Ms. Hanson is quitting her job at the end of the school year. She’s only taught fourth grade for three years, but she’s already had enough. She’s had enough of the clueless administrators who’ve never set foot inside a classroom telling her how to do her job. She’s had enough of the brainless, irresponsible and self-righteous parents refusing to punish their spawn even when they hit their teachers or trash the classrooms. Most of all she’s had enough of the violent, thieving, vandalizing, foul-mouthed and ungrateful little brats that fill Winterfield Elementary. In its youth the school had suffered through a number of rat and cockroach infestations, but as far as Ms. Hanson is concerned the diseased vermin never left: they just got bigger and learned to talk back.
She was enthusiastic in the beginning, anxious to help young kids grow and develop. Now she’s thankful that her husband divorced her before she could get pregnant. She never smiles at children and never speaks kindly to them, so it’s no surprise when she frowns at little Zack Tobin as he pokes his head through the classroom door.
Ms. Hanson is a pretty woman of twenty-five, but her eyes are cold and blue and can freeze children into little terror-stricken statues. For this particular boy she has a very special, extra mean frown where her eyes almost vanish into tiny blue slits and the lines in her smooth face suddenly cut so deep that she ages another fifty years. Zack Tobin is confident that she hates him more than anything in the world.
Ms. Hanson is still reading to the class about Paul Revere. She stops in the middle of her sentence and snaps, “You’ve been gone for fifteen minutes!”
Zack opens his mouth to explain, but she doesn’t let him. She tells him to sit down and stay in his seat after the bell rings.
Yvette Lewis snickers. Timmy Morris whispers something to the boy next to him. All eyes are on Zack as he slinks down the right-most aisle to his seat directly in front of Ms. Hanson’s desk. She moved him there the first day of school so she could keep a closer eye on him at all times: last year Mrs. Wright had told her about his enrollment in the gifted program, which means he isn’t quite right in the head. He’d heard Mrs. Wright say so in the office once.
Zack plops into his seat and stares at his desktop with his hands in his lap. Ms. Hanson has her students take turns reading from their history books out loud until the end of class. Everyone is out the door and down the hall before the bell has finished ringing.
Everyone but Zack.
Ms. Hanson spends a few minutes organizing the children’s papers, like she always does at the end of the day. Zack knows this because she’s kept him after school roughly twice a week since the start of the school year for drawing in class, not paying attention, talking to other kids, or asking questions that she didn’t like. When she’s finished she sighs, rubs her eyes, then finally looks up from her work and leans forward with her hands together at the center of the desk. She doesn’t speak for five long seconds.
“Do you want to lose your bathroom privileges?” she says.
Zack shakes his head. “No, Ma’am.”
“This is the second time you’ve abused them. Where exactly do you go when you say you need to go to the bathroom?”
“And do you know that there is a bathroom right up the hall? Or do you walk all the way home and use your own?”
Zack’s eyes fall back to his desktop.
“You better answer me,” she says, “before I kick your butt up to the principal’s office.”
The boy tries to make eye contact and fails. “I don’t like that bathroom,” he finally says.
“You don’t like it? What is that supposed to mean? Just where exactly do you relieve yourself, then?”
“I used the bathroom in Mrs. Wright’s hall last time. Skip was cleanin’ it today, so I went to the one in the auditorium.”
Ms. Hanson covers her face and sighs again. “Zack,” she says in a softer tone, “you go in, you do your business, and you leave. You don’t have to like anything about where you do it so long as you do it and stop disrupting my class!”
Zack looks up at Ms. Hanson with eyes like a five-year-old freshly wakened from a nightmare. It’s a look the teacher is unprepared for and her anger vanishes for a moment.
“The noises scare me,” Zack says. “I don’t like goin’ in there.”
“In the wall. Scratchin’. And other stuff.”
Ms. Hanson heard the stories about the infestations in her student teaching days. She’d researched that period out of curiosity and found photographs that still make her shudder in remembrance. Tiny armies of goose bumps crawl across Ms. Hanson’s skin.
“What kind of ‘other stuff?’” she asks.
Zack’s face turns white like he’s about to fade away before her eyes. He says nothing. Ms. Hanson sighs.
She leads him to the boys’ bathroom up the hall and around the corner and goes inside. It’s a regular public school bathroom: two long white tile walls, a large multi-user sink and a mirror along one, four urinals and two cubicles along the other. Ritchie Sawyer is standing at the nearest urinal. He looks over his shoulder, sees Ms. Hanson, zips up and runs out the door with a wet spot on the front of his pants.
The bathroom is empty now. Nothing looks or feels or smells out of place.
“I don’t hear anything, Zack,” Ms. Hanson says.
Zack says nothing. He refuses to step beyond arm’s reach of the door.
“Where do you usually hear the noises?” Ms. Hanson says.
Zack points to the furthest wall. A single tile has fallen out of place, leaving a fist-sized square hole in the wall two feet up from the floor. Ms. Hanson walks to the back of the bathroom, kneels down and peeks through the hole. It’s pitch dark on the other side.
