The Hoarder

📅 Published on February 11, 2022

“The Hoarder”

Written by Jeff Provine
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Messes are funny things.  The longer they’re around, the harder they are to clean up.  That was the way it was with the Falling River Schoolhouse.

It was May, the day after Memorial Day.  We’d been off school for all of three days, and already I was back to work.  Granted, it wasn’t the same work as trying to make a crowded room of eighth-graders get interested in post-Civil War history, but work was work.  I traded in my yard-sale ties and khakis for work gloves and jeans that were held together more by the patches than the original cloth.

Already summer was hot, past ninety degrees, but it was the sticky humidity leftover from spring that made the air unbearable.  If it were just plain hot like it would be in July, at least we’d be used to it.  I’d even welcome a hot southern breeze.

Instead, all we got was the still, soaking air that seemed to press down on me from every angle. Even ducking into the shade didn’t help.  It was everywhere.

I stood in the shade anyway.  It couldn’t hurt, after all.

The tree was a stubby locust, which probably grew in when the superintendent was looking the other way…long enough for the landscapers to skip out on Falling River.  The plot was dotted with half-grown trees, twisted and thorny all along their trunks leading up to scrubby branches only half-hung with leaves.  They seemed to grow away from the schoolhouse with its blue paint job peeling off like scabs, except for one clump just on the west edge.  There they grew in a tight pack; their branches stuck into the eave as if they were a living part of the building.

Falling River’s schoolhouse dated back to the “nineteen-tens” (or is it “teens?” I have to ask Wendy that.  English teachers, you know).  Back then, the fledgling community of Falling River was bustling with a general store, lumberyard, train depot, and of course, its own six-room schoolhouse. Folks in Falling River must have been upbeat; the very name was wishful thinking.  There wasn’t anything more than a creek for miles in any direction.  There wasn’t a river, and, after the Dustbowl, there wasn’t a township anymore, either.  Everybody moved to Wilkes or on to California, outside of a few hangers-on who still lived in ramshackle mobile homes with scrawny horses penned up in their yards.

A pair of men, one bloated, the other just as scrawny as their horses, watched me with wide, questioning eyes as I had driven past where they sat on rusted lawn chairs, next to cinderblocks and burn barrels that spilled ash onto the weed-patched ground.  Neither wore shirts.  I tried not to stare back.  People didn’t visit much out this way.

The schoolhouse sat at the corner of two unnamed, unpaved roads.  A lonely metal post stood amid weeds at the edge of the shale and dirt.  It must have had a stop sign at one point, but somebody had helped themselves to it.  Nobody cared enough to put up a new one.

It was a wide building with a lump of a bell tower sticking out of it to show that it was a schoolhouse.  In its heyday, the tower would have been twice the height, but it had partially fallen in, and all the school district had done was nail on a flat roof where it had broken.  All of the windows had been boarded up, some haphazardly with clearly visible broken glass behind.  The big double doors were shut tight with a padlock on a chain through the rusted iron handles.  A trash company had dropped off a portable dumpster nearby.  It looked weird as the only new thing on the whole plot, including my old Toyota.

I didn’t want to be here.  It was summer vacation.  I had worked seventy hours last week reading essays on the causes of World War II and marking tests with obvious answers so that the district could have its final grades in on time.  I should’ve been on the couch with a good book, but if Wendy had a job answering phones for the summer, it wouldn’t do for her husband to be slacking.  Besides, with the baby coming in a few months, we could probably use every dollar we could get.

So here I was at the Falling River Schoolhouse, gloves on, waiting for Coach Freeman to show up and unlock the place.  The school board wanted it cleaned out, most likely for a chance to sell off the land.  After the last round of consolidations, not even using it for storage seemed practical anymore. But they couldn’t get rid of it with potentially sensitive documents inside, so it was up to us to empty it out.  It wasn’t great pay, but it beat mowing lawns like Mr. Mueller, the Algebra teacher.

I stared at the dim blue building.  It almost seemed to stare back, like a nervous cat waiting to see what I was planning to do.

Somebody had worked over the neat fading print of the schoolhouse’s name with clumsy blue spray-paint.

“ ‘Falling Down Schoolhouse,’” I read aloud.  “Pretty clever.” I actually smiled.  Maybe I was looking at it all wrong.  Maybe this was a chance to dig into some of the school district’s rich past.  There was no telling what all might be inside.  We might come across old photographs, yearbooks, student newspapers… One of the boards across a window banged.  I jumped.  It was still rattling as it settled itself back against the cracked window frame.

