A/N: This was written a good year or two ago. I've decided to go through some of my unpublished original pieces in order to save them for posterity.
This was written for a South African market, UK English.
"What is that around your neck, young lady?" Mrs Du Preez asked so suddenly that Tricia's blood turned to ice.
She hadn't seen the teacher walk up the row behind her and now it was too late. Tricia's hand leapt to the tiny silver ankh she wore on a thong that usually hid beneath the collar of her school dress. Thirty pairs of eyes bored into her from all sides with expectation. Deafening silence settled in the class.
"Nothing," she mumbled, fumbling with the jewellery and smoothing the fabric down on top of it.
"That doesn't appear to be 'nothing' Tricia. Take it off and give it to me immediately."
Tricia felt her face go blood red. A couple of muffled snickers erupted from Gary's desk. He must be enjoying this right now.
"Please Miss, it won't happen again, I promise. You can't see it beneath my dress."
"Tricia, you know what the school rules are regarding jewellery. Give it to me. This isn't the first time either."
Tricia's fingers felt as if they had suddenly swollen to twice their size. Struggling vainly, she couldn't untie the knot behind her neck. Mrs Du Preez stalked off to her desk, grabbed her scissors and cut the offending leather thong with a businesslike snip, relieving her of her possession. The teacher gave a small gasp when she discovered the nature of her prize.
"How dare you wear this Satanic symbol Tricia!" she exclaimed.
"It's not, it's Egyptian," Tricia muttered, wishing that she could vanish or somehow have noticed that the ankh had slipped out before the teacher noticed it.
"And that will be double detention on Friday for not only flouting the school uniform regulations but for back-chatting as well. Oh, I long for the days when we could cane insubordinate girls like you."
Tricia's felt as if she'd swallowed a brick. Sullenly, she glared at the teacher, who resumed the maths lesson. The class remained unduly subdued only until the end of that period, however Tricia imagined that they were probably talking and laughing about her behind her back. The old, familiar resentment welled up in her throat, but she held it down. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry, even if the tears prickled very near the corners of her eyes.
Miss Chatsworth, the school librarian, frowned at Tricia over her wire-rimmed spectacles: "These books are late."
"I'm sorry Miss. I kind of got forgot."
"You could have kind of renewed them. That is very irresponsible of you."
Tricia gazed longingly at the covers as Miss Chatsworth placed them on the trolley after scanning them into the system. She really had meant to take them back before the due date, but she didn't want to point out to the librarian that she had already renewed the books the maximum allotted times. Tricia had now read every book on Egypt in the school library. Nothing remained to be taken out. Ditto with the public library down the road. She sighed and paid the five rand fine. All that was left to do was painstakingly leaf through the fifty years' worth of National Geographic magazines that were stockpiled here at the school library. She had done that once when she was in Grade 3 and she would, in all likelihood, rediscover an entire world of Egypt and have the added benefit of understanding the more in-depth articles this time around.
This suited Tricia. It would probably take her a couple of weeks to find all the stories about Egypt and also provide her with a safe space to avoid Gary and his friends. They never came into the library unless they could help it.
Today, however, she found them in the passage leading from the library to the storerooms. She saw them out of the corner of her eye as she left the library. She'd hardly noticed the group of fellow Grade 7s until she'd noticed what they were doing.
Alexander and Jason were crouched avidly over Gary, who lay prostrate on the ground, his limbs and extremities twitching. Part of Tricia's mind was shrieked at her to get away from this puzzling scene while yet another part wished to watch this strange little scene play itself out before they noticed her.
"Look, he's coming 'round," chubby Alexander giggled, prompting Jason to laugh along, albeit a little nervously, in Tricia's opinion.
A violent tremor passed through Gary's frail frame and he sat up, his eyes bloodshot as he gazed around him bemusedly as he swallowed reflexively.
"Woah," he expressed, shaking his head. "That was like way out guys. I wanna do it again."
