This is the full, unabridged version of the story I read at Noir At The Bar North East. It’s the opening chapter for a (hopefully!) forthcoming novel featuring a young lady we’ve met before, in her early days…
Many thanks to everyone who took the time to read this over and offer feedback: Julie, Vic, Gary, Ana, Gemma, Chris and anyone else I’ve forgot to mention– feel free to knock me on the head and tell me I’ve forgotten about you!
I’m thinking about recording an audio version: let me know if that’s something you’d like to hear!
By the start of second year, there weren’t many of us left in the class. Thirteen souls in total, down from twenty-two in my first year. The rest had dropped out, changed subjects, gone for something less demanding on their time or patience. The rest of us were proud to have survived. We were the elite. Hardcore. Proud to have survived. By the time the exams came at the end of the first semester, we felt like the hardened veterans of a long campaign against buggy code and unreasonable deadlines. The last exam in Elder Hall was the gonna be our biggest fight. Gettysburg. The high water mark.
Elder Hall was one of the least haunted buildings in Chrismont. It wasn’t even that old— barely two hundred, pretty much a snot-nosed kid for a town that was already old when the Vikings burned it down. It had a quiet history: it wasn’t built on a plague pit, no one had ever been imprisoned or executed or starved to death in the basement. Well, if anyone had, it wasn’t in the tourist brochure. It was about as close to a happy building as you were gonna get in an English seaside town with more bones under the roads than cement. Maybe that was why they used it for exams: so the students had no excuse for freaking out under the pressure.
Most days the auditorium in Elder Hall was the stage for music recitals: it was one of the few indoor spaces able to fit in enough people, and the domed roof provided great acoustics. Once a year, the final-year students and their proud families gathered here to be punished in the ritual of Latin and bad fashion known as “Graduation”.
That was some way away for me, of course. First things first: I had to get through Intermediate Software Engineering. This was the only exam that really had me worried. Not because the subject was difficult. There was no coding, no math, nothing that risked any actual thought. Just a lot of memorisation and some essay questions. The usual pseudo-philosophical jargon about ethics in computer science, nothing I couldn’t extend for a few hundred words until the examiner surrendered and let me pass. It was humanities stuff, not real science, and as much use as a satnav on a lawnmower. The exam didn’t scare me.
If I kept telling myself that, maybe I’d believe it.
I stared down at the notes in my hand. Not that there was much point, now: my brain was crammed so full of facts and formulae, I felt they might just burst out of my skull and spill out. In a way, the exam was already over, and I’d already passed or failed: all that was left was the boring work of actually taking it.
‘Hey, Jen, can I borrow your notes?’
I looked up, saw Nate give me an awkward smile, hands in pockets, shoulders haunched. A picture of nervous energy, badly contained. He looked like he would bolt if anyone said his name too loudly.
I handed him the pages. He squinted his eyes, creased his brow as he stared at them.
‘Um, what does that say?’
I glanced at the spot where he pointed. ’“Waterfall model”.’
’Really?’ He stared at me, incredulous. ‘That’s a “w”?’
I shrugged. ’My handwriting’s not the best, okay?’
‘You’re telling me. It looks like a spider dragged the ink over the page. Backwards.’
I rolled my eyes. Teachers had complained about my handwriting since elementary school. Who needs penmanship in the twentieth century anyway?
Nate shuffled through the ragged pages. ‘Do you want these back?’
‘Nah, I’m good. At this point, it’s either sunk in or it’s not. No point stressing over stuff you can’t help.’
‘Speak for yourself. I fully intend to stay stressed.’
‘You’ll do fine.’ Nate was one of the smartest guys I knew. Dude could get DOS running on a spinning wheel if he put his mind to it. Poor guy suffered from imposter syndrome, though, big time. Always worried that he couldn’t hang, that he didn’t belong here, that he was gonna mess up and people would find him out.
I looked around the foyer at the rest of my classmates. They had a buzz about them. Whether excited, or scared, or just plain confused, there was a real sense that things were coming to an end, that all we had to do was press on just a little and everything would be okay.
The only one who looked calm was Em.
