—for Thomas Ligotti
They wanted to turn the school by our luxury condo into another luxury condo. I told my wife, Dawn, that it was a bad idea, and she agreed: it was gross, it was wrong. Plus, those condos are totally going to be haunted. I said, How many kids do you think died? The school had been around for almost one hundred years, so my guess was a few. Dawn coughed, looked away. Our daughter, Alba, had just been born. It wasn’t the right time to be talking about dead kids. We weren’t getting enough sleep. When I slept, I dreamt of the school, I dreamt of Trumbull’s massive brick facade, its narrow slits of windows. The school loomed over the intersection of Ashland and Foster, and stood catty-corner to a funeral parlor now occupied by a theater, and Trumbull closing was all our neighbors could talk about.
We called our alderman, we signed up for the Facebook group, we commiserated about how Chicago was changing, though we were new to the city ourselves, new to Andersonville.
The city decided to go for it anyway. I’d been looking on Redfin and Zillow, freaked out by how expensive single-family homes were in Andersonville and in the other neighborhoods we were eyeing houses in, though we had just bought the condo, and so the one thought I kept to myself was, Maybe more luxury condos aren’t bad. Or, okay, they’re bad. Clearly bad. But not the worst. The city insisted it’d be condos for sure, maybe a theater space on the ground floor, to get the troupe out of the funeral parlor and into a nice space. This all happened right around the time we arrived after a few years in Colombia. I’d grown up there, gotten my degree in New York, but a consulting job drew us back to Bogotá. Now we were back, and thinking about children, just as Rahm Emanuel closed fifty schools, Trumbull among them. Not enough children were attending, Rahm claimed.
We loved seeing the children walking to school. They seemed like, you know, enough. A whole sidewalk’s worth. The alderman promised everyone: Trumbull wouldn’t be turned into a charter or a private school. That would be wrong.
“Plus,” my wife said again, “that’s begging for a haunted-house situation. Seriously.”
“They should put that in the petition,” I said. “Put a ghost on the page.”
We joked, but Trumbull was already haunting my dreams, though the dreams themselves were the usual school dreams: I was late for a class that I had no idea I was enrolled in, I was supposed to take an exam but I had not studied, I’d forgotten to wear pants, I was all alone and in charge of the school and I could hear footsteps and I’d done something wrong, something terrible, to the building itself.
▴ ▴ ▴
“Imagine going to school in that,” I told Alba late one night. Alba was barely a month old. We could see a corner of the school from our living room window. I fed her, paced, did the gentle side head-bobbing thing you do to get your kid back to sleep. The children who had gone to the school faded from memory—I had a hard time recalling any of their faces. Trumbull had closed less than a month ago.
“Totally haunted,” I said, but Alba and Dawn were asleep, so I didn’t really know who I was talking to.
▴ ▴ ▴
A year after the condo project was announced, so like six months after my daughter was born, the condo project fell through, and the city started work on a lease to turn the building into a fancy private school.
▴ ▴ ▴
Dawn was back at work. I was taking care of Alba. It was my job to feed her in the early morning, usually around two.
I fed her, fell asleep, woke up ten minutes later.
Alba cried—a thin cry, powerful. The kind of sound you’d hear from a pterodactyl. I checked the clock. She had just been fed.
“Everything okay?” Dawn asked.
I said, “Our baby doesn’t like that our condo is haunted.”
“The baby doesn’t like that we’re gentrifiers,” Dawn said.
“I’ll get another bottle,” I said.
Alba wouldn’t eat. I wanted to take her temperature, but her skin felt fine. Not hot. She was just up. She wanted to let us all know she was up and alive.
It was like a fever, Alba’s life force. It bled into everything. Ever since she’d been born, every building, every wall—pretty much any object I encountered—felt too alive, particularly at night.
I moved her out of the bed and into the living room so Dawn could go back to sleep, and so it was a shock when I turned and Dawn was behind me, arms raised, ready for her daughter. “Let me,” she said.
“You need sleep.” I handed her Alba anyway. Maybe Dawn could keep her happy, chill her out. They had a special bond. I could go back to bed.
It was only when I was putting the bottle back that I noticed the chalkboard. I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, because the fridge mostly obscured it, but the dark of the night and the harsh blur of light from all our chrome appliances threw this one odd spot between the counters into relief: I shoved the fridge a little.
