By the end of fourth period, Isobel’s espresso buzz from that morning’s venti latte had long since worn off. She yawned, fast approaching crash-and-burn territory and shifted in her seat as Mr. Swanson droned on and on about the green-eyed monster, Desdemona, thus, thou, and yea verily. She traced and retraced the looping spiral design she’d all but ground into the front of her blue notebook.
“And with that,” Mr. Swanson said, finally snapping closed his ultrathick teacher’s copy of their text, cueing the rest of the class to follow suit with a unanimous thunk, “we’ll leap into further discussion about Iago and his supposed honesty on Monday.”
Isobel straightened in her seat, brushed her sheet of blond hair behind one shoulder, and shut her own book with relish.
“But hold on, hold on,” he said above the rustling and scraping of chairs. He raised both hands and lowered them through the air, as if such a motion somehow held the power to still the room and reinstate the Elizabethan-literature-inspired stupor he’d managed to cast over all.
Kids jonesing for lunch and already halfway out of their seats sank back down again, their butts reconnecting with their chairs like magnets snapping together. All around, backpacks slipped from shoulders and chins returned to hands.
They should have known better, Isobel thought wryly. Swanson never let them out early. Never. Especially not as early as a quarter till.
“Don’t go and get antsy on me yet, folks,” he warned, now brandishing a stack of what looked suspiciously to Isobel like fresh-from-the-copier pages.
“Heads-up to the syllabus being passed around,” he called, licking a finger and leafing through the first few. Then, rewetting his fingertips, he sent out the next stack, and the next.
Isobel blanched as she watched the papers make their way toward her, and she hoped she’d be lucky enough to snag one relatively free of Swanson saliva.
“We’ve avoided it long enough.” He sighed in mock remorse. “Now, I’m sure the seniors all warned you about this one. Well, here it is. The big one. Better to get it over with early in the year, I say. You guessed it—the Swanson project.” He announced this last bit cheerfully (if not maniacally), and a grin spread its way beneath his wiry gray-white mustache.
Groans arose from key points around the room, Isobel’s own buried in the back of her throat.
Projects took time. A lot of time.
“This is to be a partner project,” Swanson continued, “due the last Friday of the month. That’s Halloween, for those of you who haven’t got your iPhones or BlackBerries or Kicksides or whodiwhat calendars handy—which I hope for their sake no one does.”
The boredom that had only a moment ago made Isobel’s limbs heavy and her mind sluggish slipped away from her in a quick whoosh, like a magician’s cloth.
Hold up. Did he say Halloween? Uh, yeah, where was his calendar? Did he not know that was the night of the rival football game against Millings? Lift up the rock, Swanson. Breathe. It’s called air.
Isobel’s grip tightened around her pen. She kept her gaze steady on her English teacher, all dials now tuned to the Swanson channel.
“This project,” he said, “will consist of both a presentation and a detailed ten-page paper. I want you and your partner to select a famous American author—any American author. Though, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s make sure they’re dead, okay? In other words, no Stephen Kings, Heather Grahams, or James Pattersons. Also, this is an assignment to be completed outside of class, since we’re currently in the middle of Othello.”
Ten pages? Ten pages. That was epic. That was like . . . the freaking Gettysburg Address. Was Swanson really going to sit down and read all those papers?
Probably, she thought. And love every minute of it too.
She just didn’t get it. Why did Swanson have to assign a huge project due on the day of the rival game? No one ever got any work done that week. He could have at least given them that weekend.
It always amazed her how teachers seemed to think that students didn’t have lives outside of school. They couldn’t seem to grasp that by the time she got home from cheer practice, ate dinner, and scribbled down something on the mound of homework she already had, it was practically time to go to bed.
Isobel started an immediate scan of the room. This was serious, and she needed to locate a brainer—stat.
She eyed Julie Tamers, marching band geek extraordinaire, and began to plan a strategic route to the open chair next to hers when Mr. Swanson spoke again.
