Recap #183: Ghosts of Fear Street #30: I Was A Sixth Grade Zombie by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Title: Ghosts of Fear Street #30 – I Was A Sixth Grade Zombie, a.k.a. “Shady School Zone – Bad Future”
Author: Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Cover Artist: Happy Boy Pat (Published), Mark Garro (Scrapped)
Tagline: Class Of The Living Dead?
Summary: Zombies on Oak Street?
Valerie and Mark know there’s something weird about the new after-school club building on Oak Street. It’s blue. It’s shiny. It’s heavily guarded. And it’s surrounded by a force field!
There’s something even weirder about the kids who joined the clubs. They act like robots. And they’ve all become so polite it’s scary!
Someone is brainwashing the sixth-graders of Shadyside. Turning them into glassy-eyed zombies.
Are Val and Mark next on the list?
It’s back to school time, so let’s focus on a very special entry in the “Ghosts of Fear Street” series. This is another book that took me by surprise with how much I loved it, which shouldn’t surprise me because it was written by the same woman who wrote “Why I’m Not Afraid of Ghosts.” It’s got one of the best main characters I’ve seen in these books so far with a plot that really breaks from the norm of the usual GFS books.
It’s also got some of the most disturbing conversations I’ve come across in the entire series.
You might see some similarities to one of the books I reviewed last year, but I won’t say which.
Valerie Martin and her best friend Mark were hanging out in Val’s basement, ready to watch “Strange Cases.” It’s the coolest show around, featuring a couple of secret agents who get into really weird and strange situations. Like that time they went up against those albino worm monsters. Val thinks a lot of what she’s seen in the show could happen in real life. After all, she lives in Shadyside, where all kinds of creepy shit happen on Fear Street.
Because the show is on late at night, Valerie always tapes the episodes on her VCR (Because it was the 90s, you see!) and all the kids in her class come by her house on Wednesdays to watch. Well, that’s what they used to do. Valerie and Mark are sitting by themselves, wondering where everybody is. Last week only three other kids showed up, and now it’s just them. Mark wants Val to start the tape, munching on popcorn and gulping down cream soda (which Val thinks is gross). She briefly talks about how they’ve been best friends for years, even though she’s so tall and he’s so short. She’s loud, he’s quiet. She’s got strawberry blonde hair and freckles, he’s got black hair, glasses, and a space between his front teeth. She’s teaching him to be braver, he’s teaching her to think before she acts.
Isn’t it great how they’re best friends despite being totally different?
Val decides to find out where their friends are by making a few calls.
I grabbed the phone and dialed A.J. Hilton’s number.
“Who are you?” A.J.’s little brother, Bart, screamed over the phone.
I held the receiver away from my ear. “A friend of A.J.’s,” I hollered back. No one can outscream me!
A.J.’s baby bro screams he’s at his stupid club before hanging up. This confuses Val and Mark, since they thought THIS was the club everyone belonged to. Val makes a call to Elaine Costello’s house; Mrs. Costello says Elaine is at the M-W Club. Confused, Val asks Mark if he’s heard of any M-W club when he reminds her it’s the Monday-Wednesday Club. That’s when Val remembers; the Monday-Wednesday Club and the Tuesday-Thursday (or Two Ts) Club, the loser clubs. They were started by Mr. Hool, a teacher who transferred to Shadyside Middle School after winter break.
And boy is he weird.
He wore thick diamond-shaped glasses that made his pale eyes look twice as big as normal. He was super-tall, too.
And he was always cold. In winter he walked around in three sweaters and a jacket – inside the school building! Now that spring was here, he cut back to two layers.
He had lots of ideas, including this one about the clubs. “Each one of you should join a club,” Mr. Hool told us on his first day. “Maximize your brain power! Strengthen your bodies! Polish your manners! Become the best children you can be!”
Val and Mark had no interest in joining. So what was the appeal everyone else saw? Even somebody as cool as Steve Hickock had joined! Val asks Steve’s mom if she knows where the club usually meets. Mrs. Hickock says the kids go to Oak Street near the bowling alley. Even though Mark wants to watch “Strange Cases,” Val wishes to investigate.
The duo immediately hit paydirt when they arrive at Oak Street and discover a large building they can’t recall seeing before. It’s blue and practically translucent, almost like a big ice cube, and there’s only one door and window. Val sees a bunch of kids whom she thought were given detention by Mr. Hool, so why are they here? Maybe the clubs are so boring Mr. Hool’s been using them for punishment.
The kids entering the supposed clubhouse have to use key cards to get inside. Unfortunately, Val and Mark aren’t able to slip by pretending they forgot their’s. Val’s unable to argue with the guard so Mark pulls her away. She’s happy they make such a good team since they always know to act when the other is stumped. The duo head around the corner to check out the rest of the building when a development arises. Mark tries to place his hand on the wall but for some reason his hand keeps sliding away before he can get near it. There’s a force field around the building!
