There’s a saying in my hometown: “Nobody leaves Copper Hill for good.”
For years, I’d mostly managed to defy it. In the decade that followed my graduation from Copper Hill High School, I hardly set foot in its vicinity.
Instead, I absorbed myself in my studies at an out-of-state university and, eventually, my career. I spent the little free time I had with my girlfriend, who I’d met as a sophomore in a chemistry lab, and her friends. When we eventually broke up, I lost not only her, but also what little social life I had.
It was in this state of loneliness that I found a letter from my old high school in the mail. This surprised me, as I hadn’t realized that anyone there even knew my current mailing address.
I opened the envelope to find an invitation inside. Its design was fancier than I’d expected, complete with gold-colored glitter, a royal blue background, and a finely-drawn silver border. It read, in cursive letters: Cheers for 10 Years! Zachary R. ___, Please Join Us for the CHHS Class of 2013 Official Reunion. It went on to list a start time and the school’s address.
On its back, it even contained a personalized handwritten note: I know you live far away, Zach, but it would mean so much to me if you can make the trip. Paul and I will be there, and Arthur may fly in as well. I’d love to catch up! Hope to see you soon – Vince K___, Co-Chair, CHHS Reunion Planning Committee.
Vince had been one of my best friends, once. You see, Copper Hill is one of those rare small towns where you can easily graduate from high school alongside the same friends you first made in kindergarten – in my case, my buddies Arthur, Paul, and Vince.
I’d spent most of my youth with them. The four of us were in the same scout troop, played on the same sports teams, and took mostly the same classes. On weekends – and on weeknights, when we felt like sneaking out without permission – we often stayed up late together playing video games and drinking whatever cheap beer we managed to keep hidden from our parents.
We’d meant so much to each other once. So why, since graduation, had I neglected them so badly? I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d talked to any of them.
Perhaps this reunion could serve as an opportunity for me to reignite friendships I’d let fade. At a minimum, I knew that spending time – even just one evening – with my old pals would do me a lot of good, especially considering how lonely I’d been lately. Accordingly, I resolved to attend.
By the time I reached Copper Hill, I was an hour behind schedule due to congestion caused by an accident. As I approached town, I observed amidst the fading evening light that it appeared even quieter and more deserted than I remembered. Bars that had reliably drawn decent crowds on a Friday night ranged from boarded-up to barely occupied. Meanwhile, the few other cars on the street drove lethargically at speeds far below the limit, and I spotted no pedestrians.
In my memory, the school was only a short distance from the courthouse, city hall, and post office that formed most of ‘downtown,’ but my GPS took me down a long, unfamiliar route bordered on both sides by tall cornfields. I was about to pull over and double-check the address I’d entered when, sure enough, my headlights illuminated a sign in the school’s distinct black and red colors that stated: CHHS: Home of the Patriots.
The brick building that loomed behind it was just as I remembered, from its tall, towering middle section to the two narrower wings that stretched out to the left and right. Through the rectangular windows that lined the main building, I made out indistinct, shadowy figures milling about inside.
A banner displaying Welcome – 10 Years – CHHS Reunion stretched over the stairs that led to the main entrance. Underneath it, a familiar figure scurried towards the main entrance. “Arthur,” I said to myself with a smile.
Seeing Arthur improved my mood. He was the only other member of our class to leave town after graduation, and I suspected that he might share somewhat of an outsider status with me.
It’ll be just like old times, I reassured myself as I approached the building. Strangely, though, it still didn’t feel that way.
For one, the air had a staleness to it that was difficult to describe. It felt artificial and thin such that, as I climbed the front steps, I found myself needing to breathe in more of it than usual to avoid getting winded.
Plus, the school’s location still seemed off somehow. It didn’t make any sense – it’s not like a building this large could have been relocated. But, amidst the eerily quiet surrounding countryside, everything felt more isolated and remote than I remembered it being.
I tried to stop worrying. After all, with any luck, I’d soon be laughing and reminiscing with old friends who’d be happy to see me.
Inside, balloon garlands, multicolored streamers, triangle flags, and small banners welcoming attendees decorated the main corridor. I observed tables stocked with snacks, pamphlets, and information about fundraisers.
The only noise came from the intercom, which planned an era-appropriate Calvin Harris song. Everything necessary for a reunion was there, with only one notable exception: the people.
As I approached an unmanned table marked “Check In,” I wondered where everybody had gone. Perhaps the event had moved to a different room? I was late, after all.
As I added my signature to a sign-in sheet, my eyes scanned the list of other attendees who were marked as having already arrived. I recognized many names on it.
Like Alice, who’d shared a stand with me in orchestra. Our conductor was a hard-ass, a real disciplinarian who snapped at us constantly, and Alice was one of the many students he’d driven to tears on a semi-regular basis.
