It could have been a row of huge stage lights coming down on me, or a rusted beam giving way, the whole roof collapsing, or a huge bundle of boulders that had been tied over the stage especially for me. The floor shook from the sound of clattering rocks, but not like you'd feel from impact. More like the rickety fender on a teenager's car when he's bassing, trying to let everyone know how much of a gangsta he is. Whatever it was came down on me like a thick gray sheet. I stooped, let my knees buckle as if it was something I could limbo under if only I could get low enough.
It knocked me to the ground, but it had no right to. I mean, it wasn't really heavy enough to knock me over, but I had given it such a head start, it didn't take much to put me the rest of the way down.
I wasn't hurt except for where my ankle bone and elbow and shoulder had hit the stage. I really thought it was a mess of little boulders because of the clattering sound, but when I stuck my arms up to bat it away, it felt like heavy plastic. I thrashed under it, tried to kick it off me. The clattering sound kept going for a second or two after the stuff had settled on me, then it cut off.
Suddenly the stuff pressed my feet and legs tight to the floor, accompanied by a loud thump. I slapped one hand sideways and managed to pull the tarp off my head, just barely. The top side of it was gray and scratchy like sandpaper. It had creases and folds all over the surface, making it look like sandstone when it stopped bending and moving. Gina Bronson stood on the edge of the rocky tarp, maybe a foot away from my leg. There was some lump under the tarp right next to her, which she proceeded to stomp viciously. Scraps of paper-mache shot out in all directions. It had been one of those paper-mache rocks near the fake campfire. She caught sight of my face just after that, and flashed a look as if my head had been very naughty for not being under her foot. Since my head wasn't cooperating, she moved to finish the job.
To prevent that, I swept up two handfulls of tarp and pulled it toward my head. Not to cover it, just to pull it out from under Gina's feet.
I'd love to have a video of her at that moment, flapping her arms as she lost balance and flopped off the front of the stage. There was a real orchestra pit down there. Not that we ever had an orchestra worth filling it. Thirty kids with plastic recorders trying to play the same notes is an orchestra only their mothers could love. At least it was carpeted, so she didn't hit bare concrete.
I pushed the tarp toward my feet, then kicked it off. I managed to nudge the campfire in the process. Another ton of rocks clattered, but nothing came from the ceiling this time. The rockslide tarp and sound effect must have been triggered by that phony campfire.
I got one knee on the ground to push myself up, then I was down again under the other Bronson. Sonia had dropped her shoulder on me like a professional wrestler. It hurt way more than the rockslide or hitting the stage or anything that dog had done to me. I pushed her off me in the direction she was already headed, trying to dump her into the orchestra pit right on top of her sister.
Sonia sprawled out and grabbed the floor. She launched herself at me. I kicked my legs up and leapt to my feet, taking the monkey-phoenix-crane defensive stance. Sonia blasted some wicked phantom tiger strikes but I slapped them down. We traded blows about ten seconds before I felt myself losing. She could block everything I threw her way, and I couldn't stop all of hers. I caught one in the shin, a glancing blow off my cheek, then a solid hit to my chest. It wouldn't last much longer at this rate.
I slid over toward the campfire just as she was spinning her foot toward my hip. I triggered the rockslide sound effect but it didn't phase her. She connected hard on my hip and it was all I could do to stop the next shots aimed for my head.
I was done for. I blocked as fast as I could, not bothering to throw anything at her, just keeping her off me. It seemed hopeless. I would have to take any opening.
A woman's voice from the very back of the audience. Sonia stiffened and turned toward the teacher.
I kicked her in the side of her stomach as hard as I could. Sonia fell, skidded a few feet back, then clutched her side and whimpered. I could see a smile curling on her lips, but she played it up for Mrs. Cardo.
Mrs. Cardo strode quickly down the aisle between the seats with Ms. Simon a few steps behind.
"I cannot believe," Mrs. Cardo said, "that the nice little boy I cast as the Pied Piper of Hamlin last year would pick on girls like this!" She came up the steps and eased Sonia to her feet.
Principal Simon stalked right up to me and clamped my wrist. She said nothing as she pulled me away. That's when you knew it was going to be bad, when she didn't have anything to say.
The other times I had sat in her office weren't for punishment. She had asked me questions about two kids I had known who disappeared. I couldn't tell her we worked together as Junior Millwrights, but I think my act had been convincing. Besides, she was pretty freaked out by the number of kids that went missing around here. No wonder her hair and face were so gray. This time around I'd get a good look at the joke nameplate on the front of her desk which read, "SIMON SAYS."
But halfway to her office, Ms. Simon led me into the lunch room. We walked in between five lunch ladies dumping cans of mixed vegetables and gravy into long, stainless steel trays.
Ms. Simon stopped in front of a refrigerator door set in the wall. She grabbed me by one shoulder in a Spock pinch. "Gustav, I've brought you here to die." I kicked and struggled but she was a wiry broad.
She patted my pockets, knowing the deceptive items that would be at my disposal. All I had was my hot-lunch card, my house key on a necklace, a plastic army man throwing a grenade, and a rainbow-swirled rubber ball the size of a quarter. She took the key, the army man and the rubber ball, but handed me back the card. "I wouldn't want you to go hungry. Help yourself to some lunch in there, anything soft enough for you to eat before the deep freeze takes full effect."
She unsealed the door, explaining that the walk-in freezer was sound-proof, radio-proof, and designed to rapidly reach negative 100 degrees. "This is what you get when you frig with Lisa Reinhart and OTO."
As Ms. Simon shook me and tossed me into the freezer, I saw the pudgy lunch ladies looking at me, then looking back to their huge bins of food. Their heads were all covered by big ear-muff headphones, wires dangling in front of them, not plugged in to anything.
Outside of the freezer, Ms. Simon raised a thick padlock so I could see it through the window, tapped it on the glass, then lowered it. I couldn't hear the click when she snapped it on the door handle, but the muted vibration came through my fingertips.
For a minute, I thought she had messed up. This wasn't a freezer. I saw giant plastic bags full of shredded cheddar cheese on steel shelves, plus several boxes of apples, pears, bananas. You might keep those things in a cooler but you wouldn't freeze them. They'd go bad if you froze them. Of course, a person willing to kill a little kid, willing to install a sound-proof, radio-proof freezer of death, probably wouldn't worry too much about a few damaged fruits and clumpy cheese.
I could have blown the door open easily if she had left me the little plastique army man. Or the diamond saw in the rubber ball could have whipped through the lock, no problem. The key had no hidden function; it was a real key for the back door of my house.
The only thing left was my counterfeit hot-lunch card, and it probably wouldn't work. Just in case a signal could get through the reinforced walls, I slipped it out of my pocket and broke it in half. The sound it makes when you crack it is more like metal than plastic. It releases some kind of radioactive isotope that's easily detected from a distance. Maybe they hadn't shielded the walls from that kind of distress signal.
A red digital display next to the door showed -38 degrees F.
I pulled boxes of apples off shelves and started ripping the cardboard into shreds until my fingers were too numb to work. Then I laid down on a couple boxes of mock chicken patties and pulled the pieces of cardboard over myself. After ten minutes, I knew the signal must not have penetrated the walls of the freezer. They would have come for me. I closed my eyes and tried to stay awake, but there was nothing else I could do.
* Don't miss Chapter Four: Dry Ice
(c) 2005 by Rob Northrup