of paper, excusing him for being late. “Head on to your next class.”
Titus walked out as other students began to enter.
The laughing in his ears diminished to a chuckle again.
“Good job, kid. Way to blend in,” a gravelly voice said in his mind.
“Shut up, Shade,” Titus growled under his breath.
Tess struggled to push open the heavy doors to the Miskatonic University library like she always did. The ancient hinges fought her every step of the way. When the door opened enough to fit through, she braced it with her foot, trying to hold it for an approaching student.
The girl watched her struggle before reaching over and pressing the automatic door opener meant for handicapped visitors. The opposite door opened with a dull hum, and the girl strolled through, looking back at Tess like she was an idiot.
Tess considered flicking her off, but decided she would be the bigger person. Tess hated lazy people.
The entrance, complete with a coatroom built back when libraries were important to a university, grew around her, and then closed in again before joining the main library. Now everything could be found online, and the library was more of an antiquated bragging point.
Still, Tess always liked books. And libraries had a certain reverence to them, a sense of peace she couldn't find anywhere else.
Part of it was the knowledge held within the walls. She felt comforted knowing lifetimes of learning, thinking and recording were all culminating in this place and others like it.
Tess entered the main vaulted ceiling room. It was around 4 p.m. on one of the early weeks of the fall semester, too early in the school year for swarms of finals students, and too late in the day for the bookworms who still attempted to maintain social lives, leaving only the most die-hard of readers in the library. Tess didn't count herself in their ranks.
Not a book on the shelves escaped her touch, but she hadn’t read many of them. Hers was an interest of boredom not of fascination, often she walked the aisles dragging a finger and a gaze of boredom across them, with the exception of the rare books vault, where her mother liked to work. While Tess did enjoy books, she spent too many years waiting for her mother in these very walls to love them.
Her mother worked as an archaeological anthropologist at the university, and studying the day-to-day lives of ancient civilizations was her passion. She had been on a Gaul kick for quite a few years, and even made several contributions to the field with the study of something called the Larzac tablet. She had even gotten to fly to Millau, which Tess later learned was in France, the summer before. Tess had been sent to her grandparents because the university wouldn’t pay for her to go too.
Tess stepped to the front counter. Dr. George Armitage, the elderly chief librarian, sat behind the welcome desk. She glanced upside down at the book he was reading and immediately realized it wasn't in English. Judging by the characters, it was a form of the Slavic language—Russian, she guessed. Tess added Russian to the mental list of languages she believed Dr. Armitage read, and most likely spoke. The list already contained fifteen others.
He raised his gaze to meet hers from under white caterpillar eyebrows, then sat back and ran a hand over the few thin strands of white hair covering his rapidly balding head.
“Ah, young Miss Roe, how are you today?” He offered a genuine smile that caused the creases around his eyes to wrinkle merrily. Tess smiled back.
Dr. Armitage had known her for most of her life, as long as Tess was able to remember anyway. The old man served as a constant companion through the lonely summer months her mother spent buried in the vault in her work.
“Russian?” she asked poking at the book.
With a surprised tone, he said, “Oh, yes. I had forgotten that it was in Russian for a moment. All the words kind of blur together after years until only the ideas behind them remain.
“An old colleague of mine—because that's the only type I have—” he winked at her as if it was a secret, “said I might enjoy several of the mystery novels recently come from the Soviet Bloc countries. So a couple of weeks ago, I investigated an introductory Russian textbook, and well, as you can, one thing led to another.” He leaned in.
“In all honesty, though, I prefer this supernatural series by Sergei Lukyanenko to the mystery series. Much more action-packed.” He shook a fist, emphasizing his words.
Tess tried to keep from laughing at the spry old man.
“So, you like all that supernatural stuff? Do you believe in any of it?” she asked, thinking of something earlier that day, something she couldn't put her mind on.
“The supernatural?” He seemed intrigued by her question.
“Ya, like ghosts and demons and all that stuff.”