I’d had this petty fantasy of comforting her after class, and then mustering the courage to ask her out. But I never did it. It was Vince, actually, who’d ended up with her.
That had always annoyed me. I’d confided in Vince about how I felt about Alice and, soon after, the two of them were together. It felt as frustrating as it sounds. But, oh well, that’s what I get for hesitating for as long as I did.
Drifting down the hallway, my eyes caught the words “Reception” displayed over double-doors that led to the gymnasium. It made sense as the main location for the event – that’s where homecoming, prom, and plenty of major sports events were held, after all.
I could hear chatter, laughter, and the loud thump of dance music just beyond the gym doors. I approached it excitedly.
But, when I stepped inside, all the noise instantly cut out, leaving me in an eerie silence. Even more perplexingly, the room before me, like the entrance corridor, was entirely devoid of people.
A party had just been here, no doubt. I spotted a makeshift bar stocked with a standard assortment of liquor, tables holding half-finished drinks and refreshments, and an area cleared for a dance floor in the room’s center, but there were no people around. Had I missed everyone again? Where had they gone?
“Hello?” I called out, to no avail, as I drifted around the room in a state of bewilderment.
As I did so, I came across the entrance to the boy’s locker room. Just a whiff of the musty, sweaty smell emanating from it unlocked long-buried memories of the time I’d spent in there.
I remembered one occasion, in particular, where Paul had gotten pissed at me. Paul was usually a pretty low-key guy, but when he lost it, he went wild. On that particular occasion, he’d been angry with me, hadn’t he? But why?
I recalled his hot breath as he got in my face and screamed at me. When I gently nudged him away, he responded by slamming a locker door into my head.
My memories from that moment forward were hazy. There was a growing pool of blood, the pain of his fist against my cheek, and the cheering of the classmates who had encircled us. They were egging us on to continue the ‘fight,’ as if my beating could be called that.
I hadn’t thought about this event in years. How could I have forgotten something like that? My mind churned in confusion. Feeling dizzy, I took a seat on a bench that appeared to be part of a crude photobooth setup as my mind continued to replay this repressed memory.
As Paul had continued to pummel me, I’d spotted Vince among the gathered crowd. I’d begged for him to intervene. But neither he, nor our strangely absent instructor, had done anything to help me. It was only when Arthur got between us that Paul had reluctantly cooled off.
It had taken weeks for those bruises to heal. Had Paul ever been punished for it, or even apologized? Surely he must have. We’d remained friends, after all.
A strange pressure around my shoulder and a sudden bright light jolted me back to the present. The flash on the camera facing the bench I was sitting on had…gone off, somehow, even with nobody around to operate it. How was that possible? Maybe it was automated to go off every so often?
It didn’t make sense, just like so much else that was happening. Where was everybody, and whose voices had I been hearing? I’d seen people from the road, and I’d even watched Arthur come inside, but, as far as I could tell, the event was deserted.
I texted Arthur asking if he’d found anyone. For all I knew, he could have changed his number in the many years that had gone by since I’d last used it, but I figured it was worth a shot. To my relief, he responded right away.
Hey man, long time no see! Paul just called me. He says everyone’s up on the third floor, in Mr. Minelli’s old room. I’m on my way there now. Meet you there soon.
I couldn’t fathom why the entire event would relocate from the area clearly designated for it to the third floor. There wasn’t much up there, after all, aside from classrooms and a few administrative officers.
Nonetheless, I resolved to head up there. Arthur was there, after all, and hopefully the rest of my friends would be as well.
Navigating off my memory of the building’s layout, I hopped up a small set of steps that connected the gym to the second floor. From there, it would just be a short walk past a few classrooms before I’d arrive at the central staircase, which would take me to my destination.
I’d never seen the school quite this gloomy before. Each footstep echoed through the halls. The classrooms were weirdly empty, too, bereft of any decorations or other signs of use.
I recognized one as my calculus classroom. I remembered how, after class had ended one day, I’d come across a group of students congregating in the hallway.
Mary, Michelle, and Abby, like so many of my classmates, had grown up with me, and I’d always gotten along with them. But that day, they were harassing a shy girl – Morgan, I think. Calling her all sorts of names – ‘slut,’ ‘whore,’ ‘bitch’. She was trying to get away from them, but they wouldn’t let her leave. Their taunting of her became a regular thing, and it often left Morgan in tears.
What ever happened to Morgan? Like most of my friends, I’d known her since I was a little kid. She was quiet, but she was perfectly nice.
Then, one day, gossip about her started to spread. The type of nasty, embellished rumors that often make their way through high schools, full of sexist undertones and double standards. Her former friends shunned her, and she’d been subjected to taunting and ridicule as she walked to class and sat alone at lunch. And, one day, she was just…gone. I’d always assumed that her family had moved away, but was that true?
