The day after I saw that girl in the basement stairwell, I floated through my classes and lessons as if a ghost myself. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since the day before the parent-teacher interviews. I found that every noise, every slight sound in the night made me sit up in bed. I lived in a small condo downtown so there were always noises, worsening the situation.
After that episode in the dark stairwell, I didn’t sleep at all. I am almost ashamed to admit the pure terror that fueled my feet out the door, across the staff parking lot and into my car. I was all raw nerves and over-heightened senses for the next several hours. As I entered my apartment building and turned the corner of the lobby towards the elevator alcove, a little girl jumped out at me from seemingly nowhere. I assume I cussed because her mother shot me a stern glare as she walked past me to gather her child. But that evening condensed into a hazy fog of moments.
The only thing that stuck with clarity was the vision of the feet turned backwards towards me as they stepped away into darkness. But as frightful as it was, it left too wide a gap of ambiguity which my mind automatically began to fill in with images even more horrifying.
Was she a ghost, a phantom? Everything in me that I thought constituted a reasonable man argued against this hypothesis. It was ridiculous, fantastical. The whole concept of ghosts is ludicrous. If ghosts are the parts of us that leave our bodies behind, why do they retain any semblance of human form? It’s like that old saw: if God is eternal and omnipresent, why does he even need legs? Or arms?
Yes, that was a terrifying thought: Did the girl have eyes? Or a mouth? If she had a mouth, was it grinning ear to ear when she stepped down the stairs, demonically satisfied at its effect on me?
You see? My mind was engaged in somersaults and cartwheels of conjecture and mad, mad imaginings, and the only thing preventing a stream of nightmares from flooding my sanity was a rigid dam of reason.
Because the thing is, we cannot believe in ghosts. We just can’t. Once we allow for it, then everything in the imagination is possible – unicorns, fairies, demons. It becomes your belief against mine, for once you allow for things not rooted in reality, in the measurable, observable world, then we no longer have anything in common. Reason is the common ground that we all share and must stand on.
So, by the time my senior students rolled into my classroom for Literature 12, I was an exhausted shell of a teacher. The text that day was Dante’s Inferno. About 15 minutes into the lesson, I asked if anyone had any questions. One student raised his hand.
“Do you believe hell exists?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “When I mark your papers.”
The joke got a tepid response.
“Seriously,” he said.
I told him that his question was too personal, and I didn’t want to sway anyone’s personal beliefs with mine. He didn’t look pleased with my answer.
“You ask us all the time to share our personal feelings and stories,” he began. “I ask you one simple question and you can’t tell us? I’m sorry, sir, but that’s weak.”
I looked around the class and saw that everyone was in agreement with him.
I placed my book gently on the desk in front of me and spoke as cautiously as I could in my tired state.
“Okay, that’s fair,” I said. “Then, no. As a literal place of eternal damnation created by God? I do not believe that place exists.”
Another student raised her hand.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked.
I had always been able to successfully dodge this question before by just stating what I’d already said: that it would be unprofessional of me to influence anyone else with my own personal biases. But this time, I was caught by a challenge to my pedagogical integrity. I was cornered. So I surrendered.
“No,” I said.
I looked at the faces before me, trying to gauge disappointment, distress, encouragement. I only sensed confusion.
I cleared my throat.
“As a sentient being? An omniscient, omnipresent creator of everything in existence that involves itself personally in our lives? No, I do not believe in that God.”
“Do you believe in an afterlife?” asked another student from the back of the room.
“No.” I was on a roll. As a teacher, I had always been careful to avoid sharing too much with my students, making sure everything I said in the class was toward an educational purpose, to edify and lift up a young person, or to correct wayward behaviour. I found the sudden wave of personal honesty refreshing, as if a thick layer of deceit and falsehood had been peeled from the surface of my skin.
And then one more student spoke out: “So you don’t believe in ghosts?”
For that, I looked him square in the eye: “No, I do not.”
