Boarding School Blues
How could they have been so wrong?
Cooper collapsed beside the oak tree as he ran the fingers of his unbandaged hand through his hair. Nothing he had seen made any sense. Why was Professor Bell holding Professor Gray’s cloak? Did that mean he was the one at the boat house instead? Were they working together? No, that couldn’t be right. None of that made sense. There had to be some kind of misunderstanding.
“Cooper, we have to go,” Roman whispered.
“Go where?” Cooper asked.
“Inside the house,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we need answers.”
Cooper wobbled to his feet, no longer feeling brave. The house Professor Bell had come from was dark now like the others. Cooper followed Roman’s lead as they reached the porch steps, hardly able to breathe as Roman tested the doorknob. It opened without issue, and without a word, Roman dragged Cooper inside.
The darkness inside smothered him like a blanket, and right away Cooper inhaled the familiar lemony scent from the boat house, the same exact one from Professor Gray’s classroom the day Anakin had his sneezing fit. What was going on?
Roman twisted the lock on the front door, trapping Professor Bell on the outside. At least for a little while.
“We have to move fast,” Roman said, pushing past Cooper into the living room. “Xavier!”
Room to room they searched, calling out his name, but there was never any response. On top of it all, making their way through the pitch black house was proving all but impossible. Where was Xavier?
Cooper winced as he slammed his hip into the corner of a desk. He rubbed at the sensitive spot with his good hand while Roman shuffled closer in the dark.
“I think we have to risk it,” Roman said.
It was risky. They both knew it. Working in the dark was one thing, but the moment they flipped the light switch for the living room, Professor Bell’s house would shine like a light house. There’d be no hiding the fact that they were snooping around inside. But what choice did they have?
“If we’re quick,” Cooper said, “maybe he won’t see.”
Standing at the wall, Cooper counted to three before flipping on the light switch. Right away, his eyes squinted against the harsh overhead light as the fan whirred on the ceiling.
The house looked totally normal. If they hadn’t been there to witness Professor Bell leaving the home, Cooper wouldn’t have thought anything was out of place.
They split up again, and it wasn’t until Cooper passed the opening of the mudroom that he spotted the desk he bumped into from before. Scattered on top were several stacks of books, an old laptop, and other loose papers strewn about. There was enough clutter that Cooper nearly missed the door hidden behind the desk.
“Roman!” he shouted.
Roman was by his side in seconds, eyeing the door Cooper showed him.
“It’s worth a shot,” he said. “We have to find out what’s inside.”
Cooper helped Roman swipe all the junk off the top of the desk. As they worked to lift and rotate the desk out of the way, the cuts on Cooper’s palm burned. Whatever he and Anakin had done to stop the bleeding, he knew the wounds had reopened with fresh blood.
When they were far enough out of the way, Roman wrenched the door open until it clanged against the edge of the desk. A steep, narrow set of stairs led down into an inky black basement. Little light spilled down the steps, but Cooper thought he spotted the glint of a pull chain near the bottom.
He tried to slow his breathing. At any point, Professor Bell would be back. The locked door would only hold him off for so long, and nothing was to stop him from getting in through a window or busting down the door. If Anakin and Fielding couldn’t get help in time, neither he nor Roman would make it out alive.
“Xavier!” Roman shouted down the steps, but there was no answer.
They took the wooden steps slowly, each one clunking with their footsteps. The deeper they went, the more Cooper wanted to gag as an acrid, sour odor curled around his nostrils. It turned his stomach, and Cooper tried to only breathe through his mouth.
“What is that?” Cooper asked.
“Xavier! Are you down here?”
The basement was completely shrouded from their view. Somewhere in the back corner, a machine gently thumped and ticked every few seconds. Standing on the tip of his toes, Cooper struggled for the pull chain, just able to grip the end between the fingers of his good hand before he tugged. The light bulb buzzed to life.
And there was a body.
Roman had no doubt it was him as he dashed across the basement. The red sneakers he’d bought Xavier for Christmas were caked with dried mud, but there was no doubt about it. He’d recognize those red sneakers anywhere. Roman slid to his knees, praying Xavier was still breathing.
Xavier was strapped to a support beam, his arms wrenched awkwardly behind him and bound at the wrists. Though he wasn’t responsive, Xavier’s chest rose with short, shallow breaths, and Roman released a grateful sigh.
