It was 8:58 PM.
He had just finished locking up the school when he heard the scream.
For a moment he stood there in the chilly air, fingers still gripping the key, eyes wide. The sound had definitely come from within the school, even though he had not seen a single soul during his shift.
He was specifically forbidden from staying in the building past 9 PM. “Nobody can be in there, including you,” the principal had ordered, and refused to clarify further. He hadn’t complained at the time (all it meant was a shorter shift, which was fine by him), but now, as the scream abruptly cut short—
He cursed and fumbled to unlock the door. The key dropped to the floor in his haste. He ignored it and ran in— he’d pick it up later, the door was unlocked anyway, but right now someone needed help.
“Hello?!” His voice echoed through the dark room. Behind him he could hear the door swing shut. Somehow the school looked different in the shadows, like the walls had shifted around in the darkness.
“This is Security! I’m here to help!”
No response. That was bad. If the person was unconscious, they might need medical attention. He grit his teeth and took off down the left corridor, hoping desperately that it was the right path. The piano melody from the art display echoed through the air— wait.
This area wasn’t anywhere near the display.
He flung open the door to the Piano Department and sighed in relief when he saw a distinctly not-unconscious girl on the piano bench, her fingers dancing over the keys.
“Miss, were you the one screaming? The school’s closed now,” he called out.
The music stopped.
The girl turned around, letting out a slight gasp at the sight of him. She was pale, he noted, her hair covering darkened eye-sockets that spoke of insomnia.
“It’s past 9 PM,” she murmured, soft and fearful. “You shouldn’t be here. You have to leave. This place is cursed.”
“I wouldn’t quite say that,” he said wryly. “You’re right though, we should leave. I know you must be proud of your song winning the exhibition, but you can play it tomorrow.”
The girl froze.
He dove out the corridor, falling to the floor as a grand piano crashed into the doorframe a mere second later. As soon as the piano bounced back, he slammed the door shut. He wasn't about find out whether the pianos would learn to fit themselves through sideways.
The air was finally silent, no piano melodies or strangled notes whatsoever, and for a moment he just let himself breathe.
Footsteps echoed in front of him and he tensed, looking up.
Another girl stood in front of him, peering down through reddish-brown hair and dark-rimmed glasses. He relaxed slightly at her appearance— her eyes looked normal, at least— but kept a hand on his baton. The girl didn’t seem to notice.
“Are you a student?” he asked.
The girl looked him over rather thoroughly. He didn’t blame her, not after his previous encounter. After all, the piano player had seemed normal at the beginning too.
“I’m part of the Traditional Arts Department,” she said at last. “Who are you?”
“I’m a security guard,” he said. “Listen, this place—”
“—is cursed,” she finished easily, and he strangled back a laugh as the impossibility of it all caught up to him. “I know. How’d you get here?”
He explained the scream, and the ghost, and the pianos. She listened quietly throughout the whole thing.
"I don't think that was a human scream," she said at the end of it all, and he grimaced as he realized it was probably true. "I didn’t see any other people— not humans, anyway. It's best to just leave."
"Why are you here?" he asked.
It would explain how he hadn't seen her come in. He nodded.
"What's your name?"
"Anonymous," she said flatly.
He snorted. "Alright, you don't have to tell me if you don't want to, but I'm not calling you that."
"How about Ann? Like a nickname for Anonymous."
Silence, for a moment. Then—
“Fine,” she said slowly. “Call me Ann. What’s your name?”
Two could play that game. “If you’re Anonymous, then I’m Security,” he joked, and was disappointed when Ann merely accepted it with a nod.
“Alright, Security. Which way did you come in from?”
He slammed against the main entrance doors, scowling when it refused to open.
“I left it unlocked,” he said frustratedly. "I swear I did!” He kicked it spitefully one last time. The door did not budge.
“I could try,” Ann offered.
He sighed. “Don’t bother.” If he couldn’t get the door to open, he doubted Ann would either. “There are fire exits. I have all the keys to the school, we shouldn’t have trouble accessing them.” He scowled through the door. “Well, all the keys except this one.”
Damn it, the key was probably lying just beyond the threshold. He couldn't believe his awful luck.