Our baby cried. Dawn asked what I was doing. The baby wouldn’t latch, I wouldn’t answer, I didn’t know what I was doing until I did it.
“This is a school,” I said. “Was, I mean. We’re in a school.”
“No way.” Dawn kept her eyes on the baby, but the baby looked at the dark of the window, at the faint outlines of our reflection.
I pointed. “That’s a chalkboard. They didn’t even drywall over it.”
“They would have told us,” Dawn said.
“It’s an older condo,” I said. “They probably told whoever owned before we did, and whoever they bought it from. I bet you we can find it online.”
You could. I did. Our condo had been a school ten years before we arrived—a small, experimental middle school that didn’t work out, which explained the odd layout, our own narrow windows and unusually generous common areas, plus the feeling that we were perpetually late for everything and that something was due any minute. It was my chief memory of my middle school years back in Colombia, this perpetual low-grade worry, this sense that I wasn’t late, not yet, that I better hurry, that there was homework due that I didn’t know about, that I was going to get into so much trouble. It must have been the same for the children who went to school here, in my kitchen. The building remembered and kept worry in its walls.
My daughter was robust. No ear infections, no fevers. I waited, in dread, for the first serious sickness, the first serious accident.
I worried about the neighborhood’s health as well. I saw two-flats converted into single residences, lots turned into fancy houses.
Worse, perhaps, was seeing what was happening to the local businesses—the feminist bookstore, the interior-design shop that sold mostly taxidermy, the Swedish bakery that everybody got cookies from, the Swedish deli that nobody went to, the head shop, the terrible Thai place: all the businesses were closing down but the rent was going up, which made no sense. Dawn had read enough to explain it to me. As neighborhoods got fancy and pricey stores moved in, taxes increased and landlords hoped to make up for it, so they charged more and hoped for other potential fancy businesses, but no fancy businesses materialized, or not enough. They couldn’t afford the rent either, so storefronts sat abandoned.
“You know it’s our fault,” I told my wife. “Partly our fault, anyway.”
It might have been the other way, it might have been her telling me—Alba kept us perpetually confused—and we were still in the fog of feeding and sleeping and feeding and mostly not sleeping. I forget who said what. But anyway, she was right, or I was: all those small business closures were partly our fault, we were driving up the property prices, which we agreed was, like, good—like, clearly bad but also a little good—and anyway it wasn’t like we were gentrifying the place. Andersonville was already gentrified. This wasn’t Pilsen. Anyway, we had to live somewhere, the baby needed a roof over her head, and so here was our roof, and so what if it was a school once? People needed schools, sure, but they also needed houses.
Alba stopped crying. On the window I spied what she had been looking at all along.
It wasn’t us. A gray face hovered just below the moon, its smile fixed.
I wanted to make a sound, but in my fear and in my panic I kept still and brought my child closer, and it was only then that I realized that the face was her Thomas the Train toy, reflected on the window. We’d left Thomas on top of the microwave.
It had been a gift from her grandmother, this large unwieldy thing that she absolutely loved. The condo was blessedly quiet but for the hum of the AC. It was such an unexpected blessing to have central air. It was August, the worst of the Chicago summer, which we had mostly dealt with before like you did with the winters: by remembering that seasons eventually ended. All you had to do was live through them.
“Anyway, the condo’s not haunted,” I said. “I was just kidding.”
But Dawn was already asleep, and so was the baby, and so was I, pretty much, and I couldn’t really remember if I actually said this or not. I had been in the kitchen, thinking of all the children who had passed through this room, and remembered being a child myself, running to a class, backpack clattering after me. I remembered telling the kitchen goodnight, and the next morning Dawn had to go back to work, and so it was just me and the baby.
▴ ▴ ▴
The brochure arrived the next day: Trumbull was reopening as a private school. Were we interested in a tour? I asked Dawn. We weren’t: Alba was too young, we didn’t even need to worry about wait lists.
“Wait,” she said. “Do we?”
I went online, signed us up. The tour would be next week.
My wife ran off to catch the train. Alba and I went to the playground. She was too young for the playground, but I didn’t know where else to take her. My daughter’s an easy child, not given to tantrums, and back then she was just a blob in the baby carrier, taking in the sun. The Andersonville playlot had all these toys the neighbors had donated—bikes and trikes, those round cars you power with your feet, Flintstones-style. Nothing a six-month-old blob could use. She loved to be perpetually shocked by the world, that was the whole of her desired playground activity. I set her on the wood chips. She was past tummy time but I set her on her tummy out of habit. She keened, low and disconsolate, until I set Thomas by her side.