That in and of itself was weird. Ordinarily Em could come up with six things to freak out about before breakfast. Was her hair too tangled? Was her heartbeat irregular? Who was feeding bacon to the cat in the hall? (it was usually me, by the way). Had she gained/lost weight in her sleep?
Today there was none of that. Em was quiet as a cloud. She looked like part of the furniture, resting on the stairs in the corner, staring at the wall with an odd smile on her face. Like she had something bigger to worry about than software engineering principles.
I walked over to her. ‘You okay?’ I asked.
‘Hm? Oh, sure. I’m fine. How are you doing, darling?’
Em called everyone ‘darling’. Not in a patronising way, like some movie star trying to poison you with caramel words. She was a local girl, born on Tyneside, and her accent drawled with genuine affection. Like she thought everyone was her best friend.
‘I’m okay.’ I shrugged. ‘Just want it over with at this point.’
She smiled. ‘You’ll be fine.’
‘We should do something afterward,’ I said, to change the subject. ‘To celebrate. Or not.’
Her smile froze, flickered and died. ‘I don’t think I will, Jen.’
‘C’mon, you know Red’s gonna try to drag us out to some dive bar and get us top-five drunk. We’ve got to stick together. Come up with a better plan. An indoors plan, with chocolate and DVDs.’
‘Sorry. You should have fun without me, love.’
‘Dude, how am I supposed to have fun without you?’
Me and Em were the only girls in the class. Two out of thirteen was pretty good representation in computer science. The boys treated us like endangered animal mascots, class totems, something to take pride in and fear, often at the same time.
We’d been friends since first year, comrades-in-arms ever since we met at a twenty-four-hour coding marathon, a ‘hackathon’ hosted by the School of Computer Science. I caught up with her afterwards, after I heard her presentation on an algorithm designed to replicate a fifteenth century necromantic ritual that she found in a German textbook. Completely useless, maybe, but the code was genius, and it appealed to my inner fourteen-year-old, my love for rainy days and graveyard poetry and the occasional cantrip to clear up acne flare-up. It turned out we were in the same halls of residence, and we hung out in her room after that, swapped warez, worked on projects together for school. Come the end of the academic year and staring homelessness in the face, she asked if I wanted to be the third signature on a tenancy renting a basement flat alongside another chick, a red-headed, six-foot pirate of a woman who played the drums, and who could out-drink a frat house and still go a few rounds in the ring with a berserk Viking. I said yes, and hadn’t seen reason to regret it, apart from a few sleepless nights listening to post-thrash drum fills and the occasional fight over the shower in the morning.
I sat down next to her, close enough to nudge her in the ribs. ‘Hey,’ I said, ‘You wanna hear something cool?’
Em said nothing, so I continued;
‘Apparently, Elder Hall has got a haunted painting.’
She rolled her eyes. ’No it doesn’t Jen.’
‘Yeah, it does!’ I insisted. ‘It’s called “The Witch’s Delight,” and it was left by some professor who got sacked by the university in his will. And I heard that anyone who sits underneath during an exam fails.
‘Don’t be stupid.’
‘It’s true! Like, ten years ago, a student ran out of the exam hall, screaming “the witch made me do it”!’
‘Darling, you are so full of rubbish, I’m surprised the council doesn’t take you away every week.’
‘Yeah? Well then, I dare you to sit underneath it.’
‘Where do you get these stories from?’
‘It’s fun, y’know? There’s ghost stories from all over this town, and I collect them. Like stamps’
‘Except your stories are even more useless. There’s no such thing as ghosts.’
‘How do you know that?’
She shrugged. ‘I know’
I smiled. She was right, of course. It was a dumb story. Some student probably cracked under the pressure, got distracted by the painting and ran screaming for the toilet. Didn’t need to invent a curse for that. Still, scary stories had always interested me. Made me feel like there was something more to the world, like there was a point to it besides the boring everyday truth of homework and skin problems.
Em looked at me. ‘I’m going to miss this, love.’
I bit my lip. ‘Miss what?’
‘You. This.’ She sighed. ‘Everything.’
