The door opened creakily and she saw the large, hall-like classroom, filled with lines of silent students seated with their backs to her. The creaking of the door made them turn their heads towards her, gazing apprehensively, with a mixture of curiosity and a hint of malicious mirth, although some faces had an air of woe and sympathy.
She stood, uncomfortably, shifting from one foot to another, awkward and self-conscious under the intense stares of her new classmates. The silence grew, echoing in her ears until…
A voice boomed out,
“Well? Is there a reason you have disturbed us, young lady?”
She gasped under the direct question and stammered a squeaky response…
“An aye-aye is a Madagascan tree dwelling mammal… which I don’t think you are… Unless you’re speaking German, in which case I don’t think you resemble a pair of eggs either… So, shall we try again?”
She coughed slightly, her throat dry from embarrassment,
“Ellen Porton… I was told to come here”
“Yes, Ellen Porton…”
“Yes Sir, Sorry, Sir… Ellen Porton, Sir!”
The silent sniggering of the other girls echoed from their eyes. Ellen felt hot, a single drop of sweat snaking down her back, making her squirm.
“Better! So you have manners of a sort. You may also address me as Mr Hastur… Well don’t just stand there wasting our time… take your seat.”
“Where should I sit?… Sir?”
“You have eyes, don’t you? Find your place… it is waiting for you, it has been since the last occupant made way for you.”
Seeing an empty chair, she moved slowly towards it, her cheeks burning under the glaring scrutiny of both her classmates and Mr Hastur’s malevolent gaze, which seemed to be drilling into the top of her bowed head. Receiving no further guidance or correction, she pulled out the chair and sat down.
“Good, Miss Porton, You have learned your place… now be sure to remember it… Everyone else knows their place, don’t you class?”
Ellen jumped in surprise as the class stood as one and chanted out “Yes Sir, we do!” before being motioned to sit by the darkly-smiling teacher.
“Good. You see Porton, everyone knows their place in my class… if they don’t they soon learn… and they are sure to be reminded if they forget.”
Ellen sat down on her bed. She was alone in her small, bleak cell. Even at the end of the day she was isolated. Students… inmates.. of this school, Malebranche School for Correction, were not expected to keep company, they were expected to gain correction. That was why she had been sent here, after all.
The class had dragged on. Mr Hastur was probably the strictest teacher she had ever seen… no, no ‘probably’ about it… he was the strictest, hardest and, to be honest, scariest person she’d seen. It seemed even the other people in the class thought so. She had quickly learned that each person kept one eye on their work and another on him. Even when everyone had their heads down, slaving over whatever exercises they had to do, Ellen could see the shoulders tensing as Hastur passed nearby. Occasionally he would stop… and stand… and do nothing, but whoever he was next to seemed to shrink into themselves more the longer he was by them.
At one moment, Ellen lost sight of him, peering around to her left, she felt his wooden pointer slide under her chin, softly but snakelike, and his hissing voice in her ear,
“Looking for something, Miss Porton?”
The pointer rose, and she was compelled to stand…up… upright… the end of the pointer lifting her onto tiptoe… she could feel the eyes of the class somehow swiveling to watch her, even though their heads stayed down. “While you are here, you work, and only work, Miss Porton, unless I tell you otherwise or I speak to you. Is that clear?” The pressing of the pointer under her chin stopped her voice, Hastur’s hiss turned into a slight growl, “I said, ‘Is that clear?’”. She tried to nod but the pointer pressed hard into her throat. She whimpered a ‘Yes!’ “Yes… what?” “Yes… Sir!” “That’s right, now sit down… next time, I might not ask so nicely.”
The classes were long, strict and, for the most part, silent. Mr Hastur’s voice boomed when he was telling them something. That was alright… It was when his voice was quiet you had to worry, a sinister hiss, like the escape of compressed malevolence. Ellen could tell that nobody would be punished in this class… because everyone was too terrified to do anything wrong… but would that be enough for Mr Hastur?
Even when the class dismissed, they rose and filed out of the room silently, heads down, then hurried off to wherever they were meant to be, nobody spoke to her, even looked at her… even that was too much.
