The Complex

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Are buildings ever really abandoned?

1

The sky was a pure blue in the low Appalachian hills of Whittemore County as Milo Merriweather turned onto the second gravel drive off the highway. His tires chewed up the gravel, spitting unswallowed stone onto the overgrown gutter grass. The sun stabbed through every crack in the canopy. He clicked the A/C up another futile dial. At the top of the drive he pulled into the long carport. He turned off the car, sweat slipping his fingers as they slid to grasp the jostling keys. His summer residence was a two-story house with untended climbing vines on the north and south faces that stuck out fat leaves under the porch pillars and back deck. Under nearly every eave, Milo could make out the muddy pipe organs of digger wasps. Carolina Wrens and Tufted Titmice watched him with cautious eyes from hidden crevices. He got out of the car and followed the dirt path to the stairs, up the creaky, wooden steps to the back deck and rang the doorbell. No answer. Over the railing was a garden. It was a quarter-acre, patchy plot of wildflowers, thistles and weedy trees which curled around squares of rose bushes, tomato vines, and unripened squash. Bees crisscrossed the thin plank walkways and settled on fronds of goldenrods gangling heavy with late August. He rang again but there was still no answer. Milo walked around to the front of the house and reached to knock on the large wooden door but was interrupted by a gray minivan pulling up along side his car in the carport. It hadn’t occurred to Milo that she wasn’t home.

Samantha Tendwall cracked the gravel of the driveway underneath her boots as she stepped out of the van. Milo nervously stepped down from the porch and walked over, rustling the grass as much as possible to call her attention. She noticed, and turned a wise face towards him.

“Hey Milo, let me get a few things and we can go inside and I’ll show you around.” She opened the trunk of her hatchback, pulling out a computer satchel and reusable grocery bag. She slung both over her shoulders and walked up to the back deck, directing Milo forward with a tilt of her head. At the top of the deck, she swiftly secured her key and unlocked the door.

“We normally use the back door,” she explained. “The front remains locked all day. After you.” Milo walked in to the kitchen. Samantha darted down the staircase. “I’ll be right back,” she called up.

Milo was lost in his new surroundings. Paintings covered every bare surface of the kitchen wall. A few appeared to be drawings of animals and families done by children or perhaps grandchildren. One wall was reserved for Pointillist landscapes. Milo considered the paintings for a while.

Samantha returned empty-handed and walked through the wide opening to the living room. “Take a seat,” she said to Milo, gesturing for him to sit on one of several lounges and couches which embroidered the room. Milo sat down on the closest couch, covered in psychedelic paisleys of a deep plum and maroon, and stared at his patron.

“So,” he said finally, realizing he had not spoken in a while. “So.”

“So, this is the living room. You’re welcome to use it as you wish. Downstairs is the laundry room, kitchen, and shower. Your room,” here she pointed down the hallway behind him, “is back there at the end of the hall. It’s a good room. I have internet here and cable TV too. It’s all yours to use.”

“That’s very generous. I feel bad almost since you aren’t charging me all that much...” Milo said.

“Don’t mention it. We’re friends and besides it gets lonely here. You’ll be paying me in company as much as dollars, I hope.”

“Oh, sure. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t make a mess or anything. I make for good company.”

“I meant social company.”

“Oh that, well, social, yes. It’s alright if Allison comes over, too, right? I think she might make better company – social company.”

“Of course! She’s really wonderful. You’ve picked well there.”

“Well, the way she tells it, she picked me.”

“Hmm,” Samantha hummed knowingly, “I’m sure she did. Would you like to see your room?"

“Yes, I’d like that very much. I was hoping to start moving in soon. I’ve got a lot to move and its mostly – do you have a DVD player?”

“Sure, I don’t use it very much though.”

“Oh okay, well if I can use that then I’d be very happy.”

“Sure thing,” she said. “I’ll set it up for you up here once I get back from work. I’m currently taking an 'extended lunch break.' The room?” she said moving her hand upwards.

“Right,” Milo replied. He followed her direction down the stout hallway. She unlatched the bedroom door and they walked inside.

“We just fixed the ceiling so water shouldn’t leak. If it does, let me know and I’ll call back the company and give them a talking to.” She opened the closet door and pulled the light cord. “I’ve just cleaned this out from the last tenant. The shelf there is sturdy, and I have plenty of hangers. There are also drawers in the dresser for clothes. Nightstand’s over there by the bed, and the desk you sent ahead is tucked into the corner here.” As she spoke, Milo inspected the room. It was clean, modern, and had a freshly-laundered smell. The bed was a double-size, which Allison would say is too small, but it would do. The room had two windows. One overlooked the drive and the woods which followed it down; the other looked over the front yard and the road he had turned on from the highway. Past the yard and the side road was a small parking lot surrounded by two buildings and a pylon sign that advertised the businesses there. Beyond that was the highway and then a small gas station and convenience store. The roar of the trucks on the main road was constant. “Sorry about the noise,” Samantha said. “You can’t get away from it here. We might appear to be out in the backwoods but really we’re not. It’s only a ten minute drive into town. We’re probably the most urban that rural can get. I know that isn’t quite what you were looking for.”

“No it’ll be just fine. It’s a change enough,” Milo said, gazing out the open front window.

“I can’t do anything about the noise, but I’ll put up a curtain to block out the light. I just need to find the drill and I’ll put in the screws and hang it up. I used to live in this room and I never had curtains. I liked looking out at night and just sort of wondering.” As she spoke, she dusted the corner of the nightstand with her sleeve.

“It’s no problem,” Milo replied. “The light won’t bother me. I don’t want to put you out anymore than I already have.”

“Okay. Let me know if you change your mind. Anything else?”

“How’re your neighbors?” Milo said pointing out at the lot.

Samantha chuckled. “Our closest neighbors are about a half mile away. As for that eyesore, about fifty years ago the county had a small surplus of funds and of course they gave them to the local business community as an incentive to come out here. They built the whole lot and the buildings just to attract new business. It worked for a bit, but most of the original tenants have moved out. Only Jake’s Catering is still there. Besides that there is the Landed Laundromat and Anderson’s HVAC – they share the second building.”

“What about the room next to Jake’s?” Milo inquired, noticing that each building had two rooms.

“Abandoned,” Samantha said. “Across the highway is the gas station owned by Tally and Justin. They carry fresh produce from some of the local farms. You should check it out sometime.”

“Maybe I will. If I can find the time.”

“A college student on summer break has got lots of time.”

“Any other student, sure.” Milo said.

“Allison keeps you that occupied, huh?” Samantha said with a wide grin.

“Well, I…”

“Hey don’t worry about it,” she laughed. “It’s none of my business anyway.” Milo gave a nervous chuckle and averted his eyes back towards the window.

At that moment, a large man in a plain white T-shirt ran out into the parking lot of the complex. An angry voice screamed out to him from the doorway “Don’t you do that! Don’t you say that and then walk out like that! I’ll tell you...I…” Samantha closed the window.

“What’s that all about?” Milo asked.

“Oh, don’t worry about,” Samantha replied, waving her hand. “It happens. Tempers run high.”

