On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The man at the door of the classroom was wiry looking, with clear, sharp eyes and a completely neutral expression. Barclay assumed that he was a parent, and he tried to picture whose father the man might be.
“Yes?” he said, giving a small smile that hopefully still conveyed a degree of inconvenience. It was more than an hour since school had finished for the day, and none of his students were still there, but it wasn’t too unusual for parents to drop by for a word once they had finished their own work.
The man came fully into the room and closed the door behind him, and Barclay sighed quietly, resigning himself to whatever conversation was coming. He put aside the pile of homework he was marking, checked the clock on the wall, and wished he’d gone to the bathroom ten minutes ago when his bladder had reminded him about all the coffee he’d drank this afternoon.
“Schools without the kids always seemed a bit creepy to me,” the man said, and Barclay shrugged. He’d heard the sentiment before, but to a teacher, the silence and the empty corridors were a relief. They marked the end of a day, or of a term, or just a period of calm before the rush and the noise.
“You get used to it,” Barclay replied. “It’s the only time we can hear ourselves think.”
The man nodded, still looking around the room, seemingly in no hurry to get to the point. His gaze lingered on the poster encouraging students to speak kindly or not at all.
“How can I help you, Mr. …?” Barclay asked, against checking the clock. He had a lot still to do before he could really call it a day, and the afternoon was rapidly wearing on towards early evening.
“You’ve been teaching here for eleven years,” the man said. “Well-respected, from what I hear, by staff and pupils alike. One of the good ones.”
Barclay tensed up, telling himself to keep an even temper at all costs. There was a certain rare category of parent who did their research before coming in, and without fail they all tried to bully and intimidate. This man’s child had presumably been in trouble recently.
“Can you tell me whose father you are?” he asked, and the man glanced at him briefly with a puzzled expression.
“No-one’s,” the man replied. “I hope, anyway.”
Now it was Barclay’s turn to feel puzzled for a moment, and then, belatedly, he felt the shift in the situation. He was suddenly very aware of the relatively deserted building, and the classroom door that was now closed.
“Then why are you here?” Barclay asked, and the man smiled and pointed towards him twice quickly, in a gesture which said that’s the right question.
“That depends on you,” the man replied, taking a couple of steps over to a nearby desk and sitting down on the edge of it. Barclay noticed that the man remained between him and the door, and looked like he could cross the distance far quicker than Barclay himself could.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, and I’m quite busy at the moment,” Barclay replied, but he could tell that the other man knew he was uneasy. The man ignored the remark.
“Your class is for fourteen-year-olds, isn’t it?” the man asked, and Barclay saw no sense in denying it. He nodded slowly, and the man mirrored the gesture before he continued speaking.
“It’s a special age,” he said. “Lots going on. School. Parents. Hormones. I remember it well enough. Wouldn’t want to do it a second time.”
Barclay wasn’t sure what the man was driving at, and he was weighing his own likelihood of success if he were to suddenly run for the door.
“I’d give you about a five percent chance of touching the doorhandle,” the man said. “But zero percent of leaving the room until I say you can.”
Barclay’s skin felt cold. He said nothing, and after a moment, the man spoke again.
“I’m going to leave a card with a number on it,” the man said. “It can’t be traced, but if anyone ever tries, I’ll know, and you won’t see me coming. Let me show you how that scenario would play out.”
The images were like a slideshow, camera-flash bright, slammed into his mind behind his eyes. Barclay rocked back on his chair, and for a few seconds he stopped breathing. He saw himself, and this man, and they were in a place he’d never been to. It was dark there, but the surroundings were secondary to the look of fear and pain he saw on his own face. Then he could actually feel the pain, and the dread, and the certain knowledge that he was at the end of his life. He felt his own feelings, projected with the utter authenticity that erased all doubt about whether the events would come to pass.
He gasped, blinking and sweating, and the images faded away as quickly as they’d come. The man was still sitting on the edge of the desk, and when Barclay looked at him, the man tapped his own temple.
“Fourteen or fifteen is when certain very rare and special abilities tend to manifest,” the man said. “It was fifteen for me, but I was a late starter. Statistically, there’s at least one kid in each mid-sized high school, once every four or five years, and in this school you’re the teacher for that age group.”
Barclay opened his mouth to ask something, but the man had already shook his head.
“No,” the man replied to the unasked question. “Not at all. Doesn’t have to be like me, and probably won’t be. It could be anything at all. But you don’t have to worry about that, because you’ll call that number if you even suspect that one of your pupils has an unusual ability. You’ll call, leave a message with details, and go back to your life until the next one.”
“What will happen to them?” Barclay asked after a moment, the defiant tone he intended not quite manifesting itself in his vocal cords.
The man sighed now, clearly expecting the question. “Nothing like what you’re thinking. Would you set fire to a Rembrandt? Of course not. The kids I’m talking about — the gifted, like myself — are masterpieces. We provide the proper nurturing environment so they can reach their full potential. And you’re going to help spot them for us.”
The man stood up now, and Barclay cast around in his mind for something to say, but there was nothing. No response, no rejoinder, and certainly no refusal. He had seen that particular future, and nothing could ever be worth it. His pulse accelerated as the man walked towards him, but then he saw the business card in his hand. The man placed it on the desk. It was plain white, with nothing but a phone number on it. Apparently satisfied, the man turned to leave.
“What if someone else saw you come in?” he asked, not realising he was going to ask the question until he’d actually spoken. He immediately felt foolish. He could feel the amused disdain on the man’s face even though he was facing away from Barclay.
“They did,” the man replied, opening the classroom door once more. “Another teacher in the car park, receptionist at the front desk, janitor in the corridor. They’re all fine. They won’t remember me.”
He stepped out into the corridor, leaving the door ajar. When he spoke again, his voice was too quiet for Barclay to hear, but the words were in his mind too, and they were as clear as could be.
But you will.
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