By Prescilla Dorado
(This story first appeared in Interstices: An Anthology of Works by the Fellows of the 53rd Silliman University National Writers Workshop, which had a limited release in 2014.)
Everybody in Grade Six of St. Marcellin looked forward to Grand Fair. All except for Jeremy. He even dreaded it. Normally, he should have been excited. Grand Fair meant no classes for the whole week, the school turned into a carnival. Even the nuns would be wearing jeans underneath their habits, or so rumors went. At first he had been excited. He had already made agreements with his last-semester seatmate and latest crush, Karen Solito, that they were going to volunteer for their class’s paint-face booth. It would have been perfect. They would have the same duty shifts, maybe even ride the octopus together. Then Aidan had to come in and ruin everything.
Aidan had this thing for Regine, the class president. Two weeks before the Grand Fair, during the class meeting, he made a great show by proposing to turn the classroom into a horror house of some sort. Already, Jeremy was having a bad feeling about this. Jeremy, being one of the class’s resident artists, was immediately tagged by Aidan to be one of his group members. Jeremy could now see himself slaving away at this project while Aidan and the rest of his gang munch on Stick-O’s. Why couldn’t he have said anything, during the meeting? Why couldn’t he refuse? When Regine was writing his name on the board under Horror House, he could almost feel Karen Solito’s disappointed look burning a hole through his head from all the way across the room.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, Regine, to finish the meeting quickly, had to randomly put Lina Galves in Aidan’s group, otherwise nobody would take her in at all. Every class had at least one Lina—that kid, usually fat, that almost everyone just loved to pick on. But the thing was, Aidan was just the poison to the Lina types, and having them in the same group only called for trouble.
* * *
“We should just hang you on the front door. You’ll be our main feature. People will be so scared of your face they won’t even enter the room,” Jeremy heard Aidan say. “Then Jeremy here won’t have to build all these mazes.”
Jeremy turned away from the cardboard wall he was erecting in time to see Aidan dip a straw in one of the paint cans and blow hard in Lina’s direction. A splatter of red appeared on the front of her white school blouse. The other boys Aidan had also picked took straws and polka-dotted Lina with every color from the paint set.
“Aidan, please. I need the paint,” Jeremy said, not looking at Lina. But Aidan had already found new amusement in a long piece of twine he dragged out of the pile of materials and sneaked up on one of his cronies and tried to string him up with it.
“After him!” Aidan yelled, and he and the other boys chased the victim out of the room.
Since the start of the semester, ever since Aidan had spied over Jeremy’s shoulder and saw him drawing, Jeremy somehow found himself stuck in Aidan’s group. Aidan had liked his drawing, and at that time that was reason enough for Jeremy to believe that something was going right for him at this school.
The reason for this inclusion, however, became clear when Aidan started egging Jeremy to draw him some salacious pictures. The latest of these was a comic starring Aidan and Regine. In the stories Aidan wanted him to draw, Regine was always naked save for her school tie bearing the St. Marcellin crest. The comic, closely supervised by Aidan, debuted in the back of one of Jeremy’s notebooks and had run for several chapters now and still ongoing, only a few pages away from meeting his Religion notes. Unknown to Aidan, Jeremy had made a spin-off of the series in a separate notebook. In these, Aidan was perpetually being killed by Regine in many different ways. Sometimes, he had Regine impale Aidan to the blackboard with the meter stick. In some of the pictures, they just died together.
What Jeremy had really wanted was to be assigned to the face-art booth with Karen Solito. It would have been an easier job and much closer to his style. He had also especially liked it when Karen drew on his hand to make it look like the devil’s during Math. He hated Math, and so did she. In return he drew eyes on her knuckles. But this semester she was assigned halfway across the classroom, in the far-right front corner of the room, while he was all the way back in the left. Now Karen was seated next to Justin, and she had drawn on his hands too, and just recently, his face. Jeremy wished he had let Karen draw on his face too. The day Regine appointed Aidan the head of the horror house, Jeremy drew a new chapter in the spin-off. The first panel featured Regine straddling Aidan like a horse and strangling him with her tie until they teetered over a cliff with a signboard saying HELL.
Footsteps echoed in the Saturday silence as Aidan and his gang chased each other in the corridor. Jeremy was hoping they wouldn’t come in until he was at least half-finished. He was going to end up doing all the work, anyway. But then again, being alone in the room with Lina silently crying in some corner in the maze was unnerving. Jeremy busied himself with the wall, and he could hear the faint rustling of paper and other props being moved around. Whatever Lina’s doing, he knew she was crying while doing it. That was how things worked here, something he immediately learned upon moving to St. Marcellin Elementary this year. Lina Balyeena, as Aidan called her, cried and you either laughed or ignored it. Lina was a mystery to him. He wondered why she even bothered coming this Saturday to help with the horror house. Sure, Aidan might “report” her to Regine and get point deductions from the teacher. But that wasn’t nearly as bad as what Aidan and the gang had done to her all this afternoon. In addition to the paint stains on her uniform, she had now lost her school tie when Aidan had tricked her into lending it to him, saying he needed to copy its pattern for a dummy. This was Aidan, and she should have known better. And why wear her school uniform on a Saturday?
