Then there was silence, long enough that Bruce started to think he had imagined the sounds.
Then that skittering came again, approaching the locker like an overgrown cockroach. Bruce heard something sniffing just outside the locker door, and a strong unwashed body odor, but with a sense of rot about it, and Bruce found himself trying hard not to vomit on himself.
Them with a loud clunk, the lock broke, almost as if someone had cut the lock with a bolt cutter. Bruce waited for the door to open, but there was nothing. No sound, no sense of presence, even the bad smell was fading away, like a fart passing through the ventilation system. Bruce pushed gently against the locker door, and it swung open.
Bruce crawled out and peered down the hall in both directions. There was no one there, though where the bullies had run there was a puddle of something on the ground, as if one of them had spilled a thick drink. Bruce stepped that way, careful not to step in the liquid, and he realized that it was blood. Not a huge amount, but more than you’d lose in a nosebleed, or come to that more than Bruce had lost in any of his beatings. Had the bullies turned on each other with something like a knife fight? Or whatever that bad-smelling animal had been, could it have been responsible? Bruce was almost immediately sure that wasn’t it. Whatever that thing was, it seemed small for taking on three apelike brutes. Then again, Bruce wasn’t sure what it was, and the combination of its smell, sounds, and strange behavior creeped him out a lot. The best idea seemed to be to just get out and get home. The halls were dark, dark enough that Bruce realized, with a groan, that he’d be in trouble when he got home. Again. No one ever believed him when he tried to explain what happened, so he’d given up trying to explain. Hanging his head in dismay, Bruce walked to the end of the hall towards the exit. He stopped when he realized that the janitor had already bolted and chained the exit door – Bruce wasn’t getting out this way. And that meant all the other doors were barred, as well. There was bound to be some way out, but Bruce was sure they would involve setting off an alarm or talking to an adult, which meant getting trouble with his mom. Bruce loved his mom, and he knew she worked hard to take care of him and Stevie, but she always got angry when Bruce got in trouble, and like everyone else she never understood it wasn’t his fault. He’d be yelled at and get punished for it, and it was just so wrong.
Bruce didn’t care who saw him now; he fell to the ground and cried.
Time passed, Bruce neither knew nor cared how long, but he started when he smelled it again. That same unwashed-and-rotting smell, and he heard that same skittering sound, coming towards him. Bruce was mildly curious, but at the same time he felt a strong impulse to not be there when whatever it was arrived. Bruce ran for the nearest classroom and threw himself under the teacher’s desk.
Once again, the sound and smell suddenly vanished, and again Bruce began to wonder if he had imagined it. Bruce began to worry that the bad smell was his own body; had he smelled his panic and fear? Bruce resolved to take a shower when he got home.
Then a heavy sound fell in the hallway, something metal. Bruce waited a few minutes, but heard nothing more, and curiosity moved him to see what had happened.
Not only had the chains holding the door shut been chewed into pieces, the push-bar itself lay on the floor, the door slightly open, the night breeze blowing in. Feeling a surge of emotion, a mix of hope and fear, Bruce took his chance and plunged into the night, running the three miles home without once stopping, ignoring the stabbing pain in his side from the lack of oxygen as he ran pell-mell to the only place he considered safe.
Running headlong as he did, Bruce never saw the companion who followed him home, easily keeping pace while remaining just out of sight, setting up camp just across the street from the haggard building Bruce and his family called home.