It’s publication day for Kevin Lucia as Crystal Lake Publishing releases October Nights, his collection of Halloween-themed short stories. To celebrate, Cemetery Dance is proud to share “Ballad of the Broken Hearts at the Danse Macabre,” a Halloween-themed short story that is NOT included in October Nights. Think of it as a bonus story, a companion to Lucia’s collection (which he discussed with us in a Q&A right here.)
Many there be who die in throes,
??And groans, and fearful anguish:
And there be those, who waste in woes;
??And many there be who languish;
But few there be, who die like me,
??Then wake again to sorrow;
Who strive with death, and feel them free,
??But are bound again to-morrow;
Who wrestle through all its agony,
And strive no more in its chains to be,
But are born again to misery,
??In the dying years they borrow.
Halloween, A Romaunt with Lays Meditative and Devotional,
by Arthur Cleveland Coxe
Ballad of the Broken Hearts at the Danse Macabre
by Kevin Lucia
I’ve read that houses have long memories. I believe the same is true of schools, especially after ten years as a custodian at All Saints. Of course, the idea didn’t occur to me when I accepted the job. I was a poor graduate student taking time off to pay some bills. That a school building might have a memory wasn’t a concern.
Not until I worked my first evening shift. The head custodian — a grizzled man named Tom Grant — announced after hiring me that he was tired of the extra duties. Claimed arthritis was stiffening up his joints, and he wanted to pass the torch on. To me, in particular.
I accepted. The sooner I saved up funds, the sooner I could pay my bills off and return to grad school. Get my Master’s Degree in Early American Literature, and starve on a whole new level as an adjunct instructor somewhere.
It turned out to be more than an opportunity to earn money, however. Over the course of these past ten years, I’ve glimpsed rare snatches of the best and worst teenagers have to offer at these after-school events. As a custodian you’re mostly invisible, so because you’re not not part of their world, they don’t wear their social masks when you’re around. I’ve seen them unvarnished and bare. The good, the bad, and the ugly, you could say.
Over these years, I’ve learned that, as I said, schools have long memories, just as houses do. And, like memories stained into banisters, stairs, attics and porch swings; memories absorbed by lockers, gymnasiums, cafeterias and hallways don’t always rest easy.
I learned this lesson with particular vividness my first after-school custodian job, working the annual Halloween dance.
“That’s the last of it,” Tom Grant said as he settled into the chair at his large metal desk in the custodian’s office. Shuffling through invoices, he glanced up. “Any last minute questions? Cold feet? Speak now, or forever hold your peace. No shame in deciding it’s a bit too much to take on, especially being so new.”
It was early Friday evening. We’d just gone over my duties for the Halloween Dance Saturday night. Most of it I knew, of course. Where the custodian’s closets were, how to spot-mop the gym floor and cafeteria after everyone left, where the hand sanitizer refills were stocked. He’d showed me everything anyway, like it was my first day on the job. He didn’t mean anything by it. That was just his way.
I learned a few new things, however. Like how to set the night alarm. Or how to turn on the building’s gigantic ceiling fans if it got stuffy in the gym. You had to climb rickety stairs to a narrow loft above the gym and flip dusty switches which looked as if they’d never been touched.
I shook my head and replied, “Seems pretty straight forward.”
Tom grunted. “Don’t forget to use that hex wrench on the key ring to lock the front doors. One year I was under the weather for Halloween and my assistant had to cover for me. Did an okay job, but forgot to lock the front doors. Nothing happened to the school, but administration lost it when they came in Monday morning to a wide-open building. He got fired pretty quick.”
I nodded. “Definitely won’t forget.”
Tom pursed his lips and looked at me thoughtfully. He grunted again, waved to a chair next to his. “Have a seat. Got a few more things.”
I sat. Tom quietly shuffled the papers on his desk for a few minutes, then set them down and turned an unexpectedly intense gaze upon me.
“I want you to understand something. Being a custodian means more than cleaning up after folks. That’s what janitors do. It’s also more than fixing things. That’s what maintenance does. We’re custodians. We look after this place. It’s our responsibility. You’ve studied English, right? What’s some other words for custodian?”
I sat back, realizing he was right. The word custodian did carry some weight. “Keeper, I suppose. Guardian? When it comes to children and such. Steward or protector.”
Tom offered me a rare, thin smile. “That’s right. You’re a custodian of this school. Tonight you’re working the night shift. Going to see a side of this school most never see, going to be responsible for her in a way most folks aren’t. Get it?”
I nodded and lied. “Sure, I get it.”
I didn’t get it, of course.
But I soon would.
