By Ray Marshall
If the teenagers just wouldn't have started biting people at the carnival, no one would have realized they were zombies. Sluggish, pale, mumbling and grunting—these were not enough to convince the adults that they were anything but ordinary teenagers. But the quick sniff then the nibble then the crunch suggested something had gone terribly wrong.
The student government at Sutter High School had long run the carnival each autumn, raising money for the Children's Hunger Fund charity. The carnivals had begun modestly—if not pitifully—with a few food and games booths and a show produced by the Drama Club, but over the last couple years, the community banded together and jolted them away from jeers. The food and games booths tripled, the show added a live band, and the county moved in a Ferris wheel and a couple kiddie rides they used at their own carnivals. The crowd swelled, and fewer children suffered stomach aches.
But this year the carnival almost didn't happen, and perhaps that would have been best for the patrons' limbs. The teacher who was the advisor of Student Government was on an extended leave for reasons that had become chameleon rumors across campus, and the student body president, Alison, was absent for a few weeks with what everyone said was Mono. But swollen with civic duty, she eventually crawled back a couple days before the carnival, and a substitute teacher was hired to serve as the advisor.
His name was Mr. Toby. After the local microchip plant shut its doors to a wheezing economy, he found himself unemployed for the first time in his adult life. A friend told him substitute teaching was easy money, so he applied at the school district. How difficult could it be to teach teenagers after battling binary code for twenty years? After he was hired, the principal, Mr. Boone, cautioned "the students of Sutter High are good kids, but you're a sub, so you have a big red 'X' on your back. Be tough. And just keep your students from killing each other, and you'll do fine."
"I've got it covered," Mr. Toby said with a confident smile. He ran his banana fingers over his sweaty forehead and through his black hair and then shook Mr. Boone's limp hand.
Friday morning Mr. Toby stood in front of the Student Government class, straightening the knot of his navy tie as the students trickled in. Alison, the student body president, stood next to him, her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Mono apparently still held onto her eyes, pulling them down, droopy. Charcoal circled them. Her skin was painted like a Geisha's—white, caked—and it was peeling as though it were recovering from an August sunburn. The students didn't seem to notice, however. With squeals, the girls hugged her tight, welcoming her back to school. The guys winked and slapped high fives with her then stared at her cleavage when she wasn't looking.
"Are you sure you're okay to run the class, Alison?" Mr. Toby asked, his voice rising several pitches, as he patted her on the shoulder. "You look kind of pale—still sick."
"I'm tired and kind of weak, but I'm much better. I'm even getting my appetite back." She smiled, her skin cracking around her lips. Mr. Toby winced.
Then he clapped his hands together, breaking through the thick chatter of students seated behind the desks. "One, two, three—eyes on me! One, two, three—eyes on me!" he shouted in a singsong voice. The class stared at him with bewildered eyes. A couple students giggled.
"Thank you, boys and girls. My name is Mr. Toby, and I will be your teacher for the next few days.” The glare from his smile dazzled. “Now I know that tomorrow is the big charity carnival that you've been planning for several weeks, so we've got a lot to accomplish today. We all need to pull together and work hard to make sure we succeed." Then as an afterthought: "There's no honey for the bee that doesn't work, right?" He chuckled, but no one joined him.
"You ready, Madame President?"
"Yup." Alison smiled.
"Okie dokie, artichokie. Proceed."
For the next half hour, Alison scribbled a crooked flowchart on the whiteboard, organizing her classmates into teams responsible for each division of the carnival: food, games, rides, entertainment. With the help of a few parents and teachers, they would run the individual booths and attractions the next day, Saturday, beginning at noon on the football field. Mr. Toby reminded the class that they must report to the field the following morning at 8 a.m. sharp for set up. No sleeping in.
"I've got it covered, Mr. Toby," Alison assured him. "I'm throwing a sleepover for the class at my house. I figure we can rely on each other to get up and out the door on time."
