A Dairy Good Idea – Are You Afraid of the Dark

When the calendar said 31st October that morning, the group knew where they would be that evening. School was the same as any Friday and the evening’s events were not mentioned or discussed. Yet, as the day passed into evening and early night, they all met in their club-house; a little clearing in the woods with a circle of thick logs around a camp-fire. It was a cold October evening, and even though the wind was still, every club-member cradled a little steaming metal cup for warmth.

Clara had gone one further. A great big cardboard box sat outside the circle. Ripping it open revealed a lot of little plastic pots with bread-sticks and some cream-cheese. Her father had found a sale or something, she explained.

Clara launched into the story for the evening and everyone grabbed a cheese-dipper as the box was ferried around the circle.

The story of…

A Dairy Good Idea

“See ya tomorrow, Earl!” Jake shouted across the street as the two families parted. Turning back, Jake followed his own family towards the shopping mall. It was a Monday evening and the Hatrow family was out grocery-shopping. They had barely entered before he hurried off and headed for the dairy section. As he searched the aisle of cheese and milk for the items on his list, he heard shouting behind him.

“Young man, you look like someone that knows their cheese!”

Jake turned to see who had shouted. A little further down the aisle a stall had been set up. It had a fine wooden surface loaded with various cheeses, the Swiss Cheese-shaped sign above it saying New Wickenham Corner Store. The word Tyromancer was written in bold red font below it. A tall uniformed man crewed the stall, his hair and beard a mix of brown and ginger. His eyes were bright green and positively sparkling with amusement, a characteristic that matched his wide smile full of gleaming white teeth.

Jake briefly scanned the aisle around him, but there were no one else around. He pointed sheepishly to himself. “You mean me, mister?”

“Yes, you! Would you care to sample one of our new cheeses?” His voice reminded Jake of TV commercials, full of sparkle and energy, though this seemed more genuine than any TV commercial he could remember. He put the brie he had picked up in his basket and walked over to the stall, eyeing up the displays. The products did look like they were good quality. Within his family he was easily the one with the most knowledge and love of cheese, something he tried to never mention at school. He could imagine the endless chants of ‘Cheeseboy’.

The man leaned over the countertop as Jake approached, his smile widening even further. A tag on his uniform read ‘Brian’. “I can recommend this Red Leicester or the Swiss.” The two mentioned cheeses were pushed forward, each under its own little glass cheese-bell. In the bright mall-lighting Jake could just about make out the names of the individual cheeses in the glass.

He briefly looked at both suggestions as well as some of the others. One of the products caught his eye; a milky-white cheese with dark-blue patches. The glass lettering said Stilton. “That one.” He pointed.

‘Brian’ followed the pointing finger. “Ah, interesting choice young sir,” ‘Brian’ put a hand on the handle of the cheese-bell, “If I might ask, are you sure what you’re in for with this fine specimen?”

“I have tried it before, yeah.” Years ago, and his parents hadn’t liked it. Said it would give him nightmares.

“Excellent then, just a moment.” A special knife appeared in the man’s hand and in a swift and elegant motion the cheese-bell was lifted, and a small slab of the cheese was sliced off. The cheese-bell was lowered again, and a paper plate was put before Jake, a plain wheat cracker alongside the piece of Stilton. “Here you are. Enjoy.”

Already the smell of the Stilton was becoming quite intense, so Jake hurried and ate the Stilton-and-cracker whole. It was delicious. Strong without being overpowering. He liked it quite a lot.

“How much for the cheese I just tried?” He tried to remember just how much he had left in his allowance.

“The Stilton? That will be $4.99.”

“I’ll take one.”

“As you wish, young sir.” Brian reached down behind the stall before placing a sealed packet of Stilton on the counter.

As Jake took the cheese, he noticed the time. He had pretty much spent the time he’d been given for his list, so he quickly found the rest of the listed items and went to register number 5.

“Did you get everything?” His dad asked as he nearly ran up to the queue.

He nodded in silence as he put the items on the belt. The Stilton was last.

“What’s that,” His mother asked, “I don’t remember writing this down.” The Stilton was in her hand.

“It’s something I found. You can just take it out of my allowance, it’s only $4.99.”

“Oh, alright then.” His dad responded with a smile.

Jake was not quite sure how to treat the Stilton, so he repeated what ‘Brian’ had done in the mall when he had a bit of the pungent cheese as a snack, putting a little slice of it on a cracker. He went to bed early that night; tomorrow was a school-day too.

* * *

Mr. Harrison has a phone-call in the middle of class at 09:18am.

Mrs. Daunton has a history test on the Declaration of Independence. Jake does not get it right.

* * *

Jake woke up to the sound of his alarm as usual. He wasn’t unused to dreaming; that’s why he had the crystal ball on his desk and the dream-catcher above his bed. Normally however, he couldn’t remember as much of them as with this one. Thinking nothing further of it, Jake got dressed and grabbed his backpack. He was up a little later than normal, so he had to hurry his breakfast before leaving for the bus that would take him to school.

The morning otherwise proceeded as usual. He met Earl while waiting for the school-bus and munching on a sandwich. They had the usual early-morning chatter. Any stories about their families, talk about homework or tests for school. Alice stepped onto the bus at a later stop and sat next to them but said nothing which was not unusual. It was quite standard that Earl and Jake carried the conversation and Alice chipped in if she felt like it. After first bell they piled into the math’s room along with the rest of their class to find a small pile of papers sat on every desk, math’s questions filling the pages. The words – “If I am not there start theseMr. Harrison”were written on the blackboard in large chalk letters. That made Jake wonder; typically Mr. Harrison was always there on time. He and Earl shrugged off the mystery and went to work. They weren’t overly fond of mathematics, but they had thoroughly exhausted their conversational topics anyways. By the time the clock edged towards 08:15, Mr. Harrison walked into class.

