THE BAD BOOK MAN by John Stadelman
When Mr. Walker came into Tyler’s room to read him his bedtime story, he carried the Bad Book. He sat at the desk without a word, hardly even looked at Tyler, who sat in bed wishing they hadn’t taken the blanket away. Mr. Walker opened the book and put on his reading glasses. He coughed and wiped his nose with a handkerchief, and began.
“There was once a bad boy who was very mean to everyone. Instead of paying attention in class like a good boy, he drew silly pictures and wrote silly stories. He made faces at his teacher when her back was turned, and he never called her ‘Mrs. McGibben,’ but instead a very bad word.
“He didn’t play nice with his classmates on the playground. He always cheated when he played tag, and he never shared his snacks at lunchtime. He made fun of good kids, and he kissed girls under the slide. He didn’t have any friends, and nobody liked him.”
Mr. Walker paused, and stared from over the rim of his glasses at Tyler. That pause stretched for hours and hours. Each passing moment made him more afraid.
“One day, all the boys and girls were taken to a special school. At this school, they were told: ‘Here are you own rooms, where you can play and study all you want. No more sharing with all of your brothers and sisters! Here, you have all the room and space that you could ever want! You will be warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. You’ll have three meals a day and snacks, as long as you’re good. See how much nicer it is here than it was with your Mommy and Daddy? They were poor and didn’t want you, but here you don’t have to worry about the mean people who want to hurt you. Here at the special new school for all the boys and girls, you’re always safe!’”
Mr. Walker paused again. He coughed up phlegm into his handkerchief. Then:
“But there are spirits in this special school. And there’s one who is really, really bad. His name is the Bad Book Man, and he lives under the school. Do you know what he eats? Tyler. What does the Bad Book Man eat?”
His voice was so small. “Bad boys and girls.”
“Yes, he does. If you act up, then we’ll read you the Bad Bedtime Story. Do you know what happens when you’re read the Bad Bedtime Story?”
Tyler nodded, slowly, his chin rubbing his drawn-up knees.
“The Bad Book Man comes to your room when he hears someone reading the Bad Bedtime Story. And then your friends, and all your brothers and sisters, and your Mommy and Daddy, won’t ever ever ever hear from you again, because he comes when you’re asleep and if he decides that you’ve been really, really bad, then he’ll take you to his cave down, down, down under the school. What happens then?”
“He… eats me.”
“He loves to eat bad boys and girls.”
Tyler closed his eyes and held his breath, because the part that came next scared him the most.
“Starting with your toes and your fingers, he eats them like French fries. Then he cooks your arms and legs on a spit, and eats them like kabobs. Then he cuts you open and there goes your stomach, and your heart! Finally, he makes your brains into spaghetti, with your eyes as meatballs. Then he sends your bones in a box back to your Mommy and Daddy, and they’ll be happy that you’re gone and then they’ll replace you with a new kid, who will be much better than you.
“There’s only one way to keep the Bad Book Man from eating you once you’ve been read the Bad Bedtime Story. Do you know what that is?”
Tyler nodded. “I have to apologize to you right now and to him and to everyone else tomorrow. I’m sorry, Mr. Walker! I really am!”
Mr. Walker shut the Bad Book and stood up. He was the tallest grownup in the entire school. He coughed again.
“Good. Tomorrow, you’ll apologize to Mrs. McGibben.”
“Can he please please not come tonight? I already said I was sorry!”
“That depends, Tyler. I believe you, but you’ll have to convince him yourself.”
Mr. Walker went to the door.
“No, I’m sorry, please!”
He turned off the light, and went out into the hallway.
And shut the door.
The darkness ate Tyler up. He waited, waited very hard, to hear the deadbolt lock, for all to be forgiven. The bedroom doors only locked from the outside, to keep out the Bad Book Man when he wandered the hallways late at night testing all the doorknobs, looking for the room where the Bad Bedtime Story had been read… and when he found it…
Mr. Walker’s footsteps died away. One distant cough, echoing from up the hallway. He hadn’t locked it.
Tyler sat among the shadow-stacks of books and toys. The window shutters had been closed tonight, keeping him in the dark. It was impossible for him to know if the bundles of clothes on the floor were just that, or…
Tyler shivered on the mattress, wishing for the blanket, wishing that he was brave enough to scurry over to the closet to grab enough shirts and coats to make a mound he could hide under. He was scared, despite everything he’d planned for. Nothing could prepare him for this, for the hours of waiting to follow. The light was off and the door was shut… and unlocked. He seeped in this darkness. His plan, which had been such a good idea in the afternoon sunlight, was stupid now. Even with his weapon, could he actually do it?