“FYI,” he began, class roster poised in one hand, chin tilted down, wire-rim glasses perched at the tip of his nose, “I’m trying something different this year in hopes it will both broaden your perspective and improve overall project results. That said, I’ll take a moment to include my little disclaimer that all pairings have been made at random. So after I read your names off the list you can partner up, brainstorm among yourselves, and then head to lunch. Starting with Josh Anderson and Amber Ricks.”
Isobel felt her jaw unhinge.
Wait, she thought. Just wait. Random pairings were so third grade. He could not be serious.
“Katlyn Binkly and Alanna Sato,” he continued. “Next we have Todd Marks and Romelle Jenkins.”
Around her, those whose names had already been called rose from their seats to find their corresponding partners. Isobel sat stunned at their willingness. For real? Was she the only one who felt the burn of injustice? Wasn’t anyone else going to say anything?
“Isobel Lanley and Varen Nethers.”
She felt her chest contract.
Oh, no. No way.
She turned her head slowly and took a long, reluctant look to the opposite end of the room. He sat in the back row against the far corner, slumped in his seat and staring straight ahead through shreds of inky locks, his thin wrists lined in black leather bands specked with hostile silver studs.
This could not be happening.
Her hunger forgotten, a gnawing discomfort tugged at her insides instead as she wondered how many of the freaky rumors about him were true. For a moment she seriously thought about requesting another partner, but knowing Swanson, she realized that would probably fly about as fast and well as cafeteria meat loaf.
Isobel frowned and bit her lip. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t going to be as bad as all that. Another glance at him, though, had her thinking otherwise.
Lost in the curtain of his dyed black hair, he hadn’t even acknowledged her presence, let alone the fact that—hello—they were supposed to be using the time to discuss this monstrosity of a project.
She wondered if she should get up and go to him, since it didn’t seem like he would be heading in her direction anytime soon.
Resigned, Isobel rose and collected her notebook. She fumbled for her backpack strap as her mind repeated all the whispers she’d ever heard linked with his name. There were rumors that he sometimes talked to himself, that he practiced witchcraft and had an evil eye tattooed on his left shoulder blade. That he lived in the basement of an abandoned church. That he slept in a coffin.
That he drank blood.
She approached him with steady steps, the way someone might inch up to a sleeping snake.
Slouched in his seat, one arm draped over the desktop, he was one long line of black, his well-worn, tightly strapped boots crossed at the ankles. Pinned beneath his arm dwelled the ratty black hardback book she’d seen him disappear into more than once during class.
In fact, it always seemed as though he was jotting or sketching something into its pages, though she could only guess at what. And maybe part of what made that whole thing so weird was that Swanson never called him on it, just like he never asked him to read out loud or answer questions. And that was weird too, because no one ever called Swanson out on that.
Isobel drifted to stand at a solid and safe four-foot distance. She waited, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. What was she supposed to say? Howdy, partner?
She glanced to the clock on the wall. Seven minutes left until lunch.
Aaawwkward, she thought as he continued to just sit there and stare off like she didn’t exist. His enthusiasm was almost catching.
“Look, I’m not doing the work all by myself,” she said at last, deciding to crack the rather thick ice with that little mallet of for-your-info.
He didn’t move, but he spoke.
“Did I say that?”
Isobel felt a sting of surprise at the sound of his voice. It was as if she’d half expected him to be made of wax. His voice was calm and low and reasonable, not troubled and gruff like she’d assumed. He’d never spoken in class before, though. Ever, that she could remember.
“No,” she said, stiffening, tempted to just bail. Nikki would never believe this, she thought. Her getting paired up with the king of goths? Talk about breaking news. “I just thought I’d let you know,” she said, clearing her throat. “I mean . . . because, actually, you’re not saying anything.”
Feeling dumb for being the last person in the room standing, Isobel finally slid into the seat next to his, her gaze darting over the room.
A low murmur started among the pockets of groups, growing in volume as everyone went about exchanging ideas. After swapping scribbled sheets of notepaper, two groups even got up and left. And here she was, still stuck trying to commune with a member of the living dead.