I heard some giggling from various corners of the room. Apparently, some of the students didn’t believe me. Rumours of the floating girl had spread and taken hold of the school and hardened somewhat into a very localized myth: my classroom was haunted. But I knew my mind, and despite recent events, I had yet to encounter anything that couldn’t be explained in some way, no matter how tenuous. There might be a girl who looks a lot like the missing Waller girl in our school, and I just haven’t had the pleasure of formerly meeting her yet. Perhaps some students were pulling an elaborate prank, trying to exploit recent events for their own amusement. And I was slightly inebriated on Friday evening while thinking of the girl, so of course I thought I saw her standing in my classroom window, mixing up the tapping of the branches with her fingers tapping on the glass, the light of the moon casting strange reflections on the glass while the breeze and my haunted, drunk imagination imbued it all with movement and form.
The only thing I could not find an explanation for was that crude drawing. My best guess so far: someone was in the parking lot when I was standing outside my classroom, and decided to pull a prank on me. The person must have seen me run away, frightened by something. That person was probably one of my students trying to have some fun with me. That is the only possible explanation.
Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is the likeliest one. It worked in this case. It was certainly more likely than the other one: that the ghost of a dead girl was stalking our halls and classrooms — mine in particular.
I then realized I was still wearing the same pants from the day before. I reached into my back pocket and took out the drawing. I looked at it one more time, sighing deeply, sympathetically for the wayward teen who was hoping to send me into a paroxysm of fear with just a simple drawing. I tore it up into pieces, and threw it into the recycling bin.
But something rather odd happened. One of my senior students got up from her seat, walked slowly towards the recycling bin, reached down, and pulled out the pieces of my torn up drawing.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“This isn’t supposed to be in the paper bin,” she said.
I stared at her in utter confusion as she let some of the pieces of paper fall back into the recycling bin. Then, when she only had a few pieces left in her hand, she held up something. It was thin, as long as my index finger. And red.
It was a ribbon.
My head began spinning, as if I were dizzy from a carnival ride on which I’d been placed against my will. I wanted it to end.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You just didn’t see it. No big deal.”
She gently placed the red ribbon on the corner of my desk, looking at me, her brows furrowed with concern.
“Are you okay, sir?”
Is it possible it was there on the back of the drawing the whole time? No, it wasn’t. I had found the drawing face down so I would have noticed anything on the back of the paper.
I collected my bearings and assured her I was fine. I watched the clock the rest of the class until their dismissal at the bell. I must have looked ill because a few students asked if I was okay. I assured them all that I was fine.
Then, I went looking for the custodian, Oscar. I found him on the main floor in the south wing.
“I want you to show me what’s in the basement,” I said.
He looked aghast, as if I had just propositioned him to murder someone for me.
“I can’t do that,” he said, looking around to make sure we were alone. “I could get fired for that.”
I stood firm. “What did you mean the other day when you said there’s probably something else in the basement?”
“I already told you,” he said.
“No, no you didn’t. You made some vague statements about different types of families.”
He looked me up and down, taking my measure.
“That’s because it’s all about the family,” he said, again just as cryptically as everything else that came out of his mouth. I was getting sick of it.
“Mind if I borrow your flashlight?” I asked.
He looked down at his maintenance pushcart, at the large yellow flashlight hanging on a mount on the side. He slowly took it and handed it to me.
“The main lights are at the top of the stairs to the left. There’s more at the bottom.”
I left him there and marched to the basement entrance.
The door was still propped slightly open, yellow warning tape at its entrance. I steeled myself and peered down into the darkness, half expecting to see the girl again.
I turned on the light switch and proceeded carefully down into the basement.
For some strange reason, I called out, “Hello?” as if careful to not be too obtrusive. A clear sign of my nervousness, deferring to social mores where there was no need.
I reached the bottom and found the light switches. I turned on all of them. The cavernous space lit up but remained dark along the sides and corners. The dank smell of mildew was in the air.