“The rooms got scrambled from the curse,” Ann muttered. “I didn’t see any fire exits anywhere.”
“I’m sure there’s one somewhere,” he said, aiming for reassurance. Ann had seemed calm so far, but he was starting to suspect that was simply her default expression; he had yet to see any other emotion on her face. “If not, I think the janitor’s closet has an extra set of keys.”
The left side led to the Piano Department and he’d already seen that, so the right corridor it was. “Come on,” he said, gesturing for her to follow.
Ann didn’t move.
She must have seen something if she’d already known about the curse, he realized. That sort of thing would have an effect on anyone. At least he’d been trained to deal with threats; Ann was only a student.
“Hey.” He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “I’ll get us out of here, I promise. Look, what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?”
The unexpected question made her startle.
“I... I don’t know. I’ve never had ice cream before.”
“What!?” he exclaimed in disbelief. “Oh man, you’re missing out! There’s this great ice cream parlor a couple streets down the block. I was going to offer to buy you whatever flavor you wanted when we got out— but. Hmm. Since you don’t have one yet, I guess you can try my favorite.”
“...What’s your favorite?” Ann asked.
“Moose tracks— it's vanilla with fudge and mini peanut butter cups."
Ann’s eyes widened minutely.
"Is it good?”
“You'll find out once we escape, won't you?”
A tiny, wistful smile broke out on Ann's face, like sunlight peeking out from behind a cloud.
“Good,” he said. He'd only intended to lighten the mood a bit, but he realized he was smiling back, wide and instinctual. “Now let’s find an exit, shall we?”
The statues moved.
He dragged Ann back as another chess-piece-shaped statue (a bishop? a pawn?) slid by them. The only path out of the Department was blocked by a pile of shattered ceramic that shouted whenever he so much as tried to step over it.
"Leave me alone, you idiotic, smelly, ugly, imbecilic moron—"
"You're blocking the entire corridor! What do you expect us to do, just teleport past?" he hissed back.
"Tough luck, I'm not budging!"
Ann spoke up suddenly. "Is there anything you want in exchange for moving aside?"
He quickly caught on. "Yeah, we can fix you up, I'm sure you want to not be split into a bajillion pieces—"
"No! Shut up! LEAVE ME ALONE!" the statue screamed. And apparently he was on a streak for saying all the wrong things to provoke cursed spirits today, because suddenly the pieces floated up and assembled into the vague, spikey image of a person, so he grabbed Ann's hand and ran.
"The statue just wanted to be left alone," Ann said in the Fashion Department as they rested.
He looked at Ann. She'd recovered remarkably quickly from their suicide sprint, so much so that he wondered if she was part of the school track team. It was a little embarrassing, having his breaths still ragged at the edges while Ann's were perfectly even.
"Do you feel guilty?" he asked, and watched as Ann's face twisted in contemplation.
"...I think so. We bothered it."
"I bothered the statue, not you," he said. "It called me ugly and smelly and a moron, so I think it had it coming."
He smiled at Ann's small, stifled giggle. "Besides, we're past it now. It can go back to being a grumpy pile of shards on the floor in peace."
Breath finally calm, he looked around at the mannequins and clothing.
"I've never had any problems with mannequins," he said. "Though they seem like they could pose an issue, here. I guess at least if they try to take us out, they'll do so with style. The students are very talented, don't you think? That coat looks very nice."
Ann blinked. "I— yeah. They're very pretty." she said. "I… I like the scarf."
He nodded. "It's a good color, isn't it? The warm grey makes it look very soft."
Ann's eyes shifted from the scarf to him and back again. And then, in a barely audible voice:
"Blue would be better."
The bodiless mannequin cackled, black wiry limbs creeping over the floor like feelers. Tensing, he stepped in front of Ann to guard against the threat, hand ready on his baton.
Ann slipped back in front of him, an uncharacteristic glower on her face.
"Charles," she said tersely.
"Why, hello again, Anonymous girl!" Charles gave a toothless grin. "I see you've brought someone to play with!"
It was then that he intervened, reclaiming the space between Charles and Ann.
"Nobody's 'playing' with anyone," he snapped. "Leave Ann alone."
Charles paused, looking caught off guard, then broke into hysterics. "Oh, well done Anonymous! Or should I say, Ann?"
