Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
I don’t really like to talk about this story much, mostly because it still freaks me out, even all these years later. But years ago, not long after I’d graduated high school, my friend Adria asked if I’d help her out.
Now, Adria is a realtor, and has a real eye for style. She always has. In high school, for example, she was the one tasked with planning the decorations for prom, for the class banquet, even for our graduation…
She also helped our mutual friend Jaden style her entire wedding. She’s just really good at all that stuff – colors, décor, architecture, you name it…
So, it isn’t so surprising that as part of her real estate business, she often gets asked to stage people’s homes, getting them ready for resale…
Adria got the listing on a small private family-run elementary school, way up in (insert remote area near where Ashley grew up).
Now, according to Adria, the school had been closed for years and years, due to a number of factors: dwindling admission numbers, tired facilities, mediocre reviews, and it wasn’t in the best area – a thirty-minute drive from the nearest highway exit… Not exactly convenient for most parents who lived and worked closer to a larger city or town.
Adria also mentioned there’d been an ongoing family dispute over whether or not to fix the school up and re-open under a new name, but in the end family members decided to sell the school and split the proceeds.
That’s where I came in.
Adria asked if I’d help her stage the school for sale. “I barely have twenty-four hours,” she said. “Long story short, I have two school administrators interested in the property. I need an extra set of hands and immediately thought of you. We could get there Friday night, work all day Saturday – (all the furniture and cleaning supplies are already there) – and the two administrators are coming on Sunday. What do you say? It could be fun, don’t you think?”
Fun may have been a stretch, but I wanted to help her out. Adria had certainly helped me in the past, including scoring me an amazing apartment in (insert city name here), post-grad. So, I was happy to go.
She gave me the address and I drove out – three hours – on a Friday afternoon, after work. It was raining that day, making visibility slim. Not only were the streets narrow and desolate, but so many of them looked the same: bordered by woods, or farmland, or other abandoned properties.
To make matters worse, phone reception was patchy at best. My nav kept cutting out, which Adria had warned me about, but still… It wasn’t the most peaceful drive, even in the daylight.
Finally, after a few wrong turns I found the property. I pulled up a long driveway that cut through the woods. The school was a good distance from the road, but when I got to the actual grounds I could understand why someone would want to build a school here.
The campus was gorgeous, despite the rain, like something you’d see in a storybook. There was a natural play area nestled in a grove of pine trees; wooden climbing structures; cherry-blossom-sprinkled picnic tables; a huge sand box made of logs; and what must’ve once been a garden (all overgrown now). Honestly, it was, like, an enchanted space. I could almost picture the children playing on the see-saw or taking turns on the tire swing.
The building itself, was a bit different from what I’d expected: more like a house than a school: a long red one-story ranch with a row of tiny stained-glass windows.
Adria wasn’t there yet. At least, I didn’t see her car parked anywhere. I sent her a text to tell her I’d arrived, then tried the door, worried it wouldn’t open.
But it did.
Adria must’ve planned ahead, knowing we may miss one another. She even left me a gift. I stepped inside, flicked on the lights, and was greeted to a flower bouquet: an array of daisies and tulips. I opened the card. The words “Thank you so much for coming!” were written in perfect printed penmanship.
The inside of the school looked like it was stuck in a time warp: desks from the 70s lined up in rows, linoleum floors, and dim fluorescent lights. A large green chalkboard was set up at the front. The words “Welcome, Miss Ashley” were handwritten in loopy cursive letters. Clearly, Adria’s sense of enthusiasm.
The interior looked like a one-room school house, with smaller rooms branching off the main one. I did a quick check around the place to get my bearings. The smaller rooms looked to be offices or meeting rooms. A larger room had carpeted-mats strewn about, as though for seating.
I set down my bag, unable to help notice a weird smell in the air, more like a stench, like rotten fruit. I searched around for the source, wondering if maybe the garbage hadn’t been emptied.
But it had.
The fridge and cabinets had already been cleared as well.
I ended up opening the windows, despite the rain, then checked my phone once again. There was still no response from Adria, which wasn’t at all like her. I mean, she’d obviously known I was coming. Plus, she’d always been so super responsive – within minutes, usually.
I texted her again, adding a bunch of question marks, genuinely worried about her. Had she gotten into an accident? Or had something happened with her mom (who’d had some health issues)?
But, I wasn’t completely panicked yet. It was nearing dinnertime. Maybe she was just out grabbing us something to eat. Maybe she hadn’t been getting my texts because of the patchy cell reception.
So, I just started cleaning: dusting the bookshelves, washing the chalkboard (even the Welcome, Miss Ashley sign).
Along one of the walls I noticed a row of lockers, about four-feet tall. All of the doors were open. Except for one. I scooted down and opened it, surprised to find a dark gray coat, a red lunchbox, and a pair of dirty rubber boots. On the floor of the locker was a crumpled piece of paper. I picked it up and smoothed it out. It looked like a spelling test, with twenty-five words. The name – Mary – was printed neatly across the top.