"My turn!" yelled Jason, motioning to his neck and sitting himself down. His stark grey eyes alighted upon Tricia. "Ooh, look guys, there's Trish. Come here, we wanna show you something."
"Yeah, it's like lank groovy, you'll dig it, hey Gary," Alexander said, poking the other boy in the ribs.
Gary, who still looked a bit flustered and out of it nodded and grinned sheepishly. "We're playing 'flatliners'. It's cool m'bru. Or are you too scared?" he leered.
Disgust rose like bile in her throat as she looked at these boys. She sneered at them.
"I don't think so."
"We dare you!"
She turned and walked off down the corridor, trying not to feel hurt by their jeers and catcalls as she went out of earshot.
The cries of "skinny-ass chicken", however, still rang in her ears for a while longer. She couldn't pinpoint it, but something about stumbling across that little tableau had unsettled her and the vision of Gary's twitching, supine form twisted her stomach into knots. Something about it revolted her, made her stomach churn. She was sure that this game wasn't a good one, yet she had little inclination to deserve the boys' wrath by being a telltale. She dealt with enough of their grief as it was.
However, as soon as she'd first become aware of this unfortunate game, Tricia began to notice how many of the other kids were at it. Bloodshot eyes here or slight bruising on a neck there, it unnerved her as much as some of the breathless whispering. Even her quiet sanctuary, the library, was invaded during break time by fellows she simply knew weren't interested in books. Quite clearly the pile of cushions in the reading corner were being put to other uses.
A number of other times Jason, Gary or one of the others even got as far as cornering her in deserted areas, pulling at her braids and making mock grabs at her throat. Once they'd even tried to drag her into the boys' toilet.
It certainly looked like fun when the girls giggled about it afterwards during needlework, trying to find new converts to gawk at as "virgins" to going "spacing out " as they called it. Much like the marbles, skipping rope or dodge ball "seasons" the choking game, as it became known, became vastly popular with the kids who considered themselves cool or "with it".
Tricia, never comfortable with her peers at the best of times, simply felt a queasy sense of foreboding whenever she came across the activity. It was painfully obvious to a number of her usual tormentors, that she was not going to participate, and they did not let her forget it, adding this insult to their already-wide vocabulary of general nastiness. What amazed her was that the teachers hadn't yet found out. She was sure that they'd put a stop to it, otherwise.
Afterwards, she could never really tell why she chose to use the bathrooms in the girls' changing rooms that day. She'd been in a rush trying to get to her art lesson. The rooms were at the far end of ground-floor corridor that was near the storerooms where the teachers rarely went. Tricia felt a wave of nausea when she recognised Gary, Jason and Alexander with some of the sporty girls in the C class busy putting another girl "under".
"Ah-ha, Tricia!" Cynthia said, "We hear that you're still a virgin."
"So, what about it?" Tricia retorted, flicking one of her braids angrily over her shoulder.
"We're fresh out of virgins, Trish," Alexander chuckled. "C'mon, it won't hurt. We just want to see what you do when you go under. It's really cool. We'll only be slightly late for art."
"I got my camera here," said Jason, waving his digicam in her general direction. "We can even show you afterwards."
"No way!" Tricia snapped back, turning on her heel. Her heart leapt when she heard someone start up towards her but she didn't want to give them the satisfaction of seeing her run.
"C'mon, Tricia," said Alexander, gripping her arm hard enough to twist her elbow the wrong way. "It's really weird, you'll see. Play nicely, will you?"
She had no choice but to let the far bigger boy drag her reluctantly back to the group who all flashed her their cruel smiles. Slightly dishevelled, some of them were hyperventilating and perspiring.
"Guys, please I really don't want to do this," Tricia pleaded, trying to keep the desperate tone out of her voice.
The last thing she remembered seeing was Gary's manic grin as he placed his hands around her neck. It was pointless struggling against Alexander's iron grip on her arms behind her. He'd pinned them behind her back while the others laughed.
