From the author: Few people in the world are as universally distrusted and mocked as high school vice principals. When a teacher walks down the hall, groups of students will stop talking, but when a vice principal walks down the hall groups of teachers shut up. It's a terrible stereotype. Vice principals discipline students who are in trouble and evaluate teachers. How can they be liked? How can a person in that job do good?
Dedicated to Richard Vernon, Marshall Strickland and Edward Rooney
Vice Principal Welch studied the empty hallway for an hour waiting for ghosts. He stood loosely, leaning against a wall, arms crossed on his chest, as if watching the Homecoming dance from an out-of-the-way corner. An empty school is a quiet thing, but it is not silent. He felt as if he’d put his ear to a seashell, except the seashell had swallowed him, and the waves rolled, almost forty years of them.
He’d unlocked the front door at 4:30 in the morning, turned off the alarms and slipped in. The lockers echoed his footsteps, while a security light at the end of the hall provided illumination, reflecting a thick, moon-white stripe from the middle of the waxed floor and a bright star on every locker handle. The hallway smelled of books and old paint. Out of habit, he looked at his pocket planner. Nothing scheduled until 7:30. He sighed, then put it away.
Years ago, when Welch took the vice principal job, Principal Robinson, who retired and died the year after, had taken him to a bar on the far side of town where Lincoln High parents seldom gathered. He told him after their third beer, “That school’s been there since 1902, Welch, and it started with greatness. We’d have been the state football champs in our first year, but the wingback broke his leg in the last game. Think of its tradition. What are you going to add, Welch? How are you going to make a difference? What are they going to say about you when you’re gone?”
“I don’t know,” said Welch, his voice sudden and unexpected in the hallway’s quiet.
At 5:30, the heating system kicked on overhead, and a series of sharp pops ran down the ducts. Lilly, the head custodian, would be coming in soon, tuning on lights, unlocking doors, opening the school to the Monday parade. He reached into his wallet for a ten dollar bill, smoothed it against the wall and wrote, DO GOOD. He thought for a second, then added, LAUGHING JACK. From his coat pocket he took a roll of tape, put an inch-long piece on one end of the bill, then walked down the hall. He closed his eyes, spun around a few times, and then stopped, his hand holding the bill in front of him, finger pointed. Locker 457. His master key opened the door. Books covered the bottom: A.P. ENGLISH, CALCULUS, MODERN U.S. HISTORY, a senior’s locker, a senior who evidently didn’t have homework over the weekend. Magazine photographs of body builders were stuck to the door’s inside along with a valentine neatly inked, TO KIKI FROM HER BUDS. He taped the ten dollar bill next to the valentine before closing the door.
Down the hall, a row of lights flickered on. Lilly had started her rounds.
Welch sighed and headed toward the second floor to his office. No ghosts this morning. Not a one, but that didn’t mean the school wasn’t haunted. As he walked up the stairs he could feel the crush of students coming down, all those faces across the years streaming around him and through him.
“Good morning, Mr. Welch,” said Pamela Howel, the Principal’s secretary as she paused outside his door at 6:00, early as always. He glanced up from the bi-monthly incidents summary. She carried a briefcase in one hand and a cellphone in the other. Perfectly coifed black hair. Wire rimmed glasses. Narrow, thirtyish face. Metabolism and personality of a hummingbird. She’d taken the job in September and had already remade the office in her image.
“Hello, Pamela. Good weekend?”
“Nope. Visiting in-laws. Don’t forget I need your intention sheet for next year on my desk by Friday.”
Welch checked his planner. Written next to Friday’s date was the reminder about the retirement intention form.
“Are you going to hang it up?”
“Not that we want you to go,” she said before dashing to her office.
Fifteen weapon violations since March 1. Eleven knives, a ninja throwing star, a broken bottle, a BB gun and a sawed off pool stick. Twenty-three fights. Vandalism in the football weight room. Six car burglaries. A fire in the girl’s bathroom next to the cafeteria. An attempted suicide. Four incidents of senior hazing, each involving duct tape. And then the folder filled with complaints about Beau Reece, a mouthy second-year freshman who weighed maybe eighty pounds. Welch sighed and pushed it to the side. All in all, a pretty calm two months. He raised his pen to sign the report.