My heart was racing.  “Must’ve caught the wind.” No one answered.  The oppressive humid air pushed down on my shoulders.

A car horn tooted out the first notes of “Shave and a Haircut.” It was Coach Nick Freeman in a Chisholm County School District activity van.  He waved and gave an open-mouthed grin through the windshield.

The van crunched what little gravel was left of the driveway up to the schoolhouse and parked next to my Toyota.  Its door flung open, and Nick hopped out.  He wore a ball cap, an old jersey, and heavy work boots that crunched just as the tires had.

“Morning, Joshua!” he called.

I smiled politely and nodded.  As I walked out of the shade of the locust tree, I glanced back at the schoolhouse.  The loose board at the window was still, and nothing else seemed to move.

“How’s the missus?” Nick called.

I turned back to him.  He had a hand extended.  I peeled off a work glove and shook it.  He patted me on the shoulder with his free hand.

“She’s doing all right,” I said.  “The morning sickness phase is just about done.” Nick cringed with his hands against his chest.  “You could have stopped at ‘all right.’ “ I winced and tried to smile again.

“Nah, I’m just kidding,” Nick assured me.  He patted my shoulder again.  “It’s a beautiful thing, pregnancy.  Always reminds me how lucky I am to be male.”

I rolled my eyes.  “And with comments like that, you’ll never have to worry about babies.” Nick laughed aloud.  He turned back to the van and tossed the keys into the front seat.  “Well, you know me, the wild bachelor-type.  I’ll settle down once I’m sick of spending my weekends sleeping ‘til noon and not looking at curtain samples.” “Having a wife’s not all bad,” I told him as he walked toward the back of the van.  “Somebody to have and to hold, somebody to bring you soup when you’re sick.” Nick opened the back doors.  The seats had all been pulled out, leaving the van empty except for a stack of folded cardboard boxes, the road emergency kit with flares and first aid, and an orange water cooler.  He leaned inside and rummaged through the side-panel pocket.  “Nah, I do envy you, Joshua.  Wendy’s a great gal, and you two’ll make great parents.  That kid’s going to have a brain the size of Connecticut.” I smiled and tried to hide it.

“Here we go!” Nick called.  He popped out of the van with an old ring of keys.  “You ready for this?”

“As much as I’ll ever be,” I supposed.

Nick led the way to the schoolhouse.  His boots clomped on the thick grass.  Everybody always jokes about coaches being about athletics first and education second, but Nick always seemed as excited about his math class as he did in every game.  He was famous for assigning laps to everyone who didn’t finish their homework and making his basketball players solve mechanics equations to understand why they missed free throws.

At the door, he settled down onto a knee.  I pulled my gloves back on and crossed my arms.

“Why couldn’t they get some of the guys from facilities management to do this?” I wondered aloud.

“One,” Nick said as he tried keys to the padlock, “they’ve got their schedules busy with all the summer touch-ups: repainting, rewiring, whatever.  Two, we’re teachers familiar with FERPA rules if we run across old grades.”

I pursed my lips and nodded.

He changed to a new key.  “Three, we work cheap.” I groaned.

Nick grunted and tried a different key.  “And, four, those guys from facilities aren’t crazy enough to go in there.”

With a clink, the padlock came loose.  Nick pulled the chain free and then dragged open both doors.

A gust of cool, damp air rushed out.  It struck me in the face so hard I took a step backward. Goosebumps broke out over my bare arms.  The whole building groaned.

I hugged my arms tighter.  “Are you sure it’s safe in there?” “C’mon, Josh,” Nick said with a smile.  “What’s there to be afraid of?” “Snakes, spiders, possums, the roof collapsing.”  I could have kept the list going, but I didn’t want to hear any more.

Nick stepped into the shadowy entry hall.  “We’ve got gloves, and we’re smart guys.  Worse comes to worst, we take a paid break while the superintendent calls an exterminator.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  The extra cash was going to be nice when it came time for diapers.  I headed into the hallway after him.

The dim light beyond the doors was pitch black compared to the brightness outside.  I stood still and blinked until my eyes adjusted.  Wisps of dust floated in the air.  The air itself had a taste to it: wet, dirty rot, like a forest after the rain.

Since the schoolhouse had been closed in the ‘30s, it had been used for storage, meaning it was the last stop for just about anything that had an excuse not to be tossed into a dumpster.  Piles of boxes were stacked one on the other along both walls of the hallway.  Nick danced through them, twisting here and there to find a safe place to put his feet.

“Look at all this crud!”