Dinner, she sat alone, avoided. The others, , still watched her beneath lowered gazes, heads down, a position she learned quickly to adopt…
Before the meal began, the prayers were being said. Hastur passed amongst them, their shoulders rising and tensing as he passed. Although she couldn’t see him, she felt his presence. The tension crept up her spine, she glanced to the side. Hastur’s hand shot out and caught her by the top of her hair. He slowly raised his arm, pulling Ellen onto her feet, just as he had raised her with the pointer… only this time he pulled her from her place, her chair crashing to the floor, and walked the girl, running on her tiptoes, down the aisle between the tables to the great table at the top. Reaching the table, he waited for one of the other teachers to bring a chair. And a bowl… she stared dumbly as Hastur poured the contents of the bowl on the chair… dried peas. She moved her eyes towards him as he held her, vice like, by the hair, his face next to hers.
“Don’t look at me, girl!” he hissed. She snapped her eyes forward, although they kept trying to watch him. He eased her toward the chair. “Hands on the back of the chair…”. Shaking hands crept out and seized the backrest… “That’s right… now… kneel” her eyes moved, uncomprehending, to the side… “DON’T LOOK AT ME… KNEEL!” She paused… “Hold your skirt… that’s right… now lift it up above your knees… higher… now… KNEEL… ON… THE… CHAIR!” Slowly, she moved her knees onto the chair, onto the hard, dried peas. Wincing, she tried to pull back only to here his growling voice order her, “KNEEL!” The jabbing pain of the peas pressed into her joints. Despite her best efforts, she let out a squeal as her weight pushed down, forcing the hard little balls, like needles, into her skin. His hand was pressing the back of her knees, her calves. She whimpered, her hands clenching, white knuckled, the backrest of the chair.
“Now, you shall say your prayers there, loudly, so we can all hear… and you shall stay there while the others eat… this is your place, I told you… you WILL learn your place!”
That night she shuddered in her bed, remembering the needle-like pain of the grains in her knees and the hidden eyes staring at her, half sorrowing but also with a suppressed glee that it was not one of them. New girls, she had quickly learned, were targets.
Ellen lay in the cold darkness, her clenched hands hugging the thin, coarse blanket around her. The silence was punctuated only by the occasional footsteps of a teacher or warden along the corridor but somehow, the stillness itself seemed loud, noisy, as if it was not silence, but a sound in itself… a sound which kept her awake. Eventually, she began to make out the sounds of other girls whispering…
As the days went on, Ellen learned new things, secret things… How to see without seen, how to watch without looking and how to hear without listening. The other girls had ways of communicating, this much she had realized, but she had not worked these out. What seemed worse was that she wasn’t being allowed to find out. She felt that she was being tested, observed… assessed.
It was one day, towards the end of a particularly gruelling grammar class, Ellen’s hand was aching from writing conjugations. She stopped writing to flex her hand, when she heard it… she frowned and moved her head to the side, only to receive a stinging slap to her face,
“Who told you to stop writing?” Hastur growled. Panicking, she picked up her pen, and resumed the task. “Don’t let yourself be distracted, Miss Porton,” he crooned, in an almost hypnotic, melodious way, looking thoughtfully around. There is only one thing worse than letting yourself be distracted, and that is…” he purred, looking slowly around with a wolfish sneer, “… being the one who distracts… especially when I know who they are.”
Ellen sensed the tightening of the atmosphere and the angry buzz amidst the silence.
Across the dining room, Ellen saw her; the blonde girl, hair cut to shoulder length, a weakened hard expression and a stiff movement which she did not normally have. As she sat at a nearby table, their eyes didn’t meet. Ellen knew. The problem was, she didn’t know how to but the other girl was obviously aware of it. Ellen was, however, aware of the rumbling discontent being voiced around the silent room.
“I’m sorry!” she thought.
“Idiot, be more careful!”
She wasn’t sure whether the blonde girl had said this or, if someone else, which of them it was being said to.
“You could have been caught!”
“She needs to learn! She needs to know!”
“They are watching her…”
That night the whispering was louder. Ellen buried her head beneath the pillow…
“She can hear!”
“She always could.”
“But now she knows…”
“Then we can start…”
Ellen was washing before bed when the voice cut through her thoughts.
“You have to learn” the blonde girl said, without speaking.
“But how?” Ellen whispered. The girl’s eyes flashed angrily without looking at her.