I arrived at All Saints around six o’clock that Saturday evening to open the school for parent volunteers so they could finish decorating for the Halloween dance, which started at eight. As I toured the halls, I was struck immediately by the absolute silence permeating the air.
I was the only living soul in the building. For the thirty minutes before parents arrived, the building’s silence pressed down upon me like a physical thing. My footsteps echoed, bouncing off the walls. The ice machine in the cafeteria grumbled intermittently, sounding like doors closing. Beneath it all, fluorescent ceiling lights buzzed with the faint, electrical hum. The silence amplified these sounds, emphasizing how empty the building was. How alone I was. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, the air felt heavy.
Maybe it was my imagination, but as I sat near the side entrance waiting for parents to arrive, reading my careworn copy of Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew, I felt what I can only describe as a watchfulness. A waiting. The silence felt pregnant with expectation. As if, very soon, if no one else came, the emptiness would become less empty as something showed itself to me, filling an unnatural void which felt so very wrong in a building meant to house hundreds of teenagers.
And just as I felt (in some primal part of me) that something was on the verge of making itself known, the doors of the side entrance opened as the first wave of parents arrived.
I was helping a group of parents move chairs and tables in the cafeteria to make room for the novelty photo booth (students could pose in front of a green screen and have it digitally replaced by a Halloween-themed background of their choice), when Mrs. Haskel, the art teacher, poked her head into the cafeteria.
“William? We need some extension cords in the gym for the DJ’s sound system. Could you get a few, please?”
“Sure. Be out there in a second.”
Mrs. Haskel smiled gratefully before she left, presumably returning to gym. “Thanks!”
Unfortunately, not all the faculty members are as respectful as Mrs. Haskel. As with teenagers, I’m fairly invisible to teachers, unless they need something. None of them treat me badly, by any means. It’s just that, to most of them, I’m not really there. I’m the faceless figure whom they call if something’s been spilled in their room. In any case, I knew where to find the extension cords. Several hung on a hook in the workshop behind the custodian’s office.
In all honestly, I’ve never felt comfortable there. Still don’t. It’s right next to the boiler room, and the steady rumbling of the boilers cuts off sound from the rest of school. It’s as if nothing else in the world exists except for those steadily rumbling boilers.
I wanted to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. I walked quickly through the workshop to where the extension cords hung on the wall. I got there in several steps and was reaching for them when, swear to God, I felt something looking at me.
That’s an important distinction, too. Not someone.
My outstretched hand closed over the cords. I pulled them slowly off the wall, glancing over my left shoulder as I did. There, standing in the far corner of the boiling room, I saw, very clearly, what appeared to be a little blond boy. Maybe ten or eleven years old. He stood turned away from me. As if he was being made to stand in the corner as punishment.
My throat felt tight and dry. Like I was choking down a wad of bread with no water. I had no impulse to speak, ask the child his name, or inquire as to what he was doing there. My only impulse was to leave. Get out of the workshop as quickly as possible…
Before the boy turned and looked at me.
I stepped toward the custodian’s office. The scrape of my shoes on concrete seemed to echo nearly as loud as the rumbling boilers. The boy didn’t move, so I took another step, following it quickly with another.
The boy’s head shivered.
His shoulders twitched.
He was turning around.
He was going to look at me.
I didn’t exactly break into a run, but I walked quickly, looking straight at the door to the custodian’s office. I exited and headed for the gym. Didn’t look to the side or behind me. Except for the distant rumbling of the boilers, I heard nothing.
Mrs. Haskel must’ve seen something in my face, because she frowned as I entered the gym. She left the other parents and approached me. “William. Are you all right? You’re white as a sheet.”
Handing her the extension cords, I offered a weak smile. “Uh. No big deal. Just got startled is all. Heard a sound, thought it was…hey…” I gestured at the parents decorating the gym, “did anyone bring their kids with them to help out?”
Mrs. Haskel accepted the cords from me, her frown deepening. “No. There shouldn’t be any children in the building, and the dance is for high school students only.”
She looked at me closely, her expression thoughtful. “Did you see someone?”
I hesitated before answering. It’s the most overused convention of horror and ghost stories, right? The reluctant witness who’s afraid of looking silly, or even delusional. How many horrible cinematic deaths could’ve been avoided if that one person had just fessed up and said, “You know what, call me crazy, but I just saw the weirdest thing…”
But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I just smiled, shook my head and said, “Naw. Guess I saw a shadow, thought maybe some kids were messing around, but if no one brought kids with them…”
Mrs. Haskel nodded slowly, no longer frowning, but still looking oddly thoughtful. “You sure?”