I couldn’t reply.  Boxes overflowed with yellowing papers and grimy decorations from Presidents Day or Columbus Day.  There were old trophies for tournaments that no one living remembered.  A framed picture of “Our President Dwight Eisenhower” was propped up against the wall on top of yet more boxes.

“Where do we even start?” I asked.

Nick had already gone on.  I shivered in the damp air and went after him into one of the rooms.

It was piled with desks, metal ones with cubbyholes under the built-in seats.  They were decades out of date, yet it was still decades before anyone would think they were retro-chic.  Instead, they were tossed one on top of the other, clustering like a nest with legs and tabletops sticking out at every angle.

There was a dark hole in the ceiling leading up to what once was the bell tower. The rope was long gone, eaten away by who knows what, but the brass bell was still there. All boarded up, its tower seemed more like a burrow, and the bell inside hung in the darkness with only the edges peeping out.

As I shrank back from looking up, a floorboard creaked under my shoe in a long, shrill whine.  It echoed out of the classroom and seemed to grumble in the hall.

I turned to look back.  Papers were bleeding out of boxes and onto the floor.  As I squinted, they seemed to stop.

“Must’ve been the wind,” I told myself again.

“We should get some of these windows open,” Nick suggested.

I shook my head.  “Let’s just go through those boxes and get out of here.” “You sure?” he asked.  “We could get some light, maybe even a breeze once the afternoon gets going.” “It’s already freezing in here,” I said, rubbing my bare arms again.  “And the sooner we’re done, the better.” Nick grimaced, but then he shrugged and smiled.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll get you back to your preggers gal by five o’clock.” “I just want to get out of here,” I told him.  “What’s the plan?” Nick clapped his hands in one echoing beat as if he were calling for a huddle.  “Anything with legal necessity to store goes in the van.  Everything else, into the dumpster!” I didn’t wait.  Climbing over a stack of graduation pamphlets from the ‘60s, I went back into the hallway.  The light streamed in through the open doors, flickering with wafting dust.  At the far end, a pair of glowing reflections stared at me.

I gasped and fell into a set of boxes.  Papers burst into the air all around me.  The reflections blinked away.  There were rustling sounds, and suddenly Nick was standing over me.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

My mouth sputtered.  Air was rushing in and out of my throat, but I couldn’t control it enough to make sensible words.  All I could see were the two bulbous lights, like enormous eyes, watching me from the far end of the hall.

I finally took a deep breath and forced the words to come slowly.  “Something’s back there.” Nick frowned.  “What, like a rat?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  They were too big.” “They?”

“Eyes,” I told him.  “I saw eyes.”

Nick’s frown turned into a grimace with his bared teeth gritted.  “How big were these eyes?” “I don’t know,” I admitted.  “They were there, and then they flashed away.  But they were big.  And they were watching.” “Stop,” Nick said.  “I’ll go check it out.”

I swallowed.  “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Nick leaned over a box and stood back up with the bottom stand for a flagpole.  It was wide and round, and he made it a club by holding it by the long pipe where the flagpole would slide.  Without another word, he walked into the shadows toward the rear rooms.

I picked myself up out of the boxes and slowly followed Nick.

“Listen up!” he called.  “If you’re a squatter or something, no worries!  We’re not cops.  We just came in to clean this place up.”

He looked back at me and winked.  “If you want to help, there’s twenty bucks in it for you!” I felt my mouth gape, but I didn’t know what to say.  No one else spoke either.

We passed by the second set of doors.  One led into another little hallway, signs for bathrooms on either side.  The other was another classroom, this one piled with Christmas decorations.  A whole nativity of half-rotted papier-mâché was crowded together in one corner, lording over the rest of the room with Santas missing their faces.

When I turned back to the hall, Nick had gone into one of the rooms.  I shivered again and hurried to catch up.  As soon as I turned toward the room on the right, I was met with another pair of eyes.

I shrieked.  The eyes were smaller this time, beady.  Horns led off above them, and mangy fur stuck to a wooden face.

“Hey, calm down!” Nick called.

I gasped in the cold, damp air again.  As my vision came back into focus, I saw it was a deer’s head, mounted on a plaque.  Nick was behind it, holding it up.

“I think I found what spooked you,” Nick said.  He shook the deer’s head up and down.  “Seen Bambi too many times?”

I shook my head.

“Yeah,” Nick said calmly.  “Come on, let’s get out ole Bamb’ of here.” I could agree with that.  I turned and threw myself over the boxes, not even trying to step around them.  My shoes scattered half-filled bluebooks and sheets of music.  Soon I was back into the summer sun.  The hot, muggy air wrapped around me like a warm blanket.

