The Rock Collectors

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Ch 2: Skipping School

The rest of the afternoon dragged on slower than Barry had expected. He spent most of it half asleep on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a cola, binge-watching Season 5 of Doc Clock for the third time—best season, no doubt.

Normally, he could count on Netfilms to let him breeze through hours at a time, but he just couldn’t get himself to engage in what he was even watching. The ugly face of Mr. Burg kept popping into his view.

Needless to say, it felt like years before 5:30 had rolled around. Barry didn’t bother to take a shower since he’d probably be running a couple hundred laps anyway.

“Welp,” he piped, clapping his hands together, “time for toil and drudgery!”

He stood up off the couch a little too quickly and got a fleeting moment of dizziness.

“Whoa! I’ve been sitting down for too long.” he mumbled, blinking away the little eye floaters in his vision.

He made his way down a few hallways before reaching the front doors. His sandals were lying on top of each other next to the carpet, which he stared at for some time before putting them both on. When he opened the door, he noticed that the breeze had picked up quite a bit—better described as wind at this point.

As he stepped outside, it blew his hair to one side and swirled around noisily inside his right ear. Barry paced himself to a stroll on his way to school. The less time he had to spend inside that oversized torture chamber, the better. Around the halfway point of his walk, he looked to his left at one of the yards that he was passing.

A boy and a girl he recognized from school were kicking a soccer ball around and laughing, having lots of fun, and making it clear that they didn’t have anything better to do. It was sickening to watch.

“Keep it together, Barry.” he told himself, looking towards the skies. “It’ll all be done after tonight.”

Minutes later, the stainless steel double doors stood before Barry, their respective windows glaring down at him like a pair of unforgiving eyes. While the rest of the school building looked fairly normal, sporting red to white brick patterns and a flat stone roof, these two doors always felt oddly menacing.

He leaned closer to the glass and peeked inside, squinting down the main hallway at the clock that hung on the far wall. It read 5:59 exactly. “Shoot!” he cried, wrenching the heavy door open as fast as he could and bolting in.

“I’m gonna be late if I don’t make it in less than a minute!”

Mr. Burg was awfully picky about his students coming in the door right at six. One time, Barry’s classmate Thomas Chestnut was five minutes late because he couldn’t find one of his shoes, and when he explained himself, Mr. Burg took his own shoe and threw it at his face in response.

At the end of the main hall was a split that led both left and right, of which he took the left path. He passed several classroom doors on his way, everything looking just the same as it always did. He was aware that the entrance to the red gym wasn’t that much further from here.

Every clock he passed reminded him of how little time he had, making him run even faster. Finally, the red gym’s respective crimson door came into view in the middle of the corridor’s right wall. The last clock that hung above the entrance told him he had five seconds ‘til a minute was up.

He kicked it into high gear and ran as fast as his legs could take him, desperate not to get caught late. He slid noisily on the waxed floor, almost overshooting his destination, and pushed open the broad metal door, jumping inside.

“You’re late!” a deep voice boomed from the center of the gym.

“It must’ve been one second...” Barry thought, inwardly groaning.

He looked up to see Mr. Burg standing exactly where he heard the voice, his large feet resting on the black center circle of the floor. He started making his way slowly towards his student, his basketball sneakers squeaking on the wooden floor with each laden step.

He stopped walking when he was just a couple feet from Barry, crossing his arms and glowering down at the boy.

“You know the rules, Jingleton. For every second you’re late, that’s ten extra laps around the gym...MOVE!”

His sudden outburst startled Barry right into his jog; he was just glad to have an excuse to run away from the brutal lug. Not five seconds after he’d started running did Mr. Burg cup his hands to his mouth and shout,

“FASTER, JINGLETON! I DIDN’T ASK FOR AN IMPRESSION OF MY GRANNY’S RUNNING STYLE! NOW, FULL SPRINT!”

Barry grimaced, but did what he was demanded of. He wasn’t exactly the most athletic guy in his class—or his school, for a matter of fact—so this was an extreme strain on his body. By the time he had completed his second lap, his lungs were screaming at him to stop.