From head to toe, his brother was a mess. His greasy blonde hair lay matted from several days without a shower. A dried gash ran across his temple with old blood staining his jaw. His cheeks and eyes were sunken and hollow, his lips cracked with dehydration. Part of his shirt had been torn near the collar, and the dark stain spread around Xavier’s groin told Roman everything he needed to know about the nauseating stench in the room. Roman’s blood boiled as tears welled in his eyes.
“He’s hurt bad,” Cooper said as he inspected the bindings around his wrists. The zip ties cut deep into Xavier’s skin, leaving them dark with blood.
Roman tried to shake his shoulder, and Xavier’s eyelids fluttered open, unfocused and hazy before closing again.
“Xavier, wake up!” Roman said, low and urgent.
Xavier’s lips moved, but no sound came out. His face scrunched in pain as he tried again, this time forcing out a hoarse word, hardly more than a scratchy whisper.
“We’re here,” Roman said, trying to keep Xavier alert. “We’re gonna get help. We’re gonna…”
What were they going to do? Cooper was still struggling unsuccessfully with the restraints around Xavier’s wrists, and even if they got him free, his brother wouldn’t be able to walk up the steps, not in the condition he was in. Roman doubted they could get him anywhere close to safe before Professor Bell stopped them.
“Cooper, what’re we gonna do?”
Cooper scanned the basement. “There’s gotta be something down here we can use to cut the zip ties.”
Roman helped Cooper search, hastily digging through the messy boxes scattered around the basement in search for anything with a sharp edge. If nothing else, he’d chew through the binds with his teeth. They couldn’t give up now, not when they were so close to freeing Xavier!
“There’s nothing here!” Roman shouted, kicking a box over in frustration.
Cooper fidgeted with the end of his shirt as he cleared his throat. He eyed the stairs leading into the house. “I’ve got an idea,” Cooper said, “but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”
“What is it?”
“We can’t get him out,” he said, “but maybe I can create a distraction. I’ll lead Professor Bell away until the others show up. That way, you guys can stay safe.”
“Are you crazy!?” Roman shouted.
“You got any better ideas?”
“Yeah, not running out and getting yourself killed. Do you know how dangerous that sounds?”
Cooper’s knees wobbled as he clenched his fists. “‘We can’t be afraid of danger.’ I can do this, Roman. I’ll buy you guys time. But, in case I don’t make it—”
“No,” Roman said. “Don’t think like that. Just be careful.”
Cooper nodded, casting one last glance at Xavier before leaving. His feet clunked up the stairs, and after reaching the top, Roman heard the basement door close, followed by the scraping of the desk being pushed back against the door. It was all up to Cooper now.
As Roman knelt behind Xavier, he examined his wrists. They were crossed together, the zip ties chewing into his flesh. No matter how much he dug his fingernails into the ties, they wouldn’t budge. Maybe they overlooked something that could help cut Xavier’s bonds. He tried tugging them again.
Xavier’s voice rasped as he choked out Roman’s name.
“I’m here,” Roman stammered, sliding around to face Xavier. “Cooper’s getting help. Don’t worry.”
Xavier couldn’t lift his head, his eyes stayed shut, and when he spoke, every word from his mouth was like sandpaper.
A memory flooded Roman’s mind, from years ago, running through the house playing tag with Xavier. Roman wasn’t paying attention to where he was headed. All that mattered was that whenever he peeked over his shoulder, Xavier was hot on Roman’s heels, arms outstretched as Roman squealed with laughter.
Roman never saw the vase coming. By the time Xavier shouted his name, there was nothing he could do to avoid colliding with the podium. The vase cracked apart in thick glass chunks when it struck the ground, and all Roman could hear in his mind was his mom’s frustration. How many times had she warned them not to make the house their playground?
Xavier’s hand was on his shoulder, squeezing it in a way that said he was the big brother, that he was the one who would take care of it—take care of Roman. Xavier took the blame and along with it, two weeks of grounding as punishment. Even to this day, his parents never knew the truth, but Roman always remembered.
He wasn’t sure why the memory rushed back now as he wiped the hot tears from his cheek.
