It was a quarter past seven and the sun had already set leaving dirty streaks of brown and red in the sooty October sky. Miss Finnegan had stayed late to supervise the audio-visual club. A routine meeting had become a near disaster when David Fisher, a paean to adolescent clumsiness, had tripped and almost broken an expensive camera while practicing to fill the annual drama club production. The other club members had argued bitterly over who's fault it was and how things should be changed until Miss Finnegan had become fed up. In her usual brusque manner, she had told them exactly where to place the cameras as well as how to operate them. She had dismissed the students after Paula Danforth had whined that her mother would be most upset with her for being late for dinner. In Esmeralda's estimation, Miss Danforth could stand to miss a few dinners and be the better for it. But she kept her opinion to herself and shooed the dispirited club members out of the door, silently cursing for allowing herself to be sucked into having anything to do with the drama club's latest production.
The annual play had been a thorn in Esmerelda's side since she had begun teaching at South Central ten years previously. Arthur Fortinbras, the drama teacher, had once aspired to be a theatrical director. Each year he poured all of his thwarted enthusiasm and boundless energy into the high school production, enlisting the help of as many of the students and staff as he could wheedle.
Esmerelda, who had always been slightly suspicious of the thin, sallow Fortinbras and his excessive zeal, had been out of the last hold out to be recruited into the effort. The productions had grown more and more ostentatious and, to Esmerelda's practical mind, more ridiculous with each passing year.
This year's effort dealt with the legends of King Arthur. Esmerelda had been hopeful that Fortinbras had finally taken the final step that would make him a complete laughing stock and that the idea would be laughed off by the jaded student population. But once more her hopes had been dashed by Fortinbras' ability to make the most ridiculous idea sound attractive.
She was contemplating Fortinbras and half hoping that he met an untimely and messy demise as she pushed open the door to the parking lot with her elbow. A dense fog had settled over the school grounds, a combination of water vapour and industrial smog from the nearby factory. The entire effect was surreal and Esmerelda worried that some of the less pleasant denizens of the run down neighbourhood might be lurking amid the parked cars.
She steeled herself and made her way quickly across the lot, alert for any sound or movement.
Something large and white loomed unexpectedly before her. Startled, Esmerelda jumped backwards and dropped her papers. They scattered across the expanse of asphault like so many autmn leaves. Her fear immediately transforme to extreme irritation when she realised that what had startled her was one of the sculptures that the art class had been putting together as part of the scenery for the play. Fortinbras' staging called for several of them as well as a set of full sized standing stones. Mrs. Filion's art class had been diligently working on them for weeks. This was supposed to be a statue of a beautiful young woman done with graceful, flowing lines.
Once again it seemed that the drama teacher's aim had far outstripped his resources. The best efforts of the earnest art teacher and her equally earnest students were enough to make a barbarian cringe, but Fortinbras treated them as precious works of art being sculpted by geniuses.
As she went along the schoolyard, gathering papers and cursing fervently under her breath, Esmerelda again wished Fortinbras a slow and painful death.
Retrieving each of her students' essays in the murk took much longer than she would have anticipated. She carefully counted each rumpled, scribbled paper until she was certain she had them all, then paused by the ugly statue to catch her breath.
She examined the sculpture and blinked. The fog, she decided, must be playing tricks with her for the unslightly lump had somehow transformed itself into a work of beauty. With a grim laugh, she rapped her knuckles upon it to disspell the illusion. She immediately drew her hand away, hissing in pain. Much to her disbelief, the sculpture no longer seemed to be made of styrofoam. It seemed solid enough to be rock. Cradling her abused hand, Esmerelda examined the sculpture more closely, silently willing it to become the expected artistic disaster. The statue stubbornly refused to change, even when Esmerelda's eyes began to water. It had somehow transformed itself into the figure of a tall woman, the stone lines of her clothing draping elegantly upon her lithe form.
She shook her head and deliberately looked away from the statue. She wondered if she was succumbing to Fortinbras' mysterious glamour and decided it was simply a case of nerves after a very long day. With a forced laugh, Esmerelda made her way towards her car.
The soles of her heels thudded softly on a wooden walkway.
Try as hard as she might, Esmerelda could not remember a wooden path anywhere in the vicinity of South Central High. If there had been one, the local vandals would have burned it long ago.
The pragmatic part of her mind attributed it to yet another piece of the set meant for the ridiculous play. It could not be that long; the auditorium stage was only twenty-five feet wide.
The more primitive part of her brain gibbered quietly when she arrived at solid wooden wall where the parking lot should be.
Esmerelda very sternly told herself to calm down. This had to be the wall of the school itself; she had become disoriented in the fog.
But the school, a building erected at the turn of the previous century, was solid brick and this wall was most definitely wooden.
She was frowning mightily at the out of place, most unwelcome wall of wood when someone spoke directly behind her. The language she thought she recognised as the Welsh that her maternal greatgrandmother had spoken. As a small child, Esmerelda had been fluent in it. Now she did not wish to embarrass herself by trying to make use of it.
"I'm sorry," she said to the tall figure that loomed before her. "I would like to help you but I don't speak Welsh."
The man blinked at her statement, obviously surprised to see her. Then he gestured that Esmerelda should follow him.
Desperately wanting to get away from a place where wooden walkways and walls that had no business being there mysteriously appeared, she followed him at a careful distance.