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  • Writer's pictureDiana Johnson

The Haunting of Butcher School

Myrtle Norris was even kinder in person than she sounded on the phone, Sylvie thought; even grateful that someone actually showed up to see the one-bedroom garage apartment she advertised in the Times. The place was clean but had that air that it had been longer than usual between tenants.

“I’m so glad you like it, honey,” the landlady beamed. “It will be such a load off my mind to have someone up here again.”

“Well it’s just what I’ve been looking for Mrs. Norris. And you’re sure about the painting and hanging pictures?” Sylvie asked again respectfully.

“Miss Satterfield, it’s your place. You can do anything you want, make yourself at home.” Her gnarled hands produced a set of keys which the old woman pressed into the palm of her new renter, folding Sylvie’s fingers in around them. “Now you call me if you have any more questions, ok?”

“Well, ma’am,” Sylvie started, “I do have one more question.”

“What is it dear?”

“Why has the place been empty for so long?”

“Oh, it’s just that old schoolhouse across Albert Street.” Mrs. Norris gestured toward the back windows of the bedroom that faced the alley behind the apartment. Sylvie went back into the room to have a look and the old woman followed. “That was Butcher School once upon a time. It was decommissioned years ago and some rich idiot bought it hoping to restore it and make a restaurant or business suites or something out of it.”

Sylvie looked out at the crumbling building and listened for more.

“Well, he let it go and before long it started to decay. Buildings are like people, if you don’t keep them in shape, they wither away. I should know, I’ll be ninety-three next November and I walk to the mission rummage every day to work with the ladies from my church.” She took a seat on a step stool next to the window. “So first it was the asbestos; men in space suits working in plastic tents inside the classrooms. Well, that drove Monica and Harry out. They were expecting their first baby and afraid they’d be poisoned.”

Sylvie nodded and continued to survey the broken windows and missing shingles.

“Then, that drove the rats out by the thousands and that was the end of that poor Bradley Sears, he was living alone and kind of a nervous little guy. I told him they wouldn’t bother him if he kept his place clean. I guess he saw a whole mischief pouring out the downspouts one night and he didn’t even bother to forward his mail. He left in such a hurry; he left all his things behind. That’s how I was able to list this as furnished.”

“Are the rats still a problem?” Sylvie asked half afraid of the answer.

“No, child. The city made the owner exterminate and decontaminate so much over there you could probably eat off the floors!” Myrtle reached for the young woman’s hand for help off her perch and concluded, “And you see those dozers and shovels parked in the lot over there? Now the mayor himself told me they are to start demolition next week as soon as the Coal Festival is over. He assured me they won’t work at night and that they’ll clean up their messes as they go along. So, it’s all over but the screaming now, honey. You won’t have a thing to worry about.”

Sylvie was excited; her first apartment. She used what little cash she had left after her first and last month’s rent were surrendered to buy a couple of cans of sunny yellow paint from Chick’s across the river. She picked up a couple of outdoor shades that would do nicely at her windows and at Mrs. Norris’ insistence, visited the rummage sale and found a few more dishes and lamps to add to the furnishings that poor Bradley Sears ran off and left.

She worked the lunch counter at Turner’s pharmacy through the days, serving BLT’s, tuna and egg salad sandwiches, and making the best milkshakes in Marion County from homemade ice cream, canned milk, and malted milk powder. Her first semester at Fairmont State would begin in a few short weeks and by then she’d have enough for expenses and to start putting a little away to pay back the student loans she’d end up with. She walked the few blocks home from work and painted and cleaned to make a sweet little home out of the tiny space across Albert Street from the old Butcher School.

It was midweek and the night before the festival started and the carnival workers were already starting to move in to set up. By the time she dropped into bed, after work and then reading for a couple of hours, she was exhausted.

Something jarred her out of a dead sleep. How long had she been out? Ten minutes? Ten hours? She held the shade away from the windowpane to look for the moon. It was high above, probably just past midnight. She tossed her quilt off and pulled the shade all the way up to look for the source of what woke her. She saw movement in one of the lower windows of the old school whose sill sat directly on the thinly paved, brick street.

“Is that one of poor Bradley Sears’ rodent friends?” she whispered to herself. Then squinting to focus, she saw a boy climbing free from the window into the alley. She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. Had a child been living in that mess? She watched as he stood and dusted himself off. He walked out from behind the shadow of the building and she got a good look at him. He was small and delicate, she thought, about five or six years old. His dark hair shone like the coat of an oily dog. He wore a long sleeved, vee-neck argyle sweater. In June? But he had on shorts of some kind. No, knee pants. The term was antiquated, but it came to her anyway. He had boot-like shoes and white socks that just cleared them. He stood for the longest time as if he heard something. Sylvie stood still watching until she heard it too. Circus music. She focused on the sound. The festival wouldn’t start until tomorrow night, what could that be? She looked back at the child. She was sure he heard it too. She tapped on the glass. He jerked his head up to her window. He was beautiful! His big brown eyes captured her heart and she smiled. He smiled back and the hole where his front teeth had been added a sweetness to his innocent face.

