by C. L. Kelley
|part 1 of 3|
Someone had added to the graffiti in the men’s bathroom last night. While the store had been closed and locked. Maybe it had been one of the stockers with some twisted and determined sense of humor, but I doubted it. No, this was something else entirely.
Not that I wasn’t used to the second stall in the men’s bathroom being a sounding board for every pervert and lunatic in this town. They all knew to come here, as though they wanted me to see it. Wanted me to witness it.
A lot of it was your standard profane drivel for any high-traffic bathroom: phone numbers promising a good time, misspelled racist slurs, crude anatomical drawings. A few tried their hands at body function poetry. None of this would usually be worth mentioning and would not have caught my attention had it not been for the other, stranger things that I had never seen anywhere before.
Only a couple had been scrawled when I had signed on as a bag boy at the start of summer, and now, a month in, there were definitely more. Exponentially more, in fact, and getting more detailed all the time.
Near the toilet, a woman had been drawn with her hands covering her face, weeping. The picture was very detailed, with the contorted pose of the body in perfect proportion and perspective. Above the coat hook, a pair of eyes peered out, narrowed with malice. One of the eyes had a double pupil.
Someone else had drawn a skeletal tree with what looked like a human dangling in a noose from one of its gnarled branches. The tree must have taken a couple of hours to draw at least, and it had been done in pen, without any mistakes.
More than just the drawings were multiplying. Message after message appeared on the walls, whose meanings I could only guess. I always thought of the stories behind the usual juvenile bathroom graffiti with not much more than an eye roll, but not these. Thinking about these stories chilled me inside.
“N.P. knows about the basement on Fadden St.”
“One day you’ll all be sorry for what you did to me.”
“I told you she was listening.”
“They won’t stop crying.”
“The mirror isn’t working.”
“Help me. I am in Hell.”
Some of the phrases were just phone numbers, with a specific time instead of whom to talk to for the best of a particular service.
I wondered why none of my bosses, or co-workers for that matter, had said anything about it. Or what about customers, so eager to complain about anything? And who was putting these messages on the walls?
Every time I cleaned the bathroom, these thoughts nearly possessed me, and they were increasingly on my mind away from work. Not that there was much else to keep my mind busy these days. My parents were saying that I was being quieter than normal, even for me. Typical of them, to stick their noses in my business.
At first I tried as hard as I could to clean the graffiti off the walls, though that wasn’t very successful. I scrubbed and scrubbed, barely blurring the images. It was almost as if they were etched on. And the next time I worked — sometimes the very next night — the few messages I had managed to attack were redrawn and rewritten. Eventually, I gave up trying to take care of the graffiti in this way.
One of the things I thought about was: Why this bathroom? Why one in a chain grocery store, with its glaring florescent lights and neat tile floors? Cakes with smiling cartoon characters rested not thirty feet from the stall. It didn’t quite make sense. But maybe that was the point.
I tried to shake off these thoughts and go back to my crappy job, to the parade of small-town weirdos outside who ordered me around as if I were an imbecile. Just because I didn’t talk much and worked a menial job made me stupid, apparently. I couldn’t wait until August when I would... well, what? Go to college? Maybe. Though I had been admitted into a couple, I hadn’t registered for any classes yet, and the deadlines were ticking away.
Maybe I would get in my car — my parents went halfway with me on an old Plymouth — and drive until I got somewhere that looked completely different from anything I’d seen before. Certainly there was nothing for me here, and the boredom was crushing me. I tried to reread some old paperback science fiction novels I had sitting around the house, but I couldn’t stay focused long enough to really absorb anything or get a sense of escape.
I didn’t have anyone to talk to or socialize with since I’d had a falling out with Carl five months before. What a mess that had been. We still hadn’t talked since then, and I didn’t see that changing any time soon, not after what he did.
There were other minor acquaintances, but no one seemed to be able to find any time for me. Perhaps it was this combination of restlessness and boredom that made my mind latch onto the bathroom writing, giving me a puzzle to solve.
