The Schoolhouse in the Forest

By Chef JRHEvilInc/Joel R Hunt

//Source.

//This is part of a series. Click here for part one.

I’m writing this because I need to make sense of what’s going through my head. I’ll admit it; I’m scared. And I know that if I close my eyes and try to sleep, my mind will be making monsters out of every creak of the house and every howl of the wind. I’m in that state where I don’t even want to make a noise, because part of me is worried that, if I do, I’ll hear a reply.

I know I’m being irrational. If I just get all of this written down I’ll see how ridiculous it is and I’ll be able to move past it. It will become impossible to deny that my fear is based on something absurd.

Ockham’s Razor. The true explanation is often the simplest.

That puppet is not watching me.

It started yesterday morning. 

_

My friends and I make horror films. I’d still call us amateurs, but a couple of them take it really seriously. And fair enough, we’ve done alright with a few of them. Won a few local awards, made a few quid’s profit. If you’re big into the British indie horror scene you might have heard of our stuff – otherwise I doubt it. Three Eyes Wide is probably our best success. A fun one to sit in with audiences on their first viewing. It’s a proper gore-fest, and you can’t even tell that most of it is food colouring. My personal favourite is The Man Who Wasn’t There, although we lost money on it in the end. Don’t work with children.

Anyway, one of our big things is filming on location. We never make sets. Costumes, sure, and some wicked props, but never sets. We probably spend more time scouting locations than any other single job in the process. It just makes the whole thing seem more genuine – there’s no decent substitute for filming in a graveyard or an abandoned factory.

And yeah, we don’t always have permission to be there, but we never get in the way of anyone, and we don’t vandalise the place or anything. We leave it as we found it. (Admittedly, we have been known to take a few choice pieces for our prop selection. Nothing people will miss. Only items that haven’t been used in a long enough time to make them fair game. ‘Dust or bust’ is our rule.)

So yesterday, we were out in a forest looking for some good spots for this Bigfoot thing we’re planning (the script is utter shite, but the costume will win everyone over, trust me). We knew there were some old wells and stone steps and things like that scattered throughout the place, and we were trying to decide whether we wanted to go more for the kind of ‘why did everyone leave this place’ aesthetic or the ‘never been visited by man’ look. Keeping out options open, willing to let the right location guide the action.

That’s when we found the schoolhouse.

None of us had known this thing was going to be there. There weren’t any signs for it, or any paths leading up to it. We’d just been pushing through some overgrown bushes, trying to see if they were thick enough to hide Bigfoot, and then there it was.

An old, square building, standing in the middle of a forest.

It had definitely been abandoned for some time. Most of the windows were smashed, the whitewash paint was peeling away, plants were creeping up the walls. We thought it might be an old cottage at first, but Ellis spotted the bell over the main entrance. Apparently that’s where the kids would have lined up in the morning. Not that any had lined up there for years. The bell didn’t even have a clapper anymore.

We peered in through the windows, to see if anyone was around (and to check if the roof had collapsed or anything like that. You’ve got to stay safe when you’re rooting through these ramshackle places). On the one side it was a long corridor sprinkled with glass worn smooth from the weather. Covering every wall were faded children’s drawings, with what little colour left mixing and melding together so that all the lines were muddy yellows and murky browns. They no doubt used to be images of happy families smiling around colourful houses. Now they looked like plague victims.

Leaning through the empty windowframe, we could see that this corridor led to the main entrance, as well as three other doors. One of those doors, as we could see from the other front window, was attached to a small kitchen. I was surprised at first to see that all of the equipment was still inside, these large metal ovens and boilers and a basin that could as easily have been a bath as a sink (although I wouldn’t want to use it for either, with all the grime at the bottom of it). Ellis jumped in again, pointing out that it was all built into the walls, and wasn’t something that could easily be removed. I think she was enjoying giving us the grand tour of this place she saw for the first time in her life half a minute earlier.

Anyway, it all looked safe enough from a structural point of view – a few cracks in the wall, a few dripping holes in the ceiling, but nothing major. We decided to have a proper root around, wondering if we might retire Bigfoot early and shoot a story based around this place instead.

We opened the front door. It let out the most beautiful groaning creak I’ve ever heard. We probably spent a minute just opening it and closing it and opening it again, changing the speed, changing the force, just to see what sounded best. Charlie wasn’t with us yesterday, which was a small mercy, because she would have been absolutely creaming herself. She’s our techie, and she’s big into authentic sound effects (she’s one of those people who feel the need to point out all the fake noises they add into Attenborough documentaries). To her, visuals are secondary. She’s always saying that any good horror movie could be enjoyed if you were blind, because the sound will do most of the work. Well, with the combination of the creaking front door and the squeaking floorboards and crunch of glass as we made our way along the corridor, we knew we were on to a winner.

