Dr. Waverly Simmons, Ed. D., drifted down the silent hallway of Peakland Elementary School and slipped into his seat near the back of Mrs. Spencer's empty first grade classroom. School was out for the summer, out for good. The building dated back to the Hoover administration and was scheduled for demolition in just a few hours.
The hydraulic excavators and other specialty equipment sat on the front lawn, ready to execute the death sentence for a facility that had outgrown its usefulness long ago. The early morning quiet would soon be shattered by belching, shrieking mechanical monsters bent on satisfying their hunger for concrete and steel.
Waverly had kept his set of keys to the building. Thirty-five years, the last twenty as principal, in the two story structure that housed grades one through six. The school was his refuge, an escape from the travails of his life outside of work. And in three short hours it would end. The future would come rushing in and carry him away to a place that he dared not imagine.
The ruler slammed down on the desk, narrowly missing his fingers. "Wake up, Waverly!
"Save your daydreaming for after school."
The gentle face of Mrs. Spencer melted away and was replaced by the scowling countenance of his mother, the forever aggrieved and disappointed Charlotte Simmons.
Bile rose in Waverly's throat. "I'm not in class, Mom, I'm the principal now. See, I've got keys to every room in the school."
The harsh laugh was like a slap to his face. "So does the custodian, sonny boy. Whatever happened to your plan to become a tenured university professor, maybe even a department chair? All that education and you're back where you started. Your brother Billy, two semesters at the community college. Know how much he made last year selling real estate?"
Waverly fled the room with his hands over his ears and darted into Mrs. Jones' sixth grade class. He took the teacher's chair at the head of the class, the best vantage point for spotting the building's malevolent spirits. Not for the first time, he considered the possibility that he had lost his mind.
"Nothing wrong with your brain, Waverly, although, as I recall, you did struggle with fractions and ratios."
Mrs. Jones sat in the back of the room next to the window. Waverly swallowed a scream as Elaine Foster, his ex-wife, hijacked the teacher's body. The sardonic grin stretched across her face and complemented the woman's hectoring voice.
"Poor Waverly, a professional lifetime of underachievement. In the six years we were married I could never understand how a person with your education and academic record could fail to secure a university position. It's miraculous."
Waverly peeked at his watch. Two hours and fifty minutes left. He closed his eyes and waited.
* * *
The ghosts, apparitions, hallucinations, whatever you want to call them, had first appeared five years earlier. In looking back, Waverly could date their arrival to the abandonment of his professional dreams. He had chalked it up to a mild breakdown, perhaps even a coping mechanism that his mind needed. Waverly considered, but quickly rejected the idea of seeing a mental health counselor. Word would get around and his career would be over.
He had aimed high, confident that his academic credentials would speak for themselves. The interviews had not gone well. Stammering, sweaty replies to standard questions belied the achievements reflected on his curriculum vitae.
Elaine had cautioned him about smiling. "Keep it brief and professional. You look crazy when you grin."
Handshakes were a problem. Waverly was an admitted germophobe and his hands were usually as cold and clammy as an eighth-grader on his first date. Interviewers were not impressed.
The clincher was his weight. It was impossible to carry three hundred pounds with any sort of grace or dignity, especially when you were three inches shy of six feet. Waverly's neck toppled over his collar, obscuring the knot of his tie. No matter how hard he tried, his clothes always looked like he'd slept in them.
Waverly had eventually lowered his sights, applying for adjunct faculty and community college openings. Interviews continued to be the deal breaker.
Peakland, god bless them, had overlooked all that, delighted to find someone with such a stellar academic record willing to teach second-graders. Fifteen years later he had moved into the principal's office with the unanimous support of the school board and his fellow teachers. And now it was over.
He opened his eyes. Elaine had moved up to the first desk in the middle row, the seat traditionally reserved for smart kids and brown-nosers.
"Any final lessons, Waverly? I'm all ears."
Waverly stared at the hateful specter. "No, Elaine, but I do have a theological question you may wish to ponder for the next two hours and eighteen minutes. You're clearly trapped here. What do you suppose awaits you on the other side of hell?"
He watched the sneer dissolve as she disappeared through a wall.
Waverly sighed and headed back up the hall to his office.
Former office, Waverly. Better get used to it.
The spirits never bothered him there. Nobody, not even ghosts, wanted to go to the principal's office.
He settled in behind his desk and double-checked his empty cabinets. An empty pill bottle rattled around in the back of his top drawer. Waverly studied the label.
No wonder I haven't been sleeping. I'll stop by the pharmacy this afternoon.
Voices on the front lawn followed by a burst of brutal laughter caught his attention. People were gathering. Waverly supposed most were there to witness the final moments of an iconic structure where they, their children, and perhaps their grandchildren had spent their early learning years. Some, undoubtedly, were there just to see the destruction.
His eyes were drawn to the side of the building where the rickety, peeling fire escape used to be before it had been torn down in the wake of Danny Ward's tragic accident.
Danny had been a high-spirited sixth-grader, always ready for an adventure, never afraid to accept a dare. One Saturday night he had climbed to the top of the fire escape, unzipped, and let fly a yellow stream while his friends down below laughed and hollered. The laughter had died when a railing broke away and Danny did a swan dive onto a gravel parking lot. He lingered in a coma for two months before his parents made the decision no parent should have to make.
The accident and subsequent recriminations had driven Waverly's predecessor, Phyllis Mitchell, into early retirement.
Danny's spirit had never returned to Peakland. Waverly had no idea who made such decisions, but he was grateful not to have to witness Danny Ward trapped at the location of his fatal accident.
Waverly checked his watch. He shook his head.
Impossible. Fifteen minutes?
The voices from the schoolyard were louder now. Waverly hurried down the hall on a mission to nowhere. Jack Dillard materialized in front of him. The school custodian was leaning on a wet mop. Waverly barked out a dry, thin sound that could have come from a chihuahua.
"Fourteen minutes, Jack. Time to punt. No reason to clean anything now. They're tearing it down."
The custodian stared at him.
Fat tears rolled down Waverly's face. He sat down on the floor and put his face in his hands. He looked up. Jack was still there.
An engine roared to life; then another and another.
"Now, Jack, we need to leave now."
Jack stared at him.
Waverly sped down the hall to the front door. Locked. He pulled out his keys. Useless. Who changed the locks?
He flew back down the hall to the back door of the school. Same.
The building screamed as the roof tore away. Waverly passed Jack Dillard who was now damp-mopping the hall floor. A wall gave way with a groan. The monster was inside.
My office. It's safe there.
Fifty feet away. Waverly turned. The monster's maw tore away his right shoe with his foot still in it. He felt nothing. Forty feet; too far. He was drifting.
Waverly stopped. He could feel and smell the monster's oily breath. He waited. 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
* * *
The crowd roared as the building collapsed into a pile of rubble.
Ginny Scott turned to her friend Holly, "Lots of good memories here. This is so sad."
"Not for me," Holly said. "I think I spent more time in Dr. Simmons office than I did in my classroom, but he was a nice man. I probably learned more from him than I did from my teachers. I wonder whatever happened to him?"
"I think you were away at college," Ginny said. "He committed suicide, swallowed a bottle of pills one weekend right there in his office. That must have been at least ten years ago."
The two friends watched the crowd drift away.
"Let's get an early lunch," Ginny said, "too many ghosts here."
Holly laughed. "You've been watching too many horror movies, Ginny. There's no such thing as ghosts."