A movement caught his eye. A student in the chair next to the desk crossed his legs.
Welch looked up. No one sat in the chair. He blinked. The skin on his arm prickled as if all the tiny hairs had been tugged. Was it someone he knew? That was the problem: after so many years, it seemed he knew everyone he met. They could be former students or retired teachers or parents he’d met years before. Every face sparked a vague familiarity.
Welch put his head down to look at his papers again, trying to achieve the same state of mind he’d had the moment before, but the chair remained stubbornly empty.
He’d started seeing students who weren’t there the week before Christmas break. At first they were a motion in the corner of his eye, but now he saw them straight on. He thought of them as ghosts, but they were more like remnants of the absent. He saw last year’s graduates and kids from his first years of teaching, and, occasionally–he shivered to think of it–the dead too.
Twenty minutes later, a pair of noisy baseball players on their way to the gym for before-school throwing practice passed his door. Phones rang. Voices murmured. Doors opened and closed. An unbroken succession of students streamed by. He locked his door behind him, did hall duty until the final bell emptied the passage, hurried a handful of the tardy to class, then slipped into the only empty desk in Miss Knapp’s room for a quick evaluation. Thirty-three students filled the rest of the room. A few glanced at him when he sat down. A slender, shiny-cheeked girl who didn’t look a day over twelve years old, moved her backpack so Welch had room for his feet.
At the blackboard, red-haired Miss Knapp smiled nervously in his direction. She was fifty or so years old, come late to teaching after decades in the private sector. This was her third year in the building, her tenure year. If her evaluations were good, her job would be much more secure in September. He nodded and opened his notebook.
When Welch was a young teacher, he noticed students stopped talking when he passed. Not all the time, but often enough that when he heard a hushed, “Shh! It’s a teacher,” he longed to step up to them and ask them to share the secret. He wanted to tell him that five years ago he’d been like them. He was still seventeen in his heart.
It grew worse when he became vice principal. It spread to the teachers. Now he’d been vice principal for so long, he no longer recalled what teachers stopped talking about when an administrator came near. He’d asked his sole friend, Coach Qualls, who taught mythology and the humanities, about it once. “You’re the troll, Welch. No one loves the troll.”
Miss Knapp trembled slightly as she copied an assignment on the board.
Her fear annoyed him. I’m just a regular guy, he thought. I’m the fellow across the street. He waited until she looked at him, then he frowned and wrote in his notebook, PICK UP GROCERIES TONIGHT. She paled and asked the class for their attention. Welch wrote, BROCCOLI, RYE BREAD and MUSTARD as if he’d just noticed a critical deficiency in her technique.
He stayed ten minutes until she handed out a worksheet. He had four other teachers to evaluate before first hour ended, so he noted in his planner that he’d observed her class, then rose to leave. Miss Knapp put her book on her desk. “Mr. Welch?”
They talked in the hallway outside the room.
“Can I do anything for you, Mr. Welch? Is this about Beau Reece?” Miss Knapp hid her mouth with her fingertips while holding her wrist. “I didn’t see him today, but Friday he provoked the seniors again.”
“No. Just a drop-in visit.” Welch thought she might be an attractive woman if she didn’t suck her cheeks in. He wondered if she was scheduled to supervise the dance this weekend. They might have a chance to talk more casually there.
“My methods, do you think they’re sound?”
Suddenly, he felt guilty and mean. He shouldn’t have written in his notebook like that. “Yes, of course. You’re doing fine.” He searched for a more specific observation. “I’m impressed with how you hold the attention of such a full class.”
Her eyes darted to his notebook. He could tell she didn’t believe him, not for a second. “Oh,” she said hopelessly, “my next class is much larger.”
“Really? Where would they fit?” He leaned around the corner and looked into her room. Half the desks were empty. The students slouched over their worksheets, their pens a litany of scratching in the silence. The desk where the shiny-cheeked girl had sat was unoccupied, no backpack on the floor. His face felt cold.