I could feel the urge to disengage, to let her do her thing so I could check my phone (maybe our condo had gone up in value: Redfin let you check that), but there were too many parents about. None of them checked their phones. Besides, my daughter had just put a wood chip in her mouth that I had to fish out.
She didn’t seem to mind not having that wood chip. She was in a giant lot of wood chips, she just picked up another one.
I was looking at Trumbull. What if I were to go in? I could strap my daughter back to my chest, and we could just go in there. It was just across Ashland. I could see the side, I could see the narrow windows you couldn’t really crawl through. I imagine it’d be easier getting in from the back. That’s where the school’s own sad playground was, and also its parking lot. The playground for the public-school kids wasn’t nearly as nice as the neighborhood playground, the one we were on. My daughter was messing with another wood chip. It was fine. It was probably good for her. I remembered what I’d read about Trumbull when it closed—that it was really good for kids with special needs, and I felt so sad. Here was this perfectly nice school, with this perfectly acceptable playground, and it was all going unused, and when it was going to be used again it’d be for rich kids, rich families. Okay maybe not rich. It’d be us. They should have kept it open. I had been mostly alone with my daughter during the week. It was a choice, to take a year’s unpaid leave for our daughter’s first year on this earth. Dawn used her three months of maternity leave, and I took a month off at first, and then realized I didn’t want to go back. Or couldn’t. Not yet, at least.
In truth, I wanted to go to work. I was bored, anxious, worried about all the money we weren’t making, all the money we were spending. Every night I dreamt of the children of Trumbull—they shivered, they trembled at something just behind me, and when I turned to see what it was, I woke, startled—and every morning I woke to my own child, my own wife, who was already late for work, and so I took my daughter to the playground, the abandoned school looming over us, thinking all the while, I’ll adjust to being in charge of a life, of always worrying about her welfare, but I never did, I didn’t see how you could. Every day, I worried about my daughter. I mean, I was also bored, and I checked my phone all the time. It wasn’t like I was this saint you could turn to as a model of parenting. I would mostly check our property value on Zillow or Redfin, or I’d start looking at other condos, and even some houses, all while my daughter crawled around the playground. The good news was that our unit had gone through the roof, value-wise. The bad news was that so had the rest of Chicago, or at least the part of Chicago we wanted to live in, so we were stuck where we were, no chance of a bigger place—forget about a house. Dawn was fine with us having just one kid, but lately I wanted more. Two. Maybe three. I didn’t even know why, it wasn’t like I was even doing a good job with just the one.
Like, it didn’t even register that it’s a terrible idea to bring toys to the playground, that the community toys were there for a reason. Kids descended like seagulls at the lake—they just swooped and took her toy, left my daughter Thomas-less. I could see it change hands, this blue blob the size of her head. Even in daylight the toy was eerie, this see-through blue plastic with its insides full of little primary-colored balls that popped around when you rolled him on the ground. A ghost stuffed with jawbreakers.
She was fine with it, she was just dazzled by the summer light and by all the delicious wood chips, which I had given up telling her not to lick, not to actually put in her mouth, not to eat. Maybe it was good for her. Maybe the baby knew what was best for her. I was on the phone, scrolling through some far suburbs. We could afford a mansion north from us. Like, way north. Or way west. My daughter could have a yard as big as this playlot, and she wouldn’t have to share it. We’d need a car. Nobody would take her Thomas.
“My son loves the show,” a mom said. She was heavy-set, white, still ash-gray from the long winter. Her son had my daughter’s Thomas. He was black.
“She loves it too,” I said.
“I hate it,” she said. “Marshall knows all the trains. He’ll tell you everything about every train, day in and day out. Don’t ask him.” I totally wanted to ask him. Her son rolled Alba’s Thomas gently up a slide and talked in a low voice to the toy. “He won’t stop. Plus, the show is awful.”
I tried not to judge the mom even as I was judging. “We like Daniel Tiger,” I said.
