Later that afternoon, I shared the results of Officer Vinny’s investigation with Luce.
“Ernie’s right,” she said, checking the expiration dates on packages. “There’s something going on up there.”
“You went up again?” To my recollection, Luce had never been daring enough to brave the terrors of the old high school back in the day. She had been a good student and not that adventurous. Kind of opposite of how I spent my youth.
“I got a little closer. It’s definitely music and it’s coming from the gym.”
“You went walking with Gordo on the old school grounds after dark?” It was one thing to go up there during the day, quite different at night. There were no security lights up there. The last street lamp was at the foot of the driveway. Gordo was much too much of a klutz to manage up there in the dark. I looked around. The dog wasn’t in his usual spot by the door of the food pantry.
“Gordo went home yesterday. I was afraid he was getting so used to being here that he’d forget he was George’s dog. Miss Fancy Pants is staying in the kennel so I brought her along.”
Miss Fancy Pants was a poodle that her owners boarded at the kennel when they went out of town. I don’t know how much of a defense she’d be in a situation, but she yapped at ear bleed level when things were not to her liking, which was most of the time she stayed in the kennel. Everything was quiet today, though.
“What did you do, drug her?”
Luce chuckled. “No. She just likes to hear herself talk. I told her that we were all tired of it and promised her a dip in the hot tub if she could be quiet for a few hours.” The vet’s hot tub was a kiddie pool with a bubbler in her grooming room. Her canine customers adored their trips to the spa.
“Why don’t you go with me tonight? Hear it for yourself.”
“Do you know how early in the morning I get up?” All that baking and prep for the morning coffee rush had to be done. If I stayed awake much past sunset, it was because it was the dead of winter and already dark by 4:30 in the afternoon. Once upon a time I could stay out all night and still be fresh for the next morning. Those days were long past.
“I’ll come by around 10:30. I don’t think much happens up there until dark. It won’t take long. You’ve been in the building, you’ll have a better sense of where the music is coming from.”
“That was a long time ago.” Like more than twenty years. What did she expect?
“It’ll be fun!” She was crazy.
I hung jeans, sweatshirt and my black leather jacket on the hook mounted to the bathroom door, set an alarm for 10:15 and went to bed at 8:30. Of course, I couldn’t sleep, even though it was Tuesday and that’s the day I tear the kitchen down all the way to clean. Every fifteen minutes I’d look at my iPhone check the time and wonder if I did fall asleep, would the alarm be able to wake me, or would Luce bring over Miss Fancy Pants to do the job. At 9:55 I gave up and got dressed. I made a pot of chamomile tea, poured one cup to drink now and filled two travel mugs with the rest. The temperature was still mild, in the lower forties, or so the weather app indicated, but that’s cold enough for me to want to wrap my hands around a warm beverage. They say New Englanders are tough when it comes to cold weather. Well, not all of us are.
Luce knocked on the door ten minutes early. She wore a green quilted vest over dark blue flannel. Her hair was tucked up under a black beanie hat. Her eyes were bright and her face flushed. Two dobermans and a german shepherd stood patiently behind.
“Meet Candy, Peanut and Dolf. Guys, this is Sharon, but she prefers to be called Mort. She looks tough and she is. She knows tai kwon do.”
I did tai kwon do in college and for a couple years afterward. I was out of condition to say the least. I handed a travel mug to Luce.
She let the leash loops slide over her arm, cradled the mug with both hands, inhaled deeply and smiled. “Perfect.” As the dogs stepped closer, she said, “sorry boys, people treat.” She looked up at me. “Ready?”
I closed the door and turned the key all the while wondering what I was doing. Ready? For what? I got the feeling that for her this was some sort of delayed adolescent adventure. I guess I’d gotten all of that out of my system. Hell, I was normally in bed by 8:00 these days and getting up at 2:30. I didn’t have time for a night life.
On the street, Luce fixed me up with a flashlight-blinky-thing-armband and gave me Dolf’s lead. I thought dogs liked to sleep at night but these guys seemed content to be embarking on this nocturnal forray.
I’m not a natural dog lover. I respect all living creatures, but as a rule don’t have them as companions. Dolf respected that. We were two guys on a mission, and got along ok that way.