Val tries to place her hands on the wall and realizes Mark is right. Before the kids can process this new info, a policeman appears and demands to know what they’re doing. Val responds they were just looking around and Mark, though scared, sticks by her. The officer rapidly blinks as he explains it’s not safe to hang around this building because it’s supposedly a chemical warehouse.
He said the words flatly. As if he’d memorized the speech. Also, there was something sort of stretched out about his voice. Like a tape recording that’s a little worn.
And what was with all the blinking?
I suddenly got a mental picture of a giant windup policeman with a big key in his back. An icy feeling zipped down my spine.
Val decides it’s time to go and is relieved the cop doesn’t really have a windup key in his back. Still, there’s something off about him.
The next day at school Mr. Hool announces a contest, but Val is focusing on the three kids who went into the clubhouse. She reviews how the chemical warehouse story was completely bogus; who’d let kids hold after school clubs in a building used to store chemicals? While assessing Steve, A.J., and Elaine, Val overhears Mr. Hool declare those who win the essay contest get a week-long trip to Neverland. Val’s like HOLY SHIT because Neverland is the coolest theme park around. And since Val’s a pretty good writer she thinks she’s got a chance at winning… until Mr. Hool adds the essays will be about the importance of good manners. UGH.
Val doesn’t think she stands a chance, especially when she sees the determined look on Mark’s face. According to Val, Mark’s the best writer around, so maybe he’ll have better luck making diamonds out of dog shit. Of course, Mark’s also the reigning burp champ and can belch out the entire alphabet, so what does he know about good manners? Still, Val feels pressured to start writing when she realizes Mr. Hool’s glaring at her.
During recess, Val asks Elaine about the M-W Club. Elaine claims it’s a chess club, but that makes the whole thing seem weirder. Who needs guards and a force field for a chess club? Even stranger is the way Elaine keeps blinking and how confused she appears before she happily responds the M-W Club is the best club around. She wishes she could go every day. Val is reminded of the cop she spoke to and how Elaine sounds almost exactly the same as she gushes about the mysterious club.
Luckily, since today is Thursday, Val’s able to convince Elaine to let her borrow her key card since she won’t be going back until Monday. Val promises she’ll have it back before then and goes to find Mark to inform him they’ve got a way in.
After school, Val and Mark try to blend in with Two Ts members; Val’s creeped out by how quiet and orderly the kids are being as they wait to go inside. The kids are able to sneak in using just the one key card, but they’re not prepared for what’s inside the building.
The air in the building was thick, warm, and wet, like the air in the bathroom right after you’ve had a long, hot shower. It smelled flowery, but also a little like metal.
An empty corridor stretched out ahead of us, then curved. Troughs and pots of wild, leafy plants lined the pale green walls. I saw ferns, palm trees, orchids, and a lot of other plants I didn’t recognize.
Above the plants, silver lace marked with red, green, blue, and purple bumps patterned the walls. It looked like computer circuit boards.
Panels of soft silver light covered the ceiling.
Oval doors lined the walls. They reminded me of the doors in submarines. None of them had knobs, or even those spinning wheels submarine guys use to open doors.
I feel like I just read a portion from one of Christopher Pike’s sci-fi books.
The duo don’t see any of the club kids and are wondering if the building is some huge computer. Mark wants to leave, Val wants to stay. Val figures if they get caught they’ll pretend they got lost looking for their club. She’s not going until she finds out what these kids are really doing.
Val proposes they simply listen outside the doors in order to find the room the club kids are in, but all they hear are the sounds of keys being clicked. When suddenly, a voice demands to know what the two are doing! Val fears they’ve been caught, until she turns around and sees it’s only new kid Trevor Dean. He’s a bit of a geek and all Val knows is that he’s really good with computers, he’s really pale, and really tall. His clothes always look too small on him.
Trevor claims he’s not a member of the M-W or the Two Ts clubs; Val’s pleased to see even Trevor has standards. She explains they’re investigating the clubs, and Trevor reveals he’s had suspicions as well. He mentions seeing the club kids head down another corridor, but fears the clubhouse is dangerous. Val tries her best not to sound scared. Mark… not so much. But he doesn’t try to run away, and that comforts Val. She wants to find out as much as she can before they get kicked out.
The kids head down a corridor and continue their explorations. In one room they heard weird music, in another they hear voices but none belonging to any of their classmates. A door opens nearby but no one exits the room, so Val decides to check it out. They find what appears to be machinery putting together these odd little silver blocks on a conveyor belt. The kids start to think they’re in factory, but don’t understand what’s being put together. Val’s about to inspect the bin at the end of the production line when Trevor screams at her not to touch anything. Even HE seems shocked that he yelled.