“Oh, I hate that one even more,” Marshall’s mom said. “I hate all the ones where they talk at you. When they pretend they’re talking, and they can hear what your kid is saying? Hate that. Sure, buddy, you can hear us. Sure, you’re listening to my kid. Sure.” She was sweaty, bleary-eyed, her child at least a year older than my daughter. I had assumed things got easier, or at least slowed down, but the twos sounded more stressful than the ones. Marshall’s mom was so angry. I was pretty sure there was a nice person beneath it all, buried under all the parenting.
I smiled, complained about not getting enough sleep. I didn’t mention the nightmares, the role the empty school played in them. It was right there, after all. I didn’t want Trumbull to hear us.
“You shouldn’t bring toys to the lot,” she said. “Kids fight over them. That’s why all the community toys are here. So the kids can fight over those.”
That’s when her kid screamed. I ran over. My daughter was somehow by the tire swing on the far side of the lot. I could still see her, kind of. She was eating a wood chip. The mother took her sweet time, but was angry by the time she got over.
“He bit me!” Marshall said. “Thomas bit me!”
Her son bled—his index finger had been cut. I scooped up Alba, relieved that it wasn’t her, that she wasn’t the one who was injured.
“I’m sorry,” I said, sure that I had nothing to be sorry for.
“You shouldn’t bring toys to the playlot,” the mom said again, all while her child screamed and screamed and screamed.
“Don’t let your kid steal toys,” I said.
The mom hunched over the kid, his chubby finger bright with blood, the mom going, “You’re all right, you’re all right.” Annoyed, though. The poor kid.
My daughter giggled.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
The Thomas toy just sat there. I checked for flecks of blood on Thomas’s mouth, and then all around, just in case—maybe a sharp edge, a place a little finger could get jammed in. Nothing. My daughter had him in her hands now—just a toy, harmless.
“Is he okay?” I asked. “I have wipes. In my stroller.”
“We all have wipes,” the mom said, but then she said she’d take some.
Her kid was calming down. After she wiped the blood away, the injury was hardly visible, hardly there at all. I used to carry Neosporin because I worried about infections—about all the scrapes, what the broken skin came into contact with. I’d seen what dogs (also: homeless people, and affluent drunk people) did to the Andersonville sidewalks. I lost the cap, and then I lost the tube, and you couldn’t keep up with all the scrapes anyway, she got into so much trouble, and I was trying to be less of a helicopter parent anyway. Still.
“You’re fine,” the mom said, annoyed.
“I’m so sorry,” I said again, but she was talking to her son. I gave her our whole pouch of wipes.
“We have a court date,” the mom said. “We’re adopting. It’s almost gone through, but you go to court, you have to go to court and prove you’re a good parent.” Her name was Catherine. She was close to crying. Marshall and my daughter played, the boy doing a terrible peek-a-boo that my girl was totally into, all squeals and laughter. “It’s been hard,” Catherine said.
I couldn’t imagine. Parenting was hard enough already. I couldn’t imagine throwing more into it: the law, judges, lawyers. Just taking care of a kid was hard enough. We exchanged numbers, we said we’d set up a playdate, and she joked that at least maybe he wouldn’t be into Thomas anymore, maybe he’d be afraid, maybe they’d watch something else for a goddamn change.
They were neighbors, up in Carmen, not far from us. I told her we were new to the neighborhood, how much we loved it.
“It’s changing,” Catherine said. “I don’t like how it’s changing.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Trumbull—empty still, unchanged—presided over the block, and occupied my dreams, and every morning after Dawn left for work I thought of going there. On the day of the tour the baby carrier slumped over the microwave, right by the coffeemaker, ready for Alba. I’d put it there the night before, so I wouldn’t waste time looking for it.
There’s a video that Dawn posted on YouTube for the grandparents to see, and which I suppose anyone can see, of the first time I tried on the baby carrier. I was terrified of dropping my daughter, so I used the Thomas instead, and in the YouTube video I’m watching—like, intensely watching—a YouTube instructional video on our laptop, completely absorbed and cradling Thomas like it’s alive, all while I’m navigating the straps, the kangaroo pouch, the video cutting off with my wife bursting into laughter, me turning, startled, only then just realizing that I’ve been filmed this whole time—startled but also triumphant: Thomas is in the baby carrier, all the straps correctly positioned. It took me fourteen minutes and change to put on the carrier that first time (I imagine we all jumped ahead when watching it online). These days it’s like thirty seconds, tops—it’s easy. My daughter has gummed up the edges, so they’re discolored, and she seems to like being in there, or at least chills out and will have these short but intense motion-induced naps.