"That's none of your business," Ann said, voice as brittle and cold as ice. "Let us leave."
"I suppose I shall," said Charles breezily. "But first— let's play a game, shall we?"
"How did you know him?" he asked later, after he and Ann had managed to dodge all the mannequins in their twisted game of hide-and-seek. The corridors were mostly empty now; nothing but blank walls, small security gates (that he easily bypassed with a card swipe) and the occasional art piece. "Charles, I mean."
"Charles found me as soon as I poked my head through the Fashion Department door and demanded to play," Ann said.
"No. I closed the door and left."
"Good," he said emphatically. The mere idea of Charles getting his nonexistent hands on Ann made his hackles rise.
The metal door loomed at the end of the hallway with a sense of finality.
A video file sat innocently on the desktop of the principal's computer. He clicked it open.
He felt sick.
The locker swung open as he wrenched the master key back out of the lock, showing the remains of a girl who had never been laid to rest; an infuriated scream split the air—
"Run!" Ann shouted as he stared at the ghost of Hana scurrying toward him, Exorcist-style. Ann pushed him forward and suddenly he was sprinting, Ann a half-pace behind him and Hana not too far behind.
Down the corridor to the left, shove over the statues, dodge the mannequins, avoid the spreading cracks on the floor— there! Up ahead the main entrance neared, doors still closed and locked.
He fumbled for the master key—
He hadn't paid enough attention to the floor. A hole suddenly sent him sprawling to the ground, keys dropping through the floorboards.
His heart stopped.
Behind him, Ann yelped as Hana finally caught up, penning them into a dead end.
He leapt in front of Ann without a second thought.
"I dropped the keys!" he yelled. "Go get them, I'll fight Hana off!"
"Are you crazy?!" Ann cried, but it was his bloody fault the keys were gone and it was his job to guard, and damn it, he would get Ann out if it was the last thing he did. Hana screeched, face dripping black blood, bolting towards him. He steeled himself and raised his baton—
A weight collided into his side, shoving him out of the way.
The last thing he caught sight of before his head hit the floor was Ann, running at Hana's ghost with her fists raised— Ann, who was a head shorter than him and dressed in a faded pink hoodie, who was running into danger alone, who he couldn't protect—
He lifted his head, the world reduced to a murky mess of cotton and static. The vague form of a body lay ahead of him.
He dragged himself over, checked her breathing. She was alive. She was alive and Hana was gone.
A thought surfaced in his mind.
Find the key.
The key. It had fallen through the hole, through the floor. The floor-hole. So it was downstairs.
He looked to the left, where the stairs usually were. There was nothing but an empty wall.
Where were the stairs?
He pushed himself into a crouch, then a kneel, then an upright stance.
Stairs. He had to find the stairs.
The department doors were not stairs. Neither was the art exhibition, though he was pleased to find it— he'd never been able to see the second half of it. Too far from his station.
Then his eyes landed on the Traditional Arts piece—
—and suddenly he was wide awake.
Footsteps echoed behind him.
Ann stared back at him. The master key was clutched in her fingers.
"Ann," he whispered.
She looked at the empty frame. Her lips twitched as she traced the letters on the plaque.
"You found me."
To be unknown, unidentified, unnamed. Lacking distinction.
(To be nobody. To be nothing.)
She didn't know who her model was. Her creator didn't, either. There was nothing to be found there.
She had floated through the school, detached and drifting, barely acknowledged by the rest of the building's residents.
(How about Ann?)
She had a name. Ann. He had given it to her, had talked to her and listened to her responses. He'd called himself Security as a joke, but his suggestion of Ann had been earnest and kind and just for her.
Ann had an identity. Ann was an individual. Ann got to pick things she liked (the scarf looked so warm and fuzzy on the mannequin) and what colors were her favorite (blue, Security's shirt is blue and his tie is blue and I heard once that the sky is blue at day) and what she wished for (go to the ice cream parlor he'd promised and let the ice cream and fudge drip down her chin), just like real people.
Ann got to choose.
She so desperately wanted to be Ann.
She'd been ordered to take in any humans. The whole school had. Hana had commanded it, but—
Ann didn't want that.