“DON’T SPEAK!” she snapped, wordlessly. “And never react! That was what you did wrong today, now he suspects.”
“Was it him who hurt you?”
“No, the others… they aren’t ready to let you in yet but you need to know.”
“Don’t ask questions, just learn!”
“But how, I don’t know…”
“What do you think you’re doing now? Just don’t listen to everything… not everything you hear is us.”
A sharp whistle shot across the conversation and the blonde girl picked up her things and left, quickly.
The empty chair announced itself to the class the next day. Hardened unlooking eyes, expressions tightened, saw and yet… nobody seemed surprised.
“That was you…” Came the new voice. Ellen didn’t see the dark-haired girl who wasn’t talking to her. “Now you know, learn!”
“Was it you?” Ellen asked.
“It’s her own fault! She shouldn’t have told you!” came the whisper.
“Her own fault”
“You’ll have to learn now, there’s no going back!”
“No going back!”
“Yes, you’ll have to listen…”
“There will be a new one soon… Say nothing…”
Ellen sat up, drenched in sweat, yet shivering in the cold cell. The voices had woken her, or had they? Had she been awake? What struck her was that this was the first time they had communicated directly to her. She shivered and turned over to sleep.
The following day the classroom door creaked and a new girl entered, much as Ellen had some weeks before.
“Don’t make the same mistake… they are watching you!”
“He suspects already!”
“You’re the reason she is here…”
The pointer slammed across the new girl’s table as Hastur welcomed her.
“What happened to her?” Ellen asked.
“But the new girl…”
“How do you think you got here?”
“… the empty chair?”
“She wasn’t the first…”
“You weren’t the first…”
She was puzzled. When the other girls communicated it was when they were together, in the same room, yet somehow these communications were in her cell… perhaps some of the older girls, those who had been here longer, were able to communicate further…
“Who are you?”
“But, do I know you?”
“Yes, you will…”
Hastur walked around the class, as usual. The new girl had already had her initiation to the school several days before. The pointer repeatedly whipping across her hands whilst she stood in-front of the class. Ellen had received hissed warnings to do and communicate nothing, someone else would choose the time, if there was one. Now she knew what it had been she felt on her first day…
It was Hastur’s custom to suddenly pounce on one of the girls without warning, find a fault and either humiliate them or dish out some physical punishment. It didn’t seem to matter how serious or even real the offence was, it just seemed a technique for keeping them in fear. Ellen realized he was walking along the back row of the class.
“It’s your turn!” the dark-haired girl warned her.
“Watch out!” giggled someone else. Ellen froze, confused, just in time to realize Hastur was behind her.
“Stand up!” he ordered, his stiletto voice penetrating her spine. She rose quickly, staring straight ahead, knowing better than to look him in the face. “Recite the lesson!”
Ellen paused, struggling to grasp what he had demanded of her.
“Recite… word for word, what you have just written!” he ordered. She fumbled around mentally, trying desperately to coordinate her thoughts…. “The lesson, Miss Porton… now!” She opened her mouth…stammered and choked… no words came out. She could hear everyone, everyone, some sniggers, some consolations…
“So, not paying attention, idling away and not learning… Hands!”
“But, Sir… I…”
“Don’t argue with him!” Came an urgent warning!
“So, you want to argue, Miss Porton… Arguing gets you more… HANDS!”
She put her hands out over the desk and stared straight ahead and the pointer swished downwards, cracking across her palms… and again…
The girls stretched up, then to the side… The exercise class, as with all others, was done in silence. No team games… no games of any kind, just stretching, running and individual gym work, as a group. They raised their hands up and stood, stretched, holding the posture.
“How are your hands?”
“How do you think?” Ellen replied.
“It was your turn,” came another
“It might not have been if you hadn’t distracted me!”
“Oh, it was… it was your turn.”
“Even if you had recited, he’d have found some reason, you should know that by now,”
“How did you know it was my turn?”
“You mean you haven’t worked that out yet? Thought you were smart.”
The exercise mistress stopped near them and the conversation paused. She favoured them with a longer than usual stare… The girls bent forward to touch their toes. She made them hold the position slightly longer than usual as she walked slowly in front of them. Up into a high stretch…
“Do you think she heard?”
“We wouldn’t be here now if she had! Probably suspects…”
“Oh come on, they all know, anyway…”
“Yeah, but it’s different if they catch us, you know that!”