Nick followed after me, carrying the deer.  He called “Alley oop!” and threw it into the big trash bin.  It crashed inside with a ringing clang.

“One deer’s head down, a million boxes to go,” Nick said.

Behind him, the building let out a groan.  Another wave of cold, mildewed air rushed out around me.  It stank of must and dirt.  The trees across the road didn’t seem to move.

“Something is very wrong here,” I said.

Nick patted me on the shoulder.  “No kidding.  A grown man with degrees and certificates getting spooked by a dead deer.”

“No,” I said seriously.  “I mean in the schoolhouse.” “You just got spooked.”

I felt my eyes go wide.  In my deep ‘teacher voice,’ I said, “No, there is something inside there.” Nick rolled his eyes.  “Whatever, man.  Listen, we’ll work our way in from the doors anyway.  If something starts crawling around, we’ll just book it out of there, okay?” I shook my head.  “We should call the police or something.” “And wait for them to come around and then just give us the all-clear?  Let’s get this taken care of, you can go back to your lady and baby-to-be, and at the end of the month, we’ll both have nice bonuses.” I felt my lips pull tight.  Nick was right about the bonus and about waiting on the police to come all this way out of Wilkes.  Wendy and I could use every dollar we could get, but finishing sooner rather than later sounded the best of all.

“Fine,” was all I could say.

Nick went back through the open doors.  He set to work grabbing bigger items like the rest of the flagpole stand and Eisenhower’s poster and tossed them into the bin.  I carefully sat on the threshold, not willing to go all the way inside, and dug into the boxes of papers.  The vast majority of it was old homework from teachers whose pensions were long done.  For every box of graduation certificates I found to keep, four boxes of junk went into the dumpster.

After three hours, we had made it partially down the hallway.  Almost every time I tossed out a box, it seemed as if a new one had taken its place.  We’d half-drained the orange water cooler, and I had sweated it all off.  Still, there was more junk.

It was depressing to see such a slow pace, but I supposed that just meant more hours we could add onto our invoice when it was finally over.  The work was rhythmic, flipping through one set of papers and then the next, tossing some and filing others.  Every so often, I would run across an old yearbook or debate trophy that the Chisholm County Historical Society might be interested in. Sometimes it seemed like the keep-pile next to the door was getting bigger than the mass in the dumpster.

I hadn’t even noticed I was hungry when Nick called, “Lunch!” We sat on the back bumper of the school van.  Nick popped open a cooler and chowed down on what looked like a Lunchables made for adults.  I had a ‘Good Value’-brand lunchmeat sandwich Wendy had packed for me that morning.  With the baby coming, we could use every dollar, meaning nothing special at the grocery store.

“Feeling better?” Nick asked between bites of his ready-to-assemble mini-pizzas.

I shrugged.  Whatever it was I had seen before, it hadn’t shown up since we started.  There had been some weird sounds, like grunts and coos, but it could’ve been the schoolhouse settling.

“It’s a weird old building,” Nick said.  “But we’re making progress.  It’ll go faster once we’re into those desks and just tossing furniture.”

“Yeah,” I said softly.  I didn’t like the idea of going into the dim rooms again.  The hot air felt good, even if I had sweated through my shirt.

The doors to the schoolhouse slammed shut.

Nick jumped to his feet, spilling his packaged lunch on the ground.  “What was that?” I sat frozen.

“Just the wind,” Nick said.  He turned and looked around at the unmoving trees.  “I guess, anyway.”

I opened my mouth, but it was a moment longer before I could force words out.  “No.  It can’t be.  No wind.”

“It was the wind,” Nick told me.

“The doors are on opposite sides!” I said.  My voice became loud and shrill.  “The wind can’t blow from two directions at once!”

“It was the wind!” Nick repeated.  “It must’ve been an updraft or something.  Cold air from inside mixing with the…”

He didn’t finish and began marching to the doors.

“What are you doing?” I called after him.

“I’m going to prop them open,” Nick said without looking back.

“Just leave them!” I said.  “Let’s call it a day.  We could come back tomorrow with some of the facilities management guys to bolt them open or something!”

Nick put a hand on one of the handles.  “Are you kidding me?  Stop being such a weirdo!” He pulled.  I found myself jumping up, running hands outstretched as if I could reach him in time to slam the door back.  I didn’t want to see what had closed them.

Nick opened it just ahead of me.  I skidded to a stop and let myself fall.  My butt hit the mixed gravel and weeds with a thud.

There, with fresh light spilling into the hallway, was a mound of boxes and junk.  It was just as full as when we had opened it this morning.  There were decorations for Valentine’s Day piled beside a poster of “Our President, Lyndon Johnson.”  An upended teacher’s desk was pushed against the wall where I had just emptied out a stack of boxes with student creative writing projects.