My smile felt more genuine. “Yeah. Just got the spooks is all. Never worked the late shift before, y’know? Kind of creepy back there near the boiler room.”
Just like that, Mrs. Haskel smiled and looked normal again. “Tell me about it. I’ll do anything to give the custodial staff a hand…except go near the boilers. No thank you.”
She held up the extension cords as she turned back to the parents talking to the DJ. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need anything else.”
She walked away.
Suddenly, I felt foolish and very glad I hadn’t told Mrs. Haskel what I’d thought I’d seen. I had no idea why I’d imagine a boy standing with his face in the corner, but it seemed a far more plausible explanation than actually seeing something. I felt much better than I had moments before.
Regardless, I found a reason to stay away from the workshop for the next hour, checking garbage cans around the gym and in the halls, and checking the restrooms. When I finally went back there again — more extension cords were needed for the novelty photo booth — I made myself look in that corner. Despite an expectant tightening of my gut, I saw nothing there.
By eight, the gym and cafeteria were decorated and ready for students. I’d gotten busy enough to push aside my hallucination or whatever it was. At seven-thirty, the DJ blew half the fuses in the gym with a sound check, which had me scrambling until about ten of eight, looking for the fuse box, which had been the one thing Tom had neglected to show me. I finally found it up on the stage in the gym, in the far left corner. The fuses were poorly labeled, of course, and it took several minutes of flipping (shutting off three banks of gym lights in the process, and they take a good ten minutes to warm back up) to find the right fuses.
Fortunately, the parents had been busy decorating from the moment they’d stepped into the school, so they were mostly finished when I accidentally switched half the lights off. They’d done an impressive job, to say the least. Rivers of black and orange streamers ran around the gym walls. A huge net full of black and orange balloons had been secured to the gymnasium ceiling by netting, to be dropped during the last dance. Actual carved Jack-o’-lanterns had been placed around the gym on pedestals (lit by electric candles and not flame candles, of course), and life-size cardboard cutouts of all the classic Universal Monsters — Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolfman, Dracula, Creature of the Black Lagoon, even Bride of Frankenstein — had been mounted on the walls and the retracted bleachers.
Those weren’t the only monsters taped up, however. Michael Landon’s varsity jacketed Teenage Werewolf loomed there, as well as a creeping Nosferatu. Accompanying the cut-outs were posters from the fifties and sixties. I Was A Teenage Werewolf, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, I Married A Monster from Outer Space, The Fly. Interspersed among those were more modern posters for The Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and of course, appropriately, Halloween.
By eight-thirty, the gym teemed with students dressed as werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, zombies, vampires, mummies, ghosts, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and even an Ash Williams, with a plastic chainsaw secured to one of his hands. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to appreciate our students’ creativity the first forty-five minutes of the dance. The green-screen photo booth in the cafeteria blew a fuse in there, a soap dispenser in the boy’s bathroom broke and was leaking gel hand soap, so I had to replace that. Also, by eight-thirty some of the garbage cans had started filling up, so I needed to change those also. It wasn’t until about eight-forty-five that I got a break and was able to enjoy the sights.
That was when I first saw them fighting.
They stood in the corner, near the front hallway entrance to the gym. The guy wore a varsity letter football jacket from the fifties, with only a white t-shirt underneath. The jacket had a big Q on the shoulder, so I assumed he was a quarterback. His black hair looked like it had initially been styled into a slick pompadour but at some point had come unraveled. His pasty-white skin looked much more natural than some of other students’, whose white face-paint looked caked on and greasy in comparison. A well-done gash cut down the side of his face. I was far away, but it looked like a makeup job worthy of an FX specialist.
The girl looked like she was dressed for a Sock Hop, also from the fifties. She wore black and white penny loafers, a pleated skirt, and a blouse consistent with the time period. I guessed the two came as a couple because she was done up as a zombie also. Her pale white skin matched the guy’s in its realism. From where I stood, I couldn’t see any marks on her face. It wouldn’t be until I got closer that I’d be able to see what FX magic had been worked on her.
Something about the strenuousness of their argument bothered me. The pain in their faces seemed too profound for what was most likely a lover’s spat. However, a hand gripped my elbow, interrupting my thoughts.
“William! Glad I caught you.” It was Mrs. Haskel, her face a picture of relief. “Minor crisis in the cafeteria. Someone knocked the punch bowl over. It shattered, I’m afraid, so now there’s punch and glass everywhere.”
I glanced back at the arguing zombie quarterback and his girlfriend, but with some effort, I pulled my gaze away. “Sure,” I told Mrs. Haskel with a smile. “Lead the way.”
