Almost a Ghost Story
|Platform 9 3/4 Hogwarts Express|
She's moving again. I wanted to spend a couple of days with her to say goodbye before she leaves to New York, for the second time.
Yesterday, we spent 13 hours at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure pretending to be witches and test riding the new King Kong ride. Today was a bit more laid back. We started the morning off at the movies watching ‘Finding Dory’, then stopped by a small train museum, formerly station, in the center of downtown Plant City. We both got a little dizzy watching the trains pass from the violently vibrating corner room with large windows overlooking the criss-crossing tracks.
Back in the car, I asked, “Do you want to see if the old school museum is open?” Years before, we had visited the genealogical portion and tried to trace our ancestry with no real luck, but had not made it into the museum.
“Yeah, but I’ve tried and they are never opened and they don’t have hours posted,” Christina replied.
As I pulled into the small gravel parking lot, a large SUV was backing out of a spot. A blonde woman rolled down her window, “Are you going into the museum?”
“We wanted to, yes,” I said, closing my door behind me.
She looked confused and started to say something, but stopped, and instead said, “Ok, just go ahead around to the front door,” pointing to the left of the building. Her window went up and she drove off without another word.
“Ok…” Christina and I approached the old three-story, red-brick building and rounded the corner to the assumed front. There were grand cement stairs leading up to a second floor double-door entrance. The steps were steep and uneven, and the doors, like the windows, were painted white and chipping. I tried the handle, but it didn’t budge. We looked in through the door’s glass panes into a dark hall with an old car surrounded by pictures.
“Let’s try the door to the genealogical part,” I suggested.
To the right of the stairs on the first floor was a wooden door, also painted white, with a plaque that read: ‘Archives Center’. “Does that mean it does more than genealogy now?” I asked as I turned the knob; it creaked open.
An unoccupied desk on our left was piled high with scattered papers while shelves filled with old books in front of us rose almost as tall as the ceiling. Through a door to our right, we could see what looked like a storage room and an old woman sitting at a table eating a sandwich. She rose, wiped her mouth, and slowly made her way toward us. Her hair was gray and her back slightly hunched, “Can I help you?”
“We were trying to see the museum, but it’s never open,” Christina explained.
“Well, there’s not anyone here to give you a tour. You have to call and make an appointment to see inside the rooms, but I can let you in to wander. There’s some stuff in the hallways; I just won’t be able to go with you and let you in the rooms because I need to stay here.”
Christina and I looked at each other and nodded, “That sounds fine.” Even though she’d lived only three blocks away for a couple years in high school and had been back almost six months, Christina had never been in the museum.
“I’ll ask you to sign in,” the old woman pointed to an open binder with a printed spreadsheet for names and addresses. Christina took over the task of writing in our information. “That’s not my last name anymore,” I pointed out that she had written my maiden name. She laughed and crossed it out, “It’s just easier.” The old woman laughed along with us.
“Here, take our card and brochure. The building was built in 1914 as the high school and is owned by the city, but the historical society runs it, as well as the archives.”
“We were in the archives a few years ago to look up our ancestry,” Christina said.
“It was high school, so at least ten years ago,” I felt old as I said it, “and it looks different.”
“Yeah,” Christina agreed. “There were two computers,” she pointed to a wall of books where I, too, remembered cubbies with desktops.
“I’ve worked here a while and don’t remember any computers,” the old woman didn’t seem to believe us, “except this one,” she turned to the desk, referencing the one against the wall behind it.
There was an awkward minute of silence before the woman finally smiled and led us behind the shelves to a painted white door. She stuck in her key and opened it up to a matching white hallway. “Stay on the first and second floor, and when you’re finished come back out this door,” she stressed, pointing to the threshold we were crossing. “There are the bathrooms,” she pointed to a sign that read ‘Women’, “and remember to come back out-this-same-door.” We agreed, a little nervous at her insistence.
The door closed behind us and Christina and I were left alone in the U shaped hallway. An overpowering, musty odor engulfed us. “It smells old,” she said.
We started our stroll along the creaking dark wood floor. Dusty, stained quilts hung on the wall to our left, while black and white photos of the school and students from way back when adorned the opposite.
At the first set of stairs we came to, we made our way up to the second floor. “There used to be a banister here,” I said, indicating the old markings left in the center of the wooden steps. “I wonder what happened to it,” Christina commented as she pointed out more. It was obvious they had tried to make the stairs safer by adding a hodgepodge of ridges and rubber stoppers, but that was long ago; they were either ground down, coming apart, or missing altogether.
Christina turned the knob into a classroom, but no luck. Instead, we took advantage of the clear diamond shaped glass in the center of four frosted panes on the top half of each door. Taking turns, we peeked in through the window to the dark rooms and examined the different displays. One room had a fifties theme with Coca Cola and a black and white checkered floor, one was all about music with at least ten old fashioned pianos, and another seemed to center around fashion.