“Are you OK, Mr. Welch?”
Welch squinted his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. “Yes. Have a good day.” But as he moved away from her room, he knew she wouldn’t. She’d worry all morning about what he’d seen in her room. She’d complain to her friends at lunch, and when she taught in the afternoon, she wouldn’t be quite as effective as she would have been if he had never visited. Maybe it would be better if she wasn’t coming to the dance. He envisioned two hours of polite conversation filled with bitter subtext.
In Mr. Mendez’s Algebra I class, Welch watched the students’ backs bent over their work. He’d come in quietly, and only a pimply-faced boy whose purple-penned notes were unreadable noticed when Welch took a seat. Mendez continued sketching a long equation on the board. “The formulas never lie,” said Mendez. “Even imaginary numbers tell the truth.”
Welch sat for several minutes, his record book unopened. Mendez taught in Lincoln High’s original wing. The ceilings rose ten-feet, and rather than the anonymous white tiles and flourescent lighting that marked the new wings, a dozen light fixtures hung down, each bright bulb surrounded by a green reflective collar, like a bed of metal and glass daisies growing from the ceiling. A hundred-year old math room, thought Welch. Over and over, the same lessons: Balance the equation. Seek the lowest common denominator. Chart the axis. Solve for X.
Were any of the students here the least bit . . . nebulous? Welch leaned forward, stretching his trembling fingers toward the pimply student’s arm. Mendez kept lecturing. Welch realized the man hadn’t faced the students the entire time Welch observed. The class could sneak out, and Mendez would never know. Welch’s hand approached the boy’s arm, close enough to touch his sleeve.
Will my fingers slip through?
Welch could see the pores in the boy’s hand, the tendons in his wrist.
The boy looked up, his eyes wide, watery and brown. “Yes, sir?”
“Nothing, son. Keep up the good work.”
Welch grabbed his notebook, and his pen clattered to the floor.
“Ah, Mr. Welch has joined us,” Mendez faced him, chalk in one hand. “Perhaps we could show him the magic of the quadratic.”
All heads turned to look at him. Welch backed out of the room. “No, no. I’m just leaving.” He fled to the safety of the empty hall, breathing hard. He realized he hadn’t touched the student. Now he’d never know.
Coach Qualls, grading papers in the teachers’ lounge, looked up when Welch walked in. His bulk swallowed the kid-sized plastic chair. “You all right?” he asked. His jowls were huge and covered with a perpetual five-o’clock dusting of white stubble. At sixty-four years, he was as the last staff member who’d been in the building longer than Welch.
Welch sank into a seat of his own. “Yes, of course.”
They sat for some time. Qualls moved from paper to paper, check-marking mistakes. Welch looked out the lounge’s window, but it faced the side of the school across the open quad below. Sun washed the bricks. No trees or birds or open sky. Just a white wall from top to bottom. Dim sounds from the band room drifted up, throbbing bass notes and the drums. They started and stopped a dozen times, the same thirty seconds of music.
“I turned in my intention form for next year. Time for me to check out,” said Qualls. “Are you going to be the old man?”
Welch opened his planner. He hadn’t written down anything from Mendez’s class, and he wondered if he could count it as an official observation. “Did you accomplish what you wanted by going into this profession?”
Qualls paused, his pen in the air. “Ah, it’s one of those days.”
“It’s just I wonder sometimes if I’ve done anyone any good. What’s my role in the grand scheme? You told me once in the fairy tale that is the school, I’m the troll. I’ve thought a lot about that.” Welch pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes, lighting a thousand sparkles behind his closed lids.
“Was I drunk?” Qualls scratched his chin thoughtfully.
“No. We were between third and fourth hour on a Tuesday.”
“Oh, yes. I remember. In the school’s mythic landscape, you are in the troll’s niche. The teachers are knights, the students are all potential heroes, and you are the dark underpinning. Loved by no one. Intimidating to all. If we just had a bridge to put you under, you’d be perfect.”