“Have you seen them be--” Milo’s phone rang; it was Allison. “I’ll need to take this.”

“No problem,” Samantha said, smiling. “I’ve got to get back to work anyway before my boss starts to wonder where I am!” She walked out of the room. Milo sat on the bed and answered the phone.

“Hey love,” he said. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking about going to New Zealand. It’s beautiful out there, adventurous country. They have mountain ranges there, Milo, mountain ranges. And so many wild animals and such luscious green hills and verdant pastures and I can’t think of a better way to spend vacation. If I could afford it, I’d go. Wouldn’t you?”
“They shot Lord of the Rings there. I think I’d rather watch the movie than go there.”

“Of course you would,” she replied, “Are you at the new place? How is it?”

“It’s alright. I think you’ll like it here mostly. Except for the bed is kind of small.”

“I guess we will make do. Bet you’re happy to get out of the old apartment, huh? Must be exciting. I envy you a bit.”

Milo looked out at the highway and the passing trucks with license plates from ten different states. He saw a single car parked at the gas station and no one getting gas. A green sedan pulled out of the parking lot at the business complex. A few buzzards swooped down under the blazing sun. “Sure, there’s excitement here. I mean it’s no Middle Earth, but…”
“No monsters to battle?” she said.

“You know me so well,” Milo replied.

“Want me to come over this evening? I get off at seven.”

“Sure,” Milo replied, “You can help unpack. I brought some things in my car. I think I’ll take some time and move them in while I’m here.”

“Okay, I’ll see you then.” Allison hung up. Milo put down the phone and rested his head on his hands. Exciting to get out. Boring. I’m boring. She’ll get bored and go to New Zealand on her own. I’ll still be in Middle Earth. Not even. Just here. Mountains here, mountains there. But these you don’t have to buy a plane ticket to see. Guess the people there feel the same.

In the complex, a woman came out of the laundromat carrying a blue, weaved basket full of clothes. The woman put her laundry in her trunk and got in a green sedan on the passenger side. The car sped off down the highway away from town.

 

2

“Milo,” Allison said, “your room is a mess.” She could barely see him. He was squatting on the floor, flipping through books, surrounded by uneven and unstable towers of boxes, innards tossed into spilly piles. The only open space not covered in clothes, books, boxes, papers, movies, or audio equipment was the open space Milo was sitting in. Allison carefully and uncomfortably maneuvered her way over. She gingerly pushed one column of moth-eaten boxes aside and tossed two pairs of worn jeans onto the bed. She curled behind him and gave him a hug.

“Is this everything?” she asked. Milo froze the fingers that had been running along the smooth spine of a book. He put the book down and grabbed her hands with his.

“Yeah. I made three trips. I figured I might as well move in sooner. Nothing for me at the apartment anymore. How was work?”
“Fine, I just had to finish debugging for Chris. I got the program to compile, but it just wouldn’t open the GUI. Took me three hours to find a missing bracket, but that’s just how it goes. At least I didn’t have to work overtime.”
He put the book back into the box and reclined as much as possible on the floor. Allison laid down next to him, reached over, and held him.

“Do you want help?”

“No, well, unless you really want to, that is.”
“I do really want to.” She squeezed him and then stood up. Surveying the mess once again, she asked “Where do you want everything to go?”
“Oh, just anywhere is fine. I’ll sort it out later," Milo said, sitting up and shrugging. Allison looked around at the piles preparing to avalanche. She tenderly stepped back to the front of the room and began a neat stack of clothes in one corner. In the opposite corner she packed his movies, arranging them alphabetically as much as possible. As she emptied each box, she folded the container and moved it out to the hallway. Milo, meanwhile, made new piles by tossing out books and appliances and stacking them haphazardly After about twenty minutes, Allison had succeeded in clearing a path from the door to Milo, and Milo had succeeded in burying it again.

“Let’s take a break,” Allison suggested.

“Yeah, sure,” Milo replied. He pushed everything off the bed. Allison shook her head and joined him in the bed. They laid there and cuddled, staring out the open window into the fading evening.

“I bet you’re happy you don’t have to go back to my dingy apartment,” Milo said.

“I bet you’re happy you don’t have to live there anymore,” Allison replied.

“It’ll be nice to get out and move on with my life, to leave all that behind me. It’ll feel even better I think when I’m done with school and I can just work. It’s almost over, I keep telling myself. It’s almost over.”

Allison took his hand, “It’ll work out. I’m sure of that.”

Milo’s eyes strained to focus out the front window. Boxes and piles blocked the sides of his vision. The wall framed with the window as a tiny locket portrait. The screen sifted even what little he could make out. Trees trimmed the edges of the yard. The complex hid the highway. In the far distance mountains taunted him with what lay beyond. He could see nothing of what was behind him, but the feeling of the cold, bare wall he leaned against clung to him through his clothes. A dim view and a wall of ice. He tilted his head slightly to the side. There was Allison, next to him, her cheek against his shoulder.

“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too,” she replied.

Two cars pulled into the complex below and faced each other in the middle of the parking lot, headlights still on. Milo could see two people in one car, but couldn’t make out their faces. He could see at least one person in the other. This person seemed to be talking to someone next to him in the passenger seat, but Milo couldn’t see them either. The evening sun had set and the entire scene was illuminated solely by the waxing gibbous moon. Allison noticed him staring.

“What are you looking at?,” she asked.

“There are cars out there,” he replied, not averting his gaze.

“It does seem kind of late. Wonder what they’re doing.”

“Cult activities.” Milo replied

“Cult activities? Do cults meet in parking lots next to highways now?”

“This cult does, apparently. See I bet it’s some kind of ritual.”

“To stay in their cars with the lights on at 9 o’clock at night? That doesn’t seem like a ritual at all to me.”

“Maybe it’s a drug ring.”

“You’re wild,” Allison said, shoving him, “and fantastical. How do you know they aren’t just meeting to say hello and catch-up?”
“In a parking lot at night without getting out of their cars?” Milo retorted.

“Well, it’s odd, I’ll admit, but it’s not the weirdest thing. It’s definitely more plausible than cult activity or drug smuggling. Besides, it’s rude to stare at people.”

“You’re telling me you don’t want to know what’s going on?” he said, pushing himself up to get a better look.
“Not really. It’s almost certainly something mundane. I mean after all –” she stopped. Milo held up a finger. From the lot ,they could hear faint talking. One of the drivers got out and approached the other car, bending over into the passenger side window. The talking grew louder, but was still incomprehensible.

“You think drug dealers are going to talk that loudly?” Allison asked.

“The passing cars can’t hear, and besides, anyone would suspect a quiet conversation. No one would think a loud conversation would be a conspiracy.” Milo said with grave seriousness.

“Oh, it’s a conspiracy now?”
“Could be, could be,” Milo said, “I’m going to try and figure out what they’re saying.” He got out of bed and crawled over to the window, hiding beneath the sill.

“What are you doing?” Allison asked, nearly laughing. “Are you sneaking around? Want me to turn the light out?” She reached for the switch.

“No!” Milo shouted, “then they’ll know we saw them. Leave it on.” Allison rolled her eyes. The two waited.

“Can you see anything?” Milo asked Allison.