Could he kill the Bad Book Man?
It was all because of Sean. He was caught kissing Anne Delmore under the slide. Sean was stupid and so was Anne. They should’ve kept an eye out for Mr. Bob and Mrs. Angela, who made sure that everyone played kickball right and didn’t climb on the jungle-gym the wrong way and didn’t be mean and bully. If you were caught bullying, or fighting, or if you kept playing kickball wrong, or did any of the other bad things, then they would tell Mr. Walker and he would read you the Bad Bedtime Story.
Playing at the special school wasn’t as much fun as when they still lived back at home, when they had sidewalks and streets and parks, even if it was dangerous there because of the gunshots from the cops that woke them at night. It used to be that playing football in the park with the other kids was the only thing Tyler could look forward to, even with the mean older kids and the scary men who sometimes tried to get them to go into alleys, and the cops who would sit in their cars, watching Tyler and the other kids playing, their eyes hidden by big shiny black sunglasses. Even with all of that, football still beat listening to his parents arguing, it beat walking around the neighbourhood where the threats that were small on the field became real and painful, or when at school which was more like detention because the teachers spent more time yelling at everyone than teaching them anything.
It was the same with Mr. Walker and Mr. Bob and Mrs. Angela, always watching and yelling at them for being bad. The chaperones were always there, even when they were in class. They just sat there watching everyone and got onto the kids who talked or closed their eyes or didn’t do their classwork.
Tyler was playing kickball on first base when Mrs. Angela stormed across the playground and ducked under the slide and pulled Anne out with one arm and then Sean with the other. She dragged them across the dirt and grass toward the principal’s office. Anne screamed and cried, but Sean’s feet dragged and his head hung low with that look on his face like on the day they were taken away from home to come to school here—he was so used to being in trouble, even if he wasn’t really doing anything bad, that he’d accept whatever they did. He and Tyler both learned pretty quick that they would never not be guilty, no matter what.
Tyler didn’t hear the ball getting kicked with a dull whump! He wasn’t aware of his best friend James Marshall running toward him, that all the other players were in motion and he was the only thing out of place.
Tyler stepped to the side. James whizzed past him as Gabby Vinston threw the ball into Tyler’s shoulder. But he didn’t feel it or know he was out. All he saw was the three people disappear into the school’s mouth, their shadow combined into a monster with a grownup torso dragging child-arms—one flailing and wild, the other limp and dead.
Sean’s room was left unlocked that night.
The next morning, he sat down next to Tyler in the cafeteria but didn’t eat, just stared at his bacon and eggs. None of the other boys sitting at the table said anything to him, or made fun of him, or even looked at him, like he was this big secret that would get them in trouble if they even thought about it.
Tyler reached over and opened Sean’s milk-box for him. “You better drink some milk.”
Sean didn’t do anything. The bags under his eyes were Tyler’s, because Tyler had spent the whole night hearing Sean’s screams in his mind, every time he closed his eyes. But Tyler knew better than to act even a little bit tired, because sometimes the chaperones thought that that meant you had been up playing with toys or reading instead of sleeping, and you’d get in trouble. Not Bad Book Man-trouble, but they’d make you swallow big painful pills that made you sleepy and if you didn’t take them, they’d give you a shot that hurt a million times more than the pills. So the smart kids never acted tired even if they really, really were.
“Drink your milk.” Mom and Dad had told Tyler that he had to look after Sean, which sometimes was really annoying because Sean could be so stupid. If he didn’t eat breakfast, then he’d be cranky and get in trouble in class.
“If you don’t drink your milk I’m gonna punch you in the face.”
Sean cried a little, but he took the milk-box in both hands and drank in clumsy gulps. He never once looked at Tyler, just stared at the table.
“Eat your breakfast.”
Sean hiccupped. Tyler was about to actually hit him. He looked around to make sure none of the cafeteria ladies or chaperones were watching, but then Sean picked up his fork and scraped a little mush of egg into his mouth. Then, like remembering just how good food was, he ate all of it really fast. Tyler swung back to James Marshall and they continued their paper-football game.
