The St. Francis Christmas Choir

by Peter Fodey

Gord Kelsey was feeling good about things, as he made his way to work at 10:54 p.m. on the final Thursday before Christmas. A light but steady dusting of feathery snow only added to his surprisingly cheerful spirit. His brother Dave had told him things would improve - it was inevitable - and that Karen's leaving him back in the summer had been a blessing. And, by Christ, after several months of brooding, Gord had to admit that his only sibling was right! Moving away from that mess had, low and behold, proven the best thing. There was work here in Calverton, and plenty of friendly folks as well. He was getting back into the game.

As he approached the dark and empty St. Francis Elementary School, Gord savored the crunching of snow under his feet. He pulled in one more crisp breath of late December air, then reached into his coat pocket for his key-ring. He unlocked the school, entered, and punched in the code for the small digital alarm system. St. Francis was old, but still riding with the times.

Gord kicked the snow from his boots and flipped on the main lights for the first floor. He passed the dark and deserted gymnasium, then made the short trip up to floors two and three to light them. He then returned to the main level and headed for his Custodian's Room, anticipating a very laid back final night before the holidays. Most of the classrooms, twelve in all, were never that bad anyway, with the exception of some cookie crumbs or discarded pens and pencils. A quick sweep and light mopping would suffice, at least on this last shift before Christmas. After all, principal Tom Jordan, a topnotch fellow in Gord's books, had told him to cut out early if desired. "Get out and enjoy the season," he had said, slipping Gord an unexpected cash bonus in the process. Yes, things were definitely looking up.

Gord opened the door to the Custodian's Room and dropped his newspaper onto the cluttered desk. He hung his coat and noticed a red envelope amongst the disarray, addressed to him. Opening it, he read the Christmas card from the day janitor, old Jimmy Pepper, the seasoned mop-slinger of St. Francis Elementary. A colorful fellow if ever there was, Jimmy had been at it for over twenty years, and loved to regale Gord with countless janitor stories from days gone by, however stomach churning. Gord was just thankful he worked the graveyard shift, when the kids were gone, especially during flu season. He wondered, sometimes, how he would react if ever confronted with a classroom floor splattered with some ten-year-old's vomit. The night shift was, without question, more to his liking.

Gord wheeled his supply cart out into the first floor hallway and rolled toward Room 104, the kindergarten section. His now trusty blue cart was loaded with an assortment of spray bottles, all containing various chemicals of different colors and purposes, along with rubber gloves, hand scrapers, rags, towels and anything else that might be needed to get that extra shine. Entering 104, he immediately punched the power button on the big ghetto blaster that sat near the blackboard, his nightly ritual of listening to music, mostly for some sense of human company. It usually blared all night, at least until five a.m., audible throughout the entire school while Gord worked. Normally, it was '70s rock and cutting edge talk radio, but tonight, in the spirit of the season, he opted for Christmas carols. He was in a "Silent Night" kind of mood.

Going to work on 104, Gord looked up at the classroom wall clock and saw that it was 11:15 p.m. He knew that he could likely be home as early as 4 a.m., especially if he sacrificed a couple of his usual breaks, but actually didn't mind being there, which was more than he could say for some of his past jobs. When Gord thought about it, he had gotten lucky back in August, when principal Tom Jordan had hired him almost immediately, with little required in the way of references. As Gord dust-mopped the blue-and-white checkered floor of 104, he realized that he was at peace with this type of work, unlike many who simply couldn't handle the 'dead of night' type of life. Gord revelled in it, however, alone with his thoughts, and plans for a better future.

He completed the first floor rooms in slightly more than an hour, faster than he would have on an average shift. Eschewing his usual newspaper and Coca-Cola break at this time, Gord rolled his cart onto the service elevator and headed up to the second floor. From the kindergarten room below, a very poppy rendition of "Jingle Bells" echoed, wafting through the empty halls of old St. Francis.

