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Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's 2022 "Liminal Spaces" Writing Contest.



"If I didn't know any better, I'd swear somebody's been switchin' my keys around. Just be another moment, folks."

Frank used to know every key on the tarnished, old key ring like the back of his hand. There were so many, yet even without labels, he hardly ever had trouble finding the one he needed. Of course, his hands weren't as nimble as they once were. His eyesight was even worse.

Looking over his shoulder at the visitors, he said, "Sure is good to see you again, sweetheart. I hope the years have treated you well."

"Oh, they have," replied the tall woman on the cusp of middle age. "We're coming up on our twentieth wedding anniversary, and our son will be attending college soon."

"Wonderful, warms my heart to hear it. Oh, damn, that's not the right one either. Just another moment. This next one's got to be it."

To anyone but Alex, his wife would have seemed like the very embodiment of poise, but she only ever held his hand when she was nervous. He didn't understand what their little detour was all about. Although, he was glad for the chance to stretch his legs.


It all started when they passed a sign welcoming them to Ripley. Up until then, the trip had been going well. They passed the time with snacks, a few out-of-tune duets, and idle chitchat. That all changed upon entering her hometown.

After that, she turned off the radio and ignored her husband's attempts to cheer her up. They drove along in relative silence until she told him to turn left. Several more turns led them to an old brick building that had seen better days.

The naked flagpole in the front tilted precariously to one side, giving the impression it would topple over at any moment. And the parking lot was littered with potholes and uprooted parking curbs. Alex didn't see any broken windows, but the brown, desiccated ivy draped over the building made it difficult to tell for sure. Tall weeds had taken root where he imagined a well-kept lawn had once been. But the pièce de résistance was the crabapple tree growing out of the crumbling water fountain.

Hanna didn't seem daunted by the poor state of her old school. She just stared at the entrance, anxiously bumping her heels against her purse wedged beneath the seat. Despite the unkempt appearance of the property, it was evident someone had been keeping the walkway to the front entrance clean and tidy.

After years of being poisoned and shorn clear of the entrances, the creeping ivy's plans of conquest had come to an end like such plans often do. Its enormous corpse clung to the school like bird shit on a forgotten park bench, leaving it forever marred and ugly. Alex, unsure what to make of the place, followed along cautiously while Hanna nearly sprinted to the front doors.

When he reached her, she was finishing a phone call. "Okay, I'll see you soon, Mr. Woodard."

"Oh, I don't know if I'm comfortable with that."

"Okay, I'll see you soon... Frank. Thanks again. Okay, bye."

"Who was that?" Alex asked cautiously, unsure if her sullen mood would reemerge once she hung up the phone. An orange sign taped to the inside of the door immediately caught his attention.

It read, "If you're a former student of Hadley Elementary and wish to schedule a tour, please call the number below and ask for Mr. Woodard. Take care and enjoy your visit. We hope you find what you're looking for."

Hanna waited for her husband to finish reading the notice. "That was the custodian. He's coming by so I can take a look around."

"You went to school here?" Suddenly, the derelict property took on a whole new light. He tried imagining children laden with heavy bookbags getting on and off buses, roughhousing, lamenting about tests they forgot to study for.

None of that seemed to fit with the depressing scene surrounding him. Seeing it in its current state, he found it difficult to envision the eyesore as ever being a place for nurturing young minds. And the thought of a much younger Hanna roaming the grounds and halls of such a place seemed wrong to him.

"Oh, I'm sorry, honey. I've left you in the dark about this whole thing, haven't I? I swear I'll just look around a bit and then we'll be on our way."

A slight, almost imperceptible edge to her voice made Alex wary of his wife's words. He could tell she was anxious about something. Even the way she held her purse seemed off to him. Following his gaze, she suddenly clutched her purse tighter to her chest.

"Uh... no worries, babe, but I don't get it. What's this place to you? Clearly it's been shut down for a long time. I'm surprised it's not boarded up. It could be teeming with vermin, black mold, and God knows what else."

