Sharene never wanted to be a teacher.
There were lots of things that she wanted to accomplish before turning 30- she'd read once that whoever you were at 30 was pretty much where you'd be forever, and your personality would be set, and she'd taken away from the book/article/whatever that you had to make sure to get all of those big experiences out of the way early.
Oh, sure, Sharene had started off good- overachiever in high school, the backpacking year in Europe that she had to lie to her parents about (she'd told them her guidance counselor said that she needed more 'practical experience in the world' to look good for college), undergrad at Smith, and that's where it started, back in Sessions Hall.
Smith College, then and now, has a rule that all freshmen have to live on campus. Sharene hadn't minded that- she was new, a year older than most of the incoming class and most important- she was there to learn. She'd thumbed through the class catalog and randomly picked classes that sounded interesting. She'd managed to take and pass all of the core classes for a major in Education and Child Study without her adviser steering her toward something, anything else.
She was coming back from her favorite class, Elementary Curriculum and Methods 345d, when she heard the wailing. Puzzled but not really alarmed, she ran upstairs, as usual, and was at her desk when her roommate entered. Sharene and her were not friends, exactly, but friendly, so when Jessica came in, she half turned around, greeting her before turning back to her studying.
“Did you hear about Lucy acting up?” Jessica asked, eyes sparkling. She crossed over to her side of the room and rapidly tore through her closet, rejecting outfits and muttering.
“No, and how is she acting up?” Sharene stuck the pencil she was using behind her ear, and swiveled her chair to face Jessica.
“The usual- the crying, the moaning, and Marion said she saw her, plain as day, in the stairwell. Freaky, huh?” Jessica found an apparently suitable outfit, laid it on the bed and began stripping out of her current clothes.
“She must be in one of the Music majors,” Sharene used to herself, and Jessica laughed aloud, sounding rather like a honking goose, thought uncharitably.
“Try our resident ghost! The RA told me, and she said it, well, she's been around since before this was student housing. The ghost, not the RA.” Having overexplained herself, as usual, Jessica slipped into some shoes. “Time to hit the Umass mixer! Don't study your brains out. “ Jessica left, and Sharene tried to concentrate on her class notes, but she gave it up as a lost cause and finally grabbed her keys and went out. Heading for the stairwell, she bypassed the elevators that were open in obvious invitation. She looked around her, laughed at herself for being a dork, and then stepped through the door. She stood still, listening intently.
A moment passed, and then two. Sharene was about to go back to her room when she heard the wailing again, but louder than when she'd come up before. “Hello?” she called tentatively.
She didn't really expect an answer, but the wailing stopped, and it seemed to Sharene that there was a sense of waiting. “I'm, um, just checking if you're okay,” she continued, and the waiting changed to soft amusement. “Hey, give me slack, I'm new to this!” she protested.
Sharene never saw anything, but she did 'feel' responses whenever she decided to hit the stairs and talk about her day. It wasn't something she talked about, on campus or off, but in a weird way, it made her feel better.
She made it through three years without declaring a major, which was a little unheard of at Smith, but when her advisor pointed off that most of her 'fun' classes had to do with education in some form, she decided that a change in course wasn't for her and finally declared her intention to get a Masters in Education, with an actual career choice in the future.
It wasn't until her fourth year there until Sharene was caught by someone in the stairwell. She was sitting on the steps, bemoaning her fate at having to be a teacher of all things when Jessica came running down. “Oh, didn't see you there,” she panted. “Wait, who were you talking to?”
“Myself,” Sharene had said lamely. Her and Jessica had long stopped being roommates, or friends, but she'd never developed the ability to ignore people.
“Oh, wow, you were talking to the ghost, weren't you? Too funny!” Jessica let out that honking laugh of hers and continued on her way.
After that, everyone had called her 'the ghost girl', and Sharene had stopped going in the stairwell. She sometimes missed having someone to talk to, even if the someone couldn't answer back, but that wasn't enough to get her to go.
