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The Value of Data

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I wanted to post this earlier, but I needed more information first. It was creepy and I wanted to make sure I had all my facts straight.

I’m a data manager for a local Early Childhood program, this means I work with a database and parse information as people need. Copying data into spreadsheets, graphing, writing analysis on the state of this or that aspect of the program, and having to help prepare comprehensive documents for my boss to use when talking with very important people (School district Superintendent, Board of Education, Reporters, etc.) What I do not do is directly manage the database or its servers. While I have some high-level controls I can’t mess with the underlying code. That job is contracted out to a company on the other side of the country and if there is a bug in the system or a dependency is unclear I have to contact them to get everything straightened out.

Usually the problems are routine and I can get an answer back right away, however...

It was a couple of months ago I noticed something odd while compiling the usual monthly program report. The Tucker building was over enrolled by one child, not necessarily a cause for a freak out. A problem like this is pretty routine and usually due to a family leaving the program and their assigned social worker not removing them from the system while at the same time another family is brought in. So I checked for the most obvious signs of a family being terminated, and nothing. So I checked the enrollment list for the past 30 days. No extra child had been enrolled since.

I knew I needed to find out which child was the extra, so I checked the number of children enrolled in each class. 20 each. Every room. Completely normal. Starting to feel like the computer was mocking me I went back to the full site report and clicked the enrollment number, bringing me to the full report. Copied that out to an excel column, went to each class individually and copied their roster to the next column, and then subtracted names from the second column on the first. I was left with one name: Marryanne Watts.

So I went back to the database and searched for Ms. Watts. Found her information. Standard stuff name, address, social, contact numbers, race, program options. However there were two things that were abnormal: Her birth date was listed as October 14th 1990, and she was listed as enrolled in Tucker, but no classroom was listed. Okay, the former weirdness you probably get since that was nearly two decades before information systems became ubiquitous, but let me explain the second: when a child enrolls the system requires certain information to be entered or it kicks back an error popup and tells you to fix your shit. The Site/Class pairing is one of those requirements.
Ghost in the Machine

Feeling at a loss I emailed the registration team and Tucker’s director and asked if they could identify Marryanne. The responses came at different times, but neither knew of the girl or could find any information on her or her family. It was probably just a glitch and I sent in a help ticket to the database support team. Most likely they were doing some maintenance on our database and another program’s database and something slipped (how? I don’t know, but it was the best theory I had at the time).

Someone had to type all that information and the initial enrollment is such a pain in the ass that I didn't want the person to have to do it again, and having personal information like that just moving around is a violation of federal law and could cost us or another program its federal funding if it was discovered and I didn't want that to happen because an overworked tech wrote a bad line of code.

The customer service team for our database management company has always been amazing. Usually I get a response within an hour or two and fixes are done within 24 hours. That is unless the issue needs to be sent off to the development team... and guess where a problem like a strange entry defying the programmed restrictions needs to go. Yup the CS person that got my ticket saw it, said it was “really strange” and told me they would need to “forward this to development.” Crap.

Over a week went by with a message from the CS team every few days saying that they were still waiting for a response from Development, but the ticket was still open and they would let me know what happened. I had nearly forgotten about the whole mess when an email popped up saying that the “Development team could see it when logged in like a regular user, but haven’t had any luck finding it in the system itself.” They called it a strange problem and suggested I try deleting the information on my end since they can’t do that themselves because of a policy against chaining clients data without express permission. I went to the account hit “Delete Profile,” for the reason I selected “Entry Error,” clicked “OK” and it brought me right back to the profile, completely intact. I was dumbfounded. I tried several more times. Nothing.

I don’t know what exactly compelled me to do it, but I hit print. I guess I just wanted to see if the damn thing would print normally, or if it would print ancient runes that would summon the anti-christ. The information printed out exactly like it should have. I updated the support ticket thread with my finding and how I couldn't delete, but still could print. The CS response, “Will forward this information to Development.” Goddammit. “Thank you for your patience.”

Another couple of weeks went by with only a few “reassuring” emails from CS saying the matter was still being investigated. Fortunately enough there was a meeting that afternoon I had to attend at the Tucker building, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it (in retrospect I’m not really sure why I thought there would have been anything illuminating at the site itself, but I was going to grasp at any straw I could).

I got there early, and as usual no one was manning the inside reception desk so I just walked right into the main hallway. I would report the lack of attendance and unlocked door to my boss as soon as I saw her (I swear the children are still totally safe though, the teaching and social work staff is very engaged and responsible).

