Short Story | Even Rat Pups Laugh Once In A While Part 1 — by Brian Moore, Illustration by Cait Maloney
Tuesday – Tim in the Drop Ceiling
Tuesday morning, second period Mr. Stuart had nowhere in particular to be, so he wandered through Frederick Winslow Taylor Middle School on reconnaissance, looking for trouble. He found it just as he passed from under the high ceiling of the Commons into the throat of the connecting central hallway: An unattended ladder pointing up to a hole left by an AV contractor’s removal of a ceiling panel.
He addressed the ladder out loud. “Aren’t you an accident waiting to happen.”
He scanned the area, but saw nobody around. He climbed, hoping to find lounging among the girders one or more of the contractors responsible for leaving the hazard. There he’d scold them for having left such a powerful temptation in the path of hundreds of curious kids certain to swarm past it at least eight times in one day. “This is completely unnecessary!” he’d say. Then he’d point angrily to a closed hatch he knew to be far off in the dark, “You can get into the drop ceiling from the hatch in the custodial office!”
He grinned – briefly.
The contractors were absent, but a shop light hanging at a site about 10 yards from him, roughly where the teachers’ lounge was, indicated where they’d last been before they left for a break. Curiosity of their progress got the better of him. “Long as I’m up here,“ he said by way of rationalization. He hoisted himself up, then made his way over to the shop light. At the site he spied a coil of coaxial cable having a tail running off into the dim to somewhere he couldn’t see. He stood over the coil. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said to it, nudging it with a toe. He put a hand on his hip, but gripped a strut with the other, and planted both feet on a girder. “Union’s not gonna stand for cameras in the teachers’ lounge.”
He was considering whether he ought to tell somebody about the surveillance camera in the teacher’s lounge, and if so, whom, when the bell to end Second Period clanged. He sighed, and with effort regained his concentration. Over the course of the next minute or so, he remained self-absorbed with wondering what his responsibility might be and not noticing the crescendo of white noise coming up through the hole.
He kept coming back to Principal Rhee because she was the obvious choice, only to reject her on grounds he hesitated to articulate. At last, he selected Miss Johnstone, also on grounds he hesitated to articulate. Having settled the question, and having no new thought or question with which to occupy his mind he at last heard the white noise. “Oh shit!” he cursed when realization struck. He clambered back to the hole just as a head poked up through it.
Stu heard a masculine but pubescent “Whoa!” He calmly asked the back of the boy’s head, “Hello, son. Is anybody holding the ladder for you?”
The boy spun. When he saw Stu, his eyes went wide with terror. He swung his arms over a cross tee engineered and manufactured to support no more than the weight of a fiberglass ceiling panel. The tee bent badly, threatening to give way.
Stu gripped the boy’s wrist before he could fall, looked down to the mob of kids milling around perilously close to the feet of the ladder. The boy stabilized on the ladder, which had wobbled beneath him when he spun. Still calm, Stu asked, “What’s your name?”
“Well Tim, you made it this far. And I can’t leave you on a ladder with nobody holding it for you. You may as well come on up.” He anchored himself. “I’ve got you. C’mon.”
Stu stood the boy on a girder. “Pretty cool up here, isn’t it?”
Tim turned slowly to survey the space with genuine wonder on his face. “It’s awesome!”
It wasn’t often a janitor had the attention, let alone the respect, of a student. Stu wasn’t about to let the moment get away from him. “There’s more to any building than meets the eye of the folks wandering around in it,” he said, sweeping an arm through the dusky gap between the building’s real and false ceilings. “They walk the halls, sit in their classrooms, their offices … ” He looked down to the mob below. “Most of them never suspect, unless something draws their attention up.”
When he looked over to Tim, he realized he didn’t have much of the boy’s attention at all; Tim was only barely listening. “Right,” he acknowledged while peering at some distant point.
A ruckus cut through the murmur of the mob below them. A young male voice cracked. “Knock it off!” They looked down through the hole in time to witness one large boy in a school jersey give another a destabilizing shove into the ladder’s legs. Together, they watched it fall under the boy’s considerable weight. Girls in its path cowered and shrieked.
The fallen boy hopped up. Then he ran after his aggressor, leaving behind him the fallen ladder.
A couple beats after the crash, Stu said drily, “Well Tim, looks like you and I are going to be spending the rest of our lives together up here. How do you feel about asbestos for lunch?”
They waited for somebody to replace the ladder, but none did. Neither called down for help.
As Third Bell approached, the ranks of their potential saviors thinned. When it rang, none were left. And it startled Tim such that he nearly fell back down through the hole.
Stu caught him. “Do me a favor?” he asked firmly but with patience. “While you’re up here, keep at least three points anchored at all times. One hand and both feet, or one foot and both hands. Understand me?”
Tim acknowledged by doing as Stu said, then asked, “So how are we going to get down?”
“We’ve got a lot of options,” Stu said with confidence and while surveying their surroundings. “From right here, we can go anywhere in the building you want to go.”
“Can we go to the girls bathroom?”
Stu huffed. “We can go anywhere in the building except the girls restroom – we don’t have bathrooms. Building codes say the ceilings above restrooms have to be solid. For privacy. How would you like it if somebody was watching you pee?”
“I wouldn’t care.”
“Oh. Right. Of course not.” Stu gave his head a shake. “So what’s the matter with you that you want to watch a girl pee anyway?”
Stu took him at his word. Tim was about thirteen, so likely had no inkling why he wanted to watch a girl pee.
A PA speaker nearby startled them both with a page from Mrs. Bush, the school admin: “Mr. Stuart. Mr. Stuart. You are needed in Room 18. Please report to Room 18 immediately. Mr. Stuart, you are needed in Room 18.”
Impressed by how well the PA reproduced Mrs. Bush’s nasally voice, Stu remarked, “Amazing how loud and clear those things are from up here, isn’t it?”
Tim, anchored at four points, said yes.
Stu nodded toward a point far off. “We could go to the hatch in the custodial office. It’s got a ladder built right into the wall.” He considered the distance to the hatch, and the distance Tim would likely have to travel to get from the office to his class, wherever that class might be.
He cursed the building, and not for the first time. It seemed to him as though every time he needed to get somewhere in a hurry, he was at the ass-end of the structure, which was a single-story building five city blocks long. A popular myth among the school’s faculty, staff, and students was that the building’s architect had designed it as a clever play on the school’s namesake.
The other popular myth was that the district, in need of a large school, simply bought an abandoned factory then removed the assembly line.
“Tim,” he said, “in the interest of time, I need you to do as I say, not as I do.”
Stu gripped a girder with both hands, lowered himself through the hole. He hung for a beat, released.
“Aw shit, that figures,” he chided himself on landing awkwardly, spraining an ankle. He rubbed at the pain in his hands where the hard edge of the girder ripped at the palms. He walked gingerly in a tight circle, muttering, “No Workman’s Comp for that, I bet.”
“Huh?” Tim asked from the ceiling.
“Never do that,” Stu said loudly, still limping around in a circle. After two more loops, he raised the ladder, positioned it, then held it while Tim descended.
“Stay out of the ceiling, Tim. You’ll break your neck going up there. I’m lucky all I got is this sprain.”
“Yes sir.” Tim dusted himself off.
“And tell all your friends the same thing.”
Stu limped toward Room 18: Miss Johnstone’s room.
Even Rat Pups Laugh Once In A While is a 6-part serial story written by Brian Moore. If you enjoyed this first installment, stay tuned for Saturday next week, when part two will be released.
Illustration by: Cait Maloney