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This all happened when I was 13. Things weren’t great at home, And I drifted into the habit of going out very late most nights and just walking aimlessly around, exploring the pretty dull town in which I grew up.
My parents went to bed early since they had actual responsibilities, so it was pretty easy to say I was going to watch TV at a friends house, and stay out til the small hours, creeping into bed well after midnight.
There was a girl in my classes called Janet, who I didn’t think had ever even noticed me previously; she was stunningly attractive and witty and warm and generally perfect, and I was very much invisible to girls, invisible to most people in fact. Don’t ask me how this came about as I am unsure myself, but we began to meet up on some of these nocturnal excursions, though we were never more than friends. I guess she must’ve been a fellow night-owl, or maybe she was just bored like I was.
I had no idea how to talk to girls, but I must have done something right as somehow she seemed to like me, though I am hardly what you would call a ladies man. I sure as hell liked her. We got into a routine whereby she’d slip me a note in school with something scribbled like “meet me by the shop at nine o’ clock” and we’d hang around in the dark and talk about dumb things.
It was the sort of town where everything shut down at night and so we had the roads, parks and cemetery to ourselves; she’d show me the house she grew up in and I’d tell her about some local ghosts and legends that I’d half invented myself. We’d usually gravitate towards our school, which is surrounded now by a seven-foot chain-link fence like a concentration camp, but in those days anyone could wander around the paths & grounds, with a big playing field and forest at the rear. There were benches and bike-sheds if we needed to rest or shelter. We were still just about young enough to have a good time without cigarettes and alcohol.
So one night we had arranged to meet as normal, and I I stood over the road from the corner shop that was the only place in town still open so late, sorta watching from the shadows as sometimes one of the staff would see me, and storm outside to tell me to get lost. But Janet never showed, which was the first time. I gave her another hour and left pretty hurt & angry, which in hindsight was an over-reaction; In all probability she’d wanted to come meet me, but maybe her parents had stopped her, or something had come up. Neither of us could afford a mobile phone which were still for the rich kids back then.
I couldn’t really hang around waiting any longer anyway as it was October, and cold enough so that even an indestructible teen like me could feel the chill. I wandered aimlessly until about midnight, when I wound up sat on an old bench overlooking our school, at the top of some long, gradual steps which led down to one of several entrances to the sprawling school structures.
I was miserable and dejected and could see my own breath, for like an idiot I was always under-dressed for the cold British weather, with only a thin sports jacket over a t-shirt. I was one of those kids who never needed much of a shove to sulk and strop, so I sat and shivered and felt sorry for myself. Thoughts flashed through my head of suicide or self-harm, until I noticed there was a light on, at the bottom of the steps, which, strangely, I hadn’t noticed earlier.
The dim light shone through a small window in a door which led into the school science block. This was bizarre; no-one should’ve been inside the school at this hour. I sometimes stayed late with a detention and even a couple of hours after the students left for the day, there were no cleaners or teachers left around, the place was eerily deserted and as quiet as the grave.
I decided to go and have a closer look, I don’t think I would have done if I wasn’t in such a lousy mood; I guess I figured that the evening could not get any worse. So I made my way down the steps to the pale yellow glow which seemed comforting, like a sanctuary from everything wrong with the world. My curiosity was “off the scale” too; Maybe this something exciting like a robbery in progress, or some older kids who’d broke in looking for someplace warm to get high.
The door to the school wasn’t locked, and I saw the light was coming from another door leading to a room beneath some stairs, which I hadn’t ever really noticed before. I cautiously entered into a nurse’s station of sorts, a small room with a couple of old battered school chairs and a mirror on the walk over a sink. It was stiflingly warm inside, though I saw no radiator and heard no heater. There were a couple of ancient yellowing posters on the walls about not passing on flu germs or something similar.
Just before I announced my presence, a lady appeared in a small alcove and asked how she could help.
I told her I had seen the light and followed my feet. I realised my thoughts of death and dismemberment were draining, and felt too foolish to tell her of such things. She had a manner about her which screamed that the only love she give was of the tough variety. So I said I wasn’t sure what I wanted, and politely enquired about her presence.
She told me she was always there at night, as a crisis nurse, without going into specifics, and I was too shy to ask any more questions. It was a small town, and the school also acted as kind of a community centre too, serving as a voting station and blood donation centre, that sort of thing. So to my naive 13-year old mind, her story sort-of checked out.
