Monday, January 9, 2012

Enter At Your Own Risk

(Author's note: this story originally appeared on the webzine SAVAGE NIGHT in 2003.)

Claude pulled his red Mustang in behind the small boarded-up house at the edge of the road and parked it, then turned around in his seat and faced his passengers.
“You ready to see Mudville Manor up close and personal?” he asked them.
“It’s about time,” Claude’s girlfriend Abby said from the backseat.
“It was quite a drive,” said Jack from the passenger seat. Then he opened his door and stepped into the tall grass outside the car. “I hope it’ll be worth it.”
“Oh, it wasn’t too bad,” said Jack’s wife Molly, who sat beside Abby, fanning herself with a magazine. Then she pushed the passenger seat forward and crawled out of the car and stood beside her husband. “It’s a beautiful day and there was a lot to see along the way, so I didn't mind.”
“Listen to her,” Jack said, showing his best fake scowl. “She could find something nice to say about a pile of dog crap.”
Claude was laughing when he opened his door and exited his car, and Abby squeezed out after him.
You try riding in the back seat of a Mustang for three hours,” Abby said said.
Claude ignored her.
“This ain’t the haunted house you were talking about, is it?” Jack said, pointing at the nearby ramshackle house.
“Of course not,” Claude said. “The website just said to park here by this smaller abandoned house. We gotta hike the rest of the way back because of a locked gate.”
“A locked gate, huh? You sure we’re allowed to look around?”
“I’m positive,” Claude said. “The website is run by the owner of the property himself. All he asks is that we enter at our own risk. You know, so he’s not liable if we fall through the floor or something.”
“I guess he don’t mind, then.  But why the locked gate?”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t have a key for it.”
Claude took a quick look around and found what he was looking for, almost shrouded in weeds. He pointed out his discovery to the rest of his group. “It’s down that path, I guess,” he said.
“I sure hope it’s worth it,” Jack said.
“Well, I enjoyed the trip regardless,” Molly said.
Jack rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette. “Lead the way,” he said to Claude.
Claude took one last look at the dumpy little house behind him. For a split second, he’d felt like somebody was looking at him from one of those dark upstairs windows, the flash of a pale face, but all the windows were empty now save for tattered white curtains. He guessed it really was abandoned, like the website said it was, although it didn’t look all that bad. None of the windows were broken out, and the door at the rear of the house looked new and was closed.
Creepy, Claude thought. But Mudville Manor, the place they’d come to see, was far more impressive. It was a massive old abandoned mansion that was rising from the bottom of a hill as if was being thrust out of the earth itself. It was also reputed to be haunted, and it was wide open to whoever wanted to explore it, as long as they agreed to enter the decrepit old place at their own risk.
Claude felt giddy, like a kid on his way to the first day of school. So far, he’d only seen pictures of the old mansion on the Internet, and Mudville Manor certainly looked haunted. More haunted than any house he’d ever seen. But pictures could only show so much. He couldn’t wait to see the place for himself.
“It’s down this way,” he said, heading down the weed-choked path.
“Well,” Abby said. “Let’s go get this over with.”
The rest of the group followed Claude down the path to Mudville Manor.
* * * *
Rex couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the car pull up and park right in the spot he'd designated on the website. Then he'd narrowly avoided being seen by the driver, flinging himself onto his dirty cot in a frenzy when the man had looked up at Rex's window, conking his head on the wall in the process hard enough to leave a knot. But when they all walked away towards the old mansion and he finally got a good look at the car his visitors had arrived in, he knew he was going to score big with this one and that the knot on his head would be worth the pain. The car was a shiny red Mustang, and a fairly new model, too. Nice and fast and expensive.
Everything was going to work out just like he’d planned.
