I nodded and told her what I’d noticed about Mr. Thomas and some of the other teachers. The moment I mentioned Mrs. Wolf, her eyes grew wide.
“There’s definitely something wrong with her! Ever since I saw her two weeks ago in the morning, I’ve been afraid of her!”
Had I heard her right? Two weeks ago? That was even before Mr. Thomas had started to act strange.
“Wait, two weeks ago?”
“Sometimes I’ve trouble sleeping, so I go for runs in the early morning. That’s when I saw her. She was on her way to school, but the way she walked, it was just… wrong. I thought I saw things since it was dark, but that wasn’t it. She was taking these huge, wide steps, it was almost as if her legs were longer than normal. And the way she moved, it was almost mechanically! I don’t know how to describe it, but it was so creepy!”
“Then that-” I wanted to start, but she rambled on.
“Oh, and you know what? That day we were supposed to have a class with her, but they told us she wasn’t at school. But I’d seen her in the morning, right? So why’d they lie about it?”
“Just what the hell is going on?” I finally asked, talking more to myself than to her.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I talked to my friends, but no one seems to care about it! You’re the first one who’s even noticed anything! I’m starting to get really scared.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, I’m-”
“Classes are starting. Go to your classroom,” I heard a voice from behind us.
When I turned around, I saw Miss Marx. She was eying us with her glassy, empty eyes and slowly walked into our direction.
“Classes are starting. Do you need help finding your classroom?”
“No, we’re fine!” I blurted out in an instant.
With that, the two of us hurried away.
After I’d suffered through two more hours of social studies, the day was finally over. I couldn’t wait to get out of the school building. On the surface, everything looked normal, but I couldn’t shake off this strange feeling.
I’d barely taken a step outside when the same girl from before approached me. She quickly handed me a note before she hurried off again. She was clearly embarrassed about the whole ordeal.
For a moment, I watched as she made her way to the girl’s dorm then I opened up the note. Written on it was her phone number as well as her name, Kim.
“Now how in the hell did you do that?” my friend Martin asked, laughing.
“Man, why are you dating that gloomy Asian chick, though?” Erik cut in.
“Guys, shut up, it’s not like that!”
They didn’t let it go and kept pestering me about her all the way to the dorms. It wasn’t long before I ignored their questions and comments.
In my dorm room, I added her number and sent her a quick text, telling her it was me. I got an answer back after a short while, in which she awkwardly thanked me for adding her. Man, what’s it with this girl?
We kept chatting for a bit, but her texts were short and to the point. It quickly became apparent that she didn’t know much more than me. The only thing I learned was that she’d noticed that Mr. Weis, our IT teacher, had behaved strange as well.
Adding them all up meant that it was five teachers in total. That’s almost a quarter of the staff, I realized shivering.
In the late afternoon, I halfheartedly joined Erik at track. It was that day of the week again. I wasn’t into it, but as I said, the school had a clear focus on sports. Each student had to partake in at least one club. Track felt like the least annoying option.
I really wasn’t in the mood for it that day, even less so than usual. I ran a few laps before I planted myself on a bench, trying to ignore the frowns that Mr. Muller gave me. A few minutes later, Erik planted himself next to me.
“Dude, what are you doing? Mr. Muller keeps staring at you! Can’t you at least pretend to care?”
“What? Oh yeah, thanks. I’ve noticed him already, but oh well,” I answered half in thought.
As my gaze wandered over the rest of the school grounds, nothing seemed to be wrong. Nothing at all. The soccer team was practicing nearby, and other clubs were busy with their own activities.
“Man, I really hope we’re not out here in winter,” Erik cursed, staring at the western wing.
I looked over as well. Even the gym was part of the construction area. We hadn’t been in there in months. Well, not that I cared about it one way or another.
Mr. Muller did care, though. When he finally called me over, I saw the anger on his face.
“Now tell me, Steven, how come you’ve been sitting on that bench for half an hour now? Tell you what, boy, your performance is shit! I ought to send you out there right now and make you run till your damned legs fall off!”
“Yes, I know, sorry, Mr. Muller, I just haven’t been feeling well.”
He laughed at that. “Guess you haven’t been feeling well this whole damned year!”
“Sorry, I’m going to try harder next week, I promise.”
He squinted his eyes. “Sure you will, Steven.”
By now, these types of talks had become a weekly thing. I could tell that Mr. Muller didn’t care about my performance. I think they were more a way to keep up the facade for him and a play on authority. It had all become a rehearsed exchange between the two of us. Him pretending to care and me pretending to try harder.
Once training was over, Erik and I made our way back to the dorms.