"Good thinking," Mr. Toby agreed, tapping his temple with a banana finger.
As Alison was pointing to the whiteboard and fielding questions from her classmates with impressive aplomb, Mr. Toby realized her hands had turned light blue with inchoate purple pushing to the top of her skin. Her hands looked bruised. He waddled over to the thermostat and realized the air conditioner had dropped the room's temperature to sixty-five degrees. He pushed the lever up to seventy.
When the bell rang, the students rushed out the door, ebullient, wishing the sun would drop and rise again quickly.
Saturday morning, Mr. Toby squeezed out of a '68 Volkswagen bug. He clutched a bullhorn in one hand and shuffled across the football field where the Student Government kids were sprawled, painting signs for the carnival booths: Fresh Pie! Cotton Candy! Balloon Dart Game! Baseball Strike Zone! Mr. Toby pushed a button on the bullhorn and roared through the speaker "Nice job, kids!" They jumped and rolled their eyes. When he found Alison, his face dropped. The skin on her face was no longer Geisha-white but was now soft blue and purple—like her hands had been yesterday. Strips of skin were peeling off and a couple bandages mostly covered what looked like scrapes. Her hands were now covered with orange knit gloves even though it wasn't cold out. She plodded over to him.
"Are you sure you're all right, Alison? Why the bandages?"
Mr. Toby's eyes squinted. "Acne?"
"Yeah, and the Mono left me dehydrated, so my skin's really dry, but I put on some lotion this morning."
"You seem slower too. You going to survive all day?"
"We got to bed kind of late last night, but I'll be just fine. I'm kind of hungry though. Maybe I should eat something."
A few minutes before noon, Mr. Toby and Alison took a final walk down the midway to make sure all was in order. A truck rolled near them, almost running into the dunking booth. Its tailgate dropped, and dozens of blackberry pies were carried over to a short stage on which set a long table covered with a white tablecloth. Behind the table was a wall blazoned with the sign: PIE EATING CONTEST. Scoot, the Student Government vice president, helped build four stacks of pies for the first contest which pitted one representative from each class. The winner, basking in teenage adulation, would walk away with a championship belt and a swollen belly. Scoot had accepted the challenge to represent the seniors.
A few steps farther down the midway set a booth painted pink with red crepe paper hearts blossoming from it. A sign read: KISSES $2. Marie, the Student Government secretary, had the first shift. She was gazing into a compact mirror, fluffing her hair and running bright red lipstick over and over her lips. The red was bright, almost glowing on skin that seemed much whiter than it did yesterday in class. As Mr. Toby passed her, he noticed that her skin was cracking and peeling like Alison's.
They passed a band named Spit tuning up their guitars to a shrill pitch, driving any rodents away. When the drummer kicked a beat, the other boys, dyed black hair hanging in their eyes, bobbed their heads.
Next to them on the twenty-yard line sat a kiddie Ferris wheel, its suspended seats reaching just above the top of the goalposts. A long-haired, middle aged carny with a carpet of stubble across his chin was checking the locks on each of the safety bars across the seats. At the turnstile stood a lanky Student Government boy named Cody. He waved to Alison then crossed his arms back into cool.
On the way back up the midway, they passed an inflatable Gingerbread House bouncer for toddlers to pogo around in. And next to that, a swing ride under a pink and yellow canopy was spinning.
"This is going to be great!" Mr. Toby clapped his hands. Alison grinned her assent.
They walked over to the cotton candy booth where a teenage boy was twirling a cone around the large floss bowl catching the spun sugar into an ever-growing club of cotton candy. He winced as he moved his arm around in a circle. Mr. Toby glanced at his arm and noticed the skin was a light purple.
"What's wrong?" Mr. Toby asked.
"Nothing. My arm's a little sore. Baseball."
"All right. See if you can make a dozen cotton candies before we open the gates in a few minutes."
The boy nodded.