“Sorry I’m late, everyone,” His eyes could be seen scanning the classroom through the prescription glasses, “Good to see most of you followed my instructions. Mr. Worceister sit down please.”

So, the lesson continued, the class going through the pages of mathematics as best they could. It wasn’t a test, so occasionally Mr. Harrison would help struggling students or answer broader questions. In the middle of an explanation about Pythagoras the sounds of a Nokia phone interrupted the mathematics teacher. Fishing the device out of his pocket as the class looked around for the perp, Mr. Harrison checked the little display. “So sorry, I need to take this.”

Cupping his hands around the mouthpiece, the mathematics teacher turned away from the class. Jake had definitely not seen this before. Mr. Harrison usually ran a strict classroom. He wanted to say as much to Earl, but the teacher would probably still hear him. How much time is left before the break? The wall-clock read 09:18, so some 40 minutes. 42 minutes, to be precise. It was mathematics class after all.

The phone-call was brief; barely a minute had passed before Mr. Harrison hung up, looking relieved and much happier than a moment ago. “Ah, apologies about that. Now, where were we?” He nodded at a raised hand in front of Jake, “Ah Sylvia, Pythagoras was it?”

Mr. Harrison collected the papers when the bell rung, reminding them about another piece of homework and then leaving in a hurry. History class was next with Mrs. Daunton in the same room. As his classmates scattered to do their own stuff during break, Jake found himself simply listening to Earl and Alice’s conversation with half an ear. Something was bugging him, but he couldn’t quite place it.

Unlike her colleague, Mrs. Daunton did not surprise anyone when she showed up a few minutes past the bell. “Everyone to your seats now.” A superfluous order really, as Mrs. Daunton’s heels could be heard clacking towards the classroom before anyone could see her, so even Greg was already planting his butt on his seat by the time she entered the door. The day she would quietly arrive on time there would be a scrambling to behold. “As you all know, we have a short test today. Speaking is not permitted. If you need to use the bathroom, signal for it.” The history teacher began handing out the tests, leaving a small pile of paper on each desk. Their last class was another History lesson. 2 in 1 day would be so boring.

The test turned out to not be terribly difficult and Jake blazed through it. Eventually he arrived at the second-to-last page.

“Multiple Choice – Who of these signed the Declaration of Independence?”

  • John Hancock. Obviously.
  • John Hart. Yeah.
  • Patrick Henry. I think I heard that somewhere, yeah.
  • Arthur Middleton. He’s on the wall at home.

He started ticking off the choice boxes but as he hovered over Patrick Henry, the odd dream from last night came back to him.

* * *

Mrs. Daunton held up a bunch of test papers in front of the class. The date showed the 21st of May, the clock arms just ticking past 2pm.

“Some of you did it right, but some of you got some elementary stuff wrong,” She pointed her red marking pen at a place on the papers in hand, “For example, Patrick Henry did not sign the Declaration, saying that he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”.”

She put the papers in one of the boxes on her desk. Mrs. Daunton picked up another pile from her left and began leafing through them, rattling off names. One by one, the mentioned students got up from their seats and received their test papers. Jake wasn’t one of them.

“Everyone that got their test back, you can leave for today. Everyone else, we’re gonna go over the common errors one more time.”

* * *

Jake looked at the calendar on the wall. 21st of May. The clock, 11:05am. Now he also remembered quite clearly that, just like in his dream, Mr. Harrison had gotten a phone-call in the middle of giving his 8am-10am lesson. Jake avoided Patrick Henry and continued with the test. As he ticked off the last question in the test, he held up his hand to call for Mrs. Daunton. As he handed his test paper over, Jake realized he had butterflies in his stomach. The teacher briefly flicked through the paper then nodded at him. He grabbed his lunch bag from his backpack and went to wait in the hallway for his friends.

It did not take long for Earl to finish either. He stopped in the hallway when he saw Jake. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Jake.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.” Jake replied. His friend’s favourite subjects were physics, chemistry and mathematics and he only attended Sunday church begrudgingly.

“It’s just a saying, Jake.”

“Just a bit queasy, that’s all.”

“Can I have your lunch then?”

Jake couldn’t help but chuckle. “In your dreams, pal.” Together they headed off for the canteen. Alice had finished before even Jake, but she wasn’t one to wait around.

The door opened as the bell rang again. Mrs. Daunton strode into the classroom, her face the usual mask that gave nothing away. When everyone had settled, she retrieved 2 plastic folders with papers from her suitcase.

“Here are your papers for from the test. Some of you got it right, but some of you got some elementary stuff wrong,” She pointed her red marking pen at a place on the papers in her hand, “For example, Patrick Henry did not sign the Declaration, as you should well know. When asked, the Congressman said that he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”” The last phrase was said in a tone that reminded Jake of the shows his parents watched from time to time.

She put the plastic folder in one of the boxes on her desk. Mrs. Daunton shook the remaining folder in her left and began leafing through them while rattling off names. One by one the mentioned students got up from their seats and received their test papers. Jake was so nervous that he almost missed his own name being mentioned. He hurried to the teacher’s desk and received his test paper and while Mrs. Daunton continued he quickly skimmed his test. No faults.

“Those of you that got their test back, you can leave for today. Everyone else, we’re gonna go over the contents of the test one more time.”