“Dude, how the hell do you keep getting away with that shit? I was damned sure he’d make you run a dozen laps for sitting around the whole time!”
I gave him a grin. “Guess he knows I’d suck either way?”
Erik shook his head in frustration before he started to laugh. “Oh, trust me, we all know.”
Back in my room, I went to the computer right away. I had to figure out what the hell was going on here. The problem was, I had no clue what I should even search for. I entered things like people behaving differently, being replaced, or moving mechanically.
I spent half the night frantically googling and searching through forums, but I didn’t find anything useful. Half the results were about mental illness and depression, the rest was even less helpful. It was either articles or blogs about conspiracy theories or movies. I read about aliens, robots, and AI and even freaking reptilians. At the two in the morning, I stumbled upon yet another review of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That was it! I closed my browser in frustration and went to bed.
When I woke up the next morning, I was utterly exhausted. Even worse, I felt a brooding feeling of anxiety at the thought of going to school. I tried my best to hide away in my dorm room, hoping Mrs. Richter would forget about me, or hell, ignore me. Of course, I shouldn’t be so lucky. Once everyone had left, she burst into my room and chased me out of the dorms.
I felt her eyes on my back the whole way to the school building.
The moment I entered, the building felt different, almost dangerous. As I walked to my first class, I couldn’t help but watch every teacher I saw.
I noticed something, though; Miss Marx and Mr. Thomas seemed to be back to normal. There was no hint of their strange way of walking. Had they been sick after all and had returned back to normal?
As I continued to watch them, I could still tell that something was wrong with them. There was this ominous feeling that I couldn’t seem to shake off.
Then I knew what it was. There was something about their eyes and faces. Small, minute details, like their lack of emotions and the glassy, empty look of their eyes.
As I watched, another thought popped into my mind. What if they hadn’t gotten better at all? What if whatever had replaced them had simply gotten better at… pretending?
My fifth term of the day was math, with no other than Mr. Flach. That same cold feeling of apprehension flooded me again when he entered. My eyes rested on him as he walked to his desk. For a moment, everything about him seemed normal, but then I saw that slight twitch of the corners of his mouth.
In a half-monotonous voice, he explained that we’d prepare for the upcoming math exam today. As groans filled the room, he started to distributed worksheets and told us to solve them on our own. At the end of class, given there was enough time left, we’d go through them together.
Once everyone had their worksheets, he spoke again.
“There is something else I want to talk about, students.”
I looked up. What now?
“In the upcoming week, we’ll have a great opportunity for our most academically gifted students. We’re going to organize a few field trips to some of the local universities. Only those students who excel in their academic performances are eligible to partake. In the upcoming days, we’ll discuss the details with each one of you, should you be chosen.”
Field trips to universities? For the academically gifted students? Where the hell did this come from? The school had never cared about academics before!
This didn’t add up, not at all. This had to be related to… whatever was going on here!
I wasn’t the only one who was confused, though. Daniel, our ‘math wizard’ as we called him, raised his hand.
Mr. Flach nodded mechanically, signaling him to speak.
“I’ve got a question. What’s the reason behind this?”
“We’re planning on broadening the school’s focus. Thus we will introduce a new scholarship solely for academically gifted students.”
The moment these words had left his mouth, I could hear some of the jocks laugh and mumble to one another. Erik was one of them. There were even some who demanded to know what was up with this ‘bullshit.’
Mr. Flach ignored them entirely and didn’t even look at them.
“Start doing your exercises, students,” he said, and with that, the matter was settled.
I haphazardly started on the first exercise, but I kept watching Mr. Flach.
People were murmuring all around me, but he didn’t seem to care. Instead, he was busy going over the class registry. Long minutes passed as he meticulously studied it. There was no sign of emotion on his face at all.
Suddenly he looked up, and for a moment I was afraid he’d noticed how intently I’d watched him. Then his eyes darted towards Daniel. Mr. Flach got up, approached him, and whispered something into his ear. As much as I strained myself, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I saw Daniel nod a few times before he got up and walked to the front of the class. After that, Mr. Flach repeated the same ordeal with another girl in class, Nicole.
Then he joined the two of them and led them outside. Before he left, he turned to the rest of the class once more.
“Keep working on your exercises,” he repeated once more.
Then he was gone, with Daniel and Nicole in tow.
Right away, everyone started to talk about the field trip and the announcement of the new scholarship. I sat there quietly, staring at Daniel and Nicole’s empty seats. They were the best students in math without a doubt, but this whole story about a field trip sounded fishy.