He entered Room 203 and was surprised to discover yet another Christmas card, this time from the third graders. This seemed strange considering that Gord rarely, if ever, interacted with the students, any of them, as he was usually long gone before the first bell, when Jimmy Pepper officially took over. Yet, St. Francis was a school that produced considerate young individuals, respectful of the elders who kept their world safe and clean. Gord appreciated the gesture.

He rolled on to Room 205, the small and cozy library. Normally it was low maintenance, requiring a carpet vacuuming every few nights, along with a dumping of the wastebasket. Tonight, it looked next to new. Nonetheless, Gord retrieved his second floor Hoover and went to work. He felt he owed it to Tom Jordan, to avoid sliding into the bad habit of taking short cuts. Principal Jordan was a good man, and Gord knew very quickly that this was somebody who he could happily work for indefinitely. Tom had told Gord, in August, to give it some time before making any permanent decisons about long term service, but Gord had known from the beginning. In fact, Tom Jordan had originally stated, "At least give it until the New Year." Well, thought Gord, the New Year was near, and it was time to commit. Time to move out of his brother's extra room and establish himself as a new citizen of Calverton.

It was approaching 1:40 a.m. when the janitor and his cart rolled onto the elevator again and ascended to the top floor, the jolly music from downstairs still audible. Arriving, he decided it was time for a short breather and made his way into Room 301. Pushing open one of its windows and sitting down on the ledge beside it, Gord enjoyed the cool night air. A thin beading of sweat on his forehead evaporated pleasantly. He thought about Jimmy Pepper, and how lost he would be when he arrived in less than five hours, only to find that Gord was gone. Technically, old Jimmy didn't start work until 7 a.m., when Gord was free to go. But the ever sociable custodian always arrived thirty to forty minutes early, just to gab. It could be annoying at times, thought Gord, but he liked him a lot. Hell, once and a while the chatty bugger even brought in coffee and donuts.

Sitting by the window and watching the snow fall, Gord thought some more about the morning janitor. Jimmy had trained him, and in the process, endeared himself to Gord in his own way. He was 'slightly' on the redneck side and definitely talked about his family too much, but wasn't the type to do so unless he liked you. Some of the nauseating things he had dealt with always seemed to enter their conversations, from plugged toilets to stomach messes, and he sometimes appeared to derive delightful amusement from watching Gord cringe. But not every story brought a smile to the face of Jimmy Pepper, particularly the one about the fire.

It had happened, strangely enough thought Gord, during the St. Francis Christmas assembly way back in 1948, long before Jimmy's tenure, but a ghoulish story that had been passed down through the years. They had called it a flash fire, and it had gutted the school gymnasium along with the souls of an entire community. Thirty-nine children, including the entire Christmas choir, had perished in the unthinkable tragedy, along with five teachers. The old headmaster, the highly esteemed Alexander McDonald, had also seen his celebrated life go up in smoke that fateful day. As it turned out, the fire doors had been locked, inexplicably at first, then attributed to a mentally ill custodian, the soon-to-be-infamous Robert Finlayson. Wisely enough, Finlayson had put a bullet in his own head shortly thereafter, over a bottle of the hard stuff, preventing what certainly would have turned into a lynch mob situation.

An icy cold gust whistled through the side window of Room 301 then, causing Gord to tremble slightly. Not one to spook easily, he felt a weird chill from more than just the wind. He knew, despite the passing of over six decades and numerous renovations over that time, that he was working in a somewhat sacred place. Sickly inappropriate as it seemed, he could hear the very distant wail of a siren somewhere in the city. He decided to go back to work.

Sliding down from the ledge, Gord shut the window and headed for his cart to retrieve the dust mop. "Come All Ye Faithful" drifted up from the radio below as he settled in to conquer his final floor. It was nearly two.

By 2:30 a.m., the job was near completion, with only a few other chores remaining downstairs. Gord shook his hips to "Jingle Bell Rock", having put the fire out of his mind and having resumed with his Christmas spirit. As he mopped Room 306, his stomach growled, making him thankful he had packed those tuna fish sandwiches. He stood and looked at his own reflection in the side windows, gripping his mop in one hand while rubbing his spreading middle-aged belly with the other. Something whisked past behind him.