“IF YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE ONE OF YOUR LUNGS HAS BURST, YOU HAVEN’T DONE ENOUGH!” bellowed Mr. Burg, his face already as red as the doors to the gymnasium.

Eight laps later, Barry found himself collapsed on the ground, his face buried in the floor, gasping for breath. His chest hurt like he couldn’t believe! At least Mr. Burg would be satisfied now.

“YOU THINK I’M SATISFIED WITH THAT WEAK DISPLAY?” the beast roared. “FIFTY PRESS-UPS!”

Barry coughed, still trying to get some air, but he didn’t want to make him mad and continued onto the next dreaded exercise. While his legs had been reduced to noodles by the previous workout, his arms were already basically spaghetti with skin, so he had a hard time doing more than ten let alone fifty.

He wasn’t sure how, but Barry managed to survive another fifty-ish minutes of torture brought upon by his wrathful gym teacher. Lying eagle-spread on his back, he was able to crane his neck back to see the clock hanging on the back wall—seven o’clock.

“SO, YOU MANAGED TO—” A fit of nasty hacking and coughing echoed inside of the expansive gymnasium.

It took at least ten more seconds before he got it under control.

“Ooh...mmmhmm! Forgot that I didn’t need to use my drill voice anymore.” Mr. Burg muttered awkwardly, almost sounding embarrassed. “Anyway, I’m required by the school’s teacher regulatory standards to give you a five-minute break. Hit the showers and get back in here without being late again!”

Suddenly, Barry felt the man’s sweaty paw clasp around his wrist, pulling him to his feet. His stance was very shaky, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other in order to get to the locker room entrance. As he walked past, Mr. Burg shoved him roughly.

“Keep moving!” he spat. Barry stayed silent, careful not to get caught grumbling. Mr. Burg was very clear on his feelings about grumbling. He lifted a pink hand to the door handle and pulled, slipping out of his teacher’s cruel stare.

The doors to the boy’s locker room were just down the hall, so his overworked leg muscles didn’t need to push much further. Inside the locker room, Barry stopped upon reaching his spot on the bottom row. He fell down on his knees heavily, letting out a breath, and grasped the metal handle to his compartment.

The chill that the room’s atmosphere had left on the lever was soothing to the blisters on his fingers.

With his other hand, he flicked the numbers on his padlock quickly and unlocked it in just a few seconds. He pulled on the handle to open the tiny door and was suddenly startled when the ripping of paper broke the cold silence.

He looked down at the scummy concrete floor and saw a crumpled note sitting there. Yet another note? It looked very similar to the one he’d gotten from Mr. Quincer earlier today, and so he plucked it up off the ground.

Unfolding it, he noticed that there was a long tear that almost went the full length of the paper—presumably from getting caught in the locker door.

‘Sorry, had to use your gym clothes as extra sweat towels for the guys. Maybe you’ll find them in the trash! Thanks, Dingleton!’ Barry quickly realized that it wasn’t another note from Thea. It could only be...

Leon!” he growled, clenching the note tightly in his hand. “He really, really irks me! He thinks just because he’s the teacher’s kid he runs the place! Man, I wish I was like Thea so I could beat him up some day...or at least have the confidence to.”

Oh, what a wonderful day this was turning out to be! He stuffed the note in his pocket, right next to Thea’s, and proceeded to look inside his locker to see if the bully had left him anything that was usable. There was his white T-shirt from last week he forgot to take out, but that was too dirty already. Maybe he could wash it in the shower...

Finally, he made a decision and grabbed the funny-smelling piece of clothing and a spare towel, shutting his locker loudly and hopping back up into a standing position. He lifted his head to the dimmed light fixture hanging above his head and sighed, closing his eyes for second, and then opening them again and directing himself across the room towards the open showers. Barry was just grateful that he didn’t have to wash up next to any other guys this time.

