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I'll never forget the day I met the new teacher.
Ms. Cooperwell wasn't the petite, pretty, blond, scare-able young thing I'd expected. She was an Amazon in a black dress, and when she walked, her heels clicked along the corridor like the ticking of the metronome on the music teacher's piano. No winning smile, no perky haircut or smile-face pencils. She looked at me from across the old desk in the dingy closet called my office, put out a slender hand, and said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Gibson. I'm Ms. Cooperwell, the new kindergarten teacher in Room 13.”
I put down the motor for the floor buffer, wiped my fingers with a red rag so old and faded it looked like dirty pink, and offered my hand. Her grip was firm, the handshake one crisp motion, and I knew I'd have to change the plan. This woman wouldn't scare.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Cooperwell?”
“There's a closet in the corner of my classroom--”
As soon as I heard that, my heart did a funny little jump, but I covered my surprise by tucking in the loose tail of my military-green shirt, standard janitorial uniform with pants to match, and my name stitched over the shirt's pocket. Invisibility clothes. I go about my work, and people hear me, see me, but they overlook me.
“--and there sounds to be a small rodent trapped inside. Have you an empty box or something to catch him?”
I grabbed a shoe-sized box off a shelf, and dumped nails, washers, odd-sized screws, wall anchors, four shirt buttons, and an unopened package of batteries that expired in 1989, into a dusty pile in the middle of my desk, gave the box a couple whacks to get the last of the lint from the corners, and held it out to her. “This oughta do it.”
She just held her spiral-bound grade book against that shimmery black dress and looked at me. “The closet is locked, Mr. Gibson.”
I was out the door, with the box, and a few steps down the hall before I realized. Did she do this in the classroom? Stare the kiddies into submission? I stopped and turned around. No way was she gonna--
“Forget something, Mr. Gibson?”
“Uh, no. Nothin'.”
Click, click, click, click, click, click, click. She stayed just behind my right shoulder, and I could smell her perfume, rich and dark. It made my nose itch. Who wore stuff like that in the middle of a school day? Which teacher could afford it?
When we reached the door of Room 13, I hadn't come up with a new plan, but by that time, I wasn't much interested in practical jokes.
The classroom was empty—the kids were out on the playground for recess—and the place smelled of paste and fingerpaints and the under-scent of age and old floor wax. Thumbtacked to a cork-board railing on the wall, crayon drawings lined the room, and half the hardwood floor was covered in interlocking foam mats that were giant red, blue, green, and yellow puzzle pieces. Underneath the high-set windows, plastic bins with lids were filled with blocks, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoy sets, Legos, and other building toys. Along another wall were bins of Play-Doh, crayons, blank paper. An ordinary kindergarten room, just the way Mrs. Thomas left it, a little brighter than the other classes—almost cheery, even, unless a person noticed the bins were cracked, the toys broken and discolored, or that the chairs and desks were at least as old as the students' grandparents.
I tugged on the retractable keyring clipped to my belt, and the line zinged out, the keys jangling. “You sure there's something in the closet? Could be junk blowing around by the ventilation system.”
“There is a distinct scrabbling sound, Mr. Gibson. Definitely something—alive.”
My back to her, I smiled. Perfect. “Or somethin' that used to be alive.” I slid the key into the lock. “Ever hear of Little Sammy Snodgrass?”
“Really. A ghost story, Mr. Gibson?”
That woman could sure deflate a man. I turned the key, removed it, and the ring zipped back to my belt. I gripped the box, turned the knob, and crouched a little, just in case she was right and a critter ran out. The door creaked open.
A dank, musty odor smacked me in the face, and dust puffed up when an old broom fell over. Ms. Cooperwell coughed.
But no critter. No squeaks or scratches. No tiny pawprints. No shoeprints, neither.
“It appears Mrs. Thomas didn't use this closet,” Ms. Cooperwell coughed again, and stepped back a little, “and that you were right. Old buildings are full of strange noises. I must have just imagined them into something more.”
“Ah, you'll get used to it. I did.” I reached inside the closet and grabbed the broom to hook it onto the rusty nail next to where the dustpan hung. A dusty spiderweb wrapped itself around my arm, so I brushed my sleeve then turned to hang the broom.
On the inside of the door, on the bottom panel, was a child's scrawl in green crayon: helP Me.