Nick fell backward two steps.

“That’s impossible!” he shouted.  “Where’d all this come from?” “I don’t remember any of this from before,” I said.

“Maybe it blew in when the wind caught the doors.” I shook my head.  “No.  There’s something in there that wants it to be a mess.  We’re in way over our heads here.” “It’s all some kind of joke,” Nick said.  “It’s probably Vice-Principal Hendricks.” He called out loudly, “Right?  That you, Jim?” Nothing made a sound.

Nick clenched his fists.  “That’s it.”

He stomped inside.  His boots made heavy clunks onto the wooden floor, its polish long gone and leaving only splintered, soggy planks.  I reached out to stop him, but he was gone.

“Listen up, chump!” Nick shouted.  “Whoever’s in here, you’re in for a world of hurt for messing with us.  Now come out and help clean this up!”

There were more footsteps as he plodded back and forth.  I thought about going in after him, but the wafting cool air from inside made me stop.  My skin felt tight over my arms.

“Yeah, I know you’re in here!”

I bit my lip and leaned forward into the shadow.  Nick’s body was a dim outline climbing over the boxes toward the dark end of the hallway.

“Aha!” Nick shouted.  There was a series of thuds as he stumbled toward whatever he had seen. Papers fell out of boxes, and a tower of textbooks that asked whether man would ever reach the moon collapsed.

Nick’s voice was high, excited and singing.  “I see you behind that bench!” A prickle ran up the back of my neck.  Maybe someone was just messing with us.

“Let’s go–OH, NO!” Nick’s voice turned into a long scream mixed with breathy swears.

A low sort of growl like a strong wind replied.

I gasped and jumped backward, fully into the hot May sun.  It rested on my shoulders, holding me in place.

There was a loud thud followed by scratching sounds.  Nick suddenly stopped screaming.

“Nick?” I whispered.


I clenched my teeth together and charged inside the single open door.  It rattled behind me on the windless day.  Papers rustled around my feet.  I charged over them, stepping over boxes, on top of them, whatever I could do to get to Nick fastest.

Maybe he had just slipped.  He was a good forty pounds heavier than me, but I could stabilize him until the paramedics got here.  It’d be a good half-hour from the hospital in Wilkes…

My mind was racing with every possibility as I climbed over the mess.  It slithered under my hands and feet.  As I pushed, boxes shifted out of the way, up the wall and vomiting out old thermometer kits wrapped in ragged leather.

Something grabbed my ankle.  My shoe slipped over loose papers, and I hit the boxes face-first. Pages of English textbooks bit into my arms with deep papercuts.  I hissed and pushed myself forward.

My foot wouldn’t budge.  I turned back to find it caught by the ankle in a drawer of the overturned desk.  I pulled; it didn’t give.

With my free foot, I kicked the mold-spotted side panel.  The desk gave a squeak, and the drawer loosened enough so that I could twist my foot free.  When it gave, I fell forward, bowling over the thick carpet of papers into the end of the hallway, the room where Nick had found the deer’s head.

The far wall was where the locust trees had grown into the building, merging the dead wood of the panels with the living, thorny trunks.  Brittle stems poked through the top of the wall.  Yellow-green leaves seemed to slither through holes in the boards over the broken glass windows.

In front of them, the hoarder stood eight or nine feet tall, its bulbous head hunched under the wooden rafters of the ceiling.  It had two arms and two legs, but it was not human.  It was a mishmash of rotten cardboard, metal pipes, and broken easels.  One leg was a gnarled dead branch from a locust tree.  Thorns prickled along the cragged dead wood.  Cobwebs held the miscellaneous parts together, along with empty snake skins and the dried bodies of rats.  Its eyes were the glowing angled-oval reflectors I had seen in the dark, assembled from bits of broken mirrors into disjointed insect’s eyes.

It held Nick up by the arm, his head lolling to the side.

I screamed and scurried backward.  My hands carried my weight while my legs just kicked.  I’d do anything to get away from it.

It opened a gaping mouth and roared at me with the sound of wind in the rafters.

My eyes squeezed shut, too afraid to look at anything.  I had to force them open to see where I was going in the hallway.

The door was standing open, letting in bright sunlight.  The dust danced in the beams, almost seeming to form twisted faces.  Papers crawled out of boxes and into new ones.

“No!” was all I could scream.

