Read an Excerpt
The Psychozone the Witch's Monkey & Other Tales
By David Lubar
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1997 David Lubar
All rights reserved.
Jane scurried through the classroom doorway and slipped into her seat just before the late bell rang. She felt her face flush as she listened to the voices of the other students and wondered how much of the chatter and laughter was aimed at her. She sank deeper into her chair and glanced toward the front of the room to see if Mr. Muller had noticed her arrival.
But Mr. Muller wasn't there.
"I'm Mr. Pringe," the man standing by the blackboard said. He paused to run a hand through his uncombed hair. "Mr. Muller couldn't be here today. I'm your substitute. I'm sure we'll all have a marvelous time."
An instant wave of excitement flowed through the class. Jane could sense the kids around her trying to figure out what they could get away with. She knew that some substitutes were like iron rods with legs, not letting the kids have any slack. Others were as easy to manipulate as wet clay. It was almost as if they wore signs saying: "Play tricks on me." That was fine with Jane. If the kids were busy torturing a substitute, they might leave her alone.
But this substitute didn't take attendance, or do anything else that gave the class an easy chance to play a trick on him. He got right to work.
"I know how much you kids like science," Mr. Pringe said, "so I've set up a little demonstration."
He reached behind the desk and hauled up a mess of wires connected to an assortment of shiny metal parts. "Now, I need a volunteer."
There was dead silence. Then, behind her, Tommy Lindstrom said, "How about Jane?"
She felt a thunk as he kicked the back of her chair. She wanted to turn and shout for him to stop. But she knew that if she shouted, the whole class would laugh at her — just the way kids had laughed when someone had hidden her notebook last week, or when they'd put that rubber worm in her lunch.
"Yeah, Jane," Linda Russo said, dragging out the a so it sounded like "Jaaaaaaaaane."
Stop it, Jane thought. Leave me alone. She felt her face grow red and wished she could fade into the air. She squeezed her notebook against her chest and shook her head.
Mr. Pringe was looking right at her. He extended his hand. "Come on, Jane, this will be fun."
Jane shook her head again. She flinched as something bounced off the back of her neck. It felt like a crumpled ball of paper.
"Well," Mr. Pringe said, tilting his head down and peering over his glasses, "I see Jane isn't interested in science." He opened a notebook, pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, and started writing. As he wrote, he spoke the words, each word isolated by a small cushion of silence. "Not ... interested ... in ... science." Then he snapped the book shut and said, "Well, who would like to volunteer?"
All around Jane, hands shot up like rockets. She almost raised her own. I could ask for another chance, she thought. It might not be too late.
She dropped the idea. It would just give them another reason to laugh at her. Every time she spoke, someone found something to mock. When she walked down the halls, when she took out her lunch, when she moved or breathed or sat still, someone made fun of her.
"That's the spirit," Mr. Pringe told the class. "It's science. You'll love it."
Kids were hopping up like sprung mousetraps, waving their arms for attention. Several students rushed toward the front of the room. Everyone except Jane flowed forward.
Jane sat alone in her seat. Nobody was watching her. But she knew that eventually they'd notice her again and make their stupid comments and laugh their stupid laughs. Quietly, she stood and walked over toward the rest of the class.
"My, my, so many volunteers," Mr. Pringe said. "It would be unfair to pick just one. Let's get every volunteer up here." As he spoke the word volunteer, he stared directly at Jane.
All the kids were crowding around the substitute now. Jane looked away from Mr. Pringe's stare, wondering if it was too late to take part in the fun. It was obvious he didn't want her there.
"Everyone form a ring and join hands," the substitute said.
There was some shuffling and scuffling as kids tried to make sure they weren't stuck holding undesirable hands, but the circle was formed before Mr. Pringe had a chance to say "Quickly, now" more than once or twice.
"Here you go," he said, handing Dennis Koll a wire that was attached to the device. "Hold this." He gave a second wire to Samantha Nichols.
The kids held the wires like they were prizes. I could do that, Jane thought. She bit her lip and wished she could be with the others. It was especially bad to see Samantha getting to hold one of the wires. The girl was always bumping into Jane in gym class and then pretending it was an accident.
The substitute picked up a power cord and plugged his contraption into the wall socket. He held his finger over a large red button. "Now, class, we are going to do an experiment in conductivity. Oops, looks like there's a loose connection. This won't take long. I'll have it fixed in a moment. Then we can begin." He pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and started fiddling with some of the wires next to the button.
Several of the kids in the circle who faced in Jane's direction grinned at her. Tommy stuck his tongue out. Samantha actually giggled and waved the wire at Jane.
Linda wagged her head from side to side and scrunched up her nose. "Jane, Jane," she whispered, "you're a pain."
Jane watched them, all standing so happily in their circle, and something broke inside of her. She fled the room. She'd had it — enough of their taunting, enough of their mean tricks. She ran, not caring if she missed the experiment or got in trouble. She was beyond fears of anything that might happen. What more could they do to her?
