The day began with such promise. I was just so tickled by the prospect of parent teacher conferences. I remember looking on this day with such foreboding as a child and was ecstatic about being on the other side of things. As a newly minted teacher, this was to be my first such meeting. The students had a half day and parent teacher conferences were to take place from 1-3 and 7-8:30 with a break in between.
One o’clock rolled around, and I sat with my students’ report cards prepared and eagerly awaited my first parent.
One o’clock gave way to two and no one had showed up. I perked up when, finally at 2:30, a face appeared in my doorway. Disappointment sank in when I saw that it was just the teacher of the classroom next to mine, an older woman and a veteran of the profession. She said in her indelibly cynical voice.
“No parents either, huh? Well, what do you expect in a school like this?”
Something about that statement resonated with me. She was trying to convey that it would be foolish to expect parental involvement at a school in such a destitute neighborhood, but that isn’t how I took it.
There was just something off about the place where I worked. It was nothing tangible really. It just permeated a strange, stifling energy.
Three o’clock came and still no parents. I saw the other teachers and staff hurriedly exit the building to go eat their lunches and briefly wrest themselves from the clutches of this never ending day. Being broke and the commute being too long to justify taking the train home and back, I had packed my own lunch and ate it alone in my room.
Eventually, boredom overcame me. When the clock struck five, I decided to venture out.
There is nothing quite like walking through an empty school at dusk. It is so disorienting as it is such an inversion of the norm. Where once there was the sound of children laughing and screaming, there is only silence. Where light would pour in through the vast windows revealing the promise of a new day, a nascent darkness was beginning to seep slowly but surely through the halls.
Wandering the vacant corridors, I decided to take the stairs to the basement. I had never had a reason to go there previously. Though it was a rarely, if ever, used wing of the building, I had heard mention of an old computer lab down there. Visions of revisiting my own childhood via Oregon Trail on the Apple II filled my head. I figured that would be the perfect way to stave off the boredom.
The echo of my footsteps as I descended into the darkness of the basement was deafening. A feeling of unease was beginning to form deep in my gut, but I allowed my rational mind to dictate my footsteps.
I attempted to catch my bearings in the faint light of the basement hallway, but couldn’t. I wandered aimlessly checking the doors to see if this computer lab was open, but to no avail. All of the doors must have been locked as there were no homerooms down there and thus no reason to keep them open. I almost gave up until the last door I came upon. I was surprised as it easily gave way and provided me entrance into the pitch black room.
As the door closed behind me, I began to search for the light switch. Before it could be found, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming heat. Great, I thought. I had stumbled into the boiler room. What a waste of time. I turned to open the door and continue to search for the lab.
The knob wouldn’t turn.
Fanfuckingtastic. I tried the door several more times, but it refused to budge. Perhaps there was a second exit. I pulled out my phone to illuminate the darkness and nearly dropped it when the light revealed the room I had found myself inside.
This was no boiler room.
It was empty. At least it looked empty. Akin to the intangible foreboding the school emitted, I knew something was off. The feeling grew and grew as panic set in. The heat was so pervasive that I was sweating bullets. As the sound of my fists pounding on the door stopped, a new sound entered the hot, dead air. The sound of raspy breathing. I held my breath to confirm what my mind had been too reluctant to acknowledge. Those harsh breaths were not being drawn from my lungs.
I frantically looked about the room for the source but saw nothing. My pulse quickened as the panic increased. I pounded on the door and began to scream at the top of my lungs praying a member of the custodial staff would hear my cries.
Again, I thought my ears were betraying me as the deep breathing gave way to laughter, a piercing, percussive cackle. The goosebumps rose on my arm as it grew in volume. At first I thought that it was getting louder. This wasn’t the case.
It was just getting closer.
The heat increased as the invisible source drew near. It became unbearable. That is when I felt it grab my arm.
My arm had the same reaction of a hand touching a hot stove. I jerked it away before my mind had time to process the searing pain. I pulled the door with all of my might and screamed for help one last time.
Miraculously, it opened.
I stumbled out, slammed the door, and fell to the ground in one swift movement.
From the floor, I could see that I was prostrate in front of a pair of feet. I looked up to regard my savior.
It looked like I had lucked out, and a custodian had happened to walk by and hear my cries. I got to my feet and thanked him profusely. I realized that I had never met this man before. I weakly offered my name and my hand. He offered his, Derrick Johnson. As I self-consciously began to compose myself, I asked how long he had been down here. Three voices answered in unison.
I jumped slightly not just from the strange, deadpan response, but since I had not noticed the two children flanking him. They were a young boy and a young girl. I was perplexed when I saw that the boy was dressed in the height of 90s fashion and the girl wearing garb like a Madonna wannabe circa “Like a Virgin.” I then surmised that this was the man’s children, and since he was a janitor, could only afford clothes for his kids from a second hand store. I nervously remarked.
“Couldn’t find a babysitter tonight, huh?”
He stared at me as if he had no idea what I was saying.
“Are these two lovely children yours?” I asked.
“Something like that,” he replied.
Something about the presence of these three was very creepy, but it was a hell of a lot better than being locked in that room. I thanked him once more and began to head up the stairs as they continued to regard me with unblinking eyes.
On the way to my classroom, I had a lot to process. I had already began to discount in my mind what I had initially perceived to happen. Especially, when I looked down to my arm expecting to see burns and instead finding nothing. The panic of being locked in the room had made me lose my better senses. That was it.
Yes, that had to be it.
Before entering my room, I saw that my fellow teacher had just arrived in the classroom next door to mine. I decided to relieve my tension by telling her that I had somehow managed to lock my dumb ass into a room in the basement. I figured I would give credit where credit is due. To begin the tale, I asked if she knew the custodian named Derrick Johnson. She got a very quizzical look on her face as she asked me.
“Why? How do you know that name?”
“I got locked in a room downstairs, and I was lucky he was there to let me out,” I replied.
She literally dropped the cup of coffee she was cradling in her hands. A look of dread and horror washed over her. She began to speak and nothing could prepare me for the story she was about to unfold.
Derrick Johnson went missing seven years ago. He was working the night shift at the school and was never seen or heard from again. There was a lot of speculation as to what happened to him but no definitive answers. It was as if the school had swallowed him whole.
Terror filled me as I decided I wasn’t going to spend another minute there. I told the principal that I was ill and hightailed it home. When I got there, I immediately went to my computer. All doubt was rubbed from my mind. The teacher had embellished no details. Derrick Johnson had disappeared into the ether seven years ago.
It didn’t take me long to research missing persons and turn up pictures of the adorable children that had accompanied Derrick in releasing me from my prison.
As I look at their faces on my computer screen right now too grateful for words, I remember the question I asked and their response. I recall at the time thinking they were being dramatic, but in light of the revelations, it is sending chills down my spine as I consider my narrowly avoided fate.
“How long have you been down here?”
“Far too long.”