Before I could say anything else, an invigilator carrying a clipboard like an offensive weapon propped open the door to the auditorium. That was the signal for us to file in.
I smiled at Em. ’See you on the other side.’
She didn’t answer. Didn’t even meet my eyes.
I followed the rest of the class into the auditorium. Dropped off my bag at the back: the last thing I needed was my phone going off in the middle of a test. As I strolled past row after row of desks, I tried not to look at the wall of paintings on the far side. Tried, and failed. I couldn’t have missed the haunted painting if I’d wanted to: my eyes were drawn to it, like the gravitational pull of a black hole, sucking at the room until no light could escape. The figures dancing naked around a bonfire were twisted like dolls whose limbs looked like they’d been torn off and reassembled in the wrong places. The old woman in the painting stared at me. Her eyes bulged in her head like bloated worms trying to squeeze out of her skull. The painting didn’t have to be haunted to freak the crap out of me.
Silently I told myself that the curse was just a story. But the shiver down my back was very real. Just in case, I slid over to the opposite side of the room, far enough forward that I couldn’t see the painting without turning around, and sat down at a desk in the corner.
The exam paper squatted on the desk like a death warrant. I wrote my name and filled out the course details, though it was like carving into stone. Then I waited, like the last inmate on Death Row, hoping against hope for a reprieve.
I realized, with horrific certainty, how hideously unprepared for this I was.
The invigilator at the front barked like a drill sergeant. ‘You may now begin.’
Papers rustled. Heads bowed. I turned over the page.
1. Discuss at least three software factors that contributed to the SafeSurgeon incident, and how you would avoid them. (9 marks)
Oh, was that all they wanted? A page and a half telling them how not to murder patients with a burning scalpel. Dammit, I knew I should have taken notes on that, but oh no, Jen thinks she’s smarter than the examiners. “No way they’ll ask about that, why bother?” Idiot.
I put pen to paper, and wrote “One factor to consider”. Then I stopped.
Was it too late to run out the hall, screaming “the witch made me do it“?
I turned, my head, looked at Em.
She wasn’t writing anything. Wasn’t even looking at the page.
She turned towards me and caught my eye. She smiled. A strange, crooked thing, that spread across her face like morning sunlight, putting her at peace.
That was when she jammed her pen into her neck.
I would have screamed, but my throat was dry as dust, and the sound caught in my mouth. In a moment that felt it could last forever, I watched as Em tore open her throat, wrenching her pen like an industrial laser tearing through sheet metal. Blood ran down her hands like treacle, staining her clothes and smearing the desk in front of her. It was almost a relief when the screaming started and I realised it wasn’t just me watching her die.
The noise shattered the stillness of the exam hall like glass. Em fell off her chair, sank sinking in slow motion to the floor. One of the guys next to her— Anthony, I think it was— rushed over, grabbed her by the shoulders and, held her up. He strained to hold up her limp body. Put his hand to her throat. Her breath was hoarse and, ragged as the colour drained from her face, but her expression was what scared me most: I could have coped if she had looked scared, or desperate, or given some sign that showed she was still fighting, tooth and nail, to cling to life. Instead, I saw nothing . Just those bright brown eyes gazing back at me, and just the faint sign of a smile on her lips.
The crowd around Em was growing, as invigilators and students pulled together to shout out bad advice. Take the pen out. No, leave it in. Didn’t matter: in the end, it was Em herself who finally yanked the thing out of her flesh, causing another jet of blood to pump between Anthony’s fingers.
She convulsed like a moth breaking free of its cocoon, then was still.
The crowd was too big now, forcing me back. Someone shouted to call an ambulance, to call the police, like there was anything they could do to fix her, like they could somehow force the blood back into her veins, the life back into her lungs.
I glanced around the room, looking for something, anything that would distract my attention. Saw There was the paper on Em’s desk, crumpled and covered in red fingerprints. Some instinct, some perverse impulse, made me reach over, grab it, stuff it into my pocket.
Desperate to think of anything else, I looked over at the far wall. At the painting in the middle, staring looming down at over the hallway hall like a gargoyle. Maybe it was just my mind fraying at the edges, but I could have sworn I saw the old woman smile.