Middletown Middle – Story Ten – The Replacement

April 1953

In its entire history, Middletown Middle School has only had two janitors. For a school that has been around for more than a century, such crazy longevity is exceptional. What was the reason neither man could quit or retire? The school held them captive. Both men passed away at the school after working for 67 years. That number is notable because it’s the number of students the school had when it opened.

The school’s first janitor, Chaska Washington, began in 1886. Born into the Lakota tribe, he learned English as a child. As a teen, he helped build the first school, then named for the disgraced entertainer Alfred P. Dunmore. He remained the school’s caretaker until 1953 when he fell off a ladder. Chaska was found lying across a xylophone in the band room. The building itself selected the next janitor only one day later. 

Middletown Middle has a strange and scary vibe at night when it’s dark and the classrooms are empty. Eighth-grader Benjamin Brown had snuck into the school the evening before a memorial to be held in Chaska’s honor with his friends and disturbed the quiet school by playing destructive pranks and writing bad words on all the chalkboards. Benjamin wrote a message on the first-grade chalkboard.

If you puke on the floor, I will haunt you — Chaska, the dead janitor.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Brown had to use the bathroom in a major way. He had no choice but to go back in, this time without his puckish friends. When he walked the long hallway, his footsteps echoed as if he was in a cathedral and it creeped him out. The crude messages he and his buddies had written on the boards now seemed dumb, and he wished they hadn’t written them. The ringing of their laughter still bounced off the dark corners of the school. Benjamin would be graduating in a few short weeks, and those echoes were the only thing he would leave behind.

Approaching the bathroom, Benjamin heard the sound of a mop slowly being dunked into water and flopped onto a wet floor. A short time earlier, he had watched his friends stuff towels in the sinks and turn the faucets on. They left just as the water began pouring onto the floor. He had forgotten the prank, and now he wanted to turn around, but when you gotta go, you gotta go.

Benjamin swung open the bathroom door and water poured out, but he was too distracted to notice because inside the bathroom stood the deceased janitor. The ghost had his back to the eighth-grader but Benjamin knew from the distinct green jumpsuit and his crooked posture that it was Chaska Washington.

“Ay, you kids today have no respect,” the ghost said, moving a mop back and forth.

Benjamin waded through the floodwater, soaking his shoes and socks, to get to the toilet. His heart was beating out of his chest.

“I knew right away who was behind this,” The janitor said, continuing to mop. The man was only moving water back and forth. Benjamin looked over his shoulder, seeing the ghostly face and deep, dark, sunken eyes. “You made this mess, Mr. Brown.”

Benjamin wished he hadn’t gulped down that second glass of lemonade with dinner. He tried leaving without washing his hands, but the ghost stood between him and the door.

“I was the same age as you when I began, sixty-seven years ago, and this is how you observe my death? By flooding the bathroom? I’m sick of cleaning up after you disgusting creatures. Give me rest.”

“I’m sorry,” Benjamin muttered quietly. He was too scared to move.

“I can’t hear you,” the ghost exclaimed, “which is very unusual, as I can normally hear you from across the school, Benjamin.”

“I’m sor—”

“Stuff your sorries in a sack, Benjamin Brown. They’re meaningless,” the ghost interrupted. He held out the mop to Benjamin. “Sorries don’t suck the water off the floor. Show me you are sorry. Take this mop.”

The last thing Benjamin wanted to do was clean this mess. Reluctantly, he reached out and grabbed the mop from the ghost, and when he did, he saw a hint of a smile on the ghost’s face. The ghost, freed of his burden, walked into a toilet stall and disappeared into vapor.

Benjamin stood in the bathroom alone, with water covering his feet and an ice-cold mop in his hand. He cleaned the mess in the bathroom and erased all the messages he and his friends had written in the classrooms. When he was finished, he headed outside. He told his story to his troublemaking chums, but his friends did not believe a word of it; nor did his parents when he returned home.

Benjamin showered and went to bed. He couldn’t put the strange meeting with the ghost out of his head. It haunted his dreams, and when he woke, he was no longer in his cozy bedroom.

Benjamin found himself in a strange place that smelled of toilet bowl cleaner. A small lamp on a table lit the windowless room, but nothing in the room was worth seeing—just four walls, a bed, a desk, and now a 13-year-old boy.

Was this a prison cell? Benjamin wondered. His clothes hadn’t changed, but his feet were muddy. He was so confused he wanted to cry.

The odor of cleaning products intensified as he approached the exit. On the other side of the unlocked door, he found the janitor’s closet, not that he was looking for it. The room contained the mop he had held twelve hours before, brooms, and shelves full of cleaning products, kitty litter, and dozens of cans of bee spray.