Turned out the “minor crisis” was exceedingly minor, after all. The punch bowl hadn’t shattered into a million pieces, just a few splinters. They were easily collected and the punch mopped up. Of course, nice as Mrs. Haskel has always been to me, she falls prey to the same syndrome most do when a custodian is available. Messes they could’ve cleaned up themselves suddenly because “minor crises” which require my attention.
With the mess cleaned up, I was heading out of the cafeteria and back to the gym when a soft sob just around the corner brought me up short, followed by, “C’mon, Sherry. Ya’ gotta believe me. She’s a math tutor, that’s all. We’re going to State next week, and Coach says if don’t pass this next test, I can’t play!”
I stopped at the corner. Couldn’t see around it, but for some reason I knew exactly who was talking. It was the zombie quarterback and his zombie girlfriend. Had to be.
A sniff and another sob. “I don’t believe you. Amy Sanders said she’s seen you and Shirley at Dooley’s Ice Cream all the time for the past month. What’s she been doing? Teaching you fractions over banana splits?”
“It was her idea! It was hard payin’ attention in the library after school. I was fallin’ asleep. She suggested we go somewhere different, so I could pay attention better.”
A disgusted snort. “I bet you were paying attention better. But not to math.”
I stood there, feeling bad about my accidental eavesdropping but still unable to walk away. Adrenaline spiked through me, however, when I realized the zombie girl — apparently Sherry — was walking in my direction, heading to the cafeteria. I’m sorry to say I froze, looking like the proverbial deer caught in headlights as Sherry rounded the corner, wiping at her eyes.
She was pretty, in that small-town schoolgirl kind of way. She’d dressed the part of the fifties high school girl to the hilt, jet black hair pulled back in a pony tail with a big red ribbon tied in it. Her mascara was running –– she was crying openly –– but whoever had done her pasty-white zombie face paint had done an excellent job, because it wasn’t running at all. As she walked by me, I got a glimpse at the rest of her costume.
It was marvelously done, and subtle, too. The front of her white cheerleader sweater was stained with blotches of red, and her chest looked…crumpled. That’s the best way I can describe it. Wasn’t sure at the time how the effect was created –– padding attached to her bra, or something — but it looked clever enough, making one think of someone who’d died in a car crash, their chest crushed by the steering wheel.
Sherry continued past me and disappeared into the cafeteria. Realizing I couldn’t stand there forever, I took a deep breath and rounded the corner. Leaning against the wall was the zombie quarterback. One hand jammed into his jeans pocket (his jeans were ripped and splashed with fake blood, and peeking through a rip in his left thigh was the glint of fake bone; a very nice touch), the other rubbing the back of his head. He was scowling and staring at nothing.
I stood there, wondering what I could possibly say. I was a custodian, after all. It wasn’t like he’d want to talk to me. Would he think it…creepy? Honestly, was it? I didn’t think so, because I wanted to teach someday myself, so I found myself naturally interested in these kids and their lives. But he might feel that way.
And in high school, the only sport I’d ever participated in had been Cross Country. I’d never been a star athlete leading his team to a state championship. In fact, I was still so disconnected from sports, I hadn’t even known All Saints’ football team had done so well. Also, my short-lived high school relationships hadn’t been nearly as dramatic as the zombie quarterback’s current predicament.
Even so, I wanted to offer some sort of consolation. To at least say something. Ask the guy how he was doing. Before I could open my mouth to speak, however, he snorted, pushed off the wall and sauntered back down the hall toward the gymnasium. He melted into the crowd of students, leaving me standing there, alone.
I checked my watch and saw it was nearly nine. Time for another round. Check the garbage cans, bathrooms, and recycling bins. Many of the garbage cans were at least half full. There were four in the gym I had to empty and re-bag, two in the front hallway, and three in the cafeteria. That took me twenty minutes total. After that, I took a ten minute break in the custodian’s office, sitting in Tom’s chair, feet on the desk.
I’m not going to lie and say the entire time I wasn’t thinking about the boy I’d imagined seeing before the dance started. The thought was an itch in the back of my mind. A handful of times I caught myself sneaking glances through the door into the workshop out back. Each time I felt an odd mixture of relief and disappointment when I saw nothing.
About nine-fifteen, Mrs. Haskel knocked on the door-frame to the custodian’s office. “William, the banner above the entrance is starting to sag. Could you grab a ladder and..?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking that the ladder was in the workshop, against the far wall where the extension cords had been, and my path there would take me right past the corner I’d seen the boy standing in, “give me a minute.”
