Preservation

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Paranormal Romance

Featured Review on this writing by Rob73

Samuel has been tasked with inspecting a school building which has been sealed up like a tomb for 40 years. The state of preservation is incredible...almost akin to a time capsule. However, Samuel is soon forced to question if only humans who can preserve buildings...and not vice versa. Just what secrets and surprises have been "Preserved" within the school's walls?

 

 

 

Time, is a funny thing. For some it seems to crawl at a nauseatingly slow pace. For others, well, they wish they could push their hands up against the hands of the clock and just yell “stop.” We all know, at least I think we do, that time genuinely is a constant. It doesn’t speed up, it doesn’t slow down and it doesn’t stand still. Whether we like it or not we are all speeding towards death at 60 minutes per hour, 24 hours per day, or whatever measurement you wish to apply. Yet, every now and then, it seems that time can throw each of us a curve.

The concept of time, however scientifically absolute, has often been fertile ground for amusing stories. From the classic tale of Rip Van Winkle to the once-novel idea of time travel, the quirks of time and its effects on both living and inanimate objects has always been a large, seemingly endless canvas just ripe for colorful and sometimes frightening vistas.

In modern times, this concept has found itself wedged more and more into popular culture as the notions of things like alternate realities, cryogenics and, yes, even the paranormal, have prompted many of us to ponder the very concept of time and just how inflexible it really is.

Some say that linear time can be “bent” and that we can skip ahead or backwards, be it hours, days, or years, through something called a “ripple”. Others hold fast that time is indeed, constant, that it functions the same, but in any number of so-called parallel dimensions which run adjacent to one another, except that in each one, events, places, things etcetera are ever-so-slightly different from the other. Something like a river; a river flows in one direction, a constant; you toss in a rock and the flow, whether you can perceive it or not, is forever changed, even if the only change is that in the neighboring dimension you purchased a blue car instead of a red one.

Still, in our everyday lives we see time and its seemingly predictable effects in action all around us. The hands of the clock DO spin, the leaves change and fall each autumn, no matter how many times we pull the weeds from our yard they always seem to grow back, and, much as we hate it, each time we look in the mirror there seems to be just ONE more grey hair.

The same is true for the physical, man-made objects around us. Homes, businesses, schools, factories and the like all feel the effects of time. The ice and snow of a harsh winter or the heat and humidity of an intense summer can be quite unkind to any structure or edifice a human being can erect. In a sense, these structures are much like ourselves, although it is likely that we seldom, if ever, stop to think of them in the same way.

This, inevitably, conjures up a somewhat stale yet none-the-less romantic image; a grand, Victorian or Edwardian structure, sealed up like a tomb (OK that’s not so romantic, but you catch my drift.) and effectively frozen in time. Protected, somehow, from the destructive elements that never stop for a holiday. Then, one day, the doors are pried open and the world as it was in 1910, 1920, 1930 etcetera is ours to enjoy once again. It’s enticing to think that we could, in some way, effectively step back through the decades and allow all of our senses to be fooled into thinking they had somehow been magically transported to another time.

Romantic? Yes. Intriguing? Yes. Practical? No. Possible? Well, hmmm. And, dear reader, it is here that the lines between cold, hard-fact-based reality and the world of the “what ifs” begin to blur slightly. Truth be told, there are some places, homes and other buildings, which HAVE been preserved (Sort of) in a state of seemingly suspended animation. But, well, not really. In most of these cases it is actually a structure of some historical significance which has been restored (in some cases well and in some cases badly.) to a previous state of existence. In a few rare instances, some locations have even been purposefully “frozen” in time and maintained just as they were on the day that they were, well, frozen.

And yet, without human intervention in the way of climate and pest control, general cleaning and dusting, not to mention constant security to guard against theft and vandalism, it is most unlikely that these “frozen” locations would maintain their grandeur for long. Time would, invariably, once again start to exert its influence and the bright and shiny interior would soon become a dust coated, insect infested eyesore. The once daisy-yellow curtains would fade to a dull tan and soon become a feeding ground for moths. Anything made of metal would quickly begin to rust in a humidity-filled atmosphere.

Time, would eventually have its way.

And yet, there are occasionally times when Time, can either bend, or be made to bend its rigid set of rules. And, in even rarer instances, re-write its rules altogether.

Earlier, I mentioned old buildings, or at least I think I did? Time, you see, can have a curious effect on the memory as well. Even if the proverbial “Old Haunted House” on the edge of town now looks like something out of a B-Reel horror flick, it’s just possible that our memories can “preserve” an image of a time when this was not so. Maybe, if we are lucky, we can remember when the now neglected and decaying dwelling was once a normal, well-maintained home complete with living and loving human beings to occupy it. Maybe we can remember when the shuttered factory down by the railroad tracks was going full steam, with wide open windows and freshly painted walls. Yes, it is just possible that we can remember these places, as they were…as it were.

However, even this nostalgic notion gives rise to another, and perhaps more disturbing question; If we can remember these structures as they were, say, 20, 30 or even 40 years ago…is it possible that they can remember us? Us, from 10, 20, 30, 40 (I can’t go back any further without entering a past-life, sorry.) years ago? If our human minds can remember the sight, sound, smell, and even the feel of physical locations, is it conceivable that they, if indeed they have memories, can “remember” things?

Even better, or worse, depending upon your perspective, if we can preserve them, is it possible that THEY can, in some ethereal way, preserve us?

I confess I had not given this later concept so much as a passing thought, until that seemingly inevitable day when I found myself, somehow, some way, facing one of those stereotypical circumstances that you read about in esoteric blogs and on, I think they still call them this, message boards. Yes, this entire lead­up has not been some kind of philosophical lecture or morality tale about making good use of our time on earth. No, no as I’m sure you have guessed by now, this was pure exposition, leading up to the point when I actually get to what I’m really talking (or writing) about. The occasion for me when time, as I knew and understood it, was turned on its head, and all of my logical, rational and cool-headed thoughts about life, death, everything before and after, and even the concept of love, were shaken to their foundations.

Still, I am happy to say, the foundation has not cracked, and I’m pretty certain that I haven’t either. No, there is a vast gulf between “cracked” and “enlightened”.

About, oh, 20 years ago (again, time is a funny thing.) I moved to one of your typical, fairly small American towns. I won’t say just WHERE but it honestly could have been any small, suburban-type town in America. It had (and has) all of the usual ingredients; paved streets lined with homes, old, new, and in-between. A modest “downtown” area that had recently been restored (see, it happens everywhere) and re-designated as a Historic District. There were several schools, a city hall, a modest police force, a set of double railroad tracks that bisected the newly, or oldly, dubbed Historic District, and the usual smattering of businesses both inside and outside the town limits.

It was the kind of typical town that you wouldn’t think twice about if you drove through it. You would just think to yourself “hmm, nice place”…and continue blissfully on.

One of the businesses on the town’s outskirts (again, I won’t mention its name as I’m not sure how they would take to being associated with this.) specialized in designing, updating, and installing communication apparatus. Everything from old-fashioned telephone lines to fiber-optic cable. This was JUST about the time that most of the country was gradually making the transition from those old­fashioned copper lines to fiber-optic cable when it came to jumping onto the Information Super Highway. Remember when we used to call it that?

At any rate, this was my chosen field, and I guess I was their “chosen” one as well, as they not only hired me but covered all of my moving expenses.

One of the state’s leading cable providers was based in the adjoining town and a major expansion project for county and municipal operations was about to begin. My adopted town was to be one of the first to benefit from the forthcoming upgrade. Civic buildings, schools and municipal service buildings were at the top of the list. So, City Hall, the fire and police department, the two ambulance stations and the four active schools became my areas of focus.

It was at about this same time that I became aware, or perhaps I should say, MORE aware, of another feature my new home shared with many other small towns across the country; the old, disused, abandoned and, probably haunted building that sat on the edge of town. In this particular instance, it was a former school, one that had not seen a group of children pass through its doors for a VERY long time.

Again, time is…not so much a funny as a quirky thing. I remember seeing the building the very first time I came to the town. I thought absolutely nothing of it. To me it was just an old, three-story brick school that had been put out of service by a newer, more efficient building; the smaller, but considerably more modern edifice which now stood much closer to the town’s center.

I did not yet know all of the fine details, but even I knew that it was not at all uncommon for these older school buildings to be decommissioned for one reason or another, usually a drop in the number of students, and either left to crumble or be repurposed. One look at this particular structure told me that it had NEVER been repurposed. In fact, it looked like it had been mothballed.

At the time I moved into town the school and the property it sat on were still owned by the city. I never recall hearing any talk about it being brought out of moth balls and converted into a YMCA or anything. Truth be told, for the better part of 18 years I hardly ever heard ANY talk about it, right up until the day it was sold.

By that time much in the town had changed. Like so many other locations the population seemed to be on a steady decline, and this brought with it the inevitable rounds of down-sizing and cut backs. In this regard I was fortunate. Though the company I worked for changed names and hands a few times it never REALLY changed in its operations. I was still helping to hatch new plans to keep both public and private organizations wired-in and online, however the changing times and increased competition had prompted me to expand my skills set. Multiple years of night classes and hundreds of study hours later I was able to add Structural Engineer and Municipal Building Inspector to my resume’. So I was now in charge of both wiring up the buildings and determining whether or not they lived, died or were cited for code violations.

Not long after I learned from the city council that the old school building and land had been sold off I was assigned a new and slightly unorthodox project. You see, this was not a case were the school in question had been snatched up by some out-of-state conglomerate with plans to erect a new shopping mall or parking garage. No, it had actually been purchased by a nearly life-long resident, now a former­resident, whom, for the sake of this story, we will simply call “Fred.”

My company advised me that Fred actually wanted to explore the option of restoring the old school, remodeling it for some kind of civic purpose, and then perhaps sell it back to the town for use by the historical society and other local groups…not that many were left. To that end, I felt it my duty take a closer look at the town’s old relic and assess Fred’s options.

That day, I drove to the edge of town and parked across the street from the school, a school which we will call Warren G. Harding Junior High; a fitting pseudonym since it had been constructed during his brief term. For the first time in 18 years I actually took a good, close look at the building and its immediate surroundings. Not that I could get TOO close. I realized then that the school was surrounded on all four sides by a fence…and not just any fence, but an eight foot tall fence with three strands of barbed wire across the top. Only one gate had not been welded shut. This lone point of entry sat about 200 feet directly opposite the school’s main doors and even it was bound with not one but two chains. Each chain was securely fastened with a large and quite serious looking lock, the kind they used to shoot holes through on television commercials to demonstrate that they meant business.

I walked up to the fence and peered through the chain-linking as best I could. I then saw that the fortress-like security did not stop with the fence. As with any unused public building the windows, doors and other openings had all been boarded up, at least those on the second and third floors had been. I was now able to see that the same such openings on the first level had not only been double-boarded, but boiler-plated. Yes, large sheets of boiler plate had been placed over top of the boards, almost entirely obscuring them from view, and securely bolted all around.

I also found it odd that there did not appear to be any of the usual signs one expects to find when it comes to such old, unused structures. There was no graffiti, very little trash laying about the grounds, and what little there was lay no more than 20 feet inside the fence. No indications that the plates had ever been pried or forced, no broken light fixtures on the building’s façade, and no noticeable defects in the brick or stonework.

My first, and most natural instinct, was that the city had simply taken very good care of the building and kept it up over the years. However, later that same day I met with Fred to go over my initial assessment, and quickly learned that my assumptions could not have been farther from the mark.

“Heck no,” Fred replied to my theory. “No, no one has been inside that old place or even on the grounds since it was closed.”

“Well, why so?” I replied. “Why the over-sized fences and the boiler plate? Historical preservation?”

Fred gave a not-so-settling chuckle, one that seemed to imply that he knew far more than he was letting on.

“No, it’s because the city was cheap,” Fred replied through his chuckles. “They actually toyed with the idea of remodeling the place and using it for something even then, but when they saw the cost, and what would have to be done, well, I guess they just plain balked. Also, for some reason Mayor Stover (Another necessary pseudonym I’m afraid.) didn’t wanna lose the building, but the insurance companies had a thing or two to say about THAT. So, instead of paying to remodel it THEN, he decided he’d put it into hibernation. Guess he hoped costs would actually come DOWN. Damn fool. I dunno how Stover swung the Council behind him but they sprang for enough funds to shutter it up like a vault. The double­boards, two or three THICK layers of tar on the roof, all of the boiler plating, even that damn fence. Heard he even wanted to electrify the thing.”

I “shuddered” myself at the very thought.

“Now why in the hell…?” I began.

“Oh who knows,” Fred replied. “Stover was stuck-up as hell, over the hill and already in his 4th term. He’d gone their when he was a kid, so had his son and grandson. Bleeding-heart bastard. I don’t see why he didn’t just level the place and turn it into a park. That’s what most of the townsfolk wanted, and they let him know it too. He died ‘bout three years later…but not before tying the place up in some kind of legal, bureaucratic knot. The town and county tried like hell to fight it but he’d bound it up tight, latched it to the town as a municipal albatross for a specific length of time. Binding.”

“Good grief,” I said, wondering why a normal, run-of-the-mill old building would cause so much of an uproar. “How long has it been closed?”

“Last class was 1976/77,” Fred replied simply, the unusually long amount of time seeming to have no effect on his demeanor. “So 40 years now. Still, no one’s ever un-done what he did so unless it’s got termites there may still be some use for it. Humph, not that they even really care about it anymore…but if I help them make it a part of the Historic District (Fred grunted disapprovingly) then we both get some kind of a Federal Tax credit. I’ll make my little profit when they buy it back then they can turn it into a train museum or something.”

“Good God, 1977?” I said in total amazement. “No one has been in or out of that place since 1977?”

“Only if you count the rats and mice,” Fred said with a kind of dark-humored laugh. “Nope. Shut it up like Fort Knox. Even did something to the grass so it won’t grow. Have to get that all re-seeded.”

“I wondered about that,” I said thoughtfully. “I didn’t see any maintenance buildings or anything. In all these years no one’s ever broke in? Climbed the fence or anything?”

“Why would they?” Fred replied as if the question were inane. “They’d never get back out.”

Once again the thought sent an uncomfortable shudder down my spine. Fred’s entire nonchalance’ attitude about the whole matter left me more than convinced that he was holding back on something, but I never could quite put my finger on it. Here it was, an ancient, boarded-up old school building, practically calling out to vandals and vagrants to force their way inside, and yet, nothing. For all intents and purposes it really did look like the school had been sealed up tight when Jimmy Carter was in office and put into a VERY long-term holding pattern. Why?

Economics had never been my strong suit but I knew enough about local governments and public funds to know that hanging on to an old place like this school made little sense no matter how tightly it was sealed up. Tax dollars would still have to be spent to maintain insurance and general security. Was it really worth 40 years of THAT just to hang onto what was, at best, a questionable asset? The thought nagged at me for the next few days as both Fred and I worked out the details for whatever plan he would eventually hatch.

I located what I could find of the usual material necessary for a project of this type. The original blueprints were nowhere to be found but wiring and plumbing diagrams had somehow survived. Specs from a 1950s structural survey along with various insurance policies from the 60s and 70s gave me a fair enough idea of the building’s “guts.” I was, however, unnerved to find absolutely no mention of any insurance claims having been filed nor anything that indicated repairs or alterations related to damage or accidents. I found this quite odd for a building whose primary occupants had been pubescent teenagers.

Clearly there was something about this old place that set it apart from the other school buildings in its age bracket. However, I again was just never able to ferret out the details, at least, not through any conventional means, but we’ll get to that later.

I was not looking forward to it, but I knew that eventually the time would come when I would have to pierce the 40-year-old bubble and inspect the school’s interior. That day finally came in early September (I should have seen the irony in THAT immediately, but didn’t.) of 2017. Naturally, Fred offered to accompany me on the initial, superficial inspection…but, something about his entire attitude towards the matter still had me on my guard for some reason. He was never hostile or malicious, at least not that I could tell, but something about his dismissive approach just did not sit well with my stomach.

I politely told Fred that the building codes frowned on pre-inspection entry and that the initial check-up was mostly pro-forma. I assured him I could have the whole thing done in less than an hour. It was all an out-and-out lie, of course, but some part of me just did NOT want Fred tagging along until I felt more comfortable about whatever surroundings I would be facing. Simply put, I didn’t want Fred and I to go in, and only Fred come out. Overly dramatic? Absolutely. Did I care? Absolutely not.

“1977,” Fred joked, badly, as he worked an old, rusty key into one of the locks to the front gate. “You know what that means?”

“Leisure suits and Disco?” I replied, attempting to deflect Fred’s query with my own dry humor.

“Asbestos,” Fred stated as the lock finally gave in and unlatched. “Maybe even aluminum wiring.” “Fred, it’ll only take me an hour, at the most,” I replied. “Look, I know it’s your building now, but it’s my job to make sure the place isn’t about to collapse or blow up. I’m the one covered by Worker’s Compensation, not you. Just let me give the place a once-over then we can go from there.”

“Suit yourself,” Fred replied as he unfastened the second lock and began to unwind the chains. “But if you fall through a floor I might not hear you scream.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said with forced and very fake conviction.

Fred worked the chains loose from the gate. I wasn’t sure just how long this particular set had been in place, but thick clouds of brownish rust particles filled the air each time he jostled them. When they dropped to the ground the resulting cloud eerily resembled something you would have seen following the blast from an atomic bomb.

Fred gave the gates a push. They protested loudly with an ear-piercing screech every inch of the way. Once the gates were open Fred picked up a large, red toolbox and without a moment’s hesitation simply walked inside the perimeter fence. Not wanting to appear the least bit apprehensive I followed closely behind.

Both Fred and I traversed the concrete walkway from the gate to the school’s main entrance. The city may have sealed the grounds against human intrusion, but Mother Nature had been far more persistent as the walkway was crisscrossed every inch of the way by cracks and chips, the end result of 40 years of hail and ice. Here and there, dandelions and other weeds poked their heads out from small fractures in the concrete. It was moving slowly, but our old friend, Time, was doing its best.

The boiler-plated covering over the main entrance did not look quite so impressive up close. Even more so than the chains at the gate, the plating had rusted badly over the last 40 years. Fred took a tool of some kind out of his case and one-by-one began prying loose the many rusted bolts which held the barricade in place. It took him the better part of 20 minutes but eventually both sheets of boiler plating came loose. Next, Fred went to work on the double-sheets of wood. As he pried at the nails with a crowbar I suddenly felt the strangest sensation, like I could hear air slowly being released from a balloon.

After another 10 minutes of work Fred began to pull upon the boards, attempting to rip loose the final barrier which had kept the school sealed tight for so long. Again, each time he tugged at the warped and rotted boards I could have sworn I felt and heard a low, dull hiss. I momentarily wondered if some kind of noxious gas had been sealed up within the building’s walls, and was now preparing to make its escape and take both Fred and I with it. Overly cautious? Actually, no. You’d be surprised what kind of dangerous fungi and molds could form inside of old, stagnant buildings. Left alone for decades upon decades they could easily mutate into the equivalent of chemical weapons.

I continued to ponder this unsettling notion as Fred gave the boards one final heave. With an almighty ripping noise they finally let go. Fred pulled the boards back and as he did so a set of maroon-colored double-doors slowly came into view. Strange, that I was the first person to lay eyes upon these doors in 40 years.

“Alright,” I said as I prepared to enter, “If I’m not back in an hour send a Saint Bernard after me.”

Fred again chuckled but I did not wait to hear if he had any snappy reply. Gripping a large flashlight and my mini-computer tablet under one arm I reached out and took hold of the dull, grey handle of the door nearest me. The latch depressed with absolutely no difficulty, as though it had just been closed yesterday. As I pulled the heavy, fire door open a gust of musty air struck my face and flooded my nostrils. It was not the sweet aroma of incense and fondue (or was that the 60s?) but the stale, damp, pungent odor of a well-sealed tomb being breeched. For the briefest of moments I felt like a famous archaeologist entering a sealed pyramid…that is until the full effect of the grand “Re-Opening” overwhelmed my olfactory senses and nearly doubled me over.

Though the outside air was warm and comfortable, the blast (from the past) of air which swept out from the doorway was cool and thick. Whoever had sealed the building up had done a damn good job of it as they had apparently succeeded in nearly turning its interior into a vacuum. Essentially, it was now “exhaling” fully for the first time in…I guess 40 years. A long time to hold one’s breath.