Val would like to know why she shouldn’t touch anything. Trevor explains they shouldn’t touch anything in the room because none of them knows what this shit can do. Mark agrees with him, but Val doesn’t. She’s tired of feeling nervous and she wants to know what this stuff does. What’s the worst that could happen.
I reached into the bin and grabbed one of the spiky objects. It was surprisingly light. I stared at it.
Before I could examine it, though, it – changed.
Silvery ribbons shot out and wrapped around my hand and fingers. Wires looped over the ribbons. Ribbons wove between themselves.
In about four seconds I had a silver glove on my right hand.
Val thinks her new glove looks cool and wants to get one for her other hand. Yet now she can’t move her fingers, and the silvery lacework is moving up her arm while the other spiky objects have formed a tower and are reaching towards her!
Mark and Trevor try to help Val get the glove off her hand before she’s assimilated. The silvery strands are like spiderwebs and begin to cover the floor. Val fears Mark is gonna be absorbed along with her when an array of buttons manifests on her gloved hand. The boys frantically push each one in order to get the glove off. Thankfully, the glove splits in half and falls from Val’s arm. The kids toss the glove into the writhing silver mess on the floor and head out of the room.
Val thanks Trevor and Mark for helping her, but when Trevor goes “I told you so” about how dangerous this place is it only reinforces Val’s desire to investigate. Although she does suggest they leave after checking out the other end of the hallway. The kids start to hear some weird synthesizer music going “Ba-BOOM Ba-BOOM” out of an open doorway. Val peeks in the doorway… and has found all her classmates.
None of them are playing chess, or doing much of anything. The club kids are all standing in neat rows, behaving perfectly. It’s freaky. The music’s making it hard for Val to think as she watches a tall woman in pink coveralls deliver commands to the club kids. She tells them to sit, they sit. She tells them to shake, they shake. She tells them to “Down lie,” they “Down lie.” There’s no fidgeting, hesitation, anything like that. For some reason, the woman winces when the kids say “Please” and orders them to always speak softer.
Things heat up when Benjy Harrison suddenly belches and the woman cries “Alert!” Some huge guards dressed in similar coveralls but with rainbow triangle patches on their shoulders come in and drag a confused and horrified Benjy away. The only thing that scares Val and the boys more than Benjy’s supposed doom is how none of the other club kids even BLINKED when he was taken away.
That’s enough excitement for Val and she agrees it’s time to leave. The kids make their way through more plant-filled hallways, edging around the big guards. It seems to take forever because the building is so huge and confusing. After waiting for more guards to leave before entering the next hallway, Mark trips and hits his head on a red button on the wall. An alarm goes off and Trevor orders the group to split up before they get caught.
Heading down another hallway, Val tries to open a peach-colored door to hide from the guards before looking for somewhere else to hide. She trips on some dead lives and rolls underneath a large fern for coverage. She overhears two of the guards have a strange conversation.
“Disruptive newbie?” one asked.
“Perhaps. Or intruders in come,” the other replied.
“Done sweeps. No scopes.”
Val can’t figure out what they’re talking about even though it sounds like they’re speaking English. The tension of waiting for the guards to leave almost kills Val. Once they do, Val fears she won’t be able to find the boys when Trevor signals her from a nearby plant. The three are able to escape from the clubhouse and find themselves on Poplar Street. They’ve exited out the back of the building, which surprises Val because the inside is definitely much bigger than a single block.
The kids head for Val’s house to review the evidence they’ve gathered about the mysterious clubhouse.
- The kids aren’t playing chess
- They’ve got weird machines building weirder shit
- For some reason the people running this operation like plants and humid weather
- They have a lot of guards
- They’re making kids obey orders
But why? What is their end game?
Val insists they go back to the clubhouse at some point even though Mark’s scared and Trevor thinks they shouldn’t. Sigh. Poor Val. For her, this isn’t just about playing “Strange Cases.” Those people are doing something to kids they all know, and they need to find out what before something bad happens. Mark and Trevor reluctantly agree with Val. The three keep this thing a secret between them and figure their next step is to ask some questions at school.
Val is relieved to see Benjy Harrison is at school the next day, seemingly no worse for the wear. Admittedly, Val’s never considered Benjy a friend because he’s something of a bully, but she still checks to see if he’s okay. Benjy’s confused; why wouldn’t he be okay? She asks him about the Two Ts Club, and Benjy becomes enthusiastic. He tells Val it’s a video game club where he gets to play all kinds of awesome games. He blows shit up and uses kung fu moves and he doesn’t even have to pay! Val asks if that’s what he did yesterday, to which Benjy responds of course he did.
Val knows this is all total bullshit, but Benjy’s really getting into it as he makes a bunch of gunfire and explosion sounds.
“Blam! Up in smoke!”
“Just like your brain.” I muttered.
