The door to the mop closet swung open. Hank flinched, pressing back against the racks of bleach and paint thinner, rattling the cans. He lifted his arm, shielding his eyes from the fluorescent glare. Silhouetted in the doorway stood the boy, with his bulky vest and all that steel. Pale-faced, firm-eyed, holding one hand to his side where a bullet had found its way. The boy regarded him for a breathless time and then sighed a familiar fatigue. He withdrew a note from his vest that he said, calmly, would explain it all. The boy held out the note, telling Hank to share it with the others so they would understand. As Hank crept forward to take the note, the light from the hallway fell across his face and outstretched arm. The boy shut the door. There came one last, loud pop. Hank folded the note with shaking hands and tucked it into his clean shirt pocket.
The seasons unfurled as always. The students coming to school in the morning. Almost never cleaning up after themselves. Reminding him time and again with their cruelties that the most awful to ever walk among them had been the only one to truly see him. Hank ate his lunch each day in the mop closet, chewing roast beef and mayonnaise while reading the words again and again. Poring over the fastidious penmanship pinched between thin blue lines on paper torn from some perforating spine. Traveling into the curlicues and scratches of ink.
Twenty years spooled out across the hallway floors, traced in the broad sweeps of Hank’s mop. The faces around him changed, variations on a theme, not just the students but the teachers and the administration, until only a few who had been there remained. He felt himself some aging player in a symphony. Perhaps an oboist. He admired that deep and anchoring sound, singling it out whenever he lay on his sofa listening to the radio.
One morning he swept the autumn leaves around the memorial plaque in the garden out behind the school. He leaned on his broom upon finishing, regarding the stone. Chipped and gnawed by the elements, it still bore its message. He touched his left chest pocket, where the yellowing note kept time. The principal, seeing him, walked over. Head bent before the marble like a fractured bone, she put her hand on his arm. She wished she understood why, and did Hank ever think they could?
Upon retiring he cashed out his pension, sold most of his belongings, and purchased a camper van. He placed the note in the glove compartment. Winters in these low lands gave him a barren feeling and so after the summer, while the children returned to those echoing halls, he set out for the mountainous west, settling in National Parks for days at a time along the way. He allowed for no plan, only the campfire flickering before him, the open door of the RV warming him with transmissions of Brahms and Haydn, and the stars wheeling overhead, waiting patiently for all of this to stitch together into meaning. He read the note. Sometimes even aloud to the animals of the forest. He knew it by heart but the paper in his hands felt like a guide.
He found a parcel of land in a rusty corner and nested there, far from people. The radio worked intermittently. Much of his time was spent meditating upon the antenna, making the slightest adjustments and meanwhile filling in the blank spaces and the static with sketches of memory. He wrote his own note, with excruciating care, pausing for minutes or hours or sometimes even days before committing the next word to paper, awed at the immensity of weaving so many disparate threads into anything approaching cohesion, let alone harmony. He burned his note and began again and then burned this one.
He lay listening to the radio one night when the transistor short- circuited. He did not replace it. The rhythm of his days measured now by the stars, forgotten constellations that presented an unalterable order. The fixed tapestry only ever marred by some arcing star or satellite, quickly passing strangers that left no trace of themselves in their wake, just fleeting sensation. Spiders anchored their lives to the antenna.
In the last December of his life, with the Geminid meteors flickering through the sky overhead, he lay blind upon the ground. When the coughs seized his body he clutched the dirt in one hand, the frayed and illegible note in the other. Through the clouds encasing him he felt himself dissolve into the pattern that wound through his bones and tissue. He moved through the words as though they were rosary beads, feeling his way through all the passageways they mapped. At their center, he knew, he would find a room, and when the door opened it would be for him and him alone.
Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland, Oregon home. He has been published in Nailed Magazine, and The MAPS Quarterly Bulletin. Currently, he’s revising a novella. It’s a total disaster. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.