Don't Play With the Children
Gasping for air, Mr. West, who'd accepted a very temporary week long assignment in a small country school, ran as fast as he could through the forest. Terror and disbelief fought for supremacy in his mind as he zigzagged through the closely grown trees. Passing too close, his shoulder bounced against one of the trees and he spun to the leaf covered ground with a screech. Although he needed desperately to catch his breath, he rolled over, got back to his feet, and continued to run. He could hear them coming.
The week had started well enough. The children had been much better behaved then, although they were odd. They even looked odd. Their features were… disturbing, although he couldn’t tell just what it was that bothered him. Many of the parents had the same, unsettling, look. Mountain folk, he thought. Inbreeding?
The children were polite enough. “Yes Mr. West, Thank you Mr. West, May I, Mr. West?” but he kept catching them looking away when he’d turn around. They may have just been playful expressions, but they disturbed him. The looks brought to mind the absent teacher’s only instruction, “Do not play with the children.” A cryptic instruction which added to his unease, although he tried to shrug the instruction off as an attempt to avoid discipline issues.
From the front porch of the school building, he watched the children play during recess. All seemed normal, and then West would catch a child watching him. As he lay in bed at night listening to coyotes howl outside the window of his room, which was attached to the back of the schoolhouse, he was glad he was only going to be there for a week. The light from the growing moon outside gave an icy glow to his room rather than comfort.
By midweek the children had gotten much less disciplined. They arrived on time every morning, but their attention wandered and they kept snickering behind his back. A drawing assignment on Wednesday afternoon yielded disturbing pictures of a creature, or creatures, in dark woods. Red eyes shone from the darkened pages.
Friday was suddenly much better. The children sat quietly at their desks during lessons. Lunch was quiet as well, but then at recess several of the children stood arguing outside the front door. As they began to shout, he stepped onto the porch.
“What’s wrong? Settle down there,” he called as he came down the steps from the front door. Squatting among the children, he determined that they were arguing over a game called “It”.
“Tag?” He asked.
“Sorta,” little Theo McCoy answered with a snicker. “But you only play it at night.”
He was suddenly uncomfortable again as all the children around him wore what could politely be called mischievous looks, but which, to him, seemed, somehow, darker.
Tim Aikens spoke up, “Not just any night. Only on the full moon!”
Theo elbowed Tim as Cindi Perkins, one of the few girls in the group spoke up. The long locks of her dirty but bright red hair bounced as she stepped forward and asked, “Can you play with us tonight Mr. West?”
Surprised, West wasn’t sure how to answer. When he hesitated, Theo spoke up. “Yeah! We play up here at the school anyway cause it’s big, flat, and comes right up to the woods.”
“At night?” Considering his sole instruction and his unease for most of the week, West wasn’t sure he wanted to participate in a night time game, but as the children gathered around smiling and eager he felt suddenly silly over the anxiety he’d been feeling. They are only kids, and my playing this game can’t affect their behavior in the classroom. I leave in the morning, he thought.
“Come on Mr. West,” Tim pleaded.
West nodded reluctantly, "I guess so."
“Yay,” the children cheered.
“I’ve got to finish my notes for your teacher so she knows what we did this week, and I've got to get my things packed so I can leave in the morning, but I should have time to come out and play with you guys for a while. Somebody’s going to have to teach me how to play though.”
“You’ll catch on alright,” Theo assured.
Still cheering, the children went back to their recess. West climbed back up to the building’s front door and felt his unease return before glancing back. Children playing, he thought to himself. What’s wrong with me, he continued as he walked back inside.
evening he’d finished his notes and packed most of his things before he
heard the children arriving. He frowned
as he heard little yaps as though from small dogs. His frown smoothed however as, between the
yelps, came joyful peals of children’s laughter.
As he walked through the school room he realized how dark it had gotten. The full moon however lit the outside and as he walked he saw several of the children running outside the windows.
Exiting the front door, he scanned the field that served as the school’s playground. There were only three children visible, but he knew there had been more a moment before. The yaps of the children’s dogs had grown louder in both volume and number but as he looked around he couldn’t see any of them. Two of the remaining children ran awkwardly into the darkness as he came down the steps. Cindi Perkins, the only child still visible, ran up and he squatted to speak with her.
“Are you ready Mr. West?” she asked with an eager expression on her face.
As he drew to eye level, he flinched as the, disturbing nature of the child’s features seemed to be magnified in the moon light. Her hair seemed to have grown further down on her forehead. Her face seemed angled forward and her eyes deeper along those angles. Her teeth, which he only got quick glances of, looked pointed. He looked away, realizing that he was staring. Forcing his eyes to scan the schoolyard, he noticed again the yaps of the dogs, all of which were staying in the shadows.
“Um,” he began as he tried to suppress the return of his unease. Keeping his eyes away from the girl, he asked, “So, ah, I guess it is like hide and seek huh? All the other children have hidden already?”
A yip right beside him made West quickly shift his gaze back to where the child had been a moment before. His throat closed as he gaped at the creature that was there instead.
It wasn’t as large as its yip had caused him to expect, but neither was the creature as small as the earlier yips had led him to imagine. He managed a few quick breaths as the red haired animal stood just a couple of feet away with its head down. At about forty pounds, the creature was broad across the chest and was breathing as heavily as he was. It yipped again as West pulled his eyes away and searched for the girl. “Cindi!” he called.
The dog lifted her head and looked at West. Noticing the movement, he looked back. The animal’s face made his mouth and throat go dry. Her eyes were slitted threateningly, despite her wagging tail, but it was her snout that grasped his attention. Despite pushing further forward from her face than it normally did, the mouth was still, mostly, that of little Cindi Perkins.
As West stumbled backwards and fell onto his butt, the animal’s gaze followed him. A giggle came from the half formed mouth before Cindi’s voice instructed, “OK, Mr. West. You’re it!”