The wind beat on the window shutters, but the idea that there was a whole world out there with weather and people like Mom and Dad might as well’ve just been make-believe, a stupid fairy-tale.
Posters from Officer Goodman and Student of the Year had already been on the walls of all their rooms when they moved here and they weren’t allowed to take them down. Those were the only shows that they were allowed to watch, and they were crap.
But now in the dark each paper shrunk inward, like giant mouths on the other side of the wall had suctioned their lips to them and were inhaling all at once, like how Tyler and James put their Fruit Roll-Ups on their faces and opened their mouths and sucked in, making dents in the square… only these dents he saw were holes in the walls that made the white faces of Officer Goodman and the Good Kid Gang—Peter and Jamie and Melissa and Roger—stare at him with cartoon smiles that were now pointed at the ends. Their eyes were greedy and impatient.
Tyler hadn’t heard Mr. Walker’s footsteps in the hallway for a very long time. That meant it was empty. And the lights were turned off. And nobody was out there.
Only rows of locked doors. And one unlocked door. Just one.
It wasn’t until afterschool the day after Sean and Anne were caught, when everyone was allowed to play in the common area or wander the dormitory hallways as Mr. Walker patrolled up and down and kept an eye out for bad boys and girls, that Sean started to act normal again.
He was sitting on Tyler’s bed while Tyler arranged action figures for an epic battle on the desk.
Tyler turned in the chair, a good guy action figure in one hand, a bad guy in the other. Sean sat curled against the wall, knees up to his chest. His head kept dropping and shooting back up like he wanted to sleep but wouldn’t.
“Then you shouldn’t’ve been kissing Anne under the slide.”
“I wasn’t! She kissed me!”
“I heard you two kiss all the time. Sean and Anne, sitting in a tree—”
“Tyler, stop it, we don’t kiss!”
“—first comes love—”
“Mr. Walker’s gonna hear you and I’m gonna get in trouble!” Sean threw himself down onto the bed and hid his head under the pillow, his crying actually screaming. That same already-defeated giving up, accepting that the bad stuff and only the bad stuff was going to happen.
Tyler sighed loud and mad and went and sat on the bed. “Sean…”
He raised his head and shouted, “Mr. Walker told me that if I get in trouble again the Bad Book Man isn’t going to leave, he’s going to take me down under the school and eat me!”
Tyler listened to Sean cry.
Then he went over to the unshuttered window and pressed his forehead against the cool glass to let what little sunlight there was in the winter sky reach his face. It was like when one or both of them would act up back home, and Sean would run into their bedroom and curl himself into the bed they shared and didn’t come out even for dinner.
The playground out through the window was big and empty. The wind pushed the swings. Some big clouds left a dark shadow growing over the kickball field. The slide where boys and girls snuck off to kiss had guardrails on each side and there were ants under it and spiders too. Tyler hadn’t gotten caught with Jessica Tolland under there, because he was smart. But if he had…
Then he’d’ve spent the same kind of night that Sean just did.
He’d gone through that before, but for fighting. Sometimes with James, but he’d had a lot of Bad Book Man nights when he and Sean first came here because of the bullies like Alex Gardener and Harold Carson, the big older kids who thought that just because Tyler was small he was also weak and scared. But Tyler wasn’t scared of them or of anybody, and no other kid could beat him up—he’d shown that to the whole school on the second day, when Harold tried to hold him down by the jungle-gym so that Alex could hit him. They were big and dumb and never had to fight anybody before, they just liked being mean because they’d always gotten away with it. But Tyler had been fighting for himself and Sean for as long as he could remember. He used to lose all of the fights, and then only some, and now he hadn’t lost any in a whole year. Even when a bunch of kids from the other neighbourhood came over on their bikes with rocks and one even had a knife. Tyler didn’t exactly win that one, but he scared them off. Even after the kid with the knife cut him on the stomach, Tyler hadn’t told Mom or Dad because he didn’t want to get in trouble, and they never noticed it when it became a scar. That kid was way too skinny and he had this mean face and everybody else except for Tyler had been so afraid of the cops coming because they’d seen them shoot people and take people away to the camps, whether they were grownups or not. But Tyler hit that kid so hard his nose wouldn’t stop bleeding and his friends had to carry him away, and then sirens screamed from a block over. Tyler grabbed Sean up and they ran. He didn’t know if the kid with the knife and his friends got away, but he didn’t care. They shouldn’t have started it.