The building layout is somewhat reassuring and unnerving at the same time. The classrooms themselves are nice, well illuminated by big windows, however the hallways connecting them are very sealed off. Almost like the inside of an underground war bunker. Every room has big heavy doors. The walls are white with occasional poster boards of children’s work, and the hallways twist around the building in a very weird way. Combined with the low ceiling (Only about 10 feet from the ground) and lack of windows there is a distinct sense of claustrophobia in those halls. If danger was outside you would probably be safe there, if danger was inside and the doors were locked you would be extremely screwed. Forget Jack Torrence, I wouldn't even want to encounter Jack Nicholson in there.

And so it's without a guard at his post and thoughts of a crazed ax murderer in my head I decided to go snooping around a building's claustrophobic halls for information on a strange phenomenon that no one could explain. Did I mention that I’m not all that bright?

Completely contrary to my expectations I managed to find something. The doors are pretty evenly spaced. Classrooms and offices are located on the edge of the building so they can have windows to the outside, and maintenance closets, bathrooms, storerooms, and some conference rooms are through doors leading to the center of the structure. However there was a gap. Where a door should be there was just painted wall. I don’t know why I did it, but I started picking away at the paint. Keeping my ears open for the slightest sound of someone approaching and darting my head in both directions to keep checking, because that totally wouldn't have looked suspicious...

The paint started to crumble extremely quickly, and beneath it I noticed a window. It was too dark to see though I tried using my cell camera to take a picture, but the flash just reflected off the glass. No one was coming so I quickly (and extremely stupidly) decided to rip the rest of the paint off. It was an old wooden door. From the 60’s or 70’s it looked like. Probably from the time the building was constructed. It had a single square window at the top, but no doorknob just a metal plate to push the door open. I tried pushing it, but it was stuck. It just didn't want to budge. Must have been years of paint and assorted crap keeping it stuck. I pushed as hard as I could and eventually whatever was jamming the door got knocked loose. I heard the crumble of paint and the creak of the door as it swung open.

Stepping inside nearly caused me to vomit. The smell of mold, and dust was bad enough, but there was also something else. I couldn't put my finger on it, but damn was it a foul smell. You’re probably wondering why I didn't just run out of their immediately and get help. Well...me too. I decided to explore this place just to see what it was. I took out my cellphone which has a flashlight app on it (it just keeps the camera flash LED on, and drains my battery). On the wall there were pipes. It was also big with several small open sub rooms. The floor was concrete, but otherwise unremarkable. Whatever was in here was cleaned out long ago. Most of the subrooms were the same. Aside from some dust and shavings on the ground not a thing remained. It was a bit uncomfortable there in the dark so I decided to leave. It was then I heard something, like a nervous giggle. As I moved my flashlight to the source of the sound. I saw a little girl, and she vanished. There is no expletive that truly describes what base emotions coursed through my blood, but needless to say I turned to GTFO ASAP. But just as I started my far too prolonged exodus my stomach felt like it was imploding. I fell to my knees. I knew this feeling, it was hunger.

Once when I was younger I slept in too late I skipped breakfast before a baseball game. During the middle of the game my stomach started to feel like it was eating itself. I had to be rushed home and quickly given food. I never forgot to eat again, and I never forgot that pain.

But here it was again. It subsided after a few minutes and I heard a distant sobbing. I had a feeling that trying to leave was not going to be an option, so I went deeper into this rabbit hole. I investigated the final subrooms and in the last one in the back I found what appeared to be a small blackened mass on the floor. I had to hold my nose the smell was so bad. I didn't need or want to turn it over. I knew what it was. The shape of the limbs, torso, head. This was a human corpse. I didn't know what to do. I was obviously here for a reason, and I wouldn't be let go until I did something. I grabbed the small bottle of water I had with me (one of those little pod dealies) and while holding my breath splashed the water in a cross over the body. “Requiem in Terra Pax,” I said as I crossed myself.

The air suddenly got lighter, though the foul smell remained. I was allowed to leave found the director and my boss just sitting down for the meeting, and I explained what I found. Phone calls were made and the authorities came to take the body for proper identification and burial. The school was closed for investigation and disinfecting, although parents were told there was a problem with a gas pipe.

My boss thankfully kept me in the loop. The girl was Marryanne Watts, and she attended the program back in the early 90’s. Before the building was renovated she disappeared, everyone thought that she ran out of the building when no one was watching. Her teacher and the site director at the time both lost their jobs and the school district had to pay some hefty compensation to the family, and change all the doors in the building to the heavy ones it has now. The old room will be renovated and converted into a temporary storage room for the time being.

As for the entry in the database it disappeared. I informed the CS team that the data had vanished and I set the support ticket to “Closed.” The only remaining evidence was the form I printed out. I looked at it for a few minutes and walked it over to the shredder, as I watched the paper go down I whispered, “I hope you have found peace.”

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