Ms. Hanson sends Zack home, then tells Principal Sinclair about the hole, igniting one of his longwinded stories about the history of the building.
Afterward she packs up her things, digs a drawing out of her desk that Zack made during lecture (instead of paying attention) and heads across campus to give it to Miss Wiley before going home — an insistent request made by Mr. and Mrs. Tobin when they learned Ms. Hanson had been throwing them out.
She’s quick about it because she hates talking to the bubbly art teacher for more than a minute, especially about the drawing being delivered.
“He’s a creative boy,” Miss Wiley had said once, “and that imagination of his can get out of control. He needs a healthy artistic outlet.”
“That’s what our counselor told me,” Ms. Hanson had replied, “about a boy in my class who went to the office for exposing himself at recess.”
Ms. Hanson glances down at this drawing instinctively as she drops it on the art teacher’s desk. Nothing but a lattice of ugly black lines forming a series of white squares. One square right in the middle has been covered with two thick coats of black crayon. A yellow circle sits in the middle of the black square, only partly colored in. Normally a child’s scribbles fill Ms. Hanson with pity or amusement when she can’t figure out what she’s looking at; Zack Tobin’s drawings fill her with unease instead. Ms. Hanson has a brief word with Miss Wiley — very brief — then goes home, grades her papers, fixes dinner for one, and reads until bedtime.
She’s grateful when the weekend comes. She gets her grading out of the way Saturday morning and spends the day in her garden, grooming the flowers and napping in the sun.
On Monday Zack goes on two bathroom breaks during class, and comes back within three minutes both times. Ms. Hanson is relieved to see the boy has grown up enough to use the hall bathroom again. Even better, she never has to scold him for anything all day.
Ms. Hanson realizes he hasn’t made eye contact with her all day: even during lecture he simply stares zombie-like at his desk. She recognizes the guilty look on his face and wonders if he’s done something bad that she’d somehow missed.
At second recess Ms. Hanson rummages through Zack Tobin’s desk for anything incriminating. His textbooks are all there, most of them dog-eared and carelessly crammed into the lower shelf. She wedges a comic book out from between the history and reading books — one she told him twice before to leave at home — and tosses it on her desk.
The upper shelf holds a battered box of worn-out crayons. A crumpled sheet of drawing paper has been jammed into the back along with handfuls of other junk, which Ms. Hanson takes the liberty of clearing out. She un-crumples the paper out of curiosity and finds another unfinished drawing on it.
Something in the pit of her stomach squirms.
Two figures scribbled in black and brown, a small and pathetic one wadded up in the arms of a larger one. The latter is gangly and crooked like a dead tree and has long, dark scribbles on its head to represent a woman’s hair. Its face wears a gnarled, toothy smile drawn from ear to ear, and the eyes are yellow and uneven with tiny black specks at the center. It looks like something that was going to be human and then missed its mark at the last minute. The background is colored in with black, but he ran out of crayon near the bottom-right corner, which is still white.
Three minutes slip by unnoticed.
“What’re you doing?” Mrs. Tanita says from the classroom door.
Ms. Hanson nearly screams. “Don’t sneak up on me like that,” she says as Mrs. Tanita giggles. “What do you want?”
“I need to borrow your three-hole punch.”
Ms. Hanson shoves the drawing in the trash and gives her three-hole puncher to her neighbor. “Was Zack Tobin acting weird in Science today?” she asks.
Mrs. Tanita shakes her head. “No more than usual. Why?”
“It’s probably nothing,” Ms. Hanson says. Mrs. Tanita smiles again and leaves.
At the end of the day Ms. Hanson tells Zack that she cleaned out his desk for him, then gives his comic back and tells him not to bring it to school again. He nods, saying nothing, and heads for the door. He neither looks nor asks for the drawing she threw away.
Ms. Hanson has a bad dream Monday night. It scares her enough that she damns Zack Tobin to hell for it.
She remembers a blanket of darkness enveloping her. The bitter stench of urine, mold, and dust were so crisp and clear that she swears she was actually in the horrid place and not dreaming at all. She remembers her eyes adjusting just enough to see wrinkled cavern walls. She remembers the cold air wrapping its depraved arms around her, fondling her skin as a wave of greasy fur and needly paws ran across her hands and feet.
Her eyes fully adjusted to the shadows at one point near the end, and that’s when she heard the sounds: clumps of earth trickling onto the ground and the muffled grating of nails against dirt and stone. The wall ahead of her was crumbling at the center. She’d moved in to get a closer look as a fist-sized hole formed. She’d peered into the blackness beyond.
The voice came about then, sweet and gleeful like an old woman welcoming her grandchildren. And something yellow and evil peered back at her through the hole and brought her sleep to a screeching halt at 3 A.M.
Ms. Hanson’s ears are ringing, but she doesn’t remember screaming.
All day Tuesday Ms. Hanson is in an awful mood. She’d barely had five hours of sleep because of the dream, and she’s developed a headache that refuses to go away. She’s not civil with anyone, child or adult. She starts by giving Mr. Snyder a nasty glare in the teacher’s lounge, and mutters something regrettable to him when he asks sarcastically if anything interesting happened yesterday.