"Oh, Alex, you're letting your imagination run wild again. I'm sure it's fine. Mr. Woodard said the school has had plenty of visitors over the years. I think he would have mentioned if any of them had been eaten by rats."

"Glad to see you're taking this seriously. You know, places like this are breeding grounds for-"

"Hush, dear, you're getting bent out of shape over nothing. I just want to see my old classroom and then we'll go, okay?"

Alex didn't buy the whole nostalgia tour excuse. Her demeanor had been on the chilly side of lukewarm since they rolled into town. As far as he knew, growing up in Ripley had been as uneventful as was expected in a town its size. She spoke highly of her time in high school and college, but thinking about it then, he couldn't recall ever hearing about her elementary school days.

A few minutes later, an old, blue pickup pulled into the lot. It came to a stop where he imagined school buses used to line up. The truck sat there noisily idling for about a minute before the engine shut off and the door swung open. Out stepped a bent, old bear of a man in faded overalls and worn work boots.

With a friendly wave to Hanna, the old man hobbled his way to the entrance. After the slightest of introductions, a sturdy handshake for Alex, and a full body hug that nearly lifted Hanna off the ground, they strode up to the door where he began his struggle with the lock. "Shouldn't take more than a moment. I know this old key ring like the back of my hand."


Alex braced himself for the ghastly stench of decay and neglect when the tumbler finally gave way with a muffled click. No horrible smell wafted out the door, but that didn't convince him mold spores and perhaps far worse things weren't waiting for them in the derelict schoolhouse. Hanna, giddy with excitement, stepped through the door. Alex reluctantly followed, but Frank gently grabbed him by the arm, the large, calloused hand easily wrapping around his bicep.

"Probably best we stay out here. Let her look around by herself for a while." Alex turned to Frank and quickly surmised the man could hold him there all day if he wanted.

"There's some folding chairs just inside the door. Grab a couple and I'll answer any questions you might have." Frank kept a firm grip on Alex's arm, waiting for a look of compliance in his eyes. Still holding the door open with his other hand, he finally released his grip. "There we go. So grab those chairs and we'll talk, alright?"

"Uh, you go on ahead, babe. Me and Frank will be-" He turned toward his wife, but she was already far ahead of them. "How old are you, Frank?"

Frank answered with a chuckle, "Old."

Alex shook his head in frustration. He hadn't intended to be so blunt. "I mean, how long have you been working here?"

"Seems like forever. Now, grab those chairs and I'll tell you all about Hadley Elementary."

Alex peered into the wide hallway. Missing were the stacks of moldy books, rickety old desks, and other outdated school equipment he expected to see lining the halls. His inflated idea of what an abandoned school would look like didn't match with what he saw. What he found was a place that looked like it had only been lying dormant for the summer.

The unsettling quiet matched better with the exterior of the school, and although the hallway had its share of dark corners, there was also plenty of natural light. Glass doors identical to the ones he stood before could be seen at the far end of the hall. Brilliant sunlight shone through, clinging to the floor and walls like the ivy on the building's brick facade.

An intersecting hall harbored its own rays of creeping light. A crisscrossing network of sunrays created an almost limitless variety of kaleidoscope-like patterns slowly turning and twisting on the floor. The sound of Frank impatiently clearing his throat reminded him of his task.

"Anna mentioned there've been other visitors over the years."

"Yep, but you two are the first in... oh, I'd say it's been almost three years."

"But it looks like somebody cleaned recently."

"That'd be me. Like to keep the halls presentable for visitors. I do what I can, but I haven't been in any of the classrooms in years. Don't suppose anybody expects me to. I may not be as spry as I used to be, but I can still drive a floor machine."

Alex thought he noticed a slight tension in the old man's voice when he mentioned the classrooms. There were a few places from his past he wouldn't mind revisiting, but he would want to explore them fully. Keeping the halls clean while leaving the classrooms to gather dust and rat shit didn't make sense to him. But nothing he'd seen or heard since they drove into Ripley made much sense to him.

