Runner up in the English Language and Literature Division Creative Writing Competition - Short Story.

“The school was built over a hundred years ago or something, so that’s why the building looks so—”

“What’s down there?” Alina pointed to a set of stairs at the edge of the building that led down to a rusty-looking metal door. There were metal bars closing off the stairs, which seemed odd to Alina. To keep people out? she thought. That wouldn’t work very well because people can just go over the bars.

“Oh, that?” Brett, the student assigned to give Alina a tour of the school, looked to the left and right before leaning closer to her. “That’s the dungeon. It’s where they keep the really bad students.”

Alina glanced at Brett’s letterman jacket and back up to his face, wondering if he fit the dumb jock stereotype. Schools most certainly do not have dungeons. How dumb does he think I am? She quirked an eyebrow at him.

“I get it. You don’t believe me. But let me ask you this, if they didn’t keep students locked up down there, then why the bars?” He pointed to the blocked stairs. “To keep students from asking too many questions. They say if you put your ear to the door, you can hear the distant screams of those who are imprisoned.” Brett stepped back from Alina and crossed his arms.

“You know, Brett,” she reached up and patted his shoulder, “you’ve been an excellent tour guide so far, but I think I can find Ag Bio from here. Thank you so much for your thrilling storytelling.” She skirted around Brett and rolled her eyes once she was behind him. Yeah, yeah, tease the new kid. I know how it goes.

“Ok,” Brett hollered after her. “But try not to stir up too much trouble. You wouldn’t want to experience what the dungeon has to offer!” Alina waved a hand in the air without looking back and kept walking until she reached Building B, which supposedly housed Room 103.

Crisp air conditioning greeted her face as she pulled the door open and students pushed past her as she searched for her classroom. When she found it, she surveyed the desks that weren’t occupied. Which desk will give me the least amount of trouble?

She avoided the desk next to a group of rowdy boys in letterman jackets and chose a seat next to a calmer-looking petite brunette. Her hair spiraled about her face, and a rolled-up bandana encircled her head.

Alina caught the girl’s eye and relaxed a little as the girl smiled warmly.

“Hey there! You must be new here. I’m Josie.” She stuck her hand out, and Alina shook it once as she sat down.

“How could you tell?”

“In a school of less than six hundred students, new faces stick out.”


“Who’d they wrangle into giving you a tour?”

“Brett something or other.” Alina pulled a notebook and pen out of her bag as Josie scrunched up her nose.

“Oh, girl, I feel for you. Did he give you that dumb spiel about the ‘dungeon’?” Josie made air quotes with her fingers.

“He did!”

“Brett fancies himself a master storyteller. He’s always trying to scare girls with his lame horror stories.”

“Like I would even believe that story. How dumb does he think I am?”

“As dumb as he is?” The girls locked eyes for a moment, then chuckled. Alina looked at Josie’s desk and noticed two books perched on the left side.

“Those aren’t for this class, are they? I thought we had only the one textbook.”

“Oh! We do.” Alina sighed in relief. “Those are personal books. I’m a bit of a bookworm.”

“So am I. Do you mind if I take a look?”

“Go right ahead.” Josie passed the stack to Alina, and she studied the books’ covers.

“These sound like my kind of books. Do you read a lot?”

“Oh, only every spare second that I have. Even my friends have to beg me to drag my nose out of a book. I can’t help it that fictional characters have way more interesting lives than I do.”

Alina laughed. “Right? I would kill to live in some of the book worlds that I’ve read about.”

“Me too! I want cool powers and a pet dragon, maybe a castle, who knows. The sky’s the limit when it comes to fictional worlds.”

The final bell rang, and the teacher began speaking as the chatter in the room died down. Alina faced the front of the classroom. I think maybe I just made a new friend? Not bad for my first day.

When the class ended, Alina began packing up her things but halted when she felt a hand on her arm. She looked up and saw Josie standing over her.

“Do you maybe want to join me and my friends for lunch? I think you’d like them.”

“Yeah, I would love that.” Alina slung her bag over her shoulder.

“Ok, I’m headed to PE next.” She made a face. “But my friends and I usually eat in the courtyard behind the main building. There’s a table with a big tree next to it. I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah. Thanks for the invite.” Josie smiled and left the classroom, and Alina headed in the direction of her Honors English class.

“Hey! Over here!” Alina swung her head to the left at the sound of Josie’s voice. She sat at a green picnic table and was waving her arms over her head. Alina waved back and headed for the table.

“Hey, Josie.” She let her bag slide off her arm and down to the ground as she sat next to a burly redhead, who scooted over to make room for her.

“Guys, this is Alina.” She pointed to the guy next to Alina. “This is King, Johnny, Suzanne, and Rachael. They’re all book nerds like me.”

Alina snuck a side glance at King but wasn’t quick enough.