“That will look damned unimpressive on my tombstone. ‘Here lies Vice-Principal Welch, friend to none. Troll to the end.’”
Qualls checked the clock. “Five minutes to the bell. I’m going before the halls crowd up.” He stuffed the papers into a briefcase that snapped crisply.
“So, are you a knight? Do knights get to retire?”
Qualls flourished his red pen. “Not me. I’m a wizard, and I’m off to wield my spells one more time. There are kids out there ready to be charmed and bewitched.”
For a second, poised at the door to the rest of the school, Welch thought Qualls did look like a wizard under his bushy, white brows.
“I’m seeing ghosts, Coach,” said Welch, but Qualls was already gone.
The coffee pot hissed. Above it, on the bulletin board, a sign hung from one thumbtack. DARE TO BELIEVE IN CHILDREN. Stapled beside it, his contribution to the effort, a list of students he’d suspended and a reminder to teachers to provide them with makeup work.
At the end of the day, long after the volleyball team had departed from their spring practice in the gym, and the booster club had left the cafeteria, and the students constructing the set for the musical had put away their power tools and paint brushes, Welch roamed through the school, turning on lights as he went. He checked his pocket planner. Nothing left on the day’s schedule. I’m off the planner, he thought. I’m beyond my time. He’d been in the building for the last twenty hours, but he felt restless and antsy instead of tired.
He shook the thought away. Which one would it be tonight? He jangled his keys in his pocket. To his left the lockers gave way to tall windows that looked into the business computer lab. Screen savers swirled in the lab’s darkness. He turned right into the freshman hall. Lockers on both sides. Doors into classrooms topped by teacher’s names and their subjects. Miss Knapp had added a big smiley face by her name. Welch grimaced when he saw it. Maybe if he dropped a note in her box tomorrow it might make up for his visit to her class.
He stopped by the locker closest to her room. His keys dangled, clinking against the metal. Inside, a cigarette-smelling jacket hung from the hook above a paperback copy of The Odyssey. He wrote, DO GOOD on the ten dollar bill he took from his wallet, then signed it, CYCLOPS. When he reached to stick the bill to the inside of the door, he paused. A piece of tape, brittle with age, clung to the spot he always placed the bill. How many years ago had he opened this locker, hoping his gift would make a difference?
It didn’t matter. That student had long ago graduated.
Before he could move, though, an arm reached through him, seemed to extend from his own elbow, and stuck a five dollar bill to the spot. The new tape melted into the old and became one.
Blood rushed from his face, and his skin erupted into goose bumps so violently that he thought he might faint. The spectral hand closed the locker, but it was open too, both doors visible to him. Then footsteps echoed in the hallway. Welch turned to see a man walking away. It was himself, darker haired, wearing the horrible grey and red plaid jacket he’d given to the Salvation Army in 1978. Wrestling against his paralysis, Welch forced himself to stir so he could follow, but the man’s figure faded into the shadows at the hall’s end and the sound of footsteps became the pounding of his heart in his ears.
Welch blinked once, hard, then licked his lips. Of course, it made sense. Still, he was unnerved. He shuddered when he turned back to the locker. The ghost bill had disappeared, and now the locker had just one door, the open one. He put the new tape over the old, then shut the locker as softly as he could, flinching at the mechanism’s loud click.
The next morning he started with the Beau Reece folder. Three teacher complaints against him in the previous week. Tardiness, insubordination and inciting a shoving match in the locker room. The two seniors swore Reece started it, but by the time the P.E. teacher arrived, Reece had vanished and the seniors were pushing each other. “I don’t doubt the Reece kid had something to do with it,” the P.E. teacher said.
As the halls emptied into the first period classes, Welch waited outside the band room, where Reece played the clarinet. The bell rang, and the stragglers hurried to their destinations, casting fearful glances Welch’s way. He ignored them. Where was Reece? A few minutes later a student opened the band room door and put the attendance sheet in the folder. The teacher had marked Reece absent.