Tyler still had that knife. He’d snuck it into the special school with him and Sean on the day they were taken here because he’d been scared and having that with him, a dangerous secret, made him feel braver.
He hadn’t used it with Alex Gardner and Harold Carson, though. As he stood against the window with Sean crying in bed next to him, he was glad he hadn’t. Because the Bad Book Man would have taken him under the school for that. But he might also have hurt one of them way too bad, by accident. Could have cut them too hard across the stomach, instead of just breaking Harold’s nose and giving Alex a little baby concussion. They didn’t pick on him or Sean, or James, or Gabby or Anne anymore, because they were Tyler’s friends and they were scared of Tyler. And they should be.
One time when they were still living with Mom and Dad, Sean hit Tyler for some reason that Tyler couldn’t remember, so Tyler put him flat with just one punch. When Dad came home he did the same thing to Tyler.
But that night, as Tyler lay on the floor while Sean had the bed—because Tyler wasn’t going to sleep next to him for getting him in trouble—Mom came in and sat down on the floor and put Tyler on her lap.
“Don’t you ever hit your brother again. He needs you, and you need him.”
“But I hate him.”
He thought she was going to hit him for that. Instead, by the bare light from the hallway he saw the tears in her eyes, and that was the saddest and most guilty he ever felt in his whole life.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“I know you are. Listen, this world is a mean place. You and Sean have had to grow up too fast… just like me and your dad had to. You’re going to find out that some people want to hurt you… but that most people don’t care. I think that’s worse. I love you very much, but most of the world just doesn’t care, unless they can take something from you. You and your brother can’t fight each other, because most everybody else is coming for you. You have to protect him. Don’t let anything bad happen to him.”
“Don’t let anything bad happen to him!” she wailed as the cops held her back and kept Dad on the ground, the night that all the kids from the neighbourhood were taken away. Tyler reached for her but the cops forced him and Sean onto a bus with all the other kids, faces he knew from footballs games now afraid in the dark. The cops were pointing their guns at all the grownups, and there were gunshots and Tyler saw a few of the dads and uncles and older brothers also with guns running around and shooting and falling.
“I won’t ever let anything happen to him,” Tyler told his mom, that night in his bedroom. “I’ll protect him. I promise.”
So that now, Sean’s crying was just like Mom’s crying: Tyler’s fault. Because the Bad Book Man was the worst thing that could happen to Sean, to Tyler, to any of them… and Tyler had just let it happen. Then he’d spent all the next day playing kickball and drawing in class and playing with his toys like nothing had ever happened. His mom would be so sad…
Tyler hated them all, right then, realized that he’d always hated them but didn’t admit it because kids weren’t supposed to hate grownups and it was like the very act of thinking it would get him in trouble.
But he couldn’t lie about it anymore. He hated Mrs. Angela for taking Sean and Anne to the principal. He hated the principal for being the principal, whose only job was just to punish all the kids for not acting the way they were “supposed” to. And he hated Mr. Walker for reading the Bad Bedtime Story because it made the Bad Book Man show up, and he hated the Bad Book Man for what he’d done to Sean and all the other kids who let the teachers yell at them and hit them and take away their breakfasts and lunches and dinners for not paying attention in class, or for not saying a sentence the right way, and he hated the ones like Mr. Bob who made the girls sit on his lap, and he hated being so far away from home where even with all of the rules, nothing made sense.
He hated the entire huge monster of it all, something he was trapped inside of, the classrooms like stomachs digesting them and… and he hated it most because it had Sean here and it was Tyler’s fault because he was the big brother and it was his job to protect his little brother.
He made up his mind. He lay on his stomach on the floor and pulled a box of birthday and holiday cards from Mom and Dad and Grandma out from under the bed. He opened it, and dug down until he found the knife. Then he checked to make sure nobody was walking by in the hallway, and flicked it open. He made a few practice stabs at the air.
Sean watched him, lying propped on one elbow. Tyler hadn’t ever told him about the knife because he didn’t trust Sean to keep his mouth shut about it, but that didn’t matter now. His wet eyes were round shiny coins.
“Where did you get that?”
“I’m going to kill the Bad Book Man.”
Sean’s eyes welled back up. “You can’t…”
“I can and I’m gonna. Fuck him.”
