I was right to be fearful of after-school detention. But clearly not enough, for that is where I found myself on one dark and stormy Tuesday afternoon.
“This is about more than just survival, Mr. Sullivan.” It was Mrs. Croombe, her hands curling like talons around my shoulders. In her clipped, hag’s voice she snarled, “It’s a matter of wit, and ingenuity.”
But I didn’t care about any of those three things. I was cold, and hungry, and I just wanted to go back to my home where I could sit down and eat my mother’s homemade tuna casserole. I would toss my fattest, mushiest peas at my sister Clarice, and feed the rest to Skipper: the dalmation beneath the table, all while my father’s head was turned.
But Clarice, that crybaby, cried too hard after I’d pushed her off a sidewalk one morning. It had only been a little bit of fun. She already knew the sorts of practical jokes I liked to pull on her. But this time, the tears didn’t end. When we got home, Mother and Father noticed her tears near instantly, and soon enough I found myself within the clutches of Mrs. Croombe’s spindly claws.
Mrs. Croombe’s Behavioral Correction School was not much more than a single, overly furnished living room. It was the sort of room that seemed dressed up to look like an antique itself, with tall ceilings, dark wooden furnishings, and plush velvet fabrics draped across every surface. But the cherry on top was Mrs. Croombe herself.
She stood towering above my head, the tallest lady I had ever encountered. Her hair was a crisp steel grey, pulled tight into a hard little ball at the base of her skull. The hairstyle seemed to strain her face, pulling her cheekbones into jutting spikes, and raising her eyebrows into an ever-present face of disdain.
With a clawed finger she pointed, first to a kerosene lamp, then a weathered candle, and finally the fireplace— a gaping black hole in the center of the wall. None were lit, and in fact, the only source of light came from the setting sun in the curtained window.
Towards me she holds up a small matchbox, and a lighter. I had never used a lighter before, so I took the box.
“You may light one tonight, Mr. Sullivan. That will be your light, and your warmth until the sun’s rise.” I was in for a fitful sleep no matter what, but my eyes slid to the fireplace.
Kneeling before it, I could see that wood logs had already been prepared inside, and another pile sat patiently awaiting its turn in the corner. Bowing into the dark enclave, I struck a match once, twice, thrice— a spark, and finally, a flame on the fourth. Victorious, I lowered it to the logs.
“Stop right there. That’s quite enough. You’ve made your choice, Mr. Sullivan.” Mrs. Croombe cackles. “You may only light the one.” She began pulling the logs from the fireplace. I could only stare, still holding my dwindling lit match, as she managed to get them all piled up before promptly walking out of the room.
She shut the door behind her, and I heard the sound of a lock as it clicked shut on the other side.