Gavin Winters looked around the room at the faces watching him intently. Every pair of eyes stared directly at him. Unblinking. Concentrating. The situation should have unnerved him, put him on edge. Instead, Gavin just stared straight back at the sea of eyes, looking each one in the face directly.
As he finished the last sentence of the story that he was reading, his class of six year olds all cheered and smiled, the happy ending very much to their liking.
Gavin closed the book and smiled back at the children still seated on the floor in front of his chair. Some of the children were sat cross legged, others laying down on their stomachs, propping their heads up on their elbows.
“Well,” he said. “That was a wonderful story wasn’t it children?”
The class all nodded their head in unison and Gavin smiled.
So much youth and innocence were in this room. It brightened his spirit to see them happy. It gave him a warm fuzzy glow inside to know that they were listening to his every word, drinking it all in.
He looked down at his watch to see just how long they had left.
His digital watch told him that there were only five minutes left. Five measly minutes until the end of term. Two weeks of holidays for Christmas, when the children would travel far and wide. They would meet up with long distance relatives on the other side of the country and, in a couple of cases, the other side of the world.
Gavin was always sad at the end of each term or half term, knowing that he would have to wait so long before seeing his class again.
Of course, his class changed every single year. A fresh batch of young people would pass under his tutelage, ready to be passed onto junior school. But he got to know every single one of them personally. He would learn their full names and exactly how to pronounce them, not always an easy task. It was something that he enjoyed, connecting as he did. Even the parents liked him.
There was at least two or three different sets of parents every year that would thank him personally by buying him a gift. He wasn’t supposed to accept such things without passing it by the faculty first, but the gifts were of such little value and normally were picked out by the children anyway that he hardly ever reported them.
Instead, he would take them home and display them proudly, until the next year, when he would pass them on, normally to a charity shop or the local orphanage where a child would get the most out of them.
Gavin was well liked, well respected.
He stood up and grinned widely at the group in front of him. “Ok, children. Almost home time for Christmas. What say you all clean up the toys and books before the bell rings?”
The nods were in unison again.
“GO.” He said.
The children all popped up from their positions and began running around the room, grabbing dolls, bears and cars. They knew exactly where they belonged and, as the bell for home time rang shrilly, the room almost looked like it had before they had walked in that morning.
The children liked Mr Winters, but their loyalties and priorities lay elsewhere now. As they threw on their coats and grabbed their bags and satchels, a few children paused in the doorway to wave at their teacher. Most had disappeared out into the corridor before the echo of the bell had dissipated.
Gavin was left in the room alone, his hands on his hips.
He finished off the clearing up by himself.
By three thirty, he had shut off the lights and locked the door, grabbing his own coat and bag from the faculty room before walking out to his car.
The car park was almost empty, most of the other teachers either long gone or having planned ahead and caught the bus into work so they could attend the faculty Christmas night out.
Nothing said inappropriate more than a teacher on a drink drive charge.
He had turned down the invite from his peers once again, just as he did every year. The other teachers were jaded, didn’t understand his zest for the role, even after all these years. Some had grown curmudgeonly or bitter. Others had grown depressed, counting down the days, even hours, until they could retire.
The Christmas night out was an excuse for acceptable excess, if there ever was such a thing. Gavin had seen the pictures from a couple of the parties and swore never to attend. He wondered what the parents would think if they ever saw what the authority figures that they trusted with their children’s futures did when they let their hair down.
He doubted that many would leave their heirs under the supervision of drunken miscreants who revelled in their one night of debauchery every year. There was a certain level of pride that he felt as he distanced himself from the other teachers. He felt it gave him a purer bond with the kids in his own class, gave him a righteous path on which to steer them.
Not that he was a religious man, far from it. Ever since his father had been caught stealing from the rectory, he had eschewed the cloth. Even as a child, he knew that the bible had promoted forgiveness. It smacked of hypocrisy that the church had pursued a conviction so vigilantly, unwilling to give his father another chance.
So he had struck out on his own path in life. A path that allowed him to enjoy it as he saw fit, but to ensure that he did it safely, without reproach or risk.