At once Sylvie was stricken with panic. He was so little and what was he doing all alone and in that condemned building? He wasn’t safe. She had to do something! But before she could even lift the sash to call out to him, he darted across the school yard to the chain-link fence lining the drop-off down to Colebank Hollow. He pushed himself hard against the fence as if the sound were coming from the road below. She jumped into her shoes, grabbed a sweatshirt to cover her night gown, and lit out the door and down the steps to the alley. She just got to the near edge of the school yard when she saw him, pressed against the bowing fence.

“Hey!” she called out.

And in a split second he slipped below the fence and out of sight.

“Oh my God!” She screamed and ran toward the spot where he was with the circus music pounding in her ears. When she got to the fence it stopped. She clung to the barrier breathless and pressed her face out to look down for the child’s body but found nothing. Just then a flutter of something startled her! “What?” she gasped.

It was his sweater.

It was caught on the jagged bottom of a link of chain. She reached for it, but it came loose and flew away before she could get it. She stood stock still wondering what the hell just happened.

She returned to her apartment and sat in the kitchen until she could get her head straight. What did she witness? Should she call the police? Was she dreaming or sleep walking? No. She saw that little boy. She picked up the phone.

“Fairmont City Police Department what is your emergency?”

“I saw a boy.”

“A boy ma’am?”

“I saw a boy climbing out of the old school building behind my house.”

“What is your location ma’am?”

“I’m at 405 ½ Walnut.”

“Across Albert Street from Butcher School?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You saw a child climbing out of the old Butcher School building, ma’am?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok, miss…uh…”

“Satterfield. Sylvia Satterfield.”

“Miss Satterfield, we’ll send a patrolman right out. You just stay put and we’ll take care of everything, ok, ma’am?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Sylvie hung up the phone and walked back to the window in her room. In a few minutes, she saw the blue lights coursing through the trees and reflecting in the windows of the equipment parked outside the schoolyard. She watched as two flashlight beams shone in and around every entrance to the place. She started to question herself. What the hell is going on Sylvie? There couldn’t be a little kid living in all that mess. Oh my God! Close the shade and lay back down and hope those poor cops don’t come knocking on your door asking for a report. She laid down and covered her head with her pillow.

No one knocked.

The morning came like any other with the exception of the thin shade of embarrassment Sylvia sported along with her simple, summer dress. She made her bed and half laughed at her memory of the night before. It had to be a dream. That’s what she concluded. She dreamed it all. The cops don’t respond to a call without taking a statement. And that music. And what kindergartener could survive asbestos removal and rat infestation? She wouldn’t give it another thought.

The lunch counter was busy that day. The festival was well underway and foot traffic was up in downtown Fairmont. She worked her tail off at the soda fountain and even had to make a run to the Garden Fresh for more eggs when the cook ran out of egg salad. She loved the busy atmosphere. Everyone was excited and friendly, in that festival mood. She helped with the clean up and left the cook to lock up and headed for the festivities.

She crossed the Mid-City Bridge and passing the sawhorses bearing the ‘STREET CLOSED’ signs, walked up Adams Street toward the rows of booths and displays. She got a sausage sandwich from the Demus Brothers and an iced lemonade from Mrs. Norris’ church ladies. Then she wandered down to watch the children lining up for the amusement rides and taking their chances at the games of skill within the carnival enclosure. She hadn’t had a minute to think about her dream but suddenly found herself searching the crowd for the boy in the sweater. She caught herself, shook the thought from her head, and continued to enjoy the night. She wandered home walking behind small clumps of local residents carrying sleeping, sugar-drunk kids to their beds. She climbed the stairs to her place and fell out quickly, the day’s events shutting down her tired brain.

She woke again with a start.

“There it is again,” she said to the empty apartment. The music was back. She was at the fair that night. She knew that wasn’t the music they played there. This was circus music. She jumped up to open the shade again and looked at the window by the road. There he was again, the same little boy crawling out the same damned window in that empty school. She didn’t waste a second. She grabbed her sweatshirt and a flashlight and went bounding down the stairs. She didn’t stop to look for him, just made a beeline for that place in the fence where she saw him disappear the night before. There he was! The beam of her flashlight was trained on his shiny black head.

“Hey!” she called out to him.

He turned to look at her running toward him then pressed hard against the fence again and…

“No!” she screamed.

He was gone!

She banged into the fence with her momentum and the music stopped. She held the flashlight up above her head, scanning the cliff and the road below for his body. It caught the tail end of something swinging just below her feet. She trained the light on the spot. It was the argyle sweater! She dove to try and grab it again, but it loosed itself and flew away just like before.