Most of the words had little red check-marks beside them, indicating she’d spelled the word correctly. But five of them were marked with big red X’s. Across the top of the test, in the same red ink, someone had written the words “More effort needed. Try harder next time.”
I closed the locker and stood up, just a male voice cut through the silence, freezing me in place.
“You’re being watched now,” the voice said, in a sing-songy tone that made my skin crawl. “How does that make you feel?” the voice asked. “Does it make it all better?”
I told myself: Deep breath. Don’t panic.
Maybe the voice was coming from outside. I’d opened the windows, after all. Could the voice have travelled through the screens?
Except, I was in the middle of nowhere – not even remotely within earshot of the street or a public walking path.
My limbs literally shaking, I moved in the direction of the voice, across the main room, and into the room with the carpeted mats. A large projector screen lit up the wall. A movie was playing. An old black and white film, from the 30s or 40s maybe… The scene was grainy, showing a young girl – around seven or eight – balled up on the floor, in the corner of her room, with tears running down her face. The girl’s mouth was moving, as though she were speaking, but she had no voice. The only sound was the pounding of my heart; I could hear it in my ears.
Because, how did this happen – how did the movie just turn on, by itself?
Meanwhile, the light from the projector shined bright at the back of the room, blinding me. Spots shot out in front of my eyes. I went to go click it off.
The screen went black. And, so did the room.
“I’m watching you now,” the movie-voice repeated. “How does that make you feel? Does it make it all better?”
I scurried out, every inch of me trembling. Was it possible the movie was on a timer? But did that make sense? After all these years? Or maybe one of the owners had been staying at the property at least part-time? The door hadn’t been locked… Another possibility: Could someone have been using the property without the owners’ knowledge?
Whatever the answer, I wasn’t about to stay, not by myself. I grabbed my phone to call Adria once again. It didn’t connect the first couple of times, but I moved to end the building, closest to the street. That worked. Her voicemail message played, but it came out static-y and broken: “Hey, this is Adria. I’m sorry I missed you. If you’re calling about a listing, please include the street address, the best time to reach you, and I’ll call you right back.”
“Hey, A,” I said. “I’m here, at the school – and have been for about an hour. Please call me back. I’m worried about you and not the most comfortable, here, on my own. This place is super creep…”
A loud beep cut me off. Was her mailbox full?
I hung up. It was dark out and raining harder now; I could hear it pelting against the windows, like there might’ve even been hail. Meanwhile, the lights overhead let out a gnawing buzz and blinked a bunch of times.
I tried using my phone again – to call Adria’s sister. The call went through. The line started ringing, but the reception went south. A crackling sound played on the line, breaking up the ringing. If there was voicemail I couldn’t hear it.
I checked my screen again. My messages to Adria said they’d been delivered. I’d been at the school for over an hour now.
Finally, I decided: I’d give Adria another thirty minutes, then I’d drive somewhere that had reliable WiFi and make more calls.
To keep myself preoccupied, I resumed my cleaning, noticing fresh mud tracks along the floor. I scooted down to feel them. The mud smeared on my finger; it was wet, sopping even. The shoeprint was small, the size of a child’s. I peered back at the locker with the spelling test and grabbed one of the rainboots to check the tread.
It was a perfect match.
My skin chilled.
Just then, music started playing. Piano chords. String instrumentals. Was that a harp? I stood up. The hairs at the back of my neck stood on end.
I peered around, searching for the source.
And then I saw it. In the corner, by the piano: an old-fashioned Victrola. The lid was open. Was it like that before? No. I was sure it wasn’t. Hadn’t I dusted the surface?
A vinyl record was playing. A female voice began to sing – something about being alone, feeling invisible, in a room full of people.
My fingers trembling, I shut the Victrola off. The needle made a harsh scratching sound that reverberated to my heart.
I backed away, only just noticing. On the chalkboard in cursive letters: “Mary will be a good little girl.”
“Mary will be a good little girl.”
“Mary will be a good little girl…”
And over again.
At least fifty times.
My skin chilled, because the board hadn’t been like that before. I’d washed it with spray and a rag.
Without a second thought, I went for the door and tried to turn the knob. But it wouldn’t budge. I twisted the lock forward and back, but that made no difference either. The door wouldn’t open. It was just a thick, solid panel of wood.
Don’t panic, I thought.
I can be resourceful.
I went for the windows, just as they came slamming down with a loud hard thud that shook me to the core.
I bolted across the room in search of a second exit, maneuvering my way through the pantry area, moving boxes and crates along the way.
Finally, I spotted another door. But it was boarded up – the door cracks, the door itself… Thick planks of wood were nailed across it. The knob had also been removed.