He'd made her smile. He'd made her happy. He'd made her Ann.
Ann was an individual. Individuals got to choose.
Hana came after them, screaming and scuttling, heading straight for Security, her name-giver, her friend—
He hugged her. It was the only response he could think of.
"I didn't make you become anything," he said fiercely, and it was important that Ann got this, that she understood. "Ann is all you. You were always you. It just took a while to figure it out, that's all."
Ann's arms trembled as she returned the hug and pressed her face into his shoulder. Warm tears dampened the fabric of his jacket. He tightened his embrace.
He couldn't believe how nobody had noticed the person in their midst, not when she was so painfully alive.
"I want this all to stop," Ann whispered, voice muffled from his jacket. "I want you to go home. I want everyone to be safe. I want Hana to find peace."
He paused as something occurred to him.
The principal. Everything hinged on the principal.
"I might have an idea for that," he said, and cast a final glance at the painting Ann had come from, the painting whose limits that she had outstripped long ago. "But first… here."
He had a sharpie clipped onto his pocket. He tugged it free and held it out to Ann, a silent offer.
It was her choice to make. It would always be. He'd make sure of that.
Ann took it, a little questioningly. Then her gaze snapped to the painting, and he knew she understood. She uncapped the sharpie without hesitation. It took a few strokes for any marks to show up— the marker was drying out; he was overdue for a new one— but in the end the plaque read:
Ann grinned. She turned back to him.
"Let's take a look at your plan."
"Anonymous!" Piano girl— no, Myra, Ann had called her Myra— exclaimed. Next to her, Charles scowled at the sight of them. "You have to hand the human over! Hana is going to kill us all!"
Ann shook her head, eyes shining under her glasses like burning stars.
"My name is Ann," she said firmly. "And he has a way to free us all."
"Why the fuck did I hire you if you're just going to disobey orders?!" the principal roared, surprisingly articulate for being woken up at 3 AM. "Maybe you deserve to get fucking cursed!"
Before he could retort, Ann snatched the receiver from his hand.
"It's not his fault!" she snapped. "He heard screaming! He wanted to help!"
"Who are you?" the principal said. "Shit, is there a student with you, Security Guard?"
He didn't have a chance to elaborate before the principal devolved into a stream of curses.
"Fuck! Just stay where you are. I'll be there!"
And with a click, the call was over.
Ann stared at the phone quizzically.
"I was mad that he bad-mouthed you," she said. "I didn't think he'd mistake me as a student."
He set the receiver back into its cradle. "Well, you're here in this school, aren't you? I'd say you count as an honorary student."
Ann thought for a moment.
"I think I would go into digital art, if I was," she mused. "All this technology— the computers and that video file-thing and even this phone— it's really interesting."
He nudged her. "There you go, then. Ann, honorary student of the Digital Arts Department."
A smile grew over Ann's face. "I like it."
After that, all the pieces clicked into place, loose ends wrapping up so quickly it made his head spin.
Hana had fulfilled her revenge and vanished, the principal finally getting his comeuppance.
Myra Hess and Charles Worth were back to normal. (He'd let out a startled laugh as Charles reverted back to his human form and had immediately gotten an earful for it.) They staged a quick exit, eager to return home.
That just left him and Ann.
He stared at the main entrance. Ann had handed him the master key as soon as Hana had left. It sat in his hand, feeling heavier than it ought to be.
He slid it into the lock.
The doors opened easily, as if they'd never been locked in the first place.
"What happens once I leave?" he asked.
Ann shrugged. "The curse is gone. The building will return to normal. Everything will."
"I'll turn back into a painting," she confirmed, smiling softly. "It's what I am, Security. That's all there is to it."
It wasn't a surprise. Somewhere, deep inside, he thought he'd known it all along.
It still made his heart twist.
"I shouldn't have done it," he murmured, feeling hollow. "I should have just left, let things stay as they were—"
"No," she said, adamant and unyielding. "I want this, Security. I chose it."
He swallowed. "Alexander.” People rarely called him by his name these days; usually it was 'Security Guard this' and 'Security Guard that'— but Ann deserved to know. "My name's Alexander. Not Security."
"Alexander, thank you. For everything."