It probably only took forty-five seconds, as quickly as I strode into the workshop, took the ladder off the wall, and walked back, looking straight ahead, and certainly not into the corner. If Mrs. Haskel noticed my haste she didn’t show it. She smiled and nodded toward the gym. I followed her, feeling relief as I put distance between myself and the workshop.
The banner over the main entrance which read “The Danse Macabre” was indeed drooping, so while Mrs. Haskel and a parent held the ladder, I climbed up and reattached the banner’s corners to the wall with more tacky clay, then taped over each corner for good measure.
Before coming down, I turned to scan the crowd. The gym floor was teeming with costumed teens dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” There was zombie fifties girlfriend, near the middle of the gym, talking with what looked like several other zombie girls, their make-up exactly like hers, only they sported several long, ragged slashes on their faces. I could tell by the first girl’s animated gestures and her troupe’s commiserating facial expressions that a time-honored tradition was being carried out. The aggrieved sharing her tale of woe with her compatriots. Based on her zombie entourage’s crossed arms and scowls, they were decidedly in her camp.
“Will? Everything okay?”
Mrs. Haskel’s voice startled me. I jerked slightly. Forcing a grin, I looked down and said, “Yeah. Just thought I saw a bunch of soda cans on the floor over in the corner. Probably should check it out. Make sure there’s not soda all over.”
Mrs. Haskel flashed a gracious smile. “I think you’re doing a fine job, Will. I’m going to make sure to tell Father Thomas on Monday.” She paused, then added, “I hope we’ll see you at more after-school functions.”
I descended the ladder, folded it shut and tucked it under my arm. My gaze flicked back and forth between Mrs. Haskel, the zombie girl posse and now zombie quarterback, who was making his way through the crowd, followed by what looked like a timid, shy girl dressed up as a ghost, her clothes looking like she was from the same time period. The tutor, I imagined.
I met Mrs. Haskel’s gaze and smiled. “You will. I’m having a great time so far.”
Mrs. Haskel laid a hand on my forearm. “Splendid. ”
I nodded. “Gonna go clean up those soda cans, now.”
She nodded back and turned to the parent volunteer who’d helped hold the ladder. I left, hugging the gym’s perimeter so I wouldn’t hit anyone with said ladder.
Around mid-court I saw them again. The situation looked like it had escalated. Zombie quarterback had closed ranks with the zombie girl and her followers. She and him were taking part in an animated conversation, talking and gesturing energetically. Zombie girl’s posse stood behind her, arms folded, their expressions of disgust worth a thousand words. Shy ghost girl stood several feet behind zombie quarterback. Both he and the zombie cheerleader would occasionally gesture in her direction, but, sad to say, it looked like they didn’t really care about her presence at all.
There was both a garbage can and a recycle bin at mid-court, so I stopped there, leaned the ladder against the closed bleachers, and pretended to busy myself with both of those while I kept an eye on the developments at mid-court. I didn’t want it to look like I was staring, but I needn’t have worried, of course. None of the students noticed me. I was just as invisible to them as always. Just as invisible to them as apparently the argument between zombie quarterback and his zombie cheerleader was.
Which struck me as odd. Seemed like at least some of the other students would’ve noticed the argument going on in their midst. Of course, the music was turned up very loud –– the classic “Monster Mash” was playing –– and the lights were dim, but at least one or two students should be gawking at the scene. However, no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to their argument.
Zombie girl gestured angrily at the shy ghost girl behind zombie quarterback, who was pointing just as angrily at her. The poor ghost girl looked miserable, standing several feet behind zombie quarterback. She probably felt responsible. To make matters worse, I figured she was probably nursing a mostly-unrequited crush on zombie quarterback. I discovered later I was very close to the mark on that score.
I jumped a bit, startled that I actually heard zombie girl shout. Apparently, the argument had ended. Zombie cheerleader spun on one foot and stalked toward the gym’s main entrance, her entourage in tow. Her exit seemed final. I had the feeling they were leaving the dance for the night.
I glanced back to the middle of the gym. Shy ghost girl tentatively approached zombie quarterback from behind and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t say a word. Just shook his head, jerked his shoulder free and walked away to the other end of the gym, and, I assumed, the side parking lot door. He was leaving also.
Propping the ladder against the closed bleachers, I abandoned all pretense and cut across the gym through the crowd, following him. I didn’t stop to think it strange I was so interested in a lovers’ spat which didn’t involve me, or wonder why I felt the need to intervene in something which wasn’t my business. I felt compelled to follow the zombie quarterback and stop him from leaving, and I heeded that compulsion, without thinking. By the time I reached the middle of the gym, shy ghost girl tutor had disappeared, I figured to the bathroom to cry.