Nightmares that were maybe real, because sometimes it was so hard to tell.
The wind a nothing thing, the shutters still. The shadow-mound of the desk was a knoll, a barrow for wights and ghosts. The closet was a coffin standing up. The bed a regular-way one.
A noise, rusty and little. The doorknob creaked one way, then another, back and forth, back, and forth.
It was so hard for him to sit up and move—all he wanted to do was grab at the blanket and pull it over his head, but they’d taken it away.
The door creaked.
He slid off the bed, tip-toe quiet, and crawled underneath it. Some of the boxes and toys stuffed under there at clean-up time made a noise but not too much. He went as far back as he could, against the wall.
The door stopped creaking. The Bad Book Man stood in that open space, and Tyler’s hands searching for the right box froze on the floor. He lay still and quiet.
Because the air was tiny, thin. Even the smallest thing could break it.
He heard the Bad Book Man breathing—rattling, struggling, like when someone had a cold and breathed phlegm up and down their throat. But it was actually shards of bones from the kids the Bad Book Man had already eaten stuck in his throat, making it bleed.
Tyler moved his hands around careful, so careful, touching each box, trying to find the right one.
Then the Bad Book Man stepped into the room.
Each step was more like a shudder that jerked one shoulder back and popped the other forward. Another step—one shoulder jerked back, the other one popped forward. Loud and creaking snaps, like his bones were breaking forever.
The Bad Book Man stood, breathing blood, over the bed. No feet, just a dark cloak that made him a pillar of darkness.
Tyler touched one box, it was wrong. He touched another box, also wrong.
The Bad Book Man turned and jerked-popped over to the closet.
Tyler touched the right box, and pulled it oh-so-careful toward him.
The Bad Book Man peered into the closet. Tyler could see more of him now, and he wished that he couldn’t.
The box pushed up against an action figure that fell over with the loudest crash in the world.
The Bad Book Man spun quicker than any person or animal and flashed back across the room. Tyler opened the box and dug through the cards but he couldn’t find it he couldn’t find it he couldn’t—
The pillar of darkness shrunk to his level. The Bad Book Man stared at Tyler with eyes that were actually clicking and chomping mouths of shiny broken teeth. His arm went long under the bed and wrapped sharp gross evil fingers like five fat wriggling slugs around Tyler’s ankle and yanked into the middle of the room. Tyler held onto the box and it came out with him, spilling birthday and Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas cards all over like birds with broken wings falling to the ground. Something clattered next to him.
The Bad Book Man loomed mean and evil over Tyler, and the fear inside of him was bigger than his bravery or his happiness or sadness or anger or anything else he’d ever felt. He cried without knowing it.
The posters of Officer Goodman and the Good Kid Gang glared at him. You can’t fight the Bad Book Man! they said. He’s a monster and monsters are the strongest things ever! All you can do is apologize for calling Mrs. McGibben a bitch!
Then the scariest thought: What if the Bad Book Man knew about Tyler’s plan? That he’d called Mrs. McGibben a bitch on purpose to make all of this happen?
That would mean no amount of apologizing would ever save him. He was going to be taken down, down, down… under the school.
The Bad Book Man grabbed Tyler by the arm and Tyler only barely felt the knife-handle in his hand as he was sent flying into open air like a stone out of a catapult. He crashed sideways into the wall and fell on the bed. His whole shoulder hurt really bad, worse than it ever had before. He screamed and screamed and a million things went through his mind as fast as anything could go as the Bad Book Man fell down upon him—
All you have to do is apologize, he insisted to himself. Maybe he doesn’t know your stupid plan! Just apologize, and the monster’ll leave.
But if he did, and Sean got in trouble again—because he would—then it wouldn’t matter how loud Sean screamed his apologies, because he would be taken down, down, down.
And it would all be Tyler’s fault.
From the wall, the Good Kid Gang all grinned at him, enjoying it in the way that the principal grinned watching Mr. Bob or Mrs. Angela hit them with the paddle. They wanted this.
Officer Goodman over the thing’s shoulder, stern and disapproving. If only you hadn’t called Mrs. McGibben a bitch, he said. If only you would stop taking responsibility that isn’t yours. You did it on purpose, but you forgot just how scary he is, didn’t you? You’re such a stupid bad kid. Bad kids deserve this. You deserve this.
