David wasn't sure if the monster was still alive. It hadn't made a sound in weeks.
The old wooden floor screamed as David dragged the crate to a dark corner of the trap room, under the stage. He couldn't escape the thought that the crate had gotten heavier.
The beast hadn't fed in almost a year. There's no way it could have survived, let alone grow.
He didn't want to bring the crate with him when he moved halfway across the country, from LaCross to Hallowell. He imagined all the ways he could dispose of it. He could burn it, of course.
Although he couldn't imagine how that would smell. And where could he do that without attracting attention? There was the river. Surely the crate would sink. Unlike that girl.
But he couldn't risk being seen near the water after all that commotion. He knew he had to leave town. And the crate had to come with him.
The bell rang, followed by a stampede of children rushing into the theater, tittering their way up to the stage above him. "Mr. Wilson? Mr.Wilson?"
The ruckus overhead pulled David back to the present. He pulled the chain on the hanging bulb eviscerating all light from the trap room and felt his way to the stairs.
He froze halfway up. What was that sound? He squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath, trying to block out the children's noise.
Was it coming from the crate? That scratching? David could taste his heart in his throat. He turned and slowly descended the stairs. The sound was slowing down.
As he reached for the light he realized it was just the chain swinging back and forth. He laughed uncomfortably. Maybe he was going mad after all.
"Children, children, settle down," David pleaded as he entered stage left. "Come on now. Take your positions. This is our final rehearsal before tomorrow's big show."
David loved children. And children loved David. He loved how young they made him feel. How trusting and loyal they were. He loved how they sought his protection.
How they cowered behind him when they were afraid. How they clung to him, digging their tiny hands into his skin, hiding their eyes in his chest. They needed him.
He was counting the children, one by one. There was Mary, the Mother. Olivia, the Grandmother, in her baggy nightgown and frilled nightcap looking remarkably frail.
Mark, the Huntsman, standing tall with his wooden rifle slung over his shoulder. Jacob, the Narrator, stood by the microphone rehearsing his lines. But where were Matthew and Lucy?
A scream broke through from behind the curtain and David nearly fell apart. "No!" he thought as he frantically leaped toward the back of the stage.
Red Riding Hood broke through the curtain and crashed into him, knocking them both to the ground. David froze as a grotesque, bearded snout, full of fangs, peeked through the curtain.
As Lucy began to cry with laughter David glimpsed the sneakers beneath the beast's giant clawed paws. Matthew, the Big Bad Wolf, hadn't broken character in almost two weeks.
Lucy lay on David's chest. He could feel her heart racing. He didn't want to move. Lucy slowly composed herself and rolled off of David, still giggling.
David lay there for a moment more before slowly picking himself off the floor.
There was a subtle disturbance in the darkest corner under the stage. David looked around at the children. No one else had heard it.
"Children!" David yelled, a little too sternly, still huffing from the thought of the monster escaping the crate and crashing through the curtain. "Come on now, we haven't much time."
David watched as Lucy fixed her cape and hood. She caught him watching and gave him a sly smile. He heard the crate shift.
Lucy was David's favorite. A natural Red Riding Hood. Lithe and pert with almost yellow eyes that conveyed an undiscovered fierceness. Lucy was clever and more mature than the other children.
She had taken an interest in David when he first arrived at the school this winter as a long-term sub for the theater department. He blushed when she gave him a Valentine's Day card.
"You're my favorite teacher," she had written inside, with a pink heart above the "i". Yes, he loved Lucy.
He had loved children before. There was sweet Hannah with the cherry red cheeks in Sacramento.
Sofia, from Cottonwood, had the most beautiful caramel skin that turned impossibly auburn when she blushed.
Of course, there was Brittany in LaCross, whose bright red hair exploded like fireworks around her head as he eased her into the river.
He had loved them all. He had tried desperately to protect each one of them. It was after Sacramento that he began to shackle the beast.
After almost entirely devouring Brittany in LaCross, David realized that the monster would have to be destroyed. He had purchased an old sailing chest and reinforced it with metal bracing.
He was going to exterminate the creature as soon as he figured out how.
David was again jolted back to the present when the microphone shrieked with feedback as Jacob delivered the opening lines of the play.
A piece of wood splintered in the trap room while Lucy's cape danced impishly around her as she skipped across the stage.
The bell rang and the children began discarding their costumes on the stage floor.
They scampered down the stage steps, except Matthew, who leaped from the stage and landed on all fours behind the cast.
David took a deep breath and turned around to gather the costumes. Lucy was standing there, the cape at her feet. "Mr. Wilson?" she asked.
"Would you like me to help with the set pieces after school?"
David could hear scuffling beneath the stage. Fur and claws slinking over the old wooden floorboards. He almost cried. The monster was free.