Rex had watched from the window as no less than four people crawled out of the Mustang and stood in his back lawn, smoking cigarettes and talking. After a while the redheaded guy who'd been driving pointed down the path that led to the Manor and then they all headed down towards the old mansion, just as planned. Two men, two women. It was almost too good to be true.
Rex couldn’t wait until they arrived at the mansion and started going through it the wicked old place. Boy were they ever in for a surprise. Look what old Uncle Carl missed out on all those years by not having a computer, Rex thought with a grin.  He could have done so much better for himself.
But not Rex. No, he was going to take this whole crazy arrangement to another level. And all because of a simple website.
He watched as the heads of his visitors disappeared over the hill and into the small valley where Mudville Manor and its lonely resident waited for them.
* * * *
“Holy shit, will you look at that,” Jack said.
Molly said, “It’s beautiful. Magnificent. Thanks for bringing us here, Claude.”
“What a creepy old dump,” Abby said.
Claude was speechless. Mudville Manor was far more impressive up close than one could ever hope to reproduce with a simple photograph. It was definitely the most imposing-looking old house Claude had ever seen, bar none.
“You sure you wanna go in this sucker?” Jack said. “It looks like something out of a horror movie.”
“I’ll go with you,” Molly said, coming over to Claude and taking his arm. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She was speaking to her husband on that final note.
“Oh, I’ll go inside, as long as we're careful,” Jack said. “I didn’t ride three hours for nothing, dammit.”
“I’ll wait out here with Jack if he doesn’t want to go in,” Abby said. “It’s probably filthy inside anyway.”
“We’re all going,” Claude said. “Isn't that what we came here for?”
Nobody answered him, as if the sight of the old house had stolen their voices.
“Well, I’m going inside. I didn’t drive three hours to stand here looking at it from the outside.”
“I’m going in, too,” Molly said. “I’m not scared.”
“I’m not scared either,” Jack said. “It's giving me a weird vibe, that's all.”
Claude gave Abby and Jack a firm look. “Well. Are you two coming or not?”
Jack and Abby looked at each other, and some sort of unspoken agreement passed between them.
Jack nodded. “We’re coming, just lead the way.”
Claude approached the massive old brick structure with the others in tow. The front steps were stone and brought them onto a wooden porch nearly as big as Claude’s living room back in Spencerville, and then to the massive double doors that led into the bowels of Mudville Manor.
He turned one last time to the others. “Well. Here we go.”
* * * *
Rex waited a good ten minutes--plenty of time for his visitors to make it to the house and check it out from a distance before they went inside--then he headed downstairs and sat down in front of the bank of surveillance monitors that he had set up in the living room of the old servants' quarters. He'd installed hidden video cameras in all the main rooms of the old mansion, and their images were sent back to this row of monitors, so he could keep an eye on things happening there.
The whole arrangement--the computer, the surveillance equipment, and the how-to books--had set him back a good chunk, though. All of his savings, but what else could he do? He had to make a living somehow while living here in this horrible place. And he couldn’t leave the old mansion unattended, not knowing of the hellish thing that occupied the well down in the basement of the decrepit old domicile of his ancestors. Not knowing what it might be capable of if it ever decided to leave the house and hunt for its own food outside in the world. Rex's world
But it had grown quite large during its years in the old well. Rex didn’t think it would even be able to escape the old mansion even if it tried. Not unless the house was knocked down somehow, which was the main reason why Rex had to stay and maintain the place, and why his now-dead uncle had stayed there, as well as all those who had came before his uncle had stayed there. No telling what that thing might do if the house was ever demolished and it got out into the world. It was better this way. Better for everybody.
Except, of course, for those Rex managed to lure there.
