You don’t think it’s a little freaky that our class trips involve magic? How the hell does that work anyway? And how do you explain that you lost your book running away from Troodon, or your clothes stink because you were waist-deep in a slime mould? Dinner conversations are getting really awkward, but at least my grades are good.
There’s this other thing – no-one at school talks about our class. None of the older kids talk about going into space, and they never mention Miss Frizzle. We can’t be the only class to get the special treatment, can we? Maybe they think no-one will believe them. Fair enough. I didn’t even try explaining to the nurse that I had a stomach ache because my teacher and classmates were crawling around in my intestines. That’s crazy talk.
But the other other thing is – and this really is going to sound crazy – I swear we used to have more people in our class. Like, for example, there was a girl called Rachel when we went to see the dinosaurs, and she’s not here now. She sat behind me, where Phoebe sits now, and when we got back from that trip her books and stuff were gone, and her locker was empty. Phoebe sat down at her desk as though she’d always been there, and I’d think I was going mad but I saw Wanda looking at Rachel’s desk, and she was scared and confused. Nobody said anything, and we never got any police around or distraught parents demanding to know what happened to their child. That’s the magic, I guess.
I keep checking the news to see if the palaeontologists ever dig up a kid’s skeleton in a dinosaur nest. That’ll fuck up the theory of evolution something awful, and there’ll be idiots insisting that this proves Intelligent Design is actually right. (Yeah, I know, I’m not meant to know or say that word, but with this class I’ve earned it.) Say what you like about the Friz, but she makes sure we know our science.
Rachel isn’t the only one who’s not in this class any more. Phil’s floating somewhere near Jupiter, and the last time I saw Amanda Jane she was being wrapped up all neat by a spider. There are probably others that I don’t remember. So me and a few other people have a group now. There’s me, Wanda, Carlos, Keesha, DA, Phoebe and Ralphie, and we stick together and look out for each other. (Used to be Tim as well, but, how do I put this, he’s talking to some fish for the rest of time.) Seven is a good number. Any more and you start to get confused and make mistakes. Seven is a lucky number too, and while I’m not trusting luck to get us out of all the scrapes this class gets into, having it on hand doesn’t hurt when you’re on the Moon, or on the tundra in this case.
‘It’s fucking freezing,’ Wanda hisses as the bus stops and the doors creak open. ‘Seriously balls-freezing weather.’ (See: that thing I said before about not knowing certain words. I’m not the worst offender in our group.)
‘It’s pretty cool, all right,’ Carlos says. At this point he doesn’t even notice the puns any more, and we don’t bother to acknowledge them. Everybody wins.
‘Space was colder,’ DA says as we clamber out of the bus. One side of it is sheltered from the wind, which means we’re likely to die of hypothermia in ten minutes, not five. We huddle together and I wonder why the Friz even bothered to take us here. The lady herself jumps out of the bus and beams at us all, and we smile back with as much enthusiasm as we can make up. You don’t want to be the one singled out to go up and try to touch a moose or something.
Except there are fuck-all moose to be seen here, along with caribou, penguins, seals, birds and whatever else manages to live on ice and seawater. It’s pretty bleak, and I speak as one who’s been to Mercury: just ice, a few pathetic bits of grass, and the sea. The sun’s hanging low in the sky but since we’re in the Polar circle it’s not going to set for another month or so, and I really hope we don’t have to stick around to see it come up again. The sky’s clouded over with thin, misty stuff and the whole scene is more like a blank space than anything, like when you’re drawing and you forget to put in a background.
It’s empty, and that makes me a little on edge. The universe doesn’t like empty spaces, and it’s usually itching to put something there to fill them up. Hopefully a magic school bus carrying a bunch of kids and their crazy teacher will do the trick, but who knows? And who would know, if something appeared here and took care of the lot of us?
Miss Frizzle hands out coats from the bus and they’re awesomely warm, although I think white is a bad colour for this environment. With the ice and the sky you could disappear into the environment… and white shows up the blood and dirt so clearly. But maybe I’m being pessimistic, or a fucking softcock pussy, as Janet puts it. She learnt that one from me, and I’m pretty sure teaching your relatives to swear is meant to work the other way around in terms of age at least, but this isn’t a normal situation.
‘Off you go, class!’ she says, shooing us out into the wind, and there’s the usual spiel about taking chances (yeah right), making mistakes (not if I can help it) and getting messy (you gave white clothing to a bunch of nine-year-olds, what do you think will happen?). Keesha and I look at each other and share a long-suffering look, and we start leading the group away up the beach, looking for somewhere vaguely out of the wind. We don’t go too far from the bus, though. We’ve learned better.