That made Tyler angry. Because if this was what being a good kid meant, acting good so just so you didn’t get in trouble with the principal and the paddle and with Mr. Bob’s lap and Mr. Walker’s Bad Bedtime Story—if that was what being good meant, then did he actually want to be good? Or was he just avoiding the bad stuff? That wasn’t being good, not brave or nice. It was just being scared.
And he was sick of being scared.
The Bad Book Man’s arm extended out, dangling cords of tattered flesh, five poisonous slugs reaching for him. Tyler curled as hard against the wall as he could. He cried, but it felt like playacting, not real. The Bad Book Man reached and reached and reached. Clicking and hissing from eyes that were teeth. Reached and reached and reached. But he didn’t grab Tyler. Those slugs writhed in front of him, savouring the snack it would make of him: his fingers like French fries, his brains like spaghetti.
But if letting Sean get eaten was what a good kid did, then Tyler wasn’t going to be good. He was going to be bad. Very bad. The worst kid ever.
He screamed loud, as loud as he could, so loud that his throat burned like that time he smoked one of his dad’s cigarettes, in a way that felt good somehow. And he smacked the Bad Book Man’s arm, still expecting him to be so fast that he would just grab Tyler and whisk him away, down, down, down—
But the claw-arm shot away, like hitting a real person’s. The Bad Book Man coughed.
Tyler didn’t think—didn’t summon courage like the heroes in all the shows and movies—he just did it. Jumped from the bed onto the floor, but he landed on his shoulder, which made it hurt even worse.
The Bad Book Man shouted, “Hey!” in a regular voice, but Tyler barely heard it because the Bad Book Man yanked him up by his arm so hard that it felt like the whole thing was ripping off his body and the Bad Book Man shook him, vicious screaming and hissing and breath like everything that had ever died and rotted inside of those three mouths was waiting for him.
Officer Goodman and the Good Kid Gang were very happy.
Tyler clicked the knife open in his hidden hand.
Did monsters bleed?
He swung the knife up and over his head, melting it into the cloak just below the Bad Book Man’s chin. His other arm was released and his back hit the ground so hard the wind left him, and he was too dizzy from pain to do anything other than listen to the screaming that was no longer hissing but a lot like a person’s. The Bad Book Man grabbed at the knife, which was so deep in there that you could barely see it, or pull it back out.
The Bad Book Man stumbled over Tyler and out of the room. The moonlight from the high hallway windows blinded Tyler, but he made out the shape of a hunched screaming thing falling into the door across from Tyler’s. Then the Bad Book Man slid off, leaving blood-marks on the door as he stumbled down the hallway.
Tyler pulled himself up and followed.
Down the hallway, through patches of moonlight and darkness, like waking up and falling asleep again and again. Each time it stepped into the light, Tyler saw less of a monster and more of a dumb old robe… and tennis shoes… and that the Bad Book Man’s face was spongy.
The Bad Book Man stumbled over the hem of that dumb old robe and fell stretched out on the floor, gurgling, kicking at the tiles. Then he lay there, on his side. He twitched. Then went still, and stayed that way.
Tyler edged toward it. He expected a trap, that the Bad Book Man was actually invincible, immortal, and he was playing dead like you were supposed to do with a bear, so that as soon as Tyler was within reach it’d grab his leg and pull him down into those teeth-eyes and pop out Tyler’s own eyes like meatballs.
From the other side of one of the doors a small, afraid voice called out, “Hello? What’s happening? I’m scared…”
Tyler fumbled with the deadbolt, which was hard to do with just one hand because he couldn’t move his arm with the hurt shoulder at all. But he got it, and the door creaked in, and a boy from a grade below who Tyler barely knew stepped out, slow and scared, looking around for the thing he didn’t want to see.
His eyes went wide when he saw it. “Is… that…?” He retreated back into his room.
Tyler grabbed his arm and pulled him back out. “Look! Look, it’s dead!”
The boy walked toward it, but didn’t get too close. “No way…”
“I think I actually did it! I killed the Bad Book Man!”
They ran up and down the hallway, undoing the deadbolts and waking up the others. They stepped out into the hallway paled-faced and afraid until they saw the mound of robes that everyone else was gathered around. They poked it with their feet, and Alex Gardener started kicking it. He slipped in the blood and fell into Tyler, laughing, and kicked at it again. Then everyone joined in, crying and laughing and James whooped.