He had no idea what the thing really was, only that it had crawled out of the old well one night over a hundred years ago and had devoured the people who were living in the house at the time, people who had been the mortal enemies of Rex’s distant ancestors. Rex had heard one of his ancestors had summoned a demon or had conjured some other type of horror out of the earth to destroy the hated family of the mansion, and since that night of horror, a member of Rex’s bloodline had been living there on the grounds of the mansion in the servants' quarters, watching over the house and the thing it contained, feeding the thing when it when it needed fed, making sure it didn’t escape somehow, as if there had been no way of sending it back from where it had come once it had been brought here. And that’s how he’d ended up getting stuck with the job. It was tradition, something that had to be upheld at all costs, and he was proud to do it. And with Rex's criminal background, he'd been his family’s natural choice for the job. Because feeding the thing what it wanted for dinner every month or so wasn’t exactly an easy job. It had often taken some serious planning to lure unwary folks into the basement of the old place, but at least Rex got to keep all the spoils from the thing’s feedings--the wallets, watches, rings, and anything else it left behind Now that he had the internet, all that would change.
Rex watched in the center monitor, the one for the camera in the main room of the mansion, as the group of urban explorers entered and began looking around. That’s what they called themselves--Urban Explorers. There were dozens of websites all over the world about it, catering to people who loved exploring abandoned buildings. Rex had even found pictures of his own Mudville Manor on one site, but only exterior shots. So far, none of the explorers who’d tried had been able to gain entry to the house. Rex and all those that had come before him had always kept the old mansion locked up tight, unless it was feeding time, of course.
Not anymore, though.
Now Rex was letting them in, no strings attached.
It was all part of his new plan, now that he had the internet.
The group of explorers was now in the main part of the upper floor. He saw their mouths moving and he wished he could hear what they were saying, but sound capabilities had been beyond the depths of his wallet. The video was enough for now, he supposed. And if things worked out the way he had planned, he could always add sound later, once the money started rolling in.
Come on, he thought, watching as the explorers toured the upstairs rooms. Get on down to the basement so we can get this show on the road for real.
* * * *
“Everybody ready for the basement?” Claude said.
They were standing in Mudville Manor’s wrecked kitchen, having just finished touring the upstairs. So far, Claude was blown away by what he’d seen. And now that they’d been through both upper floors, he just had to see the basement. It was the only place in the house not shown on the website, with only a written description and something about a mysterious old well somewhere down there in the darkness. All the more reason to go and see it for himself.
“Do we have to?” Abby said. “I’ve had about enough of this place.”
“Imagine what it was like to have lived here when it was new,” Molly said. “It’s such a beautiful old place.”
“It sure is enormous,” Jack said.  “I wonder why it’s just sitting out here, all closed up like this. You’d think it would be a great place to live.”
“Maybe the owners went bankrupt or something,” Claude said. “And they couldn’t afford the upkeep.”
“Why not sell it then? Get out from under it.”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe it’s historical to their family or something.”
“What matters?” Abby said. “It would take a million dollars to fix it up. Just look at the walls, they’re crumbling apart.”
“I still want to check out the basement,” Claude said.
“I’ll check out the basement with you,” Molly said. “Then we can leave.”
“I might as well tag along, too,” Jack said. “Don’t wanna be left out, you know?”
Abby sighed. “I don’t know why I hang out with you all.”
Molly grinned. “Because you love us,” she said.
There was laughter, and then they all headed for the basement door.
“Man, look at that,” Jack said once they reached the stairs. “I wonder why they used steel.”