Slowly but surely my sinuses and lungs cleared and the rush of air from inside the once-dormant facility died to a faint wisp. The sun was shining down directly on the school’s façade causing my vision of anything beyond the threshold to be obscured. With no open windows the interior remained as dark as a coal mine. This actually was a good sign as it also meant that the walls, boards and ceilings, at least so far as I could tell, had not been pierced.

With a “click” I turned on the powerful LED flashlight I was holding (or perhaps “squeezing” would be a more accurate term.) in my right hand and took my first step inside. The air, which a moment before had been nothing more than a lightly flowing breeze, now became an enveloping cocoon. I lifted the flashlight and aimed it straight ahead. Little bits of dust and other minuscule particles danced around in the wide, bluish beam. The school’s insides finally began to reveal their long-hidden secrets.

As it turned out I couldn’t walk very far forward at all. Directly ahead, not more than 5 or 6 feet inside the doorway, a large wooden stairway, leading up to the second level, appeared from behind the veil. 40 years of dust, dirt and paint chips had tried their best, but even they could not fully conceal the glints of varnish which shone through here and there along its ascension. Each board looked flat and the railings appeared stout, no bending, warping or breakage.

“Well, that’s good for a start.” I murmured to myself as I slowly shuffled inside and swiveled the light around.

The minute particles of dust and, what I sincerely hoped was NOT asbestos, gave the light a solid beam effect, like a tiny searchlight sweeping this way and that through a hazy night sky. It was as though a bright, blue eraser was being drawn back and forth along the walls, floors and ceiling, wiping away 40 years of darkness as it passed by. Little by little, the foyer of the nearly 100 year old building was obliged to lay bare its contents.

I must admit, I was momentarily taken aback at the impressive state of preservation. The “institutional green” paint, as they called it in the day, clung to the walls more firmly than I had expected. All along the plain of the stairway and around what I could see of the hallway at the top it appeared to have held up well against Father Time, giving away its age only begrudgingly in the form of a few chipped and peeling sections.

Along the base of the walls the solid wood trim still gleamed…even more so than the steps…and rose roughly 2 feet up from the floor in the form of a very ornate style of wainscoting. Where the walls met the ceiling an impressive molding of the same vintage almost shone as though three layers of extra-gloss varnish had just been slapped onto it.

As impressed as I was at the preservation of the building’s structure…it paled in comparison to what else had weathered the years in more than just fine fashion. This was, after all, a school, a public building, a place of gathering, a place that saw a great deal of activity each and every day it was active, or “alive”. This place had obviously been QUITE active right up to the day it was put to sleep. The very first thing which caught my eye and almost caused me to do a double-take was a calendar hanging roughly three feet above the third and fourth steps on the left side of the stairwell. Despite a VERY thin layer of dust the lines, letters, numbers, and colors…lime green, canary yellow and bright, Day-Glo orange…stood out in stark contrast against the rest of the wall. Here and there, notes had been attached to several days by brass thumb tacks. One piece of light-blue paper, pinned to Friday the 3rd (Of June, the bright, orange letters at the top left no doubt.) read Final Day.

I think a thin smile actually crossed my face upon reading this. It seemed, somehow, fitting, apropos one might say. It REALLY did almost feel as though someone had grabbed the hands of the clock which was setting the building’s cadence and yelled “Stop”.

I swiveled the light around again, illuminating more of the wall space on either side of the steps. All along the ascendance hung photos of various sizes. From behind the thinly-glazed glass any number of eyes stared back…none of them knowing (OR at least I don’t think they knew) that their gaze had been obscured for four decades. The attire of every child, parent, teacher and staff member reflected the listed dates to a tee. Thin ties and horned-rimmed glasses in one dated 1968, wide collars and sideburns in one dated 1974, and large pompoms of yellow and burgundy sat in front of a row of young girls dressed in identically colored attire in one which bore the date 1976.

All this was a BIT much to take in all at once, but gradually the nostalgic aura faded as the task at hand returned to the forefront of my mind. Yes, this was certainly an intriguing sight, as well as a pleasant surprise, but there was still an entire building to check for things like termites, dry rot, black mold and sinking roofs, not to mention the asbestos and aluminum wiring Fred had seen fit to remind me of. Still, a little voice in the back of my head could not help but joke “remember to check the plumbing for M­80s.” It was the 1970s after all.

With this mental note in place I re-focused my attention and shined my light to the left side of the foyer. Here, another set of double-doors lead into a small side-hall which, in turn, lead back to the center hallway which I presumed ran the length of the first floor from left to right. Such was the basic layout of most educational institutions circa 1920. As it turned out, my past experience had served me well. Yet, again, nothing could quite have prepared me for what I found along the way. The word “preservation” simply did not do this old place justice.

Stepping through the doors to my left I entered into the side hall. It could not have been more than 15 feet long and did, indeed, end in a T-junction with the main “left-right” hallway, but very little of the wall space was visible. Trophy cases whose glass was only slightly frosted with age, a bulletin board still covered with pinned-up announcements and flyers, a bright red, pneumatic powered fire alarm whose paint also appeared day-one fresh, and a row of five chairs, which looked like they came straight from the set of a 1970s talk show, spanned the final eight or so feet along both sides. Above the chairs, more photos, more plaques, more, well, you get the idea.

Even the floor, with an alternating green and white tile pattern, was only lightly glazed with a thin layer of “time”…er, dust. I simply could not believe it. 40 years of stagnation and inaction and all that the FLOOR had to show for it was a layer of dust no thicker than one would expect to see after several days let alone 40 years. Part of me was in awe, and another, perhaps the more pragmatic side, was thinking just how pleased Fred would be when he learned that his risky business venture might just pay a huge dividend after all.

My mind simply could not fathom what my eyes were telling it; that the inside of this old school was doing a magnificent impression of the Marie Celeste. Pleasant thoughts such as this continued to permeate my thinking right up to the instant that I swept the beam of light across the floor of the main hallway, at which point my heart did its best to jump out of my chest. Here, the layering of dust was just as thin, but it was what I saw down the middle of the hallway to the left that stopped me in my tracks. Spread equidistant, and appearing to go on into oblivion, were the unmistakable outlines of footprints, narrow footprints, the kind that indicated a diamond heel with a pointed toe. In other words, a female footprint.

What had been a sense of awe instantly morphed into one of cold anxiety. Given what I had seen thus far the idea of hand prints on glass or even fingerprints on water fountains would not have seemed farfetched, such was the state of preservation, but this challenged all notions of logic. The “time” was all wrong. The dust would have come BEFORE any feet that may have trod the hallways. By all rhyme and reason the only prints to be seen should belong to either rats, cockroaches or very thin cats, not human beings.

Slowly, I moved my light along the path made by the prints. They proceeded down the hallway to the left, little by little edging their way to the right. Before tracking them to their terminus I doubled-back to make certain that they had not followed a track similar to my own. I hoped, almost prayed, that I would find they lead back to the main door, perhaps an indication that some brave soul had, at some point in time, broken through the building’s fortress-like perimeter and simply gone inside. To my horror, the prints did NOT do this. Rather, their reverse path lead back down the hallway to the right for about 15 feet, and then stopped, started, or began at a point just opposite a heavy, industrial wall-mounted clock situated about a foot below the ceiling. The hands of the clock had come to rest at roughly 15 minutes past three.

As my mind raced and searched for some kind of logical explanation I swept my light back and forth, left and right, along the track of prints. At several points along the hallway the walking pace of whoever had made them appeared to have been halted as the number of prints in a given spot doubled or tripled and their direction rotated. The kind of markings that would indicate a pause to talk or check the time. As I moved the light further down in the direction the prints were heading their track continued to edge to the right. The thin veil of dust which my own foot shuffling had stirred up made it hard to see just how far they went so, mustering up my fading courage, I slowly stepped into the main hallway and followed alongside the prints. Most of the time I keept my light glued to the floor, a part of me still not wanting to know just where the bizarre trail was leading.

Unfortunately, the answer was not long in coming. About 30 feet down from the T intersection the prints took a sharp turn to the right and disappeared behind a brown, wooden door. I slowly lifted the beam of light up and was just able to read a faux-wooden placard on the door’s façade. It was short and to the point; Office.

My brief bout of horror abruptly dissolved into something a bit more familiar, frustration. Could this be some kind of subtle but very effective joke? Perhaps an ages old Halloween prank left behind by someone in the 80s or 90s who hoped to, one day, give someone like myself a good scare? Vowing to have nothing to do with such a juvenile ploy I left my anxiety behind and quick-stepped over to the door, grabbed the handle, which turned easily, and pushed the door open.

Nothing. Well, not quite. There WAS something, a room. A typical (for the time) waiting area for a school’s office. Directly in front of me a wide counter top stretched the length of the room with a little swinging door separating it from the wall to the left. Metal baskets were placed at either end and in the center sat a shiny, aluminum can holding several pencils and pens. Again, it looked as though the faculty and staff had been there one moment and gone the next. However, it was not the continued “time capsule” vibe of the room that sent the first round of genuine chills from the back of my neck down to my feet. No, it was another set of feet that did that, or perhaps I should say the lack thereof.

Looking down at the tiled floor I was aghast to see that the footprints I had followed like a bloodhound down the hallway seemed to stop just as abruptly as they had started. One lone print appeared beyond the threshold of the office door and then, just dust. I gingerly edged my way inside. I was not quite certain why but I was making a conscious effort not to disturb the prints, sort of like walking around flat markers in a graveyard. (Now there’s a pleasant thought) Almost as if I were traipsing over hallowed ground or trying not to disturb the scene of a crime. To be honest, at this juncture, I was not entirely certain that this was not the case.

Just inside and to the right of the office door sat three stout, wooden chairs. Given how well the rest of the building seemed to be weathering the ages I opted to test their strength. I was not at all surprised when one of them held my weight without the slightest protest. Aside from the complete and total darkness I had somehow settled into the mindset that this building was as normal as any other. This feeling permeated so deeply that I absent mindedly reached back and attempted to flip a light switch directly behind my head. Of course, no lights answered the signal.

I did my best to try and reason the situation out. Yes, a trail of footprints became visible at one point along the hallway and ended just inside the door to what was once a school’s main office. Nothing else appeared to be disturbed (aside from my nerves) or out of place. In fact, to an extent I had not dreamed possible, everything else was very much IN place, and likely had been since the last bell rang. What could be the explanation?

OK. Feet leave prints, yes. When you walk through dirt, dust or snow, you leave prints. Yes. Normally, they don’t last long, but, if there’s no wind or other disturbances…like the moon. I remembered reading that because there was no atmosphere on the moon footprints left by the astronauts would likely remain forever, barring a direct hit from an asteroid. The building was sealed up about as tight as it could be so there WAS no real draft to speak of. Simple enough…but to stop and start abruptly? YES, of course, fluids. The floor MUST have been cleaned on the school’s last day. Someone could have walked over a damp section and left behind enough residue which would cause the settling dust to not adhere to the tile. This only happened in the section which had been damp at the time; hence it would appear to stop and start.

For a fleeting moment I felt both proud and embarrassed as my calm logic prevailed, then, things abruptly turned upside down.

BRRRIIINNNGGGG!

It was distant. It was subtle. At almost any other time my reaction would have simply been to check my watch. However, on this day, the net effect was that I slipped right out of the chair I was sitting in and landed in a heap on the floor, stirring up an even thicker cloud of dust in the process. My flashlight tumbled from my grip and rolled around on the floor, its beam again making like searchlights which danced around the room in wild and jittery patterns.

It wasn’t a phone. It wasn’t a car’s horn, and I was quite certain it wasn’t an ice cream truck. Somehow, one of the school’s bells, which should have been long dead, had just pierced the silence with its faint ringing.

My lungs and nostrils now clogged with grime I coughed and spat, attempting to right myself and grab for my flashlight at the same time, not an easy task when each and every nerve in your body is pulsating like a ten cylinder engine. Grasping hold of the flashlight I rapidly spun it round in every direction, searching in vain for…I wasn’t entirely sure what. This time, however, the idea of a prank or joke did not even cross my mind. I knew for certain that ALL power and phone service to the building had been cut, and the boilers hadn’t been oiled since the onset of “hibernation.”

The only person in town who knew I was inside was Fred, and he certainly didn’t strike me as the type with a morbid sense of humor. Dry, yes. Morbid, no. I also thought it highly unlikely that he would leave the building’s perimeter open to infiltration by anyone and risk damaging his investment.

As my mind raced and the atmosphere slowly settled the echo of the metallic bell gradually faded away. I shuffled round for a few seconds and finally managed to get back on my feet, although they now felt like lumps of clay. For a few moments silence returned. I moved towards the large countertop and turned my light onto what lay behind it. Two large, wooden desks sat facing each other at right angles to the counter about five or so feet beyond. Atop one sat a green, electric typewriter, a miniature American flag and various bits of common office paraphernalia; notepads, erasers, a coffee mug and a bluish colored desk calendar. The other looked oddly different as its surface was covered by little more than a disorganized scattering of papers, pencils and one overturned decorative piece which appeared to be a small porcelain figurine, pink in color and resembling either a unicorn or a horse.

I never did find out exactly which as moments later another low and indistinct noise began to fill the air. It too was subdued, almost quiet. I was reminded briefly of a small throng of people slowly exiting from a church, their tone hushed but not entirely inaudible. I guess the best way to describe it is a “murmuring”, a somewhat jumbled and mish-mashed “murmuring” that barely rose above a low whisper.

I turned and shown my light out the office door and into the hallway. The particles of dust kept its beam fully visible, but nothing appeared in its cone aside from the wall and the facade of some lockers on the opposite side of the main hall. I stood, stock still, for a good 20 or 30 seconds, focusing all of my senses in one, fixed direction. The low murmur continued on for about the same amount of time as the bell, and then, gradually faded away. This would have been VERY welcomed, were I not suddenly seized with the overpowering sensation that I was now being watched.

Instinct again overpowered my fear as I dashed forward and into the main hallway, half expecting to catch a curious local resident or a transient looking for a new place to sleep. But, again, nothing. I spun round several times, casting my light about in a desperate search for a source, hopefully a logical one, to what I had just heard. Logic, however, seemed to be taking the day off. The hallway was as empty as I had left it minutes earlier. Actually, even more so. Almost automatically I turned the light down to the floor…only to find that the footprints which had lead me down the rabbit hole were gone.

Again, I can’t say for certain how long I stood there, turning this way and that with what must have been an utterly dumb-struck expression on my face. One minute? Two minutes? An hour? Who can say? The very concept of time seemed to have long since dissolved.

Having absolutely no idea which way to go next I again stopped and tried to think rationally. I hadn’t a clue just what was going on but I finally settled on one definite fact; if the school’s bell could still ring and not shake the building to its foundation or spark an electrical fire then the rest of it MUST be in fine shape too. I decided that my job was at an end and the sooner I got OUT of there the better for all concerned. With quick and very deliberate strides I began walking back down the hall and towards the T junction. I had every intension of leaving 1977 and getting back to 2017 as quickly as possible. BUT, as you can probably guess by now, I didn’t make it very far. I had no sooner turned right and into the side hall which lead back to the main doors when the silence was again shattered, this time in a way that would cause anyone’s heart to skip two or three beats. From somewhere overhead an ear shattering, high-pitched scream pierced the air and seemed to ricochet off of every wall.

Believe it or not it wasn’t the scream, although that was terrifying enough, which again brought me to a halt. It was what happened next that turned this whole affair from something resembling a scary camp fire story into a surrealistic journey through some twisted looking glass.

No sooner had the silence been broken by the scream when the atmosphere was suddenly filled with yet another sensation. A high-pitched vibration, the kind that you “feel” as much as hear when you walk into a room with a television set or other electrical appliance and you can immediately tell that it is on. An electric “hum” or “din” as some call it.

I slid to a stop about halfway between the main hallway and the double-doors. Just as I did so things suddenly began to brighten up, though not in a good way. The electric hum was suddenly accompanied by a rapid and persistent “clicking” noise. Then, one by one, the low-hanging florescent lights overhead began to flicker, making the entire hallway appear as though it were being enveloped by lightning.

Any curiosity I may have had about what was transpiring vanished. As the lights above clicked and blinked back to life I planted my right foot and made ready to bolt…but my right foot didn’t cooperate. An instant later my nose greeted the dusty floor and the lights inside my head quickly outshone those coming to life overhead.

Again, time seemed to have thrown out its rule book so I truthfully have no idea how long I remained nose-to-tile with the floor. Slowly the lights in my head equalized and my eyeballs slid back into focus. With a low, frustrated groan I rolled onto my back and looked upwards. All was quiet, all was still, but all was also something else; bright. No, the overhead lights had not come back to life, although with hindsight that may have been more of a comfort as I can make up just about any theory to rationalize electrical quirks, it was far more bizarre. The light now flooding into the small, side hallway from the foyer was not the dull, greenish glow of a florescent lamp but rather the warm, harsh rays of sunlight.

No, I had not suddenly been transported back in time or thrown into some kind of limbo…or whatever you may have been thinking. The dust was still there, no lights were on, no people were walking the halls and no more bells were ringing. It was still 2017 and the school I was in was still waging and winning its battle with the clock.

At that very moment what had been fear was, at least for the moment, replaced by panicked curiosity. I levered myself up into a standing position and did a quick 360 of my surroundings. Aside from the newly arrived illumination, nothing had changed. I started to wonder if I had somehow been hallucinating or if some kind of virus had been hibernating within the school for the last 40 years, just waiting for a dumb “host” to stumble inside and offer it a new location to be fruitful and multiply.

As morbid as it may sound I decided there was really only one thing I could do; follow the light. I walked back towards the front of the school and made the left turn into the foyer. The source of the fresh dose of illumination was immediately apparent for laying just in front of the main set of double-doors was a large sheet of plywood, which looked as though it had been ripped from its holdings by the hand of a giant. It was bent, twisted and warped, like it had been submerged in the ocean for a century and then left out in the sun. The large windows above the main doors were now exposed to the elements and rays of sunlight were pouring in through the many panes of glass. The entire foyer was now alight and a quick glance up the main stairwell told me that some similar calamity must have befallen the windows on the second level too, as the passages to the left and right were no longer cloaked in darkness.

Gingerly I stepped from the side hall and into the foyer, being forced along the way to walk atop the mangled sheet of plywood which had somehow been wrenched from its fastenings. Now that an immense amount of additional light had been thrown onto the subject the foyer and stairway looked all the more as though they had not aged a single year in the last 40. The pictures, sheets of paper and the wall calendar which were tacked to the walls now appeared even more crisp and legible than before. Although, the fact that the eyes staring back from the many photographs now looked more than ever like they were focused on me and me alone was now a bit more unsettling.

As my brain cells had still not entirely stopped spinning I decided it was a good time to stop and take stock of what was going on. I edged around the plywood to the staircase and gently sat down upon the third step. Aside from a barely audible “creak”, nothing. I took a deep breath and suddenly realized that the muscles in my chest were slowly loosening up, like I had just gotten out of a swimming pool after holding my nose for over a minute.

I shook my head from left to right a few times, almost half hoping that some cobwebs would fall out of my ears and provide a semi-rational explanation for the events thus far. No such luck. Although my vision was clearer and my rate of breathing slowly returning to normal my surroundings remained unchanged.

What was going on? I again looked up at the windows above the main doors and then down at the plywood which, moments prior, had been secured in such a way as to ensure that no rocks, rain, sleet, snow, sunlight, pre-teens, teens, adolescents, and possibly even oxygen, could find their way inside. The large, somewhat rusted bolts which had secured it to the walls were also bent and warped, like nails which had resisted every step of the way when being pulled from a wall by a hammer. As these main windows had been double-covered I could only assume that the similar plank on the exterior had also fallen away, or been pulled away. I tried not to linger long on the latter thought.

Ok, how? The town’s efforts to mothball the school had obviously succeeded which meant the boards and their fastenings must have been strong and well secured. Why would they fall away now? Had there been a mild earth tremor? Had pressure equalization cause the boards to shake and their fastening bolts to come loose? Was Fred outside with a bucket truck, ripping the boards loose from the façade one by one? Highly UN-likely.