She raced past the cafeteria. She ran past the gym. She started to dash past the principal's office. But she stopped when she saw the policemen. They were huddled in the entrance area. One officer was talking to the principal. Everyone seemed very serious.
"We think he might have come here," the policeman said.
"Is he dangerous?" the principal asked.
"We don't know. He's never escaped before. He imagines things. He used to be a teacher, but the students teased him so much it did something to his mind. Sometimes he likes to pretend he's still a teacher. We're checking all the schools. He might not be dangerous. He might not even be here. But we have to check."
"Please do," the principal said.
The policemen turned toward the hall. One of them linked eyes with Jane. At that instant, Jane realized the substitute wasn't a real teacher. He was someone who thought he was a teacher. He might be dangerous. That's what the policeman had just said. She saw herself opening her mouth, speaking up and saving her class. She saw herself being a hero.
"Officer," Jane said. She imagined all her classmates thanking her.
The image didn't last. As she saw them in her mind, their smiles turned ugly and mocking. All together, they stuck tongues out at her. Then they laughed. "Jane, Jane," they chanted, "got no brain."
"Yes?" the policeman asked. "What is it?"
"Oh, nothing," Jane said. She followed the policemen from a distance, watching as they stopped to check each class.
As they got close to her classroom, the lights in the hallway dimmed for an instant, as if some device had suddenly used a huge amount of electricity. The policemen paused and sniffed the air. "Kind of early to be cooking lunch," one said.
Jane just smiled.CHAPTER 2
THE VAMPIRE'S RAT
There are large rats in the basement of the apartment building where I live. That's not a problem. Rats don't bother me. There are eight hundred thirty-seven people in the building, not counting me. Eight hundred thirty-six of them are human. There's a vampire in apartment 47-D. That's not a problem, either. He doesn't bother me. No reason for him to. Kids don't have as much blood as adults.
If I was a vampire, I wouldn't bother kids, either. To tell the truth, he doesn't bother anyone in the building. I know. I've watched him. Maybe once a week, late in the night, he'll go out to dinner.
I've never followed him far from here, but I knew what he was doing. I have to be careful. He'd probably hurt me if he caught me, just to keep his secret safe. But I always followed him from at least a block away and then hung back as he disappeared deep into the city. I'd wait where I was — an hour, two hours. He'd return, moving slowly, looking satisfied, not paying attention to anyone on the street. Then he'd stay inside his apartment for a week or so.
Sometimes, he'd stop by the cellar for a rat. That's how I knew for sure he was a vampire. There are crates in the cellar. It's easy to hide behind them.
I liked to hang out there and watch the rats. If I sit real still, they don't pay any attention to me. They just run around doing rat things — sniffing, scratching, biting each other.
I'd seen him come to visit the rats lots of times. Usually, he'd drink one dry. Once in a while, he'd just take a small drink and let his victim go scurrying off. That was before.
This time, it was different.
I watched him drift down the cold concrete steps into the basement. "My pretties," he said softly.
There was skittering and sniffing, then they rushed to his call. Dozens of large, sleek rats shuffled at his feet, crawling over each other as they fought to get close to him. It reminded me of a thick, fluffy carpet. I wondered what it would be like to have the power to call animals that way.
"I choose you," he said, reaching down, moving as smoothly as a dancer. He raised a rat from the pack and stared into its eyes. He stroked it on the head. Then he grinned. Then he drank from it.
When he was done, he raised his head and glanced in my direction. For a moment, I was sure he'd seen me. I wondered whether to hold still or to run. But he turned away and dropped the rat to the floor. Then he left.
I watched the other rats. I expected them to attack the fallen one. That's how rats are. And people. But they ran from it. They left it lying alone on the floor.
I went over and pushed the body with the tip of my boot. The rat was still breathing — fast and shallow. It curled around my toe, trembling. I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch it die. Another thought grabbed hold of me. Maybe if it lived it would become a vampire. A vampire rat. That wasn't something I could walk away from. That was something worth owning.
I grabbed the rat by the back of the neck and picked it up. I'd never touched a live rat before. It was smooth and soft, like a coat Mom once had. The rat didn't struggle. "Come along, my beauty," I said. Then I laughed at the silliness of my words.
I put the rat in a cardboard box I found in the corner of the basement. Then I went upstairs and snuck it into my room. Mom was watching TV in the living room. She never pays any attention to me when her shows are on.
I didn't sleep that night. I watched the rat. It shook and shivered. It made sad squeals and looked around with its little rat eyes.
Near morning, the shivering stopped. At first, I thought it had finally died. But then it moved its head and stared up at me. The eyes didn't look dull and empty anymore — they looked hungry.
I threw a blanket over the box and shoved it under my bed. I had a funny feeling that sunlight wouldn't be real good for the rat. That night, after the sun had set, I pulled the box back out and removed the blanket.
The rat was huddled in the middle of the box. I knew that it wasn't a normal rat any longer. In the light of my lamp, the rat didn't have a shadow. I checked to make sure Mom wasn't around, then took the box to the bathroom and tilted it toward the mirror. The rat had no reflection. For a while, I just looked back and forth from the rat in the box to the empty box in the mirror. The whole time, the rat kept watching me.
