By O Thiam Chin
The scream came as we were about to launch into another round of Cannibal King, sitting around the campfire. We saw each other's alarm, the fingers of shadows streaking across our faces. We pressed our shoulders together, and glided our stares towards our form teacher, Miss Geraldine Tan, who had turned her body towards the source of the sound, her pencil-thin brows drawn together in mild irritation. Must be someone saw a rat or something, someone said, before dropping in a softer utter of "pussy". Some of us laughed and made ghastly faces, trying to mimic the cry. Someone threw a stick into the fire, which agitated the flames into a flurry of bright leaps. Don't do that, Miss Tan said, visibly annoyed. We lapsed into a tight silence, uncertain whether we should start singing again.
Then, some girls from another class began to whisper among themselves, their voices loud enough to be heard by everyone else. Maybe it's a ghost, from the Arts block, the girl who hanged herself last year, remember her? one of the girls said. Maybe it's a vampire, another ventured weakly. Maybe it's your new boyfriend lah, the one always waiting for you at the bus stop, another butted in. There was a volley of insults all round, as we jostled one another for a better comeback, a punchline, the final word.
Stop it, girls, stop all the nonsense, Miss Tan finally said, getting up from the mat and straightening her khaki shorts. A few of us allowed our eyes to study her smooth calves and thighs, noting their slenderness. Some of us were nursing a budding crush on her, though we never shared this secret openly. You girls wait here, and don't go anywhere, she said, and walked out of the perimeter of light towards the main Admin block. We watched as she disappeared into the night.
Someone is so going to get into trouble now, a girl from our class said. Our voices started to rise in excitement as we spun wild, implausible stories. Very soon it became inevitable to include a ghost story or two into our fabrications, given that our school, a brand-name convent girls' school, had a long history that went all the way back to our colonial past. We tried to better each other's story with horrific tales, each riddled with suicides, murders and venomous lovers' spats. Our imaginations were rife with all kinds of possibilities, and we were more than willing to be amused and scared by our stories. Right then, we heard a second scream coming from the science laboratories, and, almost instantaneously, we stopped talking, our ears pricked up. Some of us held hands and stared at each other, our eyes wide as discs. A few jumped to their feet, unsure which direction to take flightacross the school field or into the Admin block.
We should stay here together, as we were told.
No, we should go somewhere safer.
Then, all of us were on our feet, like a flock of agitated chickens in a coop.
Don't panic, it's nothing. Miss Tan will come back soon. Somebody is pulling a prank on us, don't fall for it. Maybe someone is in trouble. Maybe someone needs our help. We should stick together. Strength in numbers, right? Our words swirled in the thickened air around us as we tried to decide what to do. A night breeze stirred the fire and chilled our skin. Then, one of us started to run toward the Admin block Bernice, our class monitor and the rest followed automatically, fighting to keep up. We discarded our song sheets, hoodies and hairbands as we ran, leaving behind a messy trail.
We paused briefly at the darkened staff room, and one of us shone the light of her torch into it. Someone rattled the door handle, but it was locked. We peered through the dusty window panes into the room, trying to differentiate between the shifty shadows cast onto the floor and walls by us, and those made by the furniture in the room. One of us yelped and pointed to something on the floor farther in, slightly hidden by a partition; we strained to see it. Our breaths made ghostly stains on the window panes, appearing and disappearing quickly with each exhalation. We rubbed our eyes; already a few of us were weeping from fear and panic. When we heard a burst of footsteps farther down the corridor, we paused only for a split second and shot off in the opposite direction. One of us tripped and fell to her knees. We didn't wait for her; shortly after we heard her squeal, which sounded weak and wobbly, as if she didn't have the chance to warm up her vocal cords before she was cut off. We stampeded up the stairs, summoning all the strength we could muster in our legs.
We ran past a classroom and saw blobs of light from inside. There we found our juniors clustered in twos and threes, like terrified lambs. The classroom was their staging area for a skit they were rehearsing for a final time, before their presentation at the campfire. They were still clasping pieces of the script, trying to calm each other. We wondered whether what we saw on their faces was a true reflection of our own, or an approximation; after all, we refused to believe that we were that frightened, since we were two years their senior, having just taken our O-level exams the month before. There was some water on the floor and we bent to inspect it: spilled water from a bottle or a puddle of pee? One of the juniors, Magdalene, crawled out from under a fallen table and started mumbling something unintelligibly. She was one of the most noticeable girls among the cohort of juniors, known not only for her incipient beauty, which was already apparent in the cheekbones and sharp, edgy lines of her nose and jaw, but also for her fluid sexuality: she already had a series of boyfriends and girlfriends, her latest conquest being a pretty, gangly-limbed, ponytailed girl from our class, Doreen. Lipstick Lez, we took to calling them. We tried to quieten her, and when none of our tactics worked, one of us gave her a sound slap, which finally rendered her speechless.