Dr. Armitage stroked his chin for a minute, contemplating. “I don't know. If they exist, they exist, and they probably don't care what an old coot like me thinks. If they don't exist, then I guess it doesn't matter what they think. So I don't really know, but it'd be dreadfully exciting, wouldn't it be?” He gave her an ornery look belonging to someone half his age.
“Now, dear what can I get for you? Stephen King? Or have we evolved beyond horror into another genre? We have an excellent selection of books on quilting.” He closed the book, keeping his fingers in the place. He waited for a moment for the joke to sink in before glancing mischievously up at her again.
Tess chuckled. “Ya, cause that's exactly what the kids are clamoring for, quilting.”
“You're not going to make me find some teen romance involving vampires or werewolves or something like that are you?” He gave her a mock judgmental look.
“No, I'm set for teen romance, thanks,” Tess reassured him, “I'm just here to meet my mother. She should be in the vault.”
Dr. Armitage stood. “Somehow I surmised as much. Well, let's go see how your mother's doing.” He waved to her with a gentle, but bony hand.
They wove through the stacks in a zigzag pattern, working their way to the back of the building.
“So, you have enough teen romance? Is there a boy you have your eye on?” Dr. Armitage asked over his shoulder.
A boy? The scene from the morning with the weird boy replayed in her head. Strange—why did he come to mind?
“Good, good, boys are nothing but trouble at your age, I should know, I was one once.” He gave her a grin as they continued.
They stopped at a metal gate. The other side was a long hallway ending in a vacuum-sealed door leading to the environmentally controlled book vault.
“Now, I need you to wait here,” he said to Tess, just as he said every time, before turning and opening the door with a swipe card. He passed through the cage and down the hall, disappearing from view.
Tess waited for several minutes. Finally, Dr. Armitage emerged from the vault by himself. He closed the gate and turned around.
“She says she's going to be a while, forty minutes at least, and you should just head home without her. Sorry, Miss Roe.” The old man's face was crestfallen.
“It's okay,” she promised him, “Guess I'll see you tomorrow.”
“Alright, Miss Roe. You take care ‘til I see you again,” he said with a nod.
Tess smiled at the old man one last time and made her way toward the exit.
The girl's lungs burned. Every breath she drew was more painful than the last. She inhaled, sure that her next breath would be the one that caused her lungs to burst.
Trees encompassed her on every side. Darkness closed tighter, and tighter as she ran. Every footstep died in the silence of the foggy night.
Her clothes ripped. The new dress she wore was in shreds but she didn't dare stop. Fear colored her every glance from side to side.
Something in the darkness moved, snapping a dry branch. The girl turned and screamed. It was no good. The monster was on her.
“Oh come on! At least fight back,” Tess shouted at the television. “You're making women everywhere look bad,” she concluded at last as the zombie sunk its teeth into the girl on screen. Tess threw her hands up in frustration.
It was no wonder the girl on the screen had died, she hadn't followed one word of advice from Tess. The zombie wasn't even that fast. Walking five feet ahead of it would have even kept her out of trouble, and it wasn't that hard to kill a zombie. Instead all she did was sit there screaming.
Tess noticed she had risen to her knees, and sat back down on the couch.
The door slammed behind her.
“Hi, Mom,” Tess said using the decorative mirror on the wall across from her to confirm her mom's presence.
“Hey, hun. What you doing?”
“Watching an old zombie movie and wondering how anybody could get killed by these things in the first place,” she responded. “I mean, if you look at it today, there are too many gun-toting Americans ready for something like a zombie apocalypse to happen. The zombies wouldn't even stand a chance,” she said, waving at the television screen where a zombie sauntered toward a house slowly.
Her mom set down the groceries she carried on the kitchen counter. She stopped and watched the screen for a moment.
“Well remember that when this came out people didn't have as much exposure to scary material as they do today,” she said before beginning to put the groceries away.
“You mean like how the poem The Raven was the scariest thing anyone ever read and kept people awake at night but today it wouldn't scare a toddler?” Tess joked.
