Mariko Takashi and the Case of the Gremlin Horde (Sample)
Alvaro Jameson slid his backpack off his shoulder. The blue nylon bag struck the top of his desk in front of him. The freshman student, on his first day of school at Hughes High, circled around to take his newly claimed seat.
He had rushed from his second-period class, trigonometry, to make sure he could grab a chair close to the windows and the front of the class. With his nearsightedness and his prescription glasses a bit out of date, he had to be near the whiteboard to read the notes the instructor wrote.
But he also enjoyed staring out at the woods just beyond the outdoor track, behind the tall, black scoreboard still under construction. He missed out on the finer details of leaves and flowers, brightly patterned butterflies and bushy squirrels which frequented the field. Yet the warm greens pushing against the cool blue sky were beautiful to him.
Alvaro turned himself in his chair so he could watch the doorway. More students ventured into the class, some in twos or threes, many of whom were well into discussions. A few had entered alone and kept to themselves. He knew none of these teenagers personally.
When his father earned a promotion and had to move to his company’s headquarters, his parents chose the best school district so that Alvaro could get the education he needed. That was halfway through the summer break.
Until two weeks ago, his family was still unpacking. Alvaro still had yet to make any new friends.
He hoped to make some here at school.
The classroom had two different styles of desks, the older ones marred and covered in pen and pencil graffiti. The walls were pristine, composed of large, smooth bricks with a cream color for two-thirds of the top and a caramel brown at the bottom. A wooden teacher’s desk that must have been older than Alvaro himself was at the front of the classroom.
From floor to ceiling and to both corners of the wall it rested on, the whiteboard still had notes written in blue and green dry erase markers. Alvaro began reading them when his attention went to a young redhead, whose hair fell behind her shoulders like a curtain of fine, coppery silk. Her uniform was unblemished, a brilliantly white blouse contrasted under the blackest of pleated jumpers. Even her calf-high black socks and leather Mary Jane shoes were impeccable as she strolled toward the back of the classroom, far from his seat.
There was something more about this student, a faint aurasurrounding the girl. Alvaro turned his gaze to a couple of students conversing when the redhead’s eyes focused on him. Anxiety gripped him, and he reached into his backpack for his college-ruled notebook and a mechanical pencil. He then placed these on his desk while sweeping his bag gently onto the floor next to him.
He faced toward the front of the room. The sensation that the girl was still looking at him kept him from glancing back. Scenarios played out in his head of being yelled at, or laughed at, just because he had stared at her and the peculiar glow she had about her. His plan was to wait until after class let out, and the strange girl had left, before he thought about trying to leave himself. He had to find out what made her seem so supernatural.
Another Hispanic sat next to him, the young man giving Alvaro a nod in greeting. They both wore the same school uniform, complete with the same thin blue tie, white button-down shirt and black suit jacket, though Alvaro had black leather shoes while his neighbor had a dark gray pair.
“Hola,” the student turned and said to him.
“Alvaro,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand.
“I’m Matias,” he said, shaking with a firm grip.
Before they could strike up their own conversation, a very old woman, with a white, cream puff hairdo and a pastel dress that hid most of her legs, walked into the classroom. She was carrying a brown leather satchel that looked ten years past being too ragged to fix. She set her bag on the large desk, before she turned toward the whiteboard. With the blue dry erase marker, she wrote out her name in giant letters, each stroke causing the felt tip to squeak.
Turning back to the students, she waited a few more moments, until the bell rang. Most of the teenagers, including Alvaro and Matias, had been well into conversations amongst themselves, the noise dying down with the electronic wail coming from the hall.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Mrs. Miller. If you’re not here for AP chemistry, you’re in the wrong room.” She waited another moment while the room was quiet. After a moment, a young lady closer to the door gathered up her items, apologized under her breath, and hurried out of the class.
For the next forty minutes, Mrs. Miller discussed the syllabus for the semester, just what college-level chemistry really was, and her years of work with the federal government. She passed out the textbook the class would need. Alvaro’s copy was ten years old, and so many students previous to him had drawn and written messages in the book he would borrow for the year. He signed his name in the last available spot in the front of the book, and slid it into his backpack.
The bell rang to end the period. Mrs. Miller reminded the class that their labs, on the days between the lecture classes, would take place across the hall and to show up there instead of the room they were currently in.
Before Alvaro could get up from his seat, Matias asked him, “You down for studying together?”
“Sure. What’s your phone number?”
