Ernest Kirby didn’t die in vain. The soft-spoken 73-year-old with painful arthritis and an inoperable tumour somewhere in his bowels saved twelve others on that bleak night in early December.
He didn’t think twice about it, he acted purely on instinct. And, had Ernest survived those events, he would have shushed any attempt to hail him as a hero. “I’m no superman,” he would have said. “I was just trying to help.” And then he would have smiled his lopsided smile and added: “I was only doing what anybody else would have done.”
But Ernest didn’t get to say any of those things. He died at 2:38 a.m. on a cold winter’s morning.
Since the death of his wife, Ernest had been a volunteer at Lille County Primary School. The school in question was a humble building situated just on the outskirts of town; two storeys tall with a fenced-off playground around the back. Ernest gladly offered his time and found it to be a rewarding experience that enriched his lonely life. The sweet old man was a hit with the children, too. They all loved him for his gentle demeanour and inextinguishable good mood.
And so, on a dark afternoon in the twelfth month, an hour after the final bell had rung, Ernest found himself looking after eleven small children along with Mrs. Wondrush. Watery grey light was trickling in through the windows. It had been snowing for better part of the day.
Almost all the kids had been collected, but the group in the room were still waiting for their parents. Steve Marshall had just phoned to say he had no idea when he’d be there to pick his daughter up. Apparently, the roads were undrivable due to the snow. Sally said she reckoned that was probably the case for all the parents.
Ernest smiled. “Not to worry, Sally. I’ll wait here with you until they arrive. I’m in no rush.”
“Thanks, Ernest,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “I just wish Dave’d get the damn heating back on.”
“You swore!” cried Lucy.
“You didn’t hear that, okay?” she said, not unkindly.
Ernest grinned. “I’ll go see what’s taking him so long.”
They tried to make it seem like a game, to not frighten the children. Quickly and quietly, they locked the door and barricaded it with tables and chairs, taking care to not make too much noise. “Okay, gang,” Sally whispered, voice shaking, “let’s play who can stay the quietest.” She raised her finger to her lips: “Remember, we’ve got to be quiet.”
The thirteen of them huddled in the corner of the classroom, watching the blizzard swirl its chaos outside the window. The school was deathly silent; not a sound could be heard. The place was quieter than quiet, the snow muffling all noise.
As they hid, the innocently oblivious kids grinning as they pressed their fingers to their mouths (shhhh), Ernest replayed the handyman’s last moments over and over. The open cavity of his chest. The snapped bones. The failing organs that had quivered and throbbed, futilely trying to keep their owner alive. The way that Dave fought through the pain to deliver his final message, as his life ebbed away on the floor, coughing and spraying blood from his lips. “Don’t let it get the children. Don’t let it feed,” he’d said through gritted teeth. And then he had sighed as he let out a long, protracted breath. Dave never took another.
Ernest’s mind then showed him the gaping hole in the basement wall again. The yawning void (what could do that, dear God, what did that) that was blacker than black. The chilly air that seeped out of it. The awful smell of rot and decay permeating the atmosphere.
The insectoid scuttling sounds.
Sally shook him awake from an uneasy sleep. “Ernest,” she whispered. It was dark. The children had their eyes closed and were breathing heavily. He checked the well-worn watch that Marge had bought him, eyes bleary. It was just gone half two in the morning. “Has anyone—” he began, but then bright headlights flashed through the window. An engine cut off.
“Let’s go,” he said, moving his stiff and aching body. “Now.”
Gently, they woke the children, fingers to lips. The kids, none the wiser, grinned and nodded. They delicately pulled the tables and chairs away from the door, taking the utmost care. Then, with a deafening click, they turned the lock, pushed open the door and stepped into the inky black corridor; Sally leading, Ernest at the rear.
The front door was fifty paces away, if that, and they could see the headlights shining through the glass and—
He heard it. A buzzing, clicking noise. Clack-clack. It was in the hallway with them. It had been waiting. Clack-clack. A scuttle in the darkness. Clackety-clack! Another fluttery humming sound. The air escaped his lungs, and suddenly he could hear his own heartbeat thundering in his chest (not now, don’t let me have a heart attack, please God, not now).
It was on the ceiling. Clackety-clack. Just up ahead, crawling towards them. The others didn’t see it, but Ernest did. Clack. It was above them and still they were moving (too loud you’re too loud it’ll hear us). Clack-clack. And then it was moving away. Whatever it was, it was going past them, down the hallway and—
Tyler coughed, spittle flying. “Ew! Miss! Tyler coughed on me, he—”
It dropped to the floor behind them with a meaty thud and startled scuttling towards them, screeching and clicking. My God, it’s fast, Ernest thought, and then he threw himself at it with everything he had. His joints were popping and groaning in protest and then was colliding with it. The thing was screeching and buzzing and it had him and the pain was stabbing and oh, the pain, the pain, and somewhere, someone was screaming and it was him, he was the one screaming and his chest was exploding but the children (don’t let it get the children don’t let it feed) were safe they were safe and the pain the pain the pain (run run get out run please save the children the children the children)—
3rd December 2019
Written for the December 2019 #BlogBattle