"E! S! Pirates!"
The cheer broke from the white, red, and black clad cheerleaders amid a frenzy of clapping and screaming. The riotous noise bounced off the packed stands of the auditorium as one thousand of the student body chorused in response to the jumping and split-kicking girls on the basketball court.
The maple flooring shot the cheer back to the stands, every student on their feet, arms waving, hands clapping as the seven girls ran to join the varsity cheerleaders in a group cheer that filled every particle of air.
The Class B high school gymnasium was alive with sound and school cheer. Several jayvee and varsity teams lined the one side of the floor beneath a basketball backboard, clapping out of time to the girls' cheers, eyeing the short black skirts and synchronized kicks of the cheer squads as they rallied the four grades of students in the bleachers facing the court.
At the opposite end of the court from the fall and previous springs' teams were the athletic director and assistant principal with the football, basketball, and long distance track coaches.
"We say Parrish!" the cheer squads called together at the crowds, "you say –"
"Pirates!" the crowd finished.
The girls giggled and put their collective hands to their ears. "What?!"
"Pirates!" the students roared back.
"Who?!" the girls cried.
The girls stood in a double row on the court, in front of the stands of students facing each other. They clapped as they parted to get closer the first row of bleachers on either side of the court, hollering and laughing, smiles contagious.
A sudden boom of the school's fight song rolled onto the floor, overriding cheers and shouts alike. It was followed by the pompom squad spilling from the entry doors near the school administrators at the podium.
The sudden burst of music died out and for a moment the girls milled around on the court, awaiting the start of their music. When G-Dragon's Crayon began, the girls looked around at each other, seemingly confused.
"Aw, shit," sophomore Josh Greene mumbled to the few varsity football team members nearest him at one end of the court. The line was a collection of red, black, or white jerseys. "Music's screwed up again. Just heavy buzz, man."
The buzz sounded like an old record not quite playing correctly over the loud speakers. The pompom girls looked to each other, shrugging their shoulders in bewilderment.
"First pep rally of the year and we get this shit?" It was junior Ryan Brookes down the line of football players, arms crossed in disgust. "That's what we get for being a Class B school, guys. You know this would never happen at St. Weylen."
"Yeah, bet the War Birds got someone like Kelly Clarkson to open their rally," grumbled Neal Sommers from further down the line.
Neal was on the freshman basketball team, the son of one of the few African-American families in their small community. Since this was the first school-wide rally of the year, every fall team was lined up; even some of the single sports from winter, including the hockey team, were present.
"Weylen's not so great."
The athletes within earshot of junior Lee Shorn looked to him as he said it.
"Yeah?" Ryan said. "Just 'cuz they suck at hockey doesn't mean they're not great at –"
"Hey!" snapped Josh in defense. "This is a pep rally so cut the shit-chat!"
The buzz over the speakers had turned into Korean rap lyrics, a male voice booming through the speakers.
Lee was grinning, watching the pompom girls as they formed jagged parallel lines, feet beginning a hip-hop step in-sync as they faced each stand of bleachers. The music had dissolved into the spastic bumps of music pulses with the rap as the girls found their spots on the line.
"Why so serious?" the singer sang out.
Immediately the pompom girls charged into an energetic dance routine to Crayon.
"Get your crayon!"
"Get your crayon!" the girls sang at the packed stands. "Get your crayon!"
"Why so serious?"
The athletes watched dumbfounded.
"Come on girls! Come on boys!"
"Come on boys!" the girls called out.
In the line of basketball, football, and hockey athletes, all male, the teen boys looked at each other, but only briefly as their staring returned to the lines of girls dancing choppily to the song, still singing along.
"Get your gray on?" Josh asked.
"Catch a crayon?" Neal suggested.
"Get your freak on," sophomore Brad Richardson said with authority.
The music changed again, but the girls danced on, this time keeping a freestyle rhythm to the rapping lyrics.
"It's not even all in English?" Lee asked, eyes riveted on sophomore Berlin Rogers' black skirt as it swished, her frilly red petticoat underneath seeming to wink at him. He grinned. "What is this?"
The music stomped up-tempo again and the dance changed, this time with the dance squad flinging out handfuls of crayons into the stands. The students leaped to their feet, grabbing. Most of the crayons were caught, and the crowd stayed on their feet, moving in ragged imitations to the girls' dance.
"Get your crayon," the song swayed out with the pompom squad.
"Get your crayon!" the girls sang along.
"Get your crayon!" the crowd sang back at the girls.
"Crayon?" Josh said. "What the hell kind of song is that?"
