01 Feb Avoid the Abandoned Plants Down by the River
Justin sat in the back of the large employee conference room; one of those with the panels that can be emplaced or removed to make the room larger or smaller as needed. It was medium for the current presentation, the training session was mandatory but only so many drones could be released from their cubicles and still have enough left to complete the mindless daily tasks of their existences. One of the, “fun” parts about working for large corporations, he thought, was the homogeneous training sessions. The participants had already listened ad nauseum to the bi-annual sessions on “Sexual Harassment and Workforce Misconduct”. The same films every other year for the past ten…
This afternoon though, there had a new subject, at least for their organization: “Active Threats”. The speaker was from a state police agency and had been part of their tactical response team for several years. He was pretty engaging and the material was interesting, “We can relate the basic responses, Run, Hide, Fight, to the basic survival responses; Run is Flight, if we can get away from the threat, we should and we should bring as many others with us as possible; Hide is the same as Freeze, stay in place, hide, turn out the lights, be silent, mute or turn off electronics and hope that the threat passes; and if all else fails, Fight and do our best to take out the threat. The key to any of these basic tactics is to COMMIT!”
He said the last very emphatically and increased his volume just enough to wake up anyone who had started to nod after a carbohydrate rich lunch. He didn’t spend much time on statistics, which was refreshing. He instead focused on how to spy a threat and the order of priority: “People are always the biggest threat. There’s a reason we are top of the food chain… except for diseases… (laughter).” He went on about other ways to be prepared, “Work together to figure out plans for what to do in your workspace, including break rooms; consider what threats may arise and whether any are imminent; if something is out of the ordinary, say something; above all, be alert and look alert.”
It was good stuff and relative to recent news events but something about sitting in a chair, listening to other people speak was very draining. When the session wrapped for the day, Justin was exhausted and ready to get home. The classes had lasted for the full day, so it was 5pm and the rush was on to get out of the city and back to the ‘burbs. It had snowed the night before and although the roads were clear, there were already patches of ice in the shadows cast by downtown structures. Naturally, some goofball had to cause a crash while most drivers were still well inside the city. He was stuck for a good half hour before he was able to get to an exit, then for another ten minutes before he could attempt a different route.
The GPS on his phone was slow but hey: have a good day and the drive home was bound to present some level of misery! He had hoped to wait until he got closer to home to refill the fuel tank but the forty minutes he sat in traffic had drained more of his tank than he’d planned. He knew he’d have to pay more in the urban neighborhoods but had little choice. He turned on a street that ran in the general direction he needed to go and saw the yellow glow of cheap outdoor lighting at a corner convenience store. It was already dark, so he couldn’t see much of the area but knew that it was only marginally sketchy or had been a few years past when he’d last had to dodge a crash on the same stretch of freeway.
Justin truly hated driving inside the city, off the freeways. The constant traffic lights and stop signs made it a dangerous labyrinth of cross traffic and insane drivers. He had to dodge around one small car that inexplicably slowed to a near stop. No break lights, it was just suddenly in the road and… stopped. Fortunately he had already started slowing to turn into the filling station. As he passed the little car, he saw a young woman, a girl really, sitting behind the wheel, texting. He rolled his eyes and griped, “Figures! Wouldn’t want to pay attention to the road when there’s a critical text from your idiot friend… Ms. Stuck on Stupid!”
He pulled up to the pump and took a look at it to see if there was any sign of an illegal scanner; that was one of the safety tips he’d learned that day. Then he paid with his card and set the pump lock while he texted to let his wife know that he would be late but was on his way. She sent back a standard, “No prob, pls b careful”. The pump clicked off very suddenly and he knew that it hadn’t gone long enough to fill even half a tank. He set the phone down on top of his medium sized SUV and used the grip on the pump handle to finish pumping the gas. It was pumping slowly, the station’s tank must have been getting low. As he gripped and re-gripped, cursing under his breath at the pump, he caught a chill. That feeling of malevolence and danger creeping up from behind. He looked over his shoulder and there was nothing, just some ‘hood rat driving by blasting out window rattling bass from his POS ride. Huh! he thought, speakers are probably worth more than the car.