“They’re still there, though the first man has returned to his car. Oh, now a man from the other car is getting out and going over to the first man’s car.”
“I wonder what for?”

“He’s doing the same thing, talking through the passenger window.”
“That’s strange, if ---”

“Samuel!” A shout from the first car.

“The man is rushing back to his car.” Allison reported. “Now, they’re driving off.”

Milo peeked his head up to see out the window. The first car was backing out too, in pursuit, down the windy road into the hills.

 

3

It was a cool Tuesday afternoon when Milo finally stepped outside again. Milo had piled to his satisfaction and the folded cardboard boxes had been tucked away in a corner of the garage; Samantha intended to recycle them on Thursday. Since he was done unpacking, she had recommended that he explore the woods behind the house which abutted the property of two neighbors. None of the neighbors were particularly social, so Samantha had little to tell Milo about them. She had only said that all three properties had once been owned by a single man and his family. Now, his son occupied only the one at the top of the hill, whose woods were adjacent to an abandoned hiking trail. A second trail still ran along the edge of the properties, marked by rusted barbed wire that was barely noticeable among the vines and branches. The area that Milo could walk along the trail was therefore fairly limited. Still, it was a welcome change from the dearth of walking trails in the city and he relished the chance to be out in nature alone. There were no busy streets, no crowds, no cars spraying mud on his clothes, no need to dodge electric scooters, bikes, or buses, no need for anything except to enjoy the soft calls of birds, the speckles of light through the canopy, and the hum of passing cars on the distant highway.

The path through Samantha’s part of the woods was a loop. It started at one end up a slope behind the back porch and followed the woods up for about a half a mile onto a ridge. It then broke into two. One path continued forward onto the neighbor’s property – Milo could tell by the dilapidated fencing – and the other bent around back towards Samantha’s driveway past a small pond. Milo walked towards it. It was about four to five inches deep and covered in a thicket of tree branches, moss, and fallen leaves. The pond was drained slowly by a small rivulet with steep banks down past the drive way and through a tunnel under the highway. He imagined that the tunnel led to a river and was reminded of childhood days playing in storm drains and drainage tunnels, pretending that they took him to other, far away worlds.

Following the rivulet down the slope, Milo made his way back to the drive, with cheery imagination. Perhaps he was seeking something sacred in the woods, or perhaps he needed to make contact with the next town before it was too late, or maybe he had been separated from his family on another planet with little oxygen in the atmosphere and he had only a few hours before he would die if he didn’t make it back to the spaceship before then. His enemies, whoever they were, were in the woods with him – knights from a warring family sent to assassinate him, ghouls or goblins looking for his treasure, hungry cannibals looking him over to determine how delectable was his tender flesh. Milo picked up the pace.

Samantha was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch when Milo got back. She was smoking a bowl, looking contentedly at the tree line. Milo was surprised to see her home so early on a weekday. He sat in the rocking chair next to hers.

“Lunch break?” he asked.

“I’ve finished for the day. We lost power, so did about half of everyone else,” she replied. She took a long drag from the bowl and then handed it to Milo. “Want some?”

“I, uh, sure,” Milo said, taking it and taking in a long, deep breath. The taste of marijuana reminded Milo of his high school years.

“Did you check out the path?” she asked as he returned the bowl to her

“Yeah, I wandered around. I’m always wandering. When I wander alone I sometimes feel like the Omega Man. I wonder where my family went and if I had to kill them and if so I wonder if the thought still haunts me. It’s lonely.”

“You can’t feel too alone. Allison’s been over here three times already and you’ve barely been here a week. She drives an hour just to see you.”

“Yeah,” Milo replied, watching the cars pull in and out of the complex’s parking lot. “That reminds me, about a week ago, when Allison was first helping me move in we saw...”

“What did you and Allison see?”

“Well in the complex across the road we saw two cars. It was night and they pulled in to the center of the lot and shone their headlights on each other. People from one car went investigated the other and then they both drove off down the back road here.”

“That’s certainly odd. Could you tell who was in them?”

“No, I couldn’t make anything out about the people or the cars. What’s more, I’ve been curious about it and so I’ve been watching the buildings. There is a small, flat depression behind one of the buildings. It’s kind of hard to see it. It’s blocked on three sides by steep slopes with towering reeds from the marsh below, and on the fourth side there’s the building. Every night there is a van there – a white van with a satellite dish on the top and a ladder on one side. Well, how does it get down there? I can see that there is a narrow, steep dirt path around the building that goes down. That must be how it’s getting down there, but the road seems barely able to fit it. Besides that, I’ve never seen it going or coming – just sometimes at night it’s there and in the morning it’s not.” Here, Milo paused, taking another hit. “Oh, and I forgot to mention that on that night a week ago, we also heard, very distinctly, someone yell ‘Samuel,’ before both cars drove off.”

While he spoke, Samantha stopped rocking, took back her bowl and put it on the small table between them. She did not immediately answer Milo when he finished, but instead stared out at the complex. After a pause, she said, “Well, that’s certainly an interesting tale. You saw all that from your window, huh?”
“Yeah from the window. I haven’t gone over there. I don’t really want to get involved in...whatever is happening over there. I just –”

“And what do you think is happening over there?”

“I told Allison it was probably cult activity or a drug ring or something. She laughed at the suggestions and said I was jumping to conclusions. I probably was, wasn’t I?”

“I think you have a very smart girlfriend and you should listen to her. Don’t let your fantasies get the better of you.”

“You’re probably right. This isn’t Rear Window or anything. It’s just that, well the whole thing does seem kind of odd, you have to admit. Who would want that van there and why? Why have it behind the building, hidden like that? Laundromats and caterers and HVAC companies don’t need a satellite dish. And why did they yell that? What were those cars doing?”

“I wouldn’t think more about it. And I think I’d lay off the pot if I were you too.” Samantha suggested helpfully, quickly stowing her paraphernalia back into its case and locking it.

“Yeah, you’re probably right. I always let my imagination get the better of me,” Milo replied. Samantha nodded, picked up her case, and opened the front door. She hesitated for just a second, her head bowed, before walking inside. Milo remained for a moment, then retired early to his room.

 

“No! Leave me alone! Someone help! Help!”

Milo shot out of bed. It was past midnight and the moon was high and lustrous. The stars vibrated with a cosmic unease. His heart was pounding thick beats. He glanced around the dark room, carefully inspecting the shadows for any hint of something living. Had he imagined the screaming? Had it been merely a hypnagogic illusion? Had he awoken into another dream again? The outside was eerie and still. There were no crickets chirping and the cicadas that screamed most every night were silent too. None of the trees swayed. The winds were still. Milo threw on pants and a shirt and walked around the clutter on his floors to the window. He peered over into the complex, but saw no cars. Each of the four offices appeared closed. Their lights were off, their signs were dim, and the curtains of every window were drawn. The only thing out of place was that the white van was missing.

“Help!”

