Rating: T/PG-13 for mild language and adult themes.
Chapter Three: Tell Me What You See
Carl made it back to the cafeteria just as the fourth period bell rang. His garbage bin had been tucked into a corner where the students were less likely to see it and use it as a scooter or start pushing it up and down the hallway. When he peeked into the cafeteria, he found that it had already been swept up for him, probably by George, who was the oldest and most responsible member of their crew. He was old, but he was also as strong as an ox and got things done before most of his younger counterparts even thought about getting started.
Carl collected his trash can and pushed it back down the hallway to take care of trash left on the stairwells. For some reason, the stairs tended to be even messier than the floors, probably because the students would finish their lunches on the way to class and drop the sacks and wrappers anywhere they could. Carl used his broom and dust pan to sweep up some Coke cans on the southwest stairwell before starting down the hall in the math wing.
Before he could tackle the next set of stairs, one of the math teachers, Mr. Ryan, came out of the Math Department office holding a coffee mug in one hand. When he saw the janitor, he smiled warmly. “Hello, Carl.”
“How you doin’, Mr. Ryan?”
Mr. Ryan waved him off. “How many times do I have to tell you? It’s James.”
Carl shook his head. “I don’t know, Mr. Ryan. Old habits die hard.” He chuckled. “You still torturing your students with two-part mid-terms?”
“Wouldn’t you be disappointed if I wasn’t?” Mr. Ryan smiled. “Though, if I remember correctly, it didn’t cause you many problems.”
“You say that because you didn’t see me stayin’ up the night before, chuggin’ coffee just to stay awake.” Carl nodded at Mr. Ryan’s mug. “I don’t even like coffee.”
Mr. Ryan shook his head. “I don’t either, but I need the caffeine just to get through my own classes.”
“No, accounting.” He chuckled. “Maybe someday I’ll just take an extra lunch hour and let you teach it for me.”
Carl laughed. “I haven’t done that stuff in years. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“Oh, somehow I doubt that.” Mr. Ryan paused thoughtfully and took a sip of his coffee. Though his former teacher was too nice to say anything, Carl was pretty sure that he knew what the man was thinking. What the hell was his star student doing mopping floors and sweeping up Coke cans? Mr. Ryan wasn’t the only one either. Even after eight years on the janitorial staff, most of the faculty were still under the impression that he just wanted “a change of pace” or that he was just too lazy to cut it at a real job. He didn’t bother to correct them; better to let them think he was an idiot than to know what really happened.
“So, how are things with-”
Carl and Mr. Ryan jumped, startled by the sudden noise. Mr. Ryan spilled his coffee on the sleeve of his button-down shirt and let out a little shout of pain. Carl collected himself rather quickly and pushed his garbage bin into a corner. “That sounded really close.”
Mr. Ryan nodded and set his mug down next to Carl’s garbage bin. They walked quickly down the hallway and around the corner, where the air was filled with a thin layer of smoke. The source was a smoldering locker and it’s contents, which were spread all over the ground in front of it. Papers and textbooks were still on fire, flames licking their edges.
“I’ll call the fire department.” Mr. Ryan took off in the direction they’d come from, leaving Carl alone with the wreckage. He took a bandana from his pocket and held it up to his nose so that he could get closer to the locker. In addition to the paper on the floor, he could see more papers and notebooks burning inside. A charred textbook leaned up against the wall of the locker and something plastic had melted and collected in a pool at the bottom.
“Oh, my God…”
Carl glanced up to see several students poking their heads out of a nearby classroom. Their teacher pulled them back inside and glanced out at Carl. “What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Mr. Ryan’s calling the fire department. I think it’s best to just keep them in the classroom. It’s pretty smoky out here.”
The young woman nodded and shut the door, leaving Carl alone again. He took another step toward the locker, still holding the bandana up to his nose. He used the toe of his shoe to turn over a binder and noticed a bunch of tiny papers smoldering on the ground. He narrowed his eyes and crouched down to get a closer look. Most of them were charred beyond recognition, but a few were not. He picked up one of the pieces that hadn’t been burned too badly and held it up to the light. It was a picture of Ben Franklin, green on a paler green background. On the top it read, “U.S. POSTAGE” and on the bottom it read, “ONE CENT”.
