Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Why I'm a Dropout

Like the title implies, this happened back in high school. Which was a long time ago and a long ways away, but some stuff stays with you. I've never told any of my psychiatrists about this, but this feels like the place to talk about it.

I went to a small school in an almost dead mill town in upstate New York. We graduated eleven people the year before I dropped out. My class was nine. Five guys, just enough for a basketball team. (Which, amazingly enough, we fielded. Even won a few games, because our point guard, Jimmy Piersall, dropped 50 every time he stepped on the court. We were all sure he was going pro, but after what happened to him at UNC, he never played again. But that's another story.)

It was a gorgeous May day, not a cloud in the sky, when I jogged up to the school that Monday morning. I was twenty minutes late, so I was hustling, but I came up short when I saw the sheriff's car idling empty at the curb in front of the school. The shotgun was gone from the rack behind the driver's seat.

This wasn't something that happened, you know? This was the 80s, before school shootings and bomb threats. The worst we ever had was when Carrie Weltshaw got drunk and drove her Fiero into the basketball pole in the parking lot. She wasn't even hurt bad, which is amazing when you think about it. But there the car was, its cherries whirling. Something was wrong.

Behind the car, Principal White was sitting there with his head in his hands. He'd been a head-shaver before white guys shaving their heads was a thing that was done. His fingernails were black. Blood was running between his fingertips.

I stopped, asked him what was wrong. If he needed help. He looked up, but then he just stared at me. I don't think he actually saw me at all.

Here's the thing about being seventeen-- you're an idiot. Any sane person would have gone the other way. Most insane people would have gone the other way. I went in.

The school was only a half-dozen rooms, lots of windows. Usually the morning sun lit up the inside like a mirror shop. That day it was dark. Think thunderstorm-coming, then turn the lights down a bit more. Dark.

But, seventeen. I kept going. The floor was kind of sticky--not dirty, Mr. French always did a great job. But sticky that day, anyway. Like the floor itself was trying to keep me from going forward. My new Reeboks squeaked on the linoleum. I smelled Pine-Sol and bubblegum. And something else, under it. Something between garbage left to rot in an alley and downwind from an oil refinery. Neither of those are quite right, but they're as close as I've come since.

I called to ask if anyone was there. No one answered. Which was weird. I mean, the sheriff was inside, even if no one else was. You'd think I'd hear something. But no. Just the squeak of my sneakers. Somewhere far away, water dripping.

Shit. You'd think I'd have seen enough horror movies. Jason Voorhees, Freddie, Leatherface -- but that stuff was movies. This was just, you know. Something weird going on at my school. I kept going. Kept calling.

No answer.

By the door to the basement I found shotgun shell casings. And what looked like a rat that had been shot from a cannon and bashed into the tile wall. A splash of blood trailing down and starting to congeal around a gray wad of matted hair the size of both my fists put together. I bent down to look at it. You don't grow up in upstate New York being scared of dead animals. It didn't have a nose, or eyes. Or a tail. Just a wad of hair. Twitching.

The sheriff shot himself a rat, I told myself. That was all. Though why it would take four shotgun shells to kill a rat, I didn't ask myself. You'd think I would have, but, y'know.

Don't open the basement door, you're thinking. Yeah. In retrospect . . . but I opened the door.

The stairs down were just as sticky as the hallways, but there was a light burning down there. I could hear the water heater. The dripping was louder down there, too. The smell was worse.

I called out again. No one answered.

I was gagging on the smell, but I'd come that far. I headed down. The handrail was as sticky as everything else. I remember rubbing my hand on my pants thinking I was going to have to toss the pants and I'd be lucky not to lose the hand while I was at it. So I walked down, my feet sticking to the wood. There was only the one bulb, and the basement was big, so when my eyes adjusted to the glare of the bulb all I saw anyway was shadows.

I called again.

I found the shotgun when I literally tripped over it. It caught between my feet, scraped across the concrete.
Near the shotgun were three more of the things that weren't rats. All of them twitching. A little while later I found a hand. No arm, no body. Just a hand. Palm up, fingers curled just a little bit. Like it was pleading for help.

That was it for me. I was seventeen, not suicidal. I turned around. And kicked something else I hadn't seen. A black boot, on its side. It scuffed across the floor like there was a weight in it. Knocked into a pair of broken sunglasses, sent them skittering. Into a hole in the concrete, three feet across and dark as a new moon. The smell was worse there. Much worse.

We only had the one sheriff. A big-city cop who'd come up here to work and drink, mostly drink. Worked 9-5 most days. Nothing ever happened up there and the town had no money to hire anyone else, so we'd always gotten away with it.

And now--well, I wasn't any kind of detective, but I could draw conclusions with the best of 'em. Now we were going to need another sheriff. Certainly wasn't going to be me. I was bugging the fuck out.

I headed for the stairs, looking out for any other parts of Sheriff McManus. The last thing I wanted to do down there was trip, believe you me.

Someone was standing by the stairs when I got there. Angela Kane. Blonde, blue, kind of a butterface, but at least she was a bitch to everyone and not just me. But she was smiling at me then.

I told her to get out. I think I told her to get out. I may have just bellowed something. I certainly was trying to tell her to get out.

She just smiled. I could see the shape of it in her lips, I knew she was smiling, but I couldn't see her teeth.
I got closer and the smell coming off her--Jesus, the smell. Almost as bad as the hole. But she was between me and the stairs. I made it within a yard or two of her, my stomach heaving, but every step was like someone shoving sewage down my throat. I was one step away when I hurled.

All over her feet.

She looked at me. Still smiling. This big, fake smile, like she'd just learned how. Up close, her teeth were black. They looked sticky.

I gagged some more. Told her the sheriff was dead. We had to run.

She smiled some more. Shook her head. Opened her mouth to say something, and the smell was so bad I honestly couldn't tell you what she said. If she said anything. The inside of her mouth looked grey, though. Twitching. But maybe it was just her tongue. I didn't stick around to figure it out.

I pushed past her. Bolted up the stairs.

At the top of the steps the sheriff was waiting. With his hands and his feet. And that same wide, stupid smile Angela had shown me. The same black teeth.

I ran. Got the hell out. Past the principal, past the sheriff's car. Just kept going. Ended up in California. Not that day, of course. But I just couldn't seem to stop moving.

I heard through my friend Derrick that the school reopened a week later. I never went back. A few weeks after that the town hired a new sheriff. A month later, he killed himself. On the roof of the school.

And that was probably the end of the town, right there. You go up there now, the buildings are all falling in. Ivy all over everything. For sale signs, but no cars anywhere. People just picked up and left.

A few years ago, I went through the town. Not past the school. Hell no. Even from a few blocks away, though, I still smelled that stink. Alley rot and oil. Some wildlife. If you can call it that. In broad daylight, on the corner of Main and Washington, I saw a rat.

At least, I think it was a rat. Jesus. I hope it was a rat.

This for reddit's /r/nosleep.

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