Now, Milo heard it clearly. It was coming from the complex. He grabbed his jacket and socks and put them on without averting his gaze from the window. A light came on in one of the offices; Milo couldn’t tell which. He could see shadows cast on the curtains from the inside. There appeared to be some sort of a struggle. The larger shadow bore down on the smaller with a long, slender object of some sort, but the smaller one fought back, pushing the object upwards and knocking it out of the larger shadow’s hands. There was a clatter, a toppling, a shatter and a smack and the front door flung open. Out ran a girl, panicked, heading towards the side road, towards the bottom of Samantha’s driveway.

Milo slipped on his shoes and dashed out of his room into the dark hallway. There were more frightful screams. He flung open the back door and flew down the stairs to the driveway, but couldn’t see where the girl went. He rushed down the drive, following its curve, flinging dense gravel behind him. Deer and rabbits fled into the bushes and reeds as he rounded the bend and emerged onto the side road. The road was illuminated by the moonlight and a single street lamp. Everything was still again. Milo peered into the complex. The light in the building was still on and the front door was still open. He made a tentative step forward and looked both ways up and down the back road. He saw nothing.

“Help me!” Milo was being shaken. The girl was holding on to him. “Don’t make me go back, please!” Milo was frozen. He could say nothing. She was crying. She had a sharp gash on her forehead which dripped blood onto his jacket. Her hair was tousled and unevenly cut. Dirt, branches, and leaf litter clung to every part of her heavily worn trench coat. Its threads were fraying, its sides were stained, and every button was a different size and color. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen. She clawed at Milo’s jacket and whimpered. He tried to open his mouth, to offer comfort, but he could say and do nothing. The girl became frantic, clawing more heavily, making rapid and deep swings at his clothing as if she might make a deep foothold in his flesh to climb her way out. She wailed with every attack and began to open and close her mouth rhythmically and Milo could see the blood inside, flowing over her brown teeth, spitting from the weight of her mad volleys. Then, she pushed Milo down and darted back towards the complex, across the road, in the direction of the depression.

Bright headlights from the darkness beamed onto the road and Milo instinctively ran back and hid. A car approached and stopped. It was a white truck with an intimidating grill and thick tires. A man, muscular with an angular chin and with an angry, red face flung open the passenger door so harshly that Milo felt it would break. The man jumped into the marsh. He emerged a few seconds later, with the girl, still whimpering, under his arms, and tossed her in the back seat. He got back into the car, pulled into the parking lot, spun around, and sped off back up the road. As his headlights receded, Milo saw another man, wearing a plain white T-shirt covered in paint stains, come out and look around. He seemed upset but upon surveying the scene became satisfied. He closed the door quietly and the light inside slowly dimmed.

It was several minutes before Milo managed to leave his hiding spot. He had not been spotted or else they would have taken him too, he felt. He released his grip from the tree and took a few tentative steps to the right. A screen door was still open wide, gently creaking in the breeze – the screen door of the abandoned room.

 

4

Like every morning, Milo started the day with meditation. It was hard to focus on his breath; the impression of his chaotic dreams lingered. After twenty fidgety minutes, he decided to start the day. He opened his eyes. Out the window the yard was in bloom: pink clovers, black-eyed susans, blue and white morning glories that had escaped from the garden and found their way among the grasses like a child letting go off his parent’s hand and venturing forth, purple thistles ready to burst with seed, and a black splotch of heuchera that an earlier landowner had planted, abandoned, and now untended, left to grow into whatever shape the surrounding environment permitted.

Milo scanned his room. Clothes were ransacked. Book and movie pillars crumbled like medieval Roman aqueducts. Purses of wire were pillaged; the parts that couldn’t be pawned, twisted asps around bed posts. The nightstand was a podium for spolia, plucked from the carnage. A black pall of a dark age whispered from dusty corners. The only things which stayed above the froth and fray were Milo and, oddly, his jacket, which hung from the coat hook on the back of the door. He looked it over closely. On the cuffs were thick, red bloodstains, gurgled from twenty-three knife sheaths.

Milo fell into the chaos. The night returned to him; the girl, the truck, the leaping driver, the man with the paint-splattered T-shirt. He crawled over to his jacket and ran his fingers over the cuffs. They became covered in real, bleeding evidence. Evidence. Evidence of what? Premeditation. Premeditated what? Kidnapping, yes. Murder? Attempted. Maybe. He hung back up the jacket.

Milo immediately called 911 and paced nervously as he waited for the police to arrive. Who was she? Was she dead? Out of the room. Running. Larger figure bearing down on smaller. Who was who? Smaller, most likely. Escaped nearly, nearly. Back to the road. Ran back. To get something? To get what? Couldn’t get out. Why couldn’t I get out? There was a knock on the back door. He paced over to the door and saw two officers standing, hands in pockets, through the dingy glass. Milo opened the door and ushered them inside to his room where he held up the bloody jacket.

“See? It’s just like I said. Here’s the blood,” he said, pointing at the cuff. “Please, you’ve got to do something.”
The younger officer looked up at the older who put on a glove and took the jacket. “We’ll send this along. Where again did you say this happened?”
“Right out that window,” Milo said, pointing. The older officer walked to the window and looked out at the complex and the highway.

“And where did you say the woman came from?”
“She came out of the abandoned room. At least, I think it’s abandoned. That’s what I was told. The yellow building. That one right there.”

The older officer wiped his brow and angled his eyes at Milo. “Yeah that room’s abandoned alright. There hasn’t been anyone there in almost seventeen years since it was the Paint and Furnish.”

“See! And the man had a T-shirt covered in paint stains.”
“Yes, but the room has been abandoned for seventeen years now.”

“But I saw someone.”
“We can take a sample of the blood from the jacket back to the lab, but as we have nothing to match the sample to, there is little we can do.”
“But you could go over there! It’s a crime scene!”
“It might be a crime scene,” the younger partner interjected, looking annoyed at the disheveled room. “How do you know you didn’t just trip over all this shit and hurt yourself sleepwalking? Random people screaming out of buildings, it’s just…” A look from his superior made him stop talking. He threw up his hands and walked out into the hallway.

“Anyway,” the older officer said, stepping carefully over the mess towards the door. “Like I said, we’ll look into it.” They walked out and left Milo alone.

The police cruiser pulled out of the driveway and made a squealing turn into the complex. The two officers got out, guns drawn. Two more cruisers pulled in, sirens wailing. Through the loudspeaker, a negotiator called into the abandoned room, “come out with your hands up!” Three officers rushed the door, seeming to exchange a few snarky words with the man inside. Another two ran around back, guns cocked, nodding to the officers up front. Milo watched through the window with clenched jaw and knuckles. They burst in. Two shots rang out. A minute passed. A scream. Two officers walked out, between them three victims, guiding them to the ambulance. Three news stations pulled in. Local and national press. In a corner of the lot just outside of the action, but with a good shot of the building as a backdrop, the reporters asked Milo for an interview. He spoke breathlessly about what he had seen. The reporter asked if he felt like a true hero. Humble Milo considered the matter thoughtfully before saying, “I’m just glad everyone’s okay.” Next day’s paper spiraled onto the screen like Citizen Kane. The lid had been blown off the conspiracy; courageous and quick action had won the day.

The police cruiser pulled out of the driveway and passed the complex without a second glance as it turned onto the highway. Milo sank in his chair. He knew he would never see them again.