Jake stood outside the classroom in silence as his classmates left. Earl had made some mistakes in the test and wouldn’t be out for a while and Jake didn’t want to wait around. He would not be able to explain why he could barely take his eyes off the test paper.

Jake did not wait for Earl to be released from class. He went home on his own, catching a bus at the earliest opportunity. No-one else was home so he simply sat in the couch and watched some TV, trying to take his mind off what had happened at school.

The rest of the day went by with no noteworthy events. Eventually evening came around and Jake was about ready for bed. Saying good night, he left the living room and walked through the kitchen, stopping when the test papers he had left on the counter caught his eye. Jake knew what Earl would have to say about this. “If you believe you have discovered something, try to reproduce it.”. He carefully took the package of cheese out of the fridge. The Stilton looked just like it had the day before, a curious milky-white color dotted with blue spots. In Jake’s mind cheese was usually yellow. The pungent smell filled the kitchen as soon as he lifted the glass cheese-bell and swiftly sliced off a piece. Placing the cheese-bell back in the fridge, he grabbed a digestive from the biscuit-box. The butterflies he had had during the test returned as he held the biscuit in his hands. Could the cheese really be showing him the future? Surely that couldn’t be it. He had tried every trick in his magazines, and his crystal ball had only showed him the surface of his table and his own distorted reflection. ‘Oh well’ he thought, ‘Worst case it does nothing’. He ate the biscuit in 2 quick bites. He put the test paper on the fridge under one of the multitudes of magnets, wondering to himself if this was the same as cheating, and then went upstairs. Normally he would read a bit before sleep, but tonight he was anxious to see if he was right. It felt like forever before he finally drifted off to sleep.

* * *

A day rolls out before him in his dreams. His mum finds a dirty knife he left in the sink. The front steps to the school are iced over, he stumbles and hurts himself. An accident in the school’s kitchen, canteen severely understocked. Earl, Alice and he sits hungry. As he is observing an experiment in a chemistry lesson the experiment fails and gives him a painful burn-scar on his left arm.

* * *

‘This has to be a first’ Jake thought as he left the early bus and entered the school grounds. He could see no one else there, not even the usual early arrivals. Briefly wondering if he had missed some ‘School is closed’ message, he began walking up the path towards the main entrance, thinking back to his early-morning wake-up. Just as he had seen in the dream, he had left a dirty knife in the sink, something he have gotten into trouble for before. That was hardly telling the future though; he must have just remembered seeing it the night before. Inside the school building the lights were already on, so the janitor must have arrived first. As he got halfway, he felt a rough clap on his left shoulder and a form hurried past him, the winter-coat covered form of his classmate Greg running for the stairs. “Won’t beat me, Jake!” He shouted back over his shoulder.

“Careful, the stair is iced over!” Jake just managed to shout as Greg reached the first step.

“What you saaaa-Woah! ” Turning back towards Jake, Greg had put one foot on the step and the other still on the pavement. His front foot slipped but he just managed to keep his balance by frantically holding on to the railing. He stood for a moment catching his breath. “Phew, you saved me there. How’d you know?”

“Uh, I could see the ice from here.” Jake answered back as he hurried his steps to catch up. Only now that he was a few feet away was the ice actually visible.

“Well, I owe you one.” The tall boy slapped him on the back then continued inside.

The lunch-bell rang, sending everyone scurrying out of classrooms and into the hallway, teachers shouting after them not to forget this or that. Jake calmly picked up his bag and followed. He was in no rush. All the other classes had been given lunch-break too so the hallway was a mess of people heading for the canteen, lunch-money or lunch-bag in hand. The queue was already long by the time he got there, but for once he did not join it, instead he found their usual table and waited for his friends. While he picked up his extra packed-lunch from his backpack he could hear shouting and commotion from the canteen queue. Soon after, Alice and Earl joined him at the mostly-empty table.

“Good thing you brought your own, Jake, the canteen messed up. No food.” Earl sat down opposite him with an annoyed expression.

Alice sat down next to Earl. For some reason she always kept a table between herself and Jake. “Why did you bring so much?”

He popped the lids of the extra Tupperware container with exaggerated care and handed it over. Inside were 2 ham-and-cheese sandwiches. “Let’s just say I had a hunch.”

“What do you mean, you had a hunch?” Earl said as he examined the sandwich. Alice said nothing but her questioning stare needed no words.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, okay?” Without waiting for a reply, he dug into his own food.

Earl sighed. “You know I hate those sayings.” Then started eating too. Alice was already ahead of them both.

Jake had briefly considered giving them a bit of the Stilton cheese each, but his friends didn’t enjoy cheese as much as he did.

Besides, he wanted to keep it for himself for now.

Earl finished off his sandwich and drank from the juice brick that had also been included. “You’re both coming to the party Friday, right?”

“Totally.” Jake responded. Alice just nodded.

“We were going to cook the food ourselves, but Mom and Dad were called in to work extra hours, so we’ve had to order catering.” Earl pushed the empty Tupperware back towards Jake.

“Down from Creek Catering?” Alice asked.

“Yeah. We wanted somewhere else but when you’re giving 2 days warning, your options are limited.” Again, Alice just nodded.

“What’s the next class?” Jake asked. He did know the answer but by now it was practically a habit to ask.

“Chemistry. Guided experiments in prep for a test.” Earl answered matter-of-factly.

