Steve had attended the school twenty years before. A quiet boy, he avoided the boisterous football games in favour of the breathless giggling of stuck-in-the-mud or hide-and-seek. Memories haunted him every night: the corner where an apple wrenched out his loose tooth; the step where Robert Atkinson fell, cracking open his skull; the bench where Paula asked him to be her boyfriend. His keys jangled against his thigh as he walked, punctuating the memories.
After the school closed, vandals started breaking in: lighting fires in desks, throwing stones, climbing on the roof. They stayed away now, but sometimes a group gathered by the fence. When they saw Steve’s torchlight they ran off.
Dark windows gaped like the open mouth of a drowned man. The wallpaper streamed with damp, paint beginning to bubble and flake. His torch beam flickered over abandoned decorations: tinsel hung lopsided from one old drawing pin, a scrap-paper snowflake discarded under a desk. In a corner of the playground lay a small shoe, moss creeping over the laces.
Steve thought of the day they rushed to close the windows: the wind was blowing from the east. Mrs Johnson told them about Chernobyl: those living near the power plant abandoning their whole lives, the children deserting contaminated toys. Tonight the empty school felt as if pupils and teachers had fled in the middle of a lesson, just like the school in Prypiat.
Hands in his pockets, he paced the darkened corridors to keep awake. In the old assembly hall, a huge wooden climbing frame loomed against one wall and the end of a vaulting horse emerged from the darkness in the far corner, its suede skin ripped open like a fresh wound. The library, bare shelves coated in dust. One forgotten book lay face down on a shelf, cover torn from its spine.
The twinkle of shattering glass from the other side of the building. Steve tensed, straining his ears against the heavy silence. A scrape, coming from one of the classrooms. Holding his keys to muffle their sound, he strode into the corridor.
An explosion. Smashing glass ruptured the quiet. Steve pounded down the corridor and wrenched open a classroom door.
The room quivered with the memory of intruders. Two overturned desks lay like discarded dominoes, surrounded by shards of the broken window. The smoky smell of the autumn night already filled the room. Cold prickled Steve’s skin. He suppressed a shudder. He ran to the empty window frame and stared out over the playground. Two hooded forms pushed through a hole in the fence, darting out of sight. He nudged some glass with the toe of his boot, skittering it across the floor. Picking up a brick, he shook broken glass from its surface and carried it back to the office. Its weight in his hand was calming.
The sky started to lighten, promising a beautiful crisp day. Steve paid no attention: when he finally woke, the sky would be dark again.
Writer: Rosie Phenix-Walker
Illustrator: Casey Otremba