Now, time to put “reality” to the test. I banged on the oak step upon which I was sitting. Solid as a rock, and the resulting echo was normal. I reached to my right and brushed my fingers against the plastered wall and a small piece of 8 ½ by 11 paper held in place by a yellowed strip of tape. The wall felt cool and dry and the paper felt just as one would expect, a little dried out and weathered but otherwise normal, or as “normal” as an announcement that read Final School Portrait Day. May 27th 1977. 8am – 11am. Library. Please see Ms. Stone for payment, can be when the date is now, eh, sometime in September 2017. I’ve lost track of…you know…again.

To this day I don’t know WHY I did it, but I sincerely felt I just had to put things to one additional test. I gripped the sheet of paper from the bottom and gave it a quick, downward tug. The aged tape gave way with little to no resistance and the paper then simply hung loose in my hand. So, the laws of gravity and adhesion were still functioning normally and the walls and steps did not seem on the verge of morphing into some parapsychological (another big word that I only partially understand but which seems apropos.) jelly.

I sat there for a few moments, reading and re-reading the seemingly innocuous notice, and for just a few seconds allowed my mind to settle back into an almost-pleasant state of blissful reminiscence. So simple a thing, just a sheet of paper with a long past-due message. Yet, 40 years earlier this bit of information may have represented the last opportunity for innocent (well, mostly, I too was young once.) young kids and hard working staff to have their images captured for posterity as the last class to pass through the school’s doors. Now, after 40 years, the message had become frozen along with the rest of the building. Trapped, I guess you could say, safe in its own little cocoon.

The answer at that instant seemed obvious; my overworked and underpaid mind was playing vivid tricks on me, and I was letting it win. Who can honestly say just how a building that has been sealed up tight for 40 years will react when suddenly re-exposed to the elements, especially on a hot, late summer day. The reintroduction of heat and humidity alone could be causing the very walls and joints to expand. This results in odd but perfectly logical noises, and the sudden influx of moving air could have caused some things, like the flimsy sheet of paper in my hand, to move and shift for the first time since they were sealed up. This also could, although it WAS a bit of a stretch, cause the sudden parting of the sheets of plywood from the walls. The heat and humidity cause the boards to warp, the force is enough to wrench the 40-year-old rusted bolts loose from the plaster, and the end result, they fall away and let the sunshine in.

Yes, yes that must be it; the building was simply making up for 40 years of inactivity, and its amazing state of preservation was fueling the illusion.

After all, aside from what sounded like, but very well may NOT have been, a scream from what seemed like, but easily may NOT have been, the upper floors, all of the other unnerving occurrences could be explained…allowing for a fair amount of blind faith.

All logical and simple enough; a thought which prevailed for about five seconds. Then, I heard it.

“No, no I’m sorry but that is final. He should have considered that after the first three warnings.”

To say that I froze would have been an understatement. It was more like an instantaneous onset of rigor mortis. A crisp, clear, female voice had just reverberated down the stairs from somewhere above. It did not sound artificial or like something that had been tweaked by modern, digital magic. No, it sounded exactly like words spoken by a living, breathing human being would sound. Then, as if to reinforce its legitimacy, it continued.

“Now I know how this must make you feel, but neither Jimmy nor yourself are above the rules Henry.” The unseen voice continued in a polite but emphatic tone. “There is just no way around it this time. The results are what they are and I can’t change them this time. Now I truly am sorry.”

There was no answer, yet the apparent end of the statement heralded its instantaneous replacement by yet another paralyzing sound; footsteps, and they sounded very much as though they were headed in MY general direction.

Using all of my will to break free from whatever force had left me immobilized I jumped forward and lunged for the front doors. I had the distinct and sinking feeling that I had stayed far too long and had no desire to hear or see anymore. Without missing a step I thrust the weight of my body against the front doors and…I’m quite certain that I did my shoulder an injury. The door did not budge one inch.

Fear and panic rapidly taking hold I gripped the fire bars on both doors and began to push and release with all the strength I could muster, which given my current surge of adrenaline must have been significant. Still, no joy. The fire bars bent and shifted but the doors remained sealed tight. In a moment of blind terror I banged on the doors with my fists in a furious attempt to get someone’s attention. Curiously…or maddeningly…my wild actions launched against the immovable objects, the doors, did not echo up the stairs or down the halls. I again grabbed at one of the fire bars and did my best to force it into compliance, pulling back and pushing forward at least a dozen times. The bar clicked and clanked, but the sound still did not travel. It instead died out in a dull, muffled reverberation that seemed to radiate no more than two or three feet.

Overtaken by terror and feeling like a caged rat I turned to face the staircase and slowly sank down to a sitting position with my back pressed firmly against one of the doors. For the first time in ages I was literally near the point of tears. Even my own mind, normally capable of finding a humorous or pragmatic twist to just about any situation, seemed to be slowly unraveling. My heart pounded and my breathing rate tripled as I sat there, clutching my chest, practically cowering against the door and waiting for whatever fresh, new horror may present itself. Unfortunately I did not have to wait long.

The footsteps, which seemed to be coming from somewhere upstairs and to the right, continued and grew a bit louder with each passing second. For a brief instant they paused and another voice, this time a male, also spoke up out of nowhere.

“Joyce, please,” The male voice implored. “You know what this will mean. He won’t transfer, and he’ll have to go to…”

“Yes, he will,” The female voice replied with a bit more authority. “And I am sorry for that, but I can’t make any more exceptions just because he’s your son, Henry. I’ve already given him too many passes…which you don’t get too often in REAL life. And…if you’re concerned about your own position then I’d consider just what a backlash…ugh, not to mention your breath before 5pm…might mean. Ya know scotch is not really a good substitute for cologne.”

At this, the phantom voices seemed to reach the top of the stairs. I did my best to slide my back up the door and to a standing position, feeling that the need to escape or strike out may once again arise. Then, with slow but deliberate steps, the disembodied footfalls began to descend. I made ready to jump, pounce, pray, I honestly had no idea which, but an instant later that urge dissolved. My eyes became transfixed upon the upper portion of the stairs. Slowly, but surely, a kind of blurry distortion began to form.

It started as nothing more than what you might think of as a smudge on your glasses. A thin layer of distortion in your vision. About four steps from the top this distortion, or whatever the hell it was, became more defined and took on the unmistakable outline of a human form. A misty swirl of light blue smoke seemed to envelop this ill-defined shape and by the sixth step it had solidified into a firm outline. Two steps later, my jaw again dropped. What had been a blur, then a shape, and then a cloud of fog, was now a woman.

“Joyce, for God’s sake please reconsider!” The male voice shouted..and then faded…from somewhere above.

By the time the woman had reached the final five steps she looked just as solid and whole as either you or I. Had she not gradually “faded in” while traversing the steps I would not have known that I was looking at anything unusual. Whoever, or whatever she was, she was about my height, had dark blonde hair which was tied back behind her shoulders and was wearing a pair of glasses with very large, round lenses. There was no way around it, her attire was most certainly NOT that of 2017, and I had the uneasy feeling that 1977 would have been closer to the mark. Her pinkish blouse and shapely green pants looked to be doing a perfect job of balancing the scales between “conservative” and “trendy”.

With Two or three books were cupped in her right arm she descended the final steps with confidently, before suddenly coming to a halt just before turning towards the side hall to the left. (her right) She stood still for a moment as if something had fleetingly caught her attention and she was debating whether or not to pay it any mind. I remained as still as I could, and not for one second did I take my eyes off of her. Every bit of her tone, dress and posture had made it quite plain to see that she was an educator of some kind.

As I looked on, not daring to move or speak, the figure of the woman slowly turned around. To both my astonishment and dismay she stared right at me. Not through or past me, AT me. A quizzical look crossed her face and I had the unfortunate impression that she was trying to make sense of something odd, only this time, the odd thing, was me.

“Excuse me, can I help you?” The woman asked in a surprisingly polite and friendly manner. “Sorry, but I thought all the parents had already gone. Do you need help with something?”

I attempted to say “uh well,” however the only sound that came out of my immobilized mouth was something between a gasp and a heave. I had no idea who or what she was, but for some strange reason I was no longer tempted to make like a scared rabbit and bolt.

“Are you ok?” The woman asked with both manners and concern. “Is there someone you need to see?”

“I, eh,” I was finally able to stammer. “Well, you see…”

My entire body and soul must have been on auto-pilot at this juncture as I haven’t the faintest idea what I was intending to say or do. My brain was still processing the events of several seconds previous…seeing some kind of specter or phantom calmly walk down the stairs in full daylight…and was definitely not prepared for something so simple as polite chit chat. And yet, that is what I was facing; not a howling banshee or some rotted corpse-like demon fresh from internment, but what looked and sounded for all the world like a woman who could well have been one of my grammar school teachers.

“If you’ve come to pick up your kid I’m afraid your about 15 minutes too late,” The woman continued with a smile and tone that were somehow pulling me back from the edge of insanity. “They all took off pretty quick, parents too. Guess most of them wanted to get to the fair before the balloons went up.”

“Oh…” I again stammered, still not fully aware of what I was saying or thinking. “Probably, yeah. Wouldn’t eh, wouldn’t wanna miss that.”

“I know,” she replied, at the same time relaxing and leaning back against the door jamb leading to the side hall. “I had hoped to make a little time for it myself but, well, last-day-last-minute and all that.”

“Last day?” I mumbled as the gears of my brain gradually began to re-engage.

“For them at any rate,” She said with an endearing and sincere chuckle. “We still get to mop up before hibernation time. I know it must sound square to say it but I really am going to miss this place, I, oh I’m sorry I completely forgot, I’m Ms. Macintyre. Joyce Macintyre. (A pseudonym? Only a select few of you know for certain…and I hope you are all squirming right at this moment.) History, Geography and everything else that means names, dates and boredom.”

At this the woman, whom I now knew to be a teacher, stretched out her left hand. Had it not been for her completely disarming smile and charming disposition I may very well have reared back like a startled deer and attempted to climb the walls. As it was, I took a few seconds to survey the limb which was now kindly stretched out in my direction. Completely opaque. No hint of translucence. No weapons. Part of me KNEW instinctively that this could not be real, but whatever part of my brain was in control at that moment slowly guided my left hand towards hers. As our palms touched and fingers gripped a sensation, not unlike the inside of an ice box, shot through my arm. Again overpowered by fear I loosened my grip and flung myself backwards against the wall directly opposite my newly arrived companion.

The expression on her face may well have rivaled my own as she too looked both shocked and startled. However, rather than turn and run or scream for help she merely pulled her left arm back and brought her hand up to her mouth. Her expression was more one of concern and confusion, as though she were afraid she may have done me an injury of some kind.

“Oh my, oh,” She said with genuine concern. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

This time my fears were not so easily assuaged. The woman who called herself Joyce took a cautious step in my direction, her left hand once again reached out although this time as if she had intentions of rendering aid or comfort. My frazzled mind, however, did not seem to process this last important point as I pressed my back firmly against the wall and slid to my right, towards the stairs and out of her reach. My sudden reaction to what she must have intended as a gesture of concern appeared to cause her even more confusion.

“Hey!” She called out as I continued to slide along the wall and onto the first step. “What, what’s wrong, I…”

“Just what the hell is this?” I cried out through clenched teeth. “And who in the hell are you, really?”

“Language, please,” She replied with what was still an amazing sense of calm. “I’m Joyce Macintyre. I…”

Joyce, if that was indeed her name, made another movement in my direction. I edged further back. She again paused in confusion, looked at me with a concerned yet somewhat naïve expression, and then faded away. Faster than she had appeared she simply evaporated into nothingness in less than a second.

I’ve always prided myself on being a complete and utter pragmatist. The idea of ghosts, spirits, demons, zombies, or any of the other stuff you happen upon while surfing the web or changing channels, was something I had never given a first much less a second thought. True, they occasionally made for entertaining stories which often doubled as cures for insomnia (Much as this one may be doing at this point.) but they were NEVER anything more than just that; stories. Fables. Legends. Good excuses to explain how a shoe went missing or a vase suddenly cracked and broke without so much as being nudged.

And yet, the cold chill, which was still coursing through my left arm like ice water in my veins, was doing a fast and thorough job of convincing me otherwise. Either my mind had completely slipped off its axle, or I had just not only spoken to, but TOUCHED a…a… no! It was impossible. Dreaming, I must be dreaming. I imagined, as I sat there cowering on the bottom step, that my real body must be laying ten feet away in the side hallway, still imobilized.

“I’m sorry,” Said a VERY familiar voice from out-of-nowhere-right-in-front-of-me. “I didn’t mean to shock you.”

The specter, ghost, phantom, spirit, or whatever, of Joyce Macintyre materialized right in front of me. She was now stooped down on one knee and looking into my eyes with the manner of a nurse examining a patient who was just emerging from a coma. Not far from the truth actually.

“Must have been the new pants,” Joyce said with only slightly forced humor. “That and the carpet in the lounge. Guess I built up quite a charge. I hope you take Master Charge.”

She smiled even wider. I suddenly felt what must have been the dumbest and most ill-placed of grins cross my face. Quite a feat considering the fact that my insides felt as though they were on the verge of melting.

“I, da, um,” I again mumbled in a punchy tone. “Whazat?”

“Obviously a very poor attempt at a humorous bedside manner,” Joyce replied, sinking down even lower until she too was sitting on the same step as I. “I assume you’re like the desk clerk then?”

“The whom?” I replied, in 100% total and complete confusion.

“The desk clerk,” She said, straightening up in an almost theatrical manner. “A man asks the desk clerk ‘Do you take children here?’ and the desk clerk replies ‘No, just cash or check’.”

“Heh, heh.” Was about all my addled mind could muster.

“That bad huh?” Joyce replied in a manner that was now bordering on playfulness. “Strange, it worked perfectly for Carson.”

“Can I ask you something?” I asked, totally out of left field.

“Sure, anything,” Joyce replied, her sense of concern and motherly charm returning. “So long as it’s not connected to History or Geography. For the next two days at least I’m on strike…and for the remainder of the summer the rest of me is out in sympathy.”

“Eh, well, good,” I began, or tried to. “But, can you tell me just one thing?”

“Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere.” Was Joyce’s surprisingly upbeat reply to what I thought must have been my near-delirious tone.

With this latest witticism I felt certain I already knew the answer to my burning question but something inside me, hopefully just my nerves, forced it past my lips anyway. Joyce leaned ever so closer as I did my best to rise up and string together a cohesive sentence.

“Am I dead?” I asked feebly but with total conviction.

“Well, let’s see.” Joyce replied.

Without missing a beat she delivered a swift but accurate Karate chop to a spot just below my knee. The result was instantaneous, chilling, and terrifying. My leg…spasm’d.

“Nope,” Joyce declared, sounding as though she had just completed a diagnosis of a sputtering engine. “Seems functional enough. I’m not certain now if I can say the same for your sense of humor but your lower funny bone is in perfect working order.”

“What the heck”, I thought to myself. So long as I KNOW I’ve lost my mind I might as well play along until the men in the white coats show up.

“He he,” I suddenly giggled as the rhythmic clapping and ringing of a tambourine filled my head. “Oh, they’re coming to take me away, ha ha, they’re coming to…”

“Hey, now that’s better,” Joyce said through subdued laughter. “Kinda hard to be a teacher…or a parent these days if you can’t join in the jokes.”

“Ohhh, he he,” I replied in a sickly, sing-song way. “Ohh I’m not a teacher OR a parent. Which by now must be MOST apparent. Heh heh. See what I did there?”

“I beg your pardon?” Joyce replied, her tone now shifting from frivolity and back to puzzlement. “Not a parent?”

“Nope,” I replied as I slowly but steadily rose to my feet in a perfectly smooth and overly-playful motion. “And judging by how this day is going I probably never will be. He he.”

“I’m eh,” Joyce replied, her confusion mounting. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“And I’m not certain I want you to,” I replied triumphantly as I leapt from the bottom stair to the landing. “And if you knew half of what I knew you know…no…he he, then YOU wouldn’t want to either.”

“Ok,” Joyce replied as she too stood up and joined me on the landing, her demeanor still refusing to slip into one of terror or distress. “You’ve got good moves and a nifty opening monologue, but I’m afraid you lost me on that last bit. What is it you know that I know, but only half as much as you do?”

Was that actually what I said? At this my giddy balloon abruptly burst. All levity evaporated and my mind settled back into some semblance of reality. I KNEW what she was, but did she not know? I took a second to again scan my surroundings. With the exception of Joyce, who looked like she had stepped straight out of a 1976 catalog, the rest of the foyer still looked like, well, it looked like 2017…dust, cobwebs and all. Could she not see it? Could she not see the twisted hunk of wood she was stand…I looked down and froze.

“What is it?” Joyce said as she too looked down and surveyed the landing.

It was only NOW that I noticed Joyce’s feet. Although she was wearing a very high set of white clogs I was only able to see the very upper portion of their strap as they wrapped around her ankles. The rest of her shoes, which I imagined must be a real blast-from-the-past, were obscured beneath the twisted section of plywood. She was not standing ON it, she was standing THROUGH it.

My eyes must have bugged out at this point as Joyce again reached forward, only this time she gently gripped my chin and tilted my head back to a level position, although my jaw refused to fully comply. The icy sensation partially enveloped my mandible though it was not as intense as before.

“What is it?” Joyce asked with what was obviously mock seriousness. “Termites? Ants? Jitterbugs?”

By this point I so wanted to reply in kind, but at that moment any humor and whit I may have still possessed completely failed me and were instantly replaced by an overpowering sense of pity.

“You, you,” I stammered, my somewhat chilled jaw not helping matters much.

“Yes,” Joyce replied, her tone still calm and pleasant. “Me me, what?”

“I, I can’t,” I eventually managed to spit out before pulling my face away from Joyce’s hand. “I just can’t. You don’t kn…you must. Oh boy I think I need a drink.”

“Sorry, the principal already locked his office,” Joyce again replied without missing a beat.

If only I were able to return her blissful naiveté. If only I could say something that would help to bring this bizarre, yet strangely amusing conversation, to an end. If only, if only…

“If only you were,” I said absent-mindedly.

“Hey, cool it,” Joyce again teased. “Now you sound like all the others around here. I’m not THAT young.”

“Oh you have NO idea,” I lamented out loud, turning on my heel to face away. “None what-so-ever.”

“Ok you’ve lost me again,” Joyce replied.

“That makes two of us,” I said with mounting angst as I stepped away from Joyce and slowly leaned my head against the wall opposite. “One lost little man and one lost…”

“Careful how you finish that,” Joyce teased with a pointed finger. “I’ve won a few and lost a few but…”

“The tide is high and you’re holding on?” I answered automatically and with deepening annoyance.

“What?” Joyce replied, sounding thoroughly perplexed.

“Never mind,” I answered meekly while at the same time bringing my hands up to cover my face.

“Listen,” Joyce said with more of her light-hearted yet friendly urgency. “Are you sure you’re ok?” “Are you for real?” I asked without taking the time to stop and think. “I mean are you REALLY here, right now?”

“Well,” Joyce replied in what was becoming her usual, whimsical way. “Where else would I be?”

“I dunno,” I replied weakly, my hope for a rational explanation continuing to fade. “The 60s maybe?”

A very disturbing notion flashed through my mind. I gently pushed myself away from the wall and turned around to face Joyce again. I knew I had to break this, this wall somehow, but I also knew it had to be done very slowly. I’d heard that one of the worst things you could ever do was to wake up a sleepwalker, so I assumed for the moment that it would apply equally as well to the physical embodiment of an ethereal entity. (Now where in the HELL did I read that one?)

“Joyce,” I said emphatically but calmly. “Joyce, quickly now…”

I slowly approached Joyce, gently raised my arms until they were level with her chin, and then allowed each of my hands to rest upon her shoulders. The icy chill returned and pulsed threw my body. It took every bit of my strength to ignore it and press on. Surprisingly, Joyce did not reel backwards or duck and strike as though she were being attacked…the reaction I would have expected from almost any other female I knew…but simply remained still and looked straight into my eyes as I spoke. Hers were green…I mean…never mind.

“Yes?” Joyce asked, not taking her eyes off me for a moment.

“Quickly now,” I continued gingerly. “What year is this?”

“The Year of the Snake,” She replied on perfect cue. “Why?”

I winced tightly, trying my best to keep my focus on the task at hand, which is not easy when staring into the eyes of an obviously sweet and lovely woman who…again…never mind. Back on track.

“No, no I mean seriously, numerically,” I said in a far more urgent way. “What YEAR is this?”