So about the accomplishing things thing- Sharene got derailed. She'd graduated from Smith, did her grad work at Indiana State, and once she had her Masters, gamely started job-hunting. The problem was, pretty much everyone expected her to directly work with groups of children, and children and Sharene had never been a good combination. She had to have been the only teenage girl in her neighborhood to never babysit anyone outside of her own sibling, and since they were only two years apart, it didn't count. Sharene had always been good with children in theory, but practice had never, even been perfect. One of her friends had laughed and called her the baby-slayer after one unfortunate incident.
She'd hoped that magically her doubts would transform into something resembling patience, kindness, something resembling a good human being, but it was still the same Sharene she saw in the mirror.
To make up for it, she tried extra hard to take on challenges that other, more normal, people would stay away from, like the suburban school from her student teaching days that no one had wanted to go to ('entitled little brats' was usually the way it was described) or the year she'd substituted for the city district that was so rough, that everyone had given her mace 'for just in case'. She was still no closer to knowing what she actually wanted to do with her life, and in fact, felt as if she was backpedaling.
Walking down a street one day, moping over her issues, Sharene had three things happen- she missed the little shop she'd actually been looking for, and she didn't notice that she'd missed it. Those weren't too bothersome- but the small whisper of “turn around” had.
She whipped her head around fast enough to hurt. “Who's talking to me?” she asked. There was no one behind her, and in the act of looking, she saw the shop she was supposed to have gone to. She stepped into the door right behind another person, a man that looked harassed for lack of a better term.
“Oh, hello,” the man said, smiling nervously.
“Hi,” Sharene returned, a little confused, because she didn't think she knew him. He must have sensed her uneasiness, because he added, “You interviewed at my school the other day, Trinity Prep?”
“Oh, yes, I'm sorry. I'm terrible with faces,” Sharene smiled politely.
“Can you start soon?” he asked abruptly. “We've, er, had some trouble retaining faculty lately and we're short in quite a few areas.”
Sharene and Mr Sloan had spoken right there in the store, and ironed out a few quick details, and she had left with a solid offer.
This school had been a mistake.
Sharene had known it as she'd taken a tour through the campus, as the principal had droned on about their tradition of excellence, as she'd met the other faculty, and as she'd gone back to her hotel that night.
Tonight wasn't an especially cold night, as fall nights went. It was nippy, true, and she wasn't exactly comfortable in her skirt and blouse. Sharene shivered as she let herself into her room, as the wind blew around the outside corridor. Once she was in, she promptly turned on the heat and crossed over to the big mirror over the sink.
She had tried so hard to give a great first impression. She'd answered all of the principal's questions promptly and deferentially, tried to look as serious as possible, and tried to keep herself focused and present. It had seemed to work, but by the end of day, she had wanted to scream out loud until she could feel her whole self unwind from the perfect person she was staring at in the mirror.
The phone rang, once, then twice. She ignored it as she went into her suitcase and unpacked her makeup remover and cotton balls. Carefully removing all traces of the makeup she'd applied just as meticulously, she listened to the phone ring three more times before falling silent. After changing into a robe, she curled up on the bed and turned on the television with the tethered remote, idly flipping through channels until a suitably bland show could be found.
Sharene was dozing when the phone rang again. She picked up the handset quickly. “Hello?”
“Turn around, bright eyes,” the voice whispered, and then sang “turn around...”
She hung up, and then called the front desk to not have any more calls except a wake-up one, and turned off the television, lights and climbed into bed. She pulled the covers over her head and attempted sleep.
She walks into the room without moving- all of her body is locked into rigidity, but she can clearly see progress being made. Everyone is staring, all the boys, from small to large, all different except for the clear disdain on their faces. Though their faces are defiant, each one is prepared, notebook at the ready, pen in hand.
“Shall we begin?” she asks, and turns to the board. “We must start, and the beginning is a good place.” She turns back around for an answer, but no answers will be forthcoming from these pupils, these boys that sit and stare silently.