But Sean grabbed Tyler’s arm and pointed and said, “Look!”
In fact, the Bad Book Man’s face had gone all twisty. Tyler pushed the others out of the way and rolled the Bad Book Man over onto his back. He pulled at the spongy face. No, not spongy… rubbery. Like a Halloween mask.
Tyler pulled off the Bad Book Man’s face and his real face was Mr. Walker’s.
At first only the kids who had been paying attention went quiet. Then the others who weren’t as close lost their voices. The kids running up and down the hallway, waking up the latecomers, skidded to a halt. They could hear the pipes in the walls. As if they had never gotten up and were still asleep and dreaming this.
James Marshall knelt down next to Tyler and poked the face. It was real.
“Mr. Walker is the Bad Book Man?”
“No, stupid… There isn’t any Bad Book Man!”
“… I don’t get it.”
Tyler’s stomach and throat clenched up because this couldn’t be… right… He was supposed to kill a monster. An actual monster…
A bedroom door closed. They all looked. Gabby Vinston had gone back into her room. A moment later she reopened her door and hissed, “Somebody lock it so they won’t know I was awake!”
Her best friend, Vanessa Cole, ran over and locked it. The light on the other side of the door went out.
Then everyone was running. Doors slammed shut, lights went out. As soon as the morning came it would bring Mrs. Angela and Mr. Bob in to wake them, and they would see what had happened, that Mr. Walker was the Bad Book Man…
Would he actually get in trouble for it? For killing a monster?
“They knew,” he said. “They always knew.”
The last doors slammed, and electric silence shocked through the hallway. Tyler sat by the man-monster. Sean sat with him. Behind them stood Anne Delmore and James Marshall.
“We’re in so much trouble,” Sean said.
“So what?” James said. “They can’t send the Bad Book Man after us anymore!”
“They’ll find something else,” Tyler said.
“They’re always going to have something. For us.”
“All the doors aren’t locked,” Anne said.
This was true. Except for Gabby Vinston’s, not a single deadbolt was back in place. Everyone had been too busy getting back in their rooms to think that far ahead.
Tyler stared at Mr. Walker’s face, the wrinkles drooping like one of those deep-sea fish that melted when it was pulled up to the surface and into the light. The blood. All over his robe, and in a trail stretching all the way back to Tyler’s room. The knife-handle stuck out from Mr. Walker’s neck like a Frankenstein bolt.
“Go back to bed,” he told them. “I’ll lock all the doors.”
James and Anne ran to their rooms, slammed their doors shut and turned off their lights. Now it was just Tyler and Sean.
“But…” Sean was crying. “But Tyler, if you lock all the doors then nobody can lock yours and they’ll know!”
“Just go back to your room.”
“Mom told me take care of you and I did, but you’re not safe until you’re back in your room, so stop being such a baby and go before I punch you in the face!”
Sean wailed, scurrying to his feet, and as he watched him run away Tyler hated him a little bit, thinking that he was coward, selfish and helpless because Tyler had had to do all this for him, and now he was going to go through some horrible thing. He didn’t know what that was yet, not specifically, but he felt it coming in all of its terrible magnitude. It wouldn’t be until years later, with the distance of perspective, and understanding the complex and contradictory emotions of people, that Tyler would understand Sean had been wracked with confusion, guilt and helpless shame.
Tyler stood. Mr. Walker, the Bad Fucking Book Man. Crumpled before him, weak and pathetic. The glasses on his face weren’t eye-mouths rimmed with sharp kid-eating teeth, they were just glasses. Tyler kicked the body a few times—not to make sure, but because he hated him, hated him, oh god he had never hated anybody else so much in his whole life and he never would again, this avatar of a thing too big and scary to know that cast itself over the world beyond this hallway and he that couldn’t ever hurt beyond pointless gestures like this.
Those camps, where people from the neighbourhood were taken when the cops arrested them. That was where he was going, with all the other bad people.
Which meant he was bad now, and nothing would ever make him good again.
So he would keep being bad.
He locked all the doors. First up one side of the hallway, then back down the other. The succession of clunks like nails in the bed. By the time he was done, the lock on the door that led out of the hallway and into the rest of the school was clicking and clunking. Adult voices, loud and angry, sounded on the other side and meant nothing to him.
He picked up the mask next to the body and stared at it, then put it on and faced the opening door.