He heard it the moment both his feet landed on the tile floor, the music that drifted through the darkness. Aaron crouched there, letting his eyes adjust and watching the dust swirl through the threads of light that poured their way through rents in thick concrete and brick walls wrought by time’s neglect. He had found an opening in the building through a window outside covered by thin plywood that gave with little effort. There were dozens of hard plastic tables layered with soot, their colors alternating between faded shades of the primary colors and lined up in symmetrical aisles that centered themselves in front of a wide stage set two feet off the ground. This was the school’s cafeteria. He caught the name of the piece that was playing-- Debussy, and horribly out of tune. The felt hammers of the piano fell upon the steel strings in a lazy, uneven, way, ringing along the walls and through the halls of the old Oleander Elementary. The new school had been built five miles south to replace this one years ago after a fire devoured an entire wing of the building, reducing the U shape to an L. Aaron tried not to concern himself with the number of school children and staff. Numbers meant a great deal to the living but not to the dead, and the dead is who he had his business with.
He reached into the cargo net of his backpack and pulled out a flashlight, moving it in slow arcs throughout the room. Aaron knew he was seen already, he could always feel them stare. Not here, he thought, and then began to walk down the center aisle toward the stage. The fire had taken place between breakfast and lunch, there was to be an assembly that day, wood props of trees and homes were set, the crimson colored curtains drawn back. The dust patterns on the stage told him that the curtains had just been pulled. The piano continued to play, verse by verse in that clumsy way; here, Aaron knew, something strong would be laid to rest today. No echoes. Any sound Aaron made was suffocated the moment it escaped by a weight pressing against him in the school, a gravity.
“I’m here to help.” His voice was calm, but still audible. Aaron tried again, “I’m here to help.” This time, only ‘I’m’ and ‘to’ were heard.
I want to help, he said. This time it worked. The curtains and rod fell and landed with a sharp crack that was smothered at once.
Show me where, Aaron said, his voice stolen before it could know the air.
Show me. The school bell began to ring, muted, but still audible.
Thank you, I’ll be quick. Aaron followed the bell out of the cafeteria and into the hall. He crossed the entire length of the first floor, pushing open doors that had been shut for decades and running the tips of his fingers across the rusted desks. Climbing up the steps to the second floor the bell became louder. He took the ascent with care, over the years he had seen much and his recklessness was often punished. Aaron had to be more careful, he was a father now, and over-confidence was no longer on the table. Reaching the top step, the bell became clear. If you were to stand outside, you would never know it was happening. Every step Aaron took was like lens finding focus in the distance. He walked down the second floor hall toward the severed end of the school. A patchwork of tarps had been placed over the exposed roof eaten by flame with the intention of preserving whatever it was inside for history. No one could agree that museum and memorial may as well mean the same thing.
A storm had blown in the previous night and unbound half the clasps that held the tarp to the roof, leaving the furthest end of the hall exposed to the open air. The bell stopped ringing once Aaron was beneath the rotten and scared roof, but the piano was as loud as ever. No use for the flashlight now, its bulb now a dim flicker.
I want to help, Aaron repeated, each word spilling to another time. There was an anger here and he knew he wouldn’t be breathing soon. No matter how many times he did this, in all the years, he was intoxicated by the cocktail of panic, adrenaline, and excitement that blooms just before let it seize him. The sky was bare but the light seemed to spiral, casting shadows that swirled around him. Colors dulled not by dust or time but by unseen gears that turn silent clocks. It’s a strong one, Aaron thought, and it’s about to get a whole lot stronger. He could hear in the empty rooms the sound of tables sliding across the wooden floor and calm voices that urged everyone to line up in a by the door. The small hammers of the school bell swelled to a fever pitch.
Aaron stood at the building's jagged edge, looking out into the field where what remained of the school rested like charred bones of a great beast. Aaron could no longer breathe. His hands remained still beside his sides while he blinked hard into the open air. The music ceased and with it, Aaron’s heart. He fell forward, one arm spilling over the edge, while his eyes adjusted. The crisp mountain air that rushed in his open mouth soon tasted of smoke and ash. His eyes refocused and saw the heavy billows of smoke traveling through the corridor. He stayed low and began to crawl across the floor, his limbs too weak to do any more. Children hurried passed him with staff members as shepherds. Many of them met his gaze, some even stopped long enough to look upon him with wide curious eyes before being shoved from behind to keep moving. His legs felt stronger. Aaron crawled to the edge of the hallway and used the wall to help him stand. Closer, just a little closer. Fire crawled along the ceiling in small rolling waves and Aaron knew that his time was short.