Which is exactly when Val deduces the club kids have all been brainwashed!
The bell rings and Val heads to class, where everyone except Mark and Trevor are sitting perfectly still with their hands folded in front of them. Like perfect little angels. Ew.
Mr. Hool seems pleased as he tells the class to hand in their essays for the Neverland contest. Val only finished a couple of paragraphs while Mark did three whole pages. He REALLY wants that trip. At lunch, Val sits with Mark and Trevor to talk about her deduction. To strengthen her point, she motions to their classmates. Mark and Trevor notice the M-W kids and the Two Ts kids are sitting at the same tables. Since Trevor’s new, he thinks they always sit together. Val and Mark know David Lubin hates Benjy, and Elaine Costello used to always sit with her best friend Alison. And they’re still acting so well-behaved. While all the other kids are making noise, goofing around, the club kids are silently eating their food with knives and forks.
All of the kids the trio interviewed swear it’s like the clubs were handmade for each of them. One kid thinks it’s a superhero art club, another thinks it’s a magic club, etc. They recall nothing about being trained to sit or shake. Val reveals her belief the kids have been brainwashed. Mark knows her well enough to recognize she’s completely serious. The kids decide to ask more questions about the clubs, and Val asks for Trevor’s phone number in case she needs to call him. Trevor shocks everyone by revealing his parents only let him get phone calls until 5:30 in the afternoon! Yikes.
Val suggests they meet after school at her house again when Mark asks if they’re still going to the movies that night. Turns out they were planning to see the new Hans Heller action flick, “Destructor.” Hans Heller is their favorite action movie star, and Mark invites Trevor to join them. Val can’t believe she forgot all about it.
The kids go to the Shadyside Movie Palace, a local theater that has a bigger and much better screen than those dinky multiplexes. The building was just finished being rebuilt and Val’s looking forward to sitting in the balcony. Val observes nobody else from their class is here. God what that brainwashing must’ve done to them…
Halfway through the movie, where Hans Heller and BEAUTIFUL GOVERNMENT AGENT are cornered by the bad guys, Mark excuses himself. Val knows Mark gets so worked up watching Hans Heller flicks he can’t stand the really suspenseful parts. Val watches on the huge screen as Hans and BEAUTIFUL GOVERNMENT AGENT have to jump from one building to another. Hans is telling BEAUTIFUL GOVERNMENT AGENT that she has to “Chump! Chump!”
At which point Val blinks and everyone’s screaming because she’s about to jump off the balcony!
Val doesn’t know what happened and she almost plummets to the first floor before Trevor grabs her and hoists her back into the seats. For a moment she’s briefly embarrassed that her classmates see her hanging all over geeky Trevor Dean but she’s still terrified and has a hard time letting go. She immediately recalls the way the club kids were ordered by that woman. How they were told to jump and sit and shake. Was she…?
One of the ushers demands Val and Trevor go into the lobby and wants to know what the hell was she doing? Val can’t think of an answer when Mark returns wondering what just happened. Oh, and Val’s terrified of going back into the movie, because what if she’s accidentally ordered to do something else? What if she hurts herself? Val asks to go back home.
In Val’s basement, she tells Mark about how Hans Heller yelling “Chump” at BEAUTIFUL GOVERNMENT AGENT compelled her to almost jump off the balcony. I find it hilarious Val specifically refers to the character in the movie as “The beautiful government agent” exactly each time she mentions her.
ANYWAY, Val’s been brainwashed, but it gets worse. When Mark tries it out by yelling “Stand!” all THREE of them stand up. Val tells them to sit down, Trevor tells them to shake and each of them sticks out their hands. Of course as much as the situation is terrifying, it’s also a bit ridiculous and the trio starts to laugh. In the process, Mark uses the word “Shake” in a sentence but none of them reacts. It looks like the trigger words are okay if they aren’t used as a command.
Val suddenly realizes Trevor didn’t jump along with her when they were watching the movie. Trevor explains he didn’t know Hans Heller was saying “Jump” because of his ridiculous accent. He thought “Chump” was BEAUTIFUL GOVERNMENT AGENT’S name. Val wonders if Trevor is THAT sheltered; she’s heard Hans Heller enough she doesn’t even notice his accent anymore. The discussion moves along to Val trying to figure out how the three of them were brainwashed. At which point Mark asks an important question.
They said they were gonna meet at Val’s house after school…
Val recalls absolutely nothing between leaving school and setting the table for dinner. Mark draws a blank and so does Trevor. Trevor’s especially confused because there isn’t a club on Fridays. But then Val takes out her wallet and finds another key card. It’s not Elaine Costello’s because Val gave it back to her. Mark and Trevor inspect their wallets and find identical cards.