“You!” she points to a child in the front row. “What is the answer to the question?” Of course, he doesn't answer, and she grows furious. “You must tell me!” she says, and steps toward him, and he crumbles, like he never was, like the dust that now covers the floor. The boys around him look at her, still silent, but the defiance on their faces is now anger, a rising fury that threatens to envelop her and brand her with their quietness, their stillness.
One of the boys gets up and walks up to the chalkboard. Taking chalk in hand, he works quickly and steps back to let her see what he wrote. She takes one look at the board-
Sharene sat up in bed, heart pounding. She looked around the darkened hotel room, a little disoriented and a lot scared out of her wits. She only dimly remembered what had happened, but tried to shake it off to try to return to sleep, and hopefully more pleasant dreams.
“You will be staying on campus, correct?” Mr Sloan asked again.
Sharene had already learned that Mr Sloan repeated things he deemed important over and over, so she simply nodded and continued down the hall with him. It was an in-service day for the school, so no classes were being held, and the boys were entertaining themselves, she was told.
“How many students do you have, currently?” she questioned, after seeing the third classroom that was used basically for storage.
“We used to have quite a few! My, boys are rambunctious, and we like to keep them spread out. After, er, our little difficulties, our enrollment dropped quite a bit- we have currently 46 students.”
“Only 46?” she repeated in disbelief.
“Oh yes. We are a boarding school, after all- we like to keep our numbers a little higher than that,” Mr Sloan gave a laugh that turned into a cough. “Er, small class sizes is one of our strongest selling points. Do you need help moving your things onto campus?”
The faculty had their own set of housing, which was a plus for Sharene, especially since the 'ladies' house' was currently occupied by two people- her and the elderly lunch lady. She arranged her clothes and other random things, trying to keep her hands busy and her mind blank.
She'd have to meet the students tomorrow.
There are hands everywhere, everywhere she sees. They are disembodied and crawling, on the walls and coming out of the ceiling and piled over each other and they are growing, growing and reaching. They are reaching for her, to draw her in, to make her like them, and she is powerless to stop it. She watches in utter terror as the first hand reaches her, touching her dress and attempting to move higher and another one joins it, landing on her face like a slap and staying there, and her own hands are clenching rhythmically, to the same beat that the hands are moving to. She knows her own hands long to join the others, and she can feel the right one start to unravel like yarn, stitch after stitch coming undone. Soon she will be undone too, all of her pieces separate...
By the time the sun rose, Sharene had been up for hours. Her skin had crawled all night from the pseudo sensation of being touched, and every time she'd drifted off, the prickly feeling had intensified. She felt like a member of the walking dead, but she did her makeup with a steady hand, deliberately picking out a suit that was dignified and very authoritarian.
“Ah, Sharene, how good to see you,” Mr Sloan said, startling her as she exited her rooms. “I trust you had a good night?” Before she could answer he was heading down the stairs with his odd gait, and she followed dumbly, hurrying a little to keep up.
“I'm sorry to say that your formal welcome will have to wait,” he said apologetically, over one shoulder, “but something's come up. I'm going to give you your classroom so you can get it set up, and be prepared for tomorrow. It's dusty, mind, you'll probably want to wear civvies for this.”
With that in mind, she ran back upstairs, put on an old Smith sweatshirt and jeans and came back down, ready to tackle some major cleaning.
That night, she barely made it through a shower before collapsing into bed. Her last thought before sleep was hoping that her total exhaustion would lead to a sleepless night.
She's in the school again, prowling around. Various classrooms open and close to her, showing boys in all kinds of different settings, all with a sense of wrongness that make her want to run. She does run after a bird comes flying at her face, thrown by a little boy with makeup on.
It's not until she's running that she realizes- she's awake for this.
“Oh no,” she says.