The basement door was like something from a battleship. Heavy riveted steel, probably half an inch thick. It looked new, too, like somebody had only recently installed the door for some strange reason.
Claude didn’t think about it too much. He just wanted to see the old well, and then they could leave.
“Maybe it’s a dungeon,” Abby said. “Maybe this is where they tortured people way back when.”
“Knock it off, hon,” Claude said. “You’ll scare us so bad we won’t be able to go down there.”
“That’s the idea,” she said. “Haven’t you seen enough of this place?”
“No,” he said. “Not until I see the old well that’s supposed to be down there.”
“An old well, huh?” Jack said. “Spooky. But I don’t think this place is haunted like you said it was.”
Claude shrugged. “Maybe not. It’s still cool to look at, though. Who’s coming with me?”
“I’m game,” Molly said.
Abby sighed.
“Come on, then,” said Claude. “Let’s go.”
Down the steps they went without any further delay.
* * * *
Rex waited until the last member of his hapless group disappeared through the basement door, and then he got up and went over to the wall and pressed a button he’d mounted there, something like an automatic garage door opener. The heavy gauge steel door had been the last thing he’d installed before going online with his Mudville Manor website. The original wooden door had been far too rotten to be trustworthy, and the size of the thing living in the well down there bothered him these days. Also, Rex didn’t want any of the explorers being able to batter their way out once the basement door closed behind them. The new steel door made his new plan foolproof.
Rex checked the basement door camera one last time to make sure the door had closed the way it was supposed to, and seeing that it had, he headed out the back door and down the path to the mansion.
Before he got halfway there, the screaming had started--muffled and almost indistinguishable through the tons of brick and plaster and the steel door, but still loud enough to be heard quite a distance from the house. Not that there was anyone nearby. The nearest house was nearly three miles away.
Rex couldn’t help but smile a little.
He couldn’t imagine what those poor explorers thought when the door slammed and they saw that thing come out of the well, looking like it did, with that huge head and its mouth full of needle-like teeth and those long, spidery arms and legs that could wrap clear around a person. Rex wondered which one of his urban explorers it had gotten grabbed first. Probably the one with the flashlight, whoever that was. After that, the rest wouldn’t have been able to see it coming for them. It was smart like that.
All Rex had to do now was wait for the thing to finish its business, then he could open the door and go down and retrieve whatever goodies it had left behind for him. Usually the clothes and wallets and purses and metallic items, like car keys. Stuff the thing knew Rex wouldn't want ruined.
He knew the thing wouldn’t ever hurt him, since he carried his ancestors' blood in his veins. It was all part of the agreement, something started long before Rex had come along and taken over management of the old mansion, something maybe Rex’s great-great-great granddaddy had worked out with the thing in order to keep it from running wild in the countryside, since it didn't belong in this world and it couldn’t be killed like most everything else could. His ancestors had known that much about it, at least. Probably had learned it the hard way, too.
Rex thought about the shiny red Mustang sitting back there behind his house. He’d clear five grand for that baby at a chop shop he knew about, no problem. And it had been almost too easy, hadn’t it? A little money spent buying the equipment, and then time setting everything up and getting the website designed and online, and now they were coming to him. He couldn’t think of an easier way to steal cars.
And he was sure the thing in the well was happy with the arrangement, as well. It was eating better than it ever had since that very first night when it had munched on Rex’s ancestors' enemies. Rex was keeping with family tradition in a grand style, he knew. He couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
Just listen to those screams!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Staff Meeting At Harding County School