“What, jock boys can’t like reading?”

Alina’s cheeks heated as she fished through her brain for a response. “Well, I…I wasn’t really…I didn’t say anything yet.”

“But you definitely thought it.”

Alina’s mouth flopped open, and she looked at King’s serious expression. A few seconds passed before he cracked a huge grin.

“I’m just messing with you.” Alina’s heart stopped trying to escape her chest and settled down. “I wasn’t really much of a reader until Josie kidnapped me and forced me into the group.” Johnny punched King’s arm. “What, bro? I didn’t say anything.” A silent look went between the two before King looked back to Alina, the grin still plastered to his face. But his eyes weren’t smiling this time.

“So, what books do you like to read?” Alina pivoted her head to Suzanne.

“Mostly fantasy. A little dystopian and horror mixed in there too.”

“Rad. I like horror and sci-fi. Maybe a little fantasy too. I mean, who doesn’t like dragons?”

“That’s what I said!” Josie piped in.

They all spent the rest of lunch discussing their favorite books and occasionally other pastimes. As Alina rode the school bus home that day, she couldn’t help but think about how lucky she had been to meet Josie and her friends.

When she got home, she dumped her shoes in the hall closet and trudged down the hall to her bedroom.

“Alina, is that you?” Her mom called from the kitchen.

“No, it’s a serial killer. I’m gonna go raid your jewelry box before coming back to murder you.” Alina opened the door to her bedroom and flung her backpack onto her bed. It made a weird clinking sound, and Alina furrowed her eyebrows.

“Glad to see you still possess a sense of humor. How was school?” Alina’s mom continued to shout down the hallway from the kitchen.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I met some cool people.” Alina shouted back. She unzipped the largest pouch of her backpack and stuck her arm all the way to the bottom, searching for the source of the metallic noise. Her fingers closed around something slender, almost like a pencil but heavier.

She pulled it out of her backpack and held it up to her face on her open palm. A…key? She squinted at the brassy skeleton key. A thin red ribbon tied a piece of paper to the key. She untied it and unfurled the paper. Scribbled on the paper was a note that read, “11:00 at the dungeon on Friday and don’t be late. You won’t regret it.”

Where on earth did this come from? Alina thought. Then her stomach flipped. Was it Brett? No, it couldn’t be. Would one of Josie’s friends have put this in my bag?

Alina thought for a moment. The note was handwritten. She just needed to find out whose handwriting matched the note.

The next day, Alina showed up early to Ag Bio, determined to cross Josie off her list of suspects…or to cross everyone else off the list. She tried hard to keep her facial expressions neutral when Josie walked into the room and sat next to her.

When class started, Alina glanced at Josie’s desk in anticipation. Josie plopped her notebook on the desk, opened it to a blank page, and began taking notes.

Alina gasped and quickly turned her head to the front of the classroom when Josie glanced at her. She was almost certain that Josie’s handwriting matched the writing on the note. But why would Josie give that note to me?

Alina remembered the odd exchange between King and Johnny. Maybe this has to do with what King said about joining Josie’s group.

Alina spent the rest of the week trying to decide whether to follow the note’s instructions. She really liked Josie and her friends, and she didn’t sense anything sinister about them. My mom did tell me to branch out and try new things.

At 10:50 on Friday night, Alina found herself standing behind the metal railings that closed off the stairs to the dungeon. Here goes nothing. She climbed the railing and descended the stairs.

When she reached the door, her heart pounded as she slowly placed her ear against the door, listening for the presence of screaming students that Brett had talked about.

The door swung inward, and Alina gasped as she flailed her arms to keep from falling.

“Boo!” King yelled as he steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. “Welcome to…the dungeon.” King wiggled his fingers at Alina. “Come on in. You’ll like this.

Alina took slow steps into the room, her heart still using morse code to spell out danger. Farther into the room was a circle of chairs lit by dozens of candles and a few lanterns. Josie, Rachael, Johnny, and Suzanne occupied the chairs, and they all had books in their laps. This is a…book club?

“Hey, Alina! You made it!” Josie stood from her chair and went over to hug Alina. “Sorry for the spookiness. It’s kind of tradition.” Josie chuckled as she pulled Alina towards the circle. “This is the nerd brigade. We meet every Friday to talk about books and whatnot. You want to join the gang, right?” Josie wrung her hands in front of her.

Alina debated for a moment, looking at all their expectant faces.

“Well, I do really like books. But don’t ever do something as creepy as all that to me again.” She gestured towards the door.

“Deal.” Josie nodded her head.

“You’ve made a wise choice.” Johnny dipped his head in respect.

“Okay, okay. Everyone be quiet. I have some intense emotions to share about the latest book I’ve read.” Rachael stood up from her chair.

“Right on. Let it out, Sister.” Suzanne said.

These guys are kind of weird. But I think I’m going to like them a lot.