She was tiny, literally four feet tall, and dressed like someone from the Salvation army, with a khaki shirt & shorts, old-fashioned sandals and a dark crimson sash around her stocky chest. I never once saw her smile, but didn’t really see this as strange or unfriendly until I thought about it later, also reflecting on how her language was cold for a nurse; they always call you “love” or “dear”, ask nice friendly questions and seem to want to talk, enjoy it even. Her attitude was formal and businesslike.
There was an awkward silence before she suggested that I must’ve known know why I had arrived there, so I said that I guessed I lacked direction, which was a stupid thing to say, but it seemed appropriate somehow. She said she was part of a team, who people could turn to when they felt alone, or under-valued. Showing no emotion, she began to speak of pills which might help. I mumbled some vague agreement, a little bewildered as I knew nothing really of medication back then, and she disappeared back around the corner from where she had first emerged. I could hear cupboards and drawers opening and tablets rattling in plastic jars.
She told me she had just the thing to make me feel better, and spoke of doses and suchlike, but while she was talking in her low, soft and slightly gravelly voice, I began to pay attention to my growing sense of dread. It dawned on me that I did not like this woman at all. Something was very wrong with the entire situation. Worse, I sensed that I was in real danger there, and that I had to leave immediately.
So while she was still in the back, rummaging and muttering, I slipped straight out the door and hurried home to bed, not looking back once. I have no more memories of that night.
When I awoke, the whole thing seemed unreal, with my recollection rapidly disintegrating, details vague like in my dreams. I probably would’ve dismissed the whole thing as some bad nightmare if it were not for the breaking news at school that morning.
Janet had vanished in the night. She had gone out to meet someone and never returned. Everyone was talking about it. The speculation was predictably ridiculous, a smorgasbord of half-baked theories and vindictive gossip.
They held an emergency assembly for everyone in our year, with a police officer stood on the stage urging us to come forward if we knew or heard of anything even vaguely strange or suspicious. Afterwards, officers spoke privately to some of Janet’s closest friends; she had quite a few, she was always very well-liked. Of course, they didn’t bother speaking to me, as no-one had a clue about our late night rendezvous. In fact, no-one even knew I existed. I did wonder if anyone would have even believed me if I had come forward to say that I’d been meeting with Janet. I probably would’ve been dismissed as an attention-seeker.
Or maybe they’d have seen me as the prime suspect. “Weird, shambling misanthrope meets popular, pretty girl.” The thought did cross my mind. And how could I have told anybody about what had happened to me that very same night? They’d have pegged me as “insane” and thrown me to the wolves, one way or another.
Strangely enough, Janet was very rarely mentioned by anyone again afterwards. No anniversaries were marked. Her close friends quickly began to talk about other things. A couple of weeks and things were back to normal.
Except… about a year later, one of our teachers took down some old posters, and beneath one was a bright scribble in permanent marker pen about Janet, some stupid insult. The teacher froze for a few moments, then remarked quietly on how she couldn’t remember Janet’s surname. Then she dismissed the whole thing and carried on with her day. I turned around to look back at the rest of the class, but no-one else was even listening.
That was the last time I heard anyone say her name. She has seemingly ceased to exist, which is strange to say the least. The police seemed to drop the case pretty soon and an internet search throws up no record of her at all. I have no way of knowing if she got mixed up with the weird old woman I encountered that night, but the whole thing seems too bizarre to be coincidental. But for all I know, Janet ran away to join the circus. It is maddeningly vague. I did discreetly ask if the school ran some sort of late-night therapy service for troubled teens, but you can probably guess the answer.
I really should’ve gone and said something to Janet’s parents, as I considered myself at least partly responsible for her disappearance. But I was far too immature and awkward to ever have confronted them. What a total wimp. And that is the end of the story. The end of Janet, I guess.
I’ve since moved to a new town but sometimes I return to revisit the places where me and Janet would go to on those few fleeting late summer nights. The school is still there. It’s been pretty heavily redeveloped in recent years, every part seems totally different except for those long, gradual steps down to the old science block. I walk past every once in a while, and I stand above those steps and stare down at the school, and I still wonder what the hell happened.
Credit: Hack Shuck