Without having to look at the number on the door, Carl knew whose locker he was standing in front of.
“Well, this was definitely the culprit.” The fireman used his gloved index finger to lift a black, deformed flare gun from the mess inside of the burned out shell of a locker. He let the gun dangle from his finger as he looked up at Carl with a bored expression on his face. “Boy Scout?”
Carl shrugged. “How the hell should I know?”
The fireman placed the flare gun into a clear plastic bag and handed it to a co-worker, then continued sifting through the rubble. “What are these?”
The fireman’s eyebrows went up. “Damn, I hope they weren’t worth anything.”
“I have a feeling they were.”
The man shook his head and lifted up another bunch of papers. “Looks like he had a piggy bank in here, too.” He picked up a few tiny pieces of glazed ceramic. “I wonder if there was any money in it.”
Carl stood up and dusted himself off. The hallway was empty except for Mr. Ryan, who had a free period, and one of the English teachers. The two of them were chatting quietly a few feet away, motioning every once in a while towards the disaster in front of them. When Carl walked up beside them, Mr. Ryan looked up expectantly.
Mr. Ryan’s eyebrows went up. “Really?”
The math teacher shook his head. “I don’t understand. Why would he have a flare gun?”
“Who knows?” Carl paused. “You know who’s locker it is?”
Mr. Ryan nodded. “Some of the papers were legible. His name’s Brian Johnson. He’s one of my students. Good kid, too.”
Carl nodded. “I’m sure he is.”
Mr. Ryan sighed. “I just hope they don’t expel him for this. Vernon’s mad. I know he’ll be pushing for it.”
Carl thought about this for a minute. “What did Taylor say?”
Mr. Ryan shrugged. “He hasn’t said anything yet. I think he wants to talk to the boy first.”
“Good.” Carl nodded. “That’s good. I think he should do that.”
Mr. Ryan nodded distractedly and the English teacher beside him asked another question about the fire. Carl stepped away from the pair and nodded at the fireman to follow him. The two of them started walking down the hall together and didn’t say anything until they reached the front of the school, where Carl had a clear view of the fire truck parked along the curb. He turned to the man standing next to him. “How’s Caroline?”
The man shrugged. “She’s fine. Looks like she’s got a basketball tucked under her dress.” He smiled. “Just one more month.”
Carl laughed. “Should’ve stuck with the dog, Mike.”
Mike rolled his eyes in agreement. “When this shit’s all over with, we’re havin’ you and Julia over for dinner.” He paused. “Hell, we’re goin’ out to dinner and you two can babysit, how’s that sound?”
Carl hit him on the arm. “Sounds like bullshit to me. Now, get the hell outta here before I chase you out.”
Mike frowned. “When did you get to be such an asshole?”
“I’ve always been one. You were just too dumb to notice.”
Mike shook his head and started walking towards the door. “Later, Mr. President.”
“Later, Mr. Secretary.”
Mike waved before walking out the front door. Just before it closed behind him, he stuck his head back in. “And tell that kid with the fire alarm fetish to get a goddamned life, will ya? I’m more sick of this place now than I was when I went here.”
“Boo fuckin’ hoo.”
Mike laughed and ducked back outside. Carl watched him jump into the passenger side of the fire truck before it took off down the street again. He knew he needed to get back to the burned out locker before the bell rang, but instead, he wandered over to the display cases lining the wall. Trophies, plaques, awards, and photographs were showcased neatly behind the glass. Carl glanced over at the Student Council pictures in the case on the far left. Under the year 1971 was a picture of five students, four boys and one girl. Mike, the Class Secretary, was off to the side looking rather bored while Carl, the Class President, was grinning widely from his position in the middle.
Carl looked away from the picture and took a few steps to the left. Man of the Year was a big deal at Shermer, but no one had really been surprised when he’d won. He gazed down at the photo in the middle, where an eighteen-year-old version of himself smiled back. Damn, he was even wearing a suit and tie, which was a hell of a lot better than a dingy grey jumpsuit.
After a few seconds, Carl turned away from the display case and started back down the hall towards the burned out locker. No use crying over spilt milk. Or shattered dreams.