One night I dreamed of being in that bathroom. It was dim — instead of florescent lighting, there were only a few guttering tallow candles on the floor in random places. I cleaned the wide bathroom mirror over the sink and saw my reflection start to scream as the stall door behind me slowly opened and something emerged, oozed out, whispering in a thousand voices.
* * *
In early June the scrawls were worse than ever. The aggression and obscenity in them crystallized, passing from the realm of the schoolyard into the charnel house. Both the words and the drawings were like something you would see in a serial killer’s fantasy sketchbook. People were horribly and vividly mutilated. Boschian bird-men ripped people apart. Someone had drawn a crude, child-like picture of a girl skewered by a gigantic butcher knife, writing under it, “I’ve killed her and you’ll never find her.”
There were still more messages that sounded like instructions, such as “If someone with a child’s voice asks you to open the door do not let them in. It is a trick.” And there were more dates, more phone numbers.
One night I called one of them.
I didn’t call from home, for a number of reasons. Instead I drove out to the grocery store. Though I was now eighteen and technically allowed to leave the house at nearly midnight, I just didn’t want to risk starting an argument. My parents weren’t bad sorts, but I didn’t particularly care about their “interest” in whatever it was I was doing. So I discreetly left while they were sleeping. They were both like logs, so I didn’t have to worry about the car waking them up.
Even at this not-that-late time of night, the town was dead. All of the shops had shut down, and except for a run-down honky tonk, there was no night life to speak of. The grocery store, too, had been closed almost two hours by this point, and it would be a couple of hours more before the restocking staff showed up, so I had a pretty good window to call.
The wide stretch of the parking lot, pierced periodically by the weak glow of lamps, looked truly desolate. Darkness loomed beyond the glass windows of the store. I cut across the parking lot and parked in the fire lane in front of the store.
For some reason I wanted the car to be close. My heart pounded in my chest, and I berated myself for doing such a stupid thing. Maybe this was all some big joke, and the phone number would connect to the answering machine for a vacuum repair service. But I had to know.
My timing was good, so I only had to wait a few minutes before my watch read 11:53 pm, which was the time written on the wall. I had readjusted my watch to the official time earlier so that I wouldn’t risk running fast or slow, which of course didn’t exclude the person that wrote the message doing that. But somehow I felt that they hadn’t made that mistake.
After putting in the coins, I punched in the number. This one was local. Too many were local. I listened to the line ringing a few times, and then a click sounded softly as the line connected. I didn’t know what exactly I had been expecting, but it was not what I got.
Without a pause or an inquiring hello, the person on the other end growled “Who the hell do you think you are, calling here?” The voice was perhaps a woman’s, but it had an odd artificial quality, like the person was just pretending to talk in a woman’s voice.
Momentarily stunned, I couldn’t even stutter in response, which the voice took as an invitation to continue.
“You think calling from that grocery store pay phone is going to protect you?” As the voice paused to hear my answer, I could hear faint shouting in the background, like people arguing. Then a sound like someone crying. Pleading. A wave of nausea hit me hard, but I managed to say, “How are they writing so much on the walls?” Somehow it didn’t occur to me to ask why they were writing in the first place.
The voice now sounded more amused than angry. Giggling like an engine trying to catch, it said, “Why don’t you ask them yourself? They’re already there.”
I shot my head up to look at the dark windows facing me, but I didn’t wait around. Slamming down the phone, I tore into my car, taking off so fast that I literally burned rubber. I didn’t dare look in the rear view mirror.
A couple of days later, when I’d had a chance to calm down, I looked up the number in a reverse phone directory. I thought it would be unlisted, but it was there, under “Shipman Research, Inc.” The address was on Fadden Street.
In the light of day, I drove out there. Oddly, Fadden Street was a residential neighborhood, not too poor but far from ritzy. Where “Shipman Research, Inc.” was supposed to be was an ordinary-looking two-story brick house, somewhat in disrepair, surrounded by a high wooden fence. A sign was posted that read “Beware of Dog,” though someone had torn the “Dog” part off. I kept driving.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by C. L. Kelley