From upstairs, a muffled shout rang out. No doubt it was Cooper’s voice. Tied to the support beam, Xavier had dropped unconscious again, his head sagging low towards his shoulder. Cooper needed his help, but Roman couldn’t abandon Xavier. What was he supposed to do?
Did he run to the pull chain, hide with Xavier, and wait it out in the dark?
What if Cooper needed him in that moment and there wasn’t a second to spare?
Would going upstairs only put Cooper in more danger somehow?
Roman pulled at his hair and rubbed his eyes. He wished Fielding was with him.
The noises had fallen deathly silent. There was a moment where Roman thought he heard a man’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t abandon Xavier, but he couldn’t leave Cooper all by himself either. How many times had Cooper put himself in harm’s way to help him find his brother?
Roman placed a hand gently on Xavier’s shoulder and squeezed just like Xavier had done for him when they were little. Just a few moments longer was all they needed.
Roman stood to his feet. His brain was foggy as he climbed the staircase, every step weighing him down like heavy lead. When he reached the top, he pressed his ear against the door, listening for any clue as to what was happening on the other side.
Roman tested the doorknob, but as expected, it didn’t budge, not with the desk shoved against it. Roman turned the handle and slammed his shoulder against the door, wincing with every dull jab of pain shooting through his arm. Each time, the door budged a little more. A little more. A little more. With a final grunt, Roman wedged his hands between the opening and pushed with all his might until there was enough space to squeeze his slim body through.
The lights were still on, and after easing the door shut behind him, Roman raised his fists in self defense in case someone sprang out at him. Not that he really thought he could fight off Professor Bell if he tried to get the jump on him, but he wouldn’t go down without a fight either. Roman was the one with everything to lose.
Every heartbeat stung his chest. Roman spun to either side as he stepped out from the mudroom, ready to dodge a punch or oncoming tackle. When he passed the hallway leading to the bedrooms, he ducked his head inside, but there was no one there. This side of the house was empty.
A distant shout drew his attention, and Roman stepped cautiously forward until he entered the kitchen. Inside, a table had been toppled, and a phone had busted apart in pieces on the floor.
The back door was wide open, and Roman froze as he saw Professor Bell in the yard.
Cooper had to buy Roman time.
Any second, Anakin and Fielding would be back with Headmaster Robinson, but right now they were headed to the wrong house. If Cooper couldn’t find a way to get them to Professor Bell’s, then Jordy wouldn’t be the only dead kid discovered on campus.
After storming up the stairs, Cooper grunted as he shoved the desk against the basement door, his muscles straining under the weight. Now Roman and Xavier were pinned in, but at least Professor Bell wouldn’t be able to get back to them so easily.
Running to the front door, Cooper breathed a sigh of relief. Still locked.
Did he risk escaping out the front? What if Professor Bell was waiting to trap him? Cooper shook his head. He had to be decisive. This wasn’t like his books where Detective Dackery had time to contemplate every little move. Living in the what-ifs would only get him killed.
Cooper ran towards the kitchen, forming a plan as he went. He would head out the back door, hop the fence, and make as much noise as humanly possible. All he needed was one other adult to notice him, hear his cries for help.
Inside the kitchen, a phone flashed on the receiver, and Cooper snatched it from the stand. He wasn’t sure how soon the police would show, but it was worth a shot. Anything to increase their chances. The moment he was over the fence, he’d dial 911 and tell them everything.
He was so close. All that was left was to open the back door and run like hell for the fences. With a click, Cooper twisted the latch and wrenched the door open.
Cooper tripped backwards over his own feet and cried out as Professor Bell stepped through the back door. Beside him, the phone lay smashed in pieces, useless now to him or anyone else. Now what was he going to do?
Inside the kitchen, Professor Bell stalked like a cornered, rabid animal. The knot near his temple had swollen into a nasty purple egg, and the nearest eye was bloodshot like a spiderweb. Both eyes fixed on Cooper, dilating to sharpened points. Without a word, Professor Bell lunged at him, hands outstretched like talons as he dove forward, clutching Cooper by the throat.
At once the air snapped from his throat, and Cooper panicked, trying to dig his fingernails into the thick forearms of the man. As he struggled, Anakin’s scarf around his hand came undone, and the shallow wounds reopened. Little streams of blood trickled down his wrist and dripped onto his face as he tried desperately to escape from Professor Bell.