The walk to Trumbull is four minutes. I timed it once. She could do her pre-K with all the other rich kids. And the ghosts. Dawn said no. Bad enough we were gentrifiers, bad enough that the school was closed, that it almost became condos, we weren’t going to put her in there. We didn’t want to. Why would we want to?
I didn’t remind her about our wait-list discussion. Maybe we hadn’t discussed it. Maybe I just signed up, didn’t say anything.
I didn’t tell my wife that I wanted Alba in there, that the school felt lonely, that it felt like the kind of building that needed to be full of children—and so what if the children were rich, not poor? They were still kids. Plus, I’m sure there’d be at least one poor kid, more than one. A handful. There were always at least a few. She wouldn’t be the only Latina in her class, I hoped. There’d be some color. But these schools always claimed that they had scholarships, that they believed in diversity and inclusion, and I did too, I’m sure.
I had my phone, of course, and the diaper bag with a couple of her mashed-vegetable pouches that tasted gross but that she loved, and also a Kind bar for me, and also her Thomas, because she freaked out if she didn’t have it. It was such a reliable toy. It kept her occupied if I needed a break.
But also I brought the Thomas because, after the playlot incident, I was afraid of leaving it in the house unsupervised.
I expected the doors to be closed. Rahm had shuttered the schools nearly three years before, and I knew CPS had continued to maintain the buildings—I remember reading that in the Tribune, that the cost of upkeep was obscene, that they might as well have kept the schools open—so I was sure we’d just go to the tall narrow doors, jiggle the handles, and call it a day.
But the door was unlocked. I opened it. We stepped in.
My first thought was that I was glad it was going to be a school again and not a condo, because the light was terrible. Outside it was gloriously and incandescently summer, but here it was autumnal. I had admired the narrow windows many times, but it had never occurred to me to imagine how poor a job they did of bringing in light. A mural of Columbus presided over the door, finger pointing at the continent of my birth. My daughter did one of her giggles. She loved this place. She sneezed whenever we stepped outside, dazzled and annoyed by sunlight, and seemed happiest inside, in shadows—a true Chicago baby.
“Let’s walk a bit,” I told her. “Let’s see what your school looks like.”
I walked into two empty classrooms, the eyes of the Columbus mural following me into every door. The finger, too. I was glad for the company. I expected to find a person in every room. I kept thinking, Why did you bring your daughter here? This could be dangerous. I’d camp here, if I were homeless or a junkie. Anyone could be here. Teenagers. They could do something terrible—or you could trip, you could fall. I also tried to imagine the building listed on Redfin: like, a whole school for sale, for however many millions. It could happen. I’d seen a church listed there, a whole church on Humboldt Park. And then I scrolled to another church, converted into luxury condos over on Logan Square, the master bedrooms massive and stubbornly indifferent to the equally massive stained-glass windows. It was all off and clearly sacrilegious and also a bizarre design challenge—no way you could do anything to that room and ignore how you were basically engaged in minor sacrilege.
Which is all to say—maybe closing a school and turning it into our luxury condos? Maybe not as horrible. Less horrible. Ditto for Trumbull.
I had actually pulled out my phone, busy looking up other converted properties on Redfin, when the man appeared.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “You’re not expected, not till next week.”
He wore beige overalls with reflective tape sewn on his knees, a thick faded hoodie. He had a tool belt, actual tools. He wore all the things you’d wear at a construction area, everything but the hard hat—but he also wore a baby carrier, the canvas sun flap covering the baby’s head and arms. His baby stirred when my daughter cooed. Sometimes you have to take your child to work. I thought the private school would be generous with leave, but maybe not, or maybe this man didn’t work for the school. Maybe he worked for the city.
Maybe, I thought, that’s not a baby he’s carrying.
I said, “What do you mean, not expected?” I cradled my daughter’s soft head.
“We’re doing tours next week.” He placed his own hand over where I imagined his little one’s head would be, though the canvas covered it.
We’re inside, I wanted to say. Let your child see what there is to see.
“We’re just looking,” I said.
“You can’t get on the wait list unless you do the tour,” the man said. “I don’t make the rules. I’m just the caretaker.”
“We’ll do the tour,” I said, “but for now we’re just looking. I didn’t think the door would be unlocked. I didn’t know I could just walk in.”
