01 Feb D is for Dropout | Five Nights at Freddy’s (26 Frights of Freddy)
“I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say or do to make you reconsider this?” I asked that day in August at the close of the first week of school, clutching my student’s manila folder against my chest protectively.
“‘Fraid not,” Tanner Albright said, sprawled in a chair across from my desk. He shook his head, long strands of dark hair swaying before his eyes, and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. His words and gestures were almost apologetic, but also firm enough to convey that he had chosen his course of action and was not about to be dissuaded by any high school guidance counselor.
“Very well.” Pivoting in my chair, I turned to the steel filing cabinet behind my desk and wrenched open the bottom drawer that always seemed to stick, then unceremoniously dropped Tanner’s school records into the drawer, right behind the divider with its yellowed label. INACTIVE. His was the twenty-sixth folder in the file I’d started since my tenure. For all the successes over two decades that I’d seen through at our tiny high school that graduated seniors in classes of a hundred or so, I’d fought tooth and nail to see the hard cases walk across that stage. I’m talking about the guys who spent some time in “alternative educational facilities,” the girls who had preschool-age kids in the audience next to Grandma when Mama walked across the stage. I fought for them all because dammit if I wasn’t right there when my dad told my big brother Gabriel he’d never amount to anything, let alone finish school.
“Just so you know,” I informed my student, threading my tweed-coated arms through each other in a show of defiance, “this is not a done deal. Should any regrets present themselves, you have the legal right to an education until you turn 21, and this door is always open.”
“I’ll consider it, sir.” Tanner’s thin shoulders shrugged again through his threadbare t-shirt, then he was shaking my hand and on his way out. But I wasn’t quite done, and I ventured into a-hole territory when I extended a hand for the leather-bound book he’d always carried.
“You’re a bright kid, Tanner, and if you’re going to take a sabbatical for private research as you claimed, I at least have a right to see what you’re working on.” Surprisingly, he passed me the book nonchalantly, practically daring me to try and make sense of it, but as my eyes pored over the neat, compact printing within I quickly realized the reason for his arrogance. I wanted to pass off his notes as the work of a madman, but when I came across that name I returned the book to him with trembling hands.
“This is parapsychology, perhaps? Tanner, if you needed a mentor you could have done a lot better than Henry. He was a brilliant man and a graduate of this school, long before my time. ‘Gifted but unique’ has always been the standard phrase when referring to him; he was kind of a legend in his own time, not that he knew it.” I impulsively reached out and clutched Tanner’s hand in my own. “Don’t go down that path, kiddo. You’re tough as nails, but it’ll eat you alive regardless. Clyde Miller fed into that machine.”
I noticeably jolted when the principal jostled my shoulder.
“Harvey, a word with you?” He had a manila folder of his own. Tanner smirked at me and ducked out of my office.
“Clyde Miller, Class of ‘79.” Mr. Johnson let the folder drop heavily onto his desk. “I’ll never forget the day he showed up in this office, wearing a pair of cheap-ass K-mart jeans and a disco shirt. He begged me to let him drop out of school because he was involved with Henry’s mission, whatever that was.
I tried to resist, and I convinced him he had talents he hadn’t realized yet. So I let him run the school announcements in the gym, even if he was terrible at it. So many ‘uh’s’ and stammering, but wouldn’t you know it, that kid joined the A/V Club and he saw it through. He walked across that stage with the rest of them, even if he never really believed in himself.”
Mr. Johnson, — Joe, I reminded myself, still feeling awkward addressing someone twenty years my senior with anything less than a deferential Sir — continued. “I didn’t even know I should have tried to save him at the time. But Clyde Miller had chosen his course and he’s still officially a missing person to this day. I have my own thoughts on the matter.”
I choked back a cough. I’d seen the file myself; Clyde was 32 when he went missing. He’d been depressed and was working a dead-end job, the long line in an adult life of working such jobs. He may have been way beyond high school age, but he was one of Johnson’s special cases.
“He talked about Henry so passionately I at first assumed he was queer for him.” Johnson backed away as my hands curled into fists. “I mean, not that I was judging him for that or anything.”
“Really?” I snarled with a ferocity I didn’t know I had in me. I didn’t want to get into it with him about Gabriel. About Clyde. About Tanner.
…It was a closed-casket funeral a week later, to say the least. I vaguely remember sending out an announcement that grief counseling would be available to the general student body, but nobody really took advantage of the opportunity. I’ll just say that Tanner didn’t have a wide circle of friends and leave it at that. His ex-girlfriend suffered badly, though, God bless her.
Johnson and I stood at the casket. “He knifed himself once, right?” he whispered, and I grabbed his arm out of concern. “The hell did he do to himself that he needs a closed casket?”
Out in the parking lot, I reached out to him. “It was a lot more than that. Y’know Henry needed a closed casket, right? Do you know how he did it? Y’realize we haven’t even found Clyde? There’s a machine out there, some force, and it’s eating our kids alive.”
Johnson reached into the glovebox of his car and lit a cigarette, the forbidden item we weren’t supposed to show to our students to admit we indulged in, lest we admit we were human and had our own frailties. “Dammit, Harvey, twenty-six is too damn many.”
“Damn straight, sir.” I jammed my hands into the pockets of my stupid tweed coat, the one I always wore to impress on my students that I somehow held some position of authority. And then I stared Johnson in the eye and put my entire job on the line.
“Lilibeth needs help right now. She lived through this. I was too young to help Henry and Clyde, I failed Tanner and damned if I won’t save her. I’m doing this for them.”
“And if you’ll excuse me right now, I’mma go home and read my comic book. The one Gabe bought me.” No further context was needed. He didn’t deserve it, but I double-fisted flipped off Johnson right there in the parking lot and stormed out to my hatchback.
The next day I was back at my desk after the weekend funeral. I had a kid in my office trying for a scholarship application. She wasn’t gonna earn it and I could see that a mile away; her GPA was way off from what the college was striving for. I was on the phone anyway, just trying to fight for my kid, y’know, and as I had that landline clutched against my shoulder I saw that… creature, one that I had only ever seen before in my childhood nightmares, shamble across the school lawn, trailing what appeared to be strands and loops of string.
Shrill static erupted from the speaker and I felt a wave of nausea and intense pressure overcome me, and the last thing I remember before passing out was seeing its hollow eyes as it waved its hand slowly, as if to taunt me.
“Harvey, you’re losing it, aren’t you?” Johnson was shaking my shoulders.
I don’t remember the rest. “I don’t know, man.
Maybe I really am.”