There’s two things that all 13 to 14 year olds really enjoy: hearing horror stories and telling horror stories. A few weeks ago, we read Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart” in class. Naturally class participation and test scores just leaped through the ceiling for this unit of study. A few exuberant students confided to me that they enjoy writing, especially suspense. In fact a few of them are devotees to on-line writing groups that openly share their material. As the natural course of things goes, several kids now meet Wednesdays during lunch in a small writers circle to talk about what we write, lend support and encouragement, offer friendly advice , and even plan a film projects (movie trailers for their stories).
As they have learned, writers write best when writing about the things with which they’re familiar. On that note, I told them about a true story that I had been mulling over for a while, hoping to put down on paper.
The school at which I had been teaching was enshrouded for days in a dense gray fog that clung to your skin, clothes and lungs like thick grease. Even on the clearest early December day, the school was a dark smudge in the heavy vapor that enveloped it and the surrounding fields. The 8 foot brick walls were defenseless against this malingering nebulous malaise. As I worked late that Friday evening (even the night custodians had left), my room was a capsule of light in the bleak darkness outside the window. My reflection against the glass pane was the only sign of life to keep me company until the town’s limits a quarter mile away. I was working feverishly late into Friday night to finish grades before the Christmas break that began in just a few, short days.The funny thing about fog is that it not only limits visibility, but it muffles sound as well. That is why I was surprised to hear the soft clack and rattle of the chain link gate outside my room as someone was obviously trying to scale its galvanized mesh barrier. “Skaters,” I mused to myself. We had been issues with them coming onto campus during late night hours recently. I took a swig of my lukewarm acerbic coffee, and continued on with my work, glancing outside occasionally into the black amorphous mass outside my window. My work was interrupted, however, by the soft rattle of classroom door handle turning and shaking. Damn skaters, I thought. Slapping my red pen down on the desk, I pushed away from the dark simulated wood writing surface and stalked over to the door. I brief moment of reason overcame my anger, and I decided to slowly and quietly open the door instead of bursting into the dark without know who or how many people were outside my class.
Slowly, and quietly, knowing exactly when to lift the door by the handle to avoid its normal squeak, I pushed the door open and slid out a narrow opening, holding it ever so slightly ajar behind me by the inside knob. I leaned my head into the dank mist, straining to hear the intruders, only to hear the plop of fat dollops of water dripping from the eaves onto concrete as the the fog condensed against the cool metal flashing. After a few moments in the wretched fetidness that accompanies days long fog, I receded back into the warmth of the classroom.
Walking slowly back to my desk, still straining to hear the rascals outside, I recalled how one of the first teachers here at the school made headlines only four years before. Mr. Spinardo, an old, cranky math teacher had been assigned a room alone in the schools farthest-off wing, the very same as my classroom. He was a tired old codger: rude. ornery, but a hard worker nonetheless. Yet he was assigned to the school boondocks so as not to be a constant nuisance to the children and other teachers. One evening , when wiser men cuddled with their wives on a couch near a roaring fire, he slipped off to his class to get a little extra work in. The next morning, the school called his home. Spinardo had not shown up to work. His wife answered. She had been ill and having gone to bed early and waking up late, she though that she had merely missed her husband.
After the police arrived to investigate the missing person report filed on Spinardo’s behalf, it was discovered that he had indeed been in his classroom the previous night. The lights were one. A half eaten sandwich lay on his desk with a cup of cold coffee next to it in his stained old mug that had served him since his retirement as a Navy Chief. His faded Chevrolet Caprice was still in the parking lot, silently waiting for Godot. After weeks of futile investigation, it was determined that his was a cold case. That, however was the official story…there was yet another chapter in his disappearance.
I turned on a talk radio station. I needed the companionship of another human voice. It was approaching 11PM and I really had no business being there that late. Besides, I was beginning to imagine all sort of sordid thing. Every creak of the cheap portable classrooms walls gave me start and good bumps. I’ll never forget how one weekend, little busy, the 7th grade cheerleader passed by this wing late one afternoon as dusk began to settle its long cold late autumn shadow over the Valley floor. with the sun about to set. She was going to take the short cut home across the field before the sun set. Just as she passed the last building before reaching the side gate, an old man in a sleeveless cardigan sweater, a pack of Philip Morrises bulging under the breast pocket, stepped out floor behind a blind corner.
“What are you doing here without a pass?” he demanded in an impatient, gravely voice.