Ditching or tardy, thought Welch. He checked his watch. Fifteen parent call slips waited on his desk. Last week’s athletic eligibility reports needed to be sent to the state for validation. A dozen obligations crowded his planner. He was days behind in teacher evaluations. And, of course, the intention form for next year brooded in his “to do” box. Retire or hang on? What should he do? He filled a cup with coffee in the teacher’s lounge, then let himself into the sound booth overlooking the stage. He sat so he could see over the balcony to where the choir practiced. The sopranos stood and held a high note, a long, trembling, wordless vowel. Welch sighed, closed his eyes, letting the cup warm his hands. The altos joined in, then the baritones and bass. Sometimes, when he felt particularly discouraged, after he’d disciplined the umpteenth student for the day, he’d go to the choir room or to the band, or he’d wander through the art classes’ galleries, or he’d open the shop’s storage room so he could see the shelves and chests and tables students had made. He’d run his hand over the polished joints and glassy smooth wood. The kids can do great things, he’d think. They can be marvelous. But he never worked with those kids. The ones who waited outside his office were the tardy ones, the insubordinate and combative, the criminals.
The bell rang. Welch jumped, spilling the now cool coffee down his leg. He’d fallen asleep. Could he do anything good today? Could he make a difference? He wiped his pants dry as best he could, straightened his tie and headed for the attendance office.
“Can you get me Beau Reece’s phone number and his attendance folder?” he said to the secretary, a girl who’d graduated from Lincoln three or four years earlier. She handed him the papers without smiling. When she was a seventeen-year old junior, he’d suspended her for three days for smoking in the girls’ locker room.
Naturally, the number was no longer in service. Welch drummed his fingers on his desk, the phone in his other hand. He looked through Reece’s attendance records. Although he often skipped classes, he hadn’t missed a whole day of school until yesterday. Today didn’t look good for him either.
Miss Knapp knocked on his door, looking distraught.
“Have you got a minute?”
Welch nodded. He hadn’t put a note in her box yet. Maybe he could just tell her he thought she did a good job.
She sat in the chair next to his desk. “I know you’re working very hard to help me be a better teacher, Mr. Welch, but I don’t think you get to see the best of me.” She kneaded her hands in her lap without looking at him. “I’m a nervous person, Mr. Welch. I’m fine with the kids. When you’re in the room, though, I get all tied up.”
Welch couldn’t speak. He stared at her hands, squeezing so tight the muscles in her arms quivered. He wanted to put his own hands over them and hold them gently. He’d say. “You’re going to be an excellent addition to this staff. You already are.”
What he said instead was, “Maybe I can arrange for someone else to observe you.”
Knapp stood, keeping her hands clasped. “I don’t mind you observing me. I just can’t teach when you’re doing it.” Her expression was unreadable, somewhere between misery and confusion. She left the office like a penitent, head down. The whole encounter hadn’t lasted thirty seconds. The phone in his hand began beeping, so he hung it up.
Down the hall, he used his key to enter the faculty bathroom. The intercom clicked on for the morning announcements, a litany of club meetings and graduation reminders for seniors. Above the urinal someone had written SQUELCH WELCH. It wouldn’t be so bad if this was a student bathroom. He smeared the ink with his thumb.
“Hate graffiti, don’t you, son?” said Principal Robinson as he passed behind Welch and let himself into a stall, closing the door behind him. Robinson’s belt buckle clinked loudly in the tiled room.
“I’m having a bad day.”
“It’s the Reece kid, isn’t it?” Robinson’s voice rose over the partition. “He’s the burr under the saddle. You straighten him out, and the other irritations will go away.”
Welch closed his eyes and leaned forward, resting his forehead against the cool tile. “Maybe. But if I suspend him, what good will that do?”
“You’ve got to find him first.”
The toilet flushed.
Welch looked at the partition. There were no feet visible below it.
He gasped, then leapt to the door, breaking the latch when he banged it open. No one sat there. In the bowl, the water swirled.
Welch stepped back and bumped into the wall. His legs shook and he almost fell. Then, suddenly, he laughed. The water slowed its circular path and grew still while Welch’s laughs subsided to chuckles. He wiped tears off his cheeks. Now he knew a secret, not that he’d ever heard anyone ask it, but he knew. Ghosts used bathrooms.