Val immediately suspects Mr. Hool is involved, since the clubs were his idea to begin with. He must’ve done something to them that afternoon. Mark is surprised because, according to him, Mr. Hool is always so nice. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the Neverland contest at all. Val is terrified, wondering how she’ll be able to live her life without worrying about someone accidentally ordering her to do something. And she’d have no control over it! Her own parents could accidentally make her jump out a window and she’d be powerless to stop. While laying in bed agonizing over what’s happened to her, Val decides to tell her parents and ask them for help.
The following Saturday morning, Val goes downstairs to find her dad at the stove, her mom sipping coffee, and her sister reading in the kitchen. Every Saturday morning Mr. Martin likes to prepare eggs with different things in them; Val just eats the meal without complaint. Val asks to talk to her parents and they realize something’s bothering her. She tells them she joined a club, but then says it’s a chess club and she loves it. That’s not what she wanted to say at all!
Val gushes about how it’s the kind of club she always wanted to join, the same way Benjy spoke to her the other day. She can’t stop the muscles in her face from forming a smile no matter how hard she tries. She exclaims how happy she is even though she’s not.
The fight between my brain and my mouth was giving me a headache. And my mouth was definitely winning.
It was so frustrating. I could feel my face turning red.
I, Valerie Martin, had plans for the rest of my life.
Now it seemed as if somebody else did too.
And that somebody was in control.
At this point we’ve been given a pretty good idea of what Benjy, Elaine, and all those other kids must’ve been feeling when Val and the boys were questioning them. And that makes this even more horrifying.
Val is disgusted with how prissy her voice sounds, but she can’t do anything about it. Her dad sets down a plate of eggs for her to eat, and Val feels she’d keep eating it even if her father used fried worms. All she can do is wonder why someone was turning the sixth graders of Shadyside into zombies. After finishing her eggs, Val calls Mark and tells him what happened. He decides to see if he’ll have better luck telling his folks what’s been going on.
For the rest of the weekend, Val stayed close to her room out of fear someone might accidentally order her to jump into Fear Lake. Among other things. By Monday she knew she couldn’t convince her parents she was sick and went to school. Val also knew this was no way for her to live and the best thing she could was find out how to undo the brainwashing. In class, Mr. Hool announces the contest winners who’ll be given an all expenses paid week at Neverland. Val’s sure Hool is one of the brainwashers, but has some doubts. He’s tall and the clubs were his idea, but he doesn’t wear those weird coveralls and he speaks properly. Could he have been brainwashed too?
Hool hands out permission slips for the essay winners and adds they’ll be leaving the next day after school. Mark is one of the winners, Val isn’t. When Mark cheers over his victory, Hool goes “Quiet!” Mark quickly clamps his mouth shut and starts making gagging sounds. Val tries to tell Mark to cool it, but the command worked on her too.
During lunch, Mark reveals he couldn’t tell his parents about the brainwashing as well. In his case, he told them it was a nature club where they study plants and shit. The duo returns to the clubhouse again and meet up with Trevor, whose clothes seem to be getting smaller. The three slip in with the M-W kids and can hear that weird bass music in the hallway. They briefly discuss if they could record the music and play it backwards to undo the brainwashing, but immediately figure that’s a long shot.
Val suggests checking out one of the rooms instead of standing around waiting to get caught. Behind a peach colored door the kids find a room with a big glass chamber shaped like a tube and a control panel. The kids experiment with the tube to see if it might be able to reverse the brainwashing (thankfully none of them gets inside). Trevor tries to stop Mark from pushing the buttons on the panel, but is too late. In seconds the kids see a tall, white haired woman manifest out of nowhere inside the tube!
The kids run from the room before the woman tries to stop them. The exit through the back entrance again and hide in the nearby bowling alley. Val orders sodas for everyone as they go over the newest development. So these people apparently have technology capable of transporting others, almost like “Star Trek.” And the woman in the tube didn’t appear to be a hologram, either. Val gets a bit scared as she wonders if they’re dealing with aliens. Trevor asks if the brainwashing has hurt anyone, to which an indignant Val reminds him of how she almost jumped to her death last Friday. Not to mention the brainwashers made sure the kids couldn’t get help from their parents. Trevor mentions he never bothered trying to tell his parents. Mark’s freaking out and Val’s got no idea what to do next. And since Mark is leaving for Neverland the next day, it’ll be just Val and Trevor investigating on their own.
After school the next day, Val and Trevor watch Mark board the super fancy looking bus for Neverland. Val’s a bit jealous, but Trevor doesn’t know what the big deal is since he’s new to the area. Neverland has got everything; super slides, log jams, roller coasters that do complete loops. There’s even this one ride called Deathwatch.