The class filed into the chemistry room slowly but surely. This was Earls territory. He and Jake were always a group for this, so he simply followed to the table they always used. Alice had her own partners for these things. The windows were opened, the winter cold causing Jake to involuntarily shiver. Mr. Bunsen even had a sweater on as he ticked off the students on a clipboard. Their chemistry teacher had a good eye and memory for faces, and so taking attendance was a short affair in his classes.

As Mr. Bunsen started attendance for the few his keen eyes had not spotted, Jake looked at the vials and alembics that the teacher had set up on his desk. He found it hard to focus on anything else, even Earl’s chatter. Attendance taken, Mr. Bunsen spared little time in launching into describing the day’s exercise and tasks. The lesson’s experiment involved chemicals in a state where they would react very rapidly. “Or as you youngsters would call it, explode.” So, the student tables had no experiments set up. Mr. Bunsen would handle it and the students would observe, all of them issued safety-goggles, lab-coats and plastic aprons. As students began crowding around the desk and the teacher began placing various bottles on the table, a moment from his dream sprang to the front of his mind. ‘A painful burn-scar on his left arm’. He quickly started growing apprehensive.

“Earl, can you just tell me how it went? I don’t really want to be too close if it’s going to explode.” Jake said, trying to weasel away from the front-row spot he had managed to get.

Earl gave him a look like he was about to say, “Hah hah Jake, very funny.”, But he didn’t move.

“Mister Hatrow, please pay attention now.” A Bunsen burner was turned on and an alembic with some milky liquid was placed over it. As Mr. Bunsen continued the experiment Jake began to calm down again. Surely the dream wasn’t right about everything. He had never seen the chemistry teacher mess up an experiment. As the thought formed in his head, he noticed a bubbling that had begun in one of the first alembics Mr. Bunsen had set up. Bubbling wasn’t exactly uncommon in chemistry, but the bubbles were rarely brown. The reaction made Jake very anxious again.

“Um, Mr. Bunsen, is that supposed to be happening?” He asked, trying to keep his voice level.

As the teacher looked over to Jake, the bubbling intensified rapidly. As Mr. Bunsen’s focus shifted from Jake to the alembic, the bubbles had already filled most of the container. It began shaking about in its holder, the corked mouth angling towards the students who were now backing away. Mr. Bunsen reacted quickly, snatching the bubbling alembic from its stand and put it down in the sink. The Bunsen burner was turned off while the teacher gave everyone a 10-minute break. As everyone was hurrying out of the chemistry room to take advantage of their unexpected break, Jake told his friends he needed to get some stuff from his locker and that he’d meet them back in class, then ran off before they could ask any questions. Jake knew that Earl would much rather ask Mr. Bunsen what had happened, but Alice would be curious.

Jake spent the break sitting in the hall leading to the teacher’s common room, trying to figure out what all this dream-business meant for his future.

When class resumed, Mr. Bunsen told them that the alembic had not been properly washed and that is why it had started bubbling. “Thanks for noticing, Mr. Hatrow. It would have produced a very hot and very caustic substance which would have been quite dangerous.”

There was no time to start the experiment again, so instead Mr. Bunsen described how it should have worked and gave them an early end to the school-day.

As Jake got home he noticed that he was nearly out of the Stilton cheese. I’ll have to visit that shop again. He didn’t pause to wonder if Brian knew about the dairy product’s remarkable effects.

* * *

He meets a neighbor’s dog at the bus-stop. It’s hungry and irritable. The chain goes off a bicycle in the parking lot and hits him. He has forgotten his lunch. Their history teacher wants to show “Pearl Harbor” during class but forgot it, textbook-reading instead. A pair of bullies locks him in his locker.

* * *

First thing in the morning Jake got out a nearly-forgotten notebook. He had last used it to catalogue his days related to his horoscope. He had started a few times but had never kept it up for more than a few days. This time he noted every detail he could remember from his dreams, making sure to write a quick checklist of stuff to bring to school. Beef-jerky for the dog and the family’s Pearl Harbor VHS. Oh, and his lunch.

He also checked in on the fridge. There was one small bite of the cheese left and it was Thursday. So, he grabbed the remainder of his allowance too.

Jake left the house at his usual time, the slightly-heavier-than-usual backpack carried on his back. As always, he was alone at the bus-stop. In his class Alice lived the closest to him but she still lived a stop further down the route. On a normal day he would not have expected the large dog walking down the empty side-walk towards him. But on normal days he didn’t have a checklist of events that would happen to him, hungry dog on top of his list.

“Hey Brutus, how you doin’?” Jake asked. The large Shepherd-Retriever mix perked its ears up at the 2 small strips of beef jerky in his hand.

He tossed one at Brutus straight away. The snack was snapped out of the air before it was even close to touching the ground. While the dog chewed on the jerky, Jake quickly checked his watch. About a quarter of an hour before the bus was supposed to arrive, so hopefully he still had time to get Brutus home. Waggling the other strip of jerky, he got the Shepherd-Retriever to follow his every move and jogged to the house a few numbers down the road.

The doorbell buzzed angrily as he pressed it, Brutus panting away behind him. Jake had to wait a moment before the door opened. Mrs. August answered the door in a yellow apron and business attire.

“Yes-” She began before noticing Brutus behind him, “Brutus!? What’re you doing out here?”

“Found him down at the bus-stop, Mrs. August,” Jake answered while feeding the dog the last strip of jerky. “Brought him back here.”

“Get in here, you big lug,” The woman said while gesturing the dog inside, “You’re the Hatrow kid, right? Thanks for the help, I don’t know how he got out.”

Jake thought he could faintly hear the school-bus approaching. “Couldn’t just let him run around. Bus is coming, gotta go!” He didn’t wait for a response before turning around and heading back down the street.

