The blow to his lower back made it feel like his body was about to fold in half. If not for the cold, hard steel surface, Travis almost thought his locker was trying to save him from a life of paralysis.
“Move it, you fuckin’ dork,” was the much-delayed afterthought that came out of Mike’s mouth after he kicked Travis while walking to class. Mike’s group of friends laughed as they trailed in his wake.
Travis knew he should have let it end there. He knew his lanky frame and plain appearance almost cried out for bullies to victimize him. Mike would always be a source of torment; it was up to Travis to mitigate the damage by keeping a low profile. He knew it. But sometimes, that stupid thing called pride can override what you know is the better course.
“Takes one to know one, you asshat.”
Mike stopped and turned around. “The fuck did you just say to me?”
Travis could feel time slowing down as his body shrunk smaller and smaller. “Nothing, man. Forget about it. I gotta get to class.”
Mike was on him before he could take a step. An iron fist clenched Travis’s collar and slammed him back against the locker. That locker meant well. It hurt, but better that than the brick wall behind it.
“You go to class when I fucking say you go to class, limp dick,” Mike growled. Another shove against the locker emphasized Mike’s point.
“I got it, man. Let’s just go,” Travis tried to sound confident. He was not very convincing.
“Nah, don’t you think you can talk your way out of this one. You showed me disrespect, and so I’ve gotta show you that you’re better off keeping your fuckin’ mouth shut.”
Travis tried to protest again, but a knee to his gut knocked any air he had left in him. Mike was big and mean, sure, but he wasn’t that dumb. The torture he inflicted usually stayed in the general torso area so that any bruises or cuts wouldn’t be open and obvious.
Travis collapsed onto the floor, gasping for air. Mike picked up Travis’s backpack (dropped after the initial blow that started the whole kerfuffle), unzipped it, and dumped everything out before kicking it everywhere.
“Mike, stop!” Travis thought he heard a voice say. He wasn’t sure. It could have just been the sparkling stars in his eyes speaking to him as he tried to maintain consciousness.
“Mike, it’s Spooky Susan. She’s a damn NARC. Let’s get outta here,” one of Mike’s crew said while tugging at his friend’s sleeve.
“You remember this,” Mike barked at Travis. And then suddenly, the storm was gone. Travis rolled over on his back, hands on his stomach, as he tried to relax his body to get some air back into his lungs.
Then there was a beautiful face above his. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, her cream-colored turtleneck sweater looked so comfortable that it made him almost feel warm. “Are you ok?” the angel asked.
Travis slowly sat up. Can’t go too fast, or he would definitely blackout. “I guess,” was the best he could muster.
“Forget them,” she said as she started her best attempt to gather and organize Travis’s scattered belongings. “They’re all insecure jerks who are all just each others’ teddy bear.”
Travis chuckled as much as the pain allowed him. He slowly turned around to get on his hands and knees in order to complete the job of gathering his materials. He shyly received the books and notes the girl had gathered, stuffed them in his backpack, and started to shuffle off to class.
“Hey! Wait!” the crystalline voice called from behind him. “You left something!”
He turned around, and she was standing right there, holding out his lucky Darth Vader pen. “Oh, uh … thanks,” he mumbled. “And thanks for helping me out there. Really, you didn’t have to.”
“Of course I did! It’s my solemn duty to clean up any mess that prick Mike leaves behind,” she smiled at him. “By the way, my name’s Susan.”
“Okay,” Travis said awkwardly.
“Okay … and you’re …?” Susan tried to jog Travis’s memory a bit.
“Oh. My name’s Travis. I’m late for biology class.”
“Okay Travis-late-for-biology-class, I guess I’ll see you in English later.”
She gave his hand a quick handshake and turned right around and walked in the opposite direction, her ponytail bobbing as if it was meant to hypnotize him into stalling any movement. It worked. Travis broke himself out of the daze and went to class.
Travis had never been as excited for English class as he was now; it felt like there was an extra jump in his step.
See you in English class later.
Those words were like a lighthouse to a ship on stormy seas.