The old man let out a heavy breath as he reached into a pocket on his overalls and pulled out a yellowed piece of newspaper. He paused for a moment as if considering whether or not he could trust it with the stranger sitting before him. Memories of sweet little Hanna, always with a kind word for the lowly janitor, eventually arrested his hesitancy.

Alex reached out to take the article, but Frank pulled back at the last moment. "Should probably warn you. What I've got here caused lots of trouble back in the day. Sure you can handle it?"

Frank cut him off before he could utter a single word. "Might mean nothing to you. Plenty of people don't see any significance in it at all, but those who do...." With that last remark left unfinished, he offered up the old newspaper article.

Alex took it and immediately set it on his lap. He couldn't help but notice a subtle sigh escape Frank's lips during the handover. It almost seemed to him like the old man was glad to be rid of it.

The custodian raised an eyebrow at the man sitting before him. He could see the grainy image in the article as plain as day. Even then, knowing what he knew, it took an effort to raise his eyes from it.

He disliked having it within sight, but never met visitors at the school without it. Some people found the image disturbing, and others paid more attention to the article. Either way, it was an effective icebreaker.

"I suppose you think some context will make whatever you see in that article a bit easier to digest. It won't."

As the man's gaze shifted to the article lying across Alex's knee, he realized Frank was badly affected by the picture. Suddenly, he saw him as a haunted old man with a story to tell.

"Alright, Frank, tell me about Hadley Elementary."

***

Nobody bothered asking Hanna if she wanted to be in the experimental program at school. Her father compared it to the moon landing, mingling patriotic metaphors with old promises of jetpacks and flying cars. And her mother recited quotes from the Bible, accenting each with the word blasphemy and its synonyms.

She didn't know it, but similar arguments were occurring in homes all over the area that summer. Of course, the program was going ahead no matter how many people complained at town hall meetings or sent letters to their local representatives. To quiet the restless hum that had settled over the small town of Ripley, the powers that be decided to make the program voluntary.

The compromise was quite simple; a third sixth-grade classroom at Hadley Elementary was set up for those who opted out, and children from neighboring areas were selected to fill any vacancies. By the time the school year was set to start, Hanna and forty-nine other students from all over the county were chosen to participate in the experimental program.

She'd been going to Hadley Elementary since first-grade but hardly recognized the place on day one of the new school year. On every wall were posters depicting the top half of a humanoid robot. Looking almost child-like, it had a small slit for a mouth and round, expressionless black eyes that seemed to follow you despite their lack of pupils. Accompanying these were banners hanging from the ceiling with the phrase, "The Classroom of Tomorrow."

Walking into Hadley that first day seemed unreal to Hanna. At just eleven years old, there were plenty of things she'd yet to experience, but what she found in her classroom was like nothing anyone had ever seen before.

Gone were the rows of desks she'd been accustomed to. In their place were tables, set up with three or four chairs. Standing beside each table was a robot. A message scrolling across monitors on their chests read, "Welcome to tomorrow," followed by a short list of students assigned to that particular workstation.

They looked very much like the pictures in the halls. However, the resemblance ended where the posters cut off. Instead of legs, they had rounded, triangular-shaped bases with small wheels hidden underneath, making it almost seem like they were hovering. Of course, the illusion was spoiled when one of them got stuck on a pencil.

At first, she was puzzled to see her teacher from the previous year. Despite being a fixture at Hadley for many years, it didn't take the students long to realize Mr. Evans wasn't there in a teaching capacity. All he did was hand out hall passes, check attendance, and other menial tasks. The rest of the time, he read the newspaper and did crossword puzzles as if the class were no more important than study hall.