“You ride in a little car up a long, long clanking spiral. At the top there are these animatronic vultures. The cars slow down while you go past them. They clack their beaks and say ‘Tasty morsels! Prepare to meet your doom! Yum! Yum! Jump right down and DIE!’ Then the cars swoop waaaaaaaay down, shimmying and shaking all the way to the bottom. It’s a six-screamer! I love it-“
Which is when Val realizes if Mark hears the vultures go “Jump!” he’s gonna JUMP OFF THE RIDE. Val follows after the bus on her bike to warn Mark not to ride Deathwatch, only to find the bus IS PARKED OUTSIDE THE CLUBHOUSE.
Val sees Mr. Hool herd the last of the kids into the clubhouse, confirming without a doubt he’s been in on it the whole time. She hurries in after, not worried who sees her, but Val is unable to stop Hool from forcing Mark into the glass tube and making him disappear!
The minute Hool sees Val, he orders her to be quiet and stand still. Val can’t do anything as Hool summons the guards, and they place headphones over her ears. As Val hears that bass music again, she starts to get sleepy…
It’s important for Val to make sure the table is set absolutely perfect. When she’s done, her mom mentions that Mark left behind a pair of his glasses last time he was over. Val hopes Mark is okay, but then wonders why wouldn’t he be okay because he’s at Nevereland. Right? There are conflicting thoughts going on in Val’s head, one half of her being scared of something and the other half ordering her to forget it. Mrs. Martin gets suspicious when Val offers to help with dinner, thinking Val wants an advance on her allowance or something. No, Val’s simply happy to help.
While breaking up lettuce for a salad, Val can’t stop thinking about Mark and decides to call Trevor to see if he knows what’s bothering her. It might be after 5:30, but it’s not like Trevor’s parents could kill her over the phone right? A familiar voice picks up on the other end, but it’s not Trevor’s.
“Greetings,” a woman’s voice said. “Yes? How help you I may?”
The shock of recognizing the voice of the woman from the clubhouse snaps Val out of her haze and she remembers everything. Mark was put into that glass tube and disappeared! And that brainwashing woman is in Trevor’s house! Did they get him too? Val’s ready to go save her friends, but has to get out of the house first. She excuses herself saying she needs to wash her hands, which pisses her mom off because she thinks Val prepped the salad with filthy hands. As Mrs. Martin tries to salvage dinner, Val sneaks out the front door and runs to the clubhouse (she must’ve left her bike at the clubhouse).
Luckily the clubhouse seems deserted this late in the evening, but Val’s still able to use her keycard to get inside. Returning to the tube room, Val inspects the control panel but can’t figure out which button does what. Climbing in the tube, Val finds a similar panel. Which makes sense in case you wanted to use the tube from the inside. Val spots a big green button identical to one on the outside panel, the same one Mark and Hool both used to make someone appear and disappear. But it turns out the clubhouse isn’t so empty when the training woman arrives. Val’s not letting that woman near her and, with no other options, pushes the green button.
Val’s afraid to open her eyes, but finds herself in a completely identical room save the woman is gone. Cautiously, she exits the tube and the room, but is in a completely different hallway. There’s moss on the floor and vines growing on the walls and ceilings. Val wants to see if she can locate Mark when she comes across a room full of people in familiar looking coveralls. A woman in red steps forward and greets Val rather warmly.
“Greetings! Welcome, honored guest! Where came you from?”
Val still can’t figure out the woman’s strange dialect when she tells Val to come with her. Having no choice but to obey, Val follows the woman to a room with a view. Outside Val sees a sunny landscape with big, tropical plants growing. The woman takes two umbrella-like devices and gives one to Val. She claims these are for UV protection, otherwise the UV “It your skin eats and your genes hurt!”
Outside the building, Val is led down a sidewalk in a sweltering humidity. All around her people are wearing coveralls with varying color schemes, patterns, and triangle symbols on the shoulders. Everyone’s carrying similar umbrellas and Val wonders how these people aren’t boiling in their clothes. The buildings look nearly identical to the clubhouse; all made of the slick blue stuff. Val asks where she is.
Why, it’s Shadyside of course.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS IN THE FUTURE.
“This your future is!”
Val is understandably freaked out and screams “What” at the top of her lungs. Everyone around her recoils and the woman orders her to be quiet. She leads Val to a building surrounded by more tropical plants. The front room is similar to the rooms in the clubhouse, what with all the metallic lace and blinking lights.
Then I spotted something horrifying.
A face. Right in the middle of one of the metal mounds.
“Whoa!” I gasped.
There was a human being in all this machinery!
Only her face was bare. Machinery, wires, and shiny colored dots covered the rest of her. I didn’t think she could move.
Her arms were wrapped with silver lace. Wires led from the ends of her fingers to connect with nearby machines.
I stared at her hands. She wore spiky silver gloves.