The school shuddered. Bits of plaster rained down from the rafters.
"You have to leave now," said Ann, pressing something into his palm. "Go! I'll be fine!"
He couldn't help himself from lingering, trying to take in every detail of her face.
"I won't forget you!" he yelled over the rumbling of the school.
"I'll be on the second floor of the art exhibit!" Ann yelled back. "Visit, okay? And go to the ice cream parlor for me!"
He opened his mouth to respond, but the school was glowing white, scorching his retinas until it shone like the surface of the sun. He felt a shove push him out the doors—
It was 8:58 PM.
He had just finished locking up the school when he blinked. Suddenly two students were there, in the midst of a conversation.
The boy wearing a scarf jabbed a finger at him.
"See, he's the third person to come out! Hey, sir, do you remember anything before you walked out of the building?"
"Of course I do," he said, frowning, and raised the key ring in his hand. "I was just locking up the building when—"
He stopped. There was no key ring in his hand. Instead, clutched between his fingers was his fine tipped sharpie.
When had that gotten there? He slid it back into his pocket.
He squinted at the students again. There was something about their faces that rang a bell.
"Wait— are you the two students that went missing?"
The girl looked confused, but the boy's face brightened in recognition.
"He's right! You're— what, Mia? Mina? Mira?"
"Myra. Myra Hess."
"Whatever. Your posters were all over the bulletin boards!"
Myra looked confused. "What? But I was at school. All I did was fall asleep!"
Well. Who would have guessed that his shift would end with so much excitement?
"Alright. That's enough for me," he said. "I'm calling the police."
The next few days were hectic, to say the least. The police had many questions, and he had almost no answers to give. All he had was his testimony, unhelpful as it was. To him, Myra Hess and Charles Worth had simply popped up in front of the school, around 9 PM. He had no explanations for their sudden reappearance, nor the apparent timeskip that that happened— by the time he had called 911, it was 4 AM, and he could not for the life of him figure out where those seven missing hours went. It was baffling.
The principal had gone missing. In the wake of the principal's disappearance surfaced a wave of scandals that rocked the school. He was surprised that he was still hired, with all the chaos and turmoil that the administration was going through.
His sharpie had run out within the week. He bought a new one, but he couldn't bring himself to throw away the dead marker. He wasn't sure why.
The fourth day after the reappearance of the missing students, Myra and Charles paid a visit to his security booth.
Myra placed a paper bag on the counter.
"They're chocolate chip cookies," she said. "I baked them with my mom. She's really grateful that you found me."
He took the bag. "Thanks," he said, touched.
Charles grinned. "I have an awesome thank-you gift too," he said. "I'm going to give you the one and only Charles Worth tour of this year's art exhibition!" He held up a scribbled note. "I totally got permission from the vice-principal! It only took, like, two guilt trips."
So, fifteen minutes later, he, Myra, and Charles wandered around the gallery, looking at each Department's contest winners. Charles's commentary ranged from dismissive ("The woodworking kids always seemed to look down on us, but I don't see how this dinky assembly of wooden blocks is artistic") to gossipy ("The sculptor for this totally banged the principal, it's all over the news") to enthusiastic ("Oh man, these clothes are all so pretty, I wish I could wear them, I mean just look at that coat!"). At last they made their way to the second floor.
"Oh, and the traditional art piece," Charles said to him, pointing, "this one was weird, I heard they had to replace the plaque 'cause it got vandalized or something—"
But he wasn't listening to Charles. He was busy looking at the girl in the painting.
It was a simple piece. The girl was in a classroom, the tables and chairs the same brand as the ones the school used. She was looking out the window, face turned away so that all that was visible was the frame of her glasses and the curve of her cheek. She was dressed in a faded pink sweater, and she was so achingly familiar it set his teeth on edge.
He knew her. What was her name? It was on the tip of his tongue—
"I don't remember what the graffiti was," Charles said in the background. "It was something lame. Started with an A."
"Ann," he murmured unconsciously, only just processing the word as he said it.
Charles snapped his fingers. "That's it! Yeah, Ann. How stupid is that?"
Ann. Ann. Her name was Ann.
His eyes widened. His hand strayed to the empty marker, still clipped to his pocket.