I took the box back to my room. The rat was still staring at me. "You hungry?" I asked, leaning over the box.
I got a quick answer. It wasn't an answer I liked. The rat leaped from the box, its mouth impossibly wide, showing sharp rat fangs. I put up my hand, but the rat was fast. It hit me in the chest and clutched at my shirt. I grabbed it. I struggled to yank it off. It was fighting to climb toward my neck, hissing like a snake. Suddenly, I was aware of the blood that pumped through my throat. I could feel the blood so close to the surface. I could feel how close the rat was to my throat. I could feel how close the rat was to breaking free from my grip.
I staggered back, stumbling into the table where I did my schoolwork. As I grabbed the edge to keep from falling, I felt something roll beneath my fingers.
I closed my eyes and shouted so I wouldn't see or hear what I was doing. But I felt it. I guess it had been stupid to think I could keep the rat. Stupid and dangerous.
Now, he was lying flat on the floor. The way a wooden stake kills a human vampire, my vampire rat had died with a pencil through his heart.
I took off my shirt and checked my hands and arms carefully, making sure I hadn't been bitten. I was lucky. There wasn't a scratch on me. Who knew how much it would take to turn me into a vampire? But the stress of the fight, the lack of sleep the night before — it all crashed over me at once. I dropped to the floor, not far from the rat.
I awoke several hours later as the light of the rising moon came through the window. Had it all really happened?
Yeah. The rat was still there, cold and dead. But I'd escaped. I had to get rid of the body. There were some garbage bags in the bathroom. As I left the bedroom I realized that my arms itched. By the time I got to the bathroom, I was scratching like crazy. I opened the medicine cabinet and looked for something to help itches. There wasn't anything.
I checked my arms again. They were covered with swollen red spots. Bites, it looked like. That was strange. There weren't any mosquitoes this time of year. As I started to close the door of the medicine cabinet, I realized what had bitten me.
Fleas from the rat. Blood-sucking fleas.
But that meant ... My hand froze as I followed that thought to where it led. Then, slowly, I closed the door of the medicine cabinet the rest of the way and searched the mirror.
I had no reflection.
I began to feel the thirst. It was a thirst that had to be fed. I knew I was too inexperienced to venture out into the city. I felt much safer in the apartment. But that wouldn't be a problem for a while. There were eight hundred thirty-six flesh-and-blood humans in the building.CHAPTER 3
The good part about playing ball on a dead-end street is that there isn't a lot of traffic to worry about. The bad part is that Old Lady Flugle's house is just foul of right field. When our ball went over her fence, I figured it was lost and gone. To tell the truth, I'd never really seen the woman close up or spoken to her, so it probably wasn't fair of me to think bad thoughts about her. But everyone just knew she was spooky.
"Get it, Sally," Danny said to me.
That wasn't fair, either. Just because I'd hit the ball didn't mean I should be the one to get it. "Hey," I told him, "if you'd pitch a little faster, maybe I wouldn't have such an easy time knocking it so far."
And that's where it should have ended. Nobody expected anyone to actually go into Old Lady Flugle's yard. But Ronald, stupid, lazy, mean Ronald, had to open his big, fat mouth. "Scared, Sally?"
"I'm not scared," I said.
"Then get the ball." He stood there grinning like he'd just produced the world's greatest argument. "Go on, get it." He gave my shoulder a little push. I should have slugged him, but he was a lot bigger than me, and a lot meaner. He shouldn't even have been playing with us, but he was the only one around who didn't mind being catcher.
There was only one response that could get me off the hook. "Are you scared?" I asked. I looked around, then said, "Hey, Ronald's scared."
Most kids would have been ready for that, but Ronald wasn't very quick. He thought for a while, I guess, or tried to think. Finally, he said, "Am not."
Bad move, Ronald. He probably expected me to come back at him with something weak like Are, too, but I rushed in with the finishing touch. "Then you go get the ball."
I knew I had him. It was perfect. There was absolutely no way for Ronald to escape my trap — until Danny spoke up and ruined it. I guess he was annoyed that I'd made fun of his pitching. "Why don't you both go get it?" he asked.
This was spinning out of control. I didn't want to go anywhere with Ronald. But it looked like I had no choice. The best I could do was to force the others to come along with us. I turned to Danny and said, "Why don't we all go get it?"
I figured this might make everyone decide to forget about the ball. Unfortunately, the gang seemed to be feeling adventurous today. Next thing I know, we're all creeping through the front gate of Old Lady Flugle's house, hoping to spot the ball right away and get out of there. Somehow, I was stuck in front, followed by Danny, April, Beth, and Mark, with Ronald trailing along at the rear, probably looking for a chance to slip away. I felt like one of those soldiers you see in the old movies, sneaking into the enemy camp.
Excerpted from The Psychozone the Witch's Monkey & Other Tales by David Lubar. Copyright © 1997 David Lubar. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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