Rueger appeared rather simple; the exterior was simply composed of brown bricks, with a more modern, black roof. The layout, however, was differing from many other schools—our science rooms were all put into the same corner of the second floor—and the school itself was rather large. It stretched far across the lot it was built on, creating long hallways that at times seemed endless. From far away, it looked like a slab of brickwork. Or a prison.
In my school, the day started with a twenty-minute homeroom. Our bus traditionally arrived around seven, giving us about fifteen minutes to get everything settled before classes started. I joined the student parade into the building and headed off to be locker, located off in the left hallway on the first floor.
Teenagers were all about, their conversations melding together into a thick cloud of noise. The halls of Rueger, covered in art projects to conceal typically white and antiquated walls, were drowned in the sea of students. Our attendance grew with each year due to the school’s success in the state and nationally; the numbers were somewhat in danger of encroaching on the building’s maximum capacity.
I bumped into someone on the way to my locker: Harry, who was a fair distance from his own. He was gazing at Rachel Yong, a girl he had been attracted to. Instead of staring at her face, however, he was staring at her from behind, looking down at her midsection.
I’m not sure when he decided Rachel was the love of his life, but he was certainly dead-set on it at that point. She was a gymnast with a small, beautiful figure, long brown hair… and many other aspects which didn’t matter to Harry at the moment.
I must have interrupted his staring session. He snapped his head towards me, his face reddening.
“Sorry to butt in,” I laughed. He quickly walked down to his locker without saying a word. It was a rarity to shut up Harry.
Eventually, I reached my homeroom and took a seat beside Trent, who had been assigned to the same part of the complex. He waved a greeting, then went back to the project he was working on. I could tell it was complicated, so I elected to not bother him.
When I looked in his direction, something caught my eye. There was a kid sitting in front of Trent named Chase Davids, one of those average kids that nobody really knew. He looked really pale and his eyes were opened wide. I found myself staring at him for a long time. His condition appeared normal to a passive observer, but somehow it had captured my full attention.
Some sense informed me to help him. A bad feeling had washed over me; Chase’s form provoked fear inside of me. Something didn’t seem right. I couldn’t tell if this was soccer stress or primal fear or whatever.
“You okay, man?” I asked him. He didn’t seem to hear me. Maybe he didn’t want to and was just going to go through the day.
The subject was concluded then, I decided. He was just having an off day but wasn’t just inconvenienced. He’d be fine.
Suddenly, he gasped and snapped his head towards me so fast it made me jump back a bit.
“I’m doing alright,” he said. His voice was deep and raspy.
I quickly went back to my seat. Trent looked over at me, equally curious. I shrugged, and then started reading my silent reading book, the recent encounter with Chase taking a backseat in my mind. Any previous worries were suppressed, replaced by an interest in the material in my hands.
The homeroom teacher, Mr. Groffe, came in a few minutes later.
“Hello everyone,” he said, with a half-smile on his face.
Mr. Groffe was a pretty laid-back kind of guy and wasn’t the stereotypical school-happy instructor. That’s what made him my favorite teacher. That, and the fact that he didn’t give out that much homework.
The bell rang a minute later. Mr. Groffe sat down in his chair and looked over his computer.
“Good news everyone, no announcements today,” he announced.
Most of the time there is nothing to do during homeroom time, so Mr. Groffe just talked about some news stories that had been reported yesterday on television. I zoned in and out during this, preferring to read my book, but also trying to hear what was happening in the world.
One report was of a local scientist that claimed that there was some sort of element in the ground that was gradually coming up on the surface. According to him, it could turn a normal human into a flesh-eating monster in less than a few hours. The whole class laughed and zombie jokes started up.
After reading a chapter of my novel, I looked over at Hannah, who was sitting in the front row. Uncontrollably, I delved into my tired, old fantasy where some sort of crazy, gun-wielding thug marches in the room and threatens to sell us all for ransom. Acting like a conventional action hero, I dive straight for the assailant and throw him out the window, disarming him and saving the class. Suddenly, I’m the most popular man in town, and Hannah falls head-over-heels for me.
As usual, Carson Douglas shatters my daydreaming by unexpectedly appearing in the room, walking over and giving her a hug.
Carson was six foot two with the body of a football player. Of course, that’s what he was: a big football player. I was only capable of viewing him in the negative stereotype of a typical high school jock. He had that formulaic “perfect boy” face, though it was constantly ruined by his dumb expressions. His nose was slightly bent because he had got in a fight earlier in the school year. It was rumored that drugs were involved.
Carson and I have always hated each other since middle school—our personalities just never molded together well after a disastrous team project in science class—and he knew I liked Hannah. He loved how hurt I was about the two of them going out, which is actually one of the reasons the two of them are going out in the first place. He was also the reason Hannah and I never saw each other. Whenever I invited her to anything or tried to talk to her, Carson changed everything.
I gave off a groan audible to Trent. Shouldn’t Hannah be smart enough to know how much of a jerk he is?
