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MARGINAL ERROR

You know, sometimes reality imitates fiction.

Toby sat down at his desk and rested his elbows upon its flat surface. He flipped through one of his fantasy books before stuffing the socially unacceptable-reading material into the empty steel hollow beneath the flat wood he would be working over.

Seventh grade was hard, but even harder was not fitting in, and his mind was always on this unfortunate fact. He was a skinny nerd with glasses, though he distanced himself from that word, that terrible word “nerd,” as much as he could.

He did not like the things the other kids in his grade liked. He did not like sports or crime shows or Boy Scouts or any of those things. He liked playing videogames and boardgames and tabletop roleplaying games with the few friends he did have…He did not like the things most people liked.

What he really wanted was a girlfriend. Every other boy in his class seemed to have one, but he didn’t…He was lonely. He was an outcast. Nobody liked him.

Of course, it was a new decade, so maybe things would get better. It was October 1st of 1991, the Gulf War had ended months ago, and a new song on the radio—that one by Jesus Jones—inspired him every time he heard it, so he felt like things might actually be getting better after all.

It was something to hope for.

He was thinking about this as two girls sat down at their desks to his immediate left.

Those girls were Anna Bainbridge and Lorie Hartwick, but they never gave him the time of day. Nevertheless, they were gabbing away, and their conversation was just interesting enough to pull Toby out of his inner world of thought. It was a little difficult to hear them over everyone else in the room, everyone in here talking to each other at the same time, but Toby managed it anyway.

“They’re not going to finish renovations before winter,” said Lorie. “That’s what I heard from my brother.”

“The old part of the school was creepy anyway,” replied Anna. “What are they even doing over there? Why do we even need renovations?”

“They have to take out something called ‘asbestos,’” said Lorie. “But yeah, I wish they’d just tear it all down. The new building is so much better. At least, I think so.”

She nodded once and leaned in toward Anna, and Toby had to strain to hear her.

“It’s more than that, though,” said Lorie in a hushed voice. “Didn’t you hear about what happened to Rachel Gibbons?”

“She ran off last year,” shrugged Anna. “I overheard my mom talking about it over the phone.”

“No, she just disappeared,” said Lorie with a shake of her head. “Vanished…and she was at school…in…the old…building.”

“No way,” said Anna as she rolled her eyes.

“Yes, way,” nodded Lorie. “My older-brother’s best-friend’s cousin disappeared the year before that, back in ’89. My brother told me someone goes missing every year.”

“They run off,” sighed Anna. “Don’t be stupid. He’s just saying that to scare you.”

“Uh, uh,” said Lorie. “Someone goes missing every year, and the police don’t do anything about it. They just say the kids run off. I’m telling the truth.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Anna.

“Yeah,” nodded Lorie. “My brother says it’s a ghost. It lures you in and then kills you. You become a ghost after that. That’s why the old building is haunted. Even the workers are afraid to work in there. They went on strike because of the ghost. That’s why they’re not working today.”

“They’re working on Friday, dummy,” snorted Anna. “That’s why we’re getting Friday off. It’s so they don’t interrupt the school. Not to mention that if a ghost makes more ghosts, then there would be ghosts all over the place…Use some common sense. Your brother is pulling your leg.”

“No, he isn’t,” said Lorie as she shook her head in adamant denial. “My brother hears everything from around town, like when they were going to fire that school janitor last year, Mr. Walsh, but they never got the chance to. They found kiddie porn in his office, but he disappeared before the police could pick him up. My brother says the parents around town secretly killed him.”

“That’s the plot to A Nightmare on Elm Street, doofus,” frowned Anna. “Next, you’re going to be telling me this guy came back in your dreams or something.”

“No, but my aunt did have a nightmare like that,” nodded Lorie. “She dreamed that Freddy Krueger was after her, and she woke up with slashes in her bedsheets.”

“That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” laughed Anna. “Lorie, you are as gullible as a—”

Anna cut her sentence short, nudged Lorie, and both girls turned to glare at Toby. He had been engrossed in their conversation, so he had not realized he had been staring at them for the entirety of that conversation.

“Do you mind?” asked Anna, but her tone was not friendly.

Toby felt his cheeks burn a bright red as he moved his gaze forward. Class was going to start soon anyway.

“What a dork,” he heard Lorie say.

Toby swallowed that insult and let it drown. He would try and forget about it, but he was going to have to push it down, deep down, for now. He did not like to be insulted, especially by girls, but class was going to start, so he had other things to worry about at the moment.

