It was a crisp night in the middle of October 2019, and Marshall Fields Elementary School was buzzing with activity. Back-to-school night was winding down, and after hours of sitting in tiny chairs and listening to what special plans the teachers had in store for their children, the parents and guardians were getting restless. The bell rang to a chorus of laughs, and the oversized guests made their way down narrow hallways to the reception in the cafeteria, where the PTA had set up a complimentary spread, with t-shirts and hats for sale.
Bill and Sarah Stowe surveyed the room, watching couples bump into each other for the first time since last year and remind each other which children they belonged to.
“Do you want a brownie? Let me get you a brownie,” Bill said. Sarah smiled a reserved smile, and he headed off towards the dessert table. Sarah looked down at the schedule of events, which she had nervously folded down into a small square. As she unfolded it, trying to read what was next on the agenda, an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
“Attention, all. Please take a look at your child’s schedule and info sheet—you will find there an assigned time slot and classroom number for your parent teacher conference. Remember these are quick check-ins and you can always schedule an in-depth conference for another time by calling Ms. Sellers in the main office. And please, a round of applause for our brilliant PTA and this lovely reception.”
A soft but enthusiastic applause broke out as parents clapped for the volunteers around handfuls of treats and paper cups full of powder-based lemonade. Bill walked up behind Sarah and gave her a tentative kiss on the cheek.
“Here you go, honey,” he said, offering her a napkin with a treat. “They were out of brownies so I got you a blondie.”
“I’m not hungry,” Sarah said. Bill shrugged and popped the blondie into his mouth. “I’m worried about our parent teacher conference, Bill. We didn’t get assigned a time slot or a classroom number.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Bill, swallowing laboriously as he crumpled up and threw out his napkin. “Let’s just go to the third grade floor and I’m sure we’ll find Teddy’s teacher.”
The couple worked their way through the crowd towards the stairway. “Why are people staring at us?” Sarah asked. She gripped the schedule in her hands, twisting it into an even tighter and more unreadable shape.
“No one’s staring, honey,” said Bill, his hand on her back, ushering her towards the stairs. “We’ll go right home after we hear how Teddy’s doing so far this year.”
Upstairs, everything was much quieter. Third grade parents made their way in and out of classrooms. Some stood in the hallway delighting over the bulletin board displaying first-day-of-school photos of their little ones. At the end of the school year, the teachers would put up last-week-of-school photos for comparison.
“Let’s go look for Teddy’s picture,” Bill suggested.
“No, no,” protested Sarah. “I don’t want to miss our slot. I think this might be the room right here.” She took his hand and pulled him into an unoccupied, well-decorated classroom. “We’ll just wait in here for the teacher,” she said. She pulled two chairs to the front of the room across from the teacher desk and sat. Bill joined her. They stayed there in silence for a long while until someone finally appeared at the door.
“Knock, knock…Who’s there!” A jovial man in a green sweater and a paisley bowtie laughed his way into the room. He sat down in his chair and smiled a big, excited smile. “So, let’s talk about your little student…”
“Teddy,” Sarah filled in the blank.
“Yes, of course, Teddy. He’s doing great in math, he just gets tripped up on his times tables, but nothing a bit of practice can’t fix.”
“We were actually wondering more about how he’s doing—”
“Oh, you know what,” interrupted the teacher, “I have to run and get his file from the teachers’ lounge. I can be so forgetful sometimes. I’ll be right back!”
“Wait a minute,” said Sarah, but the bubbly teacher quickly scampered down the hall towards the lounge. “This is so unacceptable, Bill. We only get limited time! We need to know how Teddy is doing in class.”
“I know, dear, I know. Don’t worry, he’ll be right back.” They waited again for what seemed like a long time. Bill got up and paced the classroom. More and more parents were saying their goodnights in the hallway. Sarah looked out the window. There was a line of traffic in the parking lot as couples headed home to their children. She dug her nails into the schedule, now warped into a little ball. A woman in high heels and a neck scarf walked by the classroom.
“Excuse me!” Bill blurted out to catch her attention. “We’ve been waiting for a very long time in here.” The woman stopped right away, her face soft and her voice warm.