I pushed on, driven by a strange urgency. I didn’t know why, but it seemed very important I talk to the zombie quarterback before he left.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make it in time. I rounded the corner to the exit leading to the side parking lot when I heard an engine roar. It revved once. Tires squealed. By the time I pushed the double-doors open, all I saw were red taillights disappearing down the road.
A strange sensation of despair crushed me. For a moment it felt as if I’d failed some crucial cosmic test. I’d had a few chances to say something to zombie quarterback, and I hadn’t taken advantage of those opportunities. It was silly…but I almost felt responsible, somehow, for him tearing out of the parking lot like that.
My common sense quickly reasserted itself, however. I was a custodian at a high school dance. My job was to keep the place tidy during the event, fix things which may need fixing, and to clean up afterward. I wasn’t a chaperone or a counselor. It wasn’t my problem.
As I turned back to the gymnasium to reclaim the ladder, I told myself that, over and over. I almost even believed it.
The dance ended with little fanfare. Nothing much happened which required my attention. The last fifteen minutes, (during which they played “Ghostbusters,” apparently foregoing the time-honored tradition of ending the night with a slow-dance), I toured the gymnasium and cafeteria, emptying garbage cans and recycling bins, lining them with fresh bags, and doing as much tidying up as I could before the dance ended.
Zombie girl and zombie quarterback were gone. They wouldn’t be returning. For some reason, my thoughts kept going back to the shy girl dressed up as a ghost, and…yes…the boy I’d imagined seeing in the workshop before the dance started. I didn’t acknowledge these thoughts consciously, I don’t think. They simmered as I worked.
When the dance ended and Mrs. Haskel –– the last person to leave before me –– said her goodbyes and went out the door, I was surprised to discover that whatever unease I’d felt vanished with the crowds. The school felt empty. Not like it had before the dance, expectant and waiting, but actually empty.
I swept and mopped the gymnasium, hallways, and cafeteria without incident. I vacuumed the rugs in the front hall. Bagged up the rest of the garbage and tossed it in the dumpster outside. I still walked in and out of the workshop only when I had to, and as quickly as possible, but unlike before, I didn’t sense anything lurking in that corner. I didn’t look, however.
The last unsettling incident of the night actually happened as the dance ended. It wasn’t midnight, only ten o’clock, but as part of the dance’s finale, those balloons fell from the gymnasium ceiling to the ringing of loud gongs from the DJ’s booth. They sounded suspiciously like the opening to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells,” but I never confirmed that.
In any case, I was sweeping the stage at the far of the end of the gymnasium when the bells sounded and the balloons dropped from. As a collective cheer rose from the students, their hands thrown into the air along with enthusiastic air punches from several guys, they were standing in the middle of the gym.
It was the shy ghost girl. The tutor who’d caused a rift between zombie quarterback and his zombie girlfriend. She stood very still, her hands clasped before her, her head bowed. Stepping up to her?
The little blond boy.
Perhaps sensing his presence, she looked at him.
He held out a hand.
She regarded the hand for several minutes. Even from so far away, on the stage, I could see the desperate, sad conflict twisting her features. She clearly didn’t want to take the boy’s hand, but it also seemed as if she didn’t know what else to do.
The bells gonged.
Balloons rained down, far too slow, it seemed, as if time had slowed and thickened.
She raised her hand, as if to accept his.
In that moment, a mad desperation seized me once again, like when zombie quarterback left the school, only it was even worse, buzzing along my veins. Something in me wanted to jump from the stage to the gymnasium floor, push my way past the reveling teenagers and stop the shy girl from accepting the boy’s hand, because she shouldn’t take it. It was the last thing she should do.
But I couldn’t move.
Because something inside trembled at the thought of interfering in the boy’s business, fearful of drawing its attention to me. However awful I felt about that girl taking the boy’s hand, I couldn’t make myself intervene, because something inside cowered in fear at the thought of the boy turning its eyes upon me.
The shy girl dressed as a ghost hesitated one second longer, before finally taking the boy’s hand. He walked away, toward the main hall, leading her behind him. She followed. They moved easily past the other teenagers. No one took notice, yet a path formed ahead of them, as if the other students unconsciously sensed their passage.
They walked out of the gymnasium.
The dance ended.
Early Sunday afternoon my phone rang. I’d slept in and skipped Mass, because quit frankly, I’d tossed and turned all night. Though it was ridiculous –– and, I couldn’t help thinking, a little obsessive –– I wasn’t ever able to quite get zombie quarterback, his zombie girlfriend and the shy ghost girl out of my mind. Something about the way zombie girl had stalked out of the dance with her friends and how zombie quarterback had raced out of the school parking lot nagged at me. Though I’d looked through the morning paper and found no reports of car accidents, a dull sense of dread weighed me down.