We gathered the juniors around us and tried to devise a plan or solution. Do we stay, or go? someone asked. Better to keep moving, another said. We peered out of the doorway, and noting that the coast was clear, scampered out of the classroom, like a pack of rats from a disturbed nest. At the end of the long corridor, we paused and hesitated: left to the chapel, or straight ahead to the sports hall. Why don't we try the entrance? We turned to the girl, a junior, who said this and rolled our eyes, as if to say, duh, are you stupid or something, don't you think we have thought of this? Don't you think it or they or whatever would be waiting for us there already? Some of us were in favour of the chapel for superstitious reasons - "God will protect us; if not, maybe one of the saints, or maybe Mary. " - while others preferred the sports hall as it only had one entranceway and we could lock ourselves in from whoever or whatever was pursing us. Unable to reach a clear consensus, we broke into two factions: the bigger group headed for the chapel and the smaller one ran to the sports hall.
But barely had we separated when we heard howls coming from the chapel group. We leapt up in a collective cry and peeked into the dark passageway behind us, trying to differentiate the shapes from the shadows. The moonlight cast a pale, unearthly glow on the frigid statues of our school founders and alumni that lined the corridor. We heard a rumble of noises and saw three juniors appearing out of the dark, running towards us. Two of them had blood on their t-shirts and arms, and one was holding something a barrette? an ear? a severed finger? None of us got a good look the junior had already tossed it into the rhododendron bushes. With blood pounding madly in our ears and our lungs pulsating painfully, we picked up speed and ran all the way to the sports hall.
The doors of the hall were, thankfully, unlocked, and we barrelled in, not wanting to be the last. We were competitive even now, and, because so much was at stake, we could not let go of the need to be the first, or at least, the first few to find safety. Hurry up, hurry up. In the dark, cavernous hall, huddled in a scrum, we were suddenly unsure where to go next the bleachers, backstage or equipment storage room? Was there a place in here that could shelter us from whoever or whatever was coming for us? We could hear each other's ragged breaths and tinny grunts as we strained our ears to catch the sounds coming through the walls. Nothing, not a peep. Had it left us alone? Could it have missed us? We clotted into a tighter circle. Shit, can someone shut the doors? a small voice whispered. Through the half-open doors, we could see the concrete pathway that led to the hall entrance was lit like a smooth plank of moonlight. Nobody moved at first, but in the next moment, Bernice was slamming the doors shut and locking them. The crisp, loud notes ricocheted across the hall. Great, I'm sure it didn't hear that. We dragged some low benches from the side of the basketball court and stacked them against the doors. Then we waited.
A frantic round of knocking on the door tore up the silence. Let me in, please. A familiar voice. We scanned each other's faces, strickened. Should we? What in case? And then we were shoving the benches aside to let the girl in. It was a junior from the chapel group. She shot through the door, arms swinging wildly, and stopped only when she was standing smack in the middle of the basketball court, hands on her thighs, panting. We stacked up the benches again and moved away from the doors.
What did you see? Who was it? I don't know, it was too dark, and everything happened so fast, I think it's a man. Are you sure? I really don't know, maybe there are several men, I could not tell. We rolled our eyes, ready to give up. No, it must be a man, he's very tall, I think, broad shoulder, the junior added, perhaps sensing that she was losing ground, and our confidence. A few of us, without voicing our thoughts, thought immediately of Mr Brandon Lam, the new geography teacher. He had started teaching in our school at the start of the new semester, and already some of us were harbouring crushes on him. We were always alert during his class in rapt attention in fact and would squirm inwardly with delight whenever he glanced up from his teaching notes and asked us for a reply or comment, his undivided focus on us. We liked his easy, open smile, and we especially, secretly, enjoyed it when his glance lingered on us, just a little longer. We clustered around him after class, pretending to seek clarification on our assignments while making mental notes of the tiny shaving cuts on his chin, the mole behind his right ear, the crisp spicy notes of his cologne, which usually turned several degrees deeper in the afternoon. Of course, only the blabber-mouthed among us voiced out their crushes; the rest of us were happy to nurture our feelings unostentatiously, quietly. And so, he was our very first thought when we heard the words 'man', 'shoulder' and quickly we banished it for being absurd, nonsensical. You are not making any sense at all, one of us snapped, what are you taking about? The junior went silent, shaking her head.
In the end, all of us decided to hide in the storage room at the back of the sports hall, squeezing in among the baskets of baseball bats and mittens, plastic cones, bundles of badminton nets, and netball stands. A dank smell of stale sweat and dust hung in the uncirculated air in the room. We rested our weights on the baskets, taking a brief respite. It was tiring no, exhausting to stay on high alert for a long time. We glanced at our watches and wiped our faces on the damp sleeves.
