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Old Central School still stood upright, holding its secrets and silences firmly within. Eighty-four years of chalkdust floated in the rare shafts of sunlight inside while the memories of more than eight decades of varnishings rose from the dark stairs and floors to tinge the trapped air with the mahogany scent of coffins. The walls of Old Central were so thick that they seemed to absorb sounds while the tall windows, their glass warped and distorted by age and gravity, tinted the air with a sepia tiredness.
Time moved more slowly in Old Central, if at all. Footsteps echoed along corridors and up stairwells, but the sound seemed muted and out of synch with any motion amidst the shadows.
The cornerstone of Old Central had been laid in 1876, the year that General Custer and his men had been slaughtered near the Little Bighorn River far to the west, the year that the first telephone had been exhibited at the nation's Centennial in Philadelphia far to the east. Old Central School was erected in Illinois, midway between the two events but far from any flow of history.
By the spring of 1960, Old Central School had come to resemble some of the ancient teachers who had taught in her: too old to continue but too proud to retire, held stiffly upright by habit and a simple refusal to bend. Barren herself, a fierce old spinster, Old Central borrowed other people's children over the decades.
Girls played with dolls in the shadows of her classrooms and corridors and later died in childbirth. Boys ran shouting through her hallways, sat in punishment through the growing darkness of winter afternoons in her silent rooms, and were buried in places never mentioned in their geography lessons: San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, Okinawa, Omaha Beach, Pork Chop Hill, and Inchon.
Originally Old Central had been surrounded by pleasant young saplings, the closer elms throwing shade on the lower classrooms in the warm days of May and September. But over the years the closer trees died and the perimeter of giant elms which lined Old Central's city block like silent sentinels grew calcified and skeletal with age and disease. A few were cut down and carted away but the majority remained, the shadows of their bare branches reaching across the playgrounds and playing fields like gnarled hands groping for Old Central herself.
Visitors to the small town of Elm Haven who left the Hard Road and wandered the two blocks necessary to see Old Central frequently mistook the building for an oversized courthouse or some misplaced county building bloated by hubris to absurd dimensions. After all, what function in this decaying town of eighteen hundred people could demand this huge three-story building sitting in a block all its own? Then the travelers would see the playground equipment and realize that they were looking at a school. A bizarre school: its ornate bronze and copper belfry gone green with verdigris atop its black, steep-pitched roof more than fifty feet above the ground; its Richardsonian Romanesque stone arches curling like serpents above twelve-foot-tall windows; its scattering of other round and oval stained-glass windows suggesting some absurd hybrid between cathedral and school; its Châteauesque, gabled roof dormers peering out above third-story eaves; its odd volutes looking like scrollworks turned to stone above recessed doors and blind-looking windows; and, striking the viewer most disturbingly, its massive, misplaced, and somehow ominous size. Old Central, with its three rows of windows rising four stories, its overhanging eaves and gabled dormers, its hipped roof and scabrous belfry, seemed much too large a school for such a modest town.
If the traveler had any knowledge of architecture at all, he or she would stop on the quiet asphalt street, step out of the car, gape, and take a picture.
But even as the picture was being snapped, an observant viewer would notice that the tall windows were great, black holes — as if they were designed to absorb light rather than admit or reflect it — and that the Richardsonian Romanesque, Second Empire, or Italianate touches were grafted onto a brutal and common style of architecture which might be described as Midwestern School Gothic, and that the final sense was not of a striking building, or even of a true architectural curiosity, but only of an oversized and schizophrenic mass of brick and stone capped with a belfry obviously designed by a madman.
A few visitors, ignoring or defying a growing feeling of unease, might make local inquiries or even go so far as drive to Oak Hill, the county seat, to look up records on Old Central. There they would find that the school had been part of a master plan eighty-some years earlier to build five great schools in the county — Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southeast, and Southwest. Of these, Old Central had been the first and only school constructed.
Elm Haven in the 1870s had been larger than it was now in 1960, thanks largely to the railroad (now in disuse) and a major influx of immigrant settlers brought south from Chicago by ambitious city planners. From a county population of 28,000 in 1875, the area had dwindled to fewer than 12,000 in the 1960 census, most of them farmers. Elm Haven had boasted 4,300 people in 1875 and Judge Ashley, the millionaire behind the settlement plans and the building of Old Central, had predicted that the town would soon pass Peoria in population and someday rival Chicago.
The architect Judge Ashley had brought in from somewhere back east — one Solon Spencer Alden — had been a student of both Henry Hobson Richardson and R.M. Hunt and his resultant architectural nightmare reflected the darker elements of the coming Romanesque Revival without the sense of grandeur or public purpose those Romanesque buildings might offer.
