Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Last Staff Meeting At Harding County School

(Author's note: this story originally appeared at Horrorfind.com 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.