Mr. Toby glanced at his watch, then pushed his thumb into the button on the bullhorn. His digital voice stabbed the air: "One, two three—eyes on me! One, two, three—eyes on me! Tee minus ten minutes and counting. Places! Places, everyone!" He glanced at Alison's swollen face. "Let's open the gates, Prez."
A half hour later, the field was covered with patrons milling from booth to booth. Spit was grinding their guitars in front of an audience of teenage girls swinging their hips to the beat and teenage boys moshing. The Ferris wheel was turning, legs and sneakers rising up into the air then descending in an arc. Popcorn popped its smell over the field woven into the sweet scent of cotton candy. Shouts and laughter followed darts exploding balloons and balls slamming into metal milk bottles.
Alison's cell phone chimed. She peered at the text.
"It's Scoot. The pie-eating contest is about to begin."
"Okay, let's go," said Mr. Toby. They weaved between the patrons like dogs dodging through an obstacle course. By the time they reached the pie-eating contest stage, a large crowd had circled around it. The smell of freshly baked crusts floated about. Four students—one from each class—sat at the table with large white bibs wrapped around their necks. Their arms were loosely tied behind them with bandanas. Scoot sat at the end, a placard stenciled with "SCOOT—SENIOR" set before him. Mrs. Bolinger, the algebra teacher who had been teaching at the school for what many argued was at least a hundred years, stood beside the table with a stop watch in one hand and a microphone in the other. She held the microphone at an angle as though it were as heavy as a gold bar, and her scrawny legs bowed under the weight.
"What's wrong with Scoot?" Mr. Toby asked.
"What do you mean?" Alison squinted her eyes at Scoot.
"He's very pale. He looks like someone powdered his face with flour."
"He looks okay to me."
"Okay, ladies and gentlemen," Mrs. Bolinger began, her voice a sonic boom as she now held the microphone too close to her lips. The crowd jumped. "It's time for this year's pie-eating contest sponsored by Carol's Country Waffle Barn." She waved her hand at a large sign that hung over the front of the table. Below the name of the restaurant, red bubble letters jumped off the canvas: ALL YOU CAN EAT BREAKFASTS $7.99!
She introduced the contestants. Scoot got the most applause. Next to Scoot sat a young boy named Donald, a freshman. Puberty had punked him. He was small and frail, certainly too young to be in high school. When he was introduced, a couple seniors booed, but a woman who apparently was Donald's mother punched her fist into the air and cheered in a screeching voice. Behind each contestant stood a student whose job it was to remove the empty tins after the pies had been eaten and shove another pie under the contestants' nose.
"On your mark, get set, GO!" Mrs. Bolinger shouted, and the contestants dropped their faces into the pies and bit into the crusts and slurped the blackberry filling. The black sauce oozed down their cheeks and chins and splattered on their bibs.
But it wasn't really a contest. Scoot ate his pies with alarming speed. His mouth opened and closed like toy chattering teeth. Within seconds, the tin was empty and another pie spun before him. The seniors jumped up and down, shouting and screaming for him to go faster, faster, faster! But the student behind him couldn't shove the fresh pies quickly enough in front of Scoot's face. Scoot grunted, then growled, his head wagging from side to side searching for a new pie. When he realized no more were coming, he glanced over at the freshman beside him chewing and slurping the pie before him. Scoot inhaled deeply, smelling the air, then popped his head back and yowled—long and high-pitched and wolf-like. His arms behind him snapped the bandana apart. He grabbed Donald's head—one hand on each cheek—pulled him toward him, and sunk his teeth into his face, ripping off his nose and upper lip with one bite. Donald's mother screamed, and the spectators gasped. Mrs. Bolinger dropped the microphone out of her hand. It bounced on the stage, producing a large crash and then amplifying the screaming voices of the crowd as they pushed and shoved to escape. Mr. Toby rushed toward the stage, clapping his hands like a toy monkey with cymbals. He shouted "No, no, Scoot! One, two, three—eyes on me! Scoot! One, two, three—eyes on me!" Scoot swallowed, glanced at Mr. Toby with wild eyes, then jumped on top of Donald, taking another bite out of his face. Donald's chair collapsed, and the two of them disappeared behind the table.