"Jpop," Brad said, bopping his head to the rhythm and grinning. "Yeah! Get your crayon!"
A rift of "Oh, shit" went through the line of watching athletes.
However, none of the male athletes minded the dancing squad tossing crayons and breaking into a chorus line of high kicks, arms linked within each other like the Rockettes on steroids.
In seconds the bleachers were rocking, creaking, nearly bouncing on their supports. Confetti clouded the air as the cheerleader squads joined the pompom girls, throwing black, red, and gold snips of paper into the air. Black skirts mingled with red and black trimmed white cheerleading skirts, all squads eager to outdo each other in the cheering department.
The music died back slightly in a droning "hey-ay-ay" took over at the end of the song and the clapping from the stands was deafening.
Every face of the gathered athletes – despite their sport – grinned at the cheer and dance troupes, clapping madly, nodding in support to a song they didn't understand.
"Thank you, Pirate Ladies!" Mr. Mantyss' voice cried out over the ruckus.
The girls did their individual cheer kicks and waves, smiling at the rabid fans.
"Thank you, Pirates!" Mantyss said, grinning, his bald head shining in the warm gymnasium, looking out proudly at the cheering stands as only an Athletic Director could. Above them on the walls, banners touted the Parrish Pirate teams, among them several B-Class awards and championships. From the ceiling rafters hung pennants from conference successes. Flags representing the other schools in the South Eastern Conference lined the walls, much smaller than the Parrish Pirate Jolly Roger flag.
"Okay, Pirates!" he said into the microphone at the podium. "Let's settle down just a little so we can announce our teams for this fall!"
Another cheer went through the stands.
Beside him, the petite assistant principal, Ms. Sheehan, leaned up to speak to him.
He nodded, glancing to the coaches lined up, ready to take their turns at the podium and microphone.
A loud squeal of the microphone over the loudspeakers made everyone groan, covering their ears. The students and faculty took their bleacher seats.
Mantyss grabbed the microphone again, and then the lights flickered in the mammoth room, and then everything went black.
It was still dark when the eleven students opened their eyes what seemed to be moments later. The air was heavy and dank, thick with darkness and smelling of something old.
Josh found himself on his side, face down on the damp floor. He shook his head in the blackness and slowly sat up. Dark filled his vision, the eerie sound of water dripping slowly in the distance the only sound.
"What the hell...?" he said lowly, looking around. At least, he thought he was looking around. For all he knew, his eyes were still closed. Slowly some of the immediate area took shape, and the large white "48" of his black football jersey seemed starkly bright.
"Hell would have more light," came sophomore Decker Johnn's voice. "You know, from brimstone, man."
Josh glanced in the direction of Decker's voice. He couldn't see him, didn't expect to; Decker was blacker than Neal, and the only African-American on the baseball team in most springs. "Hey, Johnn?"
"Yeah, it's me," Decker said. "Josh Greene, right?"
Beside Josh came a movement in the dark, and his eyes adjusted more to see a white skirt shift away. He reached for it.
"Hey!" a girl's voice chirped.
"Sasha?" he asked.
She brushed off his fingers from her cheerleading skirt. "Yes. Where are we?"
Josh took a more earnest look around. Slowly shapes took definition, mostly walls covered with what looked to be a heavy rusty-mossy substance. A few other figures could be seen now, but not well enough to determine who they were.
"So, let's take attendance, shall we?" came another voice, this one with a slight accent.
"Kevin?" Berlin said too happily. "Kevin Park?"
There was a rustle of someone further on and Josh saw one of the forms move. He could tell it was Berlin by the shape of her figure, but that was all she was, a shadow.
"Who else?" came Lee's voice from another part of the room.
It was a large chamber, they realized, each looking around at the murky darkness; a large, crowded room of walls or boxes, like a maze, the dim light coming from above where strips of gray shone in from cracks in the ceiling.
"What happened?" another girl asked.
"Who's that?" Josh asked, searching the poor light for the source of the question.
"Chloe from Clearwater." Lee said it in a definite tone. "Right? You moved in last week."
"...Yes." She cleared her throat. "Where are we?"
"Hell if I know," Josh said.
For a moment the sounds of slight shuffling mixed among them as the students sat up and rubbed sore spots, some skirts, some jeans, some hips, a few ribs.
"Guess we fell or something," Neal said.
"I think we should see who's here," Kevin suggested.
"Hey, you're English is really good," came Berlin's voice. "Who are you staying with?"
"What family? Who's your host family?"
"Oh, really, Berlin," Sasha said. "Who said he's an exchange student?"
