The sun burned into the city like hellfire on the day Alice heard a dead man speak.
She didn’t know he was dead at first. He sat in front of the principal’s desk in the tiny administrative office of her downtown Pittsburg high school, looking very much alive. Her death-visions had stopped many years ago, when she was still a little girl, and now, at sixteen, she’d managed to put so much distance between herself and that terrible part of her childhood that she could hardly remember what it felt like to look at the face of a stranger and see death and decay staring back at her. Walking into the principal’s office, Alice was not expecting to relive those horrible days. And the possibility that death might soon come for her, stepping out of her visions and into her backyard, was the furthest thing from her mind.
Alice smiled at Mr. Hadler, the school secretary, as she breezed into the reception area.
“Another note,” She said. “Model Rocket Club this time.”
Mr. Hadler rolled his eyes into his prematurely receding hairline.
“I wish that fossil would learn how to use the intercom.” He motioned Alice forward. “I mean, he’s a science teacher. Shouldn’t he be good with technology?”
“Only if it’s been collecting dust on the lab tables for the past twenty years,” Alice said. “I’ll be quick.”
Alice moved toward the principal’s closed office door.
“Well, he’s in a meeting,” Mr. Hadler said. “But I don’t think it’s important. I suppose you could pop in and make your delivery.”
“Thanks.” Alice smiled again, knocking on the principal’s door, then opening it.
Mr. Berringer, the school principal, sat behind his desk, a sickly-pale light-skinned man in a rumpled suit. He held a manila folder in one hand, fanning himself against the oppressive heat, and his face glistened with a thin sheen of stale sweat. The dead-man occupied a second chair facing the principal’s desk. He was a sharp contrast to the other man with his coal-dark skin, fleshy rolls, and flawless pinstripe suit. Both men paused their conversation as Alice stepped into the doorway.
“Yes, Alice?” Mr. Berringer frowned at the interruption.
“I have a note from Mr. Weissman,” Alice said, waving the scrap of paper in her hand as proof. “It’s about Model Rocket Club, I think.”
It was her third week working as the science teacher’s aid, and Alice was enjoying the job. Wandering the school while everyone else was in third period made the time pass quickly, and the position would look great on her college applications. As a junior in High School, class of 1987, Alice was expected to be considering her future, which was difficult to manage when her present included playing caretaker for her thirteen-year-old brother, Royce, and their ailing grandmother. But she did her best. That was what Grandma had always taught her. “Do your best and God’ll do the rest,” she would say. Grandma had always been a little preachy, but Alice didn’t mind. She took the lessons to heart and they kept her motivated. This new extra-curricular was the latest in a list of school involvements that offered plenty of opportunities to put her grandma’s advice into practice.
“Yeah, okay.” The principal waved Alice in with an impatient hand. “I’ll take it.”
Alice stepped into the cramped room, shifting to the side and allowing the office door to swing shut behind her. Mr. Berringer’s office was cluttered with two enormous filing cabinets on one wall and a large organizer on another, in addition to the battered desk. Every available space was stacked with paperwork and file folders. Like the rest of the school, the room was not air-conditioned, and walking through the stuffy space was like wading through a swamp, the air thick with heat and sweat. Alice was eager to make her delivery and get back to the relative cool of the hallways.
She only made it three paces into the room before a grenade went off in her head.
Heat and pain blossomed through her skull, sending streaks of red across her vision. Her hands flew to her head, palms gripping her temples and crushing the Science teacher’s forgotten note into her tight ringlets. Her feet froze to the floor, leaden and unmovable, and she stumbled over her next step, nearly falling.
The unexpected feeling called up memories from her early childhood: the death-visions she’d long since forgotten. They rose from a shadowed corner of her mind, distant vapors of terrible things buried deep in her subconscious. Alice had not felt something like this in many years. Not since her mother died and left her and Royce in their Grandma’s care. She couldn’t recall much from that time, those early years of her life were concealed behind walls she’d carefully constructed during many childhood therapy sessions. But she did remember that a feeling like this — the burning headache and petrified limbs — always preceded a death-vision.
That was what she called them. Death-visions.
She would look into the face of some random passerby on the street, or a stranger at the grocery store, and instead of the face that everyone else saw, she would see something terrible. Something that frightened the adults in her life when she talked about it, and caused them to give her that wide-eyed look, full of pity and disbelief. A look she’d grown to despise.
Alice never learned why she saw those things, and as a little girl, she was never sure what it was she was seeing when the death-visions came. Just that they scared her to the bone.
