CLOCKWORK STORYBOOK: Daryl Gregory launches Harrison Squared

by

Daryl Gregory sent in an excerpt from his Clockwork Storybook 30 Day Writing Challenge, where readers are introduced to Harrison Squared and his first day of school.

Harrison Squared and the Deep Ones

The building was watching him. Harrison stood on the sidewalk, gazing up at it. It looked like a single gigantic block of dark stone, its surface wet and streaked with veins of white salt, as if it had just risen whole from the depths of the ocean. The huge front door gaped like a wailing mouth. Above, a pair of arched windows glared down at him.

The sign out front said THE ARKHAM MIDDLE SCHOOL FOR ABSOLUTELY NORMAL CHILDREN.

Harrison Harrison shook his head, and turned to his parents. “I’m not going in there,” he said. “That’s not a school, that’s a…” He didn’t know what it was. A mausoleum, maybe. An old church. Something they forgot to tear down, but instead said, Hey, let’s put kids in there.

Except, where were the kids? Nobody was outside. He could hear a distant murmuring, or perhaps a chant. Maybe they were saying the pledge of allegiance. His first day at the new school and he was already late.

“It’s just a little old,” Mom said.

“It ought to be condemned,” Harrison said.

“Please, kiddo,” Mom said. “Give it a try.”

Give it a try. That’s what she said when she told him they were moving away from San Diego, California to Innsmouth, Massachusetts. That’s what she said when they first drove into town, past gray dirty storefronts and weather-beaten buildings, and showed him the rickety old house they would be renting. All so Mom could write her book on Rhincodon maximus, which was a kind of whale shark that may not even exist. Only five people had ever seen one, and they were all fishermen who were dead now. Mom was an ichthyologist, a fish scientist, which meant that she had a license to ruin her child’s life if something with fins needed her attention.

Mom tried to smile, but he could see how anxious she was. She had chartered a fishing boat which was waiting to take her out into the bay where she could set out her equipment. But she was feeling guilty about leaving him, which made Harrison feel guilty. How was that fair?
“Fine,” he said. He picked up his backpack.

“Thanks, H2,” she said. That was her nickname for him. Harrison Squared. “I talked to the principal, Mr. Montooth, and he said just to check in at the main office. I’ve got to run. Are you all set?”
“If I don’t come back,” Harrison said, “Send reinforcements.”
She laughed and kissed the top of his head. Then she hopped into their ancient pickup and lurched away from the curve, the engine rattling. She threw out a hand, waving to him as she drove away.
Harrison thought about ditching school. But where would he go, and what would he do? Their rental house didn’t even have a TV. He shouldered his pack, then walked up the steps and into the first day of sixth grade.
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Harrison pushed on the big wooden door, and it swung open on squealing hinges. The large room beyond was a kind of atrium, the high ceiling supported with buttresses like the ribs of a huge animal. The only light came from globes of yellow glass that hung down out of the dark on thin wires. The wooden floorboards were so dark they seemed to absorb the light.

Corridors ran off in three directions. He stopped, listening. There was no sound except for a faint tapping ahead of him. It was the quietest school he’d ever been in. And the coldest. The air seemed wetter and more frigid inside than out.

A light glowed ahead. It was the frosted glass of a door, and the sound came from that direction. He walked toward the door, then noticed something on the floor. It was a faded, scuffed painting of a thin shark, flexing as if it were leaping out of the water. Below it were the words GO THRESHERS.

Harrison’s first picture books were of tiger sharks, blue whales, and giant squids. His bedtime stories were about the hunting habits of deep sea predators. Threshers were small sharks that swam in large schools and ate anything in their path. Fishermen considered them pests. He wondered if the Arkham Middle School cheerleaders knew that.

He reached the door. Stenciled on it was OFFICE OF THE PRINCIPAL. The sound was louder now, no longer a tap, but a forceful whapping noise that came at irregular intervals. It came from just behind the door.

He pushed open the door.

The office was brightly lit, with cheery yellow walls. Two large bulletin boards were crammed with tattered notices and bits of paper that looked like they hadn’t been changed in years. At one end of the room was a large desk, and behind that, a woman wearing a pile brilliant platinum hair.
She was the largest person he had ever seen.

She was vast, almost as wide as the desk. Her huge pale head seemed to grow out of the top of her floral print dress like a poisonous mushroom, with yogurt white skin spotted with vivid red: bright lipstick, obviously-artificial blush at her cheeks. Her fat arms, almost as thick as they were long, thrashed in the air. She held a fly swatter in each hand, and seemed to be doing battle with a swarm of invisible insects.

“Shut the door!” she yelled without looking at him. “You’re letting them in!” Then thwack! She brought a swatter down on the desk.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m looking for Principal––”

“Ha!” She slapped her own arm. Her platinum hair shifted half an inch out of kilter. She blew at the point of impact, a faint pink waffle created by the swatter, and sat back in satisfaction. Harrison still could not see any bugs. The air smelled of thick floral perfume.

Her gaze turned to him. “Who are you?”

“I’m Harrison Harrison,” he said.

She stared at him with large black eyes. Her eyelashes were enormous.

“I’m new,” he said.

“Oh, I can see that,” she said. “Did you bring your transcripts? Test scores? Visas? Residency papers?”

Harrison blinked.

“Any documentation at all?”

His Mom didn’t mention anything about papers. But that would be like her. She became absent-minded professor when she was in pursuit of a new fish.

“She told me I was to talk to Principal Montooth,” he said.

He stepped closer, and walked into the cloud of perfume that surrounded her. The smell was dense as swamp orchids. He started to sneeze, and lifted his elbow to his nose.

The woman glared at him. “Nobody sees the principal without an appointment. You’re what, eight years old?”

“I’m twelve!”

“Go to Mrs. Delph’s class then. She’s got an empty desk.”

“But where is—”

“Room 212. Off you go.”

He left the office. She yelled at him to close the door tightly behind him.