Growing up, Mary, Michelle, and Abby had always been sweet girls. I’d never seen them treat another person the way they’d treated Morgan. But Copper Hill High School had a way of bringing out the worst in people. There was just something about this building, this place, that ate away at their – at our – souls.
Had I bullied Morgan, too? Maybe not, but, once her mistreatment started, it’s not like I’d made an effort to be kind to her, or ever invited her to sit with me and my friends in the cafeteria. I could have done more.
I reached the central staircase. With each step that I took up towards the third floor, a feeling of dread ran through me. I’d seen something terrible happen up here, hadn’t I?
It was Paul and Vince. Arthur had done something to offend them. It could have been the rumors spreading about his reasons for never having a girlfriend, his diminutive size, or the way he’d reacted when Paul had beaten me half to death.
Whatever the reason, Paul and Vince – without my knowledge – had decided to subject Arthur to a cruel prank. After school one day, they’d lured Arthur up to the third floor, where they’d taken hold of him and tried to wedge him into his own locker.
Now, there’s a reason this sort of thing occurs primarily on 90s sitcoms: most people simply can’t fit inside of a locker. Arthur, as short and skinny as he was, turned out to be no exception, but this only made things worse for him.
As Arthur later related to me, Paul and Vince laughed rowdily as they slammed him repeatedly into the metal frame. By the time they finally relented, Arthur had bruises all over his body.
There were other horrible acts, too. Other victims, other beatings. It dawned on me that this place had been an absolute hellhole. It’s no wonder I – and Arthur, too – had gotten as far away from it as we could at the first opportunity.
The peculiar thing was that, in the years that had passed, I’d somehow forgotten all of this until just now. Instead, my recollections of high school were all happy, all positive. Had false memories of camaraderie and friendship drawn Arthur back as well?
Finally, I reached the third level. The overhead fluorescent light fixtures flickered sporadically, revealing, in brief spurts, dilapidated lockers, litter, and layers of dust and dirt that coated the floor.
I approached Mr. Minelli’s classroom. Through the shaded hallway window, I could discern the outlines of roughly a dozen figures inside. I heard a voice, too. It was muffled and indistinct, but I could tell that the speaker was giving some kind of speech. She stopped, and a loud round of applause followed.
I reached for the door handle, unsure of what to expect. Hopefully, it would just be the people I’d driven four hours to see. But, after the events thus far, I half-expected the room to be empty. If so, I was jumping ship and going home.
To my surprise, just before I made contact with it, the door slowly opened on its own. The brightly-lit room before me was filled not with people, at least in the general understanding of the word. Rather, the still, bony forms before me resembled the kind of props a biology teacher might use to teach human anatomy.
The skeletons that stood silently throughout the room – that stood posed with drinks, that sat at desks, and that had assembled around a speaker - had to be props, right? Even though Mr. Minelli was a history teacher?
My mind searched desperately for some kind of explanation. This had to be an elaborate prank, right? Had Vince and Paul lured me, and maybe Arthur, too, out here just to freak us the fuck out? I wouldn’t put it past them – it’s precisely the kind of thing they’d do, even if the whole set-up, complete with an array of prop skeletons, was a bit extreme.
But, then, who was making all the noises I’d been hearing? Was that part of the prank, too?
Fuck it, I thought. If this was a big gag at my expense, then I’d just have to deal with the embarrassment later. I was getting out of there.
“Zach,” called a strained voice in the hallway.
“If this a joke, then it’s not-”
The voice interrupted me. “Zach, help me, please!” It was Arthur’s voice, and it was coming from the hallway nearby.
He sounded like he was in serious trouble, so I hurried after him. Eventually, I found myself in a corner of the hallway – one where, if I remembered correctly, he and I used to have lockers. But, once again, I found myself alone.
I yelled out his name several times: “Arthur! Arthur!” It was no use. I appeared to be at a dead end.
That’s when the locker next to me shook. I jumped back, surprised.
It was shut, but not locked. I gripped the handle and pulled it open.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw inside: it was Arthur’s torso. The rest of his body was gone, and something was dragging what was left of him further away, further back into a dark abyss where the wall should have been.
Blood gurgled out of his mouth as he gasped my name one last time. He reached out a red-stained hand. Hoping to somehow pull him out, I tried to take it, only for whatever unseen force had taken hold of him to pull him away, leaving behind a wide hole in the back of the locker. More blood gushed through it, leaking onto the hallway floor.
“So glad you could make it,” said a monotone voice behind me. I whirled around to see two fleshy arms emerge from another locker across from me. The skinless figure left wet, red stains on the white surface as she got to her feet and stepped towards me. “Don’t you recognize your old crush? Surely ten years haven’t been that rough on me.”
“A-alice?” I stuttered, stepping backwards.
Lockers all around me started opening, each accompanied by a new pair of bloody, seemingly boneless arms of figures that slowly crawled outwards.