How did she recognize me from English class? Travis wondered. He had no recollection of ever seeing her before. A girl like that—you tend to notice her. She did have a strange sense of fashion that looked more like those awkward pictures of his parents at a disco than what he was used to seeing other girls wear, but he supposed that retro styles were always in style to some extent.
He walked through the door, and there she was sitting up toward the front. She smiled at him and nodded her head upward as if to say, “Sup?” He quickly bent his hand up in an awkward wave before he made a beeline toward his seat in the back.
It was impossible to pay attention in that class. The teacher was talking about some story by a creepy writer about some guy going mad by a heartbeat under his floor or something. Travis took a few notes, but most of his time was spent making quick glances over to where Susan was sitting. He was hoping to make eye contact, but she was the model of a professional student: eager faced, taking detailed notes, raising her hand to answer the teacher’s questions from time to time.
The last bell of the day rang, and everyone hurried off to get as far away from school as possible. Except Travis. He wanted a little more time with his savior and possibly his new friend.
“Hey, so, that was a crazy story, right?” he asked her, feigning more interest in the story than in her.
“I know! It really makes you think about how anyone could even think about committing a crime like that without having to deal with the consequences,” she agreed. “Anyone who thinks they can murder someone and feel fine with it is obviously a psychopath. What did you think?”
“Oh, uh. Basically the same thing. I know when I hear the crickets outside my window at night, it’s hard to sleep. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like with a beating heart in your ears.”
Susan laughed, and it was the most beautiful sound Travis had ever heard.
He cleared his throat. “So uh, for the reading assignment tomorrow, maybe we could meet up before class and compare notes or something?”
Her face darkened only slightly, but the change was obvious enough for Travis to notice and lose all hope.
“Uh, maybe? I guess we’ll see.” Susan started to notice the sullen spirit coming over Travis. “Oh! I mean I’d love to do it. It just depends on if I can make it or not.”
“I mean, that’s cool. Are you planning on taking some vacation time?”
She laughed again, and Travis was starting to feel cool as fuck.
“Great joke. Never heard that one before. I just, uh, my mom has some health problems. Sometimes it’s bad enough that I have to stay home from school. It gets especially bad around this time of the year.”
“That’s ok. I totally understand. If you make it tomorrow, let’s hooku—let’s meet in the library and go over our notes. Cool?”
“Groovy! I hope I make it,” she smiled at him and headed outside.
Travis made his way toward the exit, and for the next 24-hours, he was floating purely on cloud-nine.
The next day, Travis’s morning classes moved at a crawling pace. When it was finally lunchtime, he looked around the dining hall for Susan. There was no sign of her. At the time they were supposed to meet up in the library, he still didn’t see her. He supposed that was fine; it gave him time to actually read the story instead of relying on Susan to explain it to him.
It still made no sense.
When he got to class, her seat was empty. He hoped her mom got better. Partially so that Susan would be happy — but mostly because he wanted to see her again.
“I guess your little girlfriend isn’t here to save you today,” he heard Mike jeering behind him on his way out of the school.
“She’s not my—I’m leaving, dude. Can we not today?” Travis said as he kept walking.
“Are you trying to tell me what to do again? I think it’s time we really—”
“Can I help you gentlemen with something?” Mr. Bradley’s voice boomed in the hallway behind them. The English teacher thought he heard something out in the hallways that deserved his attention.
“It’s nothing, Mr. Bradley,” replied Travis, nervously looking at Mike.
“I’m glad to hear it. Mike, are you able to help me out with something? I’ve got some boxes of books to move from my car to my office. Your friends can help out, too.”
“Uh, sure, whatever you need,” Mike shot a glare at Travis. “See you later, Trav. Hope to see you and Spooky Susan tomorrow. You guys belong together.”
Never had Travis heard an insult lobbed against him that he agreed with more.
The next day in the dining hall, while he was sitting by himself, he heard a tray clack down in front of him as someone joined him at the table. “This seat taken?” Susan asked.
“It is now,” Travis said trying to hide a smile. “What happened yesterday? Is your mom okay?”