The vocation of teaching was an obvious one, where he could help shape the minds of the young and helpless. To assist them with the dangers of life, to protect them from the numbing truth until they were ready.
Throwing his coat and bag onto the passenger seat, Gavin climbed in to the car, pleasantly surprised that the temperature had not dropped too severely. The car was frost free and started without any argument. He carefully negotiated the car park, making sure that there were no hangers on, no children still playing around the school. Flicking the indicator, he turned the car onto the main road and headed for home.
On the way, he decided to treat himself and stopped at the local convenience store. He stocked up for the evening ahead with a couple of magazines, a DVD and some sugary and savoury snacks.
Pulling onto his driveway, he glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It told him that it was a few minutes before five. The commute to and from the school was laborious and dull, but he knew the price to pay when he moved to the suburbs, to escape the relative rat-race of the city. The main intention had been to escape the noise and light pollution, but he also realised that the air was so much better here.
Stepping out of the vehicle, he grabbed the plastic bag of goodies from the passenger seat, shoving his coat into it and swinging his work bag over his shoulder.
Pressing the button twice on the key fob, the car automatically locked and alarmed itself with a familiar beep, the indicators giving a visual confirmation, almost a knowing wink.
Gavin walked up the steps to his front door and, after dropping his keys twice, eventually opened the door. He closed it behind him with his foot and made for the kitchen, kicking off his shoes as he wandered down the hall.
As he entered the kitchen, he froze. There in the dark, a pair of green eyes glared accusingly at him.
“Sorry buddy.” He said, moving forward once more and placing the bags on the sideboard. “I’ll get your dinner for you now.”
He switched the light on and the room was flooded with a warm glow. The black cat that had sat near the sink jumped down to the floor and proceeded to criss-cross in between Gavin’s legs, purring and meowing.
“You’re gonna trip me up in a minute, Rasta.”
Gavin bent down to pick up the cat’s bowl and ran it under the tap, washing away the dried remains of breakfast. He picked out the first pouch he saw as he opened the pantry cupboard door and scooped the jellied meat into the bowl with a fork, throwing the utensil into the sink when he had finished.
He placed the bowl on the floor and refilled the water bowl with fresh liquid, placing it next to the food. The cat meowed in thanks before tucking into the meal, his tail swishing without purpose.
Gavin rested against the sink and looked at his bag from the store. He picked out one of the magazines and flicked the switch on the kettle. One of his little routines was to always have a strong coffee when he got home, especially if he had any work paperwork to complete. Thumbing through the pages of the movie magazine, he wondered if there was a review for the film he had picked up.
A noise from upstairs startled him, making him drop the magazine to the floor. The cat jumped and ran as the magazine landed not two feet from him.
Gavin looked up, as if trying to see through the floor with x-ray vision.
Another noise. A bang this time. No, a thud.
As if a heavy footstep had been planted on his bedroom floor, one storey above his head.
The house had no alarm system rigged, but that was another reason that he had moved out here. The relative calm and peace. The crime rate was one of the best in the county, almost unheard of.
But now, here he stood, frozen to the spot by a noise from above. Already he’d convinced himself that the noise was a footstep of an intruder. A burglar. Or worse.
“Hello?” He called. Straight away, he cursed himself for doing it.
His voice sounded strained, nervous. Scared.
Whoever was up there now knew he was home, if they hadn’t worked it out already. Now they knew he was afraid. The advantage was all theirs.
Gavin waited, as if expecting some kind of response, but nothing came. Until he heard the floorboards start to creak.
A sure sign that whoever was upstairs was moving.
He hoped that they were trying to make their escape, maybe to jump out of an upstairs window, but deep down he knew that they weren’t.
Moving slowly, he edged across the linoleum floor, careful to make as little noise as possible but keeping his eyes on the kitchen door, which gave him a perfect view of the bottom of the staircase.
He felt his backside touch the kitchen worktop and turned his head, making sure that he opened the right drawer. He pulled open the sliding wooden compartment and grabbed the biggest knife he could see.
