I am a graduate of the Graham Local School district in west-central Ohio. The school system was named after A.B. Graham, founder of the 4-H club, and 4-H continues to be a very popular activity for kids in that part of the state. His ghost also haunts the old Junior High.
I heard the ghost stories, of course, mostly from kids who heard it from a friend of a friend, that sort of thing. Passed down from one grade to the next, there’s no telling where the stories originally began. Some kids swore the ghost walked the third floor library, with its creaking floor and stacks of yellowing books. Others claimed the specter could be seen in the basement, on the boy’s locker room side near the entrance to the boiler room. But the most convincing stories had to do with the odd attic space above the auditorium.
The school building is laid out like a colossal “T”, with the classrooms occupying the cross bar and the gym and auditorium in the stem. The gymnasium is actually below ground, with large windows at ground level that look in on the sunken court. Above the gymnasium is the auditorium, a slanted room with a small theater stage at the base. High school kids often put on plays for the Junior High kids on this stage, and in my senior year, I, too, took part in two productions.
The gymnasium and the auditorium were connected via a double set of steps at the very back of the stage, and at the back of the gym, which also had two doors that led to the asphalt playground lot, though those doors were only opened very rarely, usually when it was too hot in the building. However, there were other steps that led up to a small attic above the auditorium, made of the space created by the sloping floor and ceiling of the large room below.
This attic was blocked off from the stair well by two doors, one at either end, and these were always padlocked shut. When asked about the space, which wasn’t very deep but as wide as the auditorium below it, teachers always claimed that there was nothing but old gym equipment and a few old set pieces from plays put on years earlier. None of them, however, ever wanted to go up there. No one did, not even the most curious of kids. There was something wrong about that place, something cold, even on hot days. It was a forbidden place, and not just by teacher fiat. It was here that many people said the ghost lived.
As I mentioned, I was in a couple of stage productions in my senior year. These weren’t the main drama club plays and musicals; they were small productions done by the advanced English classes, one of which was taken to the National English Teachers Association meeting in Washington D.C., and the other was performed at the Junior High, a church in a nearby town, and at the Dayton Performing Arts Center to help fund the trip to Washington. Since we weren’t the actual theater group for the school, we had no real budget to speak of, and we had to make use of anything we could cobble together.
Several of us remembered that the attic above the auditorium stage supposedly held set pieces from old plays. A friend of mine and fellow stage hand for the winter production asked permission to scrounge the attic. He had transferred to our district in his Freshman year and didn’t know about the rumors of the haunted attic. Our teacher, either unaware of the sinister reputation or desperate for assistance with our struggling budget, got the keys for him.
Three of us went up to the attic on a cold November afternoon. The rest of the kids were rehearsing on the stage, just a shout (scream) away. My friend led the way; we told him the stories but he didn’t believe them. He unlocked the tarnished brass padlock and swung open one of the doors.
We were greeted by thick cobwebs and dust, and a flick of the light switch produced a weak, yellow light from a few bare bulbs strewn around the room. The first thing I saw was an old tackle-dummy, a metal pole with cotton padding wrapped around it and a small, sled-like base, designed for football linemen to practice shoving back. The stuffing was showing from the vaguely man-shaped thing, ragged scars with tufts of ivory cotton wadding pushed through. It was unsettling, but at least not unfamiliar.
My friend went immediately to a number of canvas screens stretched over age browned lumber. Although the dust was thick and obscuring, he could tell they were old set backdrops and he rushed over to them. He nearly lost a foot in the process, narrowly avoiding the rusty spines of an ancient push mower. He took a rag from his pocket and started wiping away the years of dust and mildew coating the backdrops, smiling as he sized up each.
The other kid, a shy boy who was working the sound system for the play, was the one who noticed the tarp covered painting. It was leaning against the wall between two filthy windows that looked out on the playground below. The painting beneath was huge, one of those monsters you find on the walls of colleges or country clubs. Or perhaps schools named after famous men. I was busy looking over a collection of old desk chairs when I heard the thwipt of canvas slipping free and heard a strangled gasp from behind me.
I turned, looking at the painting. There wasn’t anything peculiar about the image itself, just a man sitting in a chair by a fire place. It was the weird aura surrounding the painting that stole the breath from my chest. It had a color, that much a I remember, though memory has dulled my perception of it. I think it might have been red, or pinkish in hue, but it may have been orange or yellow. I can’t say if it was real or just the afterimage of my eyes scanning past the bright light of the windows. What I do know is that the kid who had pulled aside the tarp beat feet down the stairs.
My friend was mostly oblivious to this, still inspecting the painted scenes. I grabbed his arm and told him we needed to leave. He opened his mouth to protest, shut it again, and followed me down. He turned back and pulled the door closed, hesitating for just a moment. He took a last long look, then he just calmly closed the door and slipped the padlock closed.
I asked him, when we got down to the stage, what he saw. He said he didn’t see anything, just the dusty old attic. I asked about the painting. He said he couldn’t see it, it was covered by a tarp.
I never went back to the attic, and we abandoned any ideas of scavenging the old set panels. My friend said the wood was rotten anyway, and it would have taken more work to fix them up than to build new ones. The kid running the sound system was sick for both performances of the show, and refused to go to the back of the stage during the final rehearsals.
We didn’t talk about the painting after that, and I didn’t give it another thought. The Junior High building was eventually converted into offices for the school district and a new building was constructed just outside of town. The auditorium and gym were declared off limits, and I heard a few years ago the auditorium floor collapsed into the old gym. As for the stuff in the attic, I don’t know what ever happened to it, and I’m not sure I want to know.
Maybe that painting is still there, tucked into the attic, covered in tarp that should have been on the floor.