Back to school

"Maybe I just never got caught." Jacob said casually. Rachel looked at him with a puzzled expression. For a second he thought she might have been on to him, but then she seemed to discard all suspicion. She gave him the skeptical look he had grown used to. He smiled.

Deep down inside he'd known from the first that it had to be the school. Or rather the inmates of the school. His school had been like this one. A friendly sort of prison. With invisible bars everywhere. Bars that would not bend to little Jacob Hood's twisted mind. He didn't mind school. In fact he rather enjoyed gathering knowledge. He didn't even mind the low speed in which the teachers taught their pupils. It gave him plenty of time to think. "Wake-Up-Jacob" his classmates had named him from early on in his school career.

At first his teachers thought he was lazy. They punished him by making him do complicated sums on the blackboard, and they made him stay late in detention regularly. He didn't care. He finished the sums in a dream and managed to entertain his class by squeezing in some clownish expressions at the same time. In detention studying was allowed. He'd finished quite a lot of books that way. He wasn't one of the popular kids in his class. But he wasn't an outcast either. Some of the girls quite liked him. Especially the way in which he made complicated study material seem easy. In chemistry he reshaped the periodic table of the elements into a simple nursery rhyme, which he found the entire class humming during the following test.

It had all come back to him, during the visit to the local school. The whiff of stale sweat mingled with the smells of chalk and floor polish. The buzz of dozens of whispering children, the sounds of doors slamming and teachers establishing their authority. The school was smaller than the one he remembered. In the school of his past the hallways were endless and the teachers were taller. He remembered how he had to stand on his toes to reach his first locker. His books were heavier then. But the children, however differently they might dress nowadays, were the same. In the auditorium where he had to address them, he recognized them at once. The popular kids and their throng of desperate followers, the soloists and the nerds. He wondered which group Rachel had belonged to. Somehow she didn't fit into one of these categories. She must have been popular, but she lacked the arrogance that usually came with popularity. She definitely wasn't a follower. She was smart, but he couldn't imagine her advertising that quality. And she must already have been athletic, but not in an obsessive way. Had they been the same age and at the same school, he doubted their paths would have crossed.

He told Rachel he'd been like Stephen, but that wasn't strictly true. There had been a Stephen in his class, by the name of Jeremy. Jacob had hated him from the first day. Jeremy had just moved house and had always be the one with the highest grades at his old school. Just like Jacob. Which would have been fine if Jeremy hadn't been extremely handsome and good at sports as well. In no time he became the most popular boy of his year. Jacob knew his dislike of Jeremy consisted mainly of jealousy. But he couldn't help but feel that Jeremy was too good to be true. There had to be a dark side to this boy, and Jacob was desperate to find out what it was.

It took him a long time. His mother noticed the change in her son. The carefree, dreamy and definitely happy boy had made way for a moody adolescent. Jacob tried to explain to her why he couldn't stand Jeremy, but instead of sympathizing with him she told him off. "Jealousy doesn't become you, Jacob. He sounds like a nice enough boy. Maybe you should invite him round sometime." Jacob didn't think so.

At long last Jacob's patience was rewarded. By then Jeremy had infiltrated what seemed like his entire life. Not only did he have to see Jeremy in class every day, but to make things worse Jeremy's family had moved house again, this time to Jacobs own neighborhood. And he had joined Jacob's chess club and dive class. He was now best friends with the twins that lived next door to the Hood family, and on top of that he tried to chat up Jacob's sister. Fortunately she didn't fancy him.

About that time the first incidents took place. A couple of pets were found dead, killed by poison. One of them, a tabby cat, belonged to Jacob's classmate Robin, who had refused to hand over his new calculator to Jeremy. The owner of the sweetshop across the road from the school complained about an increase in shoplifting, shortly after he'd refused to sell cigarettes to Jeremy and his friends. Books and gym clothes started to disappear from lockers, and anonymous letters, in which teachers were accused of drugs use and sexual relations with students, were found all over the school. In one of the letters Jacob's sister was named. She was summoned to the principal's office, and given a formal warning, even though none of the accusations against her could be proved. One of the teachers, a somewhat shy but gentle man who taught history, was fired.