He looked forward at the door of the convenience store and saw the source of the danger vibe. Two men wearing dark hoodies and shades, barreled out of the doorway towards a late 90s looking yellowish Pontiac with several spots of both grey and red primer at various places on the body. The second one through the door looked up at him and they locked eyes. Well, Justin’s locked on the robber’s; he thought the robber’s were locked back, though all he could see were the large dark lenses of his shades.
The momentary shock of making direct eye contact with a witness made D’Narius angry and he pointed his pistol at the fool, “Mind yo’ bidness asshole!” he screeched.
The other runner stopped before he climbed into the waiting Pontiac, “Wassa-matter Dee?!” Great, Justin thought, now he had two robbers, nope three, the driver had turned her eyes toward him, all staring in his direction and pointing various levels of firepower. He froze, he didn’t know what to do, there was no place to hide. He was absolutely terrified!
Then, “Dee” aimed at the cover for the gas kiosk, next to Justin’s head and fired a round. He held a small, .38 caliber revolver but it looked enormous to Justin at the time and the sharp, ‘CRACK!’ sounded like the roar of a cannon. That did it, time to run! He dropped the pump grip, dove into the SUV and started the engine. He was gone in seconds, leaving the crooks to leap into their own car and leave the property. His heart had leapt into his throat and his pulse was pounding. He drove forward as quickly as he could manage until a red light up ahead caused him to brake. He looked in the mirrors and saw the Pontiac leave the convenience store lot, turn toward him and approach from behind. He thumped on the steering wheel in fear and frustration and as soon as the light turned, he laid on the horn to get the person in the car in front of him to move. He saw the silhouette of a hand flipping him the bird as the jerk pulled slowly forward.
He tried to change lanes to pass him but the jerk cut in front. Justin was in a newer, nicer vehicle, he knew that jerk-face knew that he wouldn’t risk running into the jerky beater. He checked the mirrors again, Crap! The Pontiac was creeping up behind him. He took the first left available down a side street. The beater driver honked at him as he continued forward in the jerk-mobile. Justin cut across the oncoming traffic and onto a neighborhood street. He desperately checked the mirrors again, maybe he could turn again and lose the Pontiac… Nope! There they were again on his tail and closing fast… he ran a few stop signs and hoped that a cop would be there to stop him… Nope again! Apparently they had better things to do than patrol the rough parts of town, not a police car in sight.
After a few more blocks he whipped to the right, down another street. He immediately had to slow because so many vehicles were parked along each side of the street. If even one car tried to come toward him on this narrow roadway, they’d both have to stop and one of them would have to cram into one of the narrow driveways on either side to let the other pass or back down the street through a gauntlet of parked cars. He didn’t care though, his mind was on running and he made the next left and hoped that it would offer a wider path. It did but only slightly. The nightmare twists and turns went on for a while until he was completely lost. Yet when he finally worked up the nerve and looked behind, there were no ultrabright headlights, the Pontiac was long gone. The initial adrenaline dump had jolted his heart and the chase he’d imagined had kept his pulse beating rapidly. He gulped in air and tried to calm himself. He needed to get his bearings…
**** * ****
He’d ended up in an area that was an old industrial park. Many of the plants and warehouses had been shut down for years. He turned into the first driveway that was open. As soon as he completed the turn, he switched off his headlights and looked for a safe place to hide. It was time to hide for a while and assess the situation. He was able to pull in between a building and a rusted shipping container. He hoped there would be no nails or broken glass under the light cover of snow. He looked at the dash and saw that the, ‘Check Engine’ light was activated. The fuel gauge read that he had just under a half tank of gas.
He stepped out and crunched a couple of steps to the gas cap and put it in place. He knew that the check engine indicator light would reset when he turned the engine off and then back on. He chanced a peek around the shipping container and saw no one on the dark roadway that weaved through the plants and warehouses near the river. He decided he had time to make a call… “Crap! Dang-it! Crap!” he shouted as he realized that he’d left his phone on the roof of the SUV at the gas station. He stomped around behind his vehicle for a while, cursing himself in frustration. That phone was gone. It likely lay crushed on some street in the ‘hood. He took a few breaths… no way to get help and no way to navigate, he no longer had his old city Key-Map book, no, he had GPS on his phone! Who needed the clutter of actual maps?!
