Chapter Seven: Rumors and Nightmares

Echoes of voices bounce off the walls

There is no escaping it

Candy rubbed the counter with the wet washcloth Natalie threw at her 5 minutes ago. She had already scrubbed away whatever sticky crap her last customer left behind, but it helped get her pent up frustrations out without taking it out on a customer. "Thinks I bake just 'cause I'm a woman." She muttered under her breath, putting more muscle into rubbing away the invisible counter stains. "He needs to watch his mouth before he winds up dead. Cop or not, I'd totally deck him."

"Candy?" Nat's voice brought Candy out of her storm cloud of thoughts. "I think you got it."

Candy turned to see Nat standing in the doorway with her hands covered in peanut butter gunk, "How're the buckeyes comin'?"

"Almost finished mixing," Nat said then nodded to the counter, "Stains giving you trouble again?"

Candy sighed, "You could say that…"

Nat looked down at her hands then back at Candy, "Look… Lemme finish up the bucks and we'll talk about… scrubbing. Sound good?"

Candy smiled, resisting the urge to hug her friend, "Sounds good."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Hunter looked back at the analog clock for the billionth time that hour, forcing Asha to once again elbow him in the side. "Focus." She hissed.

His cheeks reddened as he looked down in shame. "Sorry," he whispered back. She knew he was on edge. Anyone would be with the rumors that flew around about her. He scanned the list they were making again, "So I have some of the supplies at my house. Pep-er, my cousin, had to make a poster so I have some left over poster board."

"Sounds good," She looked at his bruised eye again and frowned, "You never did tell me how that happened."

He shrugged off her question, "It's nothing."

His words only deepened her worry, but she didn't press it. They were still in class, though no one was paying much attention to them. Everyone was coordinating when to meet and semi-planning what they were doing for their project plus semi-goofing off. The proposal for their project was due Monday. They had tomorrow and the weekend to figure things out.

"The period is gonna end soon." Hunter stated, pulling his backpack closer to his feet.

"Yeah…" she muttered, collecting the papers on her desk. She couldn't help but wonder about Hunter's black eye. She had seen him with a busted lip before. It was at the beginning of the school year, about the same time one of their classmates got suspended for slamming a plastic tray across another person's face. She winced at the memory as the sickening crack echoed in her mind. People became violent when provoked.

"Do you wanna meet after school?"

"And figure out how we're gonna conquer this project?" Asha guessed, "Sure."

He gathered his things and stuffed them in his bag. "Meet me outside the Nurse's office?"

She smirked, thinking of a clever quip, but decided against using the eye pun. "Okay, sounds like a plan."

Briiiing…

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Lezlie jumped slightly as the bell interrupted her thoughts. She became so engrossed in the assignment and the classroom had become quiet from people reading some book about kids being left alone. Everyone had to get up to page 52 before the end of the period. Granted, it was not fair to give half an hour to read twenty pages for the slow readers in the class, but the teacher only had a classroom's worth of copies and other classes had to read the book.

Mr. H's student teacher came by, collecting her and her row's copies of the book and moved on. "See y'all tomorrow." Mr. H said as he typed on his computer. Lez rolled her eyes as she closed her notebook. She heard a couple of girls giggling and muttering under their breath about the student teacher as they passed.

Lez grumbled as she shoved her items into her bag. Most of the girls in her class swooned over the student teacher. He was young with some good looks, she gave him that, but truthfully she didn't see the appeal. It didn't help how inexperienced he was when it came to teaching. On her last paper she received a C with no comments what-so-ever on what she needed to work on. There was a little note at the top in red ink. All it said was, "Less that and more commas." A few places on her paper were scribbled with the words, "Watch your grammar."

How was she supposed to use more commas and work on her grammar with no little markings to indicate where she messed up? Mr. H was a hard teacher. He graded brutally, but always marked up papers, starting what it needed for improvement and gave the students a chance for re-writes. He was fair, but like with all the other teachers, students complained.

Lez continued to grumble under her breath as she finished packing her bag. She already had her things for her next two classes, which meant she could avoid her locker. Cleo would be lurking near her locker… Anyway to avoid it was for the best.

Walking into her math class Lez inwardly cringed. It wasn't because she forgot her homework or because it was math class. She did remember her homework this time and she was fairly decent at math. Numbers were truthful. They were imaginary. They were real. Sometimes they were mean, sure, but they did not try to kill you. They would leave you with massive headaches and make you wonder who the heck would buy 54 watermelons and try to fit them in their car?