"Just because I'm new and Asian, you assume I'm a foreign exchange student?" Kevin asked.
Berlin sighed, which helped some of them find her in the dark. "...Yeah, I guess I did. You're in my lit class, and, yeah, I guess I assumed. Sorry."
"Lee Shorn," Lee said loudly. "Present."
"Kevin Park," Kevin followed.
"Just Chloe?" Brad asked somewhat out of sorts, sitting up more, rubbing his aching ribs.
"Yes," she told him.
A short silence followed, and then another spoke up.
"Sasha, the only," the blonde girl said with a very short giggle.
The rest of the names trickled out of the dark forms in the dankness – Josh, Brad, Ryan, Berlin, Neal, Decker, and Brianne Douglass rounded out the group. When the names were finished calling out, Brianne frowned at the figure still slumped beside her. She hooked a strand of red-laced black hair over her ear and leaned closer to the form.
"Hey," she said, frowning in the dark. "Someone's here, but they didn't..."
"What's your name?" Josh asked in her direction.
Brianne scooted a few inches away from the form beside her. "They're not...responding..."
"Keep talking," Lee said, getting to his feet and following Brianne's voice, nearly stepping on Chloe as he went.
In a small town where the student body promoted within the schools as a large mass of glacier into the next grade, there were few new faces. Everyone knew everyone else.
"You all right?" Lee asked, stooping as his shoe met with Brianne's ankle. He crouched, trying to see the form beside her better. "Say something."
Brianne moved a way a few more inches as Lee put a hand to the lying form's neck.
Lee mumbled something and then leaned over the figure with more intent, turning the silent person's head. He sat back, swallowing uncomfortably. "Hey, uh, this one isn't, isn't breathing."
"What?" a few of the others said.
Some moved closer to Lee and Brianne and the unknown student, a few others further away.
Lee turned the student over. In the dark it was hard to determine who it was. He put a hand to the chest, assuming it was a male by its build and size. It was.
But it wasn't breathing and it had no heartbeat.
"Shit," he muttered, pressing his hand more firmly on its chest.
"Are you sure, Lee?" Brianne asked. She scooted closer, on her knees now, one hand going to the boy's neck. "How?"
"Like I said," Neal said somberly. "We must've fallen."
"From what?" Decker asked, standing. "The ceiling?"
They all looked to the ceiling.
In the distance, a sharp screeching sound echoed to them.
As one they looked to the walls that jutted in odd directions, all covered with the rusty-mossy dark that was barely visible in the dim light.
Berlin had cautiously moved to the unmoving body near Lee and Brianne. "Does anyone know CPR? First aid? Can we help him?"
She'd already put a hand to the boy's shoulder, fingers running down the arm and then back up and to his neck.
Lee moved her hand away. "It's too late, Berlin. There's no pulse."
She put her other hand to the student's chest, feeling over the black jersey to the red number stitched there. "It's not a football jersey... Baseball."
Brianne sat back more as Decker and Josh neared them. "If it was a fall – and I know I feel like I fell out of a tree – then it could be anything. Lots of reasons to die from a fall."
Berlin bent her head to the teen boy, trying to see his face. It was too dark.
"Berlin," Lee said, pulling at her arm.
"Wait," she said. Her hand roved the baseball jersey, fingers tracing the number. "It's last year's practice tee."
"You can tell that by merely touching him?" Chloe said sourly. "I guess you cheerleaders really do live up to your reputations."
"Hey, she is not a cheerleader," Sasha said, miffed. "And what's that supposed to mean, anyway?"
Chloe rolled her eyes, which was lost on Sasha in the dark. "Oh, yeah, you dance-type chicks all hang together, don't you? Let me guess; you're blonde, right? Can't quite tell in this bad lighting."
"We've got bigger problems than your petty insults," Brad said, joining them, bumping Neal as he did. "'Scuse me, man."
"What's your problem, Miller?" Josh asked. "Chloe Miller, aren't you? Mommy send you to live with Daddy for your sophomore year?"
"Freshman," she corrected. "And it's none of your business."
"Matt Winters," Berlin said quietly, her hand stilling on the dead boy's shirt. "It's Matt Winters."
Silence fell on the group.
"Are you sure?" Josh asked.
"Yes. His shirt is number twelve, and Matt's number was twelve last year for baseball," she said. She sat back, unconsciously leaning to Lee's arm.
"He was," Decker said. "That was his number. I remember, 'cuz I made the jayvee team as a freshman and he was one of the few sophomores that would talk to me. Decent guy."
