Middletown Middle – Story Ten – The Replacement

April 1953

Middletown Middle School has had only two janitors in its long history. Both men worked at the school for an incredible 67 years, until their deaths. But why did they never retire or leave the school? The answer is unsettling – they were held captive by the school.

The first janitor, Chaska Washington, began working at the school in 1886, when it was still named after the disgraced entertainer Alfred P. Dunmore. Born into the Lakota tribe, Chaska learned English as a child and even helped build the school. He remained the school’s caretaker until his untimely death in 1953 when he fell off a ladder and was found lying across a xylophone in the band room.

One day later, the school seemed to choose its next janitor. It was as if the school had a hold on both men, refusing to let them go even in death – they had served the institution for 67 years, the same number of students it had when it first opened.

The atmosphere at Middletown Middle is always eerie at night when the classrooms are empty and the darkness surrounds you. Eighth-grader Benjamin Brown had snuck into the school the previous evening with his friends to play destructive pranks and deface the chalkboards with profanity. As they disturbed the silence of the school, 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 urgently. With no other choice, he returned to the school alone, his footsteps echoing through the long hallway like he was in a cathedral. The crude messages he and his friends had written on the boards now seemed childish, and he wished they hadn’t defaced the school in such a way. The ringing of their laughter still bounced off the dark corners of the institution, and Benjamin knew that these echoes were the only thing he would leave behind when he graduated in a few short weeks.

As he approached the bathroom, Benjamin heard the sound of a mop being dunked into water and flopped onto a wet floor. He remembered the prank his friends had played earlier – stuffing towels in the sinks and turning on the faucets – and now he wanted to turn around and leave. But when you gotta go, you gotta go, and so he reluctantly entered the bathroom.

As Benjamin swung open the bathroom door, he was greeted by a flood of water pouring out. But he barely noticed because standing in the bathroom was the deceased janitor, Chaska Washington, recognizable by his green jumpsuit and crooked posture.

“Ah, you kids today have no respect,” the ghost said, moving a mop back and forth. Benjamin waded through the water, his heart pounding in his chest, to reach the toilet.

“I knew right away who was behind this,” the janitor continued, still mopping. His ghostly face had deep, dark, sunken eyes that seemed to bore into Benjamin. “You made this mess, Mr. Brown.”

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

“I was the same age as you when I began my work here, 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 whispered, 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—”

“Save your apologies, Benjamin Brown,” the ghost interrupted. “They’re meaningless. 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 the mess he had helped create. Reluctantly, he reached out and grabbed the mop from the ghost. As 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 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 friends, but they didn’t believe a word of it. His parents were equally skeptical when he returned home.

Benjamin showered and went to bed, but the strange encounter with the ghost lingered in his mind, haunting his dreams. When he woke, he found himself in a strange place that smelled of toilet bowl cleaner. A small lamp on a table provided the only light in the windowless room, which contained nothing more than four walls, a bed, a desk, and now a 13-year-old boy.

Was this a prison cell? Benjamin wondered, looking down at his unchanged clothes and muddy feet. He was so confused he wanted to cry.

The smell of cleaning products intensified as he approached the exit, which led to the janitor’s closet. Inside, he saw the mop he had held the previous night, as well as brooms and shelves full of cleaning products, kitty litter, and cans of bee spray.

Beyond the overwhelming chemical smell, Benjamin heard the sounds of children 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, all of whom were staring at him curiously and pointing at his pajamas and muddy bare feet. A police officer spotted Benjamin and took him home to reunite him with his concerned family. When the officer asked how he got to the school, Benjamin had no explanation.

At home, Benjamin explained to his parents that he had no idea how he ended up at school. He didn’t remember 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 spreading 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 that he couldn’t shake 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 was waiting on the porch, and the son pleaded with him to believe and help him. Benjamin had no idea what was going on, and his father could see that this was no prank.

His dad promised to watch over him to make sure it didn’t happen again, and they went about their typical day. That evening, Benjamin went to bed with his dad keeping watch. 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, which Benjamin had punched 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 again found him at the school and arrested him. Benjamin was tired and 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 as if they were dirty underwear.

“How long?”

“Your lifetime, at least.”

“Seriously?” Benjamin questioned, the weight of his new responsibility sinking in. He didn’t know it then, but his life had changed forever. And all because of a prank gone wrong, he would now serve Middletown Middle School as its janitor, the doorkeeper, for the rest of his life.




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