Kevin Werner spread the rumor Mr. Evans was there in case one of the teacher bots went haywire. Hanna didn't want to believe it, but the class clown's observation seemed plausible. Of course, she hoped he was simply there to appease resistant parents like her mother. It didn't take long before doodles of the portly man battling sinister robots were being passed around.

The teacher bots, hiding many accessories and compartments beneath their hard plastic exteriors, dealt with such contraband by storing it away or shredding it. Though off-putting at first, their efficient, unemotional way of performing tasks was eventually accepted. Gone were the days of walking across the classroom to sharpen a pencil. The teacher bots did that and everything else for them without leaving their side.

After the first week, Hanna settled into the new way of doing things. The teacher bots turned out to be quite adept at doing what they were designed to do. In monotone voices, they taught lessons, listing anything of importance on their monitors much more legibly and quicker than Mr. Evans could write on the blackboard.

When report cards came out, the results were staggering. All fifty students showed improvement in every subject. The program was heralded as a success before the second quarter was even underway. However, some at Hadley were beginning to wonder about the technological marvels poised to replace them one day.

Mr. Evans and Mrs. Plover were both edging toward retirement, so job security wasn't much of a concern. They were both content to sit back and relax after many years of managing unruly children. Although, even with their attention elsewhere, they couldn't help but notice the progress of the students was matched by their teacher's increasing capabilities. Unlike most machines, the more they did, the more they improved.

The second quarter quickly passed, and the classrooms of tomorrow were chugging along at full steam. There was even talk about expanding the program to another grade. However, that all ended when a newspaper article came out, casting a shadow over the project. It was discovered nothing was known about the teacher bots or the company that produced them.

No one could say why, but the photo that accompanied the article disturbed a lot of people. Parents started pulling their kids out of school. When the dust settled, Hadley Elementary was closed down.

That should have been the end of it, except Hanna and the other students wouldn't let it go. When complaining and throwing tantrums didn't work, they started sneaking into the school. Some went alone, others in groups, but eventually all fifty students went into the school after dark and came out with a keepsake.

***

Stepping into the hallway, Hanna's excitement quickly shifted to anxiousness. It had been years since she'd been under the roof of her old school and yet the place still managed to stir up butterflies in her stomach. It amazed her how seemingly unchanged it had remained. She knew students hadn't been enrolled there in a long time, but with just a smidge of imagination, she envisioned the halls swarming with children once again.

Classmates of a long forgotten time passed on her left and right. There was Dicky Edmonds, the first boy she ever wanted to kiss, Kevin Werner, the class clown, Jesse Fletcher, who was not a fan of Murder She Wrote, and so many others that were now strangers to her. And then she saw Sally Jennings, her best friend up until they went off to separate colleges.

Sally walked by with her hair in pigtails. Hanna only recalled seeing her hair like that once, a decision that would bring the poor girl to tears later that school year. Looking around, she noticed all the children were wearing their best clothes, and suddenly she knew what day she was remembering. It was picture day, and they were all heading to the auditorium to have their class picture taken.

She walked along amongst her classmates, remembering the genuine feeling of being so excited about something as mundane as school photos. She saw that same excitement in everything her son did when he was younger and watched it slowly fade as he grew older and found fewer and fewer simple things to get excited about. The thought of Jacob heading off to college that fall tipped the first domino in her little fantasy, causing the rest to topple over in quick succession.

She slowed her pace to allow the rest of the class to pass. It suddenly dawned on her she hadn't seen her younger self. That, coupled with the children giving her a wide berth as if she bore the authority of a teacher, unsettled her. It seemed her imagination was playing tricks on her, misshaping old memories. The realization drew reality back to the forefront, but not before she witnessed each of her old classmates pass into the intersection ahead and vanish in the crisscrossing rays of sunlight.

Thousands of dust moats, made more visible by the light, floated about chaotically like red hot embers escaping a conflagration. Hanna wondered if she too would vanish upon stepping into the intersection. As ridiculous as the thought was, it did give her pause.