“You can’t,” the caretaker said. “You’re not supposed to.” The man looked behind me. “Friends of yours?”
I had not heard the steps until he talked. In my dream there had been footsteps too, this perfectly normal sound that startled me awake, but my daughter and I were both actually awake right now, and here we were, in an empty building that was no longer empty, and you could no longer tell, not with the echo, how many strangers were coming.
“How old is yours?” I said.
“It’s not mine,” he said, and pulled the canvas flap around the wriggling of the thing he cared for, the thing that was all shadows.
“Mine’s six months,” I said. “Six months and a week.” I didn’t want to raise my voice, so I didn’t know if he heard me over the noise of whoever approached. I said, “They’re not friends. Whoever’s coming, I don’t know them. They’re not my friends.”
“You know them,” the caretaker said. “They’re your neighbors. They’re also early. They’re here for the tour. They’re here for the wait list. You have no patience, none of you. You can’t wait.”
“There’s been a mix-up,” I said. “I signed up for today. I bet they did too. We just want what’s best,” I said. “Who doesn’t? We want what’s best for our kids.” I didn’t know why I felt so pressed to defend my neighbors. I feared them, I didn’t really know them, didn’t like what they were doing to the neighborhood.
They were past the corridor now, right by the door.
The one who opened the door was Catherine, the mom from the park, but other parents streamed in before her, moms mostly. One other dad. None brought their kid to the school, and I felt deficient, like there were obvious child-rearing rules I wasn’t aware of.
“We’re here for the tour,” the mom said.
“The tour’s next week,” I said.
But the parents refused to budge, they were already here, they said, so why not the tour? The caretaker explained that he couldn’t, really—he wasn’t a teacher. He could tell us about the architecture of the school, or about the excellent new HVAC system they decided to install. But none of this was what we really wanted to know. The crowd of moms and dads bristled. They could tell that he was lying. The caretaker was a father himself, after all. Maybe that’s what I really would ask him, if the words came out—would you put the child you’re carrying in this school, if it was a child, that is.
Why do I dream of this place? I wanted to ask. I had asked this too, in my dream.
I wish, now, that the caretaker wore some creepy old-timey clothes, or some kind of incongruous medieval festival gear—a beaked mask, a harlequin hat—but he wore what you’d wear when refurbishing a building. Overalls, boots, a baby in a baby carrier. I worried I was in a dream—that I had not actually gone to Trumbull, that I was in the dream that called me to Trumbull, that this was that dream, the dream before my actually being here, awake and in the flesh, and that I would wake up before my question was answered, that I was doomed to wake up every time. I’d never know the answer.
The caretaker said, “I’ll show you.” He opened a door we had all missed, right by the chalkboard. “Come.”
We all followed.
The room was large enough to hold us all, but not comfortably. We brushed against the tiles on the wall, and the tiles were wet, heavy with water. A parent said she was relieved to know how many doors stood behind this level and the upper floors—that it was clear that no kids could get down here, not easily, plus (another mom added) God forbid, the whole active shooter situation scenario, a teacher could get them down here, if you needed to. Not that you wanted to. God forbid. I knew—and I knew that the other parents knew—that surely, over the years, at least some kids had wandered down here. Most, I hope, managed to wander back out, or were found.
I needed to go. I should not have brought my daughter, I said. Maybe I didn’t say it. I couldn’t talk. I needed to go.
“We’re near the heart of the school,” the caretaker said, “near the boilers, the old boilers, which we won’t use but are not allowed to tear down, per ordinance. Per covenant.” He pointed to the large, thrumming pipes just above our heads. “Don’t touch those. They’re not hot, not cold, but you don’t want to touch those. They lead to the other school, or they used to. They tore that school down years ago—another architectural gem, gone. Just high-end condos now. It made sense, you’d save on cost if the buildings share facilities, you’d save on heating. Some of our north and near-north sites had sisters in Bronzeville, in the far south side, the far west, but most were like Trumbull, with their counterparts here in the neighborhood. They tore it down to make space for you. They tore out Trumbull’s sister. For you.”
“Not for us,” I said. “We had no idea it was a school, not when we bought it, not till recently.” I pushed against the other parents, but they wouldn’t budge. “We have to go.”
“You can’t,” the caretaker said. “We’re not done with the tour. How are you going to make a decision if you don’t know all the details?”