“Well, I hope its still 1977,” Joyce replied. “Otherwise my clothes may already be out of style.”

“Please,” I said, lowering my head between my outstretched arms and tightening my grip on Joyce’s shoulders. “Please, listen to me. What if, what if I were to tell you that it’s not 1977?”

“Then I’d say it’s time to go shopping,” Joyce replied, her solidly cheerful demeanor still intact.

“For a new smart phone?” I shot back, hoping to shake something loose.

“Huh?” Joyce replied before again smiling widely. “Oh, I see. Well it’s a new approach at any rate. Sorry I was slow on the uptake. Why not, I won’t be back until Monday but my phone number is 555…”

Oh boy! There was nothing left to do. It may shake the Earth from its axis or rip the fabric of time right down the middle, but I was out of options. I was going to have to be blunt, brutally blunt…either that or else face the prospect of spending the remaining years of my life in a padded cell.

“No, no Joyce, no,” I replied in polite frustration, shaking my head from left to right before again bringing it up to meet her gaze. “As tempting as that sounds, I can’t. I can’t because either you or me…”

“You or ‘I,’” Joyce playfully corrected before laying her index finger over my lips.

Hot and cold chills simultaneously this time.

“Yes, yes, either you or I,” I continued as if walking on egg shells. “Are not really here. You see, right now, right at this very moment, it’s not 1977, it’s 2017. Either that, or one of us is having a very intense nightmare.”

“Or on a pretty wild trip?” Joyce replied, her playfulness now bordering on the farcical.

“What!?” I replied in total shock. “No, no not that either. Good grief what were you think…”

“Hey, it’s cool,” Joyce replied, making me wonder more and more just how old she REALLY was and if she truly was a public school teacher. “I can’t say I personally condone it…at least not out loud…but, well, I know what it’s like to ‘turn on’ once in a while. No judgment here Mister…eh, sorry, but in all the fun I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

“I never had a chance to throw it,” I mumbled under my breath. “I balked. Listen, Joyce…”

“Now now,” Joyce replied impishly, again placing her index finger on my lips. “Fair is fair. I’m not saying another word until you tell me YOUR name.”

“Are you ON something?” I replied in exasperation, trying my best to keep my mind wrapped around this CRAZY affair.

“Summer’s here so,” Joyce replied in the same bubbly way before reaching up and placing her own hands atop mine. “Right now just Cloud Nine.”

The latest jolt of ice was more than I could take. Doing my best not to let on I gently lifted up my hands and pulled them out from under hers. Joyce, for the first time, flashed a somewhat surprised and disappointed look, a look which indicated she was unable to fathom why anyone would reject her friendly overtures…however out of place they may have been.

“What?” Joyce replied, sounding almost embarrassed. “I’m sorry wa…was it something I said?”

“Cloud Nine?” I said wearily. “On a cloud…yeah, I guess that could be possible. At this point I guess ANYTHING is possible.”

“Of course,” Joyce said as she placed HER hands on MY shoulders (ice once again shot through my veins) and looked me straight in the eyes. “Why not?”

“Because you’re dead Joyce,” I said pointedly and doing my best not to shiver.

“Huh,” said Joyce, the first tiny hint of genuine doubt flashing in her eyes.

I knew what I had to do. Bracing myself I reached into the right side pocket of my work suit and pulled out my mini-computer tablet. One quick swipe of my finger and an animated image of an Arctic seascape blinked onto the screen. I could just make out Joyce’s eyes behind the reflection in her over­sized glasses and they swelled to twice the size they had been an instant before.

Joyce’s hands left my shoulders and she quickly backed a few steps away, her eyes glued with obvious horror to what, for her, must have seemed like a magical image.

“Ice,” I said, for the first time with an air of authority. “Appropriate, wouldn’t you say?”

“No, I…what am I looking at?” Joyce replied in a terrified tone before suddenly evaporating, this time in a whirlwind-like swirl of thick, dark mist.

An instant later the entire building gave a brief but very discernable quiver. Bits of loose paint and plaster rained down like snowflakes, giving the floor of the foyer an almost polka dot like appearance. Seconds later, another shock; The same ear-piercing scream which had previously shattered the silence once again split the air, coming from somewhere above. However, this time, it was followed by another sound, a very unpleasant sound that made me instantly wish I had allowed Joyce to continue playing “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Bitch!” An angry male voice roared. “You had your chance! Get back here!”

“Nooo!” Screamed…screamed…Joyce???

“Joyce?!” I instinctively called out after turning my head towards the ceiling. “Joyce?!”

Footsteps, far heavier and louder than before, once again thundered along from somewhere on the second floor. A second later they arrived at the top of the steps, a second later they descended the steps, a second later a blast of air as cold as an iceberg shot straight through my midriff. I instantly felt as though I were about to vomit. As I doubled over in agony the footsteps and wind continued past and in the direction of the side hallway, rattling the light fixtures and dislodging more paint chips as it went. In the distance I heard the sound of a heavy door opening and then slamming shut. Indistinct screaming and yelling followed, and then…

BANG! CRASH! CRACK!

“Get away from me you lush!” Joyce cried out from somewhere. “Get away!”

“I’ll break your neck you…” The male voice again shouted. “You ungrateful little, arrgghh! My eyes!”

Again the sound of a door opening and closing, again loud heavy footsteps, this time traveling in the exact opposite direction. Fearing another impact might be more than I could handle I staggered backwards and just inside of a doorway directly opposite the one leading to the side hall I had previously traversed. The icy gust, accompanied by the frantic footsteps, passed by and quickly ascended the staircase.

“For the love of God STOP!” Joyce’s panicked voice again rang out.

“God can’t help you NOW!” Cried the same male voice which seemed to grow more enraged and insane with each utterance. “Ruin my family…you’re going to HELL!”

“NOOO!”

THUD, THUD, THUD, THUD, THUMP!

“No, Damn it!”

“Please, no!” Joyce cried out before her voice completely faded out.

THUMP, THUMP, CRACK!

The building again shuddered, bringing forth yet another cascade of white and green paint chips. Just as the shuddering began to die away the same, faint CLICK CLICK sound began. Moments later each and every fluorescent and incandescent lamp in the school was alight. An instant later, BRIIINNGGG, the bell sounded. Then, all at once the entire foyer suddenly felt like a walk-in freezer. Also, the murmuring… which before had been nothing more than an indistinct mish-mash of distorted voices…now rose to a crystal clear crescendo. No longer was it the muffled, distant sound of unintelligible voices, but a slow, audible wave of many distinct and clear voices, young voices.

Little by little the entire foyer began to swim and shimmer in my vision, like staring through a window spattered with droplets water. Gradually, each individual “droplet” became more and more distinct and began to move in several directions at once. The laws of gravity I had recently tested now seemed to be violating their own rules as most of them appeared to be flowing up…up the stairs…and some were descending. Within seconds these non-descript “droplets” each took on their own unique shapes…unique shapes of unique human beings…and not one “droplet” looked to be over the age of 14.

They were not nearly as well defined as Joyce had been. They instead were mere shapes, dark shapes, outlined with a kind of glowing golden edge. Their heads, shoulders and torsos were far more solid, so much so that I could tell that many appeared to be carrying books and folders, holding hands, gesturing and making other movements which would have normally been brushed off as mundane…except this was about as far from mundane as you could get.

They, whoever THEY were, passed by to my left and right as though I was not even there. It was as if I were looking at a poorly double-exposed film of a small migration of kids, walking up and down the stairway. Aside from their darkened shapes and golden outlines there was no color, just a smooth flow of phantom-like frames going about what, for them, must have been a normal routine.

I stood there and watched for a good minute or more, not knowing whether or not I should speak, jump or run. I did my best to pick out an individual voice but the murmuring…or talking…sounded like it was coming from the far end of a narrow cave.

“She couldn’t get away with it…not a second time,” A female voice said from somewhere in the throng. “They already think she’s hiding it in her locker.”

“He pitches tonight,” Said a younger, male voice. “It’s on channel eight. Two for…”

“The fair starts at 3:30,” Another male voice stated. “We can just make it.”

“My brother says it’s over 90 degrees there right now,” Another female voice said from somewhere. “We’re going down in July if dad can…”

Chatter. Just normal chatter coming from not-so-normal sources. My renewed fear slowly subsided as I continued to watch these newly arrived figures moving about in whatever time or space they existed. Extra cautiously I walked forward until I was standing at the very foot of the stairs. Again, none of the figures…or apparitions…paid me any mind at all. They continued on, both past and through me, the temperature dropping several degrees as they did. I put one foot on the bottom step and began to ascend along with them. One step at a time I walked up the staircase, almost absent-mindedly falling into line with the group which was moving in the same direction. At one point I was almost certain that a paper airplane flew by, barely two inches from my face.

As I neared the second floor landing I observed that the throng ascending the steps split up into two almost equally sized groups, one going down the hall to the left and the other to the right. Still, they appeared as little more than black, human shapes which were not entirely solid…but a sort of wispy, transparent form. The closer they came the more I was able to see that the outlines looked like bright, golden pencil-sketch marks, as if these were just stenciled representations of real kids.

Yet, they walked, they turned, they twisted, they gestured, they even paused and appeared to talk or laugh as they moved. It had been a while, but I vaguely remembered what it was like to move between classes during Junior High and High School, and my awe-struck eyes were continuing to tell me that was what I was looking at.

I stepped into the hallway at the top of the steps. Much like the hallway below it ran the entire length of the building from left to right. Row upon row of lockers were built into the walls between equally spaced sets of doors. Another row of hanging florescent lights also ran the length of the hallway. Each and every one of them was now alight.

CLINK, CLANK.

I nearly jumped out of my skin…which at this juncture must have felt like a beached flounder. My head instinctively turned towards the sound. Down the hallway to the right many of the figures had paused and stopped at various points along the way. Either alone or in small groups most had now halted, and many were reaching towards and into the lockers. I noticed one figure, a young girl, reach towards one locker, her ghost-like hand appearing to grip its handle. CLINK. The handle moved. CLANK! The door opened. In much the same manner the same thing played out dozens of times up and down each length of the hallway. Locker doors opened, arms reached inside of them, they then withdrew, and the locker door again shut. CLANK!

What was I seeing? When was I seeing it? Why was I seeing it? Here again was a hallway, which like the rest of building looked as though it had been put into a vacuum-sealed vault for 40 years, and it was now flooded with what must have been dozens of…of…my mind still would not let me think the word “ghosts”…because they honestly did not fit my pre-conceived notion of “ghosts.” Then again, Joyce, had not exactly fit my idea of a ghost or specter either. Yet, somewhere in the back of my softening mind I knew that’s what she must have been.

These were more like…memories. Like an old home movie playing out on a soft, white wall. The movements were all normal…yet they seemed…pre-ordained. Pre-set. Rehearsed…as though the same exact actions had played out hundreds of times before. They remained completely unaware of my presence, carrying on as though they were still in whatever time they had come from.

A film loop. That’s what it reminded me of, a loop of film or video being played back or projected. A film that had faded or a video being shown on the wrong channel. Now, if only I could hit the “stop” button.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to. Almost as quickly as the figure’s movements had started they all seemed to stop in unison. They did not vanish, or freeze, or fade out…it was far worse. Slowly but surely each of them started to pirouette, away from their lockers, groups, or bulletin boards…and turn in my general direction. The murmuring faded to a low, hushed whisper, like a crowd whose attention had abruptly been broken and focused in another direction. The trouble was, I appeared to be the object of their curiosity. I suddenly had the disquieting sensation of nearly a hundred sets of eyes alighting upon me.

I was again stuck to the floor in both fear and incertitude. I wanted to run…but where? As their movements slowed and their gazes turned towards me the figures became more defined. What had been semi-transparent black shapes now solidified into firm outlines…and then full length shapes. Clothing appeared, and again it was immediately obvious that it was NOT clothing from 2017…but nearer to…to…yes, probably 1977. Flannel tops, denim pants, floral prints and flared trousers abounded along with a scattering of plain t-shirts, tie-front jumpers, tube socks and white-trimmed tennis shoes. Within two or three seconds they were no longer mere memories…but real kids.

How was this possible? It seemed inconceivable that so many youngsters from only 40 years previous could ALREADY be dead and haunting the halls of their old junior high school. Were they really ghosts…or something else? A residue? Some kind of mental or physical imprint which was trapped when the building was sealed up? One thing was certain…however unsettling…whatever they were they were now fully aware that I was among them and that I did not fit in.

I did my best not to make a sudden move or cry out. I looked from my left to my right with firm but slow movements. I had the odd feeling I had just been dropped into the lion’s den and was now doing my best to show neither fear nor aggression. However, one thing was strangely peculiar; even though they were all now staring me down like they would an alien from another planet I felt no sense of hostility or malice. The best possible words to describe it would be “confusion” and “curiosity.” No fear, no hate, no submerged desire to attack…just numerous sets of curious, but innocent eyes, all equally baffled by the new guest in their midst.

Some of them pulled small stacks of books closer to their chests, others reached down to their sides…fiddling with what appeared to be small radios…a few others leaned against their lockers, or adjusted their glasses, or calmly brushed their hair back.

Alive. That’s the only explanation I could come up with at that bizarre moment. This building is alive and so are its memories…whether they be dead OR alive. Then, one of the “memories” spoke.

“Who are you?” Asked a boy who could not have been a day over 13.

The young lad was standing about ten feet away from me and next to a water fountain. Just like Joyce he looked to be 100% real and completely corporeal! For all intense and purposes, he WAS there…right at that very instant. From the two books he held cupped under his left arm, to his denim pants, to his slightly flared t-shirt, right down to his Chuck-type tennis shoes…he was there…and he was wondering who I was.

For a few seconds I stared back, still trying to look neither threatening nor threatened. For his part he also appeared to be neither. From somewhere, either deep in my gut or from the very back of my mind, the words formed and came out of my mouth…though I am still not convinced they were entirely my own.

“You’ll be late,” I said with a slight flourish of authority. “Get a move on now.”

With this the young man twisted his face into a child-like expression of begrudged compliance and turned away. However, I didn’t have much time to savor my small victory.

BANG!

It sounded like an airplane had landed on the roof. The hallway shook violently, so much so that I was nearly thrown off balance and back down the steps. An instant later the figure of every kid lining the hallway simply winked out. Gone, in an instant. But every vestige of their presence did not vanish with them. With one thump, thud and crack after another books, folders, pens, pencils, radios, boxes, and other personal items dropped to the ground, directly upon the spot where their former owners had been standing. The apparitions themselves were gone…but their “things” remained.

The shuddering died out as quickly as it came…not that the silence which followed was any more inviting.

“I should have gone after that drink,” I said aloud, desperate to break the eerie stillness which had once again descended. “Locked door or not, 52 year old scotch would be just the…”

THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!

This time the direction was clear. I again turned to face down the hallway to the right. About a third of the way down a thin layer of dust on the floor in front of one of the many doors swirled as though invisible shoes were stirring it up. I could just make out the faint sound of shuffling feet…feet that seemed to be unsure of which way to go but wanting to get there in a hurry.

That’s it! I had had enough. Whatever was going on I was either going to find out what the hell it was or die trying. I bolted forward and ran towards the dust cloud and door as fast as my own feet would take me. I don’t know if I startled someone…or something…but when I reached the opened door the shuffling sound instantly faded away. I slid to halt, though not very gracefully, and grabbed the end of a row of lockers to stop my momentum. I spun round to face into the hallway. Nothing. I quickly reversed the process and looked inside the room to which the door belonged. Just a lone teacher’s desk near the front and some smaller student’s desks off to the left. I again turned and faced into the hallway, now ready for whatever may come my way.

“Alright!” I called out into the emptiness. “Whoever, or WHATever the hell you are I am DONE! I don’t know what you want but you’d better DAMN well tell me now!”

“Again…language, please,” Said a familiar voice from inside the classroom. “I know you HEAR worse around here but that doesn’t mean we should encourage it.”

A large part of me was relieved and wanted to turn around. Still, another side of my psyche was again thrown for a loop. It mostly just wanted to shut down and pretend that the day had never started. Knowing I had little choice I cautiously turned around to look into the classroom. Sure enough, there she was…sort of. It WAS Joyce, but for some reason she was not standing or sitting, but rather lifting herself up from the floor using the edge of the desk as leverage.

“J…Joyce?” I stammered, my mind doing its best to process what was transpiring. “Joyce?”

“That’s my name,” She replied in the same upbeat, almost teasing manner as before. “Though if you say it again you’ll have to buy me a new one. Found whatever it was you were looking for yet?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, my senses returning but my brain still sorting things out. “Are you OK?”

“That’s supposed to be my question isn’t it?” She said, now back on her feet and leaning against the edge of the desk. “Never mind, must have tripped over my own two feet. Guess that makes me, what, a Clod in Clogs?”

“Didn’t I…” I began with great hesitation. “Didn’t I just hear you scream?”

“Did Steve McQueen walk by the door?” She replied jokingly.

“Um…” I fumbled, her humor still not fully registering. “St…Steve…um…no, at least I don’t THNK so.”

“Then no,” Joyce said simply and bubbly. “It wasn’t me.”

“Joyce,” I repeated with extreme caution. “OK…I give up. What is going on here?”

“Just packing up for the weekend,” Joyce said, pulling slightly away from the desk. “Two days away and then…the LONG weekend. The kind that never seems to end.”

“You, you do remember me,” I asked as I gently edged my way inside of the classroom. “Right? From downstairs?”

“Well, yes and no.” She replied in what was obviously a playfully mysterious way.

“Yes and no?” I replied blankly.

“You never told me your name,” Joyce began. “So I remember you…but not who YOU are…so YOU still have ME at a disadvantage. Right now you’re just the cute guy with the time traveler routine…which I truly love by the way.”

Something was wrong…even more so than the fact that I was once again conversing with an overly flirtatious teacher from 1977 who believed she was still alive and that I would make a suitable stand-in for Steve McQueen. Joyce obviously remembered our conversation…which I guess had taken place about ten minutes previous...yet she was acting as though everything from afterwards…the screams, the loud footsteps, the cries for help…had not happened. Things seemed out of whack, backwards, reversed. She remembered being downstairs…but she had come from upstairs. The events seemed somehow…out of order. It was almost as if they had been re-set. Re-started. Re-wound.

Then, there was that OTHER conversation I overheard, the one that served as a preamble to Joyce’s grand entrance coming down the stairs. That OTHER voice…the man’s voice…the same tipsy one that later was threatening her. Just WHO had she been talking to? Why was HE so angry…and who was obviously NOT going to be advancing to his next grade? Time for True Confessions.

“Joyce, I don’t mean to pry but…” I said, my mind finding its proper gear and up-shifting. “Who were you failing?”

For only the second time Joyce’s face turned somewhat serious. Something about what I said struck a chord somewhere inside her.

“What?” Joyce said with bewilderment and a bit of apprehension.

“Jimmy…Henry…” I again thought out loud. “You were failing Jimmy…Henry’s son.”

“Hey,” Joyce said, for the first time with a slightly defensive tone. “Now, I really love a good joke…not to mention a good magic trick…but I can’t discuss a student’s grades with anyone else. But, how did…?”

“I could hear you…and him,” I replied. “I wasn’t eavesdropping or anything. Trust me, I think the less I hear the better, but it wasn’t very easy to NOT hear it. The, eh, ‘gentleman’…if I can use the term…aside from wasted, sounded just a little irked about his son.”

“Well,” Joyce said with some hesitation. “That’s putting it mildly, and I guess that’s my fault, the raised voices and all. Yeah, well let’s just say that a…a somewhat spoiled young man won’t be getting into high school as soon as he’d like…or as soon as his family would like. I hate to have to do something like that. It really does go against my nature but….well, privilege will only carry you so far in life and he needs to know it, along with his father. I’m not ashamed to be progressive when it comes to most teaching methods but SOME things are just plain out of bounds. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that really must be the end of THAT lesson…though I imagine you’ll hear plenty about it from others.”

Something was still not adding up. I heard Joyce breaking this bad news to “whomever” just before she appeared and then later heard the same man apparently bent on making his displeasure known in a violent way. Yet, Joyce gave no indication that the latter confrontation had occurred. However, if this was the case…why was she getting up from the floor just as she again became visible? Did she really just trip? Are things genuinely out of order? Or…or is it just a…a bad…

“A bad memory?” I said aloud, my thoughts unintentionally pouring forth.