“I’m so sorry, what’s your time slot and room number?” she asked. Sarah slipped the schedule into her sweater pocket and cleared her throat.
“We don’t have one,” she said.
“Well that’s alright,” said the woman. “Why don’t you tell me your student’s name and I can figure out who their teacher is.”
“We already met his teacher, but he ran off,” exclaimed Bill.
“Oh, well that’s so strange. What did he look like?” the woman asked.
“He was wearing a green sweater and a paisley bowtie,” said Sarah.
The woman got very quiet. Her eyes widened, and she turned very pale. “I—I hate to tell you this, Mr. and Mrs. Stowe. But there’s only one teacher here who matches that description, and he’s been dead for twenty years.”
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” yelled Bill.
“Bill, please,” said Sarah.
“No, Sarah, I’m not going to sit here and play along with this little Halloween prank.”
“I can see you’re upset,” said the woman. “I’ll consult my colleagues in the other room and get this all cleared up.”
“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Bill called after her as she walked down the hallway. Sarah pulled him back to his chair and rubbed his shoulders. He held his face in his hands and tried to calm down. “That was crazy! Was that not crazy?”
“Remember, deep breaths,” said Sarah. She walked over to the window and stared out. Only a few cars remained in the parking lot. Her breath fogged up the window as it hit the cool double-panel glass.
“Can I help you two?” Sarah and Bill both looked up to see a man at the door. He was an older man, and his slim nose was overwhelmed by wire-rimmed glasses on top and a big white mustache underneath.
“Yes, please,” said Sarah, sitting back down next to Bill. The older man smiled and sat across from them at the desk. “We’re just trying to do our parent teacher conference and we can’t seem to find the right teacher.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not just that,” interjected Bill. “There was a crazy lady in here a little while ago.
“Crazy lady?” said the older man, surprised and confused.
“Yeah, she was wearing these real high heels and a stupid red neck scarf or something.”
The older man put his hand to his forehead and swallowed hard. “I’m so sorry to tell you this. That woman fits the description of a teacher by the name of Petunia Raddif. And she’s been dead for twenty years.”
“Fuck you!” screamed Bill. He slammed his fist down on the teacher desk. “Fuck you!” He threw his tiny chair across the room, and it clanged and whined as it hit its peers. “You’re fucking crazy man. This whole school is fucking crazy. We need to know how our son is doing!”
“Oh, yes, I have Teddy for History and English,” replied the older man.
“Well fan-fucking-tastic, you’re not leaving this room until we find out how he is and why everyone in this place keeps playing little games with us like you’re some kind of twisted trick-or-treaters!” Bill slammed the classroom door shut, grabbed another chair, and sat down, his rage boiling into stillness.
“Bill,” pleaded Sarah. “Calm down.”
“No! How many times are you going to tell me that today?”
“Can I help you?”
Bill and Sarah turned with a start to see a woman standing by the door.
“Great, another one,” Bill scoffed.
“We were just in the middle of a parent teacher conference with our son’s History and English teacher,” said Sarah.
The woman at the door cocked her head, puzzled. “What teacher?” she asked. Bill and Sarah looked back at the teacher desk, but no one was there. Bill moaned and started pounding his head into the desk repeatedly.
“There was—there was just a man, an older man here,” sputtered Sarah. “He was just right here.”
“An older man?” asked the woman. “With wire-rimmed glasses and a big mustache, kinda like Santa Claus?” Sarah nodded. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but that man has been dead for twenty years.”
“No, no,” cried Sarah, with tears in her eyes. “I’m begging you, no.”
Outside the classroom, a young janitor and the principal stood watching through the small window on the door. There was no one in the room except for Bill, still thudding his head into the desk, and Sarah, sobbing and shaking in her chair.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said the janitor.
“I’m glad you came and got me,” said the principal. “It’s the Stowe couple. They come to back-to-school night every October.”
Sarah could barely hear the thud of her husband’s head against the desk anymore. She took the schedule and unraveled the abused piece of paper. At the top it said:
Back to I | Back to the Graveyard | On to III