by N. D. Coley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The store, Sunrise Variety Inc., had long been cut off from emergency and auxiliary power, so Ian and his three buds, Henry, Jacob, and poor Milo, who never got as much respect on account of being small and a year behind the others, were suddenly in the dark. Not just low light, but real dark.
All of the boys stopped, expect for Milo, who took two more steps and tripped, tangling his legs into Jacob, who fell and wrapped his arms around Henry, who slid back and knocked Ian on his side. There was grumbling and cursing. It was a mess of human barbed wire.
The boys got up, composed, but could see nothing. Ian felt as most of them did; that they had been turned around and thrown off course. There was chatter amongst them as to what do to next. They agreed to grab shoulders and make a single file line behind Jacob, who was strong and brave and was sure, unlike the others, that he knew how he had fallen and which way was the way out.
They walked as troops do in a minefield, with Jacob in the lead and Ian in the back. The boys became aware of each’s other’s breathing. Ian realized how bad a group of boys smelled in the middle of July. After a few minutes, his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
The fuzzy outline of Milo’s head, tiny and shaped like a teardrop, appeared before him, but it came and went and everything was still as black as he had ever experienced. For a moment, Ian had the impression that they were not in a department store at all, but gliding in space, as if the boys had stepped out of the store and into another dimension, where there was nothing but black and where they would keep walking, shoulders on shoulders, in perpetuity, with no purpose but to keep walking and stay together.
A hand fell on Ian’s shoulder, then a second. His heartbeat quickened and he whispered to Milo, and, then Henry, and then Jacob. Their voices all returned from the front. The hands on Ian’s shoulder pressed and kneaded his muscles. Sweat dripped from Ian’s forehead, onto his nose, and down to his chin, where droplets of it dangled and fell.
Ian tightened his grip on Milo, who winced and tightened his grip on Henry, who yelped and dug his nails into Jacob. From the front of the train, Jacob cursed, and that’s when a mixture of hissing and wheezing filled the air. Ian felt breath on his neck.
Milo yelped and asked if anyone else heard the noise. Henry muttered, “Jesus, oh Jesus,” and Ian gulped an mmmhmmm, and Jacob yelled for the boys to shut up and keep walking, but the hissing and wheezing became louder and louder, until not even Jacob could deny that something was behind them, following and hovering. As the noise rose, Ian panicked, shoved himself from Milo’s side, and ran, breaking free of the strange grip. Milo wailed behind him, followed by Henry, and Jacob was quiet, but the speed of his footsteps betrayed his fear.
The boys raced, stumbling into shelves. There was an oompf here and an oompf there, and soon a crash, followed by Milo screaming that something was in his eyes, and the boys still ran. Ian lunged and felt his shoulders smack into something hard, perhaps a piece of plywood, and Henry thudded next to him, as did Jacob. Milo limped behind and sobbed, howling about his eyes.
“Don’t leave me!” he cried. “Don’t leave me!”
Ian yelled out, hard as he could, that he would make sure that he didn’t get left behind and yelled for Milo to stay with them, to follow their voices. Gasping for air, Jacob grunted and gave a yell that asked everyone to kick hard and kick for their lives.
And so they kicked, and there was one thud, followed by another, and another, and there was a ripping sound and a crash.
The boys were on the ground outside and drenched in sweat. Dark clouds had gathered above the plaza. It was as dark as Ian had ever seen the sky. Was it an eclipse? It seemed like it, but nobody had ever mentioned it at home or school or in the news. Still, Ian and Henry and Jacob would — at least at first, before time made it easier for stories to shift into other stories — swear that the world went pitch black.
They looked back into the store. The opening they fell out of looked like a black gap in a crooked set of teeth. Milo was not with them. Ian lunged back and put his hands to his mouth, yelling and spitting, and somehow Milo’s name kept coming out of it. Ian was lost in his yelling and did not notice the policeman shove him to the side, click on his flashlight, and climb into that abyss.
It was strange after that. He saw the light of the officer dart back in forth in the store, like a lone car zigzagging on a country road. The beam came and went and there was no Milo to show for it. The policeman was out on the sidewalk and talking, and his lips sneered, but Ian could not hear a word, and he did not hear words when his friends mouthed to him and each other. Nor did he hear anything when his parents, shaken and sobbing and furious, grabbed him by the shoulders that evening and asked him what he had been doing. His ears were fine, but his mind had shut off, closed to sound and noise and all sensory data.
Ian dreamed that night, and in his dream his hearing was just fine. It started when the police officer pushed Ian aside and rushed into the darkness, and the officer’s name sounded like a deep, rolling sea, mouthing slow motion, garbled noises that said Miiii-looooooo. Ian turned around, and Henry and Jacob were there, but their skin had turned black and their flesh had shriveled up so that patches of bone were showing and their eyes blazed with tiny red pupils.
Their necks were cocked in the same direction, and a bit too far it seemed, as bits of muscle and vertebrae formed a sharp angle and cut through their skin. They each held out their right arm and pointed at Ian, and at that moment Ian felt a thwack in the side of his head, and another, and another. It was Milo, or pieces of Milo, rather, smacking against him. An arm, a hand, a leg.