And shy ghost girl? Being led off by the little boy?
I didn’t want to think about that at all.
I was sitting in my living room, watching without seeing something playing on local television when my phone rang. Somehow, I knew who was calling before I answered.
“So,” Tom Grant’s gravelly voice said, “how’d things go last night? You see anything…odd?”
I coughed and ran a hand through my as-yet uncombed hair. “Um. Define odd.”
“Sounds like you’d best come over.”
I drove slowly over to Tom Grant’s house, a tidy little single-story Concord out on Henry Avenue, and parked in his driveway, next to his truck. He answered on the second knock. Opened the door and stared at me, his narrow, weathered face inexpressive, his eyes blank. Before I could get a word out, he said flatly, “You’ve got questions.”
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t get anything out. Instead, I simply nodded.
Tom grunted, his expression softening. He pushed the door all the way open. “C’mon in, then. I’ll get you a beer.”
After I’d entered his home, Tom beckoned me to his small but orderly kitchen. He got beers from the fridge, then brought us out onto his back porch, where two Adirondack chairs sat. He gestured to one chair; he took the other.
He took a long drink. Swallowed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said without preamble, “Well. Who’d you see? The quarterback and his girl?”
I stared at him for several seconds, his question not registering immediately. When it finally did sink in, however, I felt as if a door had been pushed wide open in my mind, exposing me to a yawning darkness leading to an unknown universe. I licked my lips and nodded again, finding it hard to speak.
He took another drink, this one a bit less boisterous. After swallowing he gave me an appraising look. “Didn’t you get the royal welcome? First night on the job, too.” He tipped his head. “You see the quarterback’s shy little tag-along?”
This made me cough. “Wait. I…I don’t understand.”
Tom looked away, out over his backyard, staring into what writers always seem to call the middle distance. I’d never really understood what the meant, exactly, but seeing Tom doing it right in front of me, I got the idea.
“Those three come for every Halloween dance. Every year.”
“Wait.” I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, forgetting about the beer in my hand. “They were just wearing really good costumes,” I said, wanting to believe myself very badly, and not quite getting there, “with really good makeup.”
Still not looking at me, Tom smiled. “Yeah. Really good costumes. The best kind. Can only get them when you roll your car doing eighty down Shelby Road, or plow your car – with you and your girlfriends – into a tree out on Bassler Road.”
My chest felt tight. What little beer I’d consumed sat heavily on my stomach. I thought of the artful, realistic gashes on the quarterback’s face and neck. The ones on the other girls’ faces. Thought of the girlfriend’s chest, and how it had looked…crushed. By a steering wheel, or something.
It was hard to speak – my throat felt like it was full of rusty nails – but I managed to rasp, “What are you saying?”
Tom looked back at me, his smirk gone, eyes heavy and serious. “I think you know. You knew last night, but couldn’t admit it. I acted the same way when I first worked an after-school shift, ten years ago.”
A bit of insight bloomed inside. “You didn’t give up the night shifts because of your arthritis, did you?”
Tom looked away again. “No. I’ve got pancreatic cancer. Retiring at the end of the year.”
He glanced back at me, looking grimly amused. “Gotta get started on my chemo, so I can die a slow, agonizing death. Course, I could just let the cancer have its way with me. Might kill me quicker…but I don’t got the guts. Guess I’ll try and fight it, even if it only means the pain will last longer. At least this way I’ll get some good drugs, right?”
There wasn’t any answer to that. I sputtered, but couldn’t come up with anything remotely intelligent. “So…you wanted me to work the night shifts, so that…I’d see them.”
“Yeah.” His eyes narrowed as he looked at me closely. “Those three, anyway. If you’re going to stay here after I leave, you need to know what you’re signing on for. Our school…it’s special. It’s different from other schools I’ve worked in. It’s got a long memory. It’s got secrets. I wanted you to see the responsibility you’ll be taking on.”
I couldn’t say anything at that moment. Couldn’t tell him I only planned on working there for a year before returning to grad school to finish my Masters Degree.
It didn’t matter, because Tom continued. “I also had to see what the old girl thought of you. If you hadn’t seen anything, or at least, hadn’t thought to question what you’d seen…I would’ve known you weren’t right for this job, long term.”
I sat back in my chair, stunned. “It was a test.”