‘Up there,’ says Wanda, pointing, and there’s a boulder a bit further up the beach. We look at each other and shrug, because there’s not much else here, and we head for the boulder. Once we’re there we use it as shelter, although I keep an eye on the bus.
‘Now what?’ says DA.
‘Now what what?’ Wanda snaps. She gets cranky when she’s cold.
‘What can we look at here?’ DA says patiently. ‘In case she follows us and wants to know what we’ve found.’
‘We’ve found shelter,’ Carlos says, ‘that’s the most important thing. We can tell her we’re looking at what’s in the beach sand or something.’
‘Sand fleas, probably,’ I say. Wanda scowls and stands up again.
‘My hands are going numb,’ she mutters, pulling her sleeves down over them.
‘At my old school we never got frostbite,’ Phoebe sniffs, and I don’t even bother to answer that. You deal with passive aggression by ignoring it.
‘Come on, Wan,’ Keesha says, standing up too. ‘Let’s keep walking, we’ll keep warmer that way. We should find something interesting somewhere around here.’
‘Like what?’ says DA, and I have to agree with her.
‘I don’t know,’ Keesha says in annoyance. ‘Animals, skeletons, bits of seaweed, something?’ She makes a gesture to include everything around us. ‘Maybe birds roost in the cliffs, and we can look at their nests.’
‘I haven’t seen any birds,’ DA says doubtfully.
‘Have you been looking?’
‘I have,’ Ralphie says, ‘and there aren’t any. No birds flying, none on the beach, and no nests. There aren’t any animals here. They’ve all gone, and they’ve left their environment empty.’ I think of the empty landscape, and shiver a little.
‘You don’t know that,’ Keesha snaps. She looks at me. ‘Want to go find something interesting, Arn?’
‘Something must have made them leave,’ Ralphie mutters.
I get up to get away from his stupid conspiracy theories and we decide to go a bit further inland. We walk up to the top of a hill and there’s more water on the other side of it. We make our way down, looking for nests in the rocks, but there’s nothing there. There are some old bits of feathers and bird shit, so they must have been here before, but they’ve all gone now. ‘This is weird,’ Keesha says, ‘I thought we came here to look at the animals and their babies before they migrate.’
I decide not to ask why we ended up on a bit of tundra with no animals and no signs of life. Some things are just tempting fate.
‘Hey, guys!’ Wanda’s right down by the water, perched on a rock about two metres above the surface, and she’s leaning pretty far out over it.
‘What’s down there?’ Keesha calls to her. Then ‘Hey, Wan, be careful!’ as she leans out even further. We start scrambling down towards her, but it’s slow going because the rocks are slippery with moss and seaweed as we get lower, and you don’t want to twist an ankle on one of these trips. Keesha gets to Wanda before me and grabs her arm, which I don’t think is such a good idea because if she surprised her and they both fell in I’m not sure if I could get them out.
‘Thought I saw something in the water,’ Wanda says to explain. ‘Fish, or seaweed, or something,’ and there’s a look in her eyes that freaks me out a little, because normally she’s so practical. She’s looking like Ralphie when he’s got one of his strange ideas, and Keesha’s got the same annoyed look on her face when she has to deal with him.
I look into the water. It’s dark and reminds me of stories about swamp monsters, and there’s no way to tell how deep it is. Could be a couple of inches, could be all the way to the ocean floor. Looks freezing though, and I don’t know how any fish could live in it, or how Wanda could see them.
Maybe she’s seeing things. I read up a bit about hypothermia before our field trip, because I’m paranoid like that, and I think you get hallucinations before it starts getting really bad. She hasn’t said anything about her hands for a while either, which isn’t like Wanda. She hates being cold.
‘How are your hands?’ I ask her.
‘They’re fine,’ she says, looking puzzled. I grab one of her arms anyway and check her hand. It’s really cold, and the ends of her fingers are turning purple. Wanda peers at them and wiggles them. ‘I can’t feel them,’ she says.
‘That looks bad,’ Keesha says.
‘Let’s get back to the bus,’ I say. ‘Come on, Wan, there’s nothing down there. Keep your hands in your pockets.’
We start up the hill again, heading along it a bit to where the bus should be (should being the operative word here). Wanda goes first, then I’m in the middle keeping an eye on her, and Keesha’s at the back. We’re about halfway up the hill when I hear Keesha yell in pain and there’s the sound of rocks tumbling loose. Wanda and I turn around and Keesha’s lying sprawled on the ground with her right leg underneath her, muttering things that I can’t quite hear. For all we’ve gone through on these trips and for all Wanda and I swear, I’ve never heard Keesha say anything you couldn’t put in a kid’s tv show.
I start down the hill again. ‘You okay?’