“My mom? Oh, yeah … she’s fine …” Susan looked like she wanted to move on from the conversation and confess something all at the same time.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Travis said, trying to get the right read on the situation.
During lunch, Travis caught Susan up on the story she missed yesterday. Something about a kid who walked around his city and called everyone fake. Or … the word was “phony.” It seemed like one of those antiquated words that Travis thought should make its way back into the common dialect.
As lunchtime was wrapping up, Travis decided to take the conversation in a bold direction to address a common enemy. “So, uh, if you don’t mind me asking, why does Mike call you ‘Spooky Susan?’ I mean, I know the guy’s an asshole, but …”
Susan sighed. “Well, I guess it’s only fair you know all about me and my … problem.” Travis tried to maintain a mask of indifference. When “spooky” and “my problem” are used in tandem, that tends to be a red flag. He concentrated too hard on looking impassive; all that passed between them for a few moments were awkward stares and silence.
“So, when I told you my mom had health problems … that … wasn’t exactly true,” she began. “I wasn’t lying about this time of the year, though. For several years in mid-November, I feel like I’ve been … well … haunted.” She paused to look up at Travis to see if he started to get that glazed-over look that some people showed when she got to the h-word. Travis had a genuine look of concern. Susan supposed that was enough to continue. “It’s weird. And it’s only when I come to school. It started out innocent enough. The stuff in my locker wasn’t how I left it. Someone would turn the lights off in the bathroom while I was in it. Stuff like that. At first, I thought it was just the cheerleading squad messing with me.
“But then, it started to get weirder. Like, someone would pull on my ponytail in the library and I’d be the only one in the room. My books would start floating right in front of me. And then I started to see the ghosts.
“I wasn’t sure at first … they just kind of seemed like blurs in the corners of my eyes. But they started to get clearer. I think the school is haunted, but it seems really centered around me. I know how bad that sounds; ‘Oh, there’s that weird girl thinking the ghost-world revolves around her.’ I get that, but I can’t control what’s happening to me.”
Travis took it all in and tried to process everything he was hearing. “So, the ghosts … what do they look like? Red eyes? Sharp fangs?”
Susan laughed to try to deflect Travis’s mild disbelief. “The weird thing is, they look like any one of us,” she said with equal parts exasperation and fascination in her voice. “They look like regular high school students. And sometimes, they seem even more scared of me than I am of them.
“So, this has been happening for years. Usually the worst is on or around November 18th. I tried everything I could. Talked to priests. Talked to spiritualists. I even had a really weird conversation with the Goth kids. Nothing. No one knew how to help. I don’t even think any of them believed me.
“So then, I decided to go to one of those palm reader weirdos. I told her about my situation. She lit some incense and did some weird chanting-mumbling stuff. Then she told me something no one had ever told me before: The spirits see me as a bridge to the physical world. Around this time of the year — I didn’t understand a word she said about how it works, something like lines running through the earth or something — she said the spirit world and the physical world are almost touching each other. What the spirits need is a bridge to get across — and I guess that’s me.
“It didn’t sound all that bad, honestly. Why not help some ghosts back for a second chance at life? But the lady who told me all this said that would be catastrophic. ‘The dead need to stay dead,’ or something like that. So then—” Sarah pulled out her phone, “she gives me this friggin’ KNIFE.” Sarah pulled up a picture of a jagged, ornate knife. “She said this has been used before by those meant to protect this world from these spirits. She said at 11:38 p.m. on November 18th — 11:38 p.m. exactly — the spirits will be at their closest. And this knife needs to be used to — her words, not mine — slay them. Only then will the spirits leave me alone.”
Travis stared at the knife on her phone before sliding it back to her. “Okay so … do you actually believe her?”
“I don’t know? Maybe? It’s been going on so long that, like I said, I’m willing to try anything at this point.”
“And you know what today is, right?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you have the knife with you now?”
Susan gave him that classic “are-you-kidding-me” look. “Right. I’m going to bring a knife. To a school. During school hours.”
“Okay, okay, maybe I didn’t think that one through completely,” Travis sheepishly laughed. “But are you gonna do it? Like, tonight?”