It’s the length of two commercial buildings and six houses up the highway from the coffee shop to the school grounds. Even though we label it Main Street at the intersection with Spring Street, the sidewalk ends with the last storefront. We walked in the narrow strip of gravel along the road bathed in the orangish glow of street lamps. The air was crisp and cool. I wished I’d thought of putting on a hat. It felt like my hematite ear cuffs were drilling icicles into my brain. My hands, one wrapped around the mug, the other in a jacket pocket, begged for mittens. My german shepherd companion seemed comfortable enough.
We lifted the chain across the driveway so that the dogs could pass under, then we stepped over. Luce paused and ordered the dogs to sit.
“Do you hear it?”
“Hear what?” All I heard were the dogs breathing and a click every so often from one of the leads, although that might have been my teeth chattering.
I tried hard. I identified gentle breezes flicking at the limbs of leafless trees, a few dead leaves skipping over the pavement, the distant whine of high speed tucks from the interstate, maybe a little late night tv. No music.
I looked at Dolf, silently asking if he heard the music. He looked at me, then Luce, then back at me. No, the shepherd didn’t hear it either.
The dobermans were a different matter. Their ears were perked up. They faced the old building up the hill their bodies at attention. They were hearing something.
“We’ll get closer. Then you’ll hear it.” The beam of her arm-mounted flashlight bounced off cracked pavement as she started up the driveway. Her dogs walked in the grass on either side of the drive.
I followed up the hill. Whatever Luce thought she heard, she must be enjoying it because she did a kind of skip and a hop to a beat that was silent to my ears. Maybe that’s what she meant by dancing with the dogs. It was a lot safer than what I’d imagined earlier.
The atmosphere at the top of the hill had an odd quality to it. Not electric, the kind that charges your hair and cackles, but with a subtle energy that makes your skin crawl just a little bit. There were no trees close to the red brick building so it seemed brighter than down on the tree-lined Main Street. Thin wispy clouds blotted and revealed the quarter moon. Although there were no street lights on the hill, nearby light pollution made all but the brightest stars invisible. I remember coming up here as a kid when people weren’t so afraid of the dark and reveling at the Milky Way, the constellations and the sky crammed with more stars than anyone could count. These days, I guess you’d have to go to Montana or someplace like that to see the glory of the night sky. You won’t find it anywhere in Connecticut any more.
We trudged across dew-laden weeds that grabbed at my jeans until we reached the gym side of the building. My toes squished with the water collecting in my sodden sneakers. Next time, if there would be such a thing, I’d wear wool socks and waterproof boots.
Modern buildings depend upon electricity for light so they don’t have the same kinds of windows as old buildings. Old buildings get their windows painted or bricked over as their interiors are repurposed and light from the good old sun is ignored. The gym windows, those that weren’t broken and boarded, were blackened with paint. On a dark night, looking into a darker building, there should be nothing to see. But there were subtle shadows playing over the dark apertures. It looked like shadows dancing to a silent rhythm. They were indistinct, dark grey light filtering through black. The way the shadows swayed, if I heard the music that Luce seemed to hear, I’d guess there was a dance going on within.
Our armband flashlights made tiny spots of light on the brickwork, but they were more to be seen than to see by. That light did not reach up to the windows, which from ground level were at about ten feet up. The dogs were interested in the wan light escaping from the windows.
I think that if I could have heard the music then, I’d have chalked the whole thing up to kids partying in the building and that would have been it. But Luce was clearly hearing something that I was not. And that gave me the creeps. Slowly, she came to the same conclusion, that the music was in her head only, and it began to worry her as well.
“No, it’s not just in your head,” I whispered. Things were getting too weird to talk in normal tones. I turned off my flashlight and indicated for her to do the same. “The dobies hear it too.”
She looked at her dogs, then mine. “Here, take Candy’s lead and give me Dolf’s.”
We exchanged leads. Dolf looked me. He thought the exercise was silly. Candy acted as if she was being sent to sit at the children’s table at Thanksgiving. As far as I could tell, Dolf and I were still not hearing the music. Candy was acting too pissy for me to determine whether she heard the tunes.
“Turn off your flashlight.”
I looked up at the windows. “Someone’s inside.” Without the extra light of the flashlights, it might bring out more details through the barely lit windows.
She looked confused, but complied. As her eyes adjusted to the even lower light level, she said, “Oh.” Then she looked back at me. I don’t think it had connected with her that sounds coming from within a building meant that there were people inside before now. It was too dark to be sure, but I think she was starting to feel frightened.