He started to laugh again. It welled within him, but he clenched his jaw tight against it. He could see himself in three of the mirrors above the sinks, his wild eyes; his disheveled hair. “I’m hallucinating,” he said. “I’m going to wake up in my bed, and I’ll be twenty-two again, wondering if I should go on the motorcycle trip into Mexico with Harold.” Welch remembered his brother’s postcards that came every week his first year of teaching and how he put them aside while planning lessons.
“Now I’m talking to myself in the bathroom.” Welch stepped to a sink, washed his face. He straightened his tie, then dabbed a paper towel at his chin where a single drop of water glistened. Maybe when I open the door, he thought, there won’t be a school there at all. It could be a desert or an ocean or a blank wall. He remembered the white wall across the school’s courtyard through the teacher lounge window. How many years had he spent staring at that featureless expanse?
He pushed the door open tentatively. Pamela Howel strode toward him, a clipboard under one arm. She had her “I have to deliver a hand grenade” expression.
“We have a situation, Mr. Welch.”
Welch nodded, but he started making his strategy. If I visit every one of Reece’s classes, I’m bound to run into him. I have a quest, a mission to turn this boy around. I don’t have to be the troll. I can be Odysseus. Ten years of war. Ten years of exile, and then a just reward. He smiled as he headed toward his office, picturing Reece’s schedule sitting on his desk.
Howell grabbed his arm earnestly. “Did you hear what I said?”
Surprised to see her still there, he shook his head.
“The boy who tried to commit suicide last week named you in his note. The school board put you on their schedule for tonight. You need to be there at 7:00 sharp.” She pivoted on one heel and went back the way she had come.
Welch reeled; he couldn’t even remember the kid. He rubbed his fingers hard into his forehead while scrinching his eyes closed. Nope. No memory at all of his connection with the boy. One thing at a time, he thought, as he wrote in his planner, SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, 7:00, SUICIDE.
First, find Beau Reece. Outside Reece’s second class, Welch stood by the doorway, hands in his pockets, watching students enter. Most ignored him. Some looked at him curiously. A few kept their eyes averted. The stream slowed. The bell rang. No Reece.
Welch walked off school grounds to “skid row,” where the smokers, skateboarders, goths and dropouts went when they were ditching class. He flushed a couple out of the high jump pit by the football field, encouraged three boys sitting on their skateboards in the alley beside the track to move on, then strode behind the convenience store across the street from the high school, surprising a pack of kids smoking, mostly tobacco, but he caught a whiff of pot too. Eyes went wide as cigarettes disappeared behind backs. Most of them had been in his office at one time or another.
“Have any of you seen Beau Reece?” he asked without real hope.
No answer for a long minute.
A boy wearing black leather pants and a spiked dog collar said, “He played with the jazz band yesterday before school.”
Reece didn’t go to any of his classes yesterday. Welch assumed he must have been sick. “Really?”
The boy nodded. The rest of the group stood silently, little whiffs of smoke curling behind them. “He missed this morning,” the boy added.
“Thanks,” said Welch, then he turned toward the school.
“Umm . . .” a girl with a violet top knot but shaved close above her ears said. “Aren’t you going to yell at us to get back to class?”
Welch looked up at the perfect cotton-ball clouded sky. He shrugged. “Do what you want.”
Ten paces away though, he stopped and went back. The kids hadn’t moved. “All of you are underage to be smoking. Throw those things away, and I’ll forget I saw you.” He tried to bluster, but it came flat and without conviction.
“Are you all right, Mr. Welch?” asked the violet top knot.
Welch sighed as if he’d been punctured. “Just get away from the store. They’re business folks and you kids leave a mess back here.”
When Welch reached the school, he looked at the convenience store. None of the kids had left.