Turns out it hadn’t been the bus but just a Land-Rover. Whatever, He thought as he crossed one item off his list, “I’ll have to be careful with the bicycles.” The bus arrived pretty much on schedule. As he arrived at school and stepped out of the back door, he paused. He had only looked to one side of the school’s parking lot before someone pushed him not-too-gently aside from behind.

“Don’t just stop in the doorway, you chump.” The kid said as he muscled past, he and his cohort marching up towards the school. He felt a quick chill as he recognized them; they would try to lock him in his locker in the afternoon. Though he didn’t know their names he could recognize their faces. At least for now they didn’t seem to care about him at all. Alice came out behind them, the quiet girl giving him a curious look as he just stood there in the parking lot.

“Just looking out for bicycles, that’s all.” He answered sheepishly and began trudging up towards the entrance. As they walked together he kept a sharp eye around him for bicycles or cars, his concentration creating an awkward silence between the two, but no vehicles of any kind ever got anywhere near them. Maybe the delay from when I got out of the bus was enough? He pondered as they went through the main doors. Or maybe he had misremembered, and he was leaving the school when he was hit, or it would be during the lunch-break? His mind occupied by thoughts of colliding bicycles, he almost forgot to bring his math-books from his locker.

Earl arrived in the mathematics-class moments before the bell rang. Normally he was in early.

“What’s up, why are you almost late?” Jake whispered as he leaned over.

“Parents will be out all day so Dad drove me to school. Got to go straight home after to receive the catering.”

His friend showed him a long streak of dirt on his jeans. “Then a bike ran into me out in the parking lot. I’m fine but got a little confused.”

Jake didn’t reply partially because Mr. Harrison was starting class but mostly because he was now wondering why Earl got hit by the bicycle instead of him.

Math-class passed with no noteworthy events. History-class was next and in the same classroom, so they didn’t need to move rooms. Jake switched his math-books out for the notebook he had written in that morning. Second thing on the list was “Avoid bicycle in the parking lot”. He crossed it out, though he tried to do that a bit differently from the other point on his list. After all it had still happened, just not to him.

“What’s that?”

Jake almost jumped in his seat. He had been so absorbed in his note-taking that he had forgotten about Alice and Earl.

“What do you mean, Alice?” Jake said as innocently as he could manage.

She pointed to his notebook as he closed the cover. “That.”

“Parents made me promise to buy groceries before they come home.” He lied, quickly putting the notebook away.

That didn’t seem to satisfy Alice. “Then why did you just cross something out?”

“Eh, I remembered that we already have that thing, so I crossed it off the list.”

She stared at him for a second longer then seemed to give up.

Earl returned from the bathroom. He’d gone out just after Mr. Harrison, so he could at least get some of the dirt off his jeans. He seemed to notice Alice’s expression. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing.” Jake said while trying to push his backpack further under the table with his foot.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Alice looking at him again, but she just repeated Jake’s answer.

Eventually Mrs. Daunton arrived, TV-set in tow. The short woman dragged the stand into place in front of her podium.

“Good afternoon, class. I hope you read the chapter I told you to, but if not, you can go into the hallway during the movie and read it then.”

Mrs. Daunton picked up a VHS case. “To open the lesson, we’ll be watching the first half of Pearl Harbor by Michael Bay.”

The director’s name was almost drowned out by the cheering from the class. Mrs. Daunton clicked the case open then stopped, her features paling quickly. Jake slowly pulled his backpack back up while the teacher looked back at the class. “Uhm, I am sorry to say that I have forgotten to bring the actual tape. Just, eh, stay seated and I’ll figure something out.”

Jake slowly held up his hand like he was asking for permission to speak. Mrs. Daunton almost looked him over in her hurry. “Yes, Jake?”

“One of my friends had borrowed my family’s VHS of Pearl Harbor, and he returned it today. I have it in my bag right now.”

Mrs. Daunton stood stock still for a moment then slowly nodded. “That’s lucky then. Can we borrow it? You can have it back after class, of course.”

Jake agreed, of course. That was why he had brought it, though he didn’t tell that to anyone. The lights were turned off and the movie began rolling past its opening sequence while Jake got the notebook out again and crossed another item on the list. In the dim light from the TV he could see that there was just 1 point left on the list. Two bullies lock me in my school-locker after last class. They were definitely at school; they had pushed him out of the way when he had stopped to check for bikes after getting off the bus. He had not seen them since, but the dreams had not been wrong so far. Or have they? He was sure he remembered being hit by a bike in the dream but when he arrived at school the parking lot had been empty of people except for those that had just arrived by bus. Maybe it got the timing wrong? Does it even work like that?

Eventually the movie reached the stopping point. The attack on Pearl Harbor had just about started when the teacher pushed the Stop-button, prompting much groaning from the class-room at large, and ejected the tape. Jake was glad he had watched it plenty of times at home because he had paid much attention during the movie. Several times during the 1-hour showing he had gotten his notebook out of his backpack and looked through it, wondering if he had missed something.  

Mrs. Daunton placed the VHS box on his table then returned to her desk. She opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by a phone ring-tone.

“Got to take this.” She said after checking the display. She walked out of the classroom holding her phone up to her ear, a worried expression on her face.

“What do you suppose that was about?” Earl asked from his seat behind Jake.

Jake put the VHS into his backpack. “Don’t know, wasn’t paying attention.”

“Something about the police.” Alice said. She’d always had a good hearing.

“Police?” Jake and Earl said in unison.

Alice only shrugged in response.