(Author's note: this story originally appeared at in 2002.)

Mr. Franklin Worthington sat at his desk in his barren office at Hardin County School and watched the clock tick away his final moments as principal there.


Only fifteen minutes to go.

Might as well be fifteen years, Worthington thought. Because I’m finished. I’ll never work again.

And school was all he’d ever known. Forty-one years and this is what I end up with, he thought. Because the county was constructing a new school, one with separate buildings for elementary, junior high, and senior high, but located further out in the county to accommodate several small towns that had seen considerable growth in recent years. The old Hardin County School building was to be torn down to make room for a public swimming pool. If the funds could ever be raised. So far they hadn’t been. And probably wouldn’t be. Because the town was broke. It was as simple as that. The old school would probably stand empty as the years came and went and would eventually fall into ruin, like so many other schools that had outlasted their usefulness in so many other small towns across America.

And with Worthington being sixty-three, the school board had forced him to take an early retirement, with full benefits, of course. They had themselves a woman fresh out of Boston to take the reigns over at the new buildings. Some hotshot, no doubt. In other words, Worthington thought, they thought he was washed-up. A relic to be put to pasture. But Worthington couldn't say he blamed them. He didn’t want to work in the new buildings, anyway. All his memories were here in this one.

Still, he hated to see it end this way. As bitter an end as one could ever expect. Because he didn’t know what he was going to do with all his newfound freedom. Not since Rachel, his wife of thirty-six years, had died suddenly last summer from a brain embolism while she was out in the garden, pulling weeds. Worthington had discovered her body himself, drawn into a fetal position, still clutching her garden trowel in one gloved hand. Hardly a moment went by when the memory didn’t flash through his mind, since she’d been a teacher here at Hardin County herself, and that’s how they’d met. Two teachers, spending their lives together, both at work and at play. Now she was just gone, and though her memory still vibrated in the walls of the old school, the home they’d shared felt empty and deserted. They’d always been too busy with the school to have children of their own, so now he was truly alone in the world.

The clock read 3:25.

Seeing this, Worthington rose and strolled out into the secretary’s area, leaving his empty office behind for good. He closed the door behind him and didn’t look back. There was nothing left in there anyway.

Across the room, Miss Blume sat waiting behind her desk, her purse in front of her, her keys beside it. She smiled when she saw him, and he returned it. She was a nice girl.

“Almost over,” she said with a slight giggle.

He only nodded, thinking it would have been better to have ended it with his past secretary, Betty Mills. But Betty was dead, too. Ovarian cancer, the year before Rachel’s embolism. And though Miss Blume had come to take the job as secretary, nobody cold ever truly replace Betty. Betty had been one of a kind, gracious and funny and loved by the thousands of children they’d seen over the years. Worthington wasn’t shy to admit that while working so closely with Betty, he’d grown to love her almost more than he loved his own wife.

He missed both of them terribly, nonetheless.

“You can go ahead and leave if you want, Miss Blume,” Worthington said. “That way you can beat the rush.”

She didn’t waste any time getting to her feet.

“Thanks Mr. Worthington,” she said. “It was a good year.”

Then she was gone and he was alone in the office.

The clock read 3:28.

He stood in the open doorway to the office with his arms folded in front of him. He could almost feel the tension in the classrooms rising like heat as the seconds ticked away. 3:29. Only one more minute and then the bell would be ringing and the doors would be flung open and the children would be rushing out just short of a stampede with the clatter of lockers slamming, the sound of screams, stomps, laughter, and most of all-- especially from the teachers and staff, sighs.

Because they’d made it through another year. And Miss Blume had been right. It had been a good year. A final year in more ways than one, but a good year nonetheless. Of course to Worthington they’d all been good. To Worthington, nothing was more rewarding than teaching and guiding young people on their path to adulthood. Nothing on Earth, anyway.

The bell rang and the noise began as a deep rumble as hundreds of sneaker-clad feet found the floor and started to pound in the hallways, booming down through the ceiling, shaking the windows in the office like a spring storm. Then they were out in a rush, streaming through the open doorways at either end of the hall, pouring out into the late May sunshine, on their way to summer, each and every one of them.

The halls were deserted before the ringing of the bell had left Worthington’s ears. It was over, and so quickly. Hardin County School, seat of education in the area for ninety-one years, was officially closed for good.

He stepped out into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him. Down at the other end of the hall, Teddy the janitor stood leaning against the handle of his broom, shaking his head. The kids had left a mess in the hallways, as was usual on the last day of the schoolyear. Papers and books scattered everywhere. But there was no need to clean it up. Nobody would ever be coming in the old school again who would care.

“Mind if I take this broom home with me?” Teddy asked.

“Sure. Go right ahead, Teddy.”

As far as Worthington cared, Teddy could have any damn thing he wanted out of the old school. It would all be going to rot anyway.

As Teddy grabbed the broom and started for the door, Worthington couldn’t help thinking about his other janitor, Dwight Holmes, who’d been around the old school longer than Worthington had. Fifty-two years, if Worthington remembered right. The old guy just wouldn’t retire. He’d loved the old school too much to leave it in the hands of anyone else. But Dwight had been found dead one Monday morning in the boiler room three winters ago. Evidently, he’d come over the previous night to fire up the boiler, get the school warmed up for classes the following morning, and had dropped dead of a heart attack before he could complete the job. And that’s how Betty found him. Because she was always the first one to arrive at the school in the mornings, and that morning she’d found the school freezing cold.