“God damn it! This can’t be happening again!” She stomped her foot. “Get your shit together Sylvia Satterfield!”

She marched herself back to her apartment and put herself to bed mumbling about bad dreams and crazy people until she drifted off again.

In the morning she felt hung over. It was the sugar from the funnel cakes, or the hot peppers on that hoagie she ate. It had to be. She was just tired and overstimulated from the fair and everything. She’d make sure she stayed hydrated today. She would sleep better tonight.

She kept up at work but decided against visiting the festival again. She stayed to watch the parade go by but walked home after that and just piddled around the house until nightfall. She looked in her medicine cabinet for something to help her sleep and found a couple of outdated Benadryl and decided that with a cold beer just might do the trick. She chased the pills with the beer and got into bed.

She couldn’t believe it – it was happening again. There she was pressed against that fence looking for that dark-haired boy in that deep hollow far below the school. It would repeat again Saturday night as it had since the middle of the week. Every morning left Sylvie questioning her sanity a little more.

Turner’s Pharmacy wasn’t open on Sundays, so Sylvie slept in and then stayed in bed for a while thinking after she woke. She knew that recurring dreams where a thing. She’d seen people on Donahue who had recurring dreams of numbers then won the lottery or dreams about disasters and were able to keep from taking a plane that crashed. But what the hell could she be dreaming about a little boy living in an abandoned schoolhouse for? She didn’t have children. She didn’t work with children. She wasn’t even from Fairmont. What could all this mean?

She decided to get up and get out there in the daylight and see what she could find. She dressed herself and put on her sturdiest shoes and traipsed across Albert Street. She examined the window he came from every time. Boarded up. Nothing loose. Nothing disturbed. She walked around to the doors. Same. She looked for trees with low branches that could afford a little climber entry to a second or third story. None she could reason. Then she walked to the fence. In the light of day, she could see that there was nothing over the ledge it was cordoning off except for litter. And nothing but the asphalt road below leading through Colebank Hollow. She shook her head and bit her lip and told herself to forget about it. Something had entered her subconscious and it was too removed for her forebrain to recognize. What ever it was, she prayed it would stop haunting her when the school came down.

That night she stayed up. She wasn’t going to give her mind a chance to trick her again. If she didn’t sleep, she wouldn’t have the dream again. One night might break the cycle. She brewed a pot of coffee.

The night waned on and she didn’t even doze. She was two pots in when the coffee started to make her shake a little. Better dilute, she thought to herself and began to match water for coffee, cup-for-cup.

Just after midnight the music began. She froze. She was wide awake. And she heard it. Circus music coming from over the hill from the school. She didn’t even bother going to the window this time. She put her windbreaker on and headed straight for the fence. When she got there, she stopped in her tracks. In the very place where the boy always slipped under the fence, there stood a woman.

“Oh!” Sylvie chirped in surprise.

“Oh my!” the woman was surprised too as Sylvie’s flashlight nearly blinded the poor thing.

Directing its beam away from the strangers face, Sylvie reached for her apologizing, “I’m so sorry. I just heard something – …” She stopped. The music was gone again. “I’m so, so sorry. I thought I heard…did you hear circus music just now?”

“Circus music!” the woman shrieked and grabbed her mouth, half-falling against the fence.

“Oh my gosh!” Sylvie reached for her, “Let me help you. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Who are you?” asked the woman tears forming in her eyes.

“I’m Sylvie. Sylvia Satterfield. I moved into that garage apartment over there just this week and I keep having the same dream that I hear circus music and -…”

“No!” the woman raised her hand to protect herself from Sylvie. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“No, no, no!” Sylvie tried to soothe the frightened woman. “I’m no one. I just moved in and I keep having this dream about the school and a boy and this circus music. Can you help me? What are you doing here?”

The woman shrunk down, her knees on the ground, sobbing. Sylvie was stricken but could do nothing to ease the old woman’s pain. She patted her gently and tried to console her when finally, the old woman quieted and got still.

“I came to see it one more time before the trucks start tomorrow morning,” she began. “My little brother Marty -…” she stuttered and stopped, “we went to school here years and years ago.”

“Yes, go on…”

“Just before his last day of kindergarten, the circus came to town.” She sniffled, wiped her nose and continued, “They took the circus parade right down Colebank Hollow out to the fairgrounds at the south end of town. They came that way every year. I saw them four years in a row, but it was Marty’s first year here. It was the first time he could see the train go right by the school. He was so excited.”

Sylvie listened with hair bristling all over her body.

“Mrs. Sullivan was his teacher there on the ground floor, next to the street.”