Lacking any further information, they fell to talking about this Friday’s party. Earl’s parents had gotten a sudden workload so had chosen to order a last-minute catering instead of cooking the food themselves. Before Earl could get into details however, Mrs. Daunton returned, the worry from before turned to annoyance.

“Sorry about that class, two students stole from the school, so we had to call in the police.”

The teacher sighed and strode up to the blackboard. “Now class, let’s go over the Historical Pearl Harbor rather than the fictional.”

After class Jake went up to Mrs. Daunton’s desk.

“Thanks for speaking up, Jake. Really saved my bacon.” She said while packing her papers and notebooks together.

“Mrs. Daunton, if I’m allowed to ask, who stole from the school?” He asked. In his mind he recalled the faces of the two bullies who were supposed to lock him in his closet in a few hours.

The teacher stopped packing her things away and looked at him. “You don’t need to worry about that. Officer Baxter took them away half an hour ago.”

Of course. Why would she tell me? Jake tried to think fast. “It’s just because, 2 bullies told me they’d take my lunch money tomorrow if I didn’t come with them after school.”

Mrs. Daunton’s expression hardened. “Who told you that?”

Jake didn’t know their names, so he described the two bullies from the morning bus. While he described the two she nodded every so often.

“Thanks for telling me, Jake. I’ll phone up Officer Baxter, tell him to ask them about that too. You don’t need to worry. They were caught stealing rubbing alcohol from the chemistry stockroom. They were taken to the police station.

“Are you okay Jake? You look a little pale.” Mrs. Daunton added after a moment.

Jake took a deep breath. “I’m just worried they’ll think I told on them somehow. Then I’ll really be in trouble.”

Mrs. Daunton reached forward and awkwardly put a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t need to worry, Jake. The two will be under surveillance even if they can return to the school. They won’t harass you again.”

“Thanks Mrs. Daunton.”

Jake returned to his table. Class had largely dispersed with only a few people staying behind for various reasons. Earl and Alice gave him questioning looks as he sat down.

“What was that about, Jake?”

“Some bullies threatened me the other day and I thought they might be the same.” He slowly pulled the notebook from his bag.

Both Earl and Alice looked surprised. “Really? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It was nothing, really, didn’t even think of it till now.” His friends did not look convinced.

“Can I explain it tomorrow? I have some homework I haven’t finished?” Jake did not really wait for their answers; he hurriedly stuffed his belongings into his backpack and slung it over his shoulder.

“Sure Jake. See you tomorrow. Don’t forget about the party!” Earl responded to Jake as he hurried away.

“I’ll be there!” Jake shouted back as he hurried out of the classroom towards the bus-stop.

He got off the bus a few stops before home. The supermarket was only a short distance from the bus-route so if he hurried he could catch the bus at the next pass. It was the middle of the afternoon, so the supermarket was packed with people, Jake trying to squeeze between people with his backpack on. He quickly got to the dairy aisle where he found the stand from last week.

“Aha, welcome back, young man!” Brian was there in the same uniform, name-tag and a big smile.

“I trust you have been enjoying the cheese? The Stilton was it?” That TV-presenter energy was still there, too.

“Um, yeah,” Jake found it creepy that the store-employee could remember that much about him, “But I’m all out. Do you have any more?”

Brian produced a wedge of the blue-spotted cheese with a flourish. “Just so happens this is the last packet in the store. You’re a lucky young man, Jake.”

When Jake got home, he immediately replaced the Pearl Harbor VHS where it was supposed to be in the cabinet. Hopefully no-one had noticed it was gone. And the homework wasn’t a total lie, so he sat to work on that. As was now routine, he had a slice of the Stilton before bedtime, emptying out the old packet. He didn’t stop to wonder why Brian had known his name when Jake had never mentioned it.

* * *

Jake is at Earl’s party. All his friends are there. They relax and watch movies while eating the catering food. As the day goes on, his stomach hurts more and more. The catered food had gone bad. Everyone at the party is sent to the hospital with food-poisoning.

* * *

Jake woke up slowly. He had somehow suspected that Earl’s party would show up in his dreams. If they caught on to several small events through the week, why wouldn’t they latch on to the big event of the weekend. He kept thinking about it as the morning went on, hardly getting a bite of his breakfast down for the distraction. He had been looking forward to the party for weeks but not so much that he would go to the hospital for it. As Jake pushed away his almost-untouched breakfast he wondered what he could say to Earl to get out of going to the party. As usual he met Earl and Alice on the bus to school. He greeted both but otherwise said nothing. Eventually after what felt like the longest bus-ride since starting school the bus pulled up at the stop outside the parking lot.

Tentatively Jake reached over and prodded Earl on the shoulder. “Um, Earl?”

“What’s up Jake? You haven’t said much today.” They followed Alice out of the bus onto the tarmac of the parking lot.

“You, um, had a fly on your shoulder. It’s gone now.” He couldn’t tell him just yet. He would say it in the lunch break.

“Oh, thanks.” Earl’s tone was more curious than thankful, but his friends started walking towards the school instead.

Seeing Earl and Alice walk across the parking lot reminded Jake of something. The day before, Earl had been glanced by a bike out in this parking lot. But in the night before, the dreams had shown Jake that he would get hit by the bike. And through no effort of his own, the bullies who were supposed to lock him in his closet had been arrested by the police for stealing. And another situation earlier in the week had been wrong too; in his dream he had been burnt by an experiment when in reality the teacher had performed the experiment for the students to observe. So, on 2 separate days the dreams had gotten things wrong. So how could he be sure which were right before it was too late?