Where are you? He asked, before turning around and walking back. The only door he found closed was marked 212. Here. The knob was hot to the touch. He pulled one of his sleeves over his hand and quickly gave it a twist. Inside he saw a ring of children, twelve in number and none over the age of seven, gathered in the center of the room with joined hands. At the middle of the circle was a woman slumped on the floor. As Aaron walked into the classroom every pair of round eyes turned look to him.
--You don’t belong here the door is too hot to open we don’t know what happened to her you don’t belong here neither does he it hurts to breathe why did they leave us you don’t belong here help us help us help us is she hurt help you don’t belong here—
It will be over soon, Aaron said. He could feel a heavy breath wash over him as the flame began to eat through the walls and ceiling. The children broke their circle and spread a little wider so that Aaron could join them. He sat crossing his legs before holding up his hands to join them, his large palms engulfing their tiny fists like stones. From here Aaron recognized the woman and saw her leg and hands twitching. Looking at them he said-- Stay with me. Each of you will see a stream and when you do, step into its water. There, you will find your release. Keep your eyes on me. Don’t let go. There they waited while the fire spread across the walls and then, in a violent burst, the air was sucked out of their small mouths and fed the flame that swirled around the room setting all to cinder. They could not scream, but they felt the searing. Neither of them let the other go and the world would never know their courage.
I’m so sorry. Aaron felt the grip on his hands tighten; tiny finger nails digging deep into his flesh, while the fire swept them up off the ground for a moment. This would be what he would remember the most: suspended in the air with joined hands, all eyes on him searching for the river he promised as the fire blackened them to ash. What fell back onto the floor was him and nothing else. Aaron blinked hard again and saw himself rolling on the ground, again on the edge of the severed school. The colors looked a little brighter and the light from beyond the building’s ruin poured over his cold body.
His heart returned to life with sharp raps against the bone of his chest, stumbling before catching rhythm. He couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. Aaron swatted at his body while rolling around the floor, half-believing he was still on fire. Looking at his palms he could see the small crescent shaped marks of fingernails that did indeed draw blood.
From the edge of the building he spotted his station wagon and the toddler’s car seat strapped into the back. Aaron leaned forward, pressing his head against the cold floor and began to weep. He saw himself in the air, looking into their eyes and wide mouths.
He felt himself being pulled down the hall, away from the building's edge, slow at first and then lifting from the floor altogether. Arrested by grief and disbelief while spinning backwards at a speed gaining in momentum. This isn’t supposed to be happening, Aaron said to himself while sailing across the darkening hall. He spun his floating body around and saw the wall at the hall’s end fast approaching. Closing his eyes he put both hands forward and tried to press against the gravity pulling him. The tiles on the wall fell around him while landing with a thump. Aaron rolled onto his stomach, trying to pick himself up before he was pulled into the air again and hurled down the hall toward the opposite end where there was nothing to stop him.
The hall grew darker the closer he came to the exposed end of the building. The heavy breath he felt wash over him in the class room now made a sublime kind of sense. Five feet from being flung out into the open air to his death his feet began to drag along the floor. He dug the rubber bottom of his heels and leaned back. Three feet away he slowed further and just before spilling over the edge he stopped, falling backward with his sweat-drenched clothes sticking to his skin. The world around him went black in the way a room appears as you fall into sleep. The building groaned and buckled, as if it would collapse upon itself, then nothing more.
He stood up, his muscles and limbs in knots. He found his backpack halfway down the stairs-- its contents exposed-- which he gathered together while trying to slow his heart down. He fell out of the window he came in, covering his arms and jeans in mud, then carried himself across the tall grass to his car waiting in the old parking lot.
After fishing around his pockets for the car keys he remembered that he had kept them in the bag. Reaching into the backseat he felt the car rock side to side though none of the trees around him swayed. He plucked his keys out of the small zippered pocket at the top of the bag and started the car. The engine stuttered and a white smoke crept out from beneath the hood. Switching the radio off, Aaron drove in silence through the winding country roads that led back to the highway.