“Yes, something like that. Maybe you're just jaded. You're willing to suspend belief that there can be zombies, but not that there could be somebody with less survival sense than you,” her mom joked back. Tess looked over her shoulder and stuck her tongue out at her. Her mom mimicked the expression back in good humor.
Tess liked to put herself in the characters' place. She always yelled at the TV what she would do in their case, which usually involved turning around and socking the monster/killer right in the face. She got the habit from her dad.
Horror movies had been his favorite thing when he was alive. He worked at the Arkham Sheriff's Department and always enjoyed complaining about how no decent police officer would do half the things the police in movies did. She would always laugh and say that if a horror movie became real, they would survive and save her mom in the process.
Her mom was always content to sit and watch the film quietly before ultimately concluding that they were overthinking it.
“How was school today?”
Tess shrugged before answering in typical teenage fashion. “It was school.”
A look from her mom told her to elaborate.
“The teachers were fine. Jenna was in a few of my classes and we ate lunch together. It was basically all the same kids from last year just a year older.”
Same boring school.
“Speaking of haunted houses,” her mom began. Tess hadn't been speaking of haunted houses, but she listened. “A new family moved in with that old man up the road.”
“You mean the Foggy Mansion, in the dark, scary woods?” Tess exaggerated.
“It's the Fogg Estate, not Foggy Mansion, but yes.” Her mom pointed at her with a carrot, before using it as a finger to shake at her daughter.
“Is the new family Foggs also?” she asked, thinking of the crazy genius from math class. She hadn't put the two together that his family might be related to the house.
“Yes, I think so. I'm thinking of making my world-famous applesauce cake to take over and say hello. If I start cooking now it should be ready just after supper for them.”
“I think you meant to say infamous,” Tess corrected.
“Har har har,” her mom said flatly. She set two jars of applesauce on the table along with the other ingredients. “I heard they have a boy your age, too. Maybe you should come with me and introduce yourself, get a jump on him before the other girls start coming around.”
“Mom, don't ever say that phrase again, please. I don't think it means what you think it means.”
Her mom rolled her eyes and produced mixing bowls and a pan, adding them to the other objects on the counter.
“Besides, I met him at school today already. He was kind of hard to miss,” Tess said.
“Oh, ya?” Her mom mumbled from inside their pantry.
“What's he like?”
“Crazy, weird, creepy, take your pick,” she said, thinking. “He's some sort of a math genius, though, I think.”
“Oh, that's nice,” her mom said in her spaced-out voice. Tess glanced over her shoulder. She was reading a cookbook on a table.
“And he had tentacles for arms.”
“Uh, huh, well that's…that's…I'm sorry, dear, what did you say?” Her mom looked up from the book.
“Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Making a cake for the neighbors seemed outdated to Tess. Nobody knew their neighbors anymore. People didn't move to Arkham, especially not their out of the way old neighborhood, to get to know their neighbors. They moved there for peace and quiet. Tess narrowed her eyes dramatically at herself in a mirror before adding, or hiding from their former life as a vampire hunter. Not like that ever happened.
Tess didn't particularly want to go, but if she didn't, her mom would remind her that greeting the neighbors was a tradition her dad started.
Six months after her dad had died, her mom tried taking Tess to visit the new neighbors, the Taylors, who moved away just as quickly. Tess refused to go, starting an argument that ended with her mom in tears.
“Ya, sure, Mom. I'm not doing anything tonight anyway.”
The Fogg Estate was smaller than Tess remembered from when they use to sneak past the deteriorating wrought iron fence as children.
The road, which wasn't deserving of the name, turned into gravel before reaching the large gate that would block access if it was able to close. Thick ivy covered most of the black metal. The stubborn vines would budge if kicked, but they wouldn't move beyond that without a trim.
The foliage receded yards beyond the gate, keeping only to the exterior of the fence. The brick mansion sat defiantly in the center of the clearing, threatening anything that dared approach. Tess could make out a dim shadow on the bottom floor, but only the lights on the next floor glowed.