Using the showers after gym class was a school rule, so he had no choice but to stand all exposed next to the thirteen other dudes in his class. Unfortunately for him, most of the school’s students were male, many of them bigger, better, more talented people than him; it made for some unpleasant experiences in the locker room together.

“I wish I went to a private school.” he grumbled, blinking hard to relieve himself of the bad memories. “I mean, it’s not like we couldn’t afford it.”

He took off his shirt and hung it woefully on one of the silver hooks on the other side of the room. But before he could get any further, he heard a dull thud behind and whirled around immediately. He gripped his towel firmly and looked around wildly for the source of the thump, but saw no one; the entrance to the shower room was completely vacant.

A dust bunny rolled by.

Barry squinted a little, still paranoid, but decided he was just hearing things.

“As long as he doesn’t walk in on me, I’ll be fine...” he told himself, turning slowly back around.

Barry leapt backwards with a startled cry and stared at the figure that had just appeared out of nowhere behind him.

It was a girl, with dark skin and chin-length black hair. She was almost a half a foot shorter than Barry and probably thirty pounds lighter, which was saying something considering his thin stature. Her large olive eyes were looking straight at him, almost like she was trying to peer into his soul.

“Boo.” she said dully, and then leaned back to laugh. “Geez, you’re pretty jumpy today, aren’t you?”

Barry went red in the face and rushed over to grab his orange t, pulling it over his head hastily. While he was patting his hair back down, he stared at the girl incredulously and snapped,

“Thea, what the heck are you doing in here?! This is the boy’s locker room! I was almost ready to take a shower!”

Thea Quincer may be his one friend, but she really annoyed him sometimes. She quickly stifled her laughter and looked up at him with a cocky grin.

“Eh, whatever. I wasn’t actually going to let you take your clothes off, okay? No need to get all defensive!”

She walked up to him, a little hop in her step as a result of her own restless nature, and then leaned up against the wall, still looking straight up into his eyes.

“Besides, I’ve come to rescue you! You should be thankful.” she said, sounding a little offended. He stopped fixing his hair and looked down at her, returning the curious glance.

“Rescue me? What’s that supposed to mean?” questioned Barry; he hoped this wasn’t another one of her dangerous schemes to get them in or “out” of trouble.

Thea rolled her eyes and strolled on past Barry, walking towards the wide entrance frame, standing in the middle of it and taking looks both left and right as if she was waiting to cross the road.

“I got your text about Burgermeister giving you a bullcrap detention, so I decided I would take matters into my own hands. Sneaking into the locker room was easy, so now all we gotta do is,” she whirled around on her heel and faced Barry, smiling broadly. “sneak right back out! Would you believe me if I told you there was an underground tunnel system that leads out of the school?”

Barry shut his eyes tightly and rubbed them with two fingers, trying to process her words.

“Are you saying you used the sewage system to get inside here?” he muttered, his stomach lurching.

She waved a hand at him, making the little “tut tut” noise with her tongue.

“Come on, Barry! These are cool, cryptic underground tunnels, not poop tubes!”

He gave an involuntary shudder at the idea of having to crawl around in human excrement. Worst place to die. Thea had to snap her little fingers to get him to stop thinking about it, and he stood straight up, clearing his throat and saying,

“Sorry. Anyway, you said there’s a, um, tunnel system?”

Thea gave an over-exaggerated nod with a grin to match. She stepped out of the large entryway and headed left, leaving Barry’s line of sight. He hurried after her, kind of wishing he’d been able to wash up first. He was still all sweaty and gross. Nevertheless, he followed Thea down the skinny hallway inside the locker room for a short while before reaching the dead end.

A large circular drain was embedded in the floor, a square of crusted residue surrounding it. Thea bent down and threaded her small fingers beneath the thin bars of the grate and pulled upward; a low scraping was heard as a piece of the floor was wrenched from its spot, coming loose at the edges of the square.

With a grunt, she lifted it to the side and set it down heavily, proceeding to let out a breath of relief.

“Ugh. That thing’s hefty.” she noted, wiping off her hands on her jean shorts.

