by David Manuel
I had recently seen some of the "big players" of my graduating class at a local tavern, throwing back beers like water. It was a depressing experience; they were traveling down the same downwards spiral as I was. The former captain of our football team was now addicted to cocaine and thirty pounds overweight, his once perfectly sculpted muscles now hidden behind sagging sacks of flesh. The queen of our prom was seven months pregnant with her second child, complaining bitterly about her abusive husband as she slammed back shots of Jack Daniels. The rebellious lead singer of our underground high school band PEROXIDE was now on welfare, his hairline receding as fast as his hopes and dreams of becoming a rock star. They asked me what I was doing. I said I was an assistant to an overbearing and underpaying local archivist. They asked me if I still wanted to be a writer. I said that I hadnít written anything since leaving high school, just didnít have the time or the motivation. Their eyes mirrored what I was feeling towards them; sympathy. The magic of youth had left us, replaced by the angst and uncertainties of adulthood. During my last year of high school, I had anxiously wanted to shake hands with the real world. Now I was trying to escape it.
The job was simple, the principal had said. Organize, label, preserve; basic archivist stuff. I arrived one day after work, picked up the key to the boiler room which held the archives and walked down the hallways of the school, trying to recapture some of the feelings of youth. But now as I walked down the locker-lined hallways, I couldnít help but notice how the passage of time was playing with the school. Recognizable old teachers greeted me with a blank, unknowing glare. Young, aspiring students looked past me, keeping their eyes transfixed on the dreams in front of them. The hallway walls collected another graduating composite picture each year like a kid collected baseball cards. Inside these composites were portraits of future lawyers, writers and murderers, their faces forever frozen in the awkward vice of youth. Their out-of-date haircuts and acne scarred faces could never dull the innocent, sparkling looks in their eyes. I puffed out my chest and strutted down the hallway, trying to remember what it was like to be Mr. Popularity. Instead now I was Mr. Beaten-Down, my shoulders buckling under the strain of constant turmoil and uncertainty in my life.
The hallway seemed to close in on me like in some claustrophobeís nightmare. I dangled the silver key to the boiler room between my fingers, noticing that it was dented and worn. Its once jagged teeth had been filed down; I wondered if it would even work. I passed through the hallways and descended a set of red stairs to the basement.
Straight ahead of me was an unlit hallway which led into nothingness. The principal had told me that at the end of this hallway was the room which contained the archives. I forged ahead through the hallway, leaving the light and warmth of the janitorís room behind. Ancient copper pipes hissed somewhere overhead. My face pushed through long-abandoned spiderís webs. Rats scuttled somewhere in the distance, their perfect hiding place disturbed.
I finally escaped the creepy hallway and was now in a small room which was occupied by a large table and eight plastic chairs. Around the table sat long-obsolete computer consoles, their only purpose now being to keep an eternal watch on the room. I guessed that from the litter of cigarette butts and fresh garbage that this was a smoking room for the teachers of my high school. A single light bulb lit the room.
Just behind the table was a large, jagged black hole in the wall. Inside this hole was where the schoolís archives were kept, or what remained of them. The archives used to be kept in a graduateís basement until her house was destroyed by fire. Most of the archives had been destroyed in the fire, decades of memories transforming into ash.
I crouched down and slid through the hole. The hole opened up into a small room, lit only by the light spilling in through the wall. Boxes were piled haphazardly in the corner of the room, blackened pages protruding wildly. A thin sheen of water lay on the floor. I couldnít even imagine what kind of life lived in this room.
I was about to begin moving the boxes into the smoking room when I noticed something odd out of the corner of my eye. At the opposite end of the room was a door which was outlined by orange light. I stepped closer, and noticed that someone had scrawled KEEP OUT on the face of the door. Curiosity almost got the best of me; I almost opened the door, but instead decided to get down to work. I removed the nine cardboard boxes from the dark room and placed them on the long wooden table in the smoking room. I poured the contents out onto the table, running my hands through hundreds of years of memories. Pictures, dusty report cards and old yearbooks saw light for the first time in years. Moths flitted for cover, a stranger interrupting their important work.
I spent an hour rifling through the documents, looking for anything of personal interest. I found my graduating yearbook until a pile of yellowing newspaper clippings. My final words to my graduating class had been blurred by water, and my picture had been discolored.
I continued sorting. A newspaper clipping caught my eye; the headline read:
LOCAL GIRL EXPLODES ONTO BROADWAY
Underneath this caption was a picture of a tall, blonde-haired girl in a clasped-hand line with a dozen or so other actors. Her name was Kelly Duferin, and she was a San Cuesta High graduate of í57. The picture had faded and yellowed over the years, but time couldnít erase the elation in her eyes. She was acting in an off-Broadway production called The Last Train Leaves Tonight.
A couple of clippings later, she was mentioned again:
LOCAL BROADWAY STAR SUCCUMBS TO HEROIN
Below this headline was a snapshot of Kelly Duferin, her hands raised above her head in victory. This time the article was much more somber, recounting the details of her sudden raise and fall in New York City. The article told of her five-hundred-dollar a week heroin addiction, her abusive relationships; it ended by saying that police had found her dead and naked in her posh Manhattan apartment. I set the clipping down on the table and stared at the cobweb infested ceiling. How could a girl with such promise throw away her life like that?
The pipes rumbled loudly overhead, snapping me out of my reverie. I was just about to continue sorting when I heard a scuttling sound emerge from the hole in the wall. I hadnít noticed any rats while I was in that room. This time my curiosity got the best of me, and I went to investigate. I stepped through the hole in the wall, intent on killing a rat if I saw one.
I let out an audible sigh once my eyes adjusted to the darkness. There were no rats in the room; the noise seemed to be coming from the orange-rimmed door. The door seemed to pulse, and it was shaking on its hinges. The doorknob rattled violently. Pipes thundered overhead.
I put my hand on the doorknob and swung open the door. The noises quit as quickly as they had started. Inside was a room was lined with shelves; shelves which housed thousands of tiny, metal boxes, all identical. They were about the size of a recipe box, and they were all engraved with names. I looked for any names I recognized. Eventually, I came to a box which was marked CHET ATKINS, the former captain of our football team. I pulled it off the shelf and opened it slowly, not knowing what to expect inside.
The box contained a single vial which held a dirty, blackish-grey liquid. A small fly had somehow gotten past the wooden cork and died in the fluid. It reminded me of swampwater; I wondered why the school would keep something like this. What was it? A blood sample that had been transformed by age? I noticed a box with my name on it just a few shelves down. It read DAVE NORMANDY, CLASS OF í93. I set down Chetís vial and picked up my box. I opened it quickly, expecting to see a vial similar to Chetís.
Inside was a vial which seemed to throw off light. Colors I had never seen before mated with colors I loved, producing even more colors. Reds, purples and yellows twisted and turned around blues, greens and browns. It looked as though the vial contained a rainbow. I was transfixed by the vial until some pipes sounded overhead.
I uncorked the vial, tilted my head back and drank the multi-colored liquid. A warmth infiltrated my body for the first time in years. All of a sudden, I wasnít too eager to remain in the dark underbelly of my high school. I left the room, locking it behind me. As I fled through the hole in the wall, I noticed that the teacherís didnít smoke in this room, but instead guarded in this room. I went home, made myself a chocolate milkshake and spent the entire night writing the novel that had always been trying to escape me.