Suddenly a crumpled up paper ball hit me. When I turned around, I saw Erik grinning at me.
“Yo, Steven, you know what’s up with that?” he called out.
One of his jock friends, Tom, turned to me as well. “Yeah, nerd, spill the beans on that one. You know what’s up, right?”
God, I hated Tom, he was such an asshole. I shrugged. “No clue, first time I’m hearing about this.”
Tom called out to me once more, but I ignored him. He and the rest were right about one thing though, how had no one heard anything about this?
The whole thing wasn’t too farfetched, but the way it was announced didn’t sit right with me. Usually, they’d make a big deal out of something like this and organize an assembly. So why do it so casually and not of nowhere. Most of all, why do it right now?
There had to be something else going on, and I somehow knew it was related to the way the teachers acted. What if this was all a ploy? What for, though? Shit, I was starting to lose it. I told myself to calm down, but then my eyes moved to the two empty seats in class again. Where had he taken them?
I got up and made my way to the door of the classroom. I had to figure out what was going on.
I opened the door to peek outside and almost collided with Mr. Flach. He was about to return to class. Alone.
“What’s the matter, Steven?”
“Oh, nothing. I thought I heard something outside.”
Mr. Flach looked at me for a moment, almost probing me with his glassy eyes before he spoke up.
“Back to your seat. Keep working on your exercise.”
“Where are Daniel and Nicole?”
“Discussing the details of the field trip. Now keep working on your exercises.”
His voice hadn’t changed. It was still as monotonous as before. Yet, his eyes were growing wider with each passing second.
I held his gaze, but as I felt fear growing inside of me, I hurried back to my seat.
It was about ten minutes later that I got a WhatsApp message from Kim.
‘Hey, did your teacher just tell you about those field trips and the scholarship?’
‘Yours too? What the hell’s up with that?’
‘No idea. Did the teacher take anyone in your class?’
‘Yes, two! Daniel and Nicole.’
‘One her too, Stefan.’
‘This has to be related to what’s going on, right?’
‘Shit, teacher saw me on the phone, ttyl.’
I put my phone away as well, but Mr. Flach was busy going through the class, taking a look at everyone’s progress.
At least, that’s what it seemed like. He went from student to student, mumbling a few words here and there, but his eyes looked straight ahead. He wasn’t even looking at the worksheets! Was he just pretending?
When class came to an end, Mr. Flach announced that we’d discuss the solutions during our next class. Of course, I thought, smiling to myself. It was so damned clear that none of these stupid exercises mattered.
After he’d said this, he simply packed up his things and left the classroom without another word.
Everyone leaned back in their seats or went outside to linger in the hallways. I still couldn’t help but stare at Nicole and Daniel’s empty seats. Where the hell were they? It shouldn’t take that long to talk about a freaking field trip!
Finally left the room and walked up to Erik out in the hallway.
“Hey man, have you seen Daniel and Nicole? They aren’t back yet!”
“Yeah, no shit, Sherlock,” he said and turned his attention back to a group of girls he’d been staring at. At times he could really be an asshole.
“Where do you think Flach took them?”
“How the hell would I know? Maybe to the teacher’s lounge or the principal’s office? Why are you asking me? If you want to go on that stupid trip so much, why don’t you just ask one of the teachers?”
“What? No, I don’t want to go on that trip! Listen, man, I think there’s something else going on. What if they, I don’t know, were taken somewhere else?”
“Yeah, by the weird teachers, right?” he asked sarcastically. “Shit man, they left!” he cursed, most likely talking about the girls.
Instead of saying anything else, I walked off. How the hell did he not notice how weird everything was? Didn’t he see how all those teachers had changed?
As I looked at him again, joking with some of his friends about an upcoming soccer match, I got my answer. None of them gave a shit about the regular classes. I knew for a fact that they’d pass either way, if with a bit of help by the administration. They were only here for the sports, to attend their clubs and in hopes of landing a sports scholarship. That’s the type of school this was.
The only ones who’d notice anything were students who actually paid attention during class. The ones like me or Daniel or Kim.
A thought popped into my mind right then. Was this the reason for this whole field trip thing? Were they trying to get rid of the students who’d notice that something was going on? Another surge of anxiety washed over me, and for a moment, I had to take a deep breath. What about me, then?
My next class felt like an eternity. These new thoughts, however outlandish they were, lingered on my mind. At the same time, I couldn’t stop staring at the two seats that were still empty. How in the hell was it taking them so long? No, there was something else going on, and I wondered if the teachers were doing something to them right now.
“Jesus Christ,” I cursed out loud and got a few curious stares from the students around me.