The fingers around his windpipe tightened, and Cooper knew his professor had gone insane. He wasn’t just trying to protect himself or cover his tracks. He was far beyond that. Professor Bell was insuring Cooper went down with him.
Cooper begged for breath. His eyes bulged with pressure. He had to think of something. Trying to claw Professor Bell’s face wasn’t doing him any good. He was too far away, and Cooper wasn’t strong enough. Glancing down, Cooper saw one last, hopeful opportunity and drove his knee into the man’s crotch.
Professor Bell buckled and gave a pinched yelp. His grip around Cooper’s throat loosened, and Cooper sucked in a choked gasp. He smashed his knee in a second time. As Cooper tried to scramble away, a furious hand tore the collar of his sweater.
Struggling to his feet, Cooper checked his throat with his good hand. Already, his windpipe was achy and bruised, and as he tried to speak, his voice was as hoarse as Xavier’s had been. How was anyone going to hear him calling for help? His only chance was to run.
Professor Bell lumbered to his feet, blocking Cooper’s path to freedom, and Cooper wished he had nailed him a third time in the balls. As Cooper backpedaled, he bumped into the kitchen table and felt it wobble. He tried to steady his breath, control his breathing.
When Professor Bell made another desperate lunge, Cooper waited until the last possible second before ducking beneath his arm. The instant his teacher collided with the table, he tipped to the ground with the table in a loud clatter. This was his chance!
Cooper’s eyes watered against the cool air as he sprinted out the back door, looking for the quickest way to safety. Like all the other yards, a tall white picket fence guarded all the ways out. On a good day, Cooper could’ve wedged his hands between the boards and scaled the fence with no problem like Professor Bell must have, but with his one hand messed up, he wasn’t sure he could make it in time, not before he got dragged back down and pummeled to death.
Cooper couldn’t look back, refused to look back, was terrified that if he did, Professor Bell would be over his shoulder, ready to snuff the life out of him. Ahead of him, the walls of the fence closed just around a tree growing tall in the yard. Its branches curled low and thick, growing thinner as the tree stretched higher like the honeylocusts back home. There was no other choice.
Cooper squeezed his fingers into the palm of his bad hand as he dashed to the base of the tree. The pain stung like a thousand wasps, but Cooper swallowed it down. Gripping the first thick branch, Cooper hoisted himself up, wincing as the bark chewed into his skin. One down. The next branch was in easy reach, and again he climbed, using every ounce of adrenaline pumping through his body. Push with the legs, not just the arms, Cooper reminded himself, reliving the hundreds of times he and Roman had scaled the rock climbing wall over the past several months.
Ten feet below, Professor Bell appeared, a shadow in the darkness. Even in the dim light spilling out from the kitchen, the knife gripped in his hand was unmistakable.
“It’s alright, Cooper,” he said in a strained voice. “There’s just been a misunderstanding. You come on down, and we’ll talk it out.”
No way that was going to happen. As Cooper turned his body, his foot slipped from the branch, and he cried out as he clutched the one near his chest. It was all he could do to hang on. Falling now meant losing everything. His feet dangled in the open air beneath him, and before he lost his grip, he swung back the other way, digging the rubber of his shoes into the branch below.
“Careful, Cooper,” Professor Bell mocked. “A fall like that would be pretty nasty.”
Cooper’s eyes widened as his teacher approached the base of the tree and lifted himself up onto the first branch with little effort. His extra height made it easy to climb, and Cooper looked up. There were only so many branches, so much space to put between them.
Cooper ground his teeth as he spun back around and pulled himself to the next branch. The branches were growing thinner, weaker. Each branch wobbled as Cooper held on with trembling hands and legs. Twice, he nearly slipped like he had before.
Before he could lift himself to the next branch, a hot, searing pain flashed across his heel, and Cooper screamed, his voice still a pinched strain in his throat. Professor Bell was only close enough to nick his ankle, but the knife was sharp. Blood dripped from his heel into his shoe, and right away, a chilly, nauseous pit formed in Cooper’s stomach. One more branch.
Cooper thought about his parents, how he would probably never see them again. He wanted to crawl into their arms and have them say everything was going to be alright. He wanted to hug Anakin tight and tell him he was the best friend Cooper could have ever asked for at Blue Ridge. He wanted to apologize to Roman, for letting him down. One more branch.