His grip on the hilt of the blade increased his personal bravado and he span it in his palm, so that the cutting edge was facing down. He moved forward slowly but purposefully, his gaze back on the stairs.
Feeling flush with courage, he called out again. “I’ve got a knife. Leave now and I won’t hurt you. Hell, I won’t even call the cops.” He was surprised at the gallant tone that he was able to muster considering the situation and wondered what response, if any, he would receive.
The response was immediate, but not what the schoolteacher had hoped for.
The loud thud of a boot on the bare top step. A sound so laced with dread and evil intent. If the intruder was fearful for their own life surely they would have said something, called out their plan to leave. Instead, a single thunderous footfall on the top stair belied their actual strategy. Gavin knew that it wasn’t to leave quietly, if leave at all.
The pluck that had filled his body and mind only moments before when he had picked up his weapon now drained from his feet as if a million little holes had been drilled into them, the bravado pooling on the floor around him. The strength in his convictions quickly turned to an icy realisation that he was not in any kind of control of this scene. Fear now overtook him.
Another step down was navigated.
It was as if each stair that was traversed was the sound of a timer ticking down. Each moment a countdown to Gavin’s doom.
The sound was almost maddening. The sound was loud and bassy. The steps were bare wood, Gavin having ripped the worn carpet from them the previous summer, but surely they shouldn’t be creating this kind of volume.
Two steps taken quickly this time. Whoever the intruder was, they would be nearly halfway down now. Their descent as near completion as it was near commencement.
Gavin edged forward, both afraid of what he might see, but transfixed and eager to know who it was.
Gavin reached the kitchen doorway, the steps now making him jump. But he knew he would now be able to see the legs of the stranger in his midst.
Knife still in hand, he stopped and looked between the slats that held the banister up and saw a pair of black boots. Despite the dark shade, Gavin could see that they were old and covered in a multitude of colours. Stains and marks that made Gavin feel sick. Then the stench reached his nostrils and he threw up.
The smell was unbearable, like a hobo that had soiled himself.
The legs moved down even further, providing Gavin with a view of the person’s legs.
It looked like the boots had a fur lining, but it had grown grimy and was in tatters as it spilled out over the beading. The legs themselves were covered by an off colour brown pair of trousers.
No, they were red. Barely.
Gavin realised that he was caught like a deer in the headlights of a car and snapped himself out of the trance. The midriff was now in view, a belt made up out of a thick rope wrapped twice around a spindly waist and tied off in the front.
He cleared his throat and spoke again, although the voice was unrecognisable from that of a few moments before. “Who... Who are you? What do you want?”
The stranger stopped. Then they turned slightly towards Gavin, as if they could see him through the ceiling that broke their eyeline.
Then, they turned forward again and completed their path to the bottom of the stairs, moving quickly.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
The figure in front of Gavin left him dumbstruck.
It was a hobo.
In a very bad Santa costume.
The red coat was as marked and stained as the trousers. The left arm was hanging on at the shoulder by maybe two or three stitches. The white fur that ran up the front was matted and covered in muck, as if an albino cat had taken a mud bath. At least Gavin hoped it was mud, but that stench told him otherwise.
The beard was real, but it wasn’t fluffy and fully of volume. Instead, it hung limply from the man’s chin, wiry and coarse. As he looked at the man’s face, Gavin felt his breath catch in his throat, as if it had been choked there.
Hobo Santa’s skin was pale and dry, almost rotting. His eyes were sunken and raw, cushioned by layers of bags under them. There was no white in there at all, the sclera as dark as the rest of the iris and pupil. The colour was more of a dark orange that almost glowed.
As Hobo Santa noticed the look on Gavin’s face, he grinned.
A smile that presented a row of blackened and broken teeth, indented with occasional gaps, through which Gavin could see his tongue lolling around. The muscle was dancing, twisting around itself as if it were independent from the mouth itself. Unattached somehow.
There was no hat. Just a balding dome where the remaining hairs hung disparately, hanging on as pathetically as their brethren hanging from his jaw.