Val remembers the glove that almost took over her body and wonders if this is what would’ve happened if she didn’t get it off in time. The woman ordering Val around tells the machine she has an unattached child and asks for Val’s assignment. The machine woman scans Val and declares she is “Unassigned” and must be packaged. Of course Val doesn’t want to find out what “Packaged” means and shouts “No way” as loud as she can. The woman recoils and Val escapes.
Running down the street, Val screams at any of the adults who try to go near her. But she has no idea where to go because all the buildings look the same. She hopes to find another kid to see if they’re okay to talk, and makes her way into a jungle-like park. Hiding among a variety of wild, blooming flowers and tropical trees, Val rubs her poor throat which is sore from all that screaming. As she tries to catch her breath, she hears someone behind her.
And ordering her to be qui-oh god damn it he’s one of them too.
Val tries to fight back issuing him commands as well, but they don’t work on him. They never did. Trevor quickly orders Val to follow him and takes her to what appears to be his home. It’s full of more plants and weird furniture and another tube. Trevor orders Val to get inside and fears she’ll be teleported somewhere else. Thankfully, the tube only scans her and creates similar looking coveralls for her to wear. Trevor tells her to put it on so she doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The coveralls work by pressing dark spots on the shoulders, which opens them up for her to slip inside. Seems the coveralls keep people cool which explains how the heat wasn’t effecting anyone.
That settled, Val demands Trevor explain his shit and threatens to increase the volume if he doesn’t talk. Before he does, he offers Val something to drink. Val only accepts because her throat is so dry. The liquid tastes like some fruit and vegetable medley; Trevor calls it “Total nutrition” before he starts answering Val’s questions.
Yes, he’s a kid from the future.
Yes, people can time travel.
It was figured out about four years ago (Trevor’s time) and the ruling party, the “Council of Twelve” thought it could help with their problems. As humanity got more advanced, their computers got smaller. Val points out that’s been going in her time as well, but what does that have to do with anything. Trevor explains the problems started because people began growing too big too fast. Their hands have become too big to do the fine work necessary to repair their most important machines and computers. Trevor motions to how he grew at least six inches in the last two months, which explains why his clothes were always small.
Val asks what this had to do with kidnapping her classmates. Trevor reveals the main problem is that his society’s climate control machines aren’t working, and they needed little kids to do the repairs because they were small enough to handle it. So Val’s friends have been kidnapped for slave labor, much to her disgust. Trevor tries to placate her saying the kids aren’t abused and they get adopted into future families. Like that makes it okay. I wonder who else has used that excuse…
The brainwashing was used because 20th Century kids are so rude, whereas kids from Trevor’s time are very polite. In fact, they started off by brainwashing Victorian-era kids because they were SUPER polite, but they knew shit about computers.
Even though only ten kids were needed, Val’s entire class was brainwashed to see who was most suitable. Those who break the conditioning early on, like Val, aren’t taken. The kids were made to think the club was something made just for them because it made the programming easier if they were happy. You do more if you think you’re doing your favorite thing. Val is horrified, making Trevor appear slightly guilty as he reveals Val got brainwashed to keep her out of the way. Not like Mark, since his essay really impressed Mr. Hool. His understanding of good manners probably means he’s easy to program.
Finally, Trevor reveals he was sent back to weed out the kids who were really polite and who was faking it. To see the side the kids would hide from Hool and the other adults. Val’s pissed off that Trevor, whom she started to see as a friend, was a liar and a sneak helping to kidnap Mark and the others. But Trevor mentions he hung out with Val and Mark because he grew to really like them and wanted to be their friend for real-real.
But now it’s too late for Val to go back. Since the kids have been collected, the adults are cleaning up their operation in the past and will erase the memory of the kids they stole. Val stubbornly refuses to accept that and plans to rescue Mark and the others. Trevor responds by patronizing her, and then quietly threatening her.
“Listen. I have nice parents, and I’m fluent in 1990s-speak. Why don’t I get you assigned to my family? It would be fun. You could be my sister.”
“No!” I yelled “You help me find Mark – and then you help us get home!”
Trevor shook his head.
“If you don’t help me,” I warned, “I’ll hate you forever.”
“Not after you’ve been trained some more.”
What the figgidty fuck.
Val begs Trevor to help her as a friend. She pleads he has no idea how horrible the brainwashing’s been, what it’s like to know someone is controlling what you say and do and you can’t stop. Trevor says nothing, but then heads to a nearby computer. Val fears he’s calling guards to have her taken away, but has no choice to trust Trevor because she’s out of options.
To Val’s immense relief, Trevor’s not reporting her. He’s found out Mark got placed in the family of High Councilor Mooluck. Trevor’s impressed because Mark’s essay must’ve been exceptional if he got assigned to a high councilor’s family. Val’s not surprised given Mark’s writing skills, but fears what they’ll do once they learn Mark doesn’t practice what he preaches. Trevor warns Val they would send Mark for intense conditioning; the more he gets brainwashed, the more his real personality is lost. Trevor begins to understand how awful that sounds. Val announces they have to find Mark, wondering what they’ll do when he burps.
