Uncial Press Aloha, Oregon
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events described herein are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
ISBN 13: 978-1-60174-151-6
Copyright © 2013 by Fred Andersen
Copyright © 2013 by Judith B. Glad
All rights reserved. Except for use in review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
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Grand Avenue School is an old brick building with high ceilings and wood floors. At night it's quiet, like a tired old dog. A newer building, even one ten or twenty years old, will crackle and pop at night, as the steel and wood and foundations contract and shift, settling by fractions of fractions of inches into final resting position.
Grand Avenue is at rest. Settled.
But it does moan. At night, when everyone's gone but me, making my last go-round, I stop and listen, and that moan is there, low, no more than a whisper. All the HVAC is off, all the water pipes still, there is no wind, and the traffic has left downtown. That's when I can hear it.
It can only be the life force leaking out, the energy and hopes, fears and dreams of so many students and teachers. Not just today's but all those who came before, over seventy, eighty years, leaking out through the dried up window frames, the loose moldings, the worn out weatherstripping. The spirits depart in that soft moan, late, when I'm the last one here, finishing the library and doing my exit check of the locks and the lights and faucets. By morning, when I open up, there's no sound but the distant sigh of traffic coming back downtown.
That night, the twelfth of March, I was not the last one out. The two boys waited in Ms. Castellon's room for her to return with dinner. It was at least their second night sleeping there. Hardly shocking.
Teachers and Admin at an inner city school have to handle a lot of situations that aren't covered by the policy manual. Family problems, mostly. The parents disappear or go to jail or go crazy. Gangs or ethnic groups don't like one another, and kids get caught in the middle. When it comes to family values, it's the values that matter, not the family.
We all deal with it as best we can. And maybe that means some kids do a sleepover, and take a shower in the morning in the locker room of the old gym. This used to be a junior high, before the district went to K-8 schools. So it has a big gym, with funky old locker rooms, things they just don't put in an elementary school these days.
One of the boys is Adam, and he's in eighth grade. The other one, I forget his name, is in Ms. Castellon's sixth grade. Don't know much about her, she's only been here a couple, three years. I know if she has a problem with the room, I'll hear about it.
"Mister Martin, it's too cold in here. We're all wearing coats." Or, "Mister Martin, I'm still waiting for you to move those boxes out. This is a classroom, not a storage room." Some of the other lady teachers smile when they ask for something, or flatter you. Like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, the one with the curl. Not Castellon. She may spare a smile, but lets you know it's your job, not a favor, to do whatever.
I was up in the library when I heard a door open and close, sounded like the one from the courtyard. I assumed Kurt had come back to tell me something, or pick up something he forgot. He's the Number Two custodian, in fact, if not in title. But he's a young 'un, music blowin' in his ears all day. Never has those earbuds out. He forgets things. I came down the stairs to meet him.
As I stepped into the hall, I saw two men looking into the watch window of a classroom at the far end. I ducked back into the stairwell, not quite sure why I did. Normally I would get in the face of any stranger who ventured in here at night. The building's locked at four-thirty, but there are still teachers leaving around then, and sometimes they don't make sure the door latches behind them. Because frankly, sometimes doors stick, or latches don't latch. Like I said, it's an old school.
But these two sure weren't students, and I didn't think parents, either. They looked Mexican, or Mex-Am, like most of our parents, but something about them struck me wrong. Maybe it was the clothes. Too well dressed. One had the Mexican cowboy style. Boot-cut jeans, and a thigh-length gray coat. I don't know why I call it a cowboy coat, but it was. The other one had on what I'd call a letterman's jacket--short, dark blue, with tan leather sleeves--white warmup pants, and running shoes. Our two sleepover boys were hiding out from somebody, and these hombres looked a lot like that somebody.
While I stood there against the wall, I heard another door open and close. Probably the side door, which could be Ms. Castellon coming back with dinner. In those drafty, echoey halls, the men probably couldn't tell the direction of the sound, but they had to know a door had opened somewhere. I heard an indistinct muttering, and then the cowboy's boots ringing quick steps on the floor. I ran up the stairs to the library and over to the window looking out on the courtyard in plenty of time to see the men crossing to the office. Outlined against his white warmup pants, Letterman carried a large black automatic pistol. That settled it. I pulled my phone out, and it lit up as it flipped open.