‘Ankle hurts,’ she grunts, and I help her get up. ‘Don’t think it’s sprained, but I must’ve twisted it– son of a bitch,’ she hisses as she puts weight on it, and I guess you learn something new on every field trip. In this case, that Keesha actually swears.
‘Can you walk?’
‘Probably.’ She takes a few careful steps, wincing as her ankle slides over the loose rocks. ‘Should be okay once we get back on the beach with the hard-packed sand.’ We climb, slowly, back up to Wanda, who hasn’t moved. I’m glad she hasn’t gone off on her own with her hands like that, but she needs a bit of prodding to get going again. Wanda ends up leading again with Keesha leaning on her for support, and it’s slow going but at least we’re getting somewhere. I’m behind them and my back feels very unprotected, but I don’t look behind me until we get onto the beach again and out of sight of the water on the other side.
Because I was at least twenty metres away, and I was mainly looking at Keesha, but when she fell over and I turned around I swear I saw ripples forming in that black water, where it’s too sheltered for the wind to stir it up.
We meet up with DA, Phoebe, Ralphie and Carlos on the beach again. Surprise surprise, they still haven’t found anything interesting. ‘Ooh, spooky,’ Carlos says when Wanda tells them about the water. ‘Do you think Jaws lives down there?’
‘Jaws is a Great White Shark,’ DA says impatiently, ‘The water wouldn’t be deep enough for him here.’
‘I couldn’t tell how deep it was,’ Wanda says dreamily, ‘it might have gone on forever.’
‘Or something else lives down there,’ Ralphie says, and I’m really sick of hearing monster stories, especially when Wanda’s in this weird mood.
‘We should get back to the bus,’ I say impatiently. ‘Wanda’s getting hypothermia and Keesha’s got a bad ankle. Maybe the Friz has found something somewhere else.’
That’s her cue to start calling us in, and we start trudging back to the bus as fast as Keesha’s ankle will let us. There are still other kids further out so they’ll get to the bus later than us, but nobody wants to be the last back.
Ms Frizzle’s standing on top of a little rise, waiting for us. ‘Did you have fun? Did you find anything?’
‘We didn’t find much,’ DA says, carefully avoiding answering the first question.
‘We found a black pool on the other side of the ridge,’ says Wanda, pointing. ‘I thought I saw something in it.’
‘How interesting!’ Ms Frizzle says. ‘I’ve heard some Qalupalik live around here. Maybe you found one of their homes. What a pity it didn’t come out where we could all see it!’ and she sounds genuinely disappointed.
‘What’s a Qalupalik?’ Wanda asks.
‘I’ll tell you later,’ I mutter and make sure she’s headed for the bus. It’s warm in there, and I want to be a long way from here before I tell her about Inuit monsters who eat children.
There’s a weird humming noise, and suddenly a long craa-aaaa-aack. The bus is parked on an ice sheet, which is meant to be thick and stable but is apparently melting faster than the climatologists thought. (And, for the record, don’t mention climate change skeptics in our class unless you want to hear all of the words we’re not meant to know, along with a full rebuttal of all their arguments.) There’s a long crack in the ice opening now, and something is pushing under it because ice shards are sent flying out into the sky, and something clambers out of the sea and onto the ice.
‘Ms Frizzle,’ I say, trying to stop my voice shaking, ‘Is that a Qalupalik?’ Because I read up on them, sure, but I never found any pictures.
‘Why, Arnold, certainly not!’ she says, not taking her eyes off the thing. It’s sort of grey-white with dark mottled patches, and there are a lot of fins and teeth, and I don’t want to get a closer look. ‘Qalupalik look mostly like humans, except they have long hair and green skin and long nails for catching their prey. This is a Wentshukumishiteu,’ (and I’m impressed, even in this mess, that she can pronounce that word). ‘It lives under the ice and eats human flesh, when it can find it. I’ve never seen a live one before!’ and she looks so happy, so delighted to see this sea monster the size of our bus not far from our bus that I don’t say anything else.
Instead I begin to move slowly and carefully towards the bus, because I heard her saying it ate human flesh loud and clear.
It turns towards us and I start running, and I may not be the best in gym class but the point isn’t to run fast – it’s to run faster than someone else. Someone screams and I turn around without stopping, because if the Friz gets eaten we’re going to have to learn how to drive awful quick.
The Friz is fine, watching the thing in fascination. It’s Phoebe screaming instead as the monster grabs her in one limb-tentacle-thing, and her blood is the most colourful thing in the whole environment. Ralphie’s fallen over and the monster is getting closer to him, and DA looks like she wants to help him but Carlos is pulling her away, back towards the bus. This is our rule: you don’t ever go back to help someone else, in case you don’t come back at all. Not the Friz, not for other people in the class, not even for anyone else in the group. (Sorry, Tim, if you ever read this, but rules are rules.)
