Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
During my sophomore year of high school, my family moved from urban Knoxville to a tiny one-horse town in Alabama. My dad’s employer offered him a significant promotion in exchange for helping to rebuild a failing branch of their company, though their desire to save that particular sector is still a mystery to me. The area itself was dying out, as the younger generations would leave after high school in hopes of escaping the boredom of small town life, and it was no wonder that the business was struggling to find or keep employees. However, my parents took a leap of faith and decided to relocate anyway.
The town was so small that my new school only had a graduating class of about forty people. As I mentioned earlier, there weren’t a lot of young people around, so what few teenagers existed stuck together. It was a really tight-knit school, as well as an admittedly pretty fun change of pace for a city kid like me. Even though I didn’t always get along with my classmates, due to my awkward demeanor and out-of-date taste in clothing, I remember that we were always relatively close. Everyone knew everyone else. There weren’t really any strangers in a school that small.
In hindsight, the school was also tragically underfunded. A lot of our dances and school events were something put together entirely by students and parents, and due to budget cuts, we didn’t really have a school nurse. Parents were just sort of encouraged to leave some pill bottles and Band-Aids with each homeroom teacher at the beginning of the year. Many of the teachers also taught more than one subject, or even held more than one job on campus. The Spanish teacher taught freshman literature, the art teacher was my gym instructor and basketball coach. And, of course, there was Mr. Peterson.
Mr. Peterson was our vice principle… and health teacher. And baseball coach. He was a really nice guy, always making jokes and telling funny stories about his players and the other coaches—he was more or less like everyone’s good-natured uncle. I remember that Mr. Peterson always wore those really dark, mirrored sunglasses; the kind that makes it nearly impossible to see the wearer’s eyes. He wore those shades everywhere, even inside, and when anyone asked about them, he would quickly explained that he had an eye condition.
“Can’t hardly get in light these days,” he would say with a chuckle. “Don’t worry though. This old man can still see enough to catch you knotheads doin’ wrong.”
And that was absolutely true. Nothing got past Mr. Peterson. He would stand in the hallways, watching for students who decided to take their merry time getting to and from the cafeteria, or trying to hang out in the bathrooms instead of going to class. He could see a dress code violation from a mile away, and he even seemed to know who had a hall pass and who didn’t, all without so much as moving from his spot in the center of the hall. Mr. Peterson saw it all.
I remember one very specific encounter that I had with his uncanny sense for trouble that even now, over a half decade later, I have no explanation for. I was in gym class, fooling around with some friends. It was Friday, our free day, so we got to choose our own activity with limited supervision. Choosing our own activity meant that we didn’t have to really do anything, as long as we were at least making the effort to look like we were, and limited supervision meant that, well… We sometimes got ideas. Ideas that were, in hindsight, honestly pretty bad. If we were outside, they usually involved finding a way back into the locker room without anyone noticing, or straying just a little too far from the track to pick blackberries. It was a miracle that we weren’t caught more than once.
On this particular Friday, however, we happened to be inside. That would normally keep us in line, but it was about a week after the snack bar started selling ice cream, and the four of us were starting to get hungry. Pretending to play basketball for nearly an hour tends to do that. I don’t remember who first suggested it, but at some point we all decided it might be fun to sneak through the back doors of the gymnasium into the hallway that passed the snack bar. We could get our ice cream and be back before our teacher even noticed our absence.
I should mention that this plan was made especially risky by the fact that Mr. Peterson’s office was directly across the hall from the gym. In fact, as soon as we exited the double doors, we faced the clear glass windows that our vice principle would stare out of as he worked during the day, his shaded gaze sometimes never once removing itself from the crowds of students outside. We could clearly see his desk, even from across the hallway, and his fortunately empty leather chair. There was no sign of Mr. Peterson at all.
“He’s probably out on the field,” whispered one of our friends, shrugging. “Season started.”
The rest of us nodded in agreement, then giddily went to buy our treats. Before we even turned around, though, we heard the click of a door opening at the end of the hall and a stern shout of our last names. There stood Mr. Peterson, sweating like a dog from the heat, red-faced and panting like he’d just about run all the way from the baseball field on the other side of the campus. There were no windows on the door he’d come in from, yet he seemed to know who we were and what we were up to before he even opened it. It was probably a coincidence, but… The purposeful way that he burst through that door, like he knew that he had someone to catch in the act of rule-breaking… It was unsettling. We were of course pretty shaken, but Mr. Peterson let us off with a warning once we promised not to do it again.
None of us ever knew much about Mr. Peterson’s family, which was unusual for such a small town. We all knew that he had a son, though. Jack Peterson was a few years older than me, a really friendly guy with a broad nose and arms the size of hams. Jack was funny and bluntly honest, like his dad, and he seemed to get along with just about everyone he met. He worked at the deli for the local grocery shop, and because my mom liked to send me on errands after I got out from school, I usually saw him at least once a week.
The Tuesday following my run-in with Mr. Peterson was a slow day, so Jack and I ended up talking for quite a while. I remembered the incident from the Friday before, and decided to bring up Jack’s dad, laughing quietly as I asked him what it was like to grow up with Mr. Peterson as a parent. His face went pale.
“Oh. Uh. Not…. Not too bad, I guess,” Jack replied, voice small.