Judge Ashley had insisted — and Elm Haven had agreed — that the school would be built to accommodate the later, larger generations of schoolchildren which would be drawn to Creve Coeur County. Thus the building had housed not only K–6 classrooms but the high-school classrooms on the third floor — used only until the Great War — and sections which were meant to be used as the city library and even serve as space for a college when the need arrived.
No college ever came to Creve Coeur County or Elm Haven. Judge Ashley's great home at the end of Broad Avenue burned to the ground after his son went bankrupt in the Recession of 1919. Old Central remained an elementary school through the years, serving fewer and fewer children as people left the area and consolidated schools were built in other sections of the county.
The high-school level on the third floor became redundant when the real high school opened in Oak Hill in 1920. Its furnished rooms were closed off to cobwebs and darkness. The city library was moved out of the arched Elementary section in 1939, and the upper mezzanine of shelves stood largely empty, staring down at the few remaining students who moved through the darkened halls and too-broad stairways and basement catacombs like refugees in some long-abandoned city from an incomprehensible past.
Finally, in the fall of 1959, the new city council and the Creve Coeur County School District decided that Old Central had outlived its usefulness, that the architectural monstrosity — even in its eviscerated state — was too difficult to heat and maintain, and that the final 134 Elm Haven students in grades K–6 would be moved to the new consolidated school near Oak Hill in the fall of 1960.
But in the spring of 1960, on the last day of school, only hours before she would be forced into final retirement, Old Central School still stood upright, holding its secrets and silences firmly within.
Dale Stewart sat in his sixth-grade classroom in Old Central and was quietly certain that the last day of school was the worst punishment grown-ups had ever devised for kids.
Time had slowed worse than when he was in a dentist's office waiting, worse than when he was in trouble with his mom and had to wait for his dad to come home before punishment could be meted out, worse than ... It was bad.
The clock on the wall above Old Double-Butt's blue-dyed head said that it was 2:43 P.M. The calendar on the wall informed him that it was Wednesday, June 1, 1960, the last day of school, the last day that Dale and the others would ever have to suffer the boredom of being locked in the belly of Old Central, but to all intents and purposes time seemed to have stopped so completely that Dale felt that he was an insect stuck in amber, like the spider in the yellowish rock Father Cavanaugh had loaned Mike.
There was nothing to do. Not even schoolwork. The sixth graders had turned in their rented textbooks by one-thirty that afternoon, Mrs. Doubbet checking off their books and meticulously inspecting each for any damage ... although Dale failed to see how she could tell this year's damage from the years of outrage already suffered by the moldy text from previous renters ... and when that was finished, the classroom bizarrely empty even down to the bare bulletin boards and well-scrubbed wooden desks, Old Double-Butt had lethargically suggested that they read, even though school library books had been due the previous Friday at peril of not receiving the final report card.
Dale would have brought one of his books from home to read — perhaps the Tarzan book he had left open on the kitchen table at noon when he went home for lunch, or perhaps one of the ACE double-novel science fiction books he was reading — but though Dale read several books a week, he never thought of school as a place to read. School was a place to do worksheets, to listen to the teacher, and to give answers so simple that a chimp could have gleaned them from the textbooks.
So Dale and the other twenty-six sixth graders sat in the summer heat and high humidity as a storm darkened the skies outside and the already dim air in Old Central grew darker and summer itself seemed to recede as the clock froze its hands and the musty thickness of Old Central's interior lay on them like a blanket.
Dale sat in the fourth desk in the second row from the right. From where he sat he could see out past the cloakroom entrance into the dark hallway and just catch a glimpse of the door to the fifth-grade class where his best friend, Mike O'Rourke, also waited for the end of the school year. Mike was the same age as Dale ... was a month older actually ... but had been forced to repeat fourth grade so that for the past two years the friends had been separated by the abyss of an entire grade. But Mike had taken his failure to pass fourth grade with the same aplomb he showed toward most situations — he joked about it, continued to be a leader on the playground and among Dale's band of friends, and showed no malice toward Mrs. Grossaint, the old crone of a teacher who had failed him ... Dale was sure ... out of sheer malice.
Inside the classroom were some of Dale's other close friends: Jim Harlen on the front desk of the first row where Mrs. Doubbet could keep an eye on him. Now Harlen lounged with his head on his hands, eyes flicking about the room in the dance of hyperactivity Dale also felt but tried not to show. Harlen saw Dale watching and made a face, his mouth as elastic as Silly Putty.
Old Double-Butt cleared her throat and Harlen slumped back into submission.
