“Homework?” cried Jose in dismay. “But…”
The tall girl who stood handing out papers at the door to the study hall looked at him for a long moment, one eyebrow lifted as if to say, excuses, excuses. She silently handed him a sheaf of papers and turned to the next in line.
The study hall was up a wide flight of wooden stairs just off the main courtyard. Outside, the light was fading, like someone had turned a dimmer switch down to its lowest setting. Candlelight flickered around the walls and along the middle of the long worktables where transitioners already had their heads bent diligently over their work.
A monk – or maybe a nun, he really couldn’t tell – perhaps it was the very one who’d incinerated his trousers earlier – was making his (or her) way around the room, lighting torches with a long flaming taper.
A child at the far end of one of the tables waved at him ecstatically. It seemed there was no escaping Mishi. He went over and sat down next to her. She blinked at him happily.
He put the sheets on the bench in front of him. All around him he could hear the diligent scritch-scratch of pencils on paper. Clearly, the other kids didn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that “Mathamythics” – which is what it said at the top of the worksheet – wasn’t even a thing.
He read the first question.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? Give your answer in kilos per inch, and show workings, assuming that (a) a woodchuck could chuck wood and (b) the wood in question is medium-density Wellingtonia pine.
Jose groaned. His head, which already felt like a lump of lead, slumped down onto the papers. No, no, no. This cannot be happening.
This had been a bad day, he thought bleakly. Correction: the worst day of his whole life. A mad nun had burnt his clothes. He’d had to sit through class after bewildering class of nonsense in subjects that didn’t even exist… and on top of everything – homework? It was all too much.
Jose sighed. Or, at least, he did what he could to produce a sigh, which was difficult given that he wasn’t actually breathing. Breathing… I’m not breathing? How can I not be breathing!? He fought down the sudden surge of panic, eyes closed, head down on the table.
He felt a sharp poke on his shoulder.
“Are you alright?” Mishi whispered, wielding a pencil.
Well, there was one question he knew the answer to.
“No,” he whispered back, fiercely. “No, I am not ‘alright’.”
“It’s okay, you can copy mine,” she said, angling her worksheet towards him slightly. “Mind the scaretaker doesn’t see,” she added indicating with her eyes the maroon-robed figure who was gliding silently along the far side, taper held aloft.
Jose glanced at her worksheet. At the top, next to “Name” she had scrawled “Mishi” – only the “s” was backwards. Underneath, where it said “Date of Death” she’d put “Larst wik”.
“Uh, thanks,” he said and pushed it back to her. To be honest, he didn’t think she was going to be much help.
Jose wrote his name at the top of the paper and then hesitated, the point of his pencil hovering over “Date of…”. Is that what he was – really? If he really, truly was dead, he wouldn’t be walking around, he wouldn’t be able to talk, he wouldn’t be able to think or do anything – would he? He held up his hand in front of his mouth experimentally and huffed. Nothing. Not a whisper of breath escaped him. He tried again.
Then he slipped his hand beneath the fold of his tunic and held it against his chest. He sat, frozen, listening for a heartbeat. Nothing. Nothing. How was that possible? He fought back a rising wave of panic. If his heart were beating at all, it would have been hammering.
I’ve got to get home, he thought to himself. I cannot be here. This is supposed to be homework – work you do at home. I need to get back. His mother would be worried. Would she remember to feed Pushkin if he wasn’t there? His dad would be frantic. And there was the science project to hand in at school – his real school, not this stupid, ridiculous, pretend one. The prospect of spending one more minute, let alone the rest of his life, learning how to “See” or practising “Going Woo” or figuring out how to do Mathamythics – it was just too ghastly to contemplate.
He pushed back his chair abruptly, his mind made up.
“Where are you going?” hissed Mishi.
“I can’t stay here. I’m going home.”
“What? You can’t!”
‘Who’s going to stop me?’ blurted out Jose, defiantly. The scaretaker had departed and all the other kids seemed busy with their homework. “I’m going to get my clothes back. I’ve got to go…”
He started towards the door. Mishi scrambled up and caught him by the sleeve.
“You can’t leave!” she said urgently, her eyes blazing. “Nobody can.”
“Just watch me.” Jose tugged the cloth free and headed down the corridor.
“Wait!” cried Mishi. “Wait up. Listen. Nobody goes back, understand? Nobody. Not unless you’re a vulture.” She looked at him a bit uncertainly. “You’re not a vulture, are you?”
“Of course I’m not a vulture! Do I look like a vulture?”
Mishi looked him up and down and bit her lip. “N…no. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
Jose threw up his hands.
“Look. I’ve got to go, okay? No offence, but this place is crazy. I’ve got to hand in my science project tomorrow, and my mum and dad will be worried, I’ve got to get back h…”
Jose suddenly staggered against the wall, clutching his chest. A sharp pain, as fierce as it was fleeting, stabbed through him. The keening wail of a siren burst upon his inner ear. He was blinded by a stroboscopic glare of tubelights as he was rushed along a hospital corridor, the sound of echoing footsteps hurrying him along.
His body on fire, fever raging through his veins. Snatches of voices – his father’s, his mother’s – coming to him like faint radio signals, bleeding away into static. His body like a burning boat, pushed out on the dark water, consuming itself in flames. Stars burst and shattered in spirals behind his eyes, racing to catch their tails.
The beeping of a monitor. The cold prick of a needle, and fluid entering his arm, spreading out in icy tendrils. Then a sound. A cry that seemed to come from somewhere far beyond his mother’s body, dragged from her with deep hooks from the seabed and hauled out of her lips in anguish. A sound like nothing he had ever heard emerge from human lips…
Extracted with permission from Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased by Anita Roy, Red Panda.