Gil and I said our thank-you’s to Leon’s back. No sooner had he opened the door than he’d wheeled and was walking swiftly down the hall, probably to the stairs that led down to the boiler room and the custodian’s office. At least that’s what the sign said over the door to the stairway.
We looked at each other. Now what? Wordlessly, we followed Leon down the hall, where he did indeed open the door that led to the descending stairs. The door was a heavy one that took awhile to close, and Gil was able to grab it just before it closed. Again we looked at each other.
Quietly, Gil pulled the door open a little, allowing both of us through. He used a hand to quiet the door as it closed. I was standing in a place I’d never been before—and I’m certain Gil never had either.
It was dim—not dark. And we glimpsed Leon reach the bottom of the stairs and turn to the right. Gil and I—as quietly as we could—crept down the stairs into the dungeon of the school
I realize as I write this that I’ve not told you anything about our building—Charles Junior High School. A very old structure, it went up about 1900, around the time they were making schools look like solid old brick factories. (Factories? Remember them? There used to be a lot of them, back when America made lots of things.) Charles School originally held the entire Franconia school population, Grades 1–12. But more families moved in; Charles became too small. So they built both a new high school and a new elementary and left the junior high kids in the old factory.
Figures, doesn’t it? No one really likes junior high kids anyway—so why bother giving them a new building? Stick them in some old factory and let them out when they’ve outgrown their craziness. That was probably the thinking. If there was any thinking.
So, our three-story building was nearly 100 years old that year I entered it as a seventh grader. There was a rumor that the School Board was going to ask Franconia to tax itself for a new “middle school” (whatever that is), but I didn’t really care. By the time it got built—if it got built—I’d be gone. Up at the high school. Or somewhere else.
Anyway, in old Charles the ceilings were high, the wooden floors warped and wavy, the high windows leaking air—and a lot of them didn’t even open any longer. The stairs creaked when you climbed them, the floors shuddered when everyone got up at once to change classes, the cafeteria smelled like bad food, the gym and locker rooms like decay, and the basement—where Gil and I were going now—like Death. And as you may remember, I knew what death smells like. Knew it far too well.
At the bottom of the stairs was a hallway that ran left to right. We’d seen Leon go right, so we peeked around the corner but didn’t find anything but another door, the sort you see that leads to a classroom or an office. We looked left—and saw the huge boiler that would be heating the school in the winter. It was already rumbling. Maybe Leon figured the rain was going to cool the day?
Gil and I, still wordless, went to the right. Crept quietly. Stopped outside the door, where was saw a sign over it: S. T. Leon, Custodian.[i] As we stood there staring at it, the door suddenly swung open, and Mr. Leon (now we knew that “Leon” wasn’t his first name) was staring right back at us. He didn’t look surprised.
“You kids are getting to be a problem,” he snarled. “Get in here!” He gestured back towards his office. We moved like robots—frightened robots—into Mr. Leon’s office.
[i] Vickie’s getting cute again. One of her father’s novels (1799) was St Leon, a novel about a man who discovers both the philosopher’s stone (which converts base metals to gold) and the elixir of eternal youth. And, I just realized, his son’s name is Charles.