Yvette Lewis titters with a classmate during lecture and Ms. Hanson gets right in her face and threatens to send her to detention if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut. Yvette is quiet and teary-eyed until the bell rings, and Mrs. Tanita finds her bawling about it at recess.
Ms. Hanson has two more incidents like this before second recess, and when the children come back in they’re too scared to do much of anything without her permission. Timmy Morris doesn’t come back at all and goes straight to the principal’s office instead.
After granting Zack’s request for a bathroom break (just like clockwork) Ms. Hanson gives everyone a reading assignment if only to get a little peace and quiet. She finally begins to relax, but her headache has returned in full force. She leaves the children to go to the nurse’s office for some aspirin. The nurse is up the hall and around the corner, just past the bathrooms.
She makes it as far as the drinking fountain two classrooms up the hall.
“What,” she hisses, “the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Zack Tobin is frozen like a tasteless statue. He stands on his tiptoes at the drinking fountain with his hands at his crotch, in the midst of unzipping his pants. His eyes bulge until they strain out raging rivers of tears. He begins to cry.
It’s the last straw. Ms. Hanson grabs his wrist and drags him around the corner like a squealing suitcase. She throws open the boys’ room door, then just as effortlessly bowls Zack inside.
“Don’t come out until you grow up!” she shrieks, and slams the door. She holds it closed for a minute and listens to his panicked whines and his little fists banging against the other side. It only infuriates her more. Then he cries and snivels for another minute, and finally he goes quiet.
Ms. Hanson realizes at that point that clusters of children are standing at the classroom doors all along the length of the hallway, watching her with horrified and confused looks on their faces. Some of them are accompanied by their equally shocked and bewildered teachers.
Ms. Hanson feels herself shrink to about three inches high. She clears her throat and diverts her eyes elsewhere, continuing down the hall to the nurse’s office.
Ms. Hanson has left her class unattended for a little over ten minutes, and the hallway is now thankfully deserted. On her way back from the nurse’s office she stops outside the boys’ room door and wonders if Zack Tobin is still cowering in there. The memory of how he refused to look her in the eye yesterday delivers a sharp kick to her stomach and convinces her to check on him.
She opens the door a crack and pokes her head inside. “Zack,” she says gently. “Sweetie, are you still here?”
Grainy shuffling like sandy boots on concrete. Then silence.
Ms. Hanson leans further inside and starts to call again when she hears a sob. She steps slowly inside until she has a full view of the bathroom. The back wall grabs her immediate attention: it has somehow partly collapsed, forming a gaping black hole two feet wide and high. Broken wall tiles and flakes of plaster are scattered on the floor at the mouth.
Another sob. More shuffling.
Ms. Hanson stands stiff at the door much like Zack did the previous week. She swallows a lump in her throat and steps toward the cubicles, pushing the doors inward and finding both deserted.
Something moves inside the wall, just inside the hole. Ms. Hanson gets goose bumps again as the stench of sewage and decay creeps into her nostrils. She’s certain no little boy would hide in a scary place like that.
Ms. Hanson steps over to the mouth of the little cave and kneels down to peer inside. Just how far does it go? Her eyes can’t adjust, but it seems to be a long, wide space crudely dug out of the plaster and concrete between two classrooms. The walls of the “cave” and the loose tiles scattered on the floor bear hideous chisel-like scratch marks.
More movement directly ahead, and another sob in Zack Tobin’s voice. Ms. Hanson peers into the darkness and can almost see a form thrashing and struggling inside.
“Zack, where are you?” Ms. Hanson says.
She’s about to crawl in after him when she hears the laugh. Feminine, gleeful, and very close.
Two huge yellow eyes and a gnarled, toothy grin dimly reflect the bathroom light, staring at her from the shadows like a nightmarish Cheshire Cat. Ms. Hanson is grabbing for the bathroom door handle moments later.
There are three children and seven faculty members in the office, including Principal Sinclair and Mr. Snyder, when Ms. Hanson bursts through the doors. She babbles and screams and bawls, violently flailing her arms. Her eyes are intense red and flowing wet and unblinking. She tries to explain what happened to Zack Tobin in the boys’ room. She tries, but only gibberish comes out. Mr. Snyder and two others pin her onto the bench by the front desk until she calms down.
Ms. Hanson’s eyes roll around in their sockets, and then she faints. Sinclair tells the secretary to call an ambulance. One of the children is crying.
Ms. Hanson becomes a permanent resident at the North Hill Psychiatric Center. No one ever knows what happened to Zack Tobin: whenever someone asks Ms. Hanson she shakes her head violently, covers her eyes and hyperventilates until she faints. She never speaks again, and outright refuses to go into any bathroom.
Principal Sinclair finds the hole in the boys’ room and has a carpenter hastily seal it up. Life goes on at Winterfield Elementary as if nothing happened.
Written by Mike MacDee