My survival instincts kicked in. I sprinted away, my legs frantically carrying me towards the main staircase. All around me, figures emerged, reaching out to me as I passed by. Through an open door, I noticed that another classroom was filled with skeletons, just as Mr. Minelli’s had been.
When I reached the main staircase, it was guarded by a tall, fleshy figure. “Don’t you want to be with us?” it asked in a familiar, deep voice that I knew to be Paul’s. “We can be complete. A full class. All of us, together again. Like old times.”
He lurched for me. Just barely, I managed to dodge him, but I lost balance in the process. Before I knew it, I was tumbling down the stairs. Pain shot through me as I collided with step after step.
Finally, I landed on a level surface. Dizzily, I climbed to my feet and did my best to ignore the soreness that spread throughout my body.
A quick glance upwards confirmed that the bloody figures – the ones that somehow resembled my old classmates – were, indeed, heading towards me.
Meanwhile, the temperature inside was rising noticeably, and the walls around me were steadily changing in color from a dull gray to a deep red.
As I scrambled down the rest of the stairs and across the main corridor on the first floor, an intense tremor ran through the building, sending me sprawling to the ground. Despite a sharp pain that spread through my ankle, I hobbled as quickly as I could to the exit.
I didn’t look back as I made my way across the parking lot to my car. I started the ignition, backed out, and headed towards the long road I’d used to get there.
In my rearview mirror, I chanced a glance back at the school. It was shaking violently, like it was being struck by an earthquake.
My car lurched in different directions as the ground underneath me also started to rumble. In an effort to avoid my car being sent off the road and into the neighboring fields, I frantically steered it to the center, between the lanes heading into and out of town.
When I looked back again, the school was, somehow, even closer to me than it had been before. How was that possible? Was it following me?
I floored the accelerator. Row after row of cornfield flew by me as I drove at the fastest speed of my life.
I was on the edge of town, close to the nearest interstate ramp, when local police pulled me over.
As the officer approached me, I stared into the rear view mirror. At the first glimpse of whatever it was that had chased after me, I’d hit the road again, law enforcement be damned. In truth, I hadn’t seen my pursuer since I’d exited the cornfield a few minutes ago, but I hardly felt safe.
“Clocked you going nearly a hundred, son,” said the officer.
I stayed silent. My baffled self was unsure of how to best handle the situation.
The officer gave me a quizzical look as he examined my ID and registration. “You’re Don and Fran’s son, aren’t you? The one who left town?”
“Why’d you come back?”
“There was, uh, a ten-year reunion. For my graduating class.”
He shook his head. “I doubt that.” He looked down, then at my perplexed face. “Where, exactly, was this ‘reunion’?”
“At the school,” I said. I struggled to understand his reaction. What about my story didn’t make sense? And, regardless, was I about to be booked for driving fifty miles over the speed limit? Is that something they throw you in jail for?
“Wait here,” barked the officer. He went to his car where he proceeded to have a long conversation over his radio. After a few minutes, he returned to me. “Get out of here, son. Leave, and don’t come back. Don’t do something like this again. You hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine,” I said, astonished.
“Then scram,” he ordered.
I obliged and began the long journey home.
I had no idea what to make of what occurred. I can hardly find anything at all online about Copper Hill High, or any of my classmates who went there, and I’m not exactly eager to reach out to any of them.
I can’t make much sense of what happened, but I am sure of one thing: that I barely made it out of that situation, and that I shouldn’t press my luck much further.
My ankle needs some more time to heal. Once it does, I’m going to try joining a social club and making new friends. After what happened to me in Copper Hill, I decided that the past is not a place where I need to dwell any longer.
Two weeks have passed since the reunion. Today, an envelope with no return address arrived with my mail. It contained a single photograph on glossy paper with a short note written underneath.
The image featured me on the bench in the photo booth. Sitting to my side, with his arm over my shoulders, was Vince. He wore a blue collared shirt and looked…normal. No missing skin, no bloody imprints on the surface around him.
Paul crouched behind us, a dopey grin on his face. He, too, looked just as I’d imagined he would in his late twenties. To Paul’s right, Abby, Morgan, and Michelle posed together with their arms around each other.
It was…a perfectly ordinary image - the exact kind of photo you’d expect to be taken at an event like that.
The handwritten caption underneath read, “Although your visit was briefer than we preferred, we all had a splendid time catching up with you, Zach! Please feel free to come by anytime! Nobody truly leaves Copper Hill, after all. – Vince K___, Co-Chair, CHHS Reunion Planning Committee.
P.S., the note continued, We are delighted that Arthur has finally joined us. Maybe you will, too, at our 20th.
The writing up to this point was cursive font in traditional black ink. The last few words, however, were larger in size, messily scrawled, and colored a deep shade of red: See you then, buddy, if not sooner.