"Mr. Toby!" Alison shouted, pulling on his arm. "Look!" She pointed a few yards past the stage to the kissing booth. Marie was leaning across the booth, kissing a young teenage boy whose eyes were closed in search of heaven. A couple boys in line erupted in hard cat calls. But Marie didn't finish with a kiss. She nibbled on the boy's lips, then held them between her teeth and pulled back. The boy opened his eyes, startled, then grunted in pain. With a snap, she bit off his lips. She chewed them and blood bubbled down her chin. The boy's hand cupped where his lips had been, hiding his exposed teeth. Then Marie dove over the booth counter and sank her teeth into the boy's neck. The boy screamed and fell to the ground as a geyser of blood shot up into the air.
The boys waiting in line screamed in horror and scattered, their dollar bills floating to the ground.
Mr. Toby ran his banana fingers over his sweaty forehead and through his hair and scuttled to the booth. "Marie! Decorum! Decorum! Stop eating the patron! One, two, three—eyes on me!" He clapped loudly. "One, two, three—eyes on me!" Marie glanced up from her meal and growled. Mr. Toby took a step back onto a divot, almost falling.
Alison screamed, pointing at the Ferris wheel several yards down field. Mr. Toby's eyes shot in the direction of her finger.
"Oh my God!" Exasperated, Mr. Toby waddled down the field, tottering as though he were a drunk power walker. On the left, they passed the band Spit, who was playing a cover of Blondie's old tune "Eat to the Beat." On the right, the cotton candy booth. The boy who had been making cotton candy earlier was still spinning the cardboard cone around the metal bowl, building up the spun sugar into pink cotton. He appeared to be in a fugue, unaware of the riots growing over at the Pie Eating stage and the Kissing Booth. But then Mr. Toby realized the boy was not using a cardboard cone to wrap the sugar around. The purple arm that had been troubling the boy had rotted off from his shoulder, and the boy was now slowly running the arm around the bowl, wrapping it with pink sugar.
As Mr. Toby and Alison neared the Ferris wheel the riders' screams pierced their ears. The middle-aged carny was lying face down on the grass. Lanky Cody jumped up and clutched the legs of the riders whose seats were just beginning to rise into the air on their way to the top. He bit into calves, tearing chunks out and crunched a couple toes off of a girl wearing flip flops. Then as a bloody leg slipped from his grasp, he grabbed the next leg moving toward him. Finally, as a rider was ascending up the arc of the wheel, Cody pulled on her leg, clasping it to his chest. The girl screamed as she began slipping through the seat, but the safety bar kept her secured. As her torso rose into the air, her knee popped and crackled and Cody yanked the leg off, falling back on the ground as he won the tug of war.
"Cody!" Mr. Toby shouted hoarsely. "One, two, three—eyes on me! One, two, three—eyes…" But his voice trailed off. He stood in the middle of the field, panting, patrons screaming and running into each other, blood and body parts strewn about. He swung his head from one side of the field to the other as though he were watching a blazing tennis match. He ran his banana fingers over his sweaty forehead and through his hair. Then he sighed, blowing out hot breath. "I don't understand what went wrong, Alison. I thought this was going to be easy. We had this all planned out so well." He slowly shook his head, and his eyes fell to the ground. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," Alison said. "But I'm a little hungry."
Mr. Toby looked at her. Her face had sunken in, melted like candle wax. The bandages had fallen off, revealing sores bored into her blue and purple skin. Mr. Toby gasped and took a step back. "One, two three—eyes on—." But it was too late. Alison's jaws were wide open, and she pounced atop him.