But…the door had a small square of glass, as though as part of a window. I looked through it, into the night, startled to see a girl’s face staring back at mine: her wide, unblinking eyes, her rosebud lips. Long dark hair hung down the sides of her face. She was mouthing something, but I couldn’t hear her.
And so, across the glass, using her finger, she wrote some words. They came out backward-reversed, but still I could read them: “Do you see me?”
My heart tightened into a fist. I looked around for something hard and heavy, spotting an iron sitting atop one of the boxes. I grabbed it, angling the point outward. Using all my might, I plunged it through the glass – more than once – only to discover the glass wasn’t there.
There was no small square of glass.
The entire door was boarded up with planks of wood.
I scrambled for my phone, unable to wake it up.
“What’s happening,” I muttered, speaking aloud, my voice quivering, my mind racing.
I spun round and round, searching for a next step or a way out. At the same moment, the Victrola started playing again: the same sad song.
The movie cranked on: “You’re being watched now. How does that make you feel? Does it make it all better?”
My message to Adria played back (inside my head? Over a loudspeaker? I wasn’t quite sure.) “Hey, A. I’m here, at the school – and have been for about an hour. Please call me back. I’m worried about you and not the most comfortable, here, on my own. This place is super creep…”
All of the voices repeated over and over, mixing together, echoing off the bones of my skull.
A moment later, the lights buzzed again, then and went out completely.
I sank to the floor, not knowing what to do. Panic shot through my veins. Desperation filled my mouth: the taste of bitter acid.
I crawled my way to the door, over the muddy footprints, navigating through the pitch-black darkness, all the while continuing to try to wake up my phone. But nothing was working – no matter how hard I pressed the power button. With my back up against the door, my mind scrambled.
What could I do?
I wanted to think, but the medley of voices impeded my thoughts. I lay down on the floor with my nose pressed into the door crack at the bottom of the door, able to smell the faintest hint of fresh air. I breathed it in, not wanting to move. Eventually, somehow, I fell asleep.
When I woke up again, it was hours later, the following morning. The lights in the school were back on. The voices had stopped. The windows were open again. The sound of birds chirping filtered through the screens.
I got up, my hands trembling, and tried the door. This time it opened and I made a beeline for my car, thinking it wouldn’t start. Thankfully, it did, and I sped off.
When I got a far enough distance away – the first major town – I called Adria.
“Hey,” she said. “It’s so good to hear from you.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Where were you?”
“What do you mean?” Confusion riddled her voice.
“You called me,” I told her. “We spoke. Three days ago. You asked me to come help you stage that schoolhouse. I was there all night.”
“Wait, what?” She laughed. “Is this a joke?”
“You had two administrators coming,” I insisted. “They were interested in the property…” I went into more detail, which made no sense, because this had all been her idea.
But Adria insisted she’d never called me, that she never received my texts or messages, and that she had no idea what I was even talking about. “The last time we spoke was two weeks ago,” she said. “Are you feeling okay?”
My head ached.
I checked my texts and outgoing calls. The ones I’d sent to Adria the night before were no longer there. My last outgoing call had been the previous morning to book a haircut. And my most recent incoming call from Adria had been two weeks before that, just like she’d said.
“But, you know what’s weird?” she said. “Just this morning, I got a listing on a creepy little one-room schoolhouse.” She proceeded to tell me the dark history of the Edgewater School, how an eight-year-old girl had run out into traffic, convinced she was invisible.
“The school shut down not long after that,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I’m not sure what happened this weekend, but your story sounds kind of crazy. Do you want to come by my place to talk some more?”
I told her I’d call her later and hung up.
After I got home, I did a little research on the Edgewater School. It turns out an eight-year-old girl named Mary Janus had been a student there. According to an article, and a thread of reader comments, it seems Mary had a reputation for acting out as a way of getting attention, “because she always felt alone, whether at home or at school,” one reader wrote.
Another person responded, “People only saw Mary when she was naughty.”
My stomach knotted, because that sort of made sense: the “do-you-see-me” question she’d written across the glass, the lonely music, the voiceless girl in the movie, and the writing across the chalkboard promising to be a good little girl…
I reached into the pockets of my raincoat, searching for my phone, feeling something crumble beneath my grip. I pulled it out. Mary’s spelling test. I hadn’t even remembered putting it into my pocket.
I grabbed a pen and crossed out the try-harder-next-time note. In its place, I wrote “Nice job.” I also added a thumbs-up sticker and hung it on my fridge,
All that week, I couldn’t get Mary out of my head, thinking how lonely she must’ve felt, how sad she must’ve been.
The following week, in broad daylight, a few friends and I made a trip back to the little red schoolhouse. I’d brought along a note, sealed in an envelope with Mary’s name, which I slipped beneath the door. It read: Dear Mary: You are not alone and you are not invisible. I see you. I hear you. – Love, Ashley. P.S. Nice job on the spelling test.