Cautiously moving closer, she raised her hands to shield her eyes from the glare. Remembering which way to go, she stepped into the light. Had she lingered a little longer, her husband would have seen her turn left down the adjoining hall.

Turning the corner, she stopped in her tracks, studying the way stretched before her. She saw something lying in the doorway of a classroom on the left side of the hall, but it was too far away to make out. She slowly edged forward, gaining confidence with every step. Finally reaching the door, she leaned down and picked up a frayed cord. She recognized it immediately. It belonged to one of the teacher bots.

As she thought about her teacher, something eclipsed the sunlight pursuing her. She turned around. There in the intersection stood a figure obscured by the glaring light. "Catch up, slowpoke," she said, a bit too loudly in the silent hallway, "aren't you curious to meet my old teacher?"

***

Alex sat there, listening to the custodian weave his strange tale about robots and sixth-graders. He tried keeping his mind off the image, but he could think of nothing else. It made him feel like he did when he learned Hadley used to be an elementary school.

"A school without students is just a building and a classroom without...." Before he could finish the thought, a question entered his mind. Looking down at the article in his lap, he absentmindedly muttered, "If they're teachers, then why do they look like children?"

Frank stopped mid-sentence, "Sorry, son, what was that?"

Without taking his eyes off the image, he replied, "Oh... nothing. Keep going, I didn't mean to interrupt."

The grizzled old janitor frowned. It pained him to see what that image did to people, but he knew it was better than visiting the actual classroom. He thought about Hanna then and hoped she had enough sense not to cross its threshold.

Alex continued examining the classroom that wasn't a classroom anymore. Two banners partially obscured a window rising from the floor almost to the ceiling. One of them depicted the top half of a humanoid robot. A dozen or so of the real thing stood around the room, their heads slumped forward, arms at their sides in the classic shutdown position.

Loose cords were hanging from some of the robots. Their trailing cords, coupled with their oddly shaped bases, made him think of vacuum cleaners. Of course, they looked far more advanced than some household appliances. The more Alex heard, the more confused he became. He didn't know much about robotics, but he didn't think the technology Frank spoke of existed back then.

"So I started leaving the windows open at night. Could of told someone they were sneaking in, but I didn't see the point. Figured they just wanted to say goodbye, so-"

Suddenly making a connection that had alluded him until then, Alex blurted out, "The Classroom of Tomorrow."

"What's that now, son?"

"Why this picture? It's so... out of place."

Frank let out a long wheeze of a sigh. "It's a mystery. I remember the day people from the local rag showed up. A handful of our brightest students and their bots were gathered together to greet them. Questions were asked and answered, pictures were taken, but no scene resembling anything like that photo happened that day. Don't know where the paper got it or when anyone could have taken it."

Fandom

***

Hanna stood there, staring at the figure down the hall. "Oh, come on, I haven't seen a single rat so far." She opened her mouth to speak again but closed it as the figure began to move toward her. As it got closer, the light shifted, and she could see it wasn't her husband. Just then, an image of a rat appeared on the teacher bot's monitor, followed by many others flashing across the screen almost too fast for her eyes to register.

Before she could say anything, it spoke in a tone she hadn't heard since she was a child. "Rat, from the order Rodentia. The two best-known species are from the genus Rattus: the black rat (Rattus rattus) and the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). Would you like to learn more about rats?"

Too shocked to react, she just stood there staring until the robot stopped before her. A compartment on its left arm slid open as it reached out. "Good morning, Hanna. Please insert student module."

"Is that you, Number 8?"

"Affirmative. Please insert student module."

Hanna noticed a slight tremor in its hand. That, coupled with the sporadically blinking rings on the sides of its head, told her the years had not been kind to Number 8. "Where are the others?"

"They are no longer on the premises. Please insert student module."

She reached into her purse and pulled out her keys. Hanging amongst them was a plastic keepsake. Even after it no longer seemed useful, she unclipped it from the zipper on her backpack and attached it to her key ring. For over three decades, she carried it with her everywhere she went.