Even during the lunch break, when everyone was ushered outside, there was no sign of Daniel or Nicole. For all I knew, they were just… gone.
The moment I was out in the yard, I searched desperately for Kim. I had to talk to someone!
“We need to talk!” I blurted out when I saw her. I didn’t wait for a reply. Instead, I grabbed her arm and dragged her to a quiet area at the side of the school building.
When Erik and Martin saw me walking away with her, they whistled at us from afar and threw a few comments our way. I could see Kim blushing and shifting around awkwardly. I could tell she wished to be anywhere else right now.
“Did you hear anything about those field trips before today?” I asked her once we were alone.
“N-no,” she said in a low voice, a bit scared by the erratic tone of my voice.
“Dammit, what the hell’s up with it?!”
“You said two people were invited to that trip in your class, right?”
I nodded. “Yes, and they’re still gone! Shit!”
I reiterated the idea that had formed in my mind, but she shook her head.
“No, I don’t think that’s it.”
Then she turned away and frantically looked around for someone. Then she pointed at a boy sitting on a bench by himself.
“Stefan’s back already, see.”
I felt myself relax for a bit. “Guess that means they-”
“He’s acting weird, though!” Kim cut me off.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, he’s… different somehow. He hasn’t talked to anyone since he came back. I mean, he’s always been quiet, but never like this.”
“You think something happened to him?”
“Yes, I mean… I don’t know. It’s all so strange! Maybe they told him something about that trip or-”
“Come on, man, just kiss her already!” Martin suddenly called out from nearby.
I noticed him and Erik staring at Kim and me with wide grins on their faces.
“Yes, go for it, Steven!” Erik yelled as well.
Kim’s face turned bright red in an instant; she cringed back a few steps. “I think I better go,” she mumbled, staring at her feet. “I’ll text you later.”
With that, she hurried away.
“Hey,” I called after her, but she didn’t react.
“Goddammit!” I cursed out loud.
“What the hell are you idiots doing?” I screamed at the two of them as they started laughing their asses off.
“Dude,” Erik started, but he had to break up to catch his breath, “you’ve got to go for it!”
“Yeah,” Martin started, putting an arm around my shoulder, “you can’t let her walk away like that. You’re supposed to go after her!”
I pushed his arm away. “I’m not. Fucking. Dating. Her. Alright? I’m just talking to her about the strange shit that none of you idiots even notice!”
“Yeah, yeah, the teachers have all become aliens or robots,” Erik said, still laughing.
“Man, you two are a great match!” Martin continued. “You’re both into stupid conspiracy theories!”
With that, the two of them burst out laughing again.
“Alright, seriously guys, don’t you find any of this strange at all? The way the teachers act, the way they walk, those damned field trips that come out of nowhere?”
“Yeah, field trips, sounds really scary. Never happened before at this school,” Erik said, rolling his eyes before he laughed again.
“Freaking hell, guys!” I called out in sheer frustration.
They continued to make silly comments and stumbled around me like robots. I ignored them and kept eying the schoolyard around us. Everything seemed to be so normal. Students were talking or playing games, and Miss Marx watched everything from the school’s front door. It all looked like just another ordinary day.
There were a few students here and there, though, who sat in the grass or on benches by themselves. None of them were doing… anything. They just stared ahead or ate their lunch without showing the slightest emotions.
I shivered as I watched one of them. The way his arms moved as he took something from his backpack was utterly unnatural.
I started to count all these strange students. My efforts were cut short by the sound of the bell, signaling that lunch break was over.
When I entered the classroom, I saw that Daniel and Nicole were finally back. Without another thought, I approached Daniel.
“Hey, any news on the school trip? How’d it go?”
“Good,” he said in a low, emotionless voice.
“What did they talk about to you? You were gone for hours!”
“The field trip,” he added in a matter-of-factly.
When I didn’t walk off, he looked up at me. His face was completely devoid of emotions, but it felt like his eyes were probing me.
“Is everything alright, Daniel? Did anything weird-”
“Alright, take your seats, time for class,” our language teacher called out in his loud, booming voice as he entered the room.
“That goes for you too, Steven,” he called out.
I cursed under my breath as I returned to my seat. As I sat down, I saw that Nicole was staring at me as well. Her eyes just rested on me.
I gave her a puzzled look, but nothing changed. It seemed like minutes passed before she turned away from me again.
The way they both had looked at me, the way they spoke, their faces, had they always looked like that? I didn’t know what it was, but something wasn’t right with them. It was as if some of the details were wrong.
As I sat there, wondering what the hell was going on, I felt goosebumps all over my arms.
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