There are ninjas. There are honest-to-goodness ninjas, roaming around and being ninja-like, and occasionally turning flips. Ninja flips, she thinks hysterically, and stops as one bows in front of her. She bows exactly like he does, and is rewarded by him allowing her to pass all of them, as they stand stock still. She moves jerkily past, too timid to even smile in return. The first ninja follows her, even as the others return to their former patterns of roaming and kicking.
“A-are you going back with your friends?” she asks wildly, feeling the fear mount.
He shakes his head, looking around him for... what, she's not sure, but he's alert to it regardless. He proves his worth a couple of minutes later, when a fencer strays a bit too close and almost gets her with his rapier. The ninja's there before she can blink, pushing him out of the way. The fencer doesn't even seem to notice- he goes right on parrying as if nothing's changed.
“Thank you!” she says, and he nods and resumes his looking for threats.
After they pass the locker room, she ends up in the place she started, with a choir where there was no choir before. She stands in front of them, and the singing starts.
It's terrible, and beautiful, and she is transfixed, listening to them sing repeatedly “Turn around, bright eyes” until she notices their eyes.
She's horrified at the glowing eyes that all the members of the choir have, and still she doesn't move until one of them comes hurtling at her, eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, and then she's surrounded by them. The circling starts, and the music swells and starts and stops and she's in a kaleidoscope, seeing various views of choirboys. The wrongness is strong here, and she falls on the ground, trying to get away, gain perspective, make it all stop.
The various athletes she saw earlier join the dance, all flailing and twisting and there's a theme here, and she could figure it out if there weren't just so many children around her. All of these are children, and their enticements still don't make them not children. She can't participate in the dance, she can't sing along- she is just to observe.
The ninja comes back, but he's shed the ninja costume somewhere and is wearing wings. He still doesn't speak, but everyone gets out of his way. When he comes to where she is kneeling and wraps his wings around her briefly, she gets a sense of power leashed, of someone in front of her both younger and older, wiser and more ignorant.
“You aren't real,” she realizes, and the ninja angel nods gravely.
She gets up, and looks around at the now still choir. “They're not real? Were they real, once?” She gets another nod in return, and she asks the foremost question on her mind. “Do you do this whenever there's someone new?”
He nods a third time, this time with mischievousness in his eyes. He reaches for her again, but she stretches out her arm to forestall him.
“Sorry. Technically, you're underage,” she says. The hysteria she felt earlier is bubbling back up, and she's ready to scream and run for the hills. Instead, she walks with wobbly feet back to her rooms, gets into the covers and sleeps like the dead.
The morning dawned, bright and sunny. Sharene woke up slowly, brushing mental cobwebs from her mind as she attended to her toilette. She made it into the shower before she realized that the bottoms of her feet were black with dirt, and the events of the previous night made themselves known. For some reason, thinking about the strange things at Trinity Prep had ceased to make her nervous, even when she factored in not remembering getting out of bed and going to the school in the first place.
She dressed again in her suit, hoping that she'd actually get to stay in it, and smiled fiercely at her mirror. Before she left out, she took the lone feather that she'd found on the floor and stuck it under her pillow.
Mr Sloan with waiting with an older gentleman. “This is Professor Oglesforth, one of our beloved teachers,” he said fondly, and the man smiled.
“I'm pleased to meet you, Professor,” Sharene said warmly.
“Please, call me Prof. Are we ready?”
The boys are waiting at the entrance to the school. Sharene is introduced to them in two groups- the younger ones were escorted by Mr Sloan into school, and Prof stayed with her to meet the older boys. She shook hands, tried to match names with faces, and when Charlie had squeezed in, by far the youngest, she couldn't help but ruffle his hair.
After all of the boys stampeded into the building, Sharene turned to Prof. “I hope I don't have to go through this every morning,” she laughed.
“Ah, so you shall stay,” he answered, and laughed in return. “I think you'll find it very... interesting here.”
“So it seems,” Sharene said drily, and the walked into the school together.