“Did they catch the other girl?”
“Maybe, but she made it obvious. They don’t take chances… she wasn’t the first, nor will you be…”
“All of us… someday.”
A week later, the girl with the dark, short hair had left an empty chair and so the cycle began again.
“Count his rhythms, that’s how you know!”
“Learn his paths”
“Where he goes, when he does,who he chooses…”
“He doesn’t ‘chose’, he’s already chosen…”
“But it looks so random, you mean he has patterns?”
“Unless you give him a reason… but then, he will always find one…”
“That’s how she knew? Did you know, too?”
“Hahahahah…. Of course….”
“Well thanks for telling me, I thought you were my friends!”
“He would have still chosen you…”
“But it was fun to watch…”
“It’s always fun to watch…”
“It wasn’t fun for me!”
“Don’t you enjoy it when someone else gets chosen?”
“Knowing it’s not you?”
“NO! It’s horrible… I don’t know how you can say that?”
“Yes, you should learn to…”
As the days passed, she learned his movements. Who would be chosen, when it was her turn… sometimes, even who would disappear. The conversations with her classmates became more frequent and with the others at night…
“You were wrong today!’
“You said it was my turn… it wasn’t, he chose the girl to my left!”
“Never warned you!”
“But some of you did, as the class was starting…”
“But you knew?”
“You knew he’d change his mind?”
“Your time is coming…”
“So, he will choose me another day?”
“He has already chosen you…”
“So, will it be the hands again? Or does he have punishment patterns?”
“Chosen the other way…”
“What other way?”
“You don’t know?”
“Know, always know…”
“…can’t tell… but always know!”
“Must go… he’s coming…”
“Where do they go?” she asked the girl.
“When they go, where?”
“Not here! Never here, never ask!”
“How do you speak through the walls?”
“I can speak with you, but only when you speak to me, is that it?”
“Don’t be stupid… nobody can speak through walls!”
“Then how do you do it… if not you, who?”
“You’re wrong, it’s none of us!”
Ellen felt his presence. She was alone in the dark… unable to work out where… somewhere. She couldn’t see him but felt him… Suddenly, beside her, was the blonde girl who had originally contacted her. She was different… she was not just dressed in white… she was all white… like a… ghost.
“Not everyone is us!” she said, spoke… like a normal person.
“I don’t know what you mean!” Ellen replied, speaking as normal. “Where are you now?”
“Everywhere… they are everywhere…!”
“Who? The teachers?”
A hissing sound slowly grew around them. The blonde girl looked terrified, she started jumping, staring left and right… the noise increased.
“Must go, they know…”
“Always know!” came a voice within the hiss.
“Who? Wait…!” The hiss increased. The girl became to whine… moving away. Ellen’s hands reached out as the white figure slid away… She made a final grab to hold the white shape but felt nothing…
Then the hands seized her…
“HANDS, MISS PORTON… HANDS!”
She woke up, drenched with sweat.
“Why don’t you show yourselves to me during the day?”
“Can’t… just watch!”
“Fun to watch…”
“Always fun to watch!”
“Who are you?”
“Tell me… are you in my class?”
“Are you… teachers?” The voices giggled….
“hahahaha! No… not teachers!
“So, you’re girls… like me?”
“No… not like you…”
“So that’s why? You’ve been here longer…”
“So how long have the ‘Old Girls’ been here?”
“Yes… Old Girls have always been here!”
“How can you talk through walls? The girl in class said….”
“Not through walls… nobody can talk through walls”
“That’s what she said… None of the girls can do it!”
“Old girls… “
“Old girls can talk everywhere”
“Old girls are everywhere…”
“How do I learn to do it?”
“Only Old Girls can do it…”
“Only if you become one… of us…”
How do I become one…?”
“Don’t ask… never ask!”
“You are chosen…”
“Or, you can choose…”
“Choose to come to us…”
“It will be fun…”
The exercise class was finishing. The teacher dismissed the girls to the washroom. Ellen moved nearer to the girl. She began washing…
“Where are they?”
“What? What are you asking about now?”
“Which class are they in? Are they a separate group, or what?”
“Who? What are you on about? We shouldn’t communicate here, it’s dangerous…”
“The other girls, the older group?”