I was confused by his sudden change in demeanor. “What do you mean by that?” Was Mr. Peterson a much different person at home than he seemed to be at school?
Jack gave a slight, nervous shrug. “I mean… It’s just…” He looked me dead in the eye with the most solemn expression I’d ever seen on his normally cheery face, then said, almost fearfully, “Dad sees everything.”
It was unsettling to see Jack so visibly uncomfortable, shaken so deeply to the core with one casual mention of his dad. I knew that there was something wrong, but Jack never brought it up again and I sure wasn’t going to. My dad’s plant failed soon after that, and we ended up going back to Knoxville towards the start of my senior year, leaving the school and Mr. Peterson behind for good.
About two weeks ago, I ran into Emma, one of my classmates from Alabama, while I was out buying some new plates for my apartment. It was such an odd coincidence that we both would be in the same town―in the same store, even―that we were both utterly shocked. We chatted for a bit, about where we’d both gone after high school, how I was working on my law degree, and how she had moved up here for a job at an accounting firm. I asked Emma how things had been at school after I left, and she suddenly got very quiet. She told me that the day before graduation, Mr. Peterson had passed away. The whole school was devastated at the loss of their beloved vice principle, dedicating the entire commencement ceremony to his memory. There was an enormous crowd at the wake, and… When she mentioned that, she got quiet. Then she told me something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully forget.
Emma told me that there were two very strange things about the wake. First, there was no sign of the Petersons. Not even Jack. A lot of people were initially disappointed at not being able to finally meet the mysterious Mr. Peterson’s relatives, but that disappointment gradually faded into shock at the fact that none of the dead man’s family bothered to show up. Jack had apparently called the school’s front office to deliver the news, but… After that, he disappeared without a trace. He wasn’t seen at the deli again. That wasn’t so odd, though, as Jack was an outgoing young guy; he probably left for somewhere more interesting as soon as his last tie to the tired old town was gone.
The real peculiarity of the night was something that made the papers for a week afterward, something that would stick with those few who got to see it in person for a lifetime. While Mr. Peterson was all dressed up in his coffin, he still sported his signature mirrored sunglasses. Most of the attendees thought that it was funny, a sort of pleasant homage to the way that he never took them off while alive. However, two or three of the older, stiffer townspeople stormed over to the two suit-clad morticians that were standing near the casket and demanded that the shades be removed.
“It’s disrespectful!” they hissed, as their younger relatives tried unsuccessfully to keep them from making a fuss.
She said that one of the morticians began to look… uneasy. He tried to assuage the elders with promises that this was requested by Jack himself, that Mr. Peterson surely would have wanted the glasses to be left alone and that it wasn’t their place to question the family’s wishes, but they weren’t having any of it. The man looked helplessly at his colleague, who then nervously patted at his brow with a handkerchief and went to remove the shades.
The whole room waited in silent anticipation. She described the atmosphere as so still, so quiet, that the sound of her own heartbeat pulsating in her chest seemed blaringly loud in comparison. That was because everyone in the room―students, teachers, neighbors, churchgoers, storeowners―realized that they had never seen Mr. Peterson’s eyes. Not a single person in the twenty or so years that he’d lived in town had ever once seen him without his mirrored sunglasses.
The awed silence was broken by an ear-piercing scream. Miss Becky from the cake shop had been standing near the front when the shades were first pulled, before she leapt at least two feet away from the coffin in shock. This began a chain reaction of confusion and panic as more and more people went to see what had startled her so badly, only to get spooked themselves. A few of the women all but pulled their husbands out of the funeral home while several teenagers whispered to each other anxiously about what they had seen. The feed store owner, Mr. Walker, stared at the corpse with wide eyes, crying, “Dear Lord, his face!”
Emma had been near the back when all of this first happened, so it took her a while to get to the front. When she did, however, it became devastatingly clear what Mr. Walker had been yelling about. Her face paled a bit when she described the sight to me.
“It was just skin. Like…. Like somebody had stretched it all the way up. Like those people who have surgery after their faces get blown up or something,” Emma explained. “Only it… It wasn’t that. The skin just kept going like it was always there, no dents or bumps. No scars. Nothing. Not even cheekbones, none we could see… It was just smooth, like the side of your cheek. Just smooth all the way up.”
I thanked Emma for her time and told her that it was nice seeing her again, that we would have to meet up for lunch sometime but that I really had to get going if I was to finish running errands before it got dark. That part wasn’t exactly true; I had already done everything on my to-do list and was in no hurry to get home. But… That story chilled me more than I wanted let on. I really didn’t want to believe it, and if this were anyone other than gentle, soft-spoken honor student Emma, I wouldn’t have. Or at least, not if the story had been about anyone else.
I remembered my encounter with Mr. Peterson that one fateful day when I should have been in gym, and that knowing way he opened that door, shouting our names out before he’d even had time to see us. We had all agreed that he must have installed a camera in his office and was watching us from a laptop or something out on the baseball field. But if that were true, how did he make it all the way from the other side of school in the few seconds that we were out in the hallway? It just didn’t add up. If Emma was to be believed, though, we can still definitely be sure of something.
Mr. Peterson had no eyes. But he still saw everything.
Credit: Max Rosa
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