The school prohibited cell phone use during school hours, so Alvaro opened his notebook to its final page, where he had already collected another student’s information. He wrote Matias’s phone number and name, with a reminder that he was from Alvaro’s third period class.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alvaro caught the redhead starting to leave, a weak aura surrounding her still aglow. He swiveled his head just enough to keep the young lady in his view. There was something intense, something extraordinary, about her that he could not quite figure out. Her appearance, her walk, everything about her, was almost supernatural.
Matias snapped his fingers. Alvaro shook his head, then turned his full attention to him.
“I asked what your digits were.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said, then gave Matias his cell phone number.
Alvaro excused himself, then stood up from his desk. Without closing his backpack, he slung it over his shoulder and hurried out of the classroom. In the chaos of the hall, the thick crowd of students bustling between rooms, he lost the young lady.
Students far taller and stronger than he was frustrated his travel to find the redhead. Quietly, he apologized whenever people pushed him back and forth. He found a gap and moved into it. He hopped up to peer down the corridor toward the exit doors, then turned and repeated this in the direction of the center of the school.
Near the intersection heading to the cafeteria, he saw the luminous girl stand out from the other students. Her hair was warmer in tone, and her fair skin reflected the sunlight pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows. She turned her head to glance outside before continuing further down the hall.
Alvaro stayed to the right of the traffic, narrowly avoiding the metal handles of lockers along the wall between classrooms. A tall, dark-haired student, wearing a black leather duster, bumped him and sent his arm into a padlock. Alvaro gripped his injury with his other hand, and inspected his shirt to ensure that it had not been ripped. He then looked back toward where the strange girl had been.
She had disappeared.
“Talk to you later,” Matias said. He had caught up to Alvaro and gave a friendly smack to his backpack. He then split off, heading in the direction of the cafeteria.
Alvaro waved to his new friend, then glanced back to where the young woman went. He was determined to find out why she appeared to glow. He clenched the strap of his backpack on the front of his shoulder tighter. With a faster step, he journeyed to the spot where he had last spotted her.
The crowd was dying down. Alvaro looked at his watch. There were only two minutes left until his next class. He would have to rush up to the second floor and down another hall to the appropriate room. Unless he sprinted, he would not make it before the bell.
He looked up. From the corner of his eye, he saw the faint glow of her skin and the bright coppery color of her hair. She was at the end of the hall to his right, about a hundred feet away near the gymnasium. She peered in his direction, though not at him directly.
Alvaro feigned a study of the time on his watch, then looked up to read the room number of the entryway next to him. He did not care which class it was, so long as it appeared to the young woman that he had not been following her.
Three quick steps put him through the doorway, and a quick turn allowed him to peer around the corner down the hall. The young woman was craning her head toward the diminishing crowd through the corridor, but her eyes failed to find what little of Alvaro remained uncovered by the wall.
“Excuse me,” the male teacher at the front of the class asked. Alvaro slowly turned his head. All the students in the room were watching him.
“Is... this chemistry?” he asked, embarrassed.
The teacher, in his late forties with the beginnings of baldness thinning his salt-and-pepper hair, pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is world history. Please leave.”
Some students laughed. Alvaro stepped back into the hallway. He felt his cheeks burning from his blush and tried to shake off the feeling.
Down the hall he walked, away from the class where he had just made a fool of himself. He could not locate the student he was tracking.
She was gone, for the second time in as many minutes.
Then he heard the loud clasp of a door closing from the direction of the gymnasium. With the halls now empty, Alvaro jogged down to the area outside the gym. There he found an exterior door, the only one of the portals at this end, and the likely source of the sound he heard. The glass, almost the entire width and height of the metal frame, had a crisscross pattern of metal threads. Through the door, he could still see the field and dirt track outside.
But not the girl.
Alvaro walked up to the exit, checking over his shoulders to ensure that no witnesses were around. With his palms pressed to the warm metal crash bar directly in the sunlight from outside, he pushed open the door and stepped out onto the small, square concrete slab. He let the metal frame behind himself close gently, to make as little noise as possible. Then he stepped out into the grass, along the wall of the gym on his left.
He had choices for his path. To his right, he would walk across the windows of the hall he had chased the girl down. Straight would take him out into the full view of all the classrooms on this side of the school. The left would take him around the exterior of the gymnasium, with its windowless brick walls allowing him, and perhaps the young lady before, to sneak outside the school without being seen.
Alvaro skulked along the facade to his left. The birds in the woods were singing songs, their chirps rebounding with softer echoes. In the distance, a car revved its engine, speeding down the street running alongside the school’s baseball field. The odor of the grass cut earlier this morning was overwhelming, and bits of green blades stuck to his shoes.
At the corner of the wall, he did a quick check around to ensure that he was not being watched. Then he peered around the bend.