Tess’s mom walked through the center of the open space onto the grounds like the queen herself had invited her to visit, dragging Tess in tow, who was cackling “It's alive, It's alive,” intermittently for comic relief.
“Stop that,” her mom snapped once they got close enough they could potentially be heard. Tess switched to working on her diabolical belly laugh.
The steps up to the front door were crumbling. Luckily her mom opted for tennis shoes instead of heels or the whole visit could have been over faster, but not in a good way.
Tess hopped up the steps two at a time, glanced at the ornate rug on the landing and stepped to the side in case it ended up being a trap door leading to a dungeon.
The sprawling building would have been beautiful in the past if someone had properly maintained it. Now, the entire estate was one Tesla-coil short of ending up in a horror movie, a cheesy one, something with a hokey monster in it made of papier-mâché and spray paint.
Staring up at the melancholy structure, Tess understood how people could jump to the conclusion it was haunted. It was harder to not jump to that conclusion.
A cold chill ran down her spine. The light in one of the upper floor rooms flickered with the distinctive crackle of electrical power. Scratch the Tesla coil, Tess thought, they remembered it.
A human-sized shadow moved in the window. No doubt 'Mr. Fogg,' she thought in her best mental Mr. Carpenter voice.
Her eyes traced from the window to the roof. Stone gargoyles grinned down at her from every right angle. Tess always thought of gargoyles as cool. Their goofy, grinning, misshapen faces never scared her before now.
The stone demons watching over this house were different. They were cruel dog-like creatures. Unlike an ordinary beast, these creatures' jaw split into fourths. Each held a different pose. Some scrutinized, some stared vacantly over the clearing, others stretched their sinewy jaws in mock howls. At the top of the roof a single gargoyle sat, arrogantly looking down on the porch. Tess could abruptly relate to the evil spirits the gargoyles scared off.
The front door was solid wood and ornately carved with intricate symbols and rings within rings. As Tess moved, the decorations seemed to almost play tricks with her mind, moving ever so slowly with her.
She checked to see how her mother was taking this. She appeared a little pale. She stared at the door for several seconds before finally rapping hard on the wood.
Nobody answered. Her mom knocked again, this time harder. Tess glanced around the clearing, checking for anything strange — well, stranger.
She glanced back up at the shadow window. The shadow moved away from the light into another portion of the room. The only shadow that remained was a smudge on the glass—or so she thought, until the smudge moved. Tess recoiled. Please be a house cat, she thought.
Without warning her mom spoke, breaking the quiet evening. “Oh, okay,” she yelled. Tess turned in time to see her mom squeeze the door handle, then enter.
“Mom?” Tess asked, surprised at her mother's sudden boldness.
Tess looked at the door once more as she followed, and for the briefest moment, she thought she saw the symbols shimmer faintly.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“I heard somebody shout that it was unlocked, and to come in,” she said.
Darkness filled the inside of the house, like lit by candlelight dark. With night approaching steadily, the place took on an eerie quality.
The door opened into a high-ceilinged room. A staircase followed the wall to a balcony, naturally, leading to a second floor. On every side of the room were doorways. All but one sat open.
The room was decorated with a mixture of decor from the early mysterious to the traditional weird.
A stuffed animal that Tess was mostly sure was a dodo sat on one side of a giant fireplace that occupied most of one wall. Above the mantel hung a painting of a young man dressed entirely in khaki, standing among African natives. Other oddities of all shapes and sizes cluttered the room. Knickknacks lined a case positioned under the stairs. Tess wanted to explore them all, but a cheery female voice interrupted.
“Oh, there you are.” A mature blonde entered from the shadows. Tess hadn’t heard the door open.
She wore pale slate dress slacks and a blinding pink Polo-shirt. Her hair was feathered and could have served as an impact resistant helmet if necessary. Tess stifled a laugh. The woman flashed a toothy smile then called back through the door she had entered. “Paul, in here. We have guests.”