He was feeling very cold and a bit dejected, so he climbed back inside the warm interior on his SUV and sat for a moment. He felt that it was probably safe to continue, the Pontiac and the murderous gang were long gone, doubtless enjoying the fruits of their little outing and laughing at the stupid suburbanite and how he’d likely soiled himself; mission successful, witness intimidated.
He considered his options: he could simply drive until he came to the river that wound through the industrial park. He knew a few streets that crossed canals that led to the river that would be even faster. He’d find a familiar street soon enough. He relaxed and put his car in drive; time to get home to his Ashley and their kiddos and even the goofy Schnauzer they’d just adopted from the shelter…
**** * ****
He rolled further into the park district but instead of the human produced lights getting brighter, they got dimmer and he saw that many of the streetlights were out or missing. He crossed a few canals but none of the streets around them had names he recognized. He was still hopeful he’d find something familiar when the engine began to clunk and sputter. He kept going, hoping it was just knocking from the cheap gas from that crappy ‘hood station but it finally coughed its last and died. It was hard to turn the wheel with the power steering off but he managed to get over to the side of the roadway. He flipped on the hazard lights; not that there’d been any other traffic for a while but it was the right thing to do when one’s nice vehicle becomes a road hazard. He used the fob to try to start the engine again but it would not come to life and the, ‘Check Engine’ light remained a glowing reminder that he wasn’t going anywhere.
The roadway was wide, it had been made for big trucks and vans and it was fairly level. There was a driveway about another twenty yards ahead, so he decided to try and push his lump of plastic, metal, and rubber out of the way in case anyone decided to drive down this darkened roadway; towards empty, closed plants, on a cold dark night, with a forecast of more snow… he had to suppress a shiver from the creepiness rather than the cold.
The electronics still worked, so he was able to get the steering wheel unlocked and after a grunting, straining start, got the thing moving and made an awkward turn into the next lot. He managed to get the SUV into a space beside the gateway. Fortunately the, “gate” consisted of a chain, currently snaked on the ground across the driveway, many businesses used them as an inexpensive way to stop trespassers from driving into their lots after hours. Maybe the place was open or had a security guard or something. Maybe even a phone so he could get a tow. The parking lots in the area were all still lit, a testament to the wastefulness of city government, yet a comfort to him at the moment.
His hopes dwindled as he approached the big plant and warehouse complex. There were no lights shining through the windows in what looked to be the office portion for what the sign proclaimed was, Tillandsia Enterprises Inc.”. The entire area had a stench to it. It was on the downwind side of the city for a reason. He approached the windows anyway and looked inside. Just some scraps of paper and some ancient looking furniture. He decided to get a better view of the area and walked toward the other end of the large building that faced the roadway. As he looked around the corner toward the back, he could barely see anything. The building lights were all out and the parking area lights were dim and the working ones even more sparse than the streetlights. He let his eyes adjust for a moment and made out a set of stairs that clung to the outside wall above a side entrance. He cautiously stepped forward, Who knows what kind of junk is on the ground at a place like this? he thought gloomily. He made it to the stairwell and checked it with a good shake. There were some rattles from above but nothing that made a climb seem too precarious, so he took the chance.
The metal of the railing was freezing and his light gloves didn’t do much to help protect his hands. He made it up several flights and was again facing the back of the building. The air had freshened into a breeze and he shivered with cold as it penetrated his office style slacks, dress shirt, and blazer. He’d have to retrieve his topcoat from the SUV. He could make out a line of trees at the back of the property and a shining ribbon behind them that had to be the river! There were lights and even a few cars passing along the other side. Great, civilization, he mentally celebrated as he made his way back to terra firma. All he had to do was figure out where the next bridge was… it may even have been the primary one he’d pictured on his mental map.
As he let go of the rusted rail, it let out a deep ringing gong sound and the lower part of the structure rattled like it was providing a warning of some kind. He stopped and a chill hit him that did not involve the temperature. It was more profound than the one at the filling station, this one left him shivering in both cold and fright. He gazed into the poorly lit surroundings and then saw a double glint of light near the back of the building towards the tree line and river. In other circumstances, he’d assume that the glints were from eyes but they were too big and too high off the ground for a person. He thought that maybe it was just some object that had caught and reflected the meager light or maybe even something on or across the river that shined through the leafless trees…
Then the eyes blinked… it wasn’t a twinkle of reflected light, this was lids briefly closing over eyes! Another shiver took him and he started to step backwards toward the front of the building and what light there was, and his automobile. The eyes moved forward slightly and slitted. He turned and fled like a madman toward the SUV.