She found herself standing on a dusty grey plain under a night sky devoid of any stars. An undefined light source illuminated the ground with an eerie glow and made the powdery chalk-white dirt shine. A shock of recognition sent cold thrills up her spine when she saw the figure approach. There was no mistaking the lithe frame, ebony skin and the ageless, obsidian eyes that reflected the light of distant galaxies. A cold thrill passed through her as she saw the angular features of jackal-headed Anubis.
He seemed amused as his muzzle crinkled back in a dog-like grin. An icy hand caressed her shoulder and trailed down her arm, raising the tiny hairs on her skin.
A voice that she felt more than heard remarked:
You mortals do not know what you are playing with.
A wry chuckle followed – a horrible sort of chuckle that set her teeth on edge, like fingernails on a chalkboard.
"What do you want of me?"
You are my daughter, little one. You are marked. A child of Anpu Upuat. The Opener of the Way. The Gatekeeper, if you will. You children are playing a dangerous game with me.
"But I didn't…"
I know you didn't choose to, but you have come even further into my domain than the others. This cannot take place without some form of repercussion. A balance must be met. You are mine.
His thumb and forefinger grasped her chin, numbing it, and pointed her gaze to the fathomless eyes. It all went dark and she couldn't stop crying and shaking.
The first face she saw upon regaining consciousness was Sister Meyer, the school nurse, who placed a warm hand on her brow. Worry creased her forehead as she noted Tricia regained consciousness and she wiped away the tears that spilled over the child's cheeks.
"You're awake, you know you're can be glad that Gary and his friends found you when they did. You shouldn't be playing that game."
"I didn't…" Tricia croaked. "Wha…"
Her head throbbed in time with her heartbeat. Her slightest movement made Tricia feel as if she would vomit on the spot.
"That game you were playing," said the nurse. "It is extremely dangerous but then I remember there was a boy who died playing it when I was still at school. Honestly, Tricia, you should have known better. I'm surprised none of the teachers didn't pick up on it sooner. No matter, however. The principal will have words with the children at assembly tomorrow. Lie down dear, your mother is coming to pick you up in probably about ten minutes. You've had a seizure. Relax. Don't try and sit up. You need to be a little bit quiet for the rest of today."
Doctor van Rhyn was highly concerned when he heard Tricia's story. He called her school's principal even though she begged him not to. Her mother, however, was sceptical, as per usual, implying that Tricia had somehow asked Gary to choke her. Silently fuming, Tricia elected not to say a further thing on the matter, choosing to bury herself in a pile of KMT magazines that she'd persuaded her father to purchase for her at a second-hand bookshop the weekend after the incident.
She often found herself sketching Anubis on blank pages in her schoolbooks when she thought that the teachers weren't watching. Somehow she couldn't quite capture the essence of the god that she'd experienced in her vision.
Neter, she thought. The word for Egyptian god is Neter, which isn't quite the same but just sounded better. If only the religion hadn't died out…
One after-effect of the unfortunate incident that she was pleased to note was that the popular kids like Gary and his ilk kept far away from her for now. After the principal called a special assembly and the life skills instructor had spoken to the entire school about the dangers of the choking game, nearly everyone stopped playing it.
Occasionally, she still saw Alexander, Jason or Gary at it when they thought no one was watching, this time experimenting with hanging each other using skipping ropes pilfered from the PE storerooms, but she didn't say anything. If they wanted to be foolish, that was their own business. She kept to herself and the rest of the kids developed a craze for playing stingers using wet tennis balls that left nasty bruises on unprotected skin.
What unsettled Tricia the most about this time was the flash of a dark figure that she often caught out of the corner of her eye. She thought it was a visual distortion caused by the medication that Dr van Rhyn had prescribed at first, but she became pretty certain it was more than that.
Mrs Fitzpatrick, the life skills instructor, cornered Tricia in the library one day. She'd just started reading a fascinating study of the DNA of some pharaohs when she became aware of a shadow looming over her where she snuggled in the pillows.