Around six in the afternoon, when Samantha trudged home exhausted and sat herself down at the kitchen table to let out the sigh of a long day, Milo tepidly walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

“Samantha, I called the cops this morning.”

Her tiredness vanished. “What? What happened?”
“Last night, there was a girl. She was screaming…”

“There was a girl here? Who? Here?” Samantha asked.

“No, no, she was across the street. She came out of a building, screaming. I ran over there. I tried to help, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything. She grabbed me and bled on my jacket and ran. A man in a truck jumped after her and stole her away. I woke up this morning thinking it was a dream, but I still had the bloody jacket so I called the police.”

“I see. Well, they should be able to handle it.”

“I’d think so,” Milo said, looking down at the floor, avoiding the gaze of the wooden eyes of the table. “I mean...they will take care of it right?”
“Of course!”
“It’s just that they didn’t seem to believe me.”
“That’s their job. They just can’t believe everything they hear. Did they say they’d look at it?” Samantha smiled.

“They did, but when they left they didn’t actually go over to the building the girl came out of – the abandoned room.”

“Oh, that’s what’s got you upset. I suppose I should tell you then, since you’ve been asking a lot about the complex, that that building...people don’t go in it anymore. A man owned the paint shop there. He also lived in the space to save money. Tragically, he took his own life some years ago. No one around here has gone in that room since. Not everyone is good at talking about mental illness. No one wants to talk about it, so no one goes in there and no one therefore, can come out of it.”

“It could have been someone not from here. They could have found the room abandoned and used it for...for...for whatever was happening last night.”

“It’s possible, but it’s also possible you were just sleepwalking.”

“But the blood!”
“You hit your nose on something and it bled on your sleeve. Not the weirdest thing in the world. Now,” Samantha said, standing up, “I’m very tired and I’m going to go sit outside on the porch and enjoy the garden I’ve planted all spring. It’s Friday. Why don’t you go out tonight?”

Samantha went downstairs. It didn’t matter what day it was. A good detective doesn’t rest until the case is solved. Milo stood up and began pacing out a plan. He didn’t have long. There was a conspiracy afoot; he would need to move quickly before evidence was destroyed. What evidence would be destroyed? Probably whatever was inside the room. But, he couldn’t just walk over there, not until he had more information about the former, mysterious owner. Did he really die by his own hand? He would need assistance parsing through these questions. He called Allison. She would come by after work.

Allison found Milo staring out the window. His muscles seemed stiff from immobility, weaved and twisted into a chair from the kitchen. The air smelt like dehydrated gums and cardboard mildew. The walls were a light sheen of gray shadows from the trees. They were cast into the room by the streetlight that taunted Milo with the possibility of revelation. A little more to the left, just ten feet, and he could see into the room. He could snap the shadows of potential into the hard shape of actuality. He could know what happened. It is a cruel light that burns to the edge of knowledge and no farther.

“Milo,” Allison said, sitting down on the bed, as close as she could to him. “Are you alright?”

“Perfectly fine,” he replied, not moving his face towards her. “The jacket’s on the coat hanger still. Go see for yourself if I’m crazy.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” she said, but he did not reply. She got up and removed the jacket from the hanger. She noted the blood, which had dried into a bruise purple on the sleeve, and hung the jacket back up. “There’s blood alright. No doubt about it,” she said, walking over to Milo and rubbing his arms, hoping to heat and relax them. He was iron.

“Samantha thinks I’m crazy. So do the police.”

“Well, I believe you. I’ll support you, no matter what. It’s possible you’re right, and that would be huge. It’s not something I can dismiss out of hand.”

Milo took a deep breath and finally loosened his shoulders, which clanged with a pop back into proper posture. Allison grabbed his hands and led him to the bed, sitting him down next to her. “But,” she said, “I don’t want to see this destroy you. I don’t want you to obsess.”

“A real hero would go over there and find out what’s going on. Here I am, watching, a coward. I’ve done nothing; I’ve a weak will,” he said.

“Milo, what if…” Allison trailed into thought. “So you’ve not even been over to the complex?”
“Not at all. I got close last night, but...I couldn’t do it. I’m a coward. Weak.”
“Oh come on now! You’ve called the police. You’ve let others know, you’ve done all you can do.”

“Besides actually going over there to get information,” he said, looking at her sharply in the face for the first time since she had walked in.

“The library might have…”

“The library! No, what would they have? I bet they’ve already destroyed all the evidence there; I would if I were in their shoes. And if they haven’t yet, they will now – now that they know that I know...” Milo said.

“Look,” Allison replied hesitantly “What if I went over there? Just to take a peek. I’ll walk by and just peer through the windows. It’s late and I doubt anyone would notice me.”

“That’s madness!” Milo said, jolting upright. “They’ll know you’re there, They’ll see you. They’ll...they’ll...Who knows what they’ll do?”
“I’ll just use an excuse then. Is the laundromat still open? I’ll just carry a basket and make it look like I’m going to pick up my clothes. I’ll walk by the building slowly. No one will be the wiser. Here, I’ll take this one,” and she picked up the tin hamper that Milo had neglected in favor of the floor. “Just promise me that if I don’t come back with anything that you’ll let the whole thing go.”

“That’s...I can’t…” but before Milo could make a single protest, Allison walked out with the hamper. He turned to the window and with shallow breath watched her walk down the driveway. She rounded the bend and emerged onto the side road. She seemed to quickly check if there were cars coming and satisfied they’re were none, made her way to the complex. She jumped over the steel guard rail and onto the sidewalk. With long and slow steps she walked past Jake’s Catering and towards the abandoned room. She lingered in front of the window, straining to see inside. Milo twitched and danced in anticipation. Come back! He wanted to scream, but there was little chance she could hear him. He felt some relief as she began to slowly walk away from the building to the laundromat. But she did not turn right; she turned left and disappeared behind the side of the building, re-emerging on the backside, barely visible as a shadow in the dark.

“No, no! What are you doing!” he said aloud, before clamping his hands on his mouth. For, pulling into the parking lot, was the white van. Run, he wanted to say. She continued to peer, tiptoe at the precipice of the dirt trail – the dirt trail that the white van would inevitable take to hide in its low fortress. The van crept around the left side. It moved slowly, as if the driver had noticed something unusual, something small, something just enough to set him on alert to look for anything else that might be out of place – and Allison was certainly out of place. Please, no, Milo sobbed as the van began to pull around the side of the building. They turned off their headlights; Allison would have no warning. Milo could only look through the crooks of his fingers as it edged around the back. But, as it did so, the wheels crunching off the asphalt must have alerted Allison, for she darted around to the other side. The van pulled into the back and down the slope. She catapulted across the guard rail and made her way, hamper bouncing on her hip, back up the driveway. Milo rushed to her and embraced her as she approached the back deck.

“You’re insane!” he said to her, with equal part reproach and relief.

“I’ve never felt more alive!” she replied, kissing him. Milo kissed her twice then bowed his head into her neck and shoulder. “I’m sorry to report though that the blinds on every window were fully shut. I couldn’t even get a peek in from an angle. There were no lights on though. The place was completely off. Glad it was, too, or I might not have noticed the van coming by.” She was exhilarated and speaking quickly. Milo squeezed her tightly

“Next time, maybe let’s just go to the library,” he said.