I’m the only one left from the original crew, Worthington thought suddenly. They were all gone now. All dead. All that was left was him and the school itself, and pretty soon the school would be gone as well. Either that or it would become an empty shell, hammered by the elements without anybody making repairs. It was already an old building, and leaving it alone and boarded-up would only speed its inevitable death.

And once the school dies I’ll have nothing. Nothing at all.

Worthington watched Teddy turn and give a slight wave, then the custodian headed out the door at the other end of the hall and disappeared into the sunlight.

“Just you and me now,” Worthington said to the silent walls.

He turned and headed for the door, but right at that moment something happened that froze him in his tracks. Something that sent bolts of ice down his spine.

A voice came over the intercom. A familiar voice. Even though he knew damn well nobody was in the office that could be speaking into the microphone.

“Mr. Worthington, please report to the staff lounge,” the voice said.

He knew whose voice it was. Which was why he couldn’t move. Why his feet felt as if they were nailed to the ground. It was Betty’s voice. And Betty was dead. And the staff lounge was down in the basement. Underground.

Moving only his eyes he looked back through the office door window, he could see the intercom. Nobody was near it, and it was the only intercom in the school. So no one was playing a trick on him. He was just hearing things. He’d been thinking about Betty earlier, anyway.

But he was still looking at the intercom when he saw the button on the microphone depress and he heard another message come over the hallway speaker.

“Mr. Worthington. We know you’re still in the school. Please come to the staff lounge.”

Definitely Betty’s voice. There was no mistaking it. But Betty was long gone. Buried out in Lewis Grove cemetery right next to her husband. There was no mistaking that, either, because he’d attended her funeral.

A second voice came through the speaker, and this one nearly took Worthington to his knees.

“Please, Frank. Come to the lounge.”

It was Rachel’s voice. Worthington’s dead wife. No mistaking it this time, either.

“Is this some kind of sick joke?” he yelled. His voice echoed back to him through the now eternally empty halls and classrooms.

Maybe I’m just imagining things, he thought. Certainly Betty and Rachel couldn’t be talking to him over the intercom. Not when they were both dead and buried. He’d attended both their funerals. Viewed their corpses. He was hearing things, cracking up, losing his marbles. The old school wasn’t haunted. Worthington didn’t believe in ghosts. And even if he did believe in that sort of foolishness, neither one of the women he’d heard had died in the school, so why would they be haunting it? The only person who’d died in the old school had been . . .

“It’s no joke, Frank,” a gruff man’s voice said through the speaker. “We just want to say good-bye, is all.”

Dwight Holmes. Of course. Worthington had been thinking about old Dwight recently as well. Now Worthington really felt he might be cracking up. He was starting to shiver. And sweat. He decided to say something again. Even though he knew that actually talking to the voices in one’s head is even further along the path of insanity than hearing them was.

“That’s it?” Worthington said.

But he had a new theory now about what was happening. He wasn’t cracking up. He was dreaming. While waiting for the bell to ring, he’d fallen asleep while thinking about the people who’d died over the last few years, and this was all a dream he was having about them. When the bell rang, he’d wake up.

“This is no dream, Frank,” Betty said. “We just want to see you one last time and say goodbye.”

Worthington started moving towards the basement. He decided to just go along with it and hope the bell rang before he made it to the lounge. That’s how things happened in dreams. You always wake up before something really bad happens. He arrived at the stairs and started heading down without pause. But he was sweating and shivering at the same time. He couldn’t stop hearing those voices repeating in his head. So real.

It just had to be a dream.

He made it to the lounge. The window in the door was dark. He didn’t want to push it open, not even to flip the light switch for fear of someone or something might grab his hand. He could almost feel the three of them standing in there in the darkness, waiting for him to enter so they could all say goodbye.

Even though they were all dead.

He swallowed his fear and pushed open the door anyway. Just a dream, he told himself. Just a stupid dream.