"Hello Tricia. Sister Meyer told me about your incident playing the choking game. Are you doing all right?"
Tricia's throat constricted but she was able to reply: "I'm fine Ma'am." She willed the teacher to leave her.
Mrs Fitzpatrick frowned, obviously sensing Tricia's unwillingness to communicate. She sighed, straightening out and smoothing the denim of her skirt.
"Any time you wish to speak to me, Tricia, my door is always open. Please see me if there is anything bothering you."
Just go away and leave me be Tricia thought.
An uncomfortable silence hung between the two. Outside there was a loud thump and a tennis ball ricocheted off the roof. Mrs Fitzpatrick looked up and away, coughed, then smiled at Tricia mildly before departing. She hadn't realised that she'd been holding her breath until the woman had left the room.
While she was washed her hands in the girls' bathroom a few days later she saw the ominous figure of Anubis standing behind her left shoulder. He smirked, revealing a set of particularly long canines.
Her world tilted and she had to stop herself from slipping on the tiles as she turned around suddenly, desperate to catch a proper glimpse of his face. Nothing. Just an empty toilet stall, although she could swear the temperature in the room had dropped. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She clutched her sides to stop herself from shaking. This was all too much. There was no way she was going to tell anyone about this. Mrs Du Preez already thought her a devil worshipper, often slipping her leaflets printed by the His People church and gods only knew what they said about her in the staff room. She'd be blown before she went to see the life skills instructor either.
Her report card this term read: Tricia is a promising student but needs to apply herself more to her school work. She is easily distracted and needs to pay more attention in class. We are concerned that she has an unhealthy obsession with ancient Egypt.
Her mother had reacted to this by tearing down her posters and burning them. Dad had helpfully packed her magazines in his storeroom where Mom never went, commenting that it should all blow over at some point. She stewed in helpless anger, starting whenever she thought she saw a certain tall shadow.
During Afrikaans, when Mr Botha's back was turned, Anubis bled into her eyesight, as clear and as solid as the day that she had had her seizure. He stood behind Jason and placed a large hand on the boy's shoulder. Tricia swallowed reflexively. All sound seemed dampened and colour bleached from what she saw. Her ears went numb with ringing and her heart beat in her ears, sounding more like an overhead fan. Anubis squeezed Jason's shoulder slightly. The boy gave no indication of noticing.
"Tricia! Pay attention," Mr Botha rumbled, a piece of chalk flying past her face as it shattered on the wall behind her.
Tricia could only mumble an apology while the rest of the class laughed, enjoying her humiliation.
Feeling dizzy with a strange sense of lassitude the following day, Tricia managed to make it to the sanctuary of the library where she sank gratefully into the pillows in the corner during small break. It being blissfully cool and quiet, she slipped into unconsciousness. The shrill, insistent shrieking of the fire alarm brought her to her senses, however. The continuous ring of the school's bell usually meant either a fire drill or a bomb scare. She had no idea how she'd manage to doze off like she did and she started to her feet, seeing tiny pinpoints of lights wiggling in her field of vision. The clock on the wall betrayed the fact that it was almost half past eleven. She'd been sleeping more than half an hour past the end of break, thereby missing half of Mrs Du Preez's maths class!
With her heart leaping in her throat, she dashed madly towards the school field, slipping in with a stream of children from lower grades.
No one seemed to have missed her. No questions were asked as the teachers took roll call while the kids lined up in orderly rows that fidgeted under Table Mountain's craggy benevolence. Tricia was slightly nauseated by the brightness of the sun. A nasty feeling niggled at her when she saw the ambulance arrive, along with the cops. A bomb scare bringing an ambulance?
The principal let them all go home early that day without explanation until the following morning when a special assembly was called, announcing that Jason Penning had hung himself in the boys' changing room during the course of the previous morning. Lots of the kids cried when they heard this. Tricia felt queasy and remembered the previous day's events.