Allison, however, had to work the next day, and Milo was not inclined to wait. If evidence had not been destroyed yet, it would be soon. A furious search on the internet the night before had turned up nothing of value; the only option left to him was to go to the library. As he drove past the complex, he went slowly, but could see nothing of interest. Disappointed, he sped off down the highway towards the town of Whittemore proper.

The Barbara Ennerhouse library was in a secluded grove a street behind main street. It was an old building with wooden doors that looked like a medieval keep. The parking lot divided the building from the environs like a moat, dotted by book-drop barbicans. Milo was not deterred. He walked to swelling music, with the resolution of both detective and underdog, through the doors and up to the reference desk. With chest puffed-out, he asked the reference librarian where they kept old issues of newspapers, or perhaps town documents. The librarian, surprised that she was being asked a question, pointed a shaky finger at the microfiche table in the far back corner. Michael gave an obliging thank you and walked towards it. Bookshelves towered over him, threatening at any moment to topple and collapse him. Every book cover was a pale dust brown of disinvitation. He walked quickly, silently, afraid of awakening whatever dragon might lie in the next row.

Milo had used a microfiche table only once, for a history project as an undergrad, and never since. He tepidly tapped on each of the knobs of the instrument and adjusted them until he was satisfied with their perspective. The output came from an old computer monitor as deep as it was wide that emitted only blue light and a constant bass hum. It was not the kind of computer that would regularly wipe its drives, and Milo had a suspicion that none of the staff were particularly interested in maintaining technology. However, upon inspection there was nothing of interest on the hard drive besides a few photographs and old screenshots of even older newspapers. They referenced a fire and the photographs seemed to be of some of the victims, but Milo did not recognize them. He was disappointed.

Milo turned his attention now to the creaky, gray microfiche cabinet. The label on each drawer had long since faded on the teletype paper, but he surmised from opening a few that they were in rough chronological order. The first cabinet contained copies of the local paper, The Whittemore Telegraph. Milo grabbed every reel from seventeen years ago and placed them next to the reader. The boxes in the second cabinet were entirely unlabeled and appeared to have suffered both fire and water damage; he ignored these. The third and final cabinet had become rusted with disuse and Milo was only able to open the first drawer. It contained some town documents – organized by subject such as budgets, plans, and so on – and a quick scan found the mortuary records. These were neatly organized in the box – clearly no one had touched them – and Milo took the whole thing. He returned his trove to the reader and began.

New school building: protesters angry at increased property taxes. Broken pipe spills sewage onto main street: who’s to blame? Mayor resigns after tax evasion scandal. Mayor re-elected in stunning rebuke to local opposition: “I’ll clean up town hall.” Fire at paint store leaves two dead. River water supply polluted by run-off from factory. BDOS back at critics: “Water is a chemical, too.” Go back, back. Fire at paint store leaves two dead. Read.

Fire at Paint Store Leaves Two Dead

At 4:30AM yesterday the fire department responded to a distress call from the Paint and Furnish on Whit Creek Road. They arrived to find the building ablaze and store owner and local resident, Timothy Gellback, caught inside with his wife, daughter, and a customer. Firefighters charged into the building to find Gellback caught beneath smoldering rubble from the staircase. They led him to safety. His daughter managed to jump from a second story window, however his wife and the customer, as yet unidentified, died inside, unable to get to the window after the interior balcony collapsed. Gellback and his daughter were taken to the hospital to treat their burn wounds and any damage from smoke inhalation to their lungs. Dr. Anderson with the Greater County Hospital said that she expected both to make a full recovery.

The blaze was contained inside the Paint and Furnish and none of the surrounding buildings in the new industrial complex were damaged. Mayor Liget-Fidel is expected to visit the building tomorrow and discuss the damages. The complex, both the buildings and the businesses were heavily subsidized by the town treasury, and were a centerpiece of his campaign this fall. On the phone, the mayor praised the heroic efforts of the firefighters and said, “my thoughts are with the Gellback family today.”

Fire chief, Wilma Hughett said that the cause of the fire is still undetermined, but “it appeared to have been started from the inside. The structure seems to be sound; all the damage took place inside. Most of the existing merchandise, furniture, and rooms are completely destroyed, though the right staircase to the upstairs appears to be intact. As soon as we can determine that it is structurally stable, we will search upstairs for additional evidence as to the cause of the fire.”

Gellback and his daughter were unavailable for comment.

There was nothing else in the Telegraph that day. Milo meticulously checked each issue for the next two months. There was no follow-up. Not even an op-ed speculating on the cause. Insurance fraud? Murder to get out of an unhappy marriage? An accidental detonation of an explosive device meant for the mayor? There was nothing.

Milo leaned back and rubbed his eyes, strained from the deep blue screen. No indication of malfeasance; every edition of the newspaper was there. He could reach only one conclusion – the records had clearly been substituted with fakes. The police, arriving at the mayor’s house knowing that Milo had seen something, had directed the reference librarian to make a substitution. The records had likely been pre-prepared; she would not need to have generated them herself. They had probably been made seventeen years ago, and would therefore appear authentic even under age analysis. The whole county knew.

Gingerly returning the records to their original location, Milo made a point of returning to the reference desk to express disappointment.

“I’m afraid I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Fool’s errand, I guess,” he said, making firm eye contact.

“Oh? And what were you looking for?” she replied. A clever response – always seek more information that you give out.

“I had heard something about a factory and our drinking water. But turns out it wasn’t actually a big deal,” he said.

“No, of course not,” the librarian replied with a thin-lipped smile. “I suppose you’ll be going then?” And with a nod Milo turned and left, pushed out by the blaze of the librarian’s eyes.

Milo spent the following week convalescing at the house, closing guarding his new knowledge, even from Samantha and Allison. When he received a call from the police department, Milo was not surprised to hear that the blood on his jacket did not match anyone in their database. The receptionist politely asked him to offer a sample so that they could rule him out as a suspect. Milo considered refusing – after all, giving them his DNA might let them pin the crime on him – but if he refused, it would look suspicious. So that Saturday, Milo donated blood, the needle going into his arm under the watching eyes of two nurses. They had taken more than they needed, he knew, perhaps as a subtle punishment for his inquiries and doubts, another cruel gesture to deter him from finding justice.

On the next Tuesday morning, drizzling and foggy once again, Milo received a second call from the police department. Grasping a warm cup of tea in one hand and the phone in the other, he heard the raspy voice of the receptionist inform him – misinform him – that the blood on the jacket was his own, with 98% certainty. Milo thanked her and asked if she knew if there would be any follow-up investigation. She said the officers were looking into it. They were looking into it the way a mole looks at a room behind a solid, wooden door, Milo thought to himself, but he hung up without comment. Fidgeting the tea handle between his thumbs, he disappeared into the fog of his own thought. Time was measured in the rate of heat dissipation from the steam which wrenched him into the pool of brown liquid to scald and bathe his irritable mood. Pick up the phone; Allison calling. Yes, please do, and a few other niceties were exchanged and within the hour she was there, sitting in the chair next to him, her hand on his shoulder, trying to lift him up, back, and out of the bitter, cold water.