“Something wrong, dear?” The dead man’s voice rose in the room, a sound like grinding stone. “Are you ill?”
Alice shook the feeling away as best she could, steadying her breath and forcing herself back into the present. She glanced at the large man in the guest chair. He sat upright, with posture far too correct for a man his size, and seemed to take up even more room than his large frame should have, filling out the space around him with a weight that defied gravity. With Alice’s vision slightly blurred, the man’s dark skin leaked into the coal-gray of his suit coat, melding to a singular shadow and broken only by the bone-white of his smile. Alice had grown up in rough neighborhoods and had learned to recognize a predator when she saw one. She knew right away that this man was someone she wanted nothing to do with.
“No, I’m good.” Alice pushed a smile into her full lips, running a hand across the smooth mocha skin of her forehead. “Just a headache.”
She righted herself, taking the final steps to reach the desk, and offering the now wrinkled note to the principal. “Here you go.”
Mr. Berringer accepted her delivery with a pale, quivering hand.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Alice.” The Principal said. “You look a little green around the gills.”
His concern would have felt more genuine if he had not been glancing back and forth between Alice and the office door, as if eager for her to leave. Alice noticed that he carefully avoided eye contact with the other man in the office. Whoever his guest was, the principal had no intention of offering an introduction. That was fine with Alice. She wanted nothing more than to exit stage right, and escape the stuffy confines of the office and the scrutiny of the man in the guest chair.
“Yes, Mr. Berringer,” Alice lied. “I’ll be fine. Just need to get back to class and sit down for a moment.”
“Alright. Well, off you go then.”
Mr. Berringer dismissed her with a wave of the manila folder, still clutched in his trembling hand. Alice wondered if the sweat slicking the man’s comb-over might be related to more than just the heat.
She forced another quick smile, turning to leave and risking a final glance at the principal’s guest, her eyes settling on his face.
The face changed in an instant, reshaping before her eyes.
The dark skin of the man’s face melted into a mass of watery flesh, swirling and reforming itself until the features were misshapen and elongated, sitting at odd angles with one another and stretching until they blended together like an obscene misrepresentation of a human form. His mouth widened and grew, its smile blackening into rows of crooked teeth, jagged from decay. Black smoke leaked from his eyes and nostrils, obscuring portions of the gruesome sight, then revealing them again as it drifted through the sweltering heat of the office.
Alice’s breath caught in her throat.
She froze in place, unable to tear her eyes from the sight. An instant of utter shock gave way to a single horrifying thought: it was happening again. Her death-visions were back. She’d escaped them years ago, moving on with her life and working hard to accomplish all that she could in her schooling. Now she was right back where she’d been ten years earlier, with some monstrous vision clawing at her eyes and tearing through her carefully constructed walls of sanity.
Only this time it was different.
Along with the terrible vision came an unexplained intuition about what she was seeing. The knowledge just dropped into her head, materializing out of nowhere, and suddenly she knew, knew that the man sitting in the guest chair was dead. Oh, he was moving around, walking, talking, breathing, but the person who’d lived forty-something years of life in that body was gone. In his place was something evil. Some horrible thing had taken up residence inside the body of a dead man and was hanging out in the principal’s office at May Lou Williams Metropolitan High School.
Alice blinked and the vision was gone. The dead-man in the guest chair returned to normal and Alice was left hyperventilating and leaning heavily against the wall of a boring office, with an equally boring principal staring at her like she was dressed as a giant chicken.
“Alice, you really don’t look well.” Mr. Berringer’s concern sounded a bit more genuine this time. “Maybe you should go see the nurse.”
“Yeah okay.” Alice forced out some words at random, shoving them through the hazy aftermath of her death-vision. “I’ll just go, uh— go do that.”
She turned to leave again and accidentally locked eyes with the dead-man. She tore her gaze away, but not before something flashed behind the man’s eyes. They narrowed slightly at Alice, and the ghost of a serpentine smile drifted across his face.
Alice fled the principal’s office. She skipped her final class, ignored her locker, and headed straight for the nearest exit, hurrying home. She needed to get some distance from the school, and the dead thing inside it. Her thoughts were still scattered and irrational, but there was one certainty that clung to the forefront of her mind, digging its claws into her brain until every thought was bloodied and leaking fear. Whatever that thing was that had taken the body of that dead man, it knew Alice had seen it.
And she couldn’t escape the bleak premonition that she’d be seeing it again very soon.