Her body felt leaden, unwilling to execute simple commands like walking from class to class. Even at the library, she always found the same reference book that had a particularly large print of a statue of Anubis. Yinepu. Anpu… Names in Middle Egyptian that she'd found while surfing on the Internet yesterday. She could only stare into the stone eyes.
Alexander was the next one marked by Anubis. It happened during PE when they were all playing rounders on the hockey field. The same weird, faded-out sensations washed over Tricia and she grimaced when the dark phantom materialised in front of her and placed a slender hand on Alexander's left shoulder.
She choked back the desire to cry out loud. No one else saw the dark god's figure. Their eyes slid by blankly. She pleaded that she had stomach cramps and went to sit under the poplars by the stands. She couldn't stop shaking, her skin hot and cold in places. She drowned out the sounds of her classmates' game by focusing on the dry clacking of the trees' branches in the breeze.
That night she had a terrible nightmare. Someone was pressing down hard on her chest and face with something soft and heavy. She couldn't draw any breath and struggling was an exercise in futility. It all went dark. Her lungs seared from the strain.
She sat up with a sudden gasp. She was not suffocating. She relished deep breaths that filled her lungs, listening to the southeaster banging the open security door downstairs. She heard Dad muttering to her mother about how he'd been sure he'd locked it as he got up and shuffled down the passage in his slippers. She was safe.
Another special assembly was called first thing that morning. Alexander had been smothered in his sleep. Still no mention of the choking game was made. Trauma counsellors came in to discuss this individually with those who felt that they needed it. A special memorial service for the two boys would be held at the end of the week.
She started at the smallest shadows, the slightest sounds, yet did not see hair or hide of the chillingly familiar jackal-headed figure. The week took forever to pass. She dreamt often of being hounded down dark passageways by a person she could never see who always existed around yet another corner.
With dread she awaited the special tea that occurred after the memorial service. Grieving children and parents mingled in the late summer sun. The oak trees' leaves were already turning to gold and shivered in the late afternoon.
Pastor McLeod was grim. This was a sad occasion indeed for two of the youngest, promising students to pass in such tragic fashion. Everyone cried. Dry-eyed, Tricia was overwhelmed by an extreme sense of her world slipping upside down. Battling nausea, she ran to the bathrooms.
Gary's limp body sagged under her grasp. He'd always been a slight boy in life and now, in death, he slipped to the ground with a small sigh, more doll-like than human. Tricia stared at her hands.
She remembered running to the bathrooms and now this? The dislocation of time and space made her shudder.
They were standing behind the school hall. She heard cars starting, voices calling out to each other. A helicopter droned overhead.
All rational thought leaving her, she turned, pelting out of the school grounds. She startled a procession of parents and Grade 5s as she careened around a corner by the visitors' parking bays.
She ran blindly across the main road, ignoring the stitch in her side and crossed the bridge over the freeway until she found herself with shadows lengthening, in the industrial area where buses were pulling away and minibus taxis hooted at potential customers. She could go no further.
It was there, at the railway siding, that she found a corner where she could crouch down and cry, noticing for the first time how the tears darkened the grey of her skirt's fabric to charcoal. She saw lines of dirt creased in her broken nails. She still felt the fleeting warmth of Gary's skin between her fingers. She rocked herself until she could only stare, unseeing, at the trains that clanked by, her mind numbed into nothingness.
Shadows lengthened and pooled together in the growing gloom. Aware of fewer voices Tricia nonetheless heard the familiar booming in her ears that announced him. Anubis stood on the other side of the platform, a thing more gossamer shade than flesh. The condensation had made Tricia's clothing damp. She knew not how long those eyes held her own in the growing dark. Apart from Him, only the intense cold and her breath clouding the air before her mouth impinged on her awareness.
"What do you want of me?" she murmured at the smiling jackal, not certain if it was fear or rage that made her shake.
Only what I ask of you, my daughter.
He welcomed her with open arms as the express train screamed through the station. The whining squeal of its futile braking was to no avail.