Alex asked her about it when they first started dating, and she lied, telling him it was a piece of an old electronic toy she had as a kid. A red light on its one end started blinking when they drove into Ripley. Not knowing how to explain it to her husband, she stuffed her purse under the seat.

Detaching it, she inserted it beside the three modules that belonged to her classmates. Once the compartment closed, Number 8 immediately zipped around her and headed down the hall. "Wait, where are you going?"

She rushed after it, passing classroom after classroom, but her old teacher was much faster than she remembered. Number 8 vanished in the glaring light at the end of the hall, but she knew where to find it. Turning left, she slowed her pace to catch her breath. Her robot wasn't too far away, standing in the doorway of Hanna's old classroom.

It didn't seem to notice her when she stepped up behind it. The child-size robot blocked the doorway, but she had no trouble seeing over its head. What she saw in the classroom looked familiar to her. It didn't look like it had when she was a student, but she knew she'd seen the very same scene once before.

And then, it dawned on her. What she saw was almost exactly like the image in the newspaper article that got Hadley closed down. Hanna was surprised she remembered it after so many years, but she could see it in her head clear as day. There was only one thing needed to make the scene identical to the one she remembered.

She looked down at Number 8. It was staring up at her. The robot wasn't capable of expressing emotion, but in that moment, she thought it looked sad, like it was hesitant to do something it didn't want to do. She spoke softly then, "You're the last piece of the puzzle, aren't you?"

Number 8 responded the only way it knew how. "John Spilsbury, a British cartographer, is credited as creating the first jigsaw puzzle in 1766. Would you like to learn more about puzzles?"

Hanna looked into the dreary room full of shutdown robots and then looked back at Number 8. She didn't understand what she was seeing, but she somehow knew the room in front of her wasn't her old classroom. "The other bots aren't on the premises anymore, huh?"

"Affirmative."

"And you have to go now, don't you?"

"Affirmative."

She knew the question on the tip of her tongue was absurd, but she asked it anyway. "Can I go with you?"

"Negative. Students are not allowed off premises during school hours. Please return to class."

"Okay then, goodbye, Number 8. You were my favorite teacher."

A quiet moment passed between them before Number 8 turned and entered the classroom. She watched it park itself in front of the others. A moment later, its head slumped forward.

***

Frank walked the couple to their car. They said their goodbyes and were poised to pull away when he leaned down to the passenger window. "Find what you were looking for, sweetheart?"

Hanna replied with a hint of hesitation, "I guess I did."

"Look me up if you're ever in town again, alright?" He saw the look in her eyes and knew she was done with Ripley and all that came with it. It saddened him, but he figured it was for the best.

"You're a sweet man, Mr. Woo... Frank. I won't ever forget you." With that, she gave him a peck on the cheek, and then they drove away. Walking back to his truck, Frank watched them pull out of the parking lot. Looking in the back of his pickup, he saw everything he needed was there.

He didn't know who purchased the old schoolhouse. Hiring him to look after the place and open it up for visitors was done anonymously, but the monthly checks for his services never stopped coming. As he walked toward the school, he thought about the instructions he received so many years ago. Hanna was the last of the students of tomorrow, so now he had just one last thing to do.

It seemed crazy, but over time he came to see it as a fitting end for such a strange tale.

***

The couple drove along in silence. Hanna could see Alex watching her out of the corner of his eye. It was obvious he had questions. She wasn't sure how much she'd tell him or if she could even put it all into words. She turned on the radio and leaned back in her seat.

She glanced at the side mirror as they passed a sign informing them they were leaving Ripley. Behind them she could see a plume of smoke reaching out toward the sky.

The_Visitors_-_FAILED_SCHOOL_OF_TOMORROW

The Visitors - FAILED SCHOOL OF TOMORROW

Narrated by NaturesTemper



Written by Kolpik
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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