Tom Grant nodded. “Yep. But not mine. Hers. You’ve been a decent worker so far. Done your job well. Showed the school respect. That, and you know your place. We’re invisible to folks in that school, you and me. We’re there to do our jobs and watch after things, not be noticed by teenagers and teachers. Last few years, the guys I’ve hired couldn’t deal with that. Took offense to it. Bitched about it endlessly. Not you, though. Could see that right away. That’s why I told Father Thomas I was done with the night shifts. Hell, cancer or no cancer, I would’ve done it. Would’ve wanted to see what she thought of you.”
He leaned forward, his eyes wide and bright. “Obviously, she trusts you. Or else she wouldn’t have shown you what she did last night. What she showed me the first time I worked a night shift.”
I cleared my throat. Thought of taking a sip of beer, but my stomach was too uneasy. “Who…who were they?”
Tom sat back and nodded, looking back into his middle distance. “Did some research about that after it happened to me. I’ll save you the time. Freddy Monachino and Sherry McDonough. Would’ve been class of ’55. Apparently, Monachino was one of the best quarterbacks who ever played here. Led the league in touchdowns and passing yards. Had a lot of colleges looking at him. They were headed to States that year, which was a pretty big deal for a small school like ours. He had the future wrapped for him, sure enough.
“Only one problem. Apparently Freddy wasn’t much for the books. He was close to failing all of his classes, and the administration had actually threatened at the beginning of the season to bench him if he didn’t get them up. So he was getting tutored by a junior named Shirley Fox. Spent a lot of time with her. No one ever knew if anything actually happened between them, but it was enough to set off Freddy’s girlfriend, Sherry. She was the head cheerleader, and his best girl. Both of them, the Prom King and Queen the year before. They got into a fight on the night of the Halloween Dance. Freddy got pissed and left in his souped-up Chevy Impala and rolled it on Shelby Road, right in front of Shelby Road Cemetery, ironical enough. Same night, Sherry and her girls were cruising down Bassler Road –– no one knew why –– when they lost control and plowed head-on into a tree. No one made it, of course.”
“And Shirley Fox?”
Tom sighed and scratched the back of his head. “Well, that’s the most troubling story. In some ways I’m a little surprised I haven’t heard about this over the years. It’s the sort of thing which makes for rumors about hauntings and such, but I’ve never heard a word breathed of it the entire time I’ve worked here, from the students or the faculty. Newspaper said they found her out behind the school, dead. Took several bottles of pills and cut her forearm wide open. Caused quite a stir. Suicide wasn’t as common back then, I guess.”
“And you see them every year.”
A slow nod. “Yep. And they’re not the only ones you’ll see. Only see them every Halloween. There’s others she’ll eventually let you see, at all sorts of times. It’s part of the gig. Part of your ‘custodial duties,’ so to speak.”
“I wanted to stop him,” I whispered, hardly aware of what I was saying, or what I wanted to say, “wanted to talk to the quarterback –– Freddy. But I couldn’t. I didn’t get to him in time.”
Tom shook his head. “You never will. No matter how hard you try. Trust me, I know. That’s not the reason you see him. You saw them and you’ll see others because the school trusts you with its past, its memories. Eventually…they’ll become part of the job. That’s all.”
“What…what about the little blond boy?”
Tom stiffened, as if an electric jolt had run through him. He turned slowly. My heart skipped slightly at the dim horror I saw in his eyes. “You saw the little blond boy, too? My God. All on your first night. She must really trust you.”
He leaned forward, and, to my surprise, reached out and grabbed my wrist, squeezing. His flesh felt clammy and cold. “You didn’t talk to him. Did you?”
The temperature seemed to drop several degrees. Tom’s grip on my wrist was starting to ache. “No,” I said, thinking of the icy dread I’d felt when I’d seen the boy both times, the absolutely loathing horror I’d felt at the thought of him looking at me. “No. I was going to…when he led that shy girl, Shirley, away at the end of the dance…but I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
The truth came tumbling out. “I was scared of him.”
Tom released his grip and sat back, nodding, his face a stiff mask. “You’ve good reason to be. In all my research, I’ve never found any references to a little blond boy dying on the premises. I don’t know what he is. He’s not a ghost, or what’s left of a real person, that’s for sure. All I know is this: don’t look at him. Don’t speak to him. Don’t even let him know you know he’s there. Got it?”
I nodded slowly, feeling numb, thinking of the boy leading Shirley away, and then her being found dead the next day of suicide behind the school. “Okay. What…what happens if you do?”
Tom lifted his bottle, tipped his head back and emptied it in one gulp. He thumped it back down onto the arm of his chair, wiped his mouth and said cryptically, “Nothing good. That’s all you need to know.”
He looked away again. We lapsed into silence. Despite the fact it had gone lukewarm, I decided right about then was a good time to finish my beer. When he offered me another, I agreed without hesitation.