I began walking slowly, watchfully down the middle of the long room. I ran out of light very quickly, as if the darkness suddenly marked its territory in the middle of the basement, the room stretching before me into blackness. I searched the walls for more switches. There had to be more, especially since I knew the district engineers were down here assessing the damage and coordinating repairs. I turned on the flashlight and let its beam light my way along the wall, looking for a wall switch.
I now found myself inching down the long room cloaked in complete darkness, the beam from my flashlight lighting spots here and there as my fingers gently tickled the walls, feeling for more light switches. This is where my mind’s discipline really showed itself as my light scanned the void ahead of me. As soon as I started sensing that my flashlight would at any moment reveal a pale, long-haired girl crouched in a corner, her head and feet turned the wrong way, her eyes white and her mouth gaping wide, my mind snapped back to the task at hand, focusing on finding anything of use. There are no such things as ghosts or spirits. I know this. The only thing to fear were other people who wanted to wish harm on others.
Then, something brushed my forehead. It was cold, causing me to jump back.
I quickly aimed my beam upwards. It was then I noticed how low the ceiling had become. Something was swaying in front of me. The sight of it almost made me laugh, as my students would later like to say, out loud. The thing that touched my head and almost caused my heart to break out of its ribcage was a metal pull chain hanging from a bulb screwed into a ceiling socket.
I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the chain. The rest of the room lit up, revealing boilers and large, squat electrical transformers. The floor was slightly slanted before me, subtly ramping upwards. It wasn’t that the ceiling was getting lower but the floor getting higher.
But there was something in the far back corner. I walked towards it, careful to avoid the cracks that were now appearing in the concrete under my feet. Some of the cracks were quite wide — definitely enough space to hide a small box of things. Red pylons marked off the deeper fissures in the floor. I moved past all that towards the back corner.
I now found myself standing before a small room. It sat in the far corner, almost imperceptible except to me who had been looking for anything unusual, and looked like it was originally built for storage. I was confused as to what such a small room would store, and why the school would need a storage space in the basement where the whole room could easily function as one big storage space.
I carefully opened the tiny door inwards and crouched, shining my light into the room. It measured roughly four by four, and was only about four feet high — a perfect square and much too low to stand in. On the left was a low bench made of two pieces of rough plywood, like one you would find in a cheap sauna. I pushed the door further in so that I could see behind the door. There was nothing. I looked at the low ceiling of the tiny room and saw no light bulb.
That was it. A small room in the corner of a dark basement, with no lights, no electrical outlets — nothing. Just a perfect square of concrete, a bench, and small door.
And that’s when I noticed the handle. My right hand was placed on a standard brass doorknob on the outside of the door. But as I looked behind the door, I realized there was no doorknob facing inside the room. There wasn’t even a handle of any kind. Anyone outside the room could easily open the door as they would any door. But if anyone happened to be inside that room and the door closed, there was no handle on the inside to unlatch the door. They would be stuck, trapped in that tiny concrete room.
The thought of it disturbed me deeply. What was the purpose of such a room? Was this used to punish students in the early days of the school? Surely no one could have surreptitiously built this concrete room in a public building without anyone’s knowledge. The administration must know this is here in their school and know what its purpose.
I let my hand run along the inside of the door, shining my light along it, my foot sticking out of the room to make sure the door didn’t accidentally close on me.
And I saw something strange on the door. I didn’t notice it at first because I was so disturbed by the doorknob, but I shined my light squarely on it.
It was a circle drawn roughly in chalk. Inside the circle was a pentagram. Inside the pentagram: the face of a goat.
I suddenly felt a chill descend upon me as my imagination refused to be held at bay any longer. A torrent of images raced through my mind as I rushed out of there. Who has been accessing this room, and for what purpose? I have seen enough movies to know that sign. Why is someone drawing demonic symbols on the inside of a door that no one will ever see?
I rushed to the light in the middle of the room and reached for the chain.
That’s when I saw it.
Hanging from the bottom of the chain was something that was not there just a few minutes ago.
It was a lock of hair. It was black. And it was tied in a red ribbon.