I need to pee, someone spoke up, apropos of nothing. We turned our heads in unison to the person, Magdalene: Seriously, now? Are you fucking kidding? We gave her a long, withering look. Yes, I really need to go. We glared at her again in disbelief. The toilet was two doors down, but the distance felt like a long way off. Can't you hold it in? No. Sheesh. I need someone to go with me, please. Doreen grabbed her hand, I'll go with you. Of course, who else. They slipped out of the storage room. Stupid lez, someone cursed under her breath. We heard their footsteps traipsing down the corridor, and then we heard nothing.
Long moments went by and we began to talk. What do you think it was? Do you think it's a stupid prank? Do you think the teachers are in this together? Maybe it's something educational, like role-playing? You mean like scaring us shitless and making us pee in our shorts, that kind of lesson? Don't be a bitch. You are so dumb sometimes, really. No, you're the dumb bitch. Fuelled by our frenzied imagination, we went into a tailspin of speculations. Well, it can't be a ghost, right? We turned to the junior from the chapel group, who had wrapped her arms across her chest, still trembling; she shook her head imperceptibly. Then what? A vampire? We turned to her again for confirmation, but this time she remained still. I saw some blood on the floor just now, someone said. Or maybe it's a werewolf. Don't be stupid lah, you think what, Twilight ah, what shit are you talking? Then what, zombie? We regarded the girl who said this a junior with a mop of short fuzzy hair and round spectacles in disgust and shook our heads such ignorance, such lack of imagination, these juniors.
Whoever or whatever was out there, it had to be bigger than what we could imagine, we thought (separately, unvoiced), something infinitely wilder and scarier than what we could possibly conjure up. If we were to survive this and we knew we could we needed something beyond our wildest imagination, something truly worth bragging about, a monster of epic proportions. We needed to turn this night around, to make it one for the ages, a gem of a scary story we could retell again and again at our school reunions, twenty or fifty years down the road.
They are taking way too long, one of us said. We snuffed out the talk and listened for noise coming down the corridor. Nothing. We stood and tiptoed to the door, peering out of the room. The coast seemed clear, so we slithered as one towards the toilet, and found Magdalene and Doreen in one of the cubicles, hands down each other's shorts, locked at the lips. Come on, really? You lez are fucking unbelievable. They looked at us, nailed to the ground by the ring of spotlight from one of our torches, and pulled apart reluctantly. We stared at their wet, glistening fingers, and remembered our own fingers when we touched ourselves in bed, in the shower, in the back of our fathers' cars. Again, the image of Mr Brandon Lam snuck into some of our thoughts, and our faces went irrationally hot and flushed. We tried to shake our minds free of his hands, his smile, and the bump at his crotch when his pants bunched up as he sat on the edge of the table, telling us about the subduction zone and how the oceanic plate would collide with the continental plate, causing earthquakes and tsunamis. We hardly knew how to keep our private fantasies at bay, and so we directed our frustration shame? at Magdalene and Doreen. Really, how stupid can you guys be? Now, for this? Come on, use your brains, okay? Some of us snickered and threw in another round of insults. They straightened out their t-shirts and shorts, and stepped out of the cubicle. Just as Magdalene was about to speak up, we heard a crash coming from somewhere in the hall. Had the benches fallen? We gripped one another, reduced to stony immobility. Let's go, one of us whispered, and we fled out of the toilet.
We snaked down the dark, narrow corridor and peeked out from a tight corner at the hall entrance, where the benches were scattered like haphazard building blocks. Who would have the strength to break down the doors? We scanned the dark hall for any signs of movement. No sound, nothing but our suppressed breathing. Lumped together, we heaved like a pile of newly born mice, helpless and clumsy. We crept towards the bleachers and ducked the overhead beams; still a few of us hit them, emanating a soft bing and a groan. We could hear something move above us, fluttering among the tiered rows of plastic chairs. We groped our way out of the bleachers, and without even pausing to decide, all of us made a break for the entrance, hopping over the collapsed benches like knock-kneed fawns. The noise we were making was loud enough to raise the dead, and we knew it was hopeless to remain undetected.
Then one of us fell, letting out a cry. We glanced back very briefly, without stopping of course, we could not stop, even if we wanted to and saw a dark wing of shadows clamouring around the fallen girl. We saw the outline of a figure and imagined two pinpoints of light coming from what we assumed was a face, though we could not determine whether there was one. We clawed and stomped over one another, finally making it out of the sports hall, into the pale pool of moonlight. What now? Again, as a herd, we turned instinctively to Bernice, who tipped her head towards the Science block, and we were on the move again. The corridors pulsed with our footsteps, loud and irregular. Someone at the front of the pack suddenly stopped and pointed her finger at something: wait, look.