No. She was cringing at the brunette with bleach blonde highlights (or was it bleach blonde with lowlights?) who seemed to be blowing on her claw like nails while giving Lez and innocent looking smile. Cleo tapped one of her nails on the empty desk beside her. Lez shook her head slowly, knowing the bright pink lipstick covered lips were masking a darker motive. Cleo puffed out her lower lip. The pouting tactic had a 90% chance of Cleo getting her way. It was always her fall back method when things weren't looking to be in her favor. Lez would admit the innocent mask Cleo hid behind half the time did help raise her attractiveness, but the ploy wouldn't work on her this time.

Lez swallowed as she walked through the maze of desks to the row of seats near the window as Cleo began to glare at her. Oh she was so dead when she got home. Thankfully for Lez, students were starting to come in, most of them crowded around Cleo, distracting her from Lez's betrayal for the time being. Lez sighed in relief as she slumped down in her chair. A small victory for a short time… she'll take it.

"So I heard the Vampress saved you today." Lez jumped slightly as a girl with frizzy red hair sat down next to her.

"Oh…um yeah. I-I guess she did." Lez said as she scooted closer to the window. She hated how some students were given nicknames. Asha was one of them, thought she did fuel the fire of people thinking she was, in fact, a vampire.

The girl grinned and inched towards Lez in her chair. "So what did she do? I heard she used her super strength to shove people outta the way. How did she know you were gonna die?"

Lez stared at her for a moment, processing her words. "What the heck are you talking about?"

The girl rolled her eyes, "Oh come on, she had to know you were in trouble. I heard she ran out of the classroom as soon as she realized you were late. She is always there when something back is about to happen."

Briiiing…

The students quieted down and turned to the front of the classroom. Mr. West, the math teacher, was nowhere to be found. "Check the hall." someone whispered.

A tall, lanky boy with crooked teeth and short cropped hair stood up, saluting to the classroom. "The Z-Man has got this." He crept over to the doorway and peeked outside. After a moment be gave the ok sign, but didn't leave his post. Some students went back to chatting, while others looked nervously to the door.

"Pst, yo Lilly."

The red headed girl looked behind her and grinned. "Hey Joey."

"Did ya hear about the basement?" Lez perked up in her chair a bit.

"No, what happened?" Lilly asked, leaning towards Joey a bit, before a frown crossed her face. "Wait. This isn't about the dog-sized cockroaches is it?"

Joey shook his head. "No, no, that's old news." He leaned forward. "But there is something else living in the basement."

She glanced over at Lez, who was nonchalantly looking out the window, and in a hushed voice whispered. "It's them isn't it?"

He nodded and copied her volume. "I've heard from a few people that they wander the halls at night and hide in the basement by day."

"But don't they run into the Phantom Knight if they wander the halls?"

Joey grinned, "No, they avoid his hall. They don't want to fight his territory."

The tip of Lilly's tongue stroke her upper lip as she pondered. "Why are they around then?"

Joey shrugged his shoulders. "Dunno, but some kids say they're looking for a new victim to join 'em."

Lilly pushed a couple of stray curls away from her eyes. "What do you mean 'new victim'?"

Again, Joey shrugged his shoulders. "Dunno Lilly. The last janitor we had up and quit. According to some, he found the remains of the one that…" he paused and leaned forward. "disappeared."

Lilly gasped and lightly punched Joey in the arm. "Get out!"

He laughed and opened his mouth, about to say more, when the "Z-Man" ran back in the room and jumped for the closest, empty seat while screaming, "He's coming!"

Everyone scrambled to their seats when Mr. West appeared in the doorway carrying a stack of papers. Lez and her classmates silently prayed or hoped to whatever they believed ruled the universe or not that what their teacher held was not a pop quiz.

"Please be another Sudoku puzzle." Lez whispered, crossing her fingers for luck.

Mr. West placed the stack of papers on his desk and turned to the class. "Sorry I'm late. I know y'all are eager to work on quadratics." The class stared at him puzzled. There elide the trouble with him. His monotone voice and ever-so-serious face, no one could ever tell if he was joking or not. "I may have to leave soon. My son fell off the swings during recess and may or may not have broken his arm. So until I get called…" He picked up the stack and started handing out the papers to the class. "I have some Sudoku puzzles for y'all to work on."