Every limb in Cooper’s body trembled. He could hardly put any weight on his sliced foot, and his strength was waning. One more branch.
Now the branches were thin enough that he could wrap his whole hand around each one. They creaked and groaned as they warped under his weight, and a sharp gust of wind nearly made him lose his balance. One more branch. One more branch.
But there was nowhere else to go.
As Cooper reached for the next branch and tugged, it snapped free, the jagged bark jutting like a spear from the trunk. Tears streamed down his face. Below him, Professor Bell’s breathing came in frustrated pants as he climbed ever closer.
“Got you now!” he shouted.
This really was it. With a shuddering breath, Cooper squeezed his eyes shut as he pressed himself against the trunk of the tree, tucking his knees to his chest. Whatever came next, he didn’t want to see it coming. Would dying be quick? He hoped it would be quick. He thought of Jordy, his smiling face and how welcome he’d made Cooper feel at Blue Ridge. Even though he was about to die, Cooper didn’t regret coming and meeting Jordy. He would never regret it.
Below him, the night held its breath in silence, and the branch he was on swayed from Professor Bell’s climbing weight. All he could do was hold his breath and wait for the end to come.
“Cooper, hang on!”
Roman’s voice from faraway made his eyes snap open.
Below him, Professor Bell jerked his head back in response, and that’s when the branch snapped. For a brief, fleeting second that seemed impossibly frozen in time, Cooper locked eyes with Professor Bell. His teacher’s face was etched in a silent, open-mouthed gasp, and then he was gone.
Another ear-splitting crack.
More snapping branches.
A sickly, dull crunch.
Roman’s feet were glued to the ground. Even his words were trapped in his throat.
Professor Bell’s contorted body lay in a crumpled heap at the base of the tree, surrounded by fallen branches and dead leaves. If by some chance he was alive, whatever life was left would be miserable and filled with endless pain.
Roman tried not to focus on the way his teacher’s head twisted at an abnormal angle as he tiptoed closer. Scanning the thin branches near the top of the tree, Roman’s eyes landed on Cooper’s small, shriveled form huddled at the top.
“Cooper, hang on! I’m coming!”
Scaling the branches was simple, especially with the months of recent practice using the rock climbing wall. Shrapnel from broken branches stuck out from the tree as Roman made his way closer to Cooper. His stomach turned as he imagined what his professor’s final moments must have been like.
Roman shook his head. What was he thinking? Professor Bell was a murderer and would have happily killed either of them if given the chance. Already Jordy was dead. Xavier would have been next. Why should he care about their dead killer? Still, as Roman took a glance towards his teacher’s body, he couldn’t stop himself from pitying the man.
The branches right below Cooper were wet and sticky, and Roman heard Cooper’s sniffling as he sat with his knees cradled to his chest. There was so little room for Cooper to sit that it was a miracle he hadn’t slipped off.
“Hang on, Cooper,” he called. “Don’t move!”
One more branch.
Even now Roman could see there was nowhere else to go. He and Cooper were so high up they couldn’t climb another branch if they wanted to.
“Cooper?” Roman called softly.
Cooper’s body was shaking, thin and fragile as he huddled in a ball. A bloody gash at his heel soaked through his sock, but Roman couldn’t see how deep it was. Soft cries reached his ears as Cooper whispered, “What did I do?” over and over again.
Shifting his weight on his heels, Roman carefully gripped the branch Cooper sat on and leaned his head against Cooper’s side. He wasn’t sure what else to do, other than remain there until help finally showed. From the thin branches at the top of the tree, Roman could see that some of the lights from the other houses had turned on. He needed to call for help, but no one knew they were in the tree yet, wouldn’t know until they stumbled upon Professor Bell’s home and discovered his body.
Roman bit down on the inside of his cheek to stop the tears from spilling down his face. He had to be strong, just a little while longer. But everything was adding up. Professor Bell, Xavier, Cooper, Jordy, how close everything had been to going so terribly wrong.
“What did I do?” Cooper whispered again, his eyes wide open is tears steadily streamed down his cheeks. “Ssshhh,” Roman whispered past Cooper’s sobs as he wrapped his arms around his friend in a gentle hug. “You saved Xavier. That’s what you did. You saved his life.”
End Chapter 17
Copyright 2023 – Levi Holland
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