Without even discussing it, we each moved to a different door; I took the one at the far end of the corridor, Darren took the middle, and Ellis the one that we knew led into the kitchen.

I pushed open my chosen door. My eyes tried to adjust to the semi-darkness of the room beyond, and my heart skipped a beat as I took in the silhouettes of twenty figures crouching inside.

I blinked a few times in the doorway.

“Oh. My. Fucking. God.”

I had found the classroom. It was still furnished, with a teacher’s desk at the front beside a chalkboard and over a dozen desks laid out facing it. There were shelves of mouldy books, and a broken globe. A grandfather clock with no hands or pendulum. More of the colourless displays that coated the corridor.

And every seat in the class was occupied.

By puppets.

Not tiny ones, I’m not talking about little toys or hand puppets or anything. I mean full-on ventriloquist dummies, each at least the size of a toddler, with some a fair bit bigger than that. They were sat in each chair, these puppets, as if they had were actually attending school. Their legs were tucked under the desks, their heads upright and facing the board (except for one at the back, laid with its head on its arms like it was asleep, and another sat at the far end with its head turned to the window). Most even had rotting schoolbooks open in front of them.

And at the front of the class, the teacher puppet. Not that you’d know, if it wasn’t sat at the teacher’s desk, since it looked more fitting to be a Victorian banker than anything else; carved top hat and painted black suit, a rope around its neck that was clearly meant to be a tie, two glass eyes that, more than with any of the other puppets, seemed to radiate a hungry greed and resentment.

That was not to mention the teeth.

The best way I can describe its teeth is… well… it was like the carvings of a blind man who’d only ever had teeth described to him.

In other words, this puppet was one of the best horror props I’d ever come across by chance.

I called in the others, and soon Darren appeared, standing beside me gawking at the scene. Neither of us really knew what to say, and after a while we started speculating about what this place was. Was this some creative dumping ground for unwanted dolls? Was it one of those weird modern art exhibitions that you look at and go “hmm” and pretend to find meaningful? Were we on some candid camera show, where they try to scare the hell out of curious passers-by?

They each seemed as shite an explanation as the last, but no obvious answer came to us.

I stepped inside to get a closer look.

I mean… you had to with something like that, didn’t you?

I checked out the teacher puppet first. The way the light caught those glass eyes was fascinating; it felt like those paintings that watch you wherever you go. Its jaw was hinged, but I couldn’t work out the mechanism for getting it to move. No hole in the back for a hand, no holes in the side for strings, and certainly no electronics.

Behind the teacher, the chalkboard was warped from damp and mildew, but some of the writing could still be seen. It was in a sharp, angular style, where every letter was made of straight lines – even the ‘s’:

WELCOME CHILDREN. MY NAME IS MISTER

The rest of the writing seemed to have been rubbed off, or faded from age. I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what the teacher’s surname was.

Giving up on that, I turned to inspect the so-called ‘children’. It soon became obvious that these puppets weren’t all made the same. They were all different sizes, different hues of wood, clothed in different materials. Some were caked in layers of dust, while some were just starting to have it settle on them. In the very far corner, out of sight from the doorway, the largest puppet was slumped against the wall, wood smooth and fresh-looking, its arms wrapped arounds itself protectively. It’d be a stretch to refer to it as a puppet, really; it was more like a shop mannequin, much taller than its fellow dolls, about the size of an adult.

Something shone on its face.

I leant in close, and I could swear there was a glistening line from its eye to its chin. Like it was crying.

I turned to call Darren over, and screamed.

The teacher puppet was inches from my face.

I pulled away instinctively, my heart thumping, backing myself into the corner of the classroom.

Those glass eyes were glaring at me. Those carved teeth looking ready to bite.

But the puppet didn’t move.

There was a spluttering noise from the doorway, and Darren’s stifled chuckle turned into a full guffaw. He always pulls stunts like this. He loves messing with people, setting up jump-scares. The bastard.

I edged around the teacher puppet, half expecting its head to swivel around and follow me, but obviously it didn’t. I stepped out into the corridor and had to suffer through Darren laughing in my face, telling me how priceless my expression was, and doing numerous impressions of what he referred to as my “screech”. By this point, Ellis had come to find what we were making a fuss about, and Darren showed her the classroom. We were both surprised by how little Ellis reacted to the place, but she soon explained why.

There were more of them.

With her leading the way, the three of us started heading over to the kitchen. I poked my head into the middle room as we passed, but it was nothing special, just an office with mostly empty shelves and a desk stacked with grimy papers. No puppets there.