The Went-something is keeping busy with Ralphie bleeding out onto the ice, now, and Phoebe is still screaming, possibly something about never being eaten by an Inuit monster at her old school. Carlos and DA streak past me and climb into the bus, and I’m close myself before I remember Keesha. I haven’t heard her mutter swear words under her breath for a while, and when I look around she’s closer to the monster than to the bus.
She’s making an effort and her face looks grim and she’s very carefully not looking behind her. The Friz is standing transfixed, staring up at the monster delightedly as another two of her students get torn apart by the fins, which are apparently sharp enough to cut through bone. It might go after her first and Keesha might make it to the bus.
Because I don’t trust mights and maybes and chances in general, I break our group’s most important rule and start back towards Keesha.
She sees me coming and she looks confused, then she gets angry as she understands and she starts yelling at me to get to the bus, which isn’t helpful when the monster could hear her. I get to her and start pulling her as we run, and she swears every time her hurt ankle hits the ground, so it’s like running with a soundtrack of ‘ow-shit-ow-damn-ow-fuck-ow’ and, further behind us, some horrible wet sounds that I’ve heard my dogs make when they eat. We don’t look back again.
We stumble back on the bus and the Friz is just behind us, having finally realised that a monster eating half her class is not a good thing and she should make sure it doesn’t get to the rest. (Or possibly she’s just bored of it all now. I hear teaching makes you mental.) She starts up the engine and we pull away from the ice sheet and its monster, trundling back along the rough track and finally onto the smooth road.
Wanda’s got her hands close to the radiator and she’s looking warmer, at least, although her face is still dreamy and weird. Liz blinks at us as we find our seats, and then goes back under the radiator where she’s been this whole trip. Sometimes I swear that lizard is the smartest animal in the class.
Carlos and DA and I look at each other and silently agree not to say anything when we get back to the classroom and there are a couple of empty desks. There’ll be more than a couple, actually: the bus is about three-quarters full. There were at least five kids further out than us, and I’m glad I don’t know their names. The Wentshu-thing must have got to some of them, and the Qalupalik to others, and there were a few that probably went out in the white ground and the white sky with their white coats and just… disappeared.
Keesha’s running her hands over her ankle. ‘How’s it feel?’ I ask.
She rolls her eyes. ‘I’ve got a twisted ankle and I ran on it, it feels amazing.’ She looks up and glares at me. ‘You broke our damn rule, Arn. Don’t do it again.’
I shrug. ‘Shouldn’t let the group get any smaller.’
‘Guess so,’ she sighs. ‘I might not be at school tomorrow, so I can rest this up. Probably needs some ice on it.’
‘Funny that,’ says Carlos, and no-one’s laughing. When Carlos stops punning, it must be really serious.
Those three are really down in the dumps about losing Phoebe and Ralphie, but to be honest I’m glad it’s those two that went and not somebody else. If I’m really honest, my first thought was well, that fucks up our lucky seven and my second thought was at least we don’t have to hear about Phoebe’s old school or Ralphie’s ghost theories any more (although the way Wanda’s looking, we might be hearing more of them yet). Probably this means I’m a bad person, but it doesn’t bother me that much these days.
And now we have a group of five. Good number. You can count it on one hand.
I take off my coat (which now has dirt and blood on it) and doze on the way home.
I wake up just as we pull in to school. I’ve trained myself to do this, and it’s not because I want to get out of there as soon as I can and race home to avoid talking about my day: the Friz has weird clothes, even magic you might say, and whatever she’s wearing now is a clue to where we’re going next. It doesn’t say when our next trip is, but I can generally suss out enough to make a quick trip to the library to read up and get prepared, as much as you can ever be prepared for these things. It happens at the end of every trip, and I’m surprised more kids haven’t noticed.
Now her dress is a strange grey colour, and I say grey because I don’t know what else to call it: it’s shifting and squamous and some parts grow dark as the places beyond the stars and writhe into terrible shapes, like runes of a mad, alien conscience lying dead in the sickly light of a blood-red moon.
‘Where are we going next, Ms Frizzle?’ I ask, because as disturbing as her dress is I don’t know what to look for to do research.
‘I’m thinking of a fascinating place,’ she says, and her eyes gleam and I wonder how I ever thought she could be sane, could be benign. ‘Some people call it R’lyeh.’
I smile weakly, hop off the bus, and race back to our classroom so I can grab my stuff and get out of there before I have to see her again. I don’t know what R’lyeh is but it sounds like something the library can’t help me with. It sounds far too old, and hidden for a good reason, and I definitely think it’s a bad idea to go on a field trip to a place like that.
I shudder as I walk home and swear that this time I really will stay at home tomorrow.