He loosened a valve that hung from the low roof. The smell reminded me of the Colombian coast: rotting fish, mold.
The pipes thrummed. The plumbing bulged.
A mom turned on her phone, complained of no signal. You could see how the water turned to ink, how the liquid thinned and congealed into something slick and alive and hungry. I tried to push my way through, but the room had gone dark once again, and other parents refused to help, refused to let me through. “Please,” I said. I didn’t know if they didn’t want to or simply couldn’t—we were all cramped in there. We didn’t have room to maneuver.
“The tour is over if you leave,” the caretaker said. “For all of you. I’m not doing this again.” His child stirred. “Not for a week at least.”
“Please,” I said again, remembering all the while the worst of my school experiences in Colombia, the arbitrary rules, the bullying, how teachers relished power. How a priest slapped me so hard I spun and fell, all because I was walking on the grass and had not seen the sign that said you couldn’t. I remembered the fear and dread of school, because I was newly afraid, of this school. Of all schools.
I shoved. I did my best to push through. It was awkward, with the carrier, with my daughter’s vulnerable body pressed to mine.
I had turned my back on the caretaker. The pipes creaked. Another valve had been loosened. Another phone was turned on, a dad taking a photo of the growth on the pipes. Look at how it moves, he said. What is that? The caretaker promised he’d tell him, soon. The dad asked, is it alive? Is it safe? For the children?
The tour was still going on. We were about to be told something amazing, life-changing, that I definitely did not want to hear.
The caretaker said that he was going to turn on a light, and we would see, we would really see, what the school was about, what our neighborhood was becoming.
I shifted my diaper bag and pushed hard against the bodies blocking our exit. A parent screamed. Soon others screamed. I heard them say that something had bitten them, that their fingers had been bitten, that the thing wouldn’t let go. Bodies shrank from us. The caretaker now stood in front of the only door, and I felt the weight of Thomas as it moved inside the bag, alive and angry. I took it out. The caretaker screamed and pulled away, cradling his own child that was not his own, not a child.
We opened the door, we opened so many fucking doors, and stepped into daylight. The Thomas was still in my hands, a perfectly ordinary toy, with a perfectly ordinary face, a happy face, a drop of blood on its lips.
There was so much day left—Dawn wouldn’t be home for hours.
I knew we couldn’t go to the playground, not with Trumbull looming, and even the Middle Eastern bakery felt too close, so I took Alba to the store with the taxidermied creatures. I let her play with the fur of what I’m pretty sure had been a nutria.
I waited for one of the other parents to storm in, angry and bloody. Maybe they were trapped. The school wouldn’t let them out. Maybe they weren’t into taking their kids into a store with so many dead animals.
We disinfected our hands with Purell and I carted Alba to the feminist bookstore, and I had this panicked moment—I was sure I left Thomas with the nutria. I hadn’t. I could feel him in the diaper bag. Alba played with the trucks the store kept for children in this dingy box in the very back, right alongside the YA novels and this wire display full of Golden Books that she’d accidentally toppled once.
No parents here, either. And no children. It was the middle of the day. I’d see them soon. I’d have to. Andersonville is small, like this small town. And that’s all of Chicago: a hundred small towns clumped together, and you scootch out of one and end up in another.
If the parents chased us, I would run. I’d protect my child.
We had to get groceries. I didn’t know what we’d eat tonight, what I’d make us. Thomas sat in the diaper bag, quiet. Alba was quiet too. She didn’t protest when I scooped her up, when we got moving again. She fell asleep in the carrier, though the sun was right on her face.
We ran into Catherine. I was glad to see she had made it out of the school. I wanted to wish her well, I wanted to know about the court date, about Marshall—I hoped his finger had healed—but she leaned down, crossed the street. She wanted nothing to do with us.
I wanted to say sorry for the injury and for messing up the tour, the neighborhood, sorry for not wanting to put my daughter in a demonic school that was clearly full of ghosts. Thomas rustled in the diaper bag. The mother wouldn’t meet my eye, though I walked close and parallel on the sidewalk across the street, though I waved the awkward wave you manage when you’ve got a baby strapped to you. She pretended she did not see, pretended she wouldn’t see me, wouldn’t see me again and again, wouldn’t hear what I wanted to say, what I imagined Columbus was saying in that mural that still hangs above Trumbull’s door: what a beautiful place we have here, let’s give it a new name.