Her jaw tightened. She was starting to think that Mr. Swanson’s claim that all pairings had been made “at random” was a bunch of bull. This was probably his idea of a great joke, his way of getting back at her for not turning in that stupid paper on Don Quixote.
“As long as we’re getting things out on the table, so to speak,” he said, calling her attention back to their little space in the corner—it was so weird to hear him talk. “I’m not doing it on my own either.”
He turned his head and caught her with his eyes.
She froze, locked by the intensity of his stare. His eyes were stark and cold, the concentrated green of pale jade. Outlined in smudged black kohl, those eyes focused on her, unblinking through the feathery strands of his jet-black hair, and it was like being watched through a cage by a complacent and calculating cat.
Discomfort welled in her, thick and black as an oil spring.
Who was this guy and what was his royal problem? Her gaze flicked briefly to the small metal loop that hugged one corner of his bottom lip.
He blinked once, then slowly lifted one hand and crooked a beckoning finger at her.
Isobel hesitated but then as though spellbound to obey, she found herself leaning in.
“What are you staring at?” he whispered.
She drew back, her face going hot. She swiveled away from him and put her hand in the air. Mayday, Swanson. Do you read me?
There came a slow, ominous clink of chains from behind her. Isobel went rigid. She lowered her hand and, looking up, found him towering over her, all tall straightness and stone pale.
She bit back a protest as he took her hand in his. She gawked as one long-fingered hand grasped hers and stared, unblinking, at the black pen that appeared from nowhere and began moving against her skin, the tip as cold and sharp as those eyes.
Oh. My. God. He was writing on her.
She tried to make a noise but couldn’t.
His face remained emotionless as he made small, careful lines with the pen. The steady impression of the ballpoint tickled, creating knots in her stomach.
All she could do was stare at an enormous ring, molded into the shape of a silver dragon, as it snarled at her from his middle finger.
When at last he finished, he released her hand and, with one final almost admonishing stab of that razor gaze, turned away. Grabbing his black book, he slung his beaten leather satchel over one shoulder. “Don’t call after nine,” he said, and tucking the pen behind one ear, strolled out of the classroom.
Isobel’s face burned. Her skin tingled where he’d touched her, with an almost imperceptible electricity that she couldn’t be sure if she was imagining. Like the tips of her fingers had somehow fallen asleep.
She took a quick inventory, first of her senses, then of the people still in the room, afraid to see who had noticed, amazed that apparently no one had. Even Eagle Eye Swanson had just returned to his desk, where he now sat munching a sandwich and leafing through the school paper, the Hawk’s Call.
Isobel looked down at her hand again.
In deep purple ink, he’d written “V—555-0710.”
© 2010 Kelly Creagh
Included in this eBook edition of Nevermore, enjoy a free collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories!
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 560 pages |
- ISBN 9781442402034 |
- August 2010 |
- Grades 9 and up
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
By Kelly Creagh
1. Early in their work on the Poe project, Varen discusses the identity of Lenore with Isobel, calling her the love of the narrator. How is this notion of the narrator's lost love an important element in the story? In what other ways do Isobel and Varen's initial work on their project foreshadow events to come?
2. In addition to his interest in Poe, Varen knows a good deal about dreams and their relationship to real life. What clues in this scene suggest that Poe also knew much about the nature of dreams? What does Isobel learn from talking with Varen and how does she relate their conversation to the frightening experiences that happen in her bedroom?
3. How does Reynolds first enter Isobel's consciousness? What important information does he give her about dreaming? Initally, do you think Reynolds is Isobel's friend, enemy, or something in-between? How does that change over time?
4. When does Pinfeathers first appear to Isobel? Why do you think none of her classmates can see or hear the Nocs? What important messages do Nocs convey to Isobel in the course of the novel?
5. When Isobel finds herself in a dreamlike version of Mr. Swanson's class, she reads Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken." Why is this poem apt for the moment in which Isobel finds herself? How does Mr. Swanson's comment about choices relate to Isobel's experiences with Varen and Brad?< see more