The bones were warm and wet and picked almost clean, like scraps from a pile of buffalo wing dings. Ian looked into the darkness and saw the officer swinging his arms with large, methodical swoops, like someone swimming in space, flinging fragments of Milo Ian’s way. Ian screamed and woke up, tumbling to the floor, his crotch warm with urine.
Ian’s memory came in and out over the next few days. It was the only time his memory functioned this way before, much later in life, benders would settle in as a staple part of his routine. Milo would never be found.
The boys were questioned, but there was never a body and, even more strangely, no apparent way out of the abandoned department store. All other exit points were utterly inaccessible, locked, or boarded up. Milo became a headline and then a memory on milk cartons and then flyers, and then nothing at all.
Nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all, Ian thought while he let the car idle. He stepped out and looked over the plaza. It was a newer plaza now: hipster-friendly and renovated back to life ten years ago, three years after he had married Rebekah, when she was pregnant and they were happy with modest careers and overpriced cups of coffee and wine tastings and yoga classes. In those days they had fun, and the bottles of wine were there to remember and not to forget.
And yet somehow, in this moment, the plaza looked worn. It was still bustling. Men in tank tops and women in yoga pants marched dutifully in and out of the gym and ladies in head scarves, leaning on shopping carts, shuffled through the sliding glass doors of the non-GMO grocery chain. Still, there was something about the way the plaza looked; like a used car that was, at a glance, an obviously used car. Functional but faded. Had everything aged more than Ian had thought?
He got back in the car and shifted into reverse. He backed out and looked behind him. Two old men moseyed to their cars and made wild gestures at each other. Their mouths wide open as they yapped. Droplets of spit danced between the men. One of them gave the other the finger, and the other returned in kind. Ian shifted into drive.
As his foot hit the gas, a brown paper bag smacked him in the left side of face so hard that it tore. Fresh hash browns rolled out, some going down his shirt collar, and others falling against the door and beneath the seat. Ian slammed on the brake. A breakfast bagel, dislodged from its wrapping, was sitting in his lap. He clenched his fists and turned in his head, fully prepared to scream and shake his fists.
Except there was Megan again, sobbing, and there he was, back at the window.
“Oh my God, Mr. Paulson. I’m so sorry. I slipped on some grease and just went flying and... Oh my God.”
“Oh my God” is right, Ian thought, looking at her face. Megan’s cheeks were swollen and filled with red and purple bruises. The discolored patches on her skin bubbled. Ian could swear he saw pus and splotches of makeup conceal a story, or at least try to. Ian’s eyes widened.
“No, it’s fine. The clothes can be cleaned. How did I get back here again... Never mind. What happened to you?”
“Nothing. I just... I was just in a rush today and...”
Ian narrowed his gaze, accusingly.
Megan sighed. “Like I told you one time. Just a piece of paper, right?”
“Where do you live?”
“Jackson Heights. You know the place?”
Ian was aware of it. It was the kind of place that people referred to with a whisper, where folks always went about their business in pairs. It was a place to live, but not call home, where at a glance, there was little way to tell which buildings were occupied or abandoned.
“Can you get out of there?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. It’s complicated.”
“I know a guy.”
“A lawyer? No that’s okay.”
“Have you tried the police?”
“Oh I know. I talk to them, too.”
Ian reached in his wallet and produced a business card. “Listen, I can’t stay now,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get the hell out of this parking lot all day.”
“All day? I don’t understa—”
“That’s not important now,” he continued. “Just listen. I want you to call me when you get off your shift, okay? I promise I’ll answer. I think I can help. I can’t explain it all now, but just call. Okay? I won’t leave you hanging.”
Megan’s shoulders bobbed up and down, and she broke into tears. Her palms pressed against her bruised face and covered her eyes and, when she wiped her cheeks, her visor came all the way off. Ian noticed that she didn’t have just a streak of grey hair; most of her brown hair had lost its color.
Ian smiled and waved goodbye, and she smiled and waved back. In the seat beside him the phone rang again. By now the sound of his phone meant nothing to him. It was as forgettable as the idle of an engine in traffic.
The Mercedes rounded the building and turned left, and then right. There were no more obstructions to the exit, and Ian pulled out with a little extra gas, certainly faster than the 5 miles per hour signs asked for. He surveyed the plaza and, for a moment, was confused when there seemed to be few lights on in the establishments. There was no one in sight.
There had been more foot traffic just moments ago, hadn’t there? Yet the scene looked, from where he sat, as if the windows were only powered by the emergency lights — dim yellow lights — designed for total power failure and natural disaster. The world was on, and now it was off.
Ian pulled up to a stop sign and put the car in park. Nobody was behind him. He unclicked his seat belt and shifted his body to the right, twisting his back in ways that did not feel natural for a man nearing 50, and sunk his arm into the crevice in search of his phone.
His face turned red. Veins in his forehead bulged. His fingers, now red and fattened, little sausages stuffed with years of bourbon and hamburger, walked up and down the sides of seat, like spider legs, until they gripped his phone. Ian drew in a large breath, tightened his hand, and pulled the phone up, scraping it alongside the door. He exhaled and spit, heaving and cursing himself for being so out of shape.
Ian sat up and looked down at his phone, which had a full notification screen. He swiped his hand to the left to unlock it and then heard a knock at his window.
Copyright © 2020 by N. D. Coley