“Not really, no,” Joyce said in the same pleasant way. “At least I like to think it isn’t.”

“Well mine obviously is,” I said with some frustration as I stepped fully inside the classroom and walked closer to Joyce. “And I don’t think I’m alone either. This…this whole place…it’s like it’s awake…but with a memory. A BAD memory…of some things at least.”

“Well, I hope I’m not a bad memory already.” Joyce said brightly, the seriousness of my ponderings not seeming to have registered at all.

“Trust me,” I said with mounting exasperation at Joyce’s ill-placed behavior. “I could NEVER forget you.”

I slumped forward, placing my hands atop a nearby desk to steady my balance as well as my sanity.

“Not even in 40 years.” I continued, my weary head now low between my arms.

“Well,” Joyce said, with even more delight than before. “That’s about the nicest thing you’ve said to me thus far.”

How could she not see it? She was there. I was there, and she could see me. How could she not see that the room we were standing in had been dormant for 40 years? Despite the amazing preservation it STILL did not look like a crisp, shiny classroom whose students had just walked out the door. There WAS dust. There WAS a perfusion of spider webs. Mice HAD obviously been eating at the papers on the floor. There were only about eight desks in the entire room so SOME had obviously been removed at SOME point. The low shelves along the wall beneath the windows were almost entirely VOID of books. Could she not see any of it?

“Joyce,” I said with what little confrontational strength I could muster. “Surely…surely…”

“No, you were right the first time,” Joyce interrupted playfully. “It’s Joyce, not Shirley.”

“OK, we’ll play that game,” I said with a deep huff. “Joyce look, you…you must be able to see that, well, things have…changed. I mean, does the room actually appear NORMAL to you right now?”

“It never really feels NORMAL once all of the kids have left,” Joyce said with the genuine sincerity of someone devoted to their work. “And knowing none of them…or I… are coming back. Sure, it’s a downer but…”

“No,” I interrupted, pushing up from the desk and turning around to again face Joyce. “No. I mean can you honestly not see that…that…how many books are on that shelf?”

I pointed to the shelves beneath the windows where a lone book, which looked like a dictionary, sat on its side, its pages also clearly having fallen victim to the ravenous teeth of vermin.

“Oh,” Joyce said, looking towards the shelves and placing a finger on her chin. “Four classes worth…I’d say about 60 or so. What do I win?”

Another set of rules thrown out the window. This truly did feel like a bad memory. Fragments. Bits and pieces that fit together and many others which did not. I could see and hear some things…Joyce could see and hear SOME things. God, I hated riddles, and this was a doozy, make no mistake.

“Glasses,” I said in dejection. “You…you REALLY see 60 or so books on that shelf?”

“Give or take,” Joyce answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Is this another part of your routine? Another kind of trick? Are the books not supposed to be here anymore?”

This should be simple. We BOTH can’t be right…at least I didn’t think so. I strode over to the shelf and knelt down to my knees. With a swift but certain swipe I waved my hand along the top shelf which, to me at least, was void of anything but cobwebs and the upturned corpse of a mummified mouse. To my delight…perhaps a morbid kind of delight…Joyce jolted slightly. Again, something struck a chord within her. Perhaps another piece of the 40-year-old veil had been stripped away.

“Whoa,” Joyce explained, though more with a tone of surprise as opposed to horror. “Now THAT was kicky. How’d you do that? Is there a mirror there or…”

“Good idea,” I said with a sudden burst of enlightenment as I stood up and turned towards Joyce. “Do you perchance HAVE a mirror?”

“Sure, hang on,” She replied before reaching down towards the surface of the desk. “Just a compact.”

If there was a purse or a handbag there I couldn’t’ see it. I’m not sure at this point what unnerved me more, the fact that Joyce’s hand seemed to partially vanish as though it had been plunged into an invisible fish bowl…or the fact that THIS fact no longer worried me. After a few seconds of rummaging through thin air Joyce withdrew her hand which was now clutching a small, round compact.

“I’m sure by now I need this,” Joyce said as she took the compact into both hands preparatory to opening it. “By the end of the day…or the week…the lack of an AC makes me look like Death warmed over.”

“Please don’t say that,” I said wearily with more than a little nausea.

“Why?” Joyce replied as she opened and then closed the compact. “No sense in denying the truth.”

“That’s what I keep telling myself,” I said through gritted teeth and clenched eyes. “But it’s not working. Trust me Joyce, to ME…you look fine.”

I knew immediately that I should have re-worded that.

“Awww,” Joyce said in an almost unpalatably sweet way. “Now you’re just flirting.”

“No…” I began, realizing my choice of words had been poor. “No, I didn’t mean it like that. I mean to ME you look, well, normal.”

“I’m afraid you’re in small company there,” Joyce replied, taking a few steps in my direction and holding the compact in an outstretched hand. “My age and methods seem to be a little TOO progressive. A bit too much ‘Room 222’ for most around here.”

I reached out and took the compact from Joyce’s hand. Strangely, the cold, icy sensation, which again manifest itself at the moment of contact, felt far less potent. Was this a sign that things were starting to balance out? I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to know or not.

“I was thinking more along the lines of the Twilight Zone.” I said dryly and with little enthusiasm.

“Hey,” Joyce said, again in a playfully resentful tone. “Watch it now good buddy, 10-4?”

“Keep on Truckin’,” I replied automatically though still with little enthusiasm as I took the compact into my own hands and opened it up. “Over and out.”

“Now you’ve got it,” Joyce said with a sudden burst of joy. “Now you’re keepin’ it real.”

“I don’t believe this entire conversation,” I said with exasperation, though more to myself than in reply. “Ok now, let’s see what we shall see.”

I held up the compact and turned the mirror towards my own face. I was more than a little taken aback when everything appeared perfectly normal. My hair, my eyes, even my slowly encroaching crow’s feet were right where they ought to be. The windows behind me still looked just as they had, as did the view of 2017 beyond…cellular phone towers, satellite dishes and all.

“To borrow a phrase,” Joyce said with another smile. “You look fine to me.”

Not trusting what I saw for a minute I rotated my body 180 degrees until Joyce, the desk and the door to the hallway were behind me. I carefully maneuvered the small mirror so that all three of them appeared over my left shoulder. Again, just a reflection of what my own eyes had observed. There was Joyce. There was the door. There was the hall. There was the desk. There was the necklace…my eyes again opened so wide they must have looked like flying saucers. A necklace…which most certainly had NOT been there a moment ago…was now lying on the floor between the main desk and the door. I quickly glanced back at Joyce. Hanging around her neck roughly four inches below her chin…was the SAME necklace.

“Joyce,” I said with as much calm as my present state of being would allow. “Your necklace.”

“You like it?” Joyce replied kindly, taking the small, lantern-shaped trinket into her left hand. “It was my grandmother’s. I still think of her each time I hold it up to the sun. She used to call it her guiding light.”

“It’s not part of set by any chance is it?” I asked, my eyes focusing past Joyce’s reflection and upon the necklace’s doppelganger on the floor between the desk and the door.

“No,” Joyce said with calm surprise. “Why?”

I clenched my eyes tighter in order to bring things into sharper focus. The necklace around Joyce’s neck was a small, golden lantern with tiny panes of glass fitted into each section of its frame. Not a modern lantern, but the kind you would expect to see in Colonial antique shops. The type where you open up one pane in order to place a single candle inside. Looking past Joyce and at the floor behind her I was able to tell that whatever was lying on the floor about two feet away from the edge of the desk was either a carbon copy or the very same necklace. Given that I was conversing with a “memory” from 1977 inside of a make-shift time capsule made it hard to be certain which. One thing however WAS certain; the necklace on the floor behind Joyce was no longer shiny and pristine, in fact it looked as though it had been dropped and trampled upon. The frame was badly twisted and each pane of glass had shattered.

“That can’t be right,” I said before turning around to face in the same direction as the reflection. “Now I MUST be seeing things.”

“Why don’t you take a picture?” Joyce teased. “It’ll last longer.”

“Another good idea,” I said in an epiphany as I again reached into my pocket and withdrew my mini­computer tablet.

“Ugh,” Joyce said with a sudden rush of revulsion. “I don’t like that thing, whatever it is.”

“Hopefully,” I said eagerly as I maneuvered the tiny icons on the screen to engage the Camera setting. “It’s about to become the All Seeing Eye.”

I aimed the camera’s iris and framed Joyce, the desk, the door, and both necklaces in the same shot. An instant later there was a flash. Joyce again jolted and blinked as if she genuinely did not like what I was doing. For my part, I took some small, devilish pride in this. Part of me was, for some reason, now bound and determined to force Reality back onto its rails…even if it meant shattering the sweet, inviting demeanor of a lovely young…there I go again! Focus, damn it. Oh…it WAS in focus. The image froze on the 7-inch screen. To my delight, it appeared just as my own eyes could see it.

“Why didn’t you at least say ‘smile’,” Joyce said, rubbing her eyes in response to the sudden flash of light. “I must have looked horrible. Under penalty of tickling, don’t print that.”

“Too late,” I said with satisfaction as I walked towards Joyce, the computer tablet gripped in my hands and ready for action. “It’s an instant model. Now then, Joyce, I want you to look at this and tell me honestly…what do you see?”

I turned the screen towards Joyce’s face. She again hesitated and took a half-step backwards before gaining back her own strength and focusing her eyes upon the screen.

“I see,” Joyce said while studying the digital image intently. “I see myself, my desk, my…wait a minute…”

A thoroughly puzzled expression crossed Joyce’s face. She looked closer at the screen, quickly glanced behind her at the desk, then back at the screen. Something else appeared to have struck some kind of chord, again forcing her to face whatever it was that was not aligning with whatever alternate world she was seeing.

“My purse, my…” Joyce turned around and looked intently down at the surface of her desk. “It’s here but…it’s not…there. The other desks, my papers, the decorations…where? OK, now I give up. What is that thing?”

“Look at the floor,” I said kindly but firmly while inching the screen a little closer to Joyce’s face. “The floor behind your desk. What do you see?”

Joyce stooped forward and again looked carefully at the screen. This time, it was HER eyes which flashed a look of confounded shock. As if by some kind of reflex action she again reached up with her left hand and took hold of her necklace…the one around her neck that is. Slowly and cautiously she rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger, all the while looking as though she were trying to decipher an immensely complex mathematical equation.

“That’s my…that’s…” Joyce stammered in wonderment tinged with fear. “That’s impossible. I…no!

Joyce quickly straightened up and jerked away from the screen as if it were some kind of poisonous insect. She turned around to face away from me and towards the door to the hallway. Despite this, I could easily tell that she next brought both hands up to point just below her jaw, clamping them together in either terror or prayer. Again, given that I was interacting with full-bodied corporeal apparition (Again, where in the hell did I read that?) it was still difficult to tell.

I wasn’t certain, but I think the thinnest of smiles crossed my own face. Swelled with the satisfaction of having made a tiny chink in Time’s armor I pulled the computer tablet back to my chest, no longer wishing to brandish it like a weapon. I’m no longer proud of it, in fact I’m now utterly ashamed, but at that very instant I was more than pleased with myself for having brought matters to a head. I really should have known better than to tempt fate in such a blatant manner.

“I’m afraid so Joyce,” I said before tilting the tablet and again looking down at the screen. “I don’t know just what is going on either but you can’t ju…YAHHH!”

The image that met my own gaze sent what felt like an electric shock through my entire body. Everything on the screen was still there; Joyce, the desk, the door, the necklace, the necklace, and…and….Joyce? My mind only had an instant to register the fact, but it WAS indeed Joyce, another Joyce, only this “Joyce” was laying crumpled on the floor right beside her shattered necklace. The jolt to my nerves was such that I, myself, jumped back and instinctively let go of the tablet, which then fell to the floor and shattered. Dead.

Joyce turned to face me. The look of friendly, sincere concern which had been on her face during our first encounter now returned. As I took a few terrified steps backwards she approached, her arms again outreached in what must have been an attempt to instill calm.

“What?” Joyce said in the same nurse-like manner as before. “What is it? What did YOU see?”

“You,” I said simply but with a resurgence of fright. “I saw you.”

“Well I saw me too,” Joyce said, still attempting to calm the situation with her own renewed sense of levity. “Though I honestly didn’t think I looked THAT bad.”

“Joyce please, this is NOT some kind of joke,” I nearly cried out. “Much as I wish it were, it isn’t. As unreal as it feels…it is…it’s…”

“Look, I know this is YOUR line, but…” Joyce began with some hesitancy. “What is going on? Who are you and what was that, that picture? Where was my purse, my papers, the Memorial Day decorations, the other desks, and why was my necklace in two places at the same time?”

“If I could answer any of that do you HONESTLY think I’d still be here?” I replied, still near the point of tears and having backed up against the shelves beneath the windows. “I can’t even SEE a damn purse…and don’t say ‘language’…and you, for some reason, can’t see your necklace’s twin, and you’re DAMN lucky you can’t see the other…other…thing.”

“What thing?” Joyce replied.

Time to force matters to a head, or at least try to, again. I stepped forward and took Joyce by the shoulder before not-so-gracefully guiding her over to the spot where her necklace was laying. To my everlasting relief not even I could see her crumpled body, if it in fact was even there, either now OR then. Trying my best to be gentle I pressed lightly on Joyce’s back (Odd, not even a cool breeze this time.) and positioned her so that she was looking directly at the necklace, at least at the place where I could see it.

“Now then,” I said. “Joyce, please listen to me. I want you to focus right there, right there on the floor. Try not to blink, don’t look away. Think about what you saw in the picture and…”

Joyce forced herself back upright and clamped her hands over her eyes. For the first time since she had laid eyes upon the digital image of the polar landscape a bona fide look of sheer horror shown through from between her fingers.

“Please,” Joyce nearly cried. “I don’t want to do this. I’m sorry but…”

“Joyce,” I replied, a newfound sense of calm pervading. “Now listen, I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frightening, but you have to. If either of us are going to figure this thing out we’ve got to get on the same frequency…and we obviously can’t do that until we’re both seeing the same things. (I have absolutely NO IDEA where this next bit came from.) You dig?”

The faintest of giggles escaped from beneath Joyce’s hands, the kind of meek laugh that one lets out when facing impending doom and tries to dress it up in a funny coat and tie.

“I’d rather be Audi 5000,” Joyce said, attempting another jab at humor amid the tension. “But yeah, I dig.”

“Uh…groovy, I think,” I replied, not fully grasping what she had said but taking it to signal her acceptance of the situation. “Ok now, look down and concentrate.”

Joyce slowly pulled her trembling hands away from her face, opened her eyes, and leaned forwards. She stared down at the spot where I could see the mangled form of the necklace, which also hung around her neck in an undamaged state. For better than 15 or 20 seconds Joyce appeared to stare with all her might at what, to her, must have looked like nothing more than wooden floor boards. All at once, she closed her eyes tight and then reopened them. Her expression slowly shifted from one of complete concentration to one of sheer amazement.

“Yes,” Joyce said quietly but with increasing certainty. “Yes I can, I can see it. I can…”

Joyce slowly stooped lower and reached out with her left hand.

“I can…” Joyce said with growing wonderment as she placed her left hand atop the damaged twin of her necklace. “I can…touch it. “

As her hand alit on top the necklace it almost seemed as if the entire building exhaled. A steady but smooth rush of air swept through the room. Not an icy, chilled air as before, but a much warmer and cleaner air that seemed to carry along with it the very sensation of enlightenment. For whatever reason, forcing Joyce onto a wavelength nearer to my own had loosened something up, a loosening-up which I hoped would soon resonate with the sound of answers.

“Oh my,” Joyce said with a smile as the air swirled around us. “Wow…definitely far out.”

“Now you can’t tell me you didn’t feel THAT.” I declared, again with a sort of triumphant air.

“Yes, yes of course I did,” Joyce said, continuing to rub her hand against the broken necklace. “I felt it. I can feel it…I…but how, and why?”

“Joyce,” I began cautiously. “Remember downstairs when I said…when I said that, you’re dead?” “Yes,” Joyce replied, her trepidation slowly creeping back in.

“Well,” I gulped. “I may have been more right than I knew.”

“Ok now you’re scaring ME.” Joyce replied, again attempting to interject what levity she could.

“Well then we’re even,” I replied knowingly. “The picture, when I pulled it back and looked at it…well…I saw…”

I was really getting very tired of having my sentences cut short by the building and its jumbled memory…but it happened again.

“God can’t help you now!” The same enraged voice as before cried out from somewhere just outside the classroom. “Ruin my family…you’re going to hell!”

This time it was louder and even more malevolent. I fell to my knees alongside of Joyce who, in turn, tipped onto her side and almost directly into my grasp. Again, no icy chills and no surge of freezing water in my veins. The solitary chill I felt this time was coming from Joyce, who suddenly seemed absolutely petrified. In the distance, the sound of two sets of footfalls could be heard…footfalls which seemed to get closer and closer with each step. Joyce clutched at my left arm.

“Oh my God,” Joyce cried out as she cowered against me. “No, no it…it can’t be!”

“Who…?” I began hurriedly before I was again cut off.

“Him!” Joyce nearly wailed, her grip on my left arm tightening like a vice.

A loud THUD echoed from down the hallway and into the classroom. The heavy wooden door leading into the room suddenly slammed shut with another THUD and then, just as quickly, opened back up. THUD! The sound of heavy and scampering footsteps followed and the dust in and near the doorway again swirled around as if another set of feet where stirring it. THUD! The door again shut. An instant later the desk at the front of the room jolted…THUMP…as though an unseen, angry hand had given it a shove. The dust on the floor directly in front of Joyce and I suddenly rose straight up and seemed to hang in the air for several seconds.

THUD! THUD! Banging on the door from the outside. CRACK! The door again flew open and crashed heavily into the wall just behind it sending up another cloud of dust and plaster. Two very heavy and very angry footfalls could then be heard from just inside the door. At first nothing visual accompanied this macabre, auditory display. Then, very slowly, another distortion began to appear, roughly two steps inside of the classroom. As before, it started as little more than a blur in my vision. Joyce began to quiver uncontrollably, which I took to mean that whatever I was seeing was visible to her as well.

Gradually this blurry outline too began to solidify into what was most assuredly a human shape. Moments later, the figure of a man stood before us, and a faint yet unmistakable aroma accompanied his appearance…the foul odor of alcohol, scotch to be precise. Joyce gripped me even tighter and pulled her face and body as close to my chest as she could, her trembling now accompanied by faint but maddening whimpers. I slowly allowed myself to return the favor and took Joyce into a comforting embrace. Her fear was palpable, absolute, and my instincts were suddenly telling me that I had to keep her protected as well as restrained.

The man who materialized in front of us eventually appeared just as solid as Joyce, yet he seemed oblivious to our presence and deadly focused on the desk and the floor. He must have stood more than six feet tall and had a full, thick head of reddish hair which was badly mussed up. He was clad in what could best be described as a ‘ 70s power suit’; a light green pair of plaid trousers with a matching vest, a light blue shirt, a loose red necktie and a rumpled up blue blazer. He stood in a manner that indicated he had been either running or fighting and his breathing was both very heavy and very intimidating. With a look of pure evil mixed with disappointment he continued to lean forward and stare down at the point where the edge of the desk met the floor, the same place where the dust had most recently been disturbed.

“Damn it,” The man said angrily, both his teeth and fists tightly clenched. “Damn it to hell!”

Not one single part of me wanted to do it…but I had to be sure.

“Language, please!” I called out loudly.

There was no reaction. Clearly Joyce and I could see and smell this bull of a man but he could not see us. The man next brought his hands up to his head in a show of frustration and ire. He then proceeded to turn around in circles several times as if trying to make up his mind about something very upsetting…possibly life-threatening. He next rushed forward and dropped to one knee, again, just beside the point where the dust was, only now, beginning to settle. He reached out with his left hand and extended two fingers which he held steady for a couple of seconds.

“God da…” The man roared before again standing up, gripping his head, and turning in several more agitated circles. “Damn it! BITCH!! Now what the hell am I…what the…”

The man half-stepped in several directions, as if he were about to make a run for it but halting just as fast. He then turned towards the door to the hallway and paused, apparently sizing up his means of escape.

“You son-of-a…” Joyce whimpered into my chest. “You…you…”

“They can’t,” The man said, sounding more and more manic. “They can’t, they…no. No I can’t let…can’t let them find…where!?”