“Mark has total burp control! He can burp the alphabet! He’s the only kid who ever beat Benjy Harrison in a burp-off.”
This pleases Trevor, who reports the Mooluck family is having a picnic on Fear Lake. Val is taught the basic future greetings so she doesn’t give herself away. They head past what Trevor calls Shadyside Middle School; it’s totally unrecognizable to Val. The closer they get to Fear Lake the creepier the plants get. It seems the lake’s reputation hasn’t changed in 500 years, even though Councilor Mooluck’s been trying to change things. Yeesh, the Fear Family fucked things up so badly for Shadyside the curse is going strong over half a millennium later.
Val and Trevor find Mark sitting under a big umbrella with the councilor and his wife. The three are drinking more of that “Total nutrition” stuff, as Trevor explains people only eat real food at suppertime in his period. Trevor informs Val all they have to do is make Mark belch because it breaks the conditioning. While that sounds like bullshit, Val remembers what happened when Benjy Harrison burped at the clubhouse and how it seemed to snap him out of his trance.
The two kids try to act casual as they reach the Moolucks. The councilor offers “Please us join!” Val sits down next to Mark and quietly orders him to start swallowing air.
“What say you, daughter?” the woman asked me.
“I said… supersonic burp, Mark!” I yelled.
Mark stared blankly ahead. I twisted my hands together anxiously.
Would he do it?
Awesome! A totally cataclysmic super-burp. Mark’s best ever!
In the next second something amazing happened.
The councilor and his wife keeled over.
They’d fainted dead away!
The burping does its intended trick and Mark snaps out of it, unsure of what’s going on. Val says she’ll explain later as they go to rescue the other kids. She thinks to herself that some of the kids Hool kidnapped were indeed as polite as they seemed. But just because they were polite didn’t mean they deserved to have their lives stolen. She’s not abandoning them or any of the others.
Trevor tries to tell Val they don’t have time to rescue the others, but Val responds they’re gonna MAKE time. Thankfully, the kids caught a break because the other essay winners are still going through conditioning at the middle school (Val briefly wonders if all schooling is done on-line now). The trio enters the building and Val has Mark unleash another belch to incapacitate the handlers. Yet it doesn’t knock out all the adults, so Val starts ordering the other kids to be as loud as possible. Scream, cry, belch, anything! The kids who belch awake from their brainwashed states, and soon all nine kids are wondering what’s going on.
Val and Trevor lead the kids back to the building with the time machine. Any time an adult tries to say something the kids scream at them. Trevor works at the controls and helps send the kids back to 90s’ Shadyside, proving he really is Val’s friend. Val proposes Trevor can come back with her and Mark, but he knows he wouldn’t fit in during their time period like they wouldn’t fit in during his. The kids say their final goodbyes, and Val thanks Trevor for everything he’s done.
Val and Mark are back in the 90s clubhouse with the other kids when the ground starts to shake. The group flees out of the building just before it folds up and disappears. Val tries her best to explain what happened when she realizes how late it is and how much trouble they’ll be in. Mark’s got no idea how to tell his parents why he isn’t at Neverland while Val heads home. Her parents are furious and mention they called the police to look for her. Val can’t think up a good excuse and can only apologize, but her parents decide to punish her anyway.
No “Strange Cases” for the next month.
Val can’t help but laugh, because real life is strange enough as is!
I admit the ending is a bit rushed but I applaud Hoffman being able to make this genuinely unsettling with the implications of the brainwashing program. The scariest was the casual way Trevor mentioned he can have Val brainwashed some more to make her like him. Having it told from first person perspective really helped those sequences where Val had gaps in her memory.
I love Val as a protagonist for the way she makes both stupid decisions and smart ones, and her supportive friendship with Mark is a breath of fresh air. She’s surprisingly motivated and doesn’t wait around for scary shit to happen before she does something. Oh and the way Hoffamn foreshadowing the screaming bit at the beginning was great.
I can’t help but point out the glaring flaw in the whole time travel project. Like instead of stealing kids to fix computers why didn’t the people in the program consider doing something to either fix the growth problem or alter the pollution problem so the ozone wouldn’t be so fucked up. It’s like in “Snow Day” where instead of altering the past so everyone’s immune systems wouldn’t get fucked they decided to kidnap kids to harvest their blood. That said, I liked the subversion of the “Adults are useless” trope. It’s not that the adults couldn’t do anything, it’s that the brainwashers made sure the kids couldn’t do anything to ask the adults for help.
I’m relieved Hoffman didn’t choose to go with a twist ending where it turned out the kids were accidentally dumped in the wrong time, and I love the implications that Fear Street is always gonna be haunted even if the world becomes like “The Jetsons.”
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