It wasn’t long before we found the front door that we had initially tried to enter through and saw the old car in the middle of the hall. Next to it was a picture frame with several photographs titled: ‘How we got the car into the museum’. There was no other information, but it was obvious the photos were old; I would have guessed they were taken in the seventies. “How long has this museum been here? And do they ever rotate their exhibits?” Christina shrugged.
After breezing through the last section, Christina began an ascent to the third level. “I thought the lady said the museum was only the first and second floor...”
“She did,” she answered without slowing or turning to me. I laughed and followed up.
The third floor was much darker, not as many windows, and it was even more obvious that there was no AC on in the building -considering that the temperature outside was about 95 degrees, the third floor was excruciating. We fanned ourselves fervently with our pamphlets as we peered into empty rooms.
“I can’t take the heat. I need to head down.” There were only a few old photographs of trains that reminded me of the museum we had visited prior and an old still on the stairs leading back to the second floor. As I read about the still, Christina looked out the windows of an exit. “I would not want to go out that way,” she commented; I looked up.
“It’s really steep and doesn’t look safe. I couldn’t imagine going to this high school and having to go out that way.” I laughed and we headed down passed the second floor back to the first.
Apparently, in our excitement, we had skipped a hallway on the first floor and so decided to explore it before leaving. To the right was a large professional kitchen with industrial appliances. “Wow, I was expecting a small break room,” I exclaimed.
“Why? This is exactly what I’d picture.” As I stared at the washer and dryer trying to figure out why they were in the kitchen, I heard music start. At first I thought it was someone in the kitchen listening to an old piano melody, but then the pianist fumbled, messing up a key, and started over. I looked around, trying to find its source and eased toward a door on the opposite wall; unlike the classrooms, there was no window.
“Do you hear that?” Christina asked. We locked eyes and I nodded, quietly pointing to the door that I was walking toward.
Cautiously, I began to lean my ear against it. Before I could touch the wood, the music stopped; my jaw dropped and Christina’s eyes grew wide. I tried the knob, but it was locked.
“Let’s try the other side, maybe there’s another way in,” Christina led our investigation to the other side of the U. We were quick on our feet; hearts fluttering in anticipation. Yes! There was an open door. ‘But I thought there was no one else in here… and there’s no AC on…’ I was excited, and I could tell Christina was, too. We entered into a dark room and the music started again. “No way,” I whispered. “There’s no way!” Though I tried, I couldn’t steady my breath.
It took a moment for our eyes to adjust until we could make out tables and chairs, perhaps a lunchroom. To our left was a stage with a closed curtain and two small alcoves on either side in front of it, but from our angle we couldn’t see into them. Again, the musician messed up and began again, so definitely not a player piano. I followed Christina through the maze of tables in the dark room until we came to the nook on the left.
“Oh,” she laughed. There was an elderly man sitting at a hidden piano. He looked up at us, startled, and stopped playing.
“Are you exploring the museum?” He asked, looking a little embarrassed.
“Yes, you’re very good,” Christina complimented him. We stared at each other for a minute, complimented him again, and then turned to leave. As we reached the door back to the hallway we began laughing. “I so wanted it to be a ghost,” Christina said.
“I know! Me, too!”
I led us back to the door we had first entered the museum through, but before I could turn the handle, Christina stopped me. “Wait, are you sure that’s the right door? I think it was this one,” she pointed to another next to a soda machine. The lady’s warning at the beginning of our tour had us worried that the wrong decision could have consequences. “No, I’m sure it’s this one. I remember.” I opened it and immediately saw the familiar shelves.
The door closed tightly behind me and I unexpectedly saw a black and yellow striped butterfly sitting lifeless, yet fully intact, on a nearby shelf. “Aw,” I pointed it out to Christina, “poor thing.” I didn’t know if it was more sad or beautiful, but I left it alone.
Finally, the exit came into view along with the old woman sitting behind the desk. “How did you like it?” she asked smiling.
“It was good, but the man playing the piano scared us.” We laughed.
“Oh yeah?” She kept her smile. “He’s the caretaker; he lives here. He just turned 90 a week or two ago. He likes to play the piano.”
After a goodbye we exited back to the car, still laughing. “Was that not the perfect setup for a horror movie?” I asked Christina.
“I would have liked to have seen a ghost, but I didn’t see it as a horror movie.” I looked at her confused. “I saw it as more of a sad love story. A lonely old man playing the piano for his long dead wife.” Although I liked her interpretation, I disagreed and said it would still make a good horror movie plot: ‘Haunted High School’.
After a tearful goodbye, I headed home and told this story to my husband. He listened intently and then said, “It would have been better if the old woman at the end said, ‘The caretaker used to play the piano, but he died two weeks ago’.”