“BASTARD!” Joyce suddenly roared.

To my horror the man halted in his gesticulations for a moment and turned his head towards the ceiling…as though searching for the source of a distant noise. The sweet, sickly aroma of alcohol seemed to double as the man’s confusion rose. I gripped Joyce tighter and let out a very low SHHHH. The man scanned the ceiling for a second or two but must have quickly concluded that he had heard nothing. He then looked down at the floor, then the desk, then the door. Appearing to have made up his mind he lunged forward like a madman bent on making his getaway. As he did his physical form quickly faded out and was nothing more than a wisp of bluish vapor as it passed through the doorway and into the hall.

Tears suddenly flowed from Joyce’s eyes as she sank down, her body going limp in my arms but her lungs continuing to pulsate with each sob. I stared blankly at the doorway from which our agitated visitor had exited. I thought I was well past the point of being afraid yet something about this most recent vision instilled in me a powerful sense of both fear as well as loathing; a feeling heightened by Joyce’s continuous trembling. Whoever this man was she was far more terrified by his ethereal presence than I was. Doing my best to help ease her obvious fright I gently ran the fingers of my left hand through her hair and down her back, hoping that a light, compassionate touch would have the same effect on ghosts as it did on the living.

Moments after the image of the man evaporated the large, wooden desk in front of us jolted three times, like someone lifting it an inch or two off the floor and then dropping. Yet, it never actually lifted, just shimmied violently. I pulled Joyce even closer, my own sense of dread beginning to return. For an instant I imagined that something unspeakable was trapped inside the large, wooden relic and was attempting to make its escape. However, I had a hard time imagining a cat, rat or other similarly sized animal being able to cause such immense jolts. It reminded me more of a very heavy fist being brought down upon the surface of the desk in absolute, raging anger.

“Joyce wha…” I stammered. “Who was…?”

Before I could finish the room again shuddered faintly. Not a violent, rumbling shudder like before, but more of a mild tremor. I instinctively slid my arm around Joyce’s back and took hold of her right hand, fearful that we were again about to be visited by something, or someone. I was not disappointed…but rather overcome with sickening sense of revulsion.

Gradually, another blurry spot in my vision began to materialize, this time in the very location that seemed to have drawn the undivided attention of our recent, unwanted guest. Just as before it started as nothing more than a thin, hazy mist before slowly morphing into a more distinct, human-shaped outline. Within seconds I could tell what I was looking at. Both my throat and my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. My jaw once again dropped as I watched in horror. The outline formed into a solid shape, the exact same solid shape I had briefly glimpsed on my computer tablet before it too joined the realm of the dead. There, clad in the exact same attire but lying completely motionless…was Joyce.

It was immediately obvious that Joyce too, the one whom I was still cradling in my arms and attempting to comfort, could also see the ghastly image which had just appeared. She brought her hands up to her mouth and gripped her index fingers between her teeth, all the while her tears and trembling continuing to increase. I loosed my grip and Joyce began to push and kick herself backwards, away from her doppelganger. Her expression could not have been more different from that which I had, by now, somehow become accustomed to. The light, flirty, free-spirited and, at least for a teacher, somewhat out-of-place demeanor had completely evaporated. Her eyes were now wide and almost wild with fear. Her face was clenched tight into something resembling both disbelief and absolute terror.

After several seconds of attempting to scamper back and away Joyce stopped and slumped forward as though all of her strength and rationale had left her. She continued to sob and did her best to bury her head in her arms.

Full of my own apprehension but knowing that I needed to be sure of what I was seeing I forced myself back onto my feet and carefully edged towards the “Joyce” who was lying motionless just a few feet from the desk. As I approached I saw that this “Joyce” was lying on her left side in a manner that suggested she had fallen back onto the floor, rolled to her left and remained there. Her dark blonde hair was disheveled as though it had been twisted and thrown about. Her lantern-shaped necklace still lay just where it had been and was now perfectly aligned with the rest of her body.

I slowly bent over and stared down at her face, which had come to rest at a slightly more upward angle. Amid a few stray strands of her hair I was able to see a large, horizontal injury just above the bridge of her nose and along her forehead. To say the very least it was difficult to look at. Something had struck her with such force that it had left a large, sickening indentation from which blood was still trickling out, flowing down over her cheeks and gradually forming a dark crimson pool behind her head.

“Holy Mary mother of God,” I said as my heart continued to plummet. “My God he…he killed…”

“No,” Joyce said faintly and without lifting her head. “No he didn’t. He may have wanted to but…he never got the chance.”

I glanced over at the “Joyce” who was still sitting upright with her head tucked into her arms and then back down at her other self. I was thoroughly perplexed by what Joyce had just said. How in the hell could she have ended up this way had she not been killed?

“I don’t,” I replied, thoroughly puzzled. “I don’t understand. How can you…I mean, how can you not have…?”

“I was running,” Joyce replied in a tone that suggested her spirits were continuing to sink. “I tried to get away. I ran inside…I…looked back and…

Joyce visibly trembled and then lifted her head up. She stared right at me and for the first time I saw the look of total recognition in her eyes. Whatever had happened, whenever it had happened, it was clear now that she remembered it. The room again gave a very faint, almost imperceptible shudder, which died away completely as Joyce continued to speak. I had the distinct impression that both she and I were, at last, on the same exact wavelength.

“I looked back and…” Joyce continued, her own memories now flowing back like water through a ruptured dam. “I turned to run again and I…I tripped. I really DID trip. Hit the side of the desk and…then…then it was just dark.”

“Joyce when was this?” I asked as pointedly as I was able.

“Oh my God I…” Joyce replied her shaking and tears continuing as the truth of what she was now forced to confront began to dawn on her. “I thought it…was just…just now. It still feels like it was. But it…wasn’t, it…my, how? How long have I been here?”

“Joyce I’m sorry but I…I don’t know,” I said with a deep and soul-searching sigh. “I just…I don’t know. What, what is, or was, the date?”

“It ah,” Joyce replied, the very effort of thought appearing to take a heavy toll on her rattled mind. “June. June 3rd.”

“1977?” I asked directly.

“Yes,” Joyce replied, the faintest hint of energy returning. “Yes, that’s right. It’s the last day toda…I mean…it…it was…the…”

I started to feel genuine pangs and pains of emotion. Whatever had happened, whatever was going on, whatever had held the school and it’s interior in a state of near limbo for 40 years had obviously held Joyce along with it. I gritted my teeth, choked back another deep sigh, and again looked down at the “Joyce” lying beside her desk. One lone, reassuring thought passed through my mind as I continued to stare down at her frozen expression and the pool of blood continuing to expand beneath her head; the size and extent of her injury at least meant that her death must have been instantaneous.

Forced to face not only the upbeat and endearing “Joyce” as well as her lifeless counterpart, I suddenly became aware that I was now fully…involved. Before this, Joyce had been nothing but a stranger, a person, a bit of an annoyance actually, a ghost…I think. Now, I felt a real attachment as well a responsibility to help her. It was too soon to call it “love”…but far too late to call it “detached.”

Then, as I pondered the current state of my affections, another curious thought crept into my overworked brain; how had this never come up? I thought back to the extensive research I had done prior to mounting this little expedition for Fred…and I did not recall seeing thing one about a faculty member having died on the school’s last day. One would think that something like that would be rather difficult to ignore, especially for a small town where most everyone knew everyone else. No news articles? No lingering gossip? No questions about the place being sealed up so shortly thereafter? No conspiracy theories about a possible murder being not only covered up…but boarded up?

“Joyce I…” I carefully began. “Who was chasing you? And whether he succeeded or not, who was TRYING to kill you?”

Joyce took a deep breath and looked me straight in the eyes. She appeared very much like someone who was about to remove the weight of the world from her shoulders, but at the same time, like someone who felt it would not make any difference.

“Henry Stover.” She said heavily.

I suddenly had the sensation of having been hit in the face with a bucket of cold water. I knew that name…at least the surname anyway. If it was who I thought it was then this insane trip down the rabbit hole might actually make some kind of sense, or at least, as much sense something of this nature CAN make.

“Stover?” I asked directly. “As in ‘Mayor’ Stover’”?

“Yes,” Joyce replied, again with a heavy sense of melancholy. “Henry ‘son-of-the-Mayor-Stover’…and his offspring Jimmy Stover…whose just a son-of-a…”

“Now,” I replied, preparing to do my best attempt at bedside humor. “Now now Joyce,”

“What?” Joyce replied with a genuine tone of confusion.

“Language,” I replied, forcing a weak but sincere smile onto my face as I utilized Joyce’s own methods in an attempt to pull her back from the brink. “Please.”

It was very thin and appeared only briefly but another grin momentarily flashed on Joyce’s face accompanied by a barely audible “hmm”. I glanced back down at the “Joyce” lying on the floor…and then at the “Joyce” who was still sitting in a loose huddle a few feet away. I mentioned earlier how much I hated…and still hate…riddles; or, again…I think I did. You can see just what a so-called “ripple” in time can do to your own memories and perceptions. It was like trying to work out a simple arithmetic equation…like two plus two…and getting a completely erroneous answer like sixteen.

“He was threatening to kill you…” I began, having a hard time believing the implications. “Just because his son was going to fail the ninth grade?”

“You’ve obviously never had the DIS-pleasure,” Joyce replied with a distinct note of disgust. “This came ONLY after three detentions and a suspension from the baseball team, ALL of which his royal ‘heiny­ness’ took as a personal and familial insult from a low-level, counter-culture-loving outsider. Hypocrite!”

My mind continued to churn. If Henry Stover, the mayor’s son, had caused the death of a faculty member then WHY on earth would he want to seal up the crime scene like a tomb? Just to keep his secret in the short term? This made little sense to me. The mathematical equation was still just not computing.

“This is bizarre,” I exclaimed, half to myself and half to Joyce. “Something still just does not make sense here.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Joyce replied in a voice still heavy with dread and confusion.

“Trust me,” I replied, again trying to keep an appropriate level of levity in my tone. “There’s obviously plenty that I don’t know.”

“Well just how do you think I feel,” Joyce said with the first real hint of indignation. “I just learned I’ve been dead for the last 40 years and yet I’m still sitting here on the floor of my classroom…literally beside myself…oh my God!”

Joyce pulled her knees up to her chest and again buried her face in her arms.

“I don’t understand,” Joyce said through her tears. “How can I be…here…and there…at the same time. If I’m dead then, who, or what is she?”

“A memory,” I said automatically, a few pieces of the chain linking up in my mind. “A seared image. A residue. Granted it’s not my field but I’ve read enough bad ghost stories to understand the concept…if you can call it that. It’s like a…a film that just keeps playing. I still don’t know if I even believe it or not but, somehow, that IS you…you in 1977.”

Joyce lifted her head abruptly as if I had yet again struck a chord. She stared at the lifeless version of herself for a moment, her level of confusion obviously still on the rise.

“But if that’ my…my…” Joyce exclaimed, the full measure of her terror now evident. “Ghost…or my…my…I can’t even say it. If SHE is ME then who am I”?

I had hoped this particular topic would not be broached as it was precisely the same thought which had been running through my own mind for several minutes. I had, somehow, managed to come to terms with the fact that the “Joyce” with whom I had been interacting was just that, a ghost. Yet, I too was thoroughly confused…not to mention terrified…by the arrival of the second “Joyce”, the one representing the ultimate fate of the actual “Joyce.” I could make an educated guess WHY I was seeing what I was seeing; an untimely death or murder which had apparently either been forgotten or left unsolved. Even my own limited knowledge of the paranormal could fathom this. But, I could NOT fathom why the unfortunate victim was appearing in duplicate, accompanied by a walking and talking counterpart who seemed in every way, shape and form to be human.

“Joyce, I don’t know,” Was all I could think to say. “Again, this whole THING feels like some kind of BAD memory. 30 minutes ago I wouldn’t have even believed HALF of it. Now, I just don’t know what to believe. It’s like this whole place is both alive and confused.”

“Nice to know I’m not alone,” Joyce said with an equal mixture of dark humor and dejection.

“Joyce that’s impossible,” I said, taking a few steps towards the 'Joyce' sitting crisscrossed on the floor. “You can’t be…”

“Look!” Joyce shouted back in a frustrated panic. “I am here! I can feel the floor, I can feel my tears, I…I can see…see…myself.”

Joyce brushed her hand along the dusty, wooden floor and then banged on it twice with her fist. Little puffs of dust rose from beneath her hand.

“I can feel the dust now,” Joyce continued. “I can’t see the books anymore, or my purse, or the decorations I was taking down, or the other desks that were here. How in the hell can I be a ghost if I can feel, hear and smell the same things as you?”

“I don’t…” I said with mounting agitation at the mish-mash of inconsistencies. “I just DON’T. Look let’s just…let’s just try to work this out with something resembling logic.”

“This is a Junior High School,” Joyce replied with another tone of dark humor. “Philosophy is a college level subject…and it doesn’t seem to be applicable at the moment does it? If you can’t be in two places at the same time…”

“Or IN the same time.” I interjected, now staring up at the ceiling and wishing I could see through to the heavens.

“Exactly,” Joyce said with her own small air of triumph. “If that ME is in 1977 and I’m in…in…when is it again?”

I exhaled deeply and lowered my head. At that moment I wasn’t even entirely sure who was President anymore…let alone able to comprehend the jumbled laws of time, physics, life, death and the mechanics of audio-visual interaction with the corporeal manifestation of a sentient entity. (and just how in the hell I was able to formulate that last thought remains a mystery to this day.)

“2017,” I said simply. “At least I THINK its still 2017.”

Joyce too exhaled, although her breath seemed to be laced with undertones of gradual comprehension whereas mine more closely resembled that of a chimpanzee staring at a roadmap. She seemed to be having far better success at piecing things together than I was.

“I am me,” Joyce replied in what seemed simultaneously like a question and a declaration. “And SHE…is me….or WAS me. She was ME…and I am…and I am…”

“And I am getting very dizzy,” I said hopelessly, turning in a circle before sitting down on the floor a few inches to Joyce’s right. “You are she and she is you and never the twains shall…”

“NO!” Joyce shouted with resentment before taking a deep breath and regaining her composure. “I won’t believe that. She WAS me…now I am me. Look Mister…eh…will you please tell me your name?” Joyce reached out with her right hand and laid it upon my shoulder. No chills. No wind. No shudder of the floor and/or ceiling. All I could feel was Joyce’s touch followed by a light contraction of her fingers as she gently gripped the rough fabric of my work suit. My mind raced…but at the same time it was as though I could almost feel something akin to calming vibes radiating from Joyce’s hand and through my entire body. The effect was almost soporific. What she was saying made sense…of a kind…but how was it possible?

I had always thought of ghosts, phantoms, spirits or whatever you want to call them as being transparent, glowing shapes that hovered over the ground and talked or moaned in monotonic riddles. With each word and action Joyce, with her kind-but-confused hand upon my shoulder, was causing me to rethink virtually all of my preconceived notions.

I froze…figuratively, not literally. The soothing and calming vibrations Joyce seemed to be emitting were potent. I no longer felt fear or terror. Before my mind could process this latest shock to my system Joyce lifted her hand from my shoulder, slowly lowered her arm and slid her palm under my left hand. Just as she had done in the foyer Joyce took my hand into hers and lifted it up. Again the sensation was no longer icy or chilled but as warm and tender as one would expect the touch of a loved one to be. Slowly, Joyce pulled my hand and smoothly guided it nearer to her body. Gradually she turned my palm towards her body and pulled it softly towards a point just above her left breast. As my hand alit upon her blouse the energy I could feel emanating from her grew in intensity and was then accompanied by a gentle, rhythmic thumping. Joyce pressed her hand down a bit more firmly. The palm of my hand sunk slightly and the rhythm I could feel became even more distinct.

For a moment I wished I still had Joyce’s mirror in my free hand as I am quite certain that my eyes once again swelled to the size of saucers. Despite vigorous mental protestations to the contrary there was no doubt about what I was feeling. This time, it really was palpable, literally. It was a heartbeat…a beat which, at that instant, was most assuredly far smoother and slower than my own. Most of my senses failed me. All I felt at that very moment was an overwhelming sense of warmth and earnest affection. If there had been any remaining doubt it now vanished. Whether she was alive, dead or something in between my feelings had now crystallized…and I had absolutely no idea what to do with them.

“You can feel that,” Joyce asked, once again with an entirely sincere and kindly tone. “Right?”

I was at a total loss for words or actions. What should I say? What do I do? I didn’t turn to face her but I was quite certain that a wide inviting smile was radiating from Joyce’s face…a face which I had been fully convinced was that of a ghost. Now, I was far less certain. Still, I had no inkling of just how I should react. What do you say to a ghost with its hand on your shoulder…especially if you still aren’t even 100% certain that it…or SHE…is a ghost at all?

“Yes,” I said quietly, still trying to keep any hint of my emotions fully camouflaged. “Yes Joyce…I…can feel it.”

“Then please,” Joyce seemed to implore. “Please tell me. What is your name?”

Here again, I’m afraid I must disappoint many of you. As I do not want to make it blatantly obvious just where this bizarre event was taking place I must again apply a generic pseudonym in place of my own identity. Trust me, you aren’t missing much. My real name is just as mundane as my still-current home.

“Samuel to my mother,” I said, doing my best to sound as gentle and as non-committal as possible. “To everyone else…just Sam.”

“Well ‘Just Sam’,” Joyce replied with the faintest hint of her playfulness returning. “Now that formal introductions are finally over...where do we go from here?”

“How about Twenty Questions?” I replied calmly as Joyce lifted my hand from her chest, released it, and allowed her own to once again settle upon my left shoulder. “Starting with why I never read thing one about a ninth grade teacher being murdered or dying accidentally on the last day of school in 1977. As a teacher I’m sure you can appreciate the importance of doing one’s homework…and I certainly did mine on this school before crossing its threshold. Nothing, not a word. I can honestly say that until today I have never heard your name mentioned, not once. Now can you think of any reason why that may be?”

Joyce paused and for a moment her grip on my shoulder tightened. The warm, soothing vibes never ceased but rather became mixed with doses of reflection…and embarrassment. She didn’t let go, but as I finally turned to face her she slowly averted her own gaze and looked towards the front of the room. After a few seconds of thinking her head again slumped forward and she let out a very long, sorrowful sigh.

“I don’t even know how I know this,” Joyce said heavily. “But it’s like I can feel and see it all now. Sam it’s, it’s embarrassing to say, but I was never found…and I was never missed.”

My mind once again went for a series of loops as I attempted to digest Joyce’s words. I looked back at the “Joyce” lying still on the ground a few feet away from us. The pool of blood beneath her head had grown considerably and her impact with the side of the desk had left a distinct indentation in its upper rim. If one were to have walked into the room it would have been impossible to have NOT seen her lying there. How could she have been “missed”? In the same vein…how could she NOT have been missed? Surely someone in a town as small as this would have noticed the sudden disappearance of a local teacher, someone who must have been known to dozens of kids as well as their families.

“How is that…?” I began.

“I was leaving,” Joyce said with an even heavier weight to her voice. “I taught here for three years, but since the school was closing and the county was cutting back I decided to move back home…to Ohio. I was already set to leave.”

Joyce chuckled in a reminiscent sort of way as she recalled the details of her plans from 40 years ago, plans which had evidently gone horribly awry. Her grip on my shoulder shifted slightly and her hand slid closer to my neck. The chills briefly returned…though they were now of an entirely different nature.

“Had it all planned out,” Joyce said as she sent her own mind back in time. “Sent the furniture on ahead. Was gonna spend the weekend at a nice quiet lake. Hike. Swim. Read. Rest. Make ready for a new life. Hmmm…I can hear the irony in just saying it. A two day vacation, back here for a day or two to mop up and make…hmm…final arrangements. Then…the long, long road, to wherever life…hmm hmm…was going to take me.”

Things still didn’t add up. Too many pieces were missing and the picture the puzzle was meant to depict was still unrecognizable.

“That still doesn’t make sense,” I said as softly as I could. “What about your family and…?”

“Adopted,” Joyce said without the slightest change in tone. “Both sets of parents dead. No brothers or sisters. No real family at all…and certainly no REAL friends around here. None that didn’t already know I was leaving and probably none who would have really cared. Like I said, I wasn’t exactly Top-of-the-Pops with the other faculty or most of the parents. Too…unconventional I guess. I was never married, never even engaged or anything close to it. I was like a round peg in a VERY square hole around here. No. No Sam I…I was never found or missed.”