For the rest of the morning, he patrolled the building in a daze. He pulled the records of the student who’d tried to commit suicide, but Welch’s encounter with him had been in December when the boy had been suspended with three others for throwing snowballs at the busses. Even when Welch looked at the boy’s picture, he couldn’t remember him. Why would he name me in a suicide note? wondered Welch, and what did the school board want? He walked a long circuit from the agriculture building, past the swimming pool, then out to the driver’s ed. course. In all his years in education, he’d never been teacher of the year, or even teacher of the month. He’d never been recognized by the board for an “Excellence in Education” award. He’d never been asked to speak at graduation. No one ever gave him a yearbook to sign. Maybe the board would ask for his resignation, or worse, the ignominy of a forced retirement.
What did Odysseus feel like after twenty years? Cursed by the gods. All his men dead. Not even sure his wife remembered him. Hope must have dwindled within him, thought Welch. What did the troll under the bridge feel? How did he feel about his place in the world?
He added up all the sick days he’d never taken. If he handed in his retirement intention sheet now, he could call in sick for the rest of the year and not even go to the school board meeting. Who needed the grief?
The bell rang, sending the students to lunch. Welch walked on the left side of the hall against the flow of traffic, glad for the contact when students bumped into him, even if they did shoot him annoyed glances. At least they were real, and he was real too. A short boy passed on Welch’s right. Welch grabbed the boy’s shoulder.
“Beau?” he said, but it wasn’t him.
School ended. The busses left. Teams practiced. Clubs met, and, gradually, the building emptied. Once again, Welch wandered the hallways. The sun, low in the sky, sent long beams of light through the windows next to the doors and down the main hall. Only one day in the spring the windows lined up with the sun on the horizon so the light reached all the way to the other end.
He felt like he walked in a tunnel of light as he fingered the ten dollar bill in his pocket. In fifteen minutes he would have to leave. His planner was very exact about it: SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, 7:00, SUICIDE.
Years and years earlier he’d started taping money to the inside of lockers, one or two bills a week. Sometimes more if there were a lot of kids through his office. DO GOOD, he wrote, but in all that time he’d never heard anyone talk about the mystery presents. He never heard what the kids did with the cash. It reminded him of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, flicking pebbles over the edge. They vanished into the depths without a sound. How come our good deeds never come back to haunt us? He checked the slip in his hand. Beau Reece used locker 1209.
The doors behind him crashed open, flooding the hall with sun. The silhouetted form of a half-dozen boys filled the space, and hard-soled shoes clicked against the floor.
“What are we gonna do?” cried one. As they came closer, Welch could see they were football players carrying a boy on a stretcher. For a moment Welch was disoriented. Football in the spring? Football ended months ago.
“I think his leg is broke,” said another. They rushed by Welch. Dirt and grass stains marred their thick sweaters with an “L” sewn to the front.
The boy on the stretcher moaned, his face streaked with tears. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said.
“We can’t be best in the state without our wingback,” said a third.
“Welch could save the day,” sobbed the boy on the stretcher. “He could carry the ball for us.”
“What?” stammered Welch. “What did you say?”
But the team hurried down the hall, the sun glaring on their backs, and they dissolved into dust motes before reaching the end.
The hallway dimmed as the doors closed. Welch looked back at the windows. The sun touched the horizon, a perfect, crimson globe beyond the glass. In minutes the hall would be dark and it would be next fall before the sun lined up once more. He glanced at his watch. Time to go.
Taking a deep breath, he found Beau Reece’s locker. He flattened the bill against the metal and wrote DO GOOD. He thought for a second about signing it ODYSSEUS. He shook his head. Odysseus didn’t fit. If he was anyone from that story, it would be Paris, whose bad judgements destroyed heroes, so he signed it, THE TROLL.
The key slid into the lock, but the door resisted. Welch leaned into it to take the pressure off the internal mechanisms so he could pop the latch. The door swung open. Then, slowly, a body fell out. A ghost in the locker! Welch thought, his heart fisted tight. He took it in at once. The band of duct tape around the body’s torso, pinning his arms to his side. The tape around the ankles. The broad band of dull silver across the ghost’s mouth. And still, it fell, until at the last second, Welch stepped forward and caught it before it hit the floor.