In the row closest to the windows were Chuck Sperling and Digger Taylor — buddies, leaders, class politicians. Jerks. Dale didn't see Chuck and Digger much outside of school, except during the Little League games and practices. Behind Digger sat Gerry Daysinger in a torn and gray t-shirt. Everyone wore t-shirts and jeans outside of school, but only the poorest kids like Gerry and Cordie Cooke's brothers wore them to school.
Behind Gerry sat Cordie Cooke, moonfaced and placid with an expression somehow beyond stupidity. Her fat, flat face was turned toward the windows, but her colorless eyes seemed to see nothing. She was chewing gun — she was always chewing gum — but for some reason Mrs. Doubbet never seemed to notice or reprimand the girl for it. If Harlen or one of the other class cutups had chewed gum with such regularity, Mrs. D. probably would have suspended them for it ... but with Cordie Cooke it seemed a natural state. Dale did not know the word bovine, but an image of a cow chewing its cud often came to mind with Cordie.
Behind Cordie, in the last occupied desk of the window row, in almost shocking contrast, sat Michelle Staffney. Michelle was immaculate in a soft green shirt and pressed tan skirt. Her red hair caught the light and even from across the room Dale could see the freckles standing out against her pale, almost translucent skin.
Michelle looked up from her book as Dale stared and although she did not smile, the faintest hint of recognition was enough to get the eleven-year-old boy's heart pounding.
Not all of Dale's friends were in this room. Kevin Grumbacher was in fifth grade — legitimately, since he was nine months younger than Dale. Dale's brother, Lawrence, was in Mrs. Howe's third-grade class on the first floor.
Dale's friend Duane McBride was here. Duane — twice as heavy as the next-chubbiest kid in the class — filled his seat in the third desk in the center row. He was busy, as always, writing something in the worn spiral notebook he dragged around with him. Duane's unruly brown hair stuck up in tufts and he adjusted his glasses with an unconscious movement as he frowned at whatever he was writing and went back to work. Despite the temperature in the high eighties, Duane wore the same heavy flannel shirt and baggy corduroy trousers he had worn all winter. Dale could never remember having seen Duane in jeans or a t-shirt, despite the fact that the heavier boy was a farm kid ... Dale and Mike and Kevin and Jim and most of the others were city kids ... and Duane had to do chores.
Dale fidgeted. It was 2:49 P.M. The school day ended, for some abstruse reason involving bus schedules, at 3:15.
Dale stared at the portrait of George Washington on the front wall and wondered for the ten thousandth time that year why the school authorities would put up a print of an unfinished painting. He stared at the ceiling, fourteen feet above the floor, and at the ten-foot-high windows along the far wall. He looked at the boxes of books on the empty shelves and wondered what would happen to the texts. Would they be shipped to the consolidated school? Burned? Probably the latter since Dale couldn't imagine such ancient, moldy books in the brand-new school his parents had driven him by.
Two-fifty P.M. Twenty-five minutes before summer really began, before freedom reigned.
Dale stared at Old Double-Butt. The name did not come to mind with any malice or derision; she had always been Old Double-Butt. For thirty-eight years Mrs. Doubbet and Mrs. Duggan had shared the teaching of sixth grade — originally in adjoining classrooms and then, when the population of students had declined about the time Dale was born, sharing the same class — Mrs. Doubbet teaching reading and composition and social studies in the morning, Mrs. Duggan teaching math and science and spelling and penmanship in the afternoon.
The pair had been the Mutt and Jeff, the humorless Abbott and Costello of Old Central — Mrs. Duggan thin and tall and twitchy, Mrs. Doubbet short and fat and slow, their voices almost opposite in timbre and tone, their lives intertwined — living in adjacent old Victorian homes on Broad Avenue, attending the same church, taking courses in Peoria together, taking vacations in Florida together, two incomplete persons somehow joining their skills and deficiencies to create one well-rounded individual.
Then, in this final year of Old Central's domination, Mrs. Duggan had taken ill just before Thanksgiving. Cancer, Mrs. O'Rourke had told Dale's mother in a soft voice she thought the boys would not overhear. Mrs. Duggan had not returned to class after Christmas vacation but rather than have some interloper fill the afternoon hours, confirming the seriousness of Mrs. Duggan's illness, Mrs. Doubbet had taught the courses she despised, "just until Cora returns," while nursing her friend — first in the tall pink house along Broad, then in the hospital — until one morning even Old Double-Butt had not appeared, there was a sixth-grade substitute teacher for the first time in four decades, and word was whispered around the playground that Mrs. Duggan had died. It was the day before Valentine's Day.
Excerpted from "Summer of Night"
Copyright © 2011 Dan Simmons.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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