She stammered, “It’s Saturday, sir. I’m just going home after cheer practice.”
“Well then, get moving. And here’s yer detention for being outside the boundaries without a pass.” He handed her the the white detention slip.
On Monday morning she showed up to school with her mother who was upset that her daughter had been treated so unfairly after school hours. When the school secretary looked at the crumpled form, she turned white as the paper it was printed on. She asked Susy and her Mother to wait a moment as she briskly made her way to the principal’s office. In a few minutes Susy and her mother were in the school administrator’s office thumbing through an old year book. She principal had asked her to identify the teacher who had accosted her.
“There, that’s him!” Busy cried, tapping with her finger the black and white picture of an elderly man wearing a cardigan and a crooked tie. “That’s him, Mr. Spin…Spinardo, “ she continued, reading the name under the photo.
“Thank you, Susy. We’ll take care of it.” The Principal grinned oddly as she ushered the two form her office. How could be? Spinardo’s name was right there on the detention slip, but he had been gone for tow years.
I knew this story to be true because the school secretary played piano in my church worship group and she had recounted this event to us at rehearsal the day after the meeting with Susy and her mother.
Just a few more essays to correct and report cards to fill out and I could get out of there and go home. My imagination was already getting the best of me. I could swear I could smell Philip Morris cigarettes wafting in through the hairline gaps in the windowsill. (I knew the pungent fragrance well since that had been my grandfather’s brand when I was a kids). I I could almost see the glow of an orange cigarette tip in the blackness of the window that was just to the right of my left elbow. Wait, was the little orange orb moving out there in the darkness? Did it just grow larger, as if it moved closer to the window and then back again? Naw…it had to be some crazy reflection. I settled back to work, but then in a moment again heard a gentle tug on my classroom door handle. Surely, I surmised, that perhaps a breeze had just picked up causing the door to rattle as the air gushed under the bottom edge . A breeze would mean that the fog would soon lift and so would my spirits.
One report card to go. I started punching number into a calculator, when over my left shoulder, just outside the window which was only a mere 18 inches from me, I swear I had a movement out of the corner of my eye…yes…it was the small orange glow again, first rising in the air by about a foot and then falling the ground and disappearing. At least that’s what I thought I saw as I again peered into the black void that was my own reflection as my classroom light reflected against the window pane.
This time I had to go outside and see what was going on. I didn’t like the idea of some skater punk standing outside my classroom window staring at me. I nonchalantly made my way to the day, dissembling my intent to deftly steal outside and catch the culprit. Indeed, while pretending to check inside my student desks, I slowly made my way to the door, and then surreptitiously glided out. The corner of the building was only about ten steps from the door. With long strides all on the balls of my feet, I made my way to the corner of the building and quietly eased my head around to take a peek. There, just outside the window, illuminated by the dim, yellow lights from within, stood an old fellow, his form made ephemeral by the deep sticky fog. Extending just above the top pocket of his sleeveless cardigan, I could make out a pack of cigarettes…Philip Morris. The old guy hardly seems to notice that I was standing there twenty feet form him, as he slowly took a drag of the cancer stick.
I quickly pulled back, my beating like the fist of person unwittingly trapped in a small, beating on the trying to escape. Holding my breath tight so stranger might not hear me, I peeked again. The man was gone. I dared not turn around , lest he be standing behind me, but the flight or flight urge overwhelmed my conscious choice to be still and unheard. I spun around and streaked for the gate on the other side of the wing where my car waited. It was a about a 45 yard dash with one turn and my feet scarcely touched the ground along the way. I opened the door mid-stride with the remote from ten yards out and spun the tires in my hasty exit, bits of wet twigs, mud and gravel spewing behind me.
The following day, I had to return to the school. I had left the door unlocked, the lights on, and the entire wing unalarmed. If anything had happened to the classroom as a result of my careless and hasty retreat, I could be fired. I stuck my old Saturday night special in my pocket and made my way back to the school. I knew bullets would be completely ineffective against a spirit or creature born of the fog, but it provided me some comfort.
Before entering my classroom, I made my way to the side of the building where to the exact spot where I had seen the figure. There, scattered in a small group next to the window, lay four filterless cigarette butts. All flattened on one end where they had been flattened between lips pressed tight. As my eyes slowly scanned upward along the window searching for more clues, I saw muddy hand print near to the latch and wedged between the sliding panes was a detention slip signed, Mr. Spinardo.