“Joyce I…I don’t even know how to BEGIN to tell you how sorry I am for every one of those things,” I began as the final solution to this otherworldly mystery slowly dawned on me. “But then…then that must be it. That’s why you’re still here. Joyce it’s, it really is just THAT simple.”

“I hear your words Sam,” Joyce said with still very little change in her demeanor. “But their meaning just doesn’t jibe. You’re saying I’m still here so that I can…I guess…avenge my own death, right?”

“I mean…isn’t it obvious?” I replied, failing to see how she could not arrive at the same conclusion.

“Obvious maybe,” Joyce said enigmatically. “But not logical. I wasn’t murdered Sam. I tripped and tried to move my desk with my mind, so to speak.”

I couldn’t accept that…not for one moment. It may not have been murder in a technical sense, but that bastard Stover had CAUSED Joyce’s death and obviously gotten away with it, although I still could not, for the life of me, figure out how. Sending my own mind back into the 1970s I felt that this, at the very least, would constitute bad karma….or something like that.

“Well…” I stammered, trying to figure out some plan of attack which didn’t sound like something out of another rotten horror movie. “We’ve got to do something. Family, friends or no you didn’t deserve what happened to you”

“And just what can WE do?” Joyce asked darkly and with a note of cynicism.

“We can tell the whole town what happened to you for starters Joyce,” I stated with altruistic authority. “Let them know what went on while they kept their damned eyes closed.”

“They didn’t care 40 years ago,” Joyce replied with no change in emotion. “Why would they care now? I was never found, remember? What proof could you show them?”

“Well then,” I replied, stymied by Joyce’s unusual aversion to my suggestions. “We take it straight to Stover himself. Even if we can’t PROVE it we shove it right in his face and…”

“He’s dead,” Joyce replied simply. “Him and his son. I still don’t understand how…but I can see it, all of it. Cancer, 7 years ago. Ate him alive for 2 years. His son too, even earlier. A car crash, somewhere in New Jersey. What…whatever a Viper is, he wrapped his around a telephone pole 20 years ago. He didn’t die on impact either…he lingered…suffered…they both did. I’d say karma caught up with them…eventually.”

I didn’t care if she had read my mind or not I still was not about to agree with her fatalistic acceptance of things. Somehow, in the VERY short time I had known her I had become both personally and emotionally invested in Joyce…and her fate. If the world had forgotten about her and no one even noticed she was missing…no, no way was I going to let that stand.

“Joyce,” I said with a hint of urgency, trying to make her see my point of view. “This isn’t right. You were chased down. Stover was roaring drunk and TRYING to kill you. He…”

“Maybe,” Joyce said with some dejection. “Maybe he was…or maybe he just wanted to scare me so I would let his little brat graduate. He WAS three sheets to the wind at three o’clock in the afternoon so who’s to say he was even thinking? We’ll never know now will we?”

“Joyce I…” I replied, unable to understand or believe what I was hearing. “How in the world could no one have found…?”

Whatever I said…or was about to say…the building, bad memory and all, must have heard me. Once again the room rattled ever-so-slightly. This time I was the one who jolted and leaned sideways, taking a firm grip on Joyce as I did so. Strangely, Joyce barely moved an inch but rather continued to stare towards the front of the room. Her hand, which had remained on my left shoulder, now slid around my neck and onto my right shoulder, taking me into a comforting embrace. As it turned out I would certainly need it.

Surprised by Joyce’s sudden calm I too turned to look in the same direction, towards the front of the room. My frazzled mind and head did a double-take. She was gone. I mean, the “Joyce” who had been lying dead beside the desk was now gone and all that remained was her shattered necklace and the pool of blood where her head had once lain…as though the building was once more having difficulty in remembering just what had happened and in what order.

“I think I remember,” Joyce said with a sense of calm that once again seemed totally out of place. “Now.”

The trading of places was now complete. Joyce was back to her serene, almost oblivious self and I was once again petrified at what was occurring…and fearing even more what might be coming next. Once again the building did not disapoint. Had it not been for Joyce’s sideways embrace and the seemingly endless flow of tranquil vibrations I may well have leapt out of my own skin.

As I looked on the dust around the area where Joyce’s body had been lying swirled and rose a few inches into the air. I heard the faint sound of shuffling feet in the same vicinity followed by a sound that reminded me of fabric being drawn across a rough surface. This sound seemed to come in spurts, playing out for a few seconds and then stopping. As this was happening the unmistakable outlines of drag marks in the dust appeared, leading away from the desk and towards the open door to the hallway. It wasn’t quite a trail of bread crumbs or rocks…but I had a bad feeling it would serve the same purpose.

Though I could hear it but only partially see it with my eyes my mind filled in the rest of the scene. Someone or something was dragging Joyce’s body, a few feet at a time, away from the desk and towards the hallway. My lips parted and my mandible sunk. In my mind’s eye I could SEE Joyce’s lifeless body being pulled away from the desk, out of the room, and into the hallway. For whatever reason neither her body nor whatever force, earthly or unearthly, was disturbing its rest, were visible. Despite the lack of visual evidence I immediately knew what I was looking at…and it caused a sudden rush of renewed anger to pulse through my body. As if she could sense this…which she probably could…Joyce again tightened her grip and pulled me closer, preventing me from acting on my mounting rage.

“No,” Joyce said without the slightest change of emotion. “No. Not now. He can’t hurt us now. I don’t know how I know…I just know.”

Almost on cue the sound of shuffling feet again entered the room and seemed to advance once more upon the spot where Joyce’s body had fallen. Then, things took a sudden and mind-jolting turn. Joyce’s shattered necklace rolled to one side and then appeared to slide several inches towards the desk. It then circled once on the spot, lifted a few inches above the floor, and simply faded into oblivion.

Seconds later ripples pulsated through the pool of blood which had formed beneath Joyce’s head. An unseen hand seemed to reach out with a kind of phantom washcloth and, one swath at a time, began wiping the crimson-colored liquid out of existence. Before I had a chance to react…it was gone. The life which had bled out of Joyce was obliterated and her mangled necklace was once again reduced to a mere memory. For all intents and purposes, the “crime scene” had been scrubbed and all traces of Joyce’s demise hidden from human eyes.

I was ready to pounce. I didn’t care if I could see him or not, I was MORE than ready to grab Joyce’s spiritual attacker and throttle him into his own personal hell.

“You can’t,” Joyce said in an obvious response to my intentions. “He’s not really here…now.”

“How do you…?” I began, feeling both infuriated and helpless at the same time. “I can see and feel you. Why can’t…?”

“You just can’t,” Joyce said simply. “I’m here…now. He isn’t. He’s here…but then, not now.”

My mind spun in circles as it attempted to wrap itself around Joyce’s words. She obviously knew and could sense something about the situation which I could not. Right then all I knew was that I wanted to wrap my fingers around the neck of Stover’s ghost and perform a very hands-on exorcism. However, Joyce’s complete calm and the obvious wisdom of her cryptic words held me in check.

“But, Joyce…” I pleaded. “If he’s…this is our chance. I don’t care if he’s here now OR then we can still…”

Just then a sound, not unlike that of twisting steel, could be heard coming from somewhere out in the hallway. It was a slow, high-pitched screeching like a well-rusted door to a bank vault being slowly pried open after…after…perhaps 40 years? I just didn’t know. Again I made ready to jump up…and again Joyce held me firm.

“The darkness,” Joyce said in an almost trance-like way. “A tunnel, or a crawlspace. Just…just darkness now.”

“What?” I replied, my mind still trying to make sense of the sounds and sights. “Joyce…you’re right here.”

“I am,” Joyce said matter-of-factly, her serenity still unflinching. “But SHE isn’t.”

“She?” I replied in a hopeless fug. “She who?”

“She ME.” Joyce replied as if the answer were as plain as the nose on my face.

Another loud and ear-shattering screech pierced the air. I had a mental image of someone trying to open a sealed hatch on a sunken ship. Metal scraping against metal, grinding away at years of encrustation in an attempt to open a jammed portal of some kind. Then, an instant later, CLANG! Whatever door or hatchway had been opened was apparently slammed shut. BANG! BANG!

“Sealed,” Joyce said. “Sealed shut.”

BANG! BANG! The same kind of metal-on-metal impact…only this time it sounded as if it came from the floor below. The metallic echo rang in my ears for several, agonizing seconds before it slowly faded into the audible abyss. Then…complete and total silence. The room went still. The building went still. All was quiet and unmoving. A feeling of finality now permeated the atmosphere around us. I instinctively looked to my left, almost half-expecting to see Joyce, herself, evaporate into nothingness. Joyce, however, had not gone anywhere; she was still there, her arm around me and mine around her.

Not knowing what to do next I pulled her closer and allowed my head to tilt sideways until it was leaning gently against hers. Joyce, in response, reached up with her left hand and again took hold of my left shoulder. As before, she appeared to be doing her utmost to calm my fears and reassure me that she was still there and had no intention of abandoning me to whatever new fate the building may have in store. For a while, we just sat there. One confused little man…and one caring young woman who now seemed to be holding most of the cards and, my instincts were telling me, the answers as well.

“It’s done,” Joyce said after an appropriate lull. “Whatever happens now is up to you…and me.”

“Wha…” I began my mouth now a bit dry and only partially cooperating. “What do you mean? Up…up to us?”

“Sam I still don’t understand how I know this,” Joyce said, a glimmer of her own trepidation appearing to return. “But I can see it as plain as I see you. For lack of a better explanation, this ‘play’ on life’s little stage is over. The…the ‘Climax’ I should say, is over. Whatever happens now is a denouement. An epilogue. Either a ‘Happily-Ever-After’ or… a ‘That’s-the-Way-it-is’.”

“Joyce,” I replied, my mind slowly turning to mush. “I’m not trying to be flip or anything, but I understood MAYBE 10% of what you just said. What are you trying to tell me…or NOT tell me”?

Joyce slowly let out a very deep and almost reluctant sigh, as if she was more than a little hesitant to take whatever the next step may be.

“I’m saying that whatever happens now,” Joyce said in a sweet but regretful way. “However this whole thing ends…is up to us. We have to write the ending. Right this second everything is just as it was before. Aside from the fact that I, somehow, am here to see and hear it…all is as it was before you came here…before things were woken up. Whatever happens to you and me…”

“To you and I,” I replied, making a genuine attempt to ease the tensions which now seemed to once again be descending.

Joyce grinned and for an instant the pressure of the moment was broken. I once again was aware of her hands and arms, just how comforting they felt…and how I honestly wished we could just sit there forever and leave whatever was yet to come for another decade. However, deep down, I instinctively knew that was a complete impossibility. All things…both good and bad…must end…somehow, some way. Although, now, a very large part of me wanted nothing more than to remain right where I was…close to Joyce and away from all other eventualities.

“Yes,” Joyce replied, her calm and peaceful nature still evident amidst mounting apprehension. “Quite right…er, I mean, right on. (Another grin) Whatever happens to you and I from this point forward is for us to decide.”

“Joyce,” I said softly. “What’s happened? What do we have to do?”

“Bring down the curtain,” Joyce replied, her mystifying yet serene tone still firmly in place. “We have to end things Sam, or rather, YOU have to end things…or decide how to end things. Look, you know the inning and you know the score. I’m dead. I was never found or missed. Stover and his little group never came clean up and got their ‘Hertz Donuts’… just did a ‘Watergate’…deep-sixed my body, my car, my life…and went on about their lives. You can change all, or some, or none of that now…if you want to.”

It was a jumble of slang and colloquialisms but I was somehow able to make enough sense out of it to be both scared and curious simultaneously.

“If I want to?” I said through an onslaught of contemplations. “Joyce why would I not want to help you? I just don’t follow, I…”

“And I’m still not certain I want you to,” Joyce replied with more soberness than jest. “If I may be permitted to borrow an eloquent and rather charming phrase. Yet, I have to. You have to.”

“Have to what?” I replied, now nearing the point of desperation for a straight answer.

“Come on,” Joyce replied, slowly relinquishing her embrace. “I really don’t want to face it either…but, I’ll show you.”

Joyce lightly gritted her teeth and smoothly rose to her feet. Still struck by her newly dawned demeanor of both determination and resignation I followed. Joyce took a step towards the door to the hallway and then, with a light waive of her right hand, motioned for me to follow. Full of apprehension about what may still lay ahead I cautiously looked to my left and my right before walking forward.

Joyce slowly made her way to the doorway and walked into the hallway. I followed a few paces behind, my eyes and other senses now on high alert and prone to herk and jerk with the slightest perceived noise or motion. For all of my nervousness everything now felt both calm and quiet.

Joyce halted in the center of the hallway and her attention seemed dead focused to the right of the classroom doorway. I edged up along side of her and turned my gaze in the same direction as hers. About 20 feet or so down the hall and on the wall to the left I finally caught sight of what was commanding her attention. It looked like a metal laundry chute but much older and painted in a dull, creamlike color that did not really match the rest of the well-preserved paint. All along its edges the paint was far more chipped and the metal surface beneath exhibited heavy signs of rust and decay. Along the upper rim a pair of large, serious looking nails had been bent in such a way as to prevent the chute from opening into the hall. The nails too had rusted and now appeared to have partially fused to the surface of the chute’s vertically hinged drawer.

I swallowed hard once I fully realized the significance of what I was looking at. Joyce scarcely moved a muscle but merely stared at the somewhat out-of-place relic which looked as though it would have been past its prime even in 1977.

“A linen chute?” I asked hesitantly.

“No,” Joyce said quietly, continuing to stare the chute down as if it were her sworn enemy. “Garbage. Hasn’t been used for over 10 ye….or I guess now 50 years. Leads down to the basement...and a boiler room.”

“Oh my God,” I said with ever-increasing horror. “Are you telling me that…”

“I don’t know,” Joyce said, again with a note of calm that seemed completely out of place. “But I think so. All I can see is darkness and all I can feel is cold…cold metal. “

Joyce took a step in the direction of the chute and then hesitated, obviously thinking deeply about the consequences of her next move and weighing every option. After having apparently arrived at a conclusion…however unsatisfactory…she continued walking towards the garbage chute. Stepping lightly I followed, roughly a pace or two behind. I am still not certain why but I felt it prudent to give Joyce a wider birth at this juncture. Her emotions, while calm on the outside, were still giving off vibes…only now they felt far more sorrowful and tinged with bitter resignation. I had the sinking feeling that Joyce had, somehow, ascertained her own fate and was slowly but surely coming to terms with it.

After what seemed like a lifetime and what felt like a funeral march both Joyce and I halted in front of the ancient, metal garbage chute…a chute which apparently had been sealed shut even tighter than the school itself and for just as long. Joyce slowly tilted her head forward, her depressive and almost distant emotions visible on her sleeve.

“I think,” Joyce said heavily. “I think we may be looking at my…my tomb. Groovy eh? Unwanted and thrown out with the rest of the garbage.”

“Joyce,” I replied, my revulsion now doubling with each passing second. “You don’t mean that you…that you’re…still here?”

“Yeah,” Joyce said cynically and with mock amusement. “Seems I’m in triplicate. Well…she said…I guess we should go and see for ourselves…or MY-selves. Better see if I finally went to pieces.”

“Joyce,” I began nauseously. “That is, on so many levels, not even remotely funny.”

“Isn’t it?” Joyce replied with subdued anger and more than a little resentment. “Then I guess 40 years have both heightened AND warped my sense of humor. Come on, I always liked Night of the Living Dead.”

Joyce turned to her right and began to walk towards the far end of the hall. For a few moments I continued to stare, first at the sealed hatch of the garbage chute and then at Joyce as she slowly traversed the last few yards of the hallway which terminated at a set of wooden double-doors. I felt sick to my stomach and once again genuinely concerned for Joyce’s well being. Though I no longer felt she was in any physical danger I feared that her mind, such as it was now, may be deteriorating past the point of no return.

“Joyce,” I called out just as she reached the double-doors. “Are you sure you want to…”

“I said come on,” Joyce replied, her ‘educator’ tone now returning for the first time since she had first spoken to me. “YOU have a decision to make.”

This time I did not hesitate. The urgency and authority in Joyce’s voice pulled me back to reality. I quick­stepped down the remaining length of the hallway and briefly joined her at the doors. She paused for only a moment and flashed the faintest of smiles before snapping her head to indicate that we should proceed. Joyce pushed one of the doors open and stepped into the small landing beyond. Here, another set of stairs ascended and descended the height of the building. As with the stairwell just inside of the school’s foyer the dark wooden stairs, joists and rails were coated in a thin, wispy lair of dust which could only partially conceal the gleaming varnish beneath. Joyce did not pause again to take in the sights but rather began to descend the solid, wooden stairs with slow and very deliberate steps.

At this juncture I had no desire to hang back. Although the light pouring in through the recently un­boarded windows filled the shaft with ample illumination the thought of standing alone in the middle of an ancient stairwell did not appeal to me. I rushed forward and slid in beside Joyce just as she reached the midway landing where the stairway turned 180 degrees and again descended. She spoke not one word as she continued down the second flight of steps and onto the first floor landing. Here, she again turned to her left and began to descend another set of steps. However, this particular set seemed to be leading down into a much darker area.

The gradual change in the amount and quality of the light did not hinder Joyce in the slightest. She continued to take each step with deliberation and kept her head focused straight ahead. She now seemed to be on some kind of mission…perhaps a mission to satisfy her own morbid curiosity…perhaps a mission to free herself from her 40 years of purgatory…or hell.

Another turn and another set of steps later Joyce finally came to a halt at what I surmised must be the basement landing. The bright, warm sunlight from the floor above made but the tinniest of dents in the darkness of this damp and gloomy sanctum. Only two small incandescent light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling shed any additional light on what was looking more and more like the set from a very bad spy movie.

Here, in the basement, all traces of the academic world on the upper floors vanished and instead gave way to walls of dark, crimson brick and thick wooden boards along the ceiling. The floor was no longer an eye-pleasing green-and-white tile but rather solid, cold cement. Here and there, it was obvious that at least some of the school’s perimeter defenses had been breached as tiny streams of water trickled down the walls and then followed the angle of the floor toward the nearest drain. In some places the constant flow of water had actually worn tiny channels into the hundred-year-old concrete. The large room in which we now stood felt far more like a dungeon or an interrogation cell as opposed to a subterranean boiler room.

Joyce halted a few feet from the bottom of the staircase and stared at the brick wall which jutted out from the right side of the room. This wall formed what looked like either a large chimney or vertical tunnel built into the center of the building. Like a utility or pipe shaft. Further to the left and around the corner of this protrusion the room continued back before ending at another solid brick wall. Lined up along the length of this wall was a row of VERY old and ominous looking boilers…the kind you think of when you imagine an abandoned power plant from the 1920s or 30s. Enormous. Iron grated. Pipes jutting out from the top like inverted spider’s legs and a myriad of circular dials and gauges that must have meant something to someone but which were all Greek to me.

Almost in the exact center of the protruding brick wall was another hatch, virtually identical to the one on the second floor only about 50% larger. It had even been painted in the same dull, cream color and also looked to have not weathered the passing years as gracefully as the rest of the school. Joyce calmly walked forward and halted just in front of the hatch. I slowly shuffled over and stood alongside of her. Joyce again tilted her head forward and glared down at the large metal hatch.

Here again several rusted nails and screws had been hammered into the hatch’s frame and bent downward in a manner that prevented it from tipping forward and opening. As was the case with its smaller twin on the second floor the frame and handle were badly rusted making it appear as if the nails and screws had melted into and become a part of its surface.

Joyce lifted her right arm and allowed her hand to rest gently upon the frame of the chute’s sealed opening. Her fingers extended and she closed her eyes, looking almost as if she were sliding into a trance.

“Darkness,” Joyce said without prompting. “Cold. Stagnate. Forgotten. Sealed. Trapped…trapped in both time and limbo. It ended here…and it begins…here.”

“What do you mean?” I asked gently, still not convinced that Joyce was in full control of herself.

“You’ll understand,” Joyce replied in an enigmatic monotone. “We have to open this.”

“Oh my…” I gasped. “Joyce are you sure? I mean if you really are…in…”

“I am,” Joyce interjected. “She is…and we can’t move forward until SHE is freed.”