At first, he would have sworn that he heard large pounding footsteps giving chase but when he made it back to the driver side door, he chanced a look back and saw that nothing had followed…
He sat in the vehicle for a while, it was getting really cold outside and the wind had picked up a little. He thought about it, his nerves were certainly strained and that dark area had been pretty spooky, maybe he’d just conjured up, “eyes” in his distressed state of mind. He was justifiably paranoid about being chased after the earlier events of his evening. Once he’d convinced himself that it was his imagination and not a scary monster in the dark, he started thinking about what to do next. Maybe he could hold out until morning and maybe someone would drive by and see him. About that time, small flakes of snow began to settle on the windshield. He’d be covered and camouflaged long before morning. He regretted now that he had not renewed his vehicle tracking system account after the free trial period; an unnecessary expense, right? He chided himself.
He was on foot and had to decide where to go. He didn’t have a flashlight other than the one on the stupid phone; the thought occurred to him that he’d become too reliant on that single piece of tech. In any case, that meant following the streetlights until he could find the next turn and get to a bridge. I’m almost home, just have to make a plan and COMMIT! he thought as enthusiastically as he could manage. It was time to test the classroom theory.
He climbed back out of the SUV, donned his topcoat and a scarf that Ashley had knitted for him when they were still dating and started hoofing it down the long parking area that spanned the next few buildings. He stuck close to the fence and the lights but didn’t want to walk any further than necessary. There’d be another exit ahead or better still, a shortcut toward the river. After a few minutes, the exertion warmed him some. He wished he’d brought his heavy winter coat, the topcoat was longer but not made for a night out in the frozen wastes of the urban tundra.
As he passed the first building, a plant office and approached the next, the plant, he glanced over to the space between the buildings, where he’d climbed the stairwell. He saw shady, indistinct figures shift within the deeper shadows. He looked ahead and hoped that they would just keep hiding and stay away from him; just figments of my imagination, maybe stray animals of some kind, non-rabid strays, he kept telling himself. Maybe it was homeless people who had decided to shelter in the abandoned structures. They’d probably be shy about approaching strangers unless they in some way felt threatened. If it was people, then his vehicle would likely be toast before he could get a tow he thought forlornly but better it than him. He had good insurance after all… he’d already started to forget about the potential threats from the shadows as he mentally completed claim forms…
**** * ****
Justin’s hopes of a shortcut were dashed by a long cross-fence that blocked his way. He’d passed the second driveway, so he wouldn’t have to backtrack very far but it was getting later and he was tired and cold and hungry. He wanted to go home. It didn’t help that the snowfall had increased. It was a nasty mix of tiny flakes and ice pellets, bitterly cold on the gusts of wind and they stung his forehead where it was exposed to the elements. He wasn’t sure he could continue much further. He needed a break from the weather. It was time to find a way indoors, even for just a little while to get out of the wind and precipitation. He headed back towards the buildings and the river beyond. He followed the newly discovered fence and found a large gate opening, clearly for vehicle traffic. He passed through and was on the next part of the property, the warehouse portion of this particular complex. Good, he thought, no imaginary fiends on this side…
He chuffed and slogged until he reached the, “Warehouse A – Tillandsia Enterprises Inc.” The entrance and front area contained an office section but there were broken windows on the front, it was definitely abandoned. There would be no heat but once inside, he could make his way to interior rooms that would be out of the wind and wetness. He tried the front door, it was locked and bolted, Seriously? He thought. It was easier to just clear out the glass on one of the front windows and climb through than to try to get through the secured doorway. As he kicked out the remaining pieces of glass, he snagged his lower leg on a jagged, protruding piece that was stubbornly placed in the side of the frame. It didn’t do much damage to him but his trousers were ruined. Just keeps getting better he sighed inwardly as he hiked his damaged leg over the sill and gingerly balanced himself with a hand on the frame.
He made it inside without incurring further damage. This area was definitely abandoned, not even any junk furniture, just a wet, moldy floor. The exterior light penetrated into the hallway that led away from the front office. He could see nothing else and knew that there was no way there was working electricity. He had a tiny light on his key fob, so he stepped into the darkened hallway and