Maybe there was just something about stupid people that made others want to make faces at them, call them names, steal their stuff, push them down the hall. Even nice Karen couldn’t help snorting every time Lina mispronounced the same word over and again in English class. Maybe the only reason Jeremy hadn’t still caught up to this was simply because he was new.
“Oy, Jeremy, let’s see the comic again. I want to show the guys.” Aidan and the gang were back. Lina was nowhere to be seen. Must have slipped out while I was busy painting, Jeremy thought. She had better gone home.
Jeremy went over to the props pile. “Wait, Aidan. I need to stick these cobwebs up in the ceiling. Help?” He handed Aidan a clump of fake webs, and just as he had hoped, Aidan started playing with it. He kicked his schoolbag under the pile while Aidan was distracted. He didn’t feel like looking at that comic right now. He always brought it with him wherever he went. He didn’t take the risk of his mother accidentally finding it. The spin-off which didn’t have nudity and therefore was safe, he left at home.
All afternoon Aidan and his gang ran all over school, wrote on all the classroom blackboards, nicked all the chalk they could fit in their pockets, and by four o’clock were gone and the whole school was silent except for the steady swish of Jeremy’s brush.
Jeremy worked like that until the blood streaks he had splattered in the walls blended with the sunset’s red. At last when he had finished, he stood there for a long time and admired his masterpiece under the diminishing light. He walked several times through the maze. He was surprised to realize that he was actually happy and contented with what he had made, a feeling he hadn’t had since moving to St. Marcellin.
It was already Monday morning when, with the intent of finally ripping out the comic for good, he discovered the Religion notebook missing.
* * *
Grand Fair. The three-day midyear event to top all school events. One of those rare times the nuns actually let some money loose from their sleeves for something other than a Mass. Carnival rides were hired and assembled in the soccer field. All the classrooms were decorated with colorful buntings and were unrecognizable from the stuffy, austere cells they were just a week ago. Also, this was the only time of the year when the invisible barrier between the elementary and the high school broke down in favor of fun and mischief. This, Jeremy later found out, was what Aidan was counting on.
Before Jeremy could even form the words to ask Aidan about the notebook, a black garbage bag was being thrust into his hands. Aidan, bright-eyed, told him Jeremy was appointed the honorable task of “borrowing” the skeleton from the high school laboratory.
“Come on. You’ve had total control over the designs all this time,” Aidan said. “Now let me get my own input in. I’m the leader, and I say the skeleton is perfect. Sus, it’s not stealing. We’re just borrowing it. It will be back in its place before anyone notices. You’ll see to that.”
Jeremy couldn’t believe he was hearing all this. He wanted to say it’s too dangerous, what if I got caught, how am I supposed to carry that skeleton all the way to the elementary side of the campus, do you even have a plan for this, and besides, I wanted to be in the face-art booth anyway, why did you have to pick me, why is it always me, it’s Grand Fair and I actually want to have fun, Aidan!
But within the time it took him to formulate a refusal, Aidan had already gone, pretending to shout orders at his boys when Regine came around to inspect. So Jeremy crossed over to the high school side of the campus. Some high school guys were hanging around the huge acacia trees, clinking their handcuffs for the marriage booths and scanning the crowd for potential targets.
Jeremy almost wished they would handcuff him and “marry” him off to Karen so he could just sit there in the face-art booth and do nothing but paint to his heart’s content. He would settle with anyone, anything, even a lamppost. Then he could just forget all this mess.
An answer to one of his questions was no, Aidan didn’t have a plan. Jeremy had to figure it out by himself. More than once Jeremy stopped to look around, scrunched his face trying to remember where the science lab was. Maybe Aidan knew well enough to tell Jeremy when Grand Fair was already starting. Because even in his simple mind Aidan sensed that Jeremy for some reason couldn’t refuse. Like he couldn’t refuse to do that comic, as if he liked it too.