He explained what had happened: the trip to the library, his discoveries, the calls from the police, the results of the blood work. She hit her knuckles together and bit back the gnawing thought that she had made the situation worse. If I hadn’t offered to go over there...ah, but the hope that a lack of evidence would be persuasive..ah, but of course it wouldn’t be. Not when he is like this.

“So that’s the way things are,” Milo pronounced finally. “What do you have to say to that? I don’t expect you to believe me. But what else can you say? How else can you explain what I’ve seen?”

“I don’t know about that. But what I do know, Milo, is that you need help,” she said, seeing only the top of his hung head.
“Need help? I’m not sick. I’m not sick. You’re the one who’s sick,” he said defiantly. “you’re just using the excuse of mental illness to control me, to ignore what I’m trying to tell you. You don’t want to face the truth. Well, I do.”

“Milo, I love you, but you have to look at this...look at your room. It’s a mess. You don’t clean it anymore. You don’t go out anymore.” she said, inching forward. “You haven’t called in over a week. Your family hasn’t heard from you in months. You’re pulling back from everything.”

“I’m more alive than ever,” he said. “I see things for how they really are now.”

“Okay, I hear you, but you aren’t engaging with me anymore, with anyone, with the world.”

“I don’t know how to handle a world as cruel as this one,” he said unswayed, “where people can let this happen without doing anything about it. There’s something going on. Human trafficking, violent cults, political intrigue, untold cruelty..”
“Yes, those things happen, but it isn’t happening across the street at an abandoned room between a laundromat and an HVAC company.”

“It’s happening everywhere.” he said, looking up. “you don’t believe me and you never will.”

“Milo, I… But it isn’t happening. At some level you must understand that,” she said solemnly, hoping to find the rational thoughts behind his eyes, expecting that hope to be dashed.

“If you won’t believe me, you might as well leave!” he shouted. “Leave!”

Allison could say nothing more. She considered briefly squeezing his hand or kissing him on the head. Perhaps a hug that understood pain. But she knew there was nothing her affections could do. She rose and walked to the door. A teary glance back, she left. Milo, motionless, muttered to himself.

“Of course she’d leave,” he said, and he soaked back into the cold fog.

Samantha arrived home at five o’clock, enjoying the early release from her desk, but bemoaning the loss of several hours of business, thanks to another power outage. She came into the back door and tossed her things down, falling back in surprise to see Milo sitting at the table, a cold cup of liquid in his hands, shivering slightly.

“Milo, how are you doing,” she asked, preparing for another aggressive round of questioning.

“How much do you know?” he asked, unmoving.

“About?” she replied, her suspicions confirmed.

“About the abandoned room. About the complex. About everything that’s been going on around here for so long. So long. How much do you know about? How much do you just let happen?” he said

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Samantha replied. She tried to take a seat at the table next to Milo, but a quick scowl deterred her. “I’ve told you everything I know about it. There isn’t much to know, really.”
“I read the newspaper article – the one about the fire. No investigation was ever done. No follow-up. The survivors seemed to just vanish. The police informed me the blood on my jacket was my own –”

“So then you didn’t actually –”

“So then they’ve also been compromised. For a long time, I bet. I wonder, does it still feel like a lie – the way you all live? Probably doesn’t even seem like you’re pretending anymore, does it?” he said, swirling the icy liquid with his finger.

“Now, look,” she said, “I’ve had enough of this. I really have. I offered to put you up for cheap and help you out. You needed a place to go and I gave you that place. But all I’ve gotten from you since you’ve gotten here is paranoia and judgment about me and everyone else.”
“You can play the victim if you want!” Milo shot back with fiery eyes, drilling a finger

towards Samantha, knocking over the tea cup and cascading tea onto the floor. “You can try and pretend I haven’t figured it out, but I have and I’m going to prove it. Small-town, huh? Everyone knows each other. Everyone knows what happened. You included. If you won’t tell me, then don’t stop me from finding out. Perhaps your conscience will rest easier if the truth gets out.”
Samantha took a step back. “Small-town? Sure. But we don’t all know each other. People lead their own private lives, even here. Not everyone knows every little secret about each other. You’re rushing towards judgment and you’ve cast everyone here as a villain in your own twisted mind. We aren’t! Let’s say you’re right about what happened that night – despite the lack of evidence – let’s say there was a girl who was abducted or murdered or whatever you think happened – do you think everyone here would just cover that up? Go about our daily business as if nothing had happened? No complaints from the family?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last, either. But if I have any power in this world, I will be sure that those who committed this particular crime are brought to justice. There may be no good left in these sunken, nihilist hills, but there is still goodness here, in my body. I’ll bring the light to the darkest valleys where the sunbeams never hit.” Milo was breathing heavily, angrily.

“You wouldn’t be the first to try,” she replied calmly, “and you probably won’t be the last. But I’m sure I won’t stand here another minute as you attack me and my neighbors.” She picked back up her bags and turned to leave. “Contract gives you 30 days to leave upon notice. I’m giving you that notice,” she said, and she walked downstairs.

Milo fumed and stumbled around hurdles of thoughts, tripped over intertwined plans, and snuck around snares of emotion. She’s wrong. They’re wrong. They’re here. Will be soon. Not much time left. Not much time left, at all. I’ll need to run. Thirty days, will be my execution. Must get out. Can’t leave. Not until, the abandoned room. Lights in the window. Van in the back. No time to waste. Will be pulling up soon. Must go now. And with a fluidity of motion and purpose, Milo opened the screen door to the back deck he had first entered only a month ago, and plunged into the sunset woods.

 

5

One. Two. No time to count steps. Crows calling in the field. Portents. Oracles. Of what? Victory or defeat? And for whom? Crinkle of driveway gravel giving way under footfalls. Falling, descending, enter the pits of damnation, now. Eclipsed by night. Will they see me? Will they know? They must know already. They must. But there is a time in every man’s life when. Some people are born great. Thrust upon you. Thrust open the gate and let the people see the darkness. The people, always saviors of the pure downtrodden. Must trod on.

No light in the rooms. Street light is out. Suspicious. Beneficial cover of darkness. Must check both ways. Must check all sides. Even above. Drones, they have them. Anything at all? Anything out of the ordinary? Road. Check. Light. Check. Trees. Check. Room. Check. Run through the list. That’s how they get caught; they’re not precise enough. Go through the list. Smell of late summer pollen. Taste of bitter stomach acid. Touch of fetid fingers. Check. Check. Check. In a swift motion, one motion. Jump, run, hide. As fast as he could, Milo hurdled over the guard rail, ran to the wall of the complex, and hide behind it. Check. Check. Check. This is how they get caught. Not me.

How to get in? They have plans; they can be found. That’s how they get caught. No plans, no papers, no reading from them in court. Defense lawyer mighty proud. Prosecutor banging the table with angry fists. No fish on his hook. Go through the window. Too high. Go through the front door? They’ll see me. Has to be unlocked. Has to be quick. Or they’ll see me. Shka shka shka shake of pant legs against one another. Nothing to do now. Already going. Climax. Hero’s Journey. Go inside. Go inside. Arc of the universe bends towards. The door was unlocked and with a soft clang, Milo went inside.