“She?” I replied, again thoroughly puzzled by Joyce’s mystifying words. “But Joyce, SHE is you. What you mean is we have to free HER so that YOU can be…well…”

“Perhaps,” Joyce answered in the same detached tone as before. “But we won’t know for certain unless we open this…will we?”

Joyce gripped the rusted handle of the ancient hatch and shook it as violently as she could. Bits of paint and loose pieces of rust fell to the ground. The hatch itself appeared to jolt a little and tipped forwards perhaps a quarter of an inch before its encrusted hinges again seized up and refused to budge further.

Joyce turned her head to face me. Once more her eyes met mine and it was as if she were communicating her desires through her retinas. A single tear which dripped from her left eye spoke more volumes than any sonnet or ode. Silently, she urged me to break the seal on her makeshift tomb and free her mortal remains from their undeserved desecration.

I looked about the room, hoping to spot some kind of implement which would allow me to carry out her wishes. Just around the corner from the wall where the garbage chute was mounted I spied a section of two-inch lead piping leaning up against the bricks. It was about a yard long and looked as solid as a cannon’s barrel. I returned Joyce’s imploring gaze, nodded in the affirmative, retrieved the section of pipe and took it firmly in both hands.

This was no time for sheer brute force. I knew that bashing the hatch as though I were attacking a wild animal would be futile. I instead walked around Joyce until I was on the right hand side of the hatch. I tightly gripped one end of the pipe in my right and threaded the rest of it through the palm of my left. Much like a pool cue I laid the pipe down on the upper section of the hatch and lined it up with the row of nails which were holding it shut. I hesitated briefly and once more looked into Joyce’s eyes. With my mind I again asked “Are you sure?” With her eyes and slightly quivering lips she replied “Yes, go ahead, I’m ready.”

Treating the first nail in line as though it were the cue ball I pulled the pipe back, adjusted my aim, and rammed it forward with all of my might.

The end of the lead pipe sheared through the rusted and bent nails, shattering them like icicles. Freed of its restraints after 40 years the hatchway tipped forward with such force that its crusty hinges snapped. The hatch itself fell to the floor. At the same instant the mortified contents of the century-old garbage chute were also released from their confines. Like a coffin which had been upended and tipped over a jumble of human bones, a shower of dust, powder, pieces of ripped and torn fabric, the remnants of two shoes and their large, wooden heels, a mangled set of round-rimmed glasses and the partially rotted shell of a brown leather purse tumbled down onto the cold, concrete floor.

My senses overloaded. The pipe slipped from my grasp and fell to the floor. I do not even recall hearing what must have been a shrill, metallic echo. I instinctively clamped my right hand over my mouth and staggered over to the brick wall near the stairwell. I felt the overwhelming need to vomit…but didn’t. I rapidly shook my head from left to right, again hoping that cobwebs or something would fall out and relieve the pressure on my mind. But…nothing came out and my senses gradually cleared on their own.

Regaining some composure I turned around to again face Joyce. The sight that met my eyes could not have been further from what I was expecting. Joyce, seemingly as poised and composed as ever, was merely leaning forward and staring down at her own remains with the same detached curiosity of a young child watching a spinning top.

“Joyce, I…” I gasped/heaved.

“Ashes to ashes…” Joyce said in a slow but almost nursery-rhyme-like tone. “Dust to dust. In sure and certain hope to…the RESURRECTION to eternal life. So it was written…so it is.”

With this Joyce stretched out her arms, palms up, in front of her and closely examined her hands. Seemingly satisfied with what she saw she next inverted her palms and stared at her knuckles and fingernails. Joyce appeared to smile…the same type of bright and contented smile she had often flashed before her bubble of serenity had been burst. I was certain I knew what this meant; Joyce was free. There was now visual proof of her death…or murder…and justice, however belated, could be served in some way. At the very least her undeserved fate would be known, her mortal remains put to rest, and her spirit…essence…life force…or whatever, permitted to move on.

Slowly and gingerly I made my way back over to Joyce and took my place beside her. I too leaned forward and forced myself to take a closer, more inquisitive look at the sickly sight before me. The smell was putrid. The cloud of dust, petrified flesh and whatever else had decomposed over the decades, was only now slowly beginning to settle. Although the sealed chute had done its best to protect Joyce’s body from the elements it was obvious that insects and the extra-dry atmosphere had been quite destructive.

Joyce had been reduced to little more than bones and powder, with only minute traces of skin and sinew remaining. A few shriveled strands of blond hair clung to the dome of her skull. Her jaw had become detached and was now hanging at a grotesque angle, as though frozen in a decades-old cry for help; a cry that was never answered.

Her blouse was virtually gone, leaving only its buttons and seams behind. The same fate had befallen all but the metal latches and stitching of her undergarments and socks. Her green pants, made of a polyester blend, were largely intact with thigh and shin bones wedged to their interior. Her white clog­type shoes had rotted in the center leaving behind only the soles and thick, wooden heels. The lenses of her fashionable glasses were cracked and barely clinging to their twisted frame. Her lantern shaped necklace, already trampled and abused before being entombed, was now nothing more than a gold chain and a flattened, golden trinket.

There was no doubt. Anyone who had known Joyce in 1977 could not help but make a positive identification. Her glasses, necklace and the faded initials “J.M.” etched into a small, gold plaque on the outside of her disintegrating purse would tell all that needed to be told; Joyce had not left…her life had been brutally terminated and her body disposed of like a heap of rubbish.

“This is it,” I said softly. “Joyce, this is it. This is the proof we…the proof that YOU need. I mean what else could anyone say? She committed suicide by throwing herself down the garbage chute? No. No I won’t let that happen. Damn it, forget the town, I’ll make sure that everyone in the STATE knows…”

“And then what happens to me?” Joyce asked, her tone still level but now somewhat worried.

“Well, you…” I began, on the edge of triumph and not understanding why Joyce was not sharing in my emotions. “You’ll be…eh, free! You won’t be stuck HERE for another 40 years, you can…”

My mouth went dry, my jaw dropped and my mental gears jammed.

“Move on?” Joyce replied on beat. “To where exactly? Just where DO I go?”

The gravity of the situation was slowly hitting me, akin to icy water falling onto a statue. Right then and there I realized that the answers to this conundrum…much like life itself…were not quite so clear-cut and obvious. The solution, which right up until now had seemed so simple and transparent, now became clouded with both uncertainty and a significant amount of emotional conflict. If what I had always read in those horrible ghost stories was true…then following through with the course of action I felt was so obvious would have consequences I had not fully appreciated…or even considered.

“Exactly,” Joyce said heavily, evidently well aware of the magnitude of the situation and what it meant for her. “Everyone learns that I…that SHE is dead, has been entombed under their very noses for 40 years, and that one of their own was indirectly responsible for HER death…what happens to me? If the events that put me here are what has held me here…what happens to me…when the curtain falls?”

Every nerve in my body was pulsating and my emotions were on the verge of fulminating. I had no answer. I wasn’t even sure I could truly fathom the full implications of the question…but I was quite certain that I would not like the answer.

“Joyce, you…” I stammered, trying my best to think and speak at the same time and failing miserably. “You can’t…there’s just no way that you can...Joyce, SHE is YOU. You ARE her. You’re not really alive Joyce. As much you want to be…and as much as I want you to…”

Joyce abruptly reached out and grasped my right hand. She clenched it tightly and stared me down with a look of complete earnestness. Her eyes were as serious as I had yet seen them and the very question of life and death could be read in her pupils.

“Cotigo ergo sum!” Joyce declared bluntly and with sincerity.

I hadn’t the slightest idea what that meant or just why Joyce was choosing a moment like this to speak in a foreign language.

“What?” I replied in total confusion.

“Cotigo ergo sum!” Joyce repeated as though the meaning should be both plain and explanatory. “I think therefore I am!”

I still didn’t get it.

“Ok you’ve lost me,” I said hopelessly. “Joyce what does that…”

Joyce gripped my hand even tighter and pulled it up to her cheek. Pressing my palm firmly upon the side of her face Joyce again looked into my eyes and did her best to communicate the meaning of her words and actions. I could feel the warmth radiating from her cheek. The pressure from her grip was unmistakable. The emotions I felt from her gaze…well…they registered. THEN…they fully registered! Joyce was not just communicating…she was THINKING!

“Sam I don’t know how,” Joyce said with both a smile and a deep, longing gaze. “But I’m here! I’m right here…right now. That me IS dead…but that ME is not…ME! I am ME…and I’m aware that I’m me. I understand what’s happened…I’ve thought it through…and I’ve brought it as far as I can. Now…now it can either end, or go on.”

“Joyce that’s just not possible,” I replied, but only half-believing myself. “I mean…what are you saying? That a…a copy, an exact copy of yourself has been…been…”

It hit me like a bolt of lightning. The simplicity of it! It was right under my nose…and over my head…to my left and to my right! It was everywhere around me and I just hadn’t seen it. Like the rest of the school, like the walls, like the furniture, like the pictures, like the varnish and the paint…Joyce had been…

“Preserved!” Joyce said, joyfully imploring me to see her meaning. “What happened here has preserved MORE than just memories. It’s preserved the building, it’s preserved the images, the emotions, the events, and somehow…it’s preserved ME.”

“But…” I again stammered. “But…if we break the…if we end the cycle? I opened the building up and now it’s no longer preserved. If we leave it as it is then it, eventually, will deteriorate. Back to the earth. If we…if I tell what I know about YOU then…”

“Then I’m no longer…”Joyce replied as if the fate of the world rested on her words. “Preserved.”

“But…” I said hopefully. “If we leave things as they are? If I don’t say anything about you, or Stover, or anything else? If I just walk away and keep the secret? Joyce…is that even possible?”

Joyce smiled brightly and held up her arms in a gesture that said “I dunno…but we can find out”. I returned her smile, feeling certain that I had, finally, grasped the full meaning of both what she was saying and not saying. In one bright, radiant, illuminating moment of recognition I suddenly knew exactly what I had to do…and I was quite certain that Fred was going to HATE me for it…AND…I honestly didn’t care.

“You have to WHAT?!” Fred yelled after hearing the bad news several days later.

“I’m sorry Fred but that’s how it has to be,” I said with finality but little enthusiasm. “I don’t make the rules…but I do have to enforce them.”

“Just what the hell is this stuff again?” Fred replied with equal parts indignation and ire.

“This ‘stuff’ as you put it is a particularly nasty form of mold,” I said with the air of an all-knowing scientist/used car salesman. “More toxic than black mold. It can lay dormant for decades but as soon as it’s exposed to oxygen and even the slightest hint of light…poof! It spreads roughly three times as fast as other molds and if left unchecked can course through an entire structure in a matter of days. It’s lethal Fred, it has to be eliminated.”

“Ok,” Fred replied as he seemed to be desperately mulling over ideas. “Ok fine. Then how do we kill this, this…”

“The name is almost impossible to pronounce,” I replied dryly, doing my best not to let my amusement slip through. “And…the only way to eradicate it for certain is incineration. Fire.”

“Fine,” Fred said with an almost desperate sense of hope. “Fine. No harm there. Get some bio-hazard suits, we’ll cut out the affected areas and put the torch to them.”

“That would be ideal…” I said, appearing to insinuate just the slightest hint of possible salvation. “Except for one tiny detail; the wall in the basement that’s already infested with the stuff…is load-bearing. You take it out and, well…ever build a house of cards and then sneeze?”

Fred winced and his eyes suddenly went red with only partially-subdued rage.

“Are you trying to tell me that my WHOLE damn investment has to go up in flames?” Fred roared.

“No, I’m not trying to tell you that Fred,” I replied, again trying my best to resist the urge to chuckle. “I AM telling you that. I’m sorry Fred but I can’t allow you…or anyone else besides a designated Haz-Mat team to even go back inside. And…they can’t bring anything OUT either…unless you plan on using it as kindling.”

Fred grumbled louder than I had ever heard anyone grumble before. He then reached up, removed a dirty ball cap from atop his head and slammed it to the ground in disgust before storming off in the opposite direction.

Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly lying to Fred. Stretching the truth and leaving out a few key details…well, yes. That day when I broke the bad news this virulent string of mold WAS, indeed, gradually growing and spreading throughout the school’s basement level. The fact that this particular strain had actually began its life in an obscure research facility somewhere in the Mid-West and was something I had acquired for study during my last “working vacation” didn’t really seem worth mentioning. It COULD have been there since 1977…and it COULD have been reinvigorated when the school was brought out of hibernation…and it was virtually certain that NO ONE would ever be able to prove or disprove either possibility. Also, the fact that I had long since developed virtual immunity to this plague-like fungus didn’t really seem pertinent at the time either.

Yes, Fred was barred from ever entering his massive investment. I did my best to console him, pointing out that the land alone was at least worth ¼ of the price he had paid, but, somehow this didn’t seem to assuage his anger very much. Pointing out that bricks don’t burn and would be sterile once the pyre had died down also didn’t go very far in lifting his spirits.

The perimeter of the property was again secured by a series of chains and locks and a nearly continuous ring of yellow and orange CAUTION: BIO-HAZARD AREA, DO NOT ENTER tape was wrapped triple around its entire circumference. I followed normal protocol and put in a call to both the State and Federal EPA…though I made certain to stress that the situation appeared to be well contained and there was no need to descended upon the town en-masse and possibly cause a panic. When asked by the townsfolk about the dangers I usually mumbled something about asbestoses and/or lead paint; stressing that there was no danger as long as everyone kept off the property and well away from the school. As they had been doing this for the better part of 40 years it was not a difficult request to respect.

Just to be on the safe side I kept the keys to the various locks on my person at all times…especially after dark, when I did my best impression of…well…Steve McQueen (I know, charmingly romantic, right?) in “The Great Escape” by infiltrating the grounds and the building…for a variety of reasons. If no one was to get wise about Joyce having died inside the school then some clever staging was in order. I felt odd and a little disgusted every step of the way, but I gradually separated each fragment of clothing and the remnants of every personal item from the mortified, human remains which had emerged from the garbage chute. They soon found a home in the nearest and swiftest flowing river.

The purse, glasses and flattened necklace…I kept. The skeletal remains? Well, even Junior High Schools usually had Science Labs, however meager, and this school had been no exception. As was the case with the rest of the interior the portion of the school devoted to Human Anatomy had survived entirely intact; charts, graphs, specimens and all. I reasoned that the inclusion of a genuine, complete human skeleton would not seem at all out of place when viewed amongst other items such as pickled frogs and dissection kits. An empty, time-weathered cardboard box eventually served as Joyce’s coffin which was then securely packed away amid other crates and boxes in the lab’s storeroom.

Not exactly a dignified ending...but one necessary in the grand scheme of things; all to be sacrificed on the “Pyre of Justice.”

As it turned out, the conflagration would come much sooner than anyone had expected. One night, barely two weeks after the school was sealed off and secured, the entire building was engulphed in a virtual firestorm. Given the dried out contents and the wood framing the fire spread like flames on an oil slick. Cleaning fluids, paints, varnishes and other flammables within the brick walls only added to the spectacle. Mere minutes after it had been sighted all three floors were aflame. Local fire departments did not even make any real effort to extinguish the blaze. The building had been slated for demolition and immolation anyway so…at the very least a good deal of time and money had been saved.

By the time the sun rose the next morning the entire structure had collapsed in upon itself. Most of the frame and contents had been so thoroughly incinerated that the pile they subsequently created was barely enough to fill the space which once served as the building’s basement.

Once the flames had died out and the heat diminished the remnants of the hundred-year-old structure were carefully examined by a team of State and Federal officials. All concluded that a blaze of such magnitude would have certainly eradicated any dangerous molds or fungi. Penny-pinching to the last the town made little effort to investigate the cause of the fire as it seemed to have been more of a blessing than a calamity. They even went so far as to declare the remnants of the school fair game for anyone who would or could remove any portion of it. Soon enough a sea of scavengers, opportunists, collectors and local contractors descended upon the burnt out remains.

Within five weeks the site had been all but cleared. There was some brief hubbub about bones and possibly a skull having been found in the debris. However, their presence in relationship to charred Anatomy text books and shattered specimen jars quickly put any wild rumors to rest…though I think it VERY possible that Joyce’s mortal remains are now serving as genuine teaching aids in a High School or College somewhere. Fitting for someone who, in life, had been a teacher.

Only MUCH later did it emerged that Fred had been far more thorough…and crafty…than anyone had heretofore given him credit. As it happened Fred had been serious enough about his investment that he had wasted no time in taking out a VERY extensive insurance policy on his desired project. It was, indeed, iron clad. The policy was written the very same morning that Fred and I had first pierced the shell of the enigmatic structure and the premium had been paid in full.

To this day no one knows for certain just HOW the fire started…though I also may have omitted to mention that earlier that same day I had observed a figure of a man penetrate the school’s perimeter…through a gate which I had somehow-on-purpose neglected to secure. I also seem to recall that I had, offhandedly, told Fred about the additional hazards within the walls of his lost investment; I.E. the paints, varnishes, spray cans, lubricating oils...et cetera.

Fred wasted no time once the flames had died out. He made his claim, fought his fight, collected his money and vanished. The last I heard he was living somewhere off the coast of Georgia…most likely well inside of International Waters.

Eventually the basement of the old school was filled in with dirt and the land leveled off and seeded. By the time 12 months had passed a modest but cozy community park had sprung up on the site formerly occupied by the old building. An equally modest memorial plaque honoring the school and its 50 plus years of active service was affixed to a fountain in the center. Here, it sat amidst a pleasing arrangement of transplanted trees and “Historic” brick walkways…parts of which were fashioned out of material that had once served as the school’s outer walls.

Three years later, memories of the once once-ubiquitous old school building had almost entirely faded from memory. With its boundaries eradicated, its foundation buried and most of its graduates spread around the country there was little left…save the lone memorial plaque…to “preserve” the former landmark in either memory or substance. Its physical structure, either destroyed by fire or removed by human hands, had been scattered to the fore winds. Ephemera documenting its existence was scant, at least so far as the digital world is concerned. Even yearbooks, the true time-capsules of academia, are few and far between. Truth be told, nearly everyone seems quite content with this arrangement…myself included.

I never heard anyone even come close to uttering the name “Joyce McIntyre”. Seems she was correct; she had never been found, never been missed and apparently not remembered either. The name “Stover” occasionally rose to the surface and caused my stomach a few moments of discomfort. However, these utterances too were usually short and vague…most wondering what had become of the town’s former “First Family”. I successfully resisted the urge to inform them, feigning ignorance as a “comparative newcomer” who was not privileged enough to have been a resident during that time.

Yes, time is, indeed, a VERY funny thing. It can warp, distort, bend, confuse and confound the memory and other senses in a myriad of different ways. And yet, I now freely admit that the generally accepted nature of true linear time is not entirely absolute. It IS apparently possible to effectively stop the hands of the clock and delay the inevitability of aging and death. Most importantly, it is now clearly apparent that this phenomenon is not restricted to physical, man-made structures, but it applies equally to hu…

“Honey…are you still working on that story?” A pleasantly familiar voice called out from the ground floor of my modest home. “You’ve been up there since noon.”

“Nearly done,” I called back, rapidly typing out my conclusion. “Just a few more sentences and it’ll read like pure poetry.”

“I’m sure,” The voice from below called out with a hint of loving sarcasm. “Old school, old legend, old news.”

“You just wait,” I called back. “This time it has everything; chills, suspense, a subtle underlying romantic theme…for the female audience…and one heck of a twist at the end. You just wait!”

“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last six hours,” She answered, again with loving impatience. “Look, its Movie Night and tonight is MY choice…or did you forget?”

“How could I,” I replied kindly, still typing furiously on my laptop. “What’s on the marquee for tonight?”

“Very appropriate,” She teased. “Towering Inferno.”

“How could I NOT have guessed?” I teased back, doing my best to finish a final paragraph while smiling from ear to ear. “What is this like the third time?”

“Oh come on,” She called back, her impatience still fully diluted by her sweet nature. “It’s a true classic, a GEM…they never get old.”

“True enough,” I replied. “OK, I’ll be down in five minutes Joyce.”

 

 

THE END

 

 


Submitted: October 13, 2021

© Copyright 2021 sean p mccracken. All rights reserved.

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Rob73

A scary, well written ghost thriller story.

Sat, October 23rd, 2021 3:09am

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