Susan looked down at the table for a few seconds before looking back up. “I’d love to try. But of course, the time that I most want to come to this school is when it’s impossible to get into.”
“Well, you know the school gym used to be the old dining hall, right? That part of the school is older than the rest, and the security stuff there malfunctions all the time. It’s really easy to sneak in there from H Street.” Travis had no idea how he knew that, but he did. “I can help you out if you want.”
Susan looked like she had seen hope for the first time in years. “You’d do that? Won’t you get in trouble for sneaking out or something?”
“I can just tell my parents I’ve got a big test, and I need to stay out late with a friend to cram for the test. They won’t know any better.”
Susan took his hand and created an immediate flurry of butterflies in his stomach. “If you can get me in and we can pull this off, you’ll be my best friend forever.”
Travis liked the sound of that, so he agreed.
It was 11:20 p.m. when they met up at H Street.
“So before we do anything, do you have the knife this time?” whispered Travis.
“Oh SHOOT!” Susan exclaimed.
Travis looked over at her with shock, then did a double take to see she was smiling.
“Like DUH I’ve got the knife,” she said, pulling it out and loosely dangling it. “You are getting sleeeeeeeepy. Very sleeeeeeepy.”
“Okay, okay, knock it off.” Travis chuckled along with her. “Okay, so here’s the plan. There’s two bushes on our side of the fence, and between them, there’s a part of the fence that isn’t in the ground, so we should be able to lift it up and crawl underneath.” Again, not sure how he knew that, but he did.
They each took a turn doing a duck-and-run across the street toward the bushes. Sure enough, there was a hole under the fence. They sneaked over to the gym door, which looked locked, but Travis had secretly put an eraser toward the bottom of the doors earlier that day to act as a wedge to keep them from closing completely. They carefully slid through the door. It was 11:28.
“Okay, we’re in,” Travis whispered, although he wasn’t sure why since they were the only ones in the building. “Where do you think you’ve seen the ghosts the most? We’ve got like 10 minutes.”
“We’ve got exactly 10 minutes,” Susan corrected him. “Most of it happens around the library. But I’m guessing since I’m technically the bridge, the ghosts are looking for me arguably more than I’m looking for them.”
“Okay, good point. But let’s go to the library to be safe.”
Inside the library, Susan immediately tensed up. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be this nervous. I don’t know if I’m scared or excited more. If this actually works …” she let the thought trail off. She pulled the knife out of the backpack, and they both sat at opposite ends of a table just to cover each other’s backs.
“I guess we wait now,” Travis said.
They didn’t wait long.
“Did you hear that?” Susan whispered. “It sounded like something outside the hall. Are you sure there are no guards?”
“Pretty sure,” Travis responded, not sure at all. Then the door cracked open. Nothing came in. Susan and Travis both held their breath.
For a few seconds, there was nothing. Then, books started to fall off the shelves, as if someone was sloppily looking for a specific book. Susan put her hand over her mouth, trying not to scream. Travis tried not to do the same; someone had to be the brave one, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t him.
I know you’re here. I know you’re here, you fucking bitch!
As if hearing the disembodied voice wasn’t bad enough, the chorus of laughter that joined in was worse.
Yooooohoooooo! Susan! Susan Bentley!
Susan started to hyperventilate. “Travis—I—I—can’t …” She was taking loud, uncontrollable gasps. Then she stood up and screamed at something behind Travis.
Travis whirled around. Almost directly in front of him, three ghostly figures stood. The first thought that weirdly flew into his head: Susan was right, they kinda look like regular high schoolers!
Did you guys feel that? She’s here. Susaaaaaaan!
The original voice came from the ghost in the middle. The other spirits looked like they were trying to pull the talking one back, but he wouldn’t be deterred. Show yourself, Susan!
Susan dropped the knife and collapsed on the floor, curled up into a ball. “Travis! Travis! Help! You’ve got to help!”
Travis shuffled over to the floor and picked up the knife.
Did you guys hear something?
Travis took the knife and looked at his watch. 11:37 p.m.
She’s gotta be—“Whoa who the fuck are you?!?”