The room was populated by glass and rubble, chessboard-like from one side to the other, interrupted only by ash piled like melted pillars of timesand, and on the far right side a creaky staircase. Where is the light? Where is the switch? Quick turn of head. Both ways. Bare walls, fire-scorched and flame thrown to the waste pile. Phone light. That’ll do.

Had she been there? Had she jumped from this railing? No blood on the ground. Probably cleaned up. Wipe the fingerprints, leave the mess. More for detectives to search through. They poked and prodded around the litter for three days but were unable to find anything. Bag it all up and put it in the evidence locker. Destroy after fifty years. Forgotten after one. Hey, what’s all this doing here? Trash, I think, let’s haul it out. No more evidence anyway. Bugs and bacteria – handmaidens of injustice. Fire, too. The staircase! As soon as we can, we’ll look for more evidence upstairs. They always make mistakes like that. Leave clues out in the open in the hopes that no one will notice. Milo tenderly walked up the aching staircase, hands on the charred railing. Don’t buckle now. Be on my side – enemy of the bugs. Vengeance against termites. Wouldn’t it feel good? Second story. Only one room accessible. Go in. They won’t be expecting this. Arrogance of the omnipotent and omniscient.

This room, too, was bare, except for a single closet door near the entrance and a shelf on the back wall, rusted and corroded with age. There were a few boxes still there, but upon inspection, Milo could find only evidence of habitation by rats. Milo instead turned to the closet. He hesitated but for a moment before tossing open the door. Inside was a mirror, broken, and in the corner of the frame a picture – a man, his wife, and his daughter. They were young; the picture was old and heat-warped, but to Milo it seemed that they were on a beach on a pleasant July day. He searched the image again and again for signs of hostility, but could find none.

A plant? Could be. Could be. No, that’s why they were targeted. They were happy. They knew too much. Brought down by a jealous competitor. Another paint seller, perhaps. A jealous lover perhaps. A...A...They must’ve jumped from the window back there. It isn’t broken. Where did the glass come from anyway? Where did it come from? Fake props. Fake, the lot of it. Or the windows are replaced. Why would they be replaced? Or it came from the merchandise. In a paint store? Where would there be glass? In the furniture; also a furniture store. Wouldn’t be destroyed by the blaze. Wouldn’t be? It would. Signs of damage, then. Check! Check! Milo crinkled the picture in his palm and rushed down the stairs. The glass was broken, in some places warped, and in a few other places melted. Signs of damage. Check. No, signs of intervention. Check. Signs of fire. Check. Sure, but who started it? The picture. A clue. A last token before they...A happy family on a beach. A happy family. Your family hasn’t heard from you in months. I’m busy. The room is a mess. Your room is a mess. Your room is a...I can’t clean it. Allison bending down to pick up clothes. In a pile, yes. Too tired to do laundry. No, broken glass. Signs of fire damage! Need more information. What else is there to know? Know? There isn’t anything else to know. There isn’t anything else to know. It’s simple, really. No, no, it isn’t. It is. Yes, it is simple. What else is there to know? Mayor. Factory. Police. Blood stains. White van. Pick-up truck. Yes, yes, it’s coming to me. Something in there. Something in there. Lived in the space to save money. Poor, yes. Lived here. Offered to put you up for cheap. Didn’t ask for charity. Didn’t ask for help. Place to be. Lived here. Messy room. Messy room. Broken glass. Broken room. Please don’t. Please don’t. Not again. Don’t do it again. Don’t make me go back please! Samuel! Don’t make me go back, please. That’s what a father’s for. In the grave now. So sorry. Best wishes to the son and mother. Time at the beach. Won’t be the first time. Won’t be the last time. Spit on the grave. Honor they father and. Would just cover that up? Would just cover that up. Buried. In the ground. Just watch a movie. Doesn’t James Cagney sing well? Wonderful voice. Wonderful throat. Please don’t. Please…Gentle stream of tears dig a canyon over the years through cheeks that lay sallow, yellow and callow. Family on the beach. Family would just cover that up. Must be. Dirty room. Dirty boy. Clean now. Nothing for me at the apartment. Nothing for me at the house. Nothing for me. Time to leave now. Two cars in the parking lot with their headlights on. Grandparents now. Move to the town. Out of the country. Take care of him, will you? Lots to do with the pond. Not too much junk food. Not too much TV. TV. James Stewart. Mr. Smith. Humphrey Bogart in another great adventure. We’ll always have Paris. We’ll always have New Zealand. Happy to get out of the old apartment, huh? Check. Broken glass. Check. Soil fire spit shame. Check. Buried. In the ground. Check. Please don’t. In the ground. Check. Nothing for me. In the ground? Check. Your family hasn’t heard from you in months. Hasn’t heard you in years. Hasn’t. Hasn’t. Family on the beach. Happy. Can’t be real. Can’t be real. Can’t be… And on the floor of broken glass and ash, Milo collapsed and cried.

It took Allison only an hour to arrive after receiving Milo’s phone call. She pulled the green sedan into the parking lot directly in front of the old Paint and Furnish. She was prepared to dash inside, but Milo had already come out, and was sitting on the curb, dripping several drips of blood onto the pavement crack grass.

“Milo!” she yelled, rushing over and grabbing him, cradling his head in her arms. “We need to get you to the hospital. I’m so glad you’re okay. I’m so glad.” She kissed him on the tip of his head and carefully combed out the ash and dirt with her fingers. “We’ve got to get you to hospital. Can you stand? Do you have any deep cuts?”

After a considered pause, Milo said, “I’m okay. I don’t think any of the cuts are too deep. I –”

Allison buried her head into his shoulder. “Don’t bother telling me to leave you again. Next time, I won’t do it.”

“I – I’m sorry to have put you through all this. I guess...I just thought…”
“You need help, Milo. You need help. Come on let’s go. We can talk about it on the way.” She pulled her head out of his shoulder, grabbed his hand and pulled him up.
“Thanks, Allison,” Milo said, meeting her gaze. He paused again. “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too,” she said and kissed him. “Now let’s go, quickly. Before you bleed out anymore.” She yanked open the passenger side door and balanced Milo against it. Tenderly, he began to get in. With a final glance, he turned around to see the abandoned room. In the creaking morning light, he could make out the faded letters of the store name on the front. It occurred to him that with the right tools, he might be able to restore the building. He smiled.

“Come on! Get in!” Allison said, and holding his head, he lowered himself into the car. Allison rushed over to the driver’s door and jumped in. She pulled out onto the highway. Milo craned his sore neck around to watch the store until it vanished behind the hills.

“I thought,” Milo said, uncertain, “I thought that by saving her I could somehow save myself. I guess that was foolish, huh?”

“Maybe with the right tools you could.”

“I think I could,” her replied, “as long as I don’t have to work alone.” Allison smiled. He looked forward through the clear windshield. There was not a cloud for as far as Milo could see the morning sky in the low Appalachian hills.

 


Submitted: October 31, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Ryan Wesdock. All rights reserved.

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