First we filled the holes, each only nine or so millimeters wide. The maintenance staff had tools on hand. A bit of spackle, smoothed and sanded did the job. A touch of fresh paint.
Except now there were spots where the paint seemed different, glossy squares a foot across that (in the right light) showed exactly where the holes had been. The squares weren’t as noticeable as the holes themselves, but we couldn’t quite ignore them. So we had the walls painted, top to bottom, giving a uniformity to the sheen. Everyone was pleased with the result. Those classrooms now looked bright and open.
Except that, when moving from room to room, we could immediately tell which were different, which had been recently redone, and it reminded us, made us look more closely for the places we’d spackled. So we contracted a group of men in white suits and cloth booties to spray the whole school down, wall by wall, two even coats. And when they were done, it looked so new and clean that we could no longer tell, not really, which rooms had been the rooms with holes.
The place practically shone.
It looked so good in fact that we decided to do the floors as well—not cover them over with a layer of linoleum as we’d done in the last renovation, but pull them up and replace them altogether, because now those floors were the oldest part, the clearest reminder. We moved out all the desks and the shelves and the furniture in the lounge and the sports equipment caged in the gym. We moved out the pencils and books, and the globes that no longer seemed to spin the same and put it all in storage in temporary containers parked out behind the school—stacked it and stuffed it and locked it away. The workers worked, first ripping out the layers of old floor, filling dumpsters with debris, then installing the new. And when the floors were done, it really was a different place altogether. We almost didn’t recognize it. The whole place smelled of fresh paint and polyurethane.
Paint and polyurethane and something else. Was it cordite? Or tiny particles of burnt black powder still moving through duct systems, never fully filtered? The smell grew day by day, taking over, outbrighting even the newly painted walls and newly sealed floors. We couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. All of the books and maps and audiovisual equipment seemed better off where they were. We opened the windows and it faded a bit, but not as much as we’d hoped. We tried to ignore it, but the smell was real and present and would not go away.
Then we realized we could change the filters in the air intake system, an easy fix—like filling a hole.
Except it was too easy, wasn’t it? Opening a window, changing a filter. The filters filtered the smell so we could no longer smell it, but that didn’t stop the smell from existing. It was still there, somewhere, unsmelled, moving through the ducts and vents. And we could change the filters again, sure, so that less of the smell remained, but less wasn’t good enough. Even if we changed the filters five hundred times, even if we left the windows wide open day and night, would the air ever be fully filtered? Could it? We found ourselves in a Xeno’s paradox of air particles, which got ever smaller but wouldn’t quite go away. So we took a vote and decided unanimously to replace the system itself, even though it couldn’t have been six years old. We had it all pulled out, not just the machine in the utility room that pumped air, but the ducts as well. This meant ripping open the newly painted walls and some of the ceiling, but it had to be done.
And of course, we had to paint again, once the new ducts were installed (ducts that had never held that invisible smell (whatever it was), or the outgassing of construction paper and dried paste, or the breath of our children). So the painters painted, covering the walls with a few more coats—a few more layers between past and present. And with the furniture moved out, and the new air and new paint, it was almost as if it had worked, as if everything could go back to normal at last.
But when the time came, we couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. Opening them at all seemed dangerous. Some of us felt as if we no longer knew what was inside. There were detailed lists of what we’d put where, but when packing all those things, had we really noticed the details? Perhaps that phantom smell had permeated not just the building, but its furnishings as well. Or maybe there was something more in there that we had not yet conceived of—some other worse surprise—a stain or a stray hole we’d missed, so focused were we on the walls. Many felt they could not see another hole and survive it. Others admitted that the little desks themselves, with or without holes, would be too much to bear. Others wished we hadn’t tried to fix anything in the first place, that we’d just taken the whole thing down, brick by brick, and done away with the holes that way, permanently, forever.
In any case, we could all see now that it was far too soon to empty the containers or send children back. For one, just look at those windows–so glaringly dated now that everything around them has been redone. And the roof? That roof is a tragedy. And how had we not noticed the grass? Both in front of and behind the school? No one with a conscience could leave it as it is. No one with a heart could stop short of digging up every last blade of it.
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. Her writing most recently appears in The Kenyon Review Online, The Collagist, and Guernica.