Mr. Redford, Toby’s Social Studies teacher, walked in through the class door, but the man did not go to his desk like he normally would have. No, he walked straight up to Toby, but what the man wanted, Toby did not know.

The portly man with a pencil-thin mustache dropped one of Toby’s fantasy books on Toby’s desk.

“Here’s your lost book, Tobe,” said Mr. Redford matter-of-factly. “Someone dropped it off in the mail slot at the front office. Try not to lose it again.”

Toby briefly looked through his books before realizing he did not have the book in question on him. He really must have dropped it at some point, but thankfully, someone had found it.

This particular book, “The Dragon’s Secret Sword,” was one Toby had already finished reading, but it still had Toby’s red bookmark in it, Toby’s specialty bookmark with his name on it, his name printed out in big, fancy, gold letters. He did not write his name in his books because he wanted them to remain pristine, in good condition, so it was a good thing that his named bookmark had been in the book, or he may have never seen his book again.

“All right!” said Mr. Redford. “Everybody, get out your Social Studies books and turn to page…”

Mr. Redford’s voice trailed off as Toby focused the man out of his field of hearing. There was a far more pressing issue at hand.

Someone had written in his book.

Toby had flipped open the first page, and someone had written, “Hi! 37→,” in the upper right margin of page 1, that writing in flowery, bold, blue ink, that writing in his book, that writing a desecration to one of Toby’s most-prized fantasy novels.

He saw the number “37” and the arrow next to it, and it occurred to him to turn to page 37, though why he thought this, he did not know. Perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps it was anger, but he was going to check the rest of the book for damage anyway, so he flipped to page 37 without delay.

There was another note in the margin on page 37, this time in the lower right margin. It read, “I know you! 53→.”

Whoever had done this to his book wanted him to turn the pages, so he did. He was upset about the damage to his novel, but he also wanted to see what any other notes had to say, so he flipped to page 53.

The note in the margin on page 53 read, “I like you a lot! ♥! 72→.”

Toby’s heart skipped a beat. He felt flushed and a little out of it…Was this what he had been waiting for? Was this his chance to be happy?

He quickly put his Social Studies book on his desk and flipped it open to a random page, pretending to be interested in class just like everyone else, but he had already ceased listening to Mr. Redford’s droning. No, he was engaged in this now.

Toby quietly flipped to page 72 as doubt ran through him. Maybe this girl didn’t know who he was. Maybe she had the wrong person…

The upper left margin on page 72 read, “Your mom picks you up after school, Toby. I know! ☺! 85→.”

Toby nearly fainted after reading that. Not only did this girl like him, but she had been watching him…If only he knew who she was!

He turned to page 85, and the note in the margin read, “Let’s meet up after school! 89→.”

Yes. Yes, he could do that. His mom was always fifteen minutes or more late. He could definitely meet up real fast…

He flipped the pages to page 89, and that note read, “We’ll meet here in school real fast! 107→.”

This girl knew exactly what he was thinking, like she was…like she was his soulmate or something. Yes…that’s indeed what she was, his soulmate. He was going to meet his soulmate. He was going to meet someone who actually liked him for who he was, and she wasn’t mean; she was nice, not mean, not like Anna or Lorie.

Maybe she was an outcast like him. Maybe she was ugly or fat or…but…but…he didn’t care about that. No, his heart was pounding out of his chest, so he made his decision then and there to go meet her. He knew when to meet her, so now he just needed to know where.

He flipped to page 107. The note in the right margin read, “Don’t tell anyone. I’ll get made fun of…😥129→.”

He had been wrong. She wasn’t ugly or fat. She was one of the popular girls, one of the pretty girls…She had to be. He was a nerd, a dork, but she was in love with him. She couldn’t be seen with him because he was a nerd…Yes, that was it; that’s what was going on.

Toby couldn’t breathe. This was incredible, his dream come true. Not only was he going to meet his soulmate, but she was one of the beautiful ones.

He was in heaven for a few brief seconds before the swift and commanding voice of Mr. Redford brought him back down to earth.

“Toby!” snapped the portly man. “Did you hear what I just said?”

Toby shoved his book into his desk and straightened up at attention. There would be time to flip through the pages later after class. He was certain the “where” he was looking for to meet up with his soulmate was further on in the book, but he would address that later. He knew better than to get in trouble now, so he would be patient for just a little while longer, as long as it took for the school day to end.

**********

Toby had his black backpack on his back, and all of his books were in it save one. No, the book he held in his hands, the book not tucked away in his backpack, was “The Dragon’s Secret Sword,” and he had it flipped open to page 129. The note in the margin on that page read, “Go past the gym! 136→.”