I, on the other hand, had experience with being in places I shouldn’t be for reasons that weren’t always noble. As I mentioned earlier, that was in my youth, well before my desire to go climbing corporate ladders. I enjoyed that stupid rush of fear and excitement. And, I am sad to say, I found that I still enjoyed it.
Luce stood circled by the three dogs. I gave her Candy’s lead, took the flashlight off my arm and held it so that I could better direct its glow when I wanted it. I walked closer to the building.
“What are you doing?” she asked, “We should get out of here.”
“Looking for a way in.” The first floor of the school was elevated so that the basement level was only half in the ground. The typical way in was to descend into one of the window wells and through one of the lower level windows. The passage of time had not been good to the glazing, and all of them were covered with plywood panels.
“Are you nuts?”
“You dragged me up here, Dr. Morgan, now I’m curious.” She was still a coward when it came to investigating things after dark.
“You don’t know what you might find.”
“That’s the point.” I was too nice to tell her not to be such a weenie. It’s working with sugary treats and beverages all day. It rubs off.
“You take the dogs and wait for me down on the street. I won’t be long. All I need to do is find out where they’re getting in.” Her presence now would only prevent me from doing the thing she’d brought me up here in this godforsaken cold to do.
“I have Officer Vinny’s private number.” I said he wasn’t my type. I never said that he didn’t like me.
The mention of potential police backup satisfied her. As she started to head down the hill, one dog decided to stay behind. Dolf. I think that made her feel better too.
Dolf and I checked all the basement windows around the building as the easiest to gain entrance. I knew from the seedier side of my youth that there would be at least one where the boards looked tight but weren’t. A youth would be able to swing a board away just enough to squeeze behind. I was older now, and about 20 pounds heavier. I ought to be able to get through. But not tonight. When I explored the interior, it would be without Luce, on my own schedule.
We found it below the old principal’s office, which, if I remembered correctly, would have been a classroom. When we were pranking, we went in a few windows down, through the boys’ bathroom. From the inside, it was easy enough to get one of the front doors open for our victims to enter when we were ready for them.
Dolf sniffed and I broke my fingernails on the loose, rotting boards. That this was the entrance seemed certain, although it didn’t feel like it had been used all that often. There could be others though. After finding one, I was content that I didn’t need to look for more. The dog was happy to leave too. I’m pretty sure it was past his bed time.
Luce and the two dobermans were pacing in tight circles just beyond the chain that protected the school grounds from vehicular traffic. She looked relieved to see us. I don’t know what she what thinking…that the boogey man was going to come after us? It was a decrepit building with creepy shit going on in or around it. What was there to be afraid of? Maybe the old place had become the home of some druggies or homeless people. Worse use could be made of the site.
“Well?” She kept her voice low and the dogs close.
“There’s a way in, not that hard to find.”
“Are you going to call the state police?”
“Not now. Maybe in the morning.”
I could just imagine that conversation. Hello? I was up walking around the old school grounds last night. My friend thought she heard music and I thought I saw some shadows through one of the windows. And, oh, the boards covering the window below the principal’s office are loose.
Nope. Wasn’t going to do that.
And then we heard it. Kids singing and doing a rather botched job of it too.
“…Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock…”
“…gonna rock around the clock…”
“Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. The sound wasn’t coming from the top of the hill, it was much closer and getting louder. I grabbed Luce’s leads and pulled her and the dogs into the shadow of a spruce tree in the Martin’s yard.
“One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock”
A gang of boys came down the driveway doing something between a hop and a dance step. They only seemed to know the one verse and weren’t always sure of the order of the lines. They might have been stoned, but didn’t look like it. They were high on something though.
“That’s Billy Martin” Luce whispered, “I just updated Mr. Bangle’s shots last week.”
“Shit,” I moved us further around the tree. If he was going home, I didn’t want him to see us hiding in his yard.
The front porch light came on.
“Is that you Billy?,” Mrs. Martin called, “You’re late.”
“I’m coming,” the youth called back. The other boys laughed.
“Get in here!”
“We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, around the clock”
Still butchering the song, the boys parted company and Billy went inside.
I wouldn’t have been a flag carrier with the high school band if I didn’t like music. I recognized the Bill Haley tune despite the awful rendition. It was a tune that made the gray hairs dance; today’s kids listened to a different kind of beat.
“That’s not the music I heard,” Luce tried to explain, “well, it was that style of music, I think, but it was professional, not kids singing for fun.” Luce was a flag carrier because her mom believed she needed to get out and be seen by the boys. Her heart had not been into the music at all.