His mouth dry, Gavin licked his lips and tried to speak, but found only a slight whimper escape. In response, Hobo Santa cackled darkly and began to advance.
Gavin felt the knife drop from his hands, a combination of the smell approaching him and the fist connecting with his cheek knocking him out cold.
The fire leaped, dancing in the grate as Hobo Santa stoked it with the metal poker.
The sight was strange, almost blurred and fantastical to Gavin as he opened his eyes.
He tried to lift his hand to rub his jaw, but found his arm unresponsive. Looking down, he saw that his limbs were tightly bound to one of the kitchen chairs.
Trying to speak, he heard a mumbled mishmash of words and saw Hobo Santa turn and break into that same salacious grin as he stood, leaving the poker in the fire.
Within no time, he was at Gavin’s side and grabbed his hair, pulling his head back quickly and painfully.
He leant into the schoolteacher’s face, his own mouth centimetres away. The foul stench that escaped from his maw attacked Gavin’s senses and he heaved again, the vomit running down his chin and pooling in his shirt pocket and between his legs on the chair.
Spitting out any remaining residue, Gavin found his voice again. “What do you want? Take anything you want. Just leave me alone and get out.”
Hobo Santa tipped his head to one side and shook his head, his smile now gone, replaced by a saddened frown. He straightened up and backed away, stopping by the fireplace once more. He bent down and pulled the poker from the flames.
Gavin knew that the metal spear had to be hot, the iron pole a perfect conductor for heat, but Hobo Santa just grabbed it with his gloveless hand and held it up, pointing it at Gavin.
The fear of being branded by the poker was offset by the fact that Gavin knew that no human could hold that object without suffering serious burns. He wondered if the man in front of him was on PCP, having heard on countless cop shows that the substance helped the user to be oblivious to pain. So many questions ran through his mind, tied to his own chair, in his own house. But all he could muster was one single word. “Why?”
Hobo Santa’s eyebrows raised, as if he was in genuine shock, Gavin’s question surprising him.
Carefully, he put the poker back into the fire and advanced towards Gavin, fishing in his pocket. He bought out a faded piece of paper and unfolded it. Running his finger down the page he stopped about three quarters from the top and turned the page towards Gavin.
There was a long list of names, some of which Gavin recognised. Most, he did not.
Some had been crossed through, like a shopping list. Where Hobo Santa pointed was Gavin’s name, clear as day. The top of the page had a single underlined word in bold, capital letters.
Gavin stared at the word in a confused state. He wondered what it meant if the name had already been crossed through. He wondered who this man standing in front of him, a grubby list in his hands, was. Mostly, he wondered what was going to happen next.
Carefully, Hobo Santa folded the paper again and slipped it back into his pocket.
Then he shrugged and grabbed the poker back out of the fireplace, the tip now glowing orange.
Gavin began to cry, his shoulders dancing uncontrollably. He knew deep inside the answer to his third question. Probably the first too.
Between sobs, a spit bubble growing on his lips, drool following the path set by the vomit, Gavin asked again. “Why?”
Once more, Hobo Santa looked surprised at the question, almost dumbfounded.
Without putting the poker down again, he juggled it into his other hand and delved into his other pocket, pulling out a small set of what seemed like card shaped pieces of paper.
One by one, he threw them like Frisbees at Gavin’s head. They hit him hard, the corners sharp and pointy. One struck him in the eye, the edge slicing the eyeball itself. Gavin realised that these were not normal pieces of paper. These were photographs.
The pictures continued to rain into his face, a steady barrage of cuts and slices before they fell to the floor out of sight.
Finally, one photo landed directly in his lap, sticking to the small patch of sick.
With his one good eye, Gavin looked down and saw the picture and recognised it straight away. Part of his personal collection that he had printed off of the internet, the picture displayed a scene of a small child, naked and committing a sexual act on an adult.
Gavin gagged and emptied his stomach again.
Looking up at Hobo Santa once he had finished, he saw his name being crossed off of the list.
The intruder tucked the page away in his pocket again and strengthened his grip on the poker, the tip still glowing.
He advanced on Gavin as he muttered his final recognisable word.