A brunette-haired man entered the room from the opposite open doorway. “Well, gosh, that's great, Amy.”
As he casually joined his wife, Tess couldn't help but notice his outfit matched hers, a pair of light slate khakis and a bright blue Polo-shirt. She wondered if they planned that.
Tess studied the two. There was something off-putting about the couple. They struck her as nice people, but they seemed almost annoyingly synchronized. Tess couldn’t quite explain. It was like they were trying to be too normal.
“We brought you cake,” Tess's mom said noticing a silence forming.
“Oh, that's beautiful, darling,” the woman said. She crossed the room. “I'm Amy Fogg.” She offered a hand, then laughed a bubbly, flawless laugh. “Oh, I'm sorry, um, why don't you set that right here,” she said, motioning to the mantel of the giant fireplace.
Tess’s mom set down the glass cookware and Amy offered her immaculately manicured hand to which Tess’s mom shook gently.
“This is my husband, and the love of my life, Paul,” she added, motioning to the man. He shook hands with Tess’s mom too.
“I'm Vanessa Roe, and this is my daughter Theresa. She likes to be called Tess.”
Amy sidled up to her and knelt down to be eye-level with the fourteen-year-old.
“Aren't you just the sweetest thing? You are just darling.”
Is this woman honestly using baby speak on me? Tess glanced over at her mom and wondered how she should take it. Maybe she should respond in a baby voice as well. Better not, she decided seeing her mom's face. She didn't feel like hearing about it for the next year.
“Nice to meet you too, Mrs. Fogg.”
“We have a son your age. His name's Titus. He's somewhere around here,” she said, “I believe you met him today.”
Tess was taken aback. How did she know that? Had he mentioned her? “My great uncle, Phineas, is here as well. He’s asleep in one of the upstairs rooms watching television.”
Tess’ mom nodded, and offered a comforting smile.
“Yes, I heard he had taken over, many years ago when your son…” She let the sentence trail off not sure how to politely finish it.
“Became ill,” said Amy nodding understandingly. “Yes, we just couldn’t stand to be so close and unable to help. We had to leave Arkham, but now that he’s better we’re back.”
Tess remembered when the mansion first became vacant. She had been five at the time. She woke up in the night to get a glass of water and saw her dad standing at the door talking to her mom urgently. She didn't recall what they were saying exactly but if the police were involved it must have been something important, like a murder or attack.
Tess wondered if that was why they had moved into the estate. Maybe the couple covertly planned on murdering the old man for some hidden fortune.
She eyed the two and dismissed it straight away. While the smiles creeped Tess out enough to belong to secretly psychotic killers, she didn't think they would want to get their khakis dirty. Still, it wouldn't be the first killer who could put up a front.
“Why don't I show you both around, just us ladies.” And murder us, Tess added stealthily. “Paul, you can get us all some punch from the kitchen?” And prepare to hide the bodies.
Her mom glared at her, perhaps realizing what Tess was thinking or perhaps displeased Tess was using her shifty-eyes look again in public. She yelled at her sometimes about that. Tess stopped.
“Are you sure?” Tess’s mom said overly politely. “We don't want to put you guys out, it is getting late after all.”
“Oh, not at all,” Paul said waving it off. “I'll be in the kitchen if you girls need me.”
“Well, why don't we start upstairs—maybe we can rouse the two ghosts that like to haunt up there,” Amy said, stepping toward the staircase.
Tess exchanged glances with her mom. Amy stopped.
“I'm talking about my son and my uncle-in-law, not real ghosts. There's no such thing as those, of course. Absolutely no ghosts here.” She threw in another cheesy, fake sounding laugh.
Tess's mom went up the stairs first. Tess was several steps up when she thought she heard a soft, wispy voice call her name. She listened. There was nothing but the sound of the wind, and the creak of the old house.
“You coming, Tess?” her mom called from the landing. Tess nodded, then glanced around once more. The only person in the room watched her with acrylic eyes from above the mantel.