So it's possible at some point on our drive there, the long autumn colored mid morning light falling across the highway and the corn fields, air rushing past our slightly cracked windows, it's possible that at some point we fell asleep in the sunlight and died. It's possible we were kidnapped, fed hallucinogens, reset, and released. I've often thought that a lot more of us are actually stuck in laboratories than we want to admit. Not all us. But probably a fair number. At least 30. I keep waiting for my life to turn into a story where numbers really matter, where the same set of significant amounts keep showing up again and again, a sign that there's an overriding narrative. Like, maybe there are 32 of us in sense dep tanks, and maybe we are all dreaming we are ourselves 32, and some research student somewhere picked that number because his apartment number was 32, the one he lived in with his now-ex, and the place he wishes more than anything to be back at. Whatever the reason, the city was beautiful that day, not gray and dirty as we had anticipated, but clean and bright and diversified. Poor sure, but not as poor. It wasn't a bad place, and we fell under the city's spell. Each city having a particular and unique spell, created out of rocks and raw earth from where it was born, designed by snowflake and fingerprint population mixes. Cities are playgrounds, they are boiling pots and scrap heaps and collages. They collect everything washing up in the gullies of the country, reservoirs of our lowest points and greatest activity. Marshes.
When we found the building, I drove into the wrong driveway three times, and finally just jumped a curb to park the car somewhere inconspicuous. We climbed carefully over the broken glass sticking out of window frames, and through the soon to be overgrown pool, into the dimmed recessed hallways of offices and kitchens, through the mirrored lobby and pitch black lounges. A series of conference rooms named after presidents held every bit of furniture scavenged; desks, mattresses, light poles, pastel prints of cottages, racks of white porcelain coffee cups. He found a corner stocked with blankets, saltines and mayonnaise laid out across stacked chairs, the vapid smiles of a Barely Legal laying open. I wonder sometimes if my male friends understand what alien places our individual fears come from, how girls naturally have a completely different reaction to the possibility there is a strange man hiding in the shadows of rooms, and frankly I have no idea what kind of fear hides in my friends chest. He is 9 ft tall, I wonder sometimes how he fears anything. Then again, being of a strange shape myself, I know how that alone can make you feel vulnerable over time.
The ground floor was the most interesting, full of objects and surprises. As we went further and further up, the rooms themselves were very similar. There was usually only one point of interest in each room, a pool of water, a conflagration of curtains, a spare bible. We got careless, he would wander ahead, I would lag behind in a room, we lost eye contact. Normally when that happens, I get nervous, I call out just to be sure, but it didn't seem to matter. We were lulled by the repeating pattern of the hallways and doorways, the sameness of every room. The warmth and sunniness of October's Indian Summer drifted into us from beyond the shadows.
And then suddenly, a door slammed in the stairway several floors below us.
Neither of us said anything about it, but we walked up a couple more floors and stopped. He picked up a large plastic pipe from inside one of the bathrooms and carried it with him. We walked down to the next staircase and up again. I stopped and looked down the dark shaft of the stairs, looked down just a minute, just to be sure. I felt that he had stopped above me, in sync as we were after all this time. So we stood there, together, separate, each looking for a long stare. Just as that spell was about to be broken, I saw it, a glint in one of the shadows of something moving reflective. It was 2 floors down, and could be barely made out from the bend of the stairs. I waited for it to happen again, but I felt him moving above me, and so I went too, quickly but not too quickly, into the next door the next empty hallway looking exactly the same as all the rest, where he carefully shut the door behind us and then quickly into another room, where we waited in silence, peeking through the peephole at the still quiet hallway. Minutes passed. We started to feel silly, making faces at each other, and just as I started breathing again, we heard the stairway door open. A creak like the building was cracking its knuckle in a movie theater.
It came slowly down the hallway, but it didn't stop to look in any rooms, giving each doorway only a cursory glance, as if it had assumed we had switched staircases again. We watched it walking down the hallway away from us. The thing was in the shape of man, and had the smooth practiced gait of one, but it had been living in the rot so long, patches of the fleshy shell had worn away, been eaten by moss or rusted by rain. You could see where once it had skin and clothes, and then the gleam of a lighting fixture it had used to replace a forearm, or the innards of a poached air conditioner sewn into it back. A metal scrap man. Junk Man. A walking trash bin. The rags it was wearing looked like they used to be a blue uniform, a polyester pants suit, a waiter maybe or a cook. It was a relic from a time we were both too young to remember, when mechanical men had been legal, which meant it had been a fugitive for at least 60 years, twice as long as either of us had been alive. In it's left hand, it carried a wrench. My panicked frozen mind saved itself by thinking "robots can be left handed?" and crunch crack we were both on track again, our muscles bursting into motion as soon as the Wreck went into the furthest staircase.
We ran up the rest of the stairs to the 12th floor, and from there to the roof, where we shut the trap door as securely as we could. Technically I guess, the roof was the 13th floor, the non-existent floor. We waited for it to find us and start banging on the door, braced ourselves for confrontation, but it never came. We stood there in the sky, as time ticked by, and waited. The light was warm and bright, the air crisp and cold. The colors of the trees far below us became vivid with the rich afternoon sun, and the city lay on the horizon so far away, on the other side of the forest, shining like silver, emerald and quartz.