The ghost story theme has pulled me in from the other night, so I’m going to keep running with it. I worked for Chicago Public Schools for more than a decade, and the building I worked at had been built in 1920. It was around Halloween of my 2nd or 3rd year when I realized I hadn’t heard any ghost stories. Schools always have ghost stories, especially old ones. I was a library assistant, but I’d inherited the Technology Coordinator job as I was one of the few who wasn’t afraid to right-click a mouse at the time, and I learned a ton of information about technology over the next 6 or 7 years. I was there when they installed the fiber optic lines, and had to work with the contractor to figure out where they’d be coming into the building. Thus began my first trip into the basement.
It was a long flight of metal stairs leading down to the boiler room. The piles of tools, screeching sounds and piles of chains would have made Freddy Krueger proud. There was too much light, however, and that simple fact kept things far from scary. At least, in that part of the basement. What I learned, following a large man wearing orange coveralls through a winding hallway of turns and doorways that left one dizzy, was that things got a whole lot scarier the further in you went. Cement floors turned to sand and dirt. Huge pipes threatened to thwack you in the forehead if you weren’t looking straight ahead while you walked. And there were doors to small rooms everywhere. Some of the doors even had glass windows. These couldn’t be classrooms, I thought. The man from the utility company must have seen me staring.
“Bomb shelters,” he barked at me, grinning below his mustache. “Kinda creepy, huh?”
“Bomb shelters?” I frowned. And then I remembered. The black and yellow signs I’d seen randomly all over the building. These were fallout shelters. Bunkers.
“Yeah,” he said. “All the old school’s got ‘em. How’d ya like to be stuck in one’a dem?”
We chuckled as we kept moving, snaking our way back to a graveyard of toilets.
“Talk about some sad shit, huh?” the utility man laughed a wheezy laugh. I couldn’t help but join in.
Almost on our hands and knees, as the ceiling got lower and lower, we crawled through sand to the base of the foundation. The exterior wall. There was one, pull-string light bulb shining from 50 feet behind us, and as I sat there and listened to him detail the job with a tiny flashlight, I looked around. Yeah, this would make a hell of a setting for a ghost story.
“Oh, hell yeah,” said Jonathan, the head custodian, a kid I never saw in anything more than a sweaty tank top and grimy jeans. “Did you see the spider room?”
“The spider room?” I asked.
“Follow me,” he said, and led me down into the bowels of the building for a second time. This time it was in another direction. You could literally navigate the entire building from one end to the other underground. When we reached a closed door, which led to one of the bunkers, he stopped and turned a child-like grin to me. “You ready?”
I didn’t know how to answer that.
When he threw open the door, the ground seemed to move. But as he shined his flashlight inside the room, I realized it was hordes of spiders scrambling for the dark corners. Thousands of them. They weren’t enormous or anything. But, Lord, even my iron stomach turned a little. Jonathan laughed a grizzly laugh.
“Yeah, man. We can’t figure out why they like it in there. Something about the moisture or the temperature or something.” I smiled, hiding my horror. Jonathan told me about the rations canisters he’d found down there when he started working at the school. Large metal cylinders that would have contained crackers and medicines in case students and teachers happened to be stranded there for a long time. He’d taken one home to use as a vintage trash can in his bedroom.
Yes, this was going to make the most amazing story.
I like history. I like ghost stories. And so that was how I framed the story the first time I told it. The best ghost stories are told with authority.
“I’ve seen it with my own two eyes,” I told the 6th graders. “I’ve been down in the tunnels under the school.”
Tunnels was such a good word for it.
I could describe much of the layout. I told them about the toilet graveyard and the ration kits. I told them about the spider room, and the loud boiler. I told them about the tunnels and the bomb shelters. And the signs were still up on the walls to prove it. While I couldn’t take them down there, I could ramble on about WWI and WWII, and why schools had been built with that concept in mind.
And then I gave them Little Lucy Thompson. Honestly, I made the name up on the spot. I didn’t quite know where I was going, but I needed a student. Little kid ghosts are so much creepier than grown-up ones. Lucy was cute. 2nd Grader. Blonde curls. Mary Janes that clicked when she walked in the hallway.
Students know drills. Fire. Tornado. Intruder. They practice them several times a year. So I went with that. The school had been performing a routine air-raid drill at the time, and Lucy’s class filed neatly down into the basement, into their shelters, and then they came back up. Everyone except Lucy Thompson, that is.
Now, the story changed over the years, and got a lot better, but the basics were the same. Teacher goes and looks in the basement for her. Nothing. Engineer goes looking for her. Nothing. Police are called. Nothing. Lucy just vanishes. Parents are distraught. But it’s just a few weeks before Lucy starts showing up around the school. Kids see her golden curls vanishing around a corner in the hallway. They hear a young girl singing somewhere nearby. A giggle from the bathroom stall. Her teacher resigns. Keeps thinking she sees Lucy in her seat at the back of the room. Thinks she’s losing her mind.
Of course, I had teachers back me up over the years, too.
“Just ask Ms. Johnson,” I would say. She saw her last year. Their eyes would go wide.
“I’ve seen her, too,” I would tell them.
“No you haven’t,” some of the remaining holdouts would challenge me.
“No, you’re right,” I would confess. “I haven’t seen her. But I’ve heard her.”
I would tell them a story about working late. And in those days, I really did work ridiculously late some nights, well after dark, afraid the nighttime cleaning crew might lock me in. But I would tell them how I’d always be in my office when I’d hear footsteps clicking down the hallway. I’d run out to look. And, nothing. Or I’d hear a little girl giggling. I’d go look. Nothing. By this point in the story, even the holdouts had bought in. Everyone looking around at one another, shaking their heads.
The funny thing is, I’m interrupted frequently in my position, and this is right around the time someone would peek their head through the window, trying to see into the darkened room. Screams would threaten to shatter the windows, and we would all laugh to calm ourselves down. But I would finish dramatically, saying how Lucy had been most often seen in the 2nd floor bathroom, which was just down the hall. How people would be washing their hands in the sink and feel someone behind them. Sometimes it was cold breath on their neck. And I would tell them, very slowly, “If you feel this, or feel like someone is behind you…Don’t…turn…around…”
Here is where I would wait for a solid five seconds, letting them just breathe a little before shouting, “Because it might be LUCY!!!!!”
Room screams all over again, and I spend the next five minutes calming everyone down. I would come clean then, telling them all that the story was made up, not wanting a bunch of parent phone calls that night. But I wanted to make sure none of them told the story to younger siblings to ruin the surprise. It never failed that some of them were still terrified, in kind of a silly way, even after I told them it was all a lie.
After a handful of years the story took on new shapes and characters. There was the time I asked my assistant to hide in the closet and take over the computer next to me remotely at the end of the story. The screen suddenly flashed white, and letters began to appear on the screen. “Hello?” they said from beyond. Nevermind that Lucy was actually trying to reach out to us via Microsoft Word. It was a huge scream. The ghost of Lucy Thompson single-handedly reduced the number of bathroom passes on the second floor for years. Hell, she still might be.
The story got so good, that I can still tell it now, at an entirely different school with no connection to Lucy or bomb shelters or the spider room, and still make the kids scream. Even when I tell them ahead of time that I made the story up. There’s still just enough to make it believable.
I think my favorite part though, was that Lucy became a featured character among the students at school. Several times I had them stop me in the hallway during the ensuing years and ask, “Mr. Lafferty? Do you know that our school is haunted? Her name is Lucy. Lucy Thompson.”
Sure I did, kiddo. She’s one of my favorite stories.