I pushed up to my feet and dove over the boxes.  The open flaps of cardboard reached out for me.  Papers licked against my skin.  The air seemed to turn thicker and colder, choking me.  I had to cough twice just to suck in one gasp of breath.

As I swam through the writhing piles of junk, I heard dull thuds behind me.  I risked a glance over my shoulder, away from the warm sun.

The hoarder was in the hallway now.  Its clumsy legs took slow steps, but they covered whole yards.  The living, crumpled papers and torn books shifted out of its way.  It dragged Nick along the ground after it with one hand.  The other reached for me with fingers that were assembled from animal bones.

I screamed again and pushed harder through the swirling mess.  A shoe slipped off my foot, stolen by the grasping fingers of garbage.  Blood was dripping off my bare arms onto the boxes.  The noise rattled around my ears like an avalanche.

At the end of the hallway, the door began to close.

“No no no!” I cried.

I leaped the last few feet.  My right arm made it into the warm air outside.

The door banged closed anyway, leaving just a sliver of light where my arm stuck through.  A shot of stabbing pain ran up my shoulder, and I gave another cry.  My voice was rasping.

The door opened again, as if it was backing up to charge closed.  Despite the blazing pain all through my arm, I threw myself forward again.  My head hit the door, and then my shoulder, and then I was out in the sun.

The door slammed loudly behind me.

I was on the ground, sucking in long, deep breaths of the hot, wet air.  I don’t know how long I lay there, but the only thing I wanted to do was sit in the steaming sunlight and soak up the warmth. The ground was hard, and the gravel jabbed up into my back whenever I breathed.  It was all right.  The ground was a firm foundation; the gravel reminded me I was still alive.

The mess was so old and had been piled so deep that it took on a life of its own.  It had become evil and twisted, mutated by age unnoticed.  And now it had Nick.

“Nick,” I mumbled to myself.

It took every ounce of willpower to pull myself up.  My body wanted to lie flat.  My shoulder hurt, not quite out of socket but not quite in either.  Blood covered my old shirt and jeans, mixing with the dust to make a color that wasn’t quite brown.  A huge bruise was already forming around my forearm where the door had slammed.  It hurt to move my fingers.

But Nick was still inside with the hoarder.  I had to do something.

Finally I got to my feet.  It was worse than all the cold winter mornings crawling out of warm bed at five-thirty to tell kids about a war or a political process that happened centuries before they could care.

I shambled to my car, opened the driver’s door with my good arm, and half-fell inside.  My cell phone was in the glove box since I assumed I wouldn’t need it sorting out old boxes.  I had to reach around my own body to dig it out.

There was a text from Wendy.  “I hope your day’s ok. ” I loved her.  I wanted to start the car and get away from this place and never come back.  But I had to help Nick.

I dialed 911.  The operator came on with her nasally, droning voice.  “Please state the nature of your emergency.”

The words stuck in my throat, gagging me.  Finally I told her, “There’s a man injured at the old Falling River Schoolhouse.  Another is trapped inside.”

It would be fifteen minutes before a cop could arrive, twenty for an ambulance.  I didn’t know whether Nick was still alive even now.  I dropped the phone into the passenger’s seat and climbed out of the car again.

Holding my right arm, I forced myself back to the schoolhouse one plodding step at a time.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I could do with one arm, but I had to do something.  I couldn’t sit idly by, not trying.  I was a teacher for a reason.

When I pulled, the door stuck tight.  I yanked hard, nearly pulling the rusty handle out of the decaying wood.  The door gave a little and then snapped back into place with a thud.  Something inside was holding it.

“Fine,” I told it.

Nick had left the keys to the activity van in the driver’s seat.  I hoisted myself up into the high seat and made the engine roar.  Pulling the wheel hard with one hand to get it set straight, I revved the engine once more and then slapped it into gear.  The transmission shrieked, gravel shot out from under the tires, and then I was thrown into the back of the seat as the van charged.

It hit the doors square on.  They gave instantly, as if I’d driven through one of the paper banners the football players charged through at the beginning of every game.  I didn’t even see the hinges pop, just the hail of splintering wood explode over the hood and cascade up the windshield.  The van plowed through boxes and miscellaneous junk.  I thought I heard screams over the sound of crunching paper.

I popped the door handle.  It only opened about six inches, just enough to squeeze through. Gritting my teeth, I pressed myself through the space and fought until I could reach the floor.

The hall was chaos.  Piles of junk were tumbling over one another like waves in a storm, randomly banging on the wall, boxes flapping their cardboard wings.  Ringing crunches and thumps filled my ears.  The din was worse than cafeteria duty.