Looking at the school in its normal days, it would have never occurred to Jeremy that all it took to get that skeleton from the high school was to simply just grab it. Whereas St. Marcellin seemed to be as guarded as a prison cell during class hours, in the festive Grand Fair air, it seemed as carefree and exposed as a nun without that thing they wear on their heads. The guards weren’t in their posts and the academic-related parts of the school like the library and labs were all deserted. It was just a matter of walking up to that lab door and opening that closet. The hardest part of the task was actually uncoiling the wire that hooked the skeleton to the closet and getting over the creepiness of having to drape the skeleton over his shoulders to free it from the hooks, its chin bone digging on his shoulder. Nobody even turned a head at Jeremy, a sixth grader, cruising the high school campus corridors, a large bulging black garbage bag on his back, a sight that would have been most suspicious during a normal school day. But today everyone is lugging around their own loads of baggage to deploy into tents, booths, shacks, and whatever gimmick they had thought up for the event. Jeremy fit right in.
Back in their stalls, Regine was telling Karen how to run the paint-face booth. A long line had already formed in front of the room, little third and second graders waiting to have their faces painted.
“I think you’re mixing the paint wrong. Here, give me the brush,” Regine said.
Karen surrendered the tiny manicure brush, brows furrowed. Jeremy bristled at this. What did Regine know about painting on anyone’s face? All she did was boss people around.
Aidan was waiting for him at the end of the maze. It took seconds for Jeremy’s eyes to adjust to the dark. Aidan took two drumsticks from his pocket and tied them each to the skeleton’s elbows.
“Now stand here”—He pushed Jeremy up a raised platform inside the cardboard coffin Jeremy had spent hours making during the weekend—“and hold these”— and handed Jeremy the drumsticks.
“I want to get out for a while, Aidan. Make the others do it.”
“Hey, I’m the leader. You’ll do as I say or I’ll report you to Regine. She says to report anybody who’s not following.”
Aidan closed the door. It was pitch-black inside. Jeremy began sweating through his shirt. I’m trapped here inside with a skeleton.
“Hey, Jeremy,” Aidan’s said through the door, “really good job on the sets. I owe it to you, Regina’s going to invite me to her party now.” So that was why.
“Tell you what, I’ll have you pick your first scare. Everybody’s waiting to go in. Who should we let in first?”
Without even thinking he said, “Karen. Get Karen.”
He could hear Aidan laugh. “Gago ka. You’re mean.”
Look who’s talking. The sound of his footsteps bounced off the walls until it faded altogether.
Jeremy waited for what seemed like forever. His arms ached in that Our-Father-song position. He was sweating, heart and temples pounding, every nerve of him tingling, anticipating.
For some reason he wanted to laugh. His chest was shaking from the urge to let the laughter go drumming out. But he held it in.
At last he could hear footsteps again. Aidan didn’t say anything about signals. But that was how it’s always been. It was up to Jeremy now. And it had always worked out this way. This way was good. Come this way, this way.
He imagined Karen’s face, how impressed she would be of his designs and creations. Just wait until she finds out he stole the skeleton! He thought he heard voices and footsteps getting closer. He imagined Karen walking through the teeth-lined door, gaping in awe at the elaborately monstrous papier-mâché sculptures and nodding approvingly at the realistic-looking bloodstains. He heard a solid thud of shoe on floor and he knew. Now or never. Jeremy jumped out of the coffin. Over the rattling and the clacking noises the bones made he couldn’t hear neither a scream or laugh.
It was Lina. Big fat Lina.
Jeremy burned at the unfairness of it all. He lunged at her with the skeleton in front of him. He felt himself bounce against Lina’s big bulk. He rammed into her again. This time they both tripped and fell on a mess of bones and strings.
Lina. Disgusting, detestable, she-whom-everybody-hates-Lina. Jeremy did now too. Somehow Jeremy was able to pin her to the floor, the skeleton sandwiched between them.
He pounded his fists on her huge back. “Baboy ka, baboy ka!”
She giggled, an ugly, sucking wheezing sound. “Oooh. Do you like me, Jeremy? I really really like you. Let’s do it like in your drawings.”
Jeremy felt his legs thrashing frantically, aiming for that crack of light at the entrance, so near yet so thin and small. He could hear Lina cackling behind him. He looked back at her. Beside her, the papier-mâché gargoyle almost looked angelic. He was torn between running and staying and punching her in her ugly face. Aidan was right, they should have just hung her at the door.
He regretted it all—the comic, the horror house, and foolishly believing that Aidan would actually let him have Karen. Aidan, Lina, they should just both hang outside the horror house. And Regine, she could hang too.
He heard a sound, a mournful, pitiful wailing. He was already at the door when he realized that it was coming from him.
He shielded his eyes from the sun. Outside, the school band started playing a cheerful and triumphanttantararakind of music as if to mock him. Two second graders, their faces covered with Karen’s beautiful paint patterns, tugged at his pant leg. “Kuya, was it that scary?” they asked, wide-eyed.
Jeremy looked around. Aidan was nowhere to be found.
So was Regine. He looked back at the horror house, then looked down and answered, “Yes, it was.”