I didn’t understand how Ellis had managed to find any in the kitchen, either, which as we’d seen from outside was absolutely tiny. Claustrophobic, even. Yet as we entered, it was obvious that there was more to the room than it had first seemed. Behind the rusting boiler was another door, one we had missed when looking from the window. It was tight; we had to slip through one at a time, almost sideways to fit past the boiler. On the other side was a dining area.

With four more puppets.

And a hell of a lot of flies.

The stench hit me as soon as I stepped inside. Rotting meat. It was unmistakable, and as we approached the table where the four puppets were sat, we saw what was causing the smell. Three plates were set before three puppet children, much like those from the classroom, and the plates were each laid with a sliver of insect-riddled meat. The flies were thick on the surface of the stuff, so that it was only occasionally through the writhing mass that the dark red could be seen. I don’t know how long it had been here, but it certainly wasn’t fresh.

The fourth puppet had no plate. This one was about the same size as the teacher puppet from the classroom, except its head was covered in spiked hair rather than a top-hat, and instead of a rope or tie or whatever the teacher had, this one wore an apron, splattered with red. It gave the impression of something between a dinner lady and a butcher.

Its glass eyes stared down at the fly-infested plates, and its teeth were carved into that same rough-hewn smile as its teacher counterpart. I could tell each of us was desperate to talk about this place, and who might have set it up like this. But each time we opened out mouths, we risked swallowing flies. Instead, we agreed, mostly through nods and gestures, to make our way out. Just as we did, Ellis stroked the head of the nearest puppet child. Then, she showed us her palm, grey and filthy.

“Dust or bust,” she muttered with a grin.

We didn’t have to ask what she meant. Without a moment’s hesitation, each of us grabbed one of the puppets and tucked them under our arms. Maybe someone was still using this place, coming back and adding new puppets every now and then. But frankly, people who took this little care of props as great as these didn’t deserve to keep them. We knew we would make far better use of them, and besides, we’d be back soon to film something here anyway.

I was out first, with Ellis following behind and Darren at the back. I made my way to the front entrance without looking directly at the classroom door again. When I got outside, I waited for the others, and we spent a moment dusting off our puppets and comparing what we’d grabbed. We’d each gone for the children, probably because they were smaller and easier to carry. I was already thinking about what plots we could create around these things, and around the schoolhouse as a whole. We agreed to come back here, with Charlie and the rest of the crew, as soon as we could get them all together.

As we walked off back into the forest, I couldn’t help but glance back, and I jumped a little as I looked in the kitchen window.

The dinner lady was stood inside, looking out at me.

I stared for a moment, meeting that glassy gaze, before a prickling in my neck made me want to turn away, and I followed after the others. I never said anything to them about it. I knew Darren had set it up like that, and I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

We talked all the way home about the possibility of the puppets and that schoolhouse, and by the time we’d got back to the car we were all buzzing with the possibilities. We got to talking about doing a whole series at one point. We’ve never done a series before.

They dropped me off, Ellis half-way through a pitch of what I can only describe as Alien Meets Predator Meets Chuckie, and I took my puppet and came inside. I dropped off the puppet in my room upstairs, where I keep a lot of the props for our films. It got sat in a rocking chair we’d sourced for some séance scene a year or so back. Never used the damn thing in the end, but I kept it around in case the right idea struck me.

After that, I called Charlie to tell her about the schoolhouse, and about some of the script ideas we’d come up with about it. Then I got myself something to eat, spent an hour or to jotting down ideas and sketching out potential shots, then brushed my teeth and got into bed.

I slept, for at least a little bit. I don’t know how long. But when I woke up, it was the middle of the night. And I could swear that I woke to the sound of a chuckle.

_

And here we are. I’m more than a little freaked out, and writing this all out hasn’t helped as much as I was hoping it would.

Because I’m sure – I’m sure – that the puppet I took from the schoolhouse was one of the dusty old children. I can remember it, the weight of it in my hands, the way it slumped down in the rocking chair, the way its silhouette melded into the wall in the darkness of my room.

I remember bringing that puppet home.

So why – how – is the puppet sitting in that chair now the top-hatted teacher?

Its face is turned towards me, that row of carved teeth more like a snarl than it had seemed back at the schoolhouse.

No sign of the child puppet.

I probably saw someone else pick that one, and that’s why I remember it. I probably did pick the teacher puppet after all. And I put it in the chair.

It’s an inanimate object.

It’s not staring at me.

Darren probably put it there. He’s trying to freak me out like he did in the schoolhouse. He’s probably borrowed the spare key from my sister, and he’s sat behind my door chuckling to himself.

That was the chuckle that woke me.

Darren’s behind my door.

He’s behind my door and he put the puppet in my room.

The chair it’s sitting in just rocked.

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