Sylvie watched while the woman pointed to the window the boy had come out of every night. Her breath was frozen, and her pulse was thumping from the caffeine and the growing dread she felt.

“She let the little ones climb out the window since they were right there, and they were the first one’s to the fence. The bigger kids had to come all the way down the steps, so they lined up behind her class pushing their big heads against the fence to see.”

She stopped and looked at the place in the fence and reached for it as if she saw her brother. Sylvie couldn’t look for fear she’d see the boy again and lose her mind right there.

“I watched it happen. I saw the Moran boy and the Kincaid boy and that one that they called Slim. They didn’t mean it, but they pushed those little kids so tight against the fence that it came away at the bottom opening up a hole just big enough for him to drop down in -…” She grabbed her mouth and swallowed hard. “The fence caught his sweater and he dropped right out of it to the road below. He fell on the street next to the truck carrying the lion’s cage, his favorite. His neck was broken.”

“Oh God,” Sylvie was crying now too, though she didn’t know it. “That’s so awful. I’m so sorry. Oh my God.” She held the woman by the shoulders and mourned with her.

When her tears were exhausted, the woman raised her head and patted Sylvie’s hands.

“I’m sorry, my dear girl. I had no intention of seeing anyone here tonight.”

“No. Please don’t go away alone. Come up. I have a pot of coffee on,” Sylvie pleaded.

“I couldn’t impose.”

“It’s nothing at all. Please, you can tell me all about your sweet Marty.”

The woman’s eyes smiled, and she nodded. Sylvie walked her to the steps and took great care to get her to the top. She helped her off with her coat and put her at the table then washed out the one coffee mug she had and filled it to the brim for Marty’s sister, corralling the cream and sugar to within her reach.

“I’m so sorry once again,” the girl apologized, “but I’m busting! I’ve been drinking coffee all night and I simply have to go to the bathroom.”

The woman blushed and waved her on.

Sylvie sat peeing and shook her head wildly. She knew she wasn’t crazy! This was the proof! She saw that woman’s brother! Or his spirit or something. She knew it! She knew it! She put herself back together and washed up to join her guest at the table.

When she turned the corner into the kitchen, she was alone.

“What the hell?” she said not sure if she was speaking aloud or not. “What the hell is going on?” That was out loud. “Why is this happening to me?” Sylvie cried out to the sunny yellow walls and the dishes and lamps from the rummage and that poor Bradley Sears’ furniture. She collapsed to the floor and cried.

It would be the last she’d hear from Marty or his sister. The next morning the dozers woke her from a dead sleep.

She glared out the window at the equipment storming the schoolyard. She watched through ringed and blood shot eyes as the walls toppled and fell. Watched great clouds of gray dust erupt from the bricks crashing down through rotten floors and listened to the cacophony of breaking glass and the chug of the heavy machines.

She promised herself she’d tell no one.

She called off work that day, went back to bed, and fell fast asleep to the deafening sounds of the old Butcher School being razed. She slept the day away and peacefully all through the night. When she woke Tuesday morning, she felt revived, rested, and certain her bad nights were behind her.

She walked past the demolition crew and waved on her way in to work that day. “Good riddance,” she whispered under her breath to the haunted school.

The summer would finish uneventfully; she began her classes in the fall, working when she could, cozy in her apartment otherwise. She even volunteered at Mrs. Norris’ rummage sale at the mission when she could spare the time.

One fall afternoon, when a truck load of donations had been dumped at the church, Mrs. Norris asked Sylvie to come help them sort the clothes. She was welcome to anything she found that would fit her, free of charge, in exchange for the help.

She conceded. She could use a new coat for the upcoming winter and if there were jeans or boots, those would be useful too. She was stationed in the far corner of the basement room where the bags of clothes sat piled up one wall. She opened and emptied and sorted from just after Sunday services until choir practice began around seven that evening. Mrs. Norris found her and let her know they really appreciated her help but that she could go now as most of the ladies were in the choir and needed upstairs.

“I have one more, little bag to open here, Mrs. Norris. Then I’ll get home,” Sylvie answered obediently, and she pulled the bag up from the floor.

Most of the donations came in garbage bags. People making more of a statement than they realized about the value they placed on their things. But this last, little bag was cloth, hand-stitched, like a tiny canvas book bag. Sylvie took a good look at it, curiously drawn to its particular shape and size. It had the remnants of something embroidered on it but too many threads had been picked from it to make sense. She traced the ones that remained and made out a capital A and the top of what might have been a capital B. She smiled; A,B,C…it was a child’s bag. How sweet and sad. Someone put a lot of work into making that book bag for some kid’s first year at school and here it was thrown in a pile of rags in the church basement destined for the mission rummage sale. She opened it and pulled out its sole contents.

One small child’s long-sleeved, vee-neck, argyle sweater. The tag sown into the raveling neck read, MARTY.

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