The bodies were solid as any human body could be. Travis could only guess it was 11:38. “You guys have no business coming here. Get the fuck out!”
“Whoa man, chill! Chill! Aren’t you … wait, aren’t you fucking Travis??”
That pushed Travis over the edge. It was one thing for them to know Susan’s name — the supposed bridge between worlds — but it was another thing for them to know him. “Kill them, Travis! Slice their throats! It’s the only way!” Susan screamed behind Travis.
Travis didn’t hesitate. He jumped at the first solid spirit and sliced his throat open.
“Dude what the FUCK! Get out of here now!” Another one of them screamed. They started to run for the door, but Travis felt a weird protective bloodlust now. He jumped at another one, stabbed it in the skull, then slid over the table to block the door from the other one. “Tell your friends to stay the fuck away from her!” He said, right before he sliced open the last one’s throat.
The only sound after that for a while was Travis’s heavy breathing. He turned around, and there was Susan, standing there smiling at him—the picture of serenity. “Oh, Travis. You did it. You saved me.” Travis dropped the knife and prepared for the embrace. Maybe a kiss?
She opened her arms, almost as if to invite him in. “You did it, Travis. You’re one of mine now.”
“Good evening, and welcome to Channel 4 News. I’m Brock Anderson, along with Heather Frampton.”
“Good to see you, Brock, and it’s great to be with our viewers tonight. This evening: Three high school students murdered inside Jackson High School. For the story, we head over to Will Shepherd. Will, any updates on the story for us tonight?”
“Yes, good evening, Heather. Police tell me they have no suspects at this time, but they’re exhausting all options to investigate the murders of Derrek Hunter, Chad Collins, and Steven Westbrook. Of course, locals in the area already have made up their minds as to who did it.”
The camera changed from the reporter on the scene to a pre-recorded interview with a woman who looked confidently at the off-camera reporter.
“Oh, no question it was the ghost,” she said. “It was Susan Bentley what did it.”
The camera changed again to B-roll of the high school building.
“The murder of the three students here was not the first, which continually feeds into the local legend that the school is haunted. Back in 1976,” the camera changed again to a slow-scrolling view of a high school year book showing a young girl with a tight, blonde pony tail and a cream-colored turtleneck sweater, “Susan Bentley shocked the local community when she committed a horrific murder-suicide. The story says that Bentley lured her friends into the library before slitting their throats—and then her own.”
The camera changed again to the school’s principal—an older, balding man who looked like he was at the end of his rope, “Yeah, I’m aware of the ghost stories. My friends and I would tell it to each other back when we were students. But I’m here to assure the public that in my 10 years as this school’s principal, I’ve never seen anything that makes it remotely true. We have full faith that the police department will catch this serial killer plaguing our community.”
“Of course, not everyone buys that explanation.”
The camera cut back to a man wearing a dark suit, standing at a lectern with a microphone and looking down at his notes with tears in his eyes. A woman wearing a dark dress was behind him. “While we have all faith in our local police, we’ve also come to the conclusion that there was only one thing that could take our Travis away from us, and that is the ghost of Susan Bentley,” the man read. “We urge the public to convince our city commissioners to tear down the building and build a new school elsewhere. The cost to our city’s bank account is a small price to pay compared to the cost of our missing children.”
“That was Amos Burkhead, father of Travis Burkhead, who was found dead in the library at this time last year. And despite a petition that gathered 3,000 signatures by Mr. Burkhead, city commissioners only said they will take it into consideration.”
The camera went back to the reporter.
“The three murdered young men this year and Travis last year are certainly not the first time this has happened at the school. Police vehemently deny any rumors of a ghost, but so far, they have no leads on any of the murders. They were adamant, however, in saying that the school is off-limits during after hours, and no students should attempt to break in.
“As the legend gains strength, more students have dared each other to break into the school on the night Susan Bentley’s death happened: November 18th. Legend also says Susan appears at 11:38 p.m., if you’re lucky enough to live. And whether you believe the local legend or not, more members of the community are asking: Should the school be torn down? I’m Will Shepherd, Channel 4 News.”