Beyond the overwhelming chemical smell, Benjamin heard the sounds of kids and saw the light filtering under the room’s second door. Opening that door, he was quickly overwhelmed by an explosion of sunlight and surrounded by his fellow students. It was just before 8:00 a.m., and the children were heading for their classrooms to begin their day.

They quickly surrounded him. He saw them pointing curiously at his pajamas and mud-covered bare feet. A police officer spotted Benjamin and took him home to reunite him with his concerned family. When the police officer asked how he got to the school, Benjamin could offer no explanation.

At home, he explained to his parents that he had no idea how he made it to school. He didn’t recall walking there or even waking up. By the time he had cleaned up and changed into his regular daytime clothes, Benjamin had missed half the day and rumors of the sleepwalking student were moving fast. He didn’t blame the kids for talking about it, and he didn’t care. He was distracted by the smell of cleaning products he couldn’t expel from his nose.

That night he went home, played ball with his friends, and worked on homework. After he ran out of things to do, he went to bed in his room. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. In the morning, he woke on the school’s stage, surrounded by the set for the play Our Town.

Since it was Saturday, the school was empty. It was just after dawn, and he knew his own house would be quiet. He borrowed some snow boots from the lost-and-found and walked home. Benjamin’s father waited on the porch, and again the son pleaded with his dad to believe and help him. Benjamin had no idea what was going on, and his father could see this was no prank.

His dad promised to watch to be sure it didn’t happen again, and they went about their typical day. That evening, Benjamin went to bed with his dad watching over his sleeping son. On Sunday morning, Benjamin woke in the cafeteria. He found blood on his shirt, and it wasn’t his. The same police officer from the first night pulled up to the school as Benjamin walked out.

They had received reports of someone breaking and entering the school. The officer brought him to the station where his father was waiting. His dad had a broken nose where Benjamin had punched him and knocked him unconscious. The police released Benjamin to his father with a warning. Next time it happened, he’d be spending a night in jail.

“I’ve been cursed, Dad,” Benjamin broke down in tears once they were in the car. “That ghost won’t let me leave.”

His dad’s face hurt too much for him to answer or console his son.

That evening, Benjamin handcuffed himself to the bed and told his parents to stay away. On Monday morning, he woke in the janitor’s room, a portion of the bed still anchored to his arm. Fortunately, it was a holiday, so he was saved the embarrassment of being amongst his friends and carrying around his bed.

The police were waiting and took him in. As promised, he was put in a jail cell. At some point in the afternoon, Benjamin dozed off and escaped. No one could account for how he managed the trick, as there were no witnesses, and it occurred years before security cameras. The police once more found him at the school and arrested him. Benjamin was tired, and he felt like his life was out of control.

Principal Hopkins picked him up this time, but instead of taking him home, Hopkins took Benjamin back to the school.

“You know Benjamin, in Latin, janitor means ‘doorkeeper,’” the principal explained as they walked into the building. “You mustn’t fight any longer. You’re the doorkeeper now.”

“You’re saying I’m the janitor?” Benjamin questioned.

“I spoke with your parents,” Hopkins told him. “They didn’t like it, but they went here too. They know how it is.”

“Will I get paid?”

“Of course,” Hopkins said as they reached the principal’s office.

“I gotta clean toilets?”

Hopkins nodded. “Yes. That’s part of the job. More importantly, you need to befriend the things that go bump in the night and be sure they are gone by the first period. I don’t know the secrets of this place. I don’t wanna know.”

“For how long?” Benjamin asked.

“Hard to say.” The principal handed over a key ring that held a hundred keys of various sizes. “To the doorkeeper go the keys. Don’t ask me what they all unlock. I have no idea. A lot of them are for the basement. You do what you gotta do.”

Benjamin looked at the keys like he’d been handed dirty underwear.

“How long?

Your lifetime, at least.”

“Seriously?” Benjamin said dejectedly. “My life is over?”

“You can’t ever be a sea captain, but the school will have much for you to do — even heroic things you won’t be able to speak of.”

Benjamin nodded and got to work. For the first few months, he’d go home after school and try to live his normal life, but his janitorial duties kept him at school increasingly more. Eventually, Benjamin stopped going back. He played basketball in the gym with his new friends and ate cafeteria food. He watched all the students he knew graduate, move on, and be replaced by strangers. 

Kids saw the old man talking to himself; they didn’t know he had once been one of them. They didn’t know he sacrificed everything for them and he was actually talking to ghosts. 

On a cold spring day in 2020, Benjamin Brown, the school’s caretaker for sixty-seven years, fell asleep on a bench right outside the school and never woke up. He had accomplished a lifetime of tasks, but in death he had one last job to finish before resting: he needed to find his replacement.

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