He had not worried like this before the dreams started. And the dreams were coming from that Stilton cheese.

“Jake! Are you coming?” Earl was shouting at him from the school entrance. Jake had been so caught up in his own thoughts he hadn’t heard the bell. Classes were starting.

“Sorry, I, uh, have something I need to do!” Jake shouted back before turning around and running back to the bus. The bus-driver gave him a weird look but didn’t ask questions. Through the window of the bus Jake could see Earl and Alice standing in the entrance, looking confused.

Jake ran into the kitchen of his home and opened the fridge. There under the glass cheese-bell was the Stilton. Moving so quickly he almost dropped the glass cheese-bell, Jake removed the wrapped-up block of cheese from the fridge. He wanted to be rid of it as soon as he could. But something felt wrong. As he made to chuck the cheese in the trash, he saw an image of Brian flash before his eyes, grinning from ear to ear. A premonition he couldn’t place, the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck standing up straight. Throwing it in the trash or just not eating the cheese wouldn’t solve this, was the impression he got. That weird man Brian in the supermarket was the only way out of this. Jake packed the remaining Stilton into his backpack in a plastic bag and left the house.

Jake settled into his seat in the bus and tried to relax while also trying to figure out what he would say and do when he found that Brian guy. Amid these deliberations, the cozy warmth of the bus and the gentle pace, Jake slowly fell asleep.

* * *

Brian is hiding a great many things. The visions have a higher price than the gold spent to acquire the cheese. Brian imprisoned in a circle of salt, unable to escape.

* * *

“End of the line, young man. Time to get up.”

Jake woke up with a start, the bus-driver slowly rocking him by the shoulder in a kindly fashion.

“We’re at the bus-station kid, you can’t stay on.”

Jake thanked the man and left the bus. Luckily the station was not far from the high-street where he could find the supermarket and this Brian person. He would demand some answers or threaten to tell the police.

When he arrived, the market was empty of people. He had never seen it like that. Even the time he and Earl had passed it an hour before closing on a Saturday evening there were at least one cashier present. This time all the registers were abandoned. That made him very nervous, like seeing a hospital or an amusement park that had been left behind. The complete lack of people was unnatural. At least the lights were still on inside. Drawing a deep breath and making sure his backpack was still secured, Jake went inside. The aisles inside were equally abandoned, with not a shopper in sight. Regardless of the complete absence of people, the lights were on throughout the shop.

A deep voice broke the silence. “Ah, welcome Jakob Hatrow. I knew you’d be around right about now.”

Brian stood behind his stall between the broad aisles. He was dressed in a smart tuxedo like a man going to a fancy party, the smart look offset by a large green apron, emblazoned with the logo of the supermarket. His smile was as wide as ever.

“How did you know when I’d be here?” Jake asked.

Brian smiled wider and tapped the glass cheese-bell with the Stilton letters. “It really has been interesting following your adventures this past week, young Jakob. Most recipients take a bit to even experience the visions, let alone realize their importance.”

“Visions?”

“The dreams, young Jakob.” Brian responded before running a hand through his black hair. When it had passed, two black horns had appeared on Brian’s hairline and his eyes had turned blood-red. Jakes breath caught in his throat.

“You’re, you’re,” He stammered, trying to back away and nearly stumbling, “You’re the Devil!”

That made Brian chuckle. “Aha, no, I cannot claim that honor,” He bowed, the green apron dangling down in front of him, “My name is Braarune, a mere footpad in the Hierarchy. I left that awful place to make my own fortunes here on Earth.”

He indicated the cheese-stall with a flourish of his hands, the nails elongated like claws. “This is my own stall and you,” The hands pointed to Jake, “Young Jakob, have a price to pay for the visions I bestowed on you.”

The way ‘Braarune’ said price made Jake uncomfortable. “I already paid for the cheese.”

Braarune’s smile widened. “I speak of another price.”

“And what if I don’t want to pay?”

The smile turned downwards ever so slightly. “That won’t do. I cannot let debts remain unpaid or I will be in big trouble,” He stepped out from behind the stall and moved slightly towards Jake, “I’m sure you understand.”

Jake wasn’t sure what price Braarune would force him to pay but he also knew he didn’t want to find out. He spun in place and sprinted towards the supermarkets entrance. He did not get far before he felt his backpack catch on something and he was lifted off the ground to hang by its straps.

“Now, now, young Jakob, I cannot just let you leave.” Braarune said behind him. His breath smelled like smoke.

“Let go of me!” Jake shouted and wriggled, knocking packets off the racks of the aisles, the straps of his backpack sliding off him and he dropped back to the ground and began running as fast as he could, turning a corner into the maze of aisles. Hopefully he could lose Braarune and make for the exit again. He had nothing important in his backpack anyways. But within moments he could hear Braarune’s footsteps somewhere behind him.

Jake kept running as fast as he could, turning corner after corner to throw Braarune off but to no success, the footsteps growing closer and closer behind him, the devil shouting his name.

By coincidence Jake passed where his backpack is lying on the ground, a pile of salt-packs having toppled from the aisle-rack, spilling their contents onto the ground around the backpack. As Jake runs past, he slips in the fine salt and lands hard on the ground, some of his wind knocked out of him.

“Now, now, Jakob, do not injure yourself. Your mother would be so worried.” Braarune says with a chuckle, though Jake notices he too is breathing harder and faster than earlier. The devil is standing behind him in the aisle, one foot resting idly on the backpack.

“Shut up.” Jake says, trying to get back on his feet and regain his breath.