A few students groaned as Lez internally cheered. "This worksheet is due on Monday." He said, handing out the last copies. "Y'all will get another worksheet tomorrow in case I'm not here."

Lez sighed in relief as she scanned the page in front of her. There were four puzzles in total, two easy, one medium, and one difficult. She grinned to herself as she read the last one being valued as extra credit. The class fell silent as they began to work on the assignment. A couple of times she would get stuck on a number and let her mind drift.

The little rumor of the basement struck her. She knew Joey and Lilly were referring to the two sophomores found dead from "falling" out of a third floor window, the same year that nurse had the accident down the stairs. The janitor they were talking about had disappeared last year. No one thought anything of it until a couple weeks after. There was a huge mess in the bathroom on the second floor. When he didn't respond rumors and theories spread about what possibly happened as the new janitor filled his place. All of them were fairly farfetched, but no one could just vanish out of thin air.

After all, ghosts didn't exist…

Lez sighed and tapped her pencil against the desk for a moment. That's what everyone said here, except maybe Asha, though she never tried to talk about ghosts around anyone. Lez smirked as she wrote down a couple numbers. Talking about death, with it being somewhat common in this town, you'd think someone would wonder about how they died or if their spirit was trapped…just anything really.

No one seemed to mourn.

No one seemed to care.

Step outside the norm or ask a lot of questions and bad things would happen. Rumors would spread and all rumors, no matter how obscure, always had a speck of truth to them.

People died.

Some would disappear

No one question it.

Everyone seemed to move on, like they were programmed to turn a blind eye or brainwashed into thinking everything was okay even though someone died by falling down the stairs or out of a third story window. Not everything was an accident.

Lez swallowed as the thought dawned on her. She had an asthma attack and nearly died. It would've looked like she just had trigger that no one was at fault. They would've pinned the blame of her death on her because she wasn't carrying her rescue inhaler. Everyone would believe Cleo's words if they asked her what had happened to her cousin. Lez shuddered at the thought.

It's okay. You're okay. Asha was there to stop the attack and calm you down before it could harm you any further. You're alive.

She took a deep breath and relaxed.

I'm still alive.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

Nat smiled lightly as she placed the white, tea-stained coffee mug in Candy's hands. "Here's your sweet apple chai."

Candy thanked her and blew on the steaming liquid. "Getting a little fancy on the teas are we now?" she asked.

Nat snorted before sitting across from her with her own mug. "Oh hush. You know all I did was heat it in the microwave and threw a tea bag in it."

Candy grinned, "And here I thought this was a tea shop."

Nat laughed before adding. "Dang Candy, I can't believe you forgot what you sold at your own store."

They sighed in unison and sipped their hot tea in silence. "So," Candy started, swirling her tea in its mug, "what kind of tea did you get?"

"Mint," Nat stated as she breathed in her tea's fragrance.

"With honey?"

Nat laughed nervously, "It's good for your throat."

Candy shook her head, "I swear Pooh Bear."

Nat pouted a little. "Oh bother." Candy covered her mouth to suppress her laughter. Nat sighed and took another sip of her tea. "So are we gonna talk about what's going on or are we going to keep making old children's book references.

Candy looked down at her apple juice colored tea, "I guess…"

Nat placed her mug on the table. "Candace. I know something has been bugging you and it's not cause of Mr. Sleezy being misogynistic… Well, I mean before he came in."

Candy blew on her tea. It was no longer hot, but it helped. "It all started when the mayor's secretary Mrs. Q disappeared."

Nat swished her remaining tea around. "Ah, I remember reading about her in the paper. No one can seem to spell or pronounce her name right…"

Candy nodded in agreement. "I…" she swallowed, trying to find the words. She had been keeping quiet for too long.

Nat stared at her. Worry was clearly etched on her face. "Candy…are you alright? You look like you're gonna puke. Do you wanna stop?"

"No," she said softly, "I need to tell you." She took a couple shaky breaths. "I saw her Natty." She whispered. Nat frowned slightly, but let her friend continue. "I saw her walk into the forest…" She shook her head. "N-no not walk… It looked like she was being dragged." She bit her lower lip and pushed her mug away from her, "I should've done something Natty…"

Nat reached across the table and squeezed Candy's hand, "You've been seeing her in your nightmares haven't you."

Candy nodded slowly. "A-and I think I'm next."