As I pushed myself past the edge of the door, I saw Nick.  The hoarder had him by the arm, holding him high above the piles of desks in the first room we had entered.  The top layer had been pulled away, revealing a hole in the wooden floor.  Even in the horrible cacophony in the hall, I could hear chit-chittering sounds spilling out.

My eyes slowly adjusted until I could see through the shadows.  There, half-buried in floorboards, was a writhing, eyeless brood of small hoarders.  Their bodies were misshapen, just piles of broken chalk and lecterns.  The desks really were a nest, and the hoarder was raising up a twisted family, like itself.

One of the tiny creatures lifted up stick arms and grabbed Nick’s boot.  It twisted until the boot came off, falling into the pile.  The baby hoarders pounced, fighting over it until one pushed the others away and jammed it into a stump of a leg.  Then they turned back to Nick’s body.

They were leeching new parts.  Was his body next?  What would they do with Nick’s muscles? With his eyes?

Behind me, the van’s radio flicked itself on.  “I see a bad moon rising… I see trouble on the way…”

“What the–?” I began, but the seatbelt leaped over my shoulder and caught me around the neck, cutting me off before I could swear.

It dragged me back inside the van.  I gagged and pulled, freeing my throat to take a long breath. The van itself, its hood crumpled and chips in the windshield, was becoming part of the junk.  Dials flipped back and forth, the odometer spun, and windows began to roll themselves down.

The radio turned itself up, screeching out, “Don’t go around tonight…it’s bound to take your life!”

I ducked to slip out of the seatbelt’s grasp and slid to the floorboard.  It tried to grab my feet as I dragged my body back toward the quieter rear with my good arm.  The trip should have been quick with the seats gone, but it took me a minute more to find what I needed: the little bag containing the road emergency kit.

There were four road flares tucked inside.  I took the first, flipped its cap around, and struck it like a giant match.  Molten bits flew off, singeing the plastic and carpet all around me.  The radio squealed with static.

I jabbed the others in the pocket of my jeans and pushed the flare out like a torch, leading the way.  After a quick stab, the back doors burst open.

Triumphant, I leaped into the hallway.  Boxes were crawling over the top of the van, almost looking down at me.  From nowhere, a seamstress’s mannequin tackled me.  I hit the floor, and the flares tumbled out of my pocket.

“Oh no, not like this,” I said through gritted teeth.

I buried the flare into the mannequin’s fabric chest.  Flames jumped up, and it fell back, rolling around as if in pain.

That only made the fire spread.

Boxes went up, and the papers swirling in the air became a firestorm.  I ducked low, grabbed up the other three flares, and duckwalked into the room with the desks.

The hoarder looked up at me with its mirror-shard eyes.

“Yeah, I’m back!” I screamed.

I lit a new flare.

It gave a horrified yawning shriek.  It dropped Nick to the floor and brought its long-fingered hands over its eyes.  The young hoarders squealed like hungry birds.

I held the flare high and slowly moved forward, pushing the giant hoarder back.  It howled louder and louder as it crept backward into the darkness.  Every step brought me closer to Nick’s unconscious body.  He was breathing.

Smoke started to fill the air.  I coughed and bent lower over Nick.

The hoarder roared and came forward.

I shot back up into a standing position and waved the flare.

It shrieked and retreated again.

“I’ll give you something to worry about,” I muttered.

I tucked the flare into my injured right hand.  It hurt to hold it even at shoulder height.  The hoarder made a cackling sound like a banging door and reached toward me slowly.

It wasn’t easy lighting the third flare with the cap in the pit of my elbow, but on the third strike, I made it work.  More light filled the smoky room, and the hoarder squealed again.  I drove it back, and then I tossed it into the nest of younglings.

A fresh hail of screams filled the air.  The small hoarders shrieked and fought, throwing the fire against one another and lashing out in pain.  The hoarder gave a horrified wail and reached into the fire only to pull back its singed hands.

I grabbed Nick’s collar with my good hand.  He shifted, his eyes peeking open for a moment.

“Come on, Coach!” I shouted.  “Push those legs!” Even in his stupor, he seemed to understand.  He crawled, and I guided him toward the boarded-up window at the front of the schoolhouse.  The hallway behind me was already ablaze.  I wondered how long a van could be on fire before its gas tank went up.

The window’s glass was all broken out, most of it ground to dust on the floor beneath the sill.  A broad piece of plywood was nailed over it from the opposite side.  I dropped Nick and the flare and grabbed a loose desk with both hands despite the stabbing pain in my shoulder.  With a loud shout, I leaned back to gain momentum and then swung it over my head.