He flipped the light switch beside the door, but nothing happened. He stepped in and let the door fall shut behind him, and in the light from the hallway outside he made out three shadowy forms standing at the other side of the lounge.

“Hello?” he said just above a whisper.

This was stupid, he thought. There’s nobody down here. I was just imagining hearing voices. I’m probably one step away from the nuthouse.

“We’re here, Frank,” Betty’s voice said. It came from the shadow in the middle.

“The light won’t work,” Worthington said. It was either say something stupid like that, or scream.

“That’s all right,” Dwight said. He was the shadow on the left. “You don’t really want to see us. But we needed to see you.”

Worthington felt whatever resolve he’d had slipping away. His heart was hammering and he was on the verge of screaming like mad, running out of there, getting in his car, driving, driving.

“But this is wrong,” Worthington said. “You’re all dead.”

“You don’t have to remind us,” Dwight said.

“But there’s something we need to ask you,” Betty said. “Something important.”

“What?” Worthington wondered if his heart could beat any harder. It sounded like a bass drum from one of the heavy metal songs the teenagers listened to pounding in his ears. “What do you want with me?”

The shadows seemed to step towards him, and his heart shifted gears on him. Now he could feel his ears pulse with the beat, and he wondered if it was possible he might have a heart attack from fear. He’d never had heart problems before, but he was in his sixties, and not in the best physical shape. Not after spending most of his life behind a desk.

“We didn’t know it would be so bad on this side,” Betty said. “But it’s a mess. Just like it is in life, Frank. Too many confused children and not enough people to guide them. We need you, Frank. We need your help. You were always our leader, and now that the school’s going to be abandoned, we need our principal.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Join us,” Rachel said. Then he felt a hand fall on his arm. It was cool, but not cold. Just like Rachel’s hand had always been. He still couldn’t see her. It was too dark. But maybe that was a good thing. She’d been dead for quite a while.

“You mean you want me to die?” he said. If his heart kept up like this, he probably would anyway, he figured.

“Yes,” they all three said in unison.

Worthington knew what was expected of him. And deep down in his soul he realized he wanted it. He had nothing here to keep him behind, nothing to lose except an empty house and an even emptier retirement. Why not go now and start work over on the other side with the people he knew and loved? If this was indeed what they were promising. And these three were his oldest friends. If he couldn’t trust what they had to say, even if it was from beyond the grave, who could he trust?

“Please, Frank,” Rachel said. “We need you. I need you.”

“Will we get to stay with the school?” he said. He had to know. The old school had been his life. Why not let it be his death as well? Why not?

“We’ll get to stay here forever,” Betty said. “Over here, everything is forever, Frank.”

He really wanted it. To leave this wretched lonely life ahead of him, to start death this very moment, with his loved ones right there to guide him.

“But how?” he said. “I don’t have anything to do it with.”

Dwight’s voice broke in. “Just try the light again, Frank. You’re old, like the rest of us were when it happened to us. Turn on the light and look at us again.”

Worthington turned away from the three shadows and fumbled for the light switch again. He flipped it up and this time light flooded the room from the overhead flourescents.

Then he turned around, and saw the three of them in that glaring new light, looking like they’d just stepped out of their graves. Their clothes were the ones they’d been buried in, and they were all eyeless, dried and shriveled with gray, sagging flesh, their lips drawn back to expose their teeth in hideous death grimaces, almost like they were smiling at him.

Worthington screamed then, long and loud, and it echoed up the stairs and through the hallways and into the classrooms, where it died and dissipated into the air of old Hardin County School like it never had been at all. The old school swallowed Worthington’s final scream, and it would hold it for all time.

As soon as the scream ended, Worthington felt a burning, wrenching pain tear through his ribs and shoot down his left arm, and that was when his sixty-three year old heart exploded. He was dead before he hit the concrete floor.

When it was over and all the pain was gone, he rose from his body into a newly darkened yet similar world, one where Hardin County School would always exist, a place that knew no time, where he joined his wife and his old friends as they led him by the hand into the eternal upper floors.

He never looked back.