Behind the gymnasium was a garden shed, rusted from years in the elements, and a cement-walled garbage enclosure, with gates opened to the parking lot. Between those and where Alvaro stood was a tiny concrete shelter with a thick metal door. This building was only visible from a small part of the track, and he had never seen it before, even during his orientation walk around the school.
And at the door to this shelter stood the young woman, alone, her glow brighter than before.
He watched her, with only part of his head peeking past the corner of the gymnasium. She motioned with her arms, a somatic rhythm that entranced him. After a moment of dancing her hands about in front of her, she stopped and reached forward to grab something hanging on the shelter. Whatever it was caught the light of the sun and blinded him for a second.
As though she had been alerted to his presence, the young lady paused, and quickly looked in his direction. Alvaro ducked behind the bricks, his breathing heavier now. Wondering why he feared her so much, he wiped a bit of sweat off his brow and calmed himself down.
He counted to ten under his breath, then peered around the corner again. The girl was gone.
“Hello?” he asked. Glancing around, he quick-stepped to the entrance of the small shelter. The closer he got, the less blurry the details of the door were. On the ground lay a rusty padlock, and at his eye level on the frame of the shelter was the gate latch where the lock had been. The door was partially open, with only a sliver of light pouring in to show him that she was not hiding immediately inside.
Alvaro pulled on the metal slab. Its hinges squeaked quietly, from both rust and lack of lubrication. Four feet in, the sunlight could not reach, but just beyond was a fainter light illuminating the top of a metal ladder painted black that led deep into the ground. A musty smell filled his nose, and a whisper of someone’s voice came from the bowels of the shelter.
Gathering up courage to enter the pit, he placed his backpack on the ground, just at the farthest point of sunlight. One glance down showed how deep the trench was, almost twenty feet of ladder with concrete surrounding it. He overcame his slight aversion to heights, and, one after the other, planted his feet on the iron rungs. With some trepidation, he journeyed under the earth, until he stood on a solid foundation again.
A few yards away from the ladder, the corridor bent ninety-degrees to the right. The origin of the light from the bottom of the shelter came from around the corner. Alvaro walked close to the wall, wet blotches marking the concrete where moisture attracted what appeared to be mildew. Above his head were steel beams, intersecting with conduit that ran wiring to powered-off lights.
The air was mustier as Alvaro rounded the corner. A feminine voice was speaking, just above a whisper, from further down the hall and behind a partially open vault door. Movement caused a shadow to shift on the wall opposite him, so he stopped and waited for a few moments.
There was just enough room for a teenager to slip through the opening of the door. He sneaked up to the sliver of space of the frame, and saw what was causing the illumination. His grip on the door slipped from the sweat forming on his palms, and his muscles tensed up from head to toe.
About eight feet off the ground, a halo of white flames cycled around in an ellipse, about the diameter of a car tire. From the bottom of this disc of fire, half of a green monster was trying to pull itself free. Its long, pointed ears and grotesque nose twitched, while pointed fangs flared as it suddenly made horrible screaming noises Alvaro had never heard before from anything on earth. The half of the creature Alvaro could see was about a foot tall. It was struggling to pull itself free from the flames.
Right beneath the creature, the young woman was motioning with her hands and chanting in a language that he did not recognize. Her back was to him, and her hair was shifting about, though no air was moving in the room. The glow from her body was more intense, almost to the whiteness of the flames which hovered a couple of feet above her hands.
The green monster turned its head to Alvaro, then snarled at him. Its eyes were burning red, bearing straight through him. He flinched and backed up, tripping over the frame of the door and falling on his hind end. The door opened more, with a loud moan from the weight of the metal on its hinges.
The girl turned her head, but kept her hands moving above her. She saw Alvaro on the ground, and her brow furrowed. Her chanting ceased immediately.
“What is that?” Alvaro shouted, pointing at the creature now struggling to climb toward him.
“Get out of here!” she yelled. With her attention diverted, the green imp got free of the flaming halo and fell to the floor. The critter got up and ran toward Alvaro, its clawed feet clicking on the ground with each stride.
Alvaro pushed himself up and ran away from whatever he had just witnessed. He took the ladder skipping every other rung, grasping the sides with his hands, managing to shimmy up the ladder quicker than it took him to climb down. At the top, he grabbed his backpack and flung it over his shoulder.
Then pushed through the door of the shelter.
Ran out onto the grass.
Against the bricks of the gymnasium.
Up to the exit he used to track the young lady down.
His adrenaline was pumping, and his heart was racing. His fists pounded on the metal frame of the glass door. The noises echoed through the empty halls.
He finally got the attention of the gym teacher, who left his class to check out what the fuss was about.