It hit the board with a loud smack and bounced back.  The board hadn’t come loose, but its bottom corner had popped free.  A blade of sunlight cut into the room.

A huge hand caught me around the back of the neck.  It pulled, lifting me off my feet and tossing me across the room.  I hit the old slate chalkboard on the wall with my back.  All the air inside me exploded out of my mouth, and then I crumpled to the floor.

The hoarder stomped toward me with enormous steps.  It pointed a long finger at me, the edges curled ashes.

Slaughterer!” it said in a voice like a draining sink.  “Waster!” I screamed.  My good hand felt for more flares, but one had flown out of my hand and the other was gone from my pocket.

The hoarder leaned over me, both hands outstretched.  It made a long wailing howl and snapped glass-shard teeth in its wide mouth.

I gritted my own teeth and pushed myself up.  Enough adrenaline was running through my body that the pain couldn’t even register.  All that mattered now was fight-or-flight.  I just threw myself forward, headlong into the monster’s dusty body.

We collided with all the force I could muster.  Thorns from its deadwood leg stabbed into my side, but I kept pushing until, finally, it fell back.  The hoarder shrieked and tumbled, hitting the floor just on the edge of the firepit that had once been its nest.

I pulled myself off the screaming creature.  My hand found an overturned desk and, as soon as I was on my feet, I slammed it onto the hoarder’s face.  Mirrors shattered in its eyes, and it went still.

I didn’t waste time catching my breath in the smoke-filled room.  Nick was on his hands and knees, his head rolling around.

“Nick, go!” I shouted, pointing at the window.

He stumbled forward a little.

I spat more from disgust than the dust and smoke in my mouth.  Limping as fast as I could, I dragged him to his feet and onto the window sill.

Finally, Nick seemed to come to his senses.  He pushed, breaking open a part of the board enough to squeeze past.  He went through headfirst.

I went after him.  Just as I got my waist over the sill, something caught my jeans.  I turned back and reached to free my pant leg from what held it.

It was the hoarder’s hand.  The monster’s face held only a few flecks of mirrors now, and it rolled blindly.  Its hand, shorter now than before, slithered around my leg.  Another hand slowly drew forward.  The rest of its body was surrounded by a blaze of hellfire.

“No more,” I told it.  “No more!”

I was done fighting it.  The mess just needed to be ended.

I undid the belt clasp and kicked furiously.  I tried to pull myself toward the sunlight with my right arm, but my shoulder was swollen and refused to work.  Instead, all I could do was kick and pray and push.

A new groan broke out, this one different from the gusty moans of the hoarder and the howl of the fire.  It was followed by loud cracks as the ceiling gave way around the stubby, boarded-up tower. The brass bell leaped down from its hiding place down and onto the hoarder.  The hoarder made a yelp that echoed in the bell as it swallowed the creature up.

Weakened, the windowsill gave out under me, grinding against my bare legs.  I fell three feet and then hit the ground, landing with a thud that I felt more than heard.  My ears rang with the sounds of fire and screaming.

A hand touched my arm.  I pulled back from it and tried to squint in the light to see what it was.

A shadow passed, and Nick stood over me.  “Come on, buddy!  Let’s move!” I let him take me by and left arm, and he pulled me back to the hood of my Toyota.  There we fell, both gasping for breath and giving whining grunts as stabs of pain rolled through our bodies.  I had lost my shoes and my jeans, but they were small sacrifices.

We leaned against the car and watched the flames pour out of the stubby bell tower.  Gradually the sounds of shrieks turned into a long, dull roar of burning.  I watched to make sure the locust trees burned, too.

By the time the volunteer fire department arrived, backed up by the big city trucks from Wilkes, there wasn’t much left of the schoolhouse.  They patched us up and stood alongside, helping us watch it burn.  The van never did explode, but I guess it added to the flames.

The schoolhouse burned down to the foundation, leaving just a smoldering pile of ash and debris by the time the police were done questioning us.  The superintendent and even Vice-Principal Hendricks showed up.  I didn’t care.  I didn’t listen to a word while they yelled at us that this was somehow our fault.  All I cared about was seeing Wendy again.  It was still hours before she could get away from work and meet me at the hospital.

Nick said he didn’t remember a thing except somebody pulling a prank on us.  I told the police that it was faulty brakes on the van and we were lucky to get out with our lives.  The superintendent refused to believe anything could be wrong with school district property.  There was going to be an investigation, so I might need a lawyer by the time it’s all sorted out.  Then I might be looking for a new job.

Between that and the bills for stitches and a sling on my arm, we can use every dollar we get.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Jeff Provine
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Jeff Provine

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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