Gord's heart pounded hard as he whipped around and glared at the open classroom door. It had appeared in the window glass, a quick blur, but his rational mind fought hard to discount this. Mop still in hand, he approached the open door and peered down an empty school hall, his pulse still racing. He continued to stare at nothing, shaking his head.

"Get a hold of yourself, numbnuts," Gord spoke aloud, finally turning and going back to 306. As he reached for his mop pail, the music from downstairs stopped. Gord stood frozen, hoping this was just a normal glitch in the broadcast. He listened to nothing, the lonely halls of St. Francis suddenly void of music.

He approached the room entrance again and looked down the deathly quiet hall, lined with orange lockers. He was feeling very alone.

At that moment, a relieved Gord smiled as the Christmas music resumed. It was "Silent Night", performed by what sounded like a children's choir. Gord Kelsey's blood turned to ice then, as he realized that the beautiful song was floating up from the school gymnasium.

A distinct burning smell filtered into his nostrils, as Gord stared in disbelief. Smoke was beginning to drift and roll up the stairwell at the end of the hallway, as his skin tightened with instant panic. This couldn't be happening.

The fire alarm began to DING, as his heart nearly exploded from his chest. Its resounding pulsations pounded at Gord's brain, his racing thoughts trying to focus beyond this unfolding horror. It was then that they appeared.

Two children, scorched and blackened, were standing at the end of the hall, smiling through the smoke. Gord Kelsey's mop dropped to the floor beside him as they slowly approached, reaching out with badly charred hands. A smoldering foulness accompanied their every slow step as Gord stood motionless amidst the madness. It was a boy and a girl, the Worthington twins, Stewart and Sally, both entered into rest on December the 22nd of '48. Gord's actions were beyond his control as he reached out as well, taking a warm hand from each and walking between them, back down the stairwell and toward the first floor gym.

The sounds of "Silent Night" spun in his brain as the long dead arson victims guided him closer, ever so gently, downward to hell. The sweet music grew louder, as did the overpowering stench of torched flesh, each step forward causing Gord to feel as though he might be floating through an impossibly vivid nightmare.

They reached the bottom floor and passed the large portrait of Alexander McDonald, the original founder of St. Francis Elementary School. Gord's glazed eyes now watched as the gymnasium doors opened, a burst of music and flames exploding before him. The Worthington twins led him into the inferno, its throng of seared students and teachers, also smiling at him. They walked toward the stage, as the St.Francis Christmas Choir, a ghastly travesty of ruined lives, sang their song.

Gord Kelsey now stopped as the twins released their grips. "Silent Night" ended, as Mr. Alexander McDonald stood up and clapped. The headmaster then turned to face the astonished janitor. This once great man, always striking in appearance, was now striking for all the wrong reasons. He, too, smiled a welcoming smile, his thick shock of white hair snapping and crackling with fire. His once stern eyes now glowed a sinister red, bulging like clumps of burning charcoal.

"It's alright," said the headmaster. "Come and hear our choir."

The world before him turned to black then, as Gord collapsed onto the gymnasium floor.


It was Jimmy Pepper who found him first, huddled and shivering violently in the Custodian's Room. He had somehow managed to wedge himself between the cluttered desk and the wall, unresponsive to Jimmy's words. The older custodian tried, but knew only too well that it was useless. They had returned, it seemed, and it was a damn shame that a guy as nice as Gord had to be the one to see it this time. It saddened Jimmy, just like it had with the all the others before.

Jimmy Pepper threw a blanket over Gord, who certainly wasn't going anywhere, then let himself into the Principal's office to phone Tom Jordan, who arrived shortly thereafter.

Gord Kelsey never returned to St. Francis, but remained in Calverton. Actually, he was now located about nine miles north of Calverton, where he continues to push a mop. In fact, all of the inmates at the Ridgeway Mental Hospital are expected to help with the cleaning.

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