Berlin sighed and stretched her hand to Matt's face, felt for his eyes, and brushed them closed. Lee felt her shudder slightly against his arm.
"Come on," he said, standing up and bringing Berlin with him. He looked around at the angles of walls around them. "Last thing I remember, we were at the pep rally, so we must have fallen into the basement of the school."
"Not in the gym, we didn't," Kevin said.
"How do you know?" Neal stood up with the rest of them. "You're new here; you been sneaking around the school that much already?"
"Schools don't put basements under gymnasiums," Kevin said simply, glancing at each of them in the dark, able to tell few of them from the other. "It's foundationally unsound."
"Oh." Josh rubbed the back of his neck. "All right, but something happened."
Brianne dusted off her knees and hitched up her purse by a narrow strap. "Well, there's got to be an exit somewhere around here."
"Are we just going to leave him here?" Berlin was looking at the mound of Matt's body on the floor.
"We'll come back or send someone for him later, after we get out of here," Sasha said. "It's okay, Berlin."
They formed a straggly line, each within arm's length of each other, with Josh and Ryan leading and Lee and Brad bringing up the rear. The walls formed no corridor, seemingly stuck at precarious angles that had no direction, no pattern. Some were no more than divisions, others making dead ends.
The sound of water was constant, adding to the chillness of the air, the moisture forming on the walls creating a slime with the rusty-mossy substance. They'd tried to keep track of their direction for a while, but after the first few dead ends and blank walls, the unsettling feeling of going nowhere took over.
They were two freshman, six sophomores, and three juniors, eleven in all. With Matt they would have been twelve.
A full dozen, several of them were thinking.
"Hey, is everyone here on a fall sports team?" Brad asked, following Sasha, one of the more visible figures with her white skirt and sleeves in the dark. Her black sweater vest made her appear torso-less, just arms and skirt.
"Why?" Decker asked from behind them.
"I was just looking for a common thread as to why we're here."
"We were all at the rally," Chloe said.
"Everyone in the school was at the rally," Kevin clarified.
"I'm not on a fall team," Brianne said. "Tennis. Spring. That's it for me."
"Me, too," Decker said. "Baseball."
"Just winter. Hockey," Lee said.
"I don't play any sports," Chloe added stiffly.
"Then you're the only one here who doesn't," Kevin said. "I plan to run track this spring."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Chloe asked.
"Nothing, I guess," Brad said. "Just looking for a common reason we're all here."
"Maybe part of the gym floor collapsed," Sasha said, her hand meeting Neal's in front of her.
"If the floor collapsed, then we would have seen the hole in the ceiling, dumbass," Chloe said pointedly. "Think a little."
"Leave her alone," Josh said, sighing. "It looks like it's getting lighter ahead. Maybe there's a staircase."
"The water's getting louder, too," Ryan noted.
They all noticed it then, the increase in water that lapped at their feet, the sound going from a trickle to a gurgle ahead.
Josh halted them and they all tried to see past him into the next section of walls. The walls opened to a chamber a little smaller than where they'd woken up. In the center of the floor was a mound of something, covered with a blanket or tarp, with streams of water running toward it, pooling. The water made a puddle around the covered mass, collecting from wherever it ran off from; the stench was worse.
The farthest wall of the chamber was indiscernible, a haze of fog that seemed to be either steam or mist. The chill crept into each of them, especially Berlin and Sasha.
"What is that?" Decker asked, nodding to the covering in the standing water.
"Another body?" Brianne said. She stepped back, bumping into Lee. "Is it...is it someone?"
"It's too angular to be a body," Neal said. "Too pointy."
"Brianne's angular," Ryan said with a chuckle. "Tennis player, you know."
In response, Brianne stuck a pointy elbow into his side.
"Ow," he grunted.
"Shut up and listen," Josh said.
The sound of water was all that was heard for a moment, but then a low creak, like metal being slowly sheared, reached them. It sharpened into a shriek, and then rose to a pitch.
Sasha shuddered. "What is that?"
"Pipes," Neal said. "Right?" His tone croaked, voice breaking. "That's water pipes making noises...right?"
"I don't think so." Ryan looked to the ceiling.
"It sounds organic," Kevin said.
"Organic?" Berlin looked to him, or at least where she thought he was in the line of students. "You mean...?
A louder shriek ripped through the walls, sending quivers through the pooled water by covered form.
"It sounds like those raptor things in Jurassic Park," Brad said.
"I don't like this," Neal said.
Another shriek echoed, this time farther away.
Josh took a few steps forward, eyes on the covered form in the water. "Let's see who or what this is."