But then Cowboy did something that made me freeze. He stopped at the back door of the office, and looked down, while doing something with his hands, and then the door opened.
He had keys. Not just a key, the whole ring of keys. Kurt had left at six, and these two showed up not ten minutes later with a key ring. I felt a cold, hard stone under my ribs. They had Kurt's keys, and God knew what had happened to Kurt.
I hesitated, scared by what I was about to do. They wouldn't find anyone in the office. They would come back and resume their search. If I was going to get across to the Fifth/Sixth Grade wing, I had to do it now, and move quickly. I knew nothing about this situation, or why the boys were there, or why these men wanted them. But I had seen that black pistol outlined against the white pants. I knew they had come for the boys, and Castellon would be in the way. Her life was in danger, and she didn't know it.
If I could get to Castellon's room right away, we could get out through the gym. Once out, we could call the police, the Army, and Sheriff Joe. But at the moment, only I could save her. I cursed my luck and took off.
The Fifth/Sixth Grade wing was at the back of the school. I ran, hopped, staggered--bad knee cartilage--through the halls. Most of the classrooms were dark. I had my key out and quickly opened the door to that wing, then pulled it quietly closed. Castellon's door showed light underneath, and I let myself in so quick that I caught her standing with her hand in the air over a bag of hamburgers.
"Geez, Frank! What is it?"
The boys looked at me with wide, fearful eyes. They were handsome, slender kids in thrift shop clothes. They hadn't been in school long. The young one had these round apple cheeks.
"You have to leave now. There are men here."
Castellon didn't hesitate. "Come on, boys."
She and I and the young one, whose name was Christian, or Christiano, I remembered now, were at the door quickly, but Adam, trying to stuff his feet in his shoes without success, lagged behind. He got one shoe on, but he couldn't get his heel into the other one. As we waited, he squirmed his foot clumsily, his eyes wide with terror. I thought I heard the scratching of a key in the door at the end of the hall. Maybe they wouldn't get it with the first key. Adam kicked off his shoe and skipped across the room to us.
I opened the door and peeked out. We had to go about fifty feet, past a pair of classrooms and the boys' and girls' bathrooms. I heard a definite scratching from the locked door at the other end of the corridor. Still looking for that key. I hoped!
"Go!" I whispered, waving them out and down the hall.
We were almost there when I heard the turn of the cylinder, and the thumb latch going down. I don't know how I could hear that, could see it right in the front of my mind. And I don't know how I somehow instantly and soundlessly scooped all three of them into the boys' bathroom just as the door began to open behind us.
The bathroom door stood open, in airing-out position for the night. We tumbled in, and the motion sensor lights went on. For a second I considered locking the door, but closing it might make a sound that would give us away.
And they had the key.
Castellon whispered to the boys and they went into the last two stalls. I pushed the override button on the light switch and the room plunged into darkness. I slipped into the first stall.
"Up here!" Castellon whispered. In the stray light from the hall I could make out her shadow. She was standing on the toilet. Her hand guided me as I pulled myself up next to her. She was a smart cookie, or a cop-show fan. If someone standing near the door looked under the partitions, they wouldn't see feet.
That thought took less than an instant, my mind was racing so fast. I listened hard, trying to monitor where the bad guys were, and how the kids were doing. I could detect them breathing softly in the adjacent stalls. Propped there with one foot on the toilet seat and one on the paper dispenser, trying to still my body, I had a half-second to remember that in the remodel five years ago, I had tried to get wall-mounted toilets, because they are easier to clean under. They were more expensive, and the district didn't buy them. So as I half-crouched there, maybe a minute from being shot, I wondered, would a wall-mounted john have held the combined weight of Castellon and me?
I didn't really hear anything, but I sensed someone outside the bathroom door for a moment, and then not there. Finally one of the classroom doors opened at the far end of the hall. The thought of them checking up to eight classrooms while I hung there in an agonized crouch made me weak to the point of nausea. On the other hand every next breath at this point was a reprieve.
They might only be in the classroom for a few seconds, but I could relax a little. Shift my weight.
"Who are they?" I whispered.
"Narcos," Castellon breathed. "Drug gang. They came to kill the rest of the family."