“It’s in there. I swear.”
Josh Meier shot his friend Gertie a scowl, then glanced back at the abandoned school. Shadows from the building stretched along the ground as if reaching for them. And although Josh knew his fear was kind of dumb, especially for a third grader, he shifted his foot on the pedal of his bike, ready to take off at any second. “How do you know?”
“Last night?” He tore his attention from the school and stared at Gertie. “What… in your dreams?”
Her big, brown eyes darted to the ground, her black hair swinging forward to hide her face. “My dreams are true sometimes. You know it.”
Josh wanted to say she was crazy, lying even, but he kept his lips from moving. Hadn’t she told him two years ago tomorrow that his dad wouldn’t be coming home? Hadn’t she told him she’d seen his dad falling in her dream?
Josh remembered the heavy ache in the bottom of his stomach when his mom had awakened him that night and hugged him harder than ever. When she’d told him Daddy’d had an accident. That he’d slipped on the rocks at Devil’s Lake.
Josh had been mad at Gertie for a long time after that, even though he knew it wasn’t her fault. She’d just told him what she saw.
He stared at the school, not moving. “Ian went in, and he can’t talk anymore. He just stares at something no one else can see.”
“If you don’t want to go, don’t go.”
“Not saying that. But I can’t get in. Doors are locked.”
Gertie shook her head. “This one isn’t.”
“How do you know?”
Josh tried to swallow but his throat was sticky. He wished he had a piece of gum. “Didn’t they take the books out of the library when they closed the place down?”
“Nope. The school died. The books died.” Fat teardrops filled Gertie’s eyes and she brushed them away with the back of her hand. “But you can save them. That’s what I saw.”
“Why not you?”
“Dunno. But I think it’s because of the special book. Your dad’s book.”
The special book. Gertie didn’t have to say which one. They both knew. The one dad used to read to him. The one with the stories and the drawings. The one that made his mom smile even through her tears the day his daddy was taken away in a box and lowered into the ground.
The one that might make her smile again.
“Okay. I’ll go.”
“You sure?” For the first time this whole afternoon, Gertie actually looked scared.
“What do you mean, you sure? You’ve been trying to talk me into it.”
“Have not. I just told you my dream.”
Josh gave her a look. Gertie didn’t play weird games like this. She was usually pretty cool, for a girl. “What gives, Gertie?”
She shook her head hard, the force almost knocking her skinny little body off her feet. “Nothing. In my dream, you saved the books. I just got a feeling. I… I don’t know.”
“That I’m going to end up like Ian?”
“It’s just a feeling.”
Now Josh felt more scared than before. But thinking of the book, thinking of his mom, he knew he had to do this anyway. “That book was my dad’s. We only borrowed it to the school. And then they closed the school down.”
Her shake turned to a nod.
“They should’ve given it back.”
“It’s been two years, you know. Two years tomorrow.”
He wasn’t talking about the book now, or the school, and Gertie nodded like she understood. She was good at understanding. “You miss him,” she said.
Now he was going to cry. He gripped his handle bars super hard and made the tears go back. “If it’s there, I need to get it.”
“Yes,” Gertie said, but she still looked worried.
No, not worried. Afraid. Sad. And when she lurched forward and gave Josh a big hug, her long hair tickling his nose, he couldn’t help thinking of the way his mom had hugged him when his dad died.
Holding on as if he was the only thing she had left in the world, and she was afraid she’d lose him, too.
Josh swung off his bike and let it drop to the ground. He didn’t look at Gertie, not even a glance. If she knew how shaky his legs felt, she might hug him again, or tell him not to go, or say something that would make him cry. Scooping in a deep breath of fall air, he forced his feet to move in the direction of the school.
Ten feet from the door, he was trembling so bad, he was afraid he wouldn’t make it.
Five feet, and he almost turned around.
Then his fingers were on the handle, hot from the afternoon sun.
He pulled the door, and it opened, just like it had every day last year when he used to come here for school. He willed himself to step inside and let the thick glass close behind him.
The school looked empty, lonely even, and sounded quiet as anything Josh had ever heard. Not that he could hear much with his heart thumping so hard. He stepped forward into the darkness, his shoes scuffing and squeaking a little on the floor. The air felt super still and smelled like a wet basement and dust and… cookies.
He sniffed again, this time long and slow. It was cookies, all right. Chocolate chip. His favorite.
He took another step, then another. No one was in the school. The smell of cookies didn’t belong here.
He kept moving, even though every step felt so shaky he thought he might lose his balance.
He’d always liked his last year teacher who used to work in this school, Mrs. Edwards. She was a little weird, just like him, and wore funny t-shirts on Fridays. And sometimes when she laughed real hard, she made a funny, snorting sound.
Maybe Mrs. Edwards was the one baking.
He wasn’t sure that made sense, but he liked the idea. It made him feel less like turning around and running home.
Mrs. Edwards could be here, couldn’t she? She’d given him a homemade cookie once, when he’d forgotten to bring money for the library bake sale.
He kept his feet walking forward, concentrating on the memory.
The cookie she’d given him had been the best ever. It really had. And if it was her, she’d probably give him one now. Maybe even let him lick the beaters.
The deeper he went inside the school, the darker it got. Shadows cupped the wooden shelves stretching along the halls where all the kids had hung their coats. A tiny scratching sound came from his old classroom, and he jumped.
“Mrs. Edwards?” Josh called out, a little ashamed at the quaver in his voice.
No one answered. Nothing but the cookie smell, growing stronger.
By the time he reached the lunch room, he was more nervous than hungry. He peaked inside anyway, hoping to see Mrs. Edwards or even the lunch lady’s friendly face, even though he knew they probably weren’t there. But the room was as dark as the rest of the school, and as he got closer to the kitchen, the cookie smell went away.
The book. He needed to get the book and get out of here. Forget the cookies and stick to the plan.
But as he left the lunch room and walked back into the hall, the cookie smell came back. Except for the kindergarten classrooms, all that was left this way was the gym… and the library. Was that where the cookies were? Cookies and books, his favorite things of all.
Or would he find whatever it was that made Ian Buchner stare? That made him not able to talk?
He passed by the gym and reached the library’s big double door. Bracing himself, he leaned against one side and gave it a giant push. The door opened, and light streamed out.
Not just light.
Light, the mouth-watering smell of cookies, and a deep laugh. And then Josh saw who was there waiting. Not Mrs. Edwards or the lunch lady, but someone he thought he’d never see again.
Josh wasn’t even ashamed when the tears started streaming down his face.
“I’m so glad you made it, Josh,” his dad said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The School is part of the Twelve Shades of Midnight anthology. Buy it here on Amazon.