We saw a body slumped against the stairwell, and coming closer, we saw that it was Miss Geraldine Tan. We gasped, but ventured nearer, out of curiosity. We saw that her neck was all gnawed and bloodied as if she were wearing a red, lacy scarf, and her lips were parted slightly, almost sensuously, the interior of her mouth, a dark pit. Her hands nestled in her lap, fingers entwined. A strap of her camisole top had fallen off her shoulder, revealing the luminescent white of her bra. She looked like she was taking a nap, and somehow it would seem rude for us to wake her. We stood staring at the body, until one of her Bernice, again reached out and adjusted the strap. Most of us had liked her sufficiently, given how lenient she was when we missed our assignment deadline or needed a few days' extension on a class project. Still fresh out of teachers' training school she had joined our school at the start of the year with a head full of ideas about student bonding and classroom strategies, rewards and incentives we knew enough to get what we wanted from her, to bend things our way, since her desire to be liked was so plaintively obvious that it was almost painful to behold, and almost too easy to exploit. Of course, with the more senior teachers, we knew we could not pull this kind of shit.
As we were each thinking our thoughts about her death, her fingers began to twitch and her lips started to move. We pulled back into a heaving mass and watched her come back to life, flicking back her hair and moving her legs. When she turned her gaze on us the light catching in her eyes rendered them Sphinx-like, intense and hypnotic we caught our breath, transfixed. The tendrils of blood trickling down her neck resembled dark, encroaching roots spreading across the pale skin of her chest. She held out her hand, as if extending an invite to a dance. We saw Doreen raising her hand in blind response and smacking it back into submission; we knew about her little crush on Miss Tan, and the little notes and packs of Godiva chocolate that she had left on her desk in the staff room. Some of us, keenly aware of how this might develop, had even egged her on in her infatuation, with little nuggets of love advice ripped from Cleo and Teens. We hardly knew what each of us was capable of, and how far we might go we were still learning about love the way babies learn how to eat, messily, instinctively, ravenously and yet it didn't stop us from pushing the limits and tipping the scale.
When Miss Tan took a step towards us, most of us leapt into motion once again. Doreen, however, remained stock-still before Miss Tan, and Magdalene tried tugging at her hand to get her to move. We would have stood and stared, tucking this scene into our memory as fodder for gossip later on, if some of us had not been spooked by Miss Tan's sudden move. We cast last glances at the three of them, shook our heads, turned on our heels and ran. We heard the cries soon after, and our skin tingled with a shot of chills. They had made their own bed and now they had to lie in it, we thought.
Perhaps it was our fatigue or the mounting sense of inevitability, but the more we ran, the slower we got. We were heading nowhere, and we were feeling trapped. A few of us stopped and threw up our hands, as if in surrender. Where are we going, where we can go, some of us asked. Don't stop, just run. But where, we can't run forever, right?
Then Bernice stopped in her tracks and turned to us. We need to confront it. We have strength in numbers. We need to do this.
We halted and studied one another's faces; some held grim, resolute expressions, while others panicky and doubtful.
Haven't you seen what it had done to Miss Tan?
She was alone, and didn't know what was coming.
And do we?
Then what fucking idea do you have, really? We don't have time.
I don't know.
We looked around us and imagined all sorts of creatures and monsters from the play of light and shadow and motions on the walls and cement floor. Where our eyes landed, a shape began to form, and when we picked out a sound, it turned into an indiscriminate cry. Our fears only multiplied in our imagination, which was rabid and fertile, all fired up.
How about the campfire? We have a fire going there, and it's out in the open and we can see it coming from any direction. We can stop it if we can see it.
And before the thought was even settled in our heads, most of us were already running, our shoes squeaking across the hallway. We shot out of the Admin block and dashed towards the wavering orange orb in the middle of the dark school field. Our hearts scuffled in our chests, like dying rats thrashing in water. We drew nearer and nearer, and then suddenly we stopped. We pulled ourselves into a tight circle and held in our breaths. We could not move or look away. They were already there, sitting around the fire, waiting. The fire threw deep valleys of darkness across their faces.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
This is not happening.
We fell to the ground, the shorn grass grazing our ankles and calves. What little hope we had fizzled out of us, and we knew we had come to the end. There was no other way to escape. They were here, and they knew they had us. Some of us mumbled a short prayer, and some of us dug nails into skin, tearing it. We would all die, and nothing we had done would have made any difference. They raised their hands towards the fire, and we could see how they converged in the flames and later splintered into talons and claws and hooves. We heard the strange sounds they were making, low and buzzing. Just as they were about to break into another cacophony, one of us let out a scream, which rippled out into the night, splitting it into fractions.
And that was when all of them turned to us, their bright eyes blazing with fear and confusion and agitation, and we could finally see and recognise who they had been all along.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016