By then Jacob had had enough, and wanted revenge. For his sister, and for the teacher who had always been kind to him. But most of all he wanted Jeremy out of his life. Somehow the idea of revenge sharpened his brain and gave him the extra energy he needed to come up with a good plan. It was the frog incident that gave him the idea.

One day their class had to dissect dead frogs. Jacob had heard senior students talk about it, but never thought there was any truth in it. Until that day. The smell was sickening. There must have been at least twenty frogs, flattened out on the work spaces. Jeremy was the first to notice how Jacob froze in the doorway. He made good use of it. "Jacob's scared of frogs!" he chanted. Soon most of the other kids joined him. Jacob felt indignant. He wasn't scared of frogs. What had upset him was the pointless killing of the animals. He considered defending himself, but decided against it. He followed his teacher's instructions instead and was rewarded an A+. Since then he had discovered that Jeremy wasn't half as tough when confronted with live frogs, or any amphibians or reptiles for that matter.

Once he knew what he was going to do, Jacob had to think of a way to isolate Jeremy from his friends. They seemed to accompany him everywhere he went. The contents of Jeremy's locker, which Jacob didn't have much difficulty opening, were useful. In the back of the locker, hidden behind a pair of sweaty gym pants, he found two small medicine bottles filled with pills. He folded two envelopes from a piece of paper, copied the names of the drugs from the bottles and slipped in some of the pills. That afternoon he paid a visit to the library and discovered he'd obtained some strong laxatives and sleeping pills. Four days later Jeremy had to leave school early. He suffered from acute diarrhea. Someone said he'd been eating clams the day before. In the absence of his parents Jacob's mother brought Jeremy a broth to settle his stomach.

It took Jeremy a long time to wake up. For a while Jacob was worried he had given him too much sedation. He had put him in the recovery position to make sure he didn't choke on his own vomit. He had bound his wrists and ankles tight, but not as tight as to cut off circulation. "Do you want a drink?" he asked. Jeremy writhed in response. Jacob held the bottle with the straw in front of Jeremy's mouth. "You're poisoning me." Jeremy hissed. Jacob shrugged. "No, stupid. I could have done that already, don't you think?" Jacob gazed at the wall. Jeremy followed his gaze and writhed more. He saw a large tank filled with bullfrogs. "See?" Jacob walked over to a side table on which a large number of steel instruments gleamed. Jacob picked up a scalpel. He was quite proud of his achievement. He'd borrowed the instruments from the nearby dental surgery. Jeremy just stared. The bullfrogs roared, clearly not pleased with their temporary environment. "Not long now, lads." Jacob said cheerfully. He put down the scalpel and carefully picked up one of the bullfrogs. "Do you think they have dissection lessons in frog schools?" he asked. Jeremy didn't answer. He had grown quite pale. Jacob walked over to him and placed the frog on Jeremy's chest. Jeremy screamed. The startled bullfrog jumped, grazing Jeremy's chin. Jeremy started to cry. "Don't worry." Jacob said. "They can't hold a scalpel with their feet. And besides, they only kill to eat."

Jacob was very quiet. His thoughts seemed to have drifted off. Rachel didn't mind. She was glad to be out of Georgia and in her own air-conditioned car. She had to admit he had been careful these past few days. Climbing up the school ventilation shaft was weird, but not really dangerous. And as for searching the swamp in thigh pants – he sure knew his way around all kinds of animals. Rachel didn't. Biology had never been her favorite subject, and creeping, crawling and buzzing creatures made her jump. Jacob had been too polite to mention it. Or maybe he'd been too engrossed in saving the lives of twelve-year-olds to notice.

He started humming, like he always did when his thinking reached a certain stage. At first it had annoyed her, now she was used to it. "What is it, Hood?" she asked. He stopped humming and looked at her. "Nothing really." "Tell me." She ordered him. "It's just that…'' He hesitated. "Tell me Rachel, have you ever wanted to kill someone?" "All the time. Doesn't everyone?" He frowned. "I wonder what it takes to cross the line?" "Like young Stephen?" Rachel said. "Don't worry, Hood. You couldn't hurt a fly, let alone a bee, even if you wanted to." Rachel turned on the radio. "There are worse things I could do…" Stockard Channing sang. Jacob grinned. "No, I don't, Rachel. But you just might."