Barry leaned over and peered into the darkness below. The stone walls surrounding the hole dripped and glistened. He could see a light about twenty feet down as well as several rust-coated rungs built down the length of the vertical passage. It was all very ominous...and grimy. Not his two favorite descriptors when it came to his surroundings.

Thea, however, was completely unfazed by the look of the dark, dank pit. She got down into a sitting position and eased herself inside, getting a good foothold on the rungs before starting her descent. Just as her chin met floor level, she craned her neck to look back at Barry, who was still just standing there, watching apprehensively.

“C’mon, don’t be a wuss! I promise you won’t die down here.” she said, and then paused; then, “You want to go back to Burgermeister instead?”

That was enough motivation for him; he waited until Thea had gotten further down into the hole before placing a foot on one of the rungs. As he slowly lowered himself inside, he leaned over the edge and grabbed the square chunk of concrete that Thea had removed, pulling it towards him. He climbed down a few more feet before grasping it once more, then pushed it from the bottom to let it sink back into place.

Instantly, Barry felt like a prisoner as he tried to look out of the drain just above his head.

“Thea?” he called, trying to keep himself from sounding scared. “The tunnel’s short, right?”

“More or less!” replied Thea, whose voice sounded distant already.

He let out an audible groan as he continued to climb deeper and deeper into the ground. The further he went, the closer it seemed the walls around him got. His elbows kept bumping the moist rocks around him as he got deeper and deeper, so he slowed down for a moment. He didn’t have claustrophobia, but for a moment he sure felt like he did. Was this where he was going to die?

Another twenty or so seconds passed and his feet still hadn’t met the floor yet. He stopped in place, staring for a moment at his red fingers clasped around two of the ladder rungs, and then tried to turn his head so he could look beneath him.

“Uh...Thea? Thea!”

A couple of seconds later, Barry heard a faint “Yeah?” come from far below. He breathed heavily before going on.

“I...am I almost there?” he called, feeling fatigued from his ordeal with Mr. Burg just a few minutes ago.

He thought he heard Thea reply with a similar “Yeah!” Thank goodness he didn’t have that far to go! Of course, the reply had come from a good distance down, so he ended up subjecting himself to almost another minute of climbing before the walls around him expanded outward, giving him some breathing room.

He took another glance downward to see Thea standing just twenty feet below him on rock bottom, her hands on her sides.

“There you are!” she shouted, her voice echoing up through the hole. “I thought you got stuck for a minute there!”

Barry nearly slipped off of the wall after his foot couldn’t find the next rung, about six feet from solid ground. He managed to stifle an embarassing yelp that almost snuck out. Thea pointed at the wall with her forefinger and said,

“Oh yeah, the last few feet or so don’t have rungs. Just jump down the rest.”

Barry cleared his throat so it wouldn’t come out in his voice.

“It’s just, like, six feet?”

He saw Thea nod in confirmation. Taking a deep breath, and without taking another look at the jagged stone floor, he dropped off of the last rung, landing with a slight grunt a moment later. He was relieved that the uneven pattern in the floor didn’t trip him up, otherwise he might not have ended up with all his teeth intact.

The moment he was done wiping his smudged palms on his shorts, he looked up to take a look at his surroundings. The tunnel was both wide and tall, stretching on beyond his sight. Every ten feet down the passageway was a lit torch on either wall, sending flickering light all throughout.

The walls themselves, unlike the floor, were constructed out of thousands upon thousands of creepy, cryptic, hollow human skulls. A powerful chill rippled through Barry as he locked eyes with the dead.

“Thea, you said this was a tunnel system. These are catacombs!” he said quickly, a sick feeling forming in his gut.

Thea walked directly in front of him, breaking his eye contact with the one skull’s empty sockets. At least she didn’t have dead eyes. Far from it, in fact, for hers were always alert and alive.

“Yeah, well, that makes it a whole lot more interesting.” Thea said matter-of-factly. “Come on, let’s go!”

Yep. This was where he was going to die.
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