He flipped to page 136 as he passed by the gym’s double doors. There were other kids at basketball practice in there right now, but he was not concerned with them. He needed the next instruction in order to find his one true love.

The note on page 136 read, “Sneak into the girls’ locker room! 149→.”

His heart raced out of control. Meeting up with his soulmate was one thing, but sneaking into the girls’ locker room?…He didn’t have a lot of time before his mom arrived, and even then, someone at the front office might come looking for him, so he needed to man up and walk in there right now.

Hopefully, no naked girls were in there. It was every boy’s dream to see a locker room full of naked girls, naked girls all wet from the shower, but Toby wasn’t stupid. He didn’t want to get arrested. Everyone would call him a pervert, and he’d probably be shipped off to a funny farm. He didn’t want that.

A thought occurred to him, a dark one, a mean one. Maybe this was a prank. Maybe a bunch of girls had gotten together and were going to catch him in the girls’ locker room, and…

No…No! He didn’t believe that, and more importantly, he wouldn’t believe that. This was real. He had a soulmate, his one true love, and he was going to find her. She was his princess in need of rescuing, and he was just the brave knight to quest after her.

“I am a brave knight,” whispered Toby to himself.

He was going to go rescue his princess.

He slipped into the girls’ locker room, feeling extremely dirty as he did, but…there was no one in the locker room or shower area anyway. She wasn’t here, so maybe she was meeting him in here, or…

Toby turned the pages of his book until he hit page 149. The note in the margin of that page read, “Find the big locker nearest the showers! 158→.”

So that was it. There was probably a note or something in the…No, that couldn’t be it. There was another page to turn to.

Toby found the big blue locker nearest the shower, a big blue locker that stood out amongst the royal-blue half-lockers that bedecked the small locker room. Of course, it was locked with a combination lock, but that meant…

He quickly flipped to page 158. The note in the margin read, “The combination is 04-07-28! 163→.”

He turned the combination lock with shaky hands. This was getting exciting!

He opened the locker door, and…

There was nothing in the locker. It was completely empty.

He flipped to page 163, and the margin note read, “Push hard on the back of the locker! 179→.”

Toby pushed on the back wall of the locker and immediately felt the metal push inwards, push free from whatever was holding it in place. It swung open on small interior hinges, and he could suddenly see into another locker, this one a grey locker with a closed grey locker door.

He turned to page 179 and read the note in that margin. It read, “Go in and shut the door behind you! Open the next door! 184→.”

He followed the instructions to the letter. He climbed into the locker, closed the door behind him, and opened the grey locker door before him.

He peered out into a dim hallway. There were lockers here and there, but there were also ladders along with plastic sheets draped around the area, tools like drills and hammers here and there, exposed wires in the roof tiles…

This was the old part of school. This was where they were doing renovations.

Toby turned to page 184. The note in the upper-lefthand margin read, “You’re almost there! Go straight down the hall! 197→.”

The love in that flowery blue lettering spurred him forward. He was almost there, and his one true soulmate was waiting for him.

He turned to page 197 and read the note in that upper-right margin. It read, “I’ll be in the girls’ restroom! I’ll be in the second stall! I’ll be waiting for you! ♥♥♥!”

Toby practically flew down the hallway, jumping over tools, ducking under ladders, and running around hanging plastic tarps as he looked right and left for the first girls’ restroom he could find.

After a few seconds of frantic searching, he saw a girls’ restroom on his right, and he yanked open the heavy wooden door to it without a moment’s hesitation.

The heavy door closed behind him as he walked into the lit restroom. The lights in this part of the school, the old part of the school, were shut off, all except for this restroom, but he was glad for that…At least he could see. He would be able to see with clear vision the girl of his dreams.

But it was time to throw all of his doubts aside and meet his one true love.

“Hello?” called out Toby. “I figured out your notes! I’m here to meet you!”

He walked up to the second stall door and gingerly opened it, breathless with anticipation, ready to see who this beautiful girl was, ready to start living for once…to hold his one true love in his arms…to kiss her sweet lips…

The door swung open as Toby stopped to stare at the figure before him.

In the stall was a big man, a big, big man in a grime-stained, janitor’s, dark-blue uniform, that uniform with the white oval name tag of “Walsh” on it in curvy red letters, and over his fat face was a clear plastic Halloween mask with ruby lips and a red clown nose, speckled black eyelashes around the eyeholes, that mask a soulless epitome of extricated terror.

Toby’s scream was cut short as a black plastic garbage bag wrapped its suffocating interior around his slender head.

Marginal Error Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott

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