A solid weight in his hands, Welch sat back in surprise. No ghost. It was a real boy, a small one, unconscious or dead. Welch pressed his fingers to the boy’s throat where a pulse beat firmly. He worked his fingers under one edge of the tape, and carefully pulled it away from the child’s mouth.
It wasn’t until the kid opened his eyes blearily and croaked, “Mr. Welch?” that he realized he held Beau Reece.
Near midnight, while sitting in the hospital’s waiting room, it occurred to him he’d missed the school board meeting. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t help smiling. The doctor told him Beau was dehydrated but would be fine. “Don’t you have rules against hazing?” asked the doctor.
The glass pneumatic doors from the parking lot wheezed open. Coach Qualls and two other teachers came in.
“What are you doing here?” said Welch. Qualls looked so misplaced, and Welch realized in three decades he’d only seen him at school.
“The night nurse is the superintendent’s wife, and she called him. His cell phone went off right in the middle of his closing comments. We came straight over. Good work, man.” Qualls slapped him on the shoulder.
Welch shrugged. “Just luck, really.”
Qualls sat next to him. “That’s not what I heard. The secretaries told me you’d been looking for Reece since yesterday. Good instincts, I’d say.”
Welch sighed and let himself sink deeper into the chair. The day had been a long one. Another teacher walked in, and before the doors closed, Miss Knapp entered, rubbing her coat sleeves against the cold of the spring evening.
“You were all at the meeting?” asked Welch. Through the doors he could see other teachers in the parking lot heading toward them.
“Sure,” said Qualls. “Weren’t you supposed to be there too? That kid who tried to commit suicide named twenty-four of us in his note. Typical school board over-reaction. They wanted to talk to us about sensitivity. Did you hear how he tried to do himself?”
Welch shook his head. The room filled with teachers.
“Four bottles of antacid pills.” Qualls laughed. “He thought an overdose of anything would kill him.”
The superintendent of schools joined the crowd, spotted Welch. “It’s caring educators like yourself who make us proud to be teachers.” He squeezed Welch’s hand. “Forty years in education, and you’re still making a difference. You saved that boy’s life. ”
A news truck pulled up to the doors.
Welch stood next to Qualls. Teachers filled the room. Qualls raised his hand and waved, then slowly dropped it, turning toward Welch.
“What?” said Welch.
“It’s the darndest thing.”
“I thought I saw Principal Robinson. For a second I thought it was Robinson over there.”
Welch sighed. “It happens to me all the time.”
“Where’s this Welch fellow?” said a man with a television camera tucked under his arm.
“Must be a slow news night,” said Welch, suddenly so embarrassed that he looked for a door to duck into, but the teachers surrounded him.
Afterwards, when the television crew departed, and most of the teachers had trickled away, Miss Knapp approached him, still in her coat.
“This was marvelous.” She looked around the room. “So many of us came.”
Welch didn’t know what to say. Outside of the school, he had no words for her. But he wanted them, words that wouldn’t make her nervous. Surely he could talk to her about subjects other than attendance and discipline and teaching strategies.
Something in her expression seemed strained, then a realization dawned on him. “Qualls did this, didn’t he?”
Miss Knapp blushed. “No . . . oh, no. We really were glad to come, really. Well . . . he said you’d been a little down. You’re not angry, are you?”
Welch shook his head. They stood without speaking for a few seconds, then she put out her hand, “I have to get going. Congratulations, though. You did a good thing. Will you be at the dance Friday?” Her delicate and cool fingers rested against his palm.
Dances featured ear-crushing music by groups he didn’t recognize, gate-crashers from other schools who had to be tossed out, kids who came to the school drunk or who snuck into their cars for a beer or a joint before trying to get past him, and afterwards there would be torn confetti and crushed paper cups and decorations to be taken down. That’s the way it always was. But he also knew the dance floor would be full of students and ghosts. He could live with the ghosts. And for the real kids? Warm hands on bare backs during the slow songs. Shy smiles. Genuine laughter. He would stand to the side, arms crossed on his chest, watching, like a knight on a castle wall.
“Save a dance for me,” he said.
It was his place.
This story originally appeared in Polyphony.