Trent heard me and saw I was shooting glares at Carson. “His head’s full of gas,” he said. “The only thing he’s got over you is that he’s a football player with big muscles.” I smiled at his comment. Trent almost always backed me up on things, especially when Carson and Hannah were involved.
I looked over at Chase again. I couldn’t help but stare: his condition was no doubt worse than before. His skin seemed to be peeling off his face. His fingernails were unusually long and sharp, and his eyes were darting back and forth. Occasionally he would lick his teeth, which looked to have become sharper. It was as though he was mutating right before my eyes.
I think Mr. Groffe noticed how bad Chase was, because he walked over and said something to him in a low voice. Chase nodded and replied to whatever the teacher had said. Mr. Groffe nodded back and went back to his desk.
A few minutes later, homeroom ended, and I picked up my belongings and started leaving to go to my first class. I looked back and noticed that Chase was still in his seat, looking even worse than before. His eyes had become bloodshot, darting ever faster back and forth, more skin peeling off of him. Slowly, he rose from his seat and limped towards the door.
Mr. Groffe blocked his path. “Chase, you don’t look good. You need to go see the nurse.” He handed Chase a pass to the nurse.
Chase made a gurgling sound, then continued to his first class, his left foot dragging behind him. Without warning, he stopped. He swung around and went towards the nurse’s office, stumbling from side to side.
“What the hell was that?” I wondered, perplexed by the happenstance.
Trent, who also witnessed Chase’s behavior, shrugged. “Hope he’s okay. I don’t think it’s anything too serious.”
He left to go to his first class. I guessed that joining him would be the best way to move on from things, but it didn’t seem to help. My thoughts had drifted elsewhere.
My brain was set in overdrive. What the hell was wrong with Chase? Skin peeling, bloodshot eyes, fingernails like claws? It was something one would expect to emerge out of a lab set in a sci-fi movie. I couldn’t explain his condition, whatever it was. All I knew was that a school nurse wouldn’t be enough assistance; that kid needed a hospital.
As soon as I began analyzing his current physical state, I pushed all of those negative thoughts of my head. Why should I worry? It could just be a simple problem. Maybe all he needs is a good shot from the doctor. And it was his condition. It shouldn’t be a problem that I should be concerned with. He was off to get help, that was substantial.
I was so wrapped up in thinking about Chase that I realized I had wandered off away from my class. I turned around and got back on track.
Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me.
“Having a good day looking over what you can’t have?”
I turned around in the hallway and faced down Carson.
He laughed. “No, I just thought you might have one actually.”
I tried playing everything as nonchalantly as possible. Carson wasn’t a complete idiot and if I didn’t take his bait he would leave me alone.
“No. Not at all,” I responded, almost smiling.
“Got soccer today, right?”
“Yeah. Still in the tournament.”
“Well hey, good luck to you,” he said. His politeness was so fake.
I turned to walk off when he called after me. “I just thought I should establish this; she’s not yours. She’s mine. I used to not mind you always locking onto her, but it’s starting to get on my nerves. We clear?”
“Clear on what?”
He approached me and got right in my face. “You keep drooling over her and I will strike you down. So, no more trouble.”
“I’m not following you, Carson.”
He gave off a small chuckle, clearly aggravated. “I like Hannah. And I don’t want things to get in the way of that. I don’t like it when your eyes are all over her all the time. Does that make enough sense?”
I was angry beyond belief, but I managed to maintain my cool. There was no use fighting. “I promise. No trouble from now on.”
“Huh,” he said as though he was surprised. “Well alright then. I’ll see you around,” he said, a casual, carefree tone in his voice. He smiled, then walked into the Social Studies room right next to my Science room.
Seeing that the confrontation had ended, I headed inside, barely missing the late bell.
The nerve he had to call me out the way he did! He couldn’t stop getting the last word, keeping me down, making sure I was always steering clear of crossing any of his boundaries. He treated Hannah more like a piece of property than anything else.
Unfortunately, my Science teacher, Mrs. Hought, tried her best to bore us to death. She passed out blank periodic tables and told us to fill in each slot using our book for help. She even stated that we had to finish this today in class. This gave my brain free permission to think about anything but the hard work ahead of me.
I dropped Carson from my mind and kept thinking about Chase, no matter how hard I tried to divert my attention. In middle school, I studied a lot of diseases that didn’t have these side-effects. Something was wrong with Chase, and for some reason I couldn’t help but feel nervous, as though something bad would happen.
Science seemed like the opportune class to pose a question, but my reservations seemed so ridiculous that I decided against it. Asking a teacher about a non-existent sickness ripped from the annals of fiction wouldn’t lead to anything positive.
Trent shared Science with me as well, and he seemed to notice that I was nervous. He mouthed the word, “what?”
I shrugged; I couldn’t explain my anxiety. Trent just shook his head and went back to his work.
Maybe if I had told him why I was feeling so tense, we wouldn’t have been so unprepared for what lied ahead. When this sort of situation presents itself though, you find it hard to take anything seriously and doubt yourself at every turn.