“You’re mad, there are no other girls?”
“yes, there are, the older group…”
“There aren’t there is no older…groo…” She stopped, staring at Ellen, her face becoming a slow picture of comprehension and then a mask of fear… no, terror.
“No, don’t talk of them… why are you talking of them… “ the girls whispered aloud… “Why? Are you talking to them? Don’t talk to them…” she began to babble, faster and faster…
“The Old Girls… they said…”
“Stay away from me… Don’t talk to me!” the girl screamed, the others stopped and stared. Nobody ever spoke aloud. The teachers came in, seizing the screaming girl, dragging her away as she shrieked at Ellen, “Stay away… you can’t… you can’t be one of us…!”
The other girls stood, staring at Ellen, expressionless faces of fear and loathing. Then they dropped their gaze as Hastur slowly walked amongst them, picking up the girl’s dropped towel.
“Well, Miss Porton… what are we to do?”
“It is too late…”
“You were already chosen…”
“Now he knows…”
“What can I do?”
“Nothing… nothing to do…”
“It.. is… late…”
“Help me… can’t you help?”
“Yes, this will be fun to watch”
“But what will happen to me?”
“But it will be fun to watch…”
“Tell me what to do…!
The voices changed, they spoke amongst themselves…
“It would be good!”
“We have an idea”
“Stop him… don’t let him…”
“Kill him first!”
The next day she knew was to be her last… it was obvious. At breakfast, nobody sat near her… nobody communicated. Of course… the other girl had gone… no word… no explanation… but now, no friends…
Even Hastur had paid her no attention in the class, that in itself a sign that he had plans.
In the exercise class, then the washrooms… alienated… nobody stood near…
Evening meal, she said the prayers, ate the meal and then, as the prayers for the end of the meal were said, she slipped the kitchen knife down her sleeve.
“It is time!”
She rose from her bed and slipped silently from the room… her bare feet moving, soundlessly down the cold, stone corridor… to the wooden stairs. Slowly, painfully slowly, she took each step at a time… No creaks… she mustn’t make them creak… his room… his snuffling breath… bestial snores…
“Hurry! No time…”
“This will be fun to watch…”
Back in her room, Ellen collapsed on the bed, shaking, the blood fresh on her hands and clothes. She stared blindly at the dripping knife.
“What should I do? I need to hide the knife…”
The voices snickered.
“They know it was you…”
‘You left a trail… little drops of blood… all the way home!”
“They are coming for you…”
“Help me! You must!”
“We didn’t do it!”
“It was your idea!”
“Not ours… we just told you what you were thinking…”
“You wanted to do it!”
“And it was fun, wasn’t it? You enjoyed it, didn’t you… Feeling the knife cut and the gurgle of his throat…”
“It was fun to watch!”
“No… I didn’t!”
“Now they are coming for you….”
“What will they do to me?”
“There must be something I can do… a way out! Please!”
“A way out?”
“A way out… yes… there is a way…”
She could here the footsteps hurrying down the corridor and the hastening voices of the school staff.
“Become one of us…”
“…an Old Girl!”
“You have to want to…”
“…to join us…”
“It will be fun…”
“But how, how do I do it…?”
Yes, you know…
… do what all the Old Girls before you have done…”
Ellen rested the knife on her throat…
“… just as we all have done before…”
She slid the blade downwards, feeling the warmth of the spurting liquid…
The darkness surrounded her as she slipped down… down…
“At last… now I am free from here… free to get out…”
“free… get out…”
“No, never get out… Old Girls are always here…Everywhere… we can never leave…”
The door opened creakily and she saw the large, hall-like classroom, filled with lines of silent students seated with their backs to her. The creaking of the door made them turn their heads towards her, gazing a hint of malicious mirth, although some faces, some of which she knew, had an air of woe and sympathy. And each face was of terror… pain etched into the faces of the damned… red, blank eyes stared at her in recognition, whilst their demonic grins welcomed her…
She stood, uncomfortably, shifting from one foot to another, awkward and self-conscious under the the intense stares of her new classmates. The silence grew, echoing in her ears until…
A voice boomed out,
“Welcome, Miss Miss Porton… find your place… you will learn it… even if it takes an eternity… which we have.
A snickering voice whispered,
“This will be fun to watch!”