Braarune, still smiling, stepped closer, tracing a half-circle around the pile of salt on the floor. At the sight, a ‘memory’ forces itself to the front of Jakes mind, an image of a devilish creature surrounded by a circle of salt. Forcing a breath down, Jake surges to his feet and sprints away.

“Damn your eyes boy, sit still!” Braarune shouts with frustration, the sound of his footsteps starting up again.

But what if the visions are wrong again? Jake thought as he rounded another corner chosen at random. He could hear Brian’s, no, Braarune’s footsteps getting closer and closer behind him.

I don’t have time to worry about it, I just have to try! Jake put on as much speed as he could and rounded another corner, gasping for breath. Ahead of him was the small salt-spill. A single packet of fine salt had covered a good portion of the linoleum flooring.

“You’re just prolonging the inevitable Jake!” Braarune shouted behind him, terrifyingly close.

Jake sprinted down the aisle, arms stretched as wide as he could to either side. Packets of flour, salt and sugar teetered on their row and toppled, smashing onto the floor to spill their contents. Braarune grumbled behind him, getting closer and closer. Just before Jake got to the first spill he was yanked backwards and off his feet, breath catching in his throat as Braarune finally caught up.

“Finally, you little scamp! You gave me quite the run-around but now the chase is over, and I will have my prize.” His tone was sickeningly sweet. Jake spun in the man’s grip as much as he could and flung a pack of salt in Braarune’s face.

The reaction was immediate. Jake was dropped and Braarune stepped away, furiously scratching at his face and howling, acrid smoke billowing off his features. His skin began drying out and stretching, his eyes becoming even redder than before. Jake lands on his feet and falls backwards, scattering the salt as much in front of him as he can before grabbing another pack from the pile and scattering that too.

Braarune finally lowers his hands from his ravaged face. “That was the last straw, you little animal.”

Jake took another step back, out of reach. The circle of salt around Braarune was full. “And what’re you going to do about it, Devil-man?”

Braarune growled and surged forwards before slamming into some obstruction in the air, like an invisible wall. His face was all surprise and no smiles for once.

Jake took another step backwards, taking care not to drag any of the salt with him.

The devil was pushing on the invisible barrier and punching with his fists. “Let me out this instant!” He shouted.

“Why should I? I don’t want to pay whatever price you were going to force me to pay!” Jake responded.

Next happened another thing Jake could never have foreseen when he walked into the supermarket less than 10 minutes ago. The linoleum floor within the circle began to shift about and bubble like a bath of tar. A large bubble expanded then burst, a dark-red hand surging up from the goopy mess and grabbing hold of Braarune’s ankle. The devil screamed immediately and started clawing at the barrier of his ‘cage’. “Let me out Jakob, please, let me out!”

Jake was on the verge of screaming himself. The scene was terrifying. “I won’t! You’ll just chase me again!”

More crimson hands kept coming out of the floor and grabbing the devil, slowly pulling him into the ground. He was already up to his knees. “If you let me out I will release your debts, I promise! Just please,” Another hand shot up and grabbed Braarune’s belt, “Please! Open the circle!” Braarune’s voice was cracking, shifting in pitch with practically every syllable.

Jake locked eyes with the devil, though it was difficult. Braarune understandably could hardly keep his eyes off the hands trying to drag him into the floor. “You promise that you will release me of that awful price!?”

“Yes, yes! Just! Let! Me! Go!” Braarune screamed. A hand was pulling on his white shirt.

Jake hopped forwards and brushed a pile of salt away with his foot. The hands lost their strength and their grip, Braarune pulling his legs and feet out of the flooring with a panicked haste before pulling himself out of the circle, gasping for breath on the floor.

Jake grabbed his backpack by the straps and hurried backwards away from Braarune. “You better stick to your promise, or!”

Braarune was smoothing his hair back and trying to adjust his clothes. “You need not worry on that score, young Jakob. A devil is bound by promises, even ones made under such pressing circumstances.”

Jake tried to not let his relief show. “You could at least thank me for saving you from those hands.”

Braarune did a final adjustment to his tuxedo then smoothed back an errant strand of hair. Jake blinked, and the appearance of Brian was returned, though the green apron was somewhere in the aisles. It had been thrown away during the chase. “You did put me in that situation, lest you forget. And it is not in the nature of devils to feel gratitude.”

Jake just sighed in response.

Brian looked about, probably searching for his apron. “Now I believe our mutual business is concluded, so I ask that you leave the store. I have to re-open and find my apron, and I believe you have a birthday to attend.”

Jake silently agreed and turned to leave before stopping and turning back. “Stop spying on me.”

“Very well, I suppose there is no further reason for me to expend the effort. Now, off with you. Enjoy the party, the catering is very good.”

The next morning was a Saturday so Jake set his alarm to Snooze at first. The party had been a ton of fun. Earl and Alice had given him a weird look when he arrived late but otherwise asked no questions. Some of their other friends had been there and they had played board-games and watched movies till well after sundown when Jake’s parents had come to pick him up. They had never liked him sleeping away from home and he had been tired anyway. But eventually he got up and walked down into the empty morning kitchen, throwing the unopened packet of Stilton in the trash.

– – –

The Society was silent around the campfire. Not ‘asleep’-silent, but the kind when everyone is still digesting a nice story. Soon enough everyone broke into congratulations, though Clarence, as always, had to complain about some minor detail. And since the story had been lengthy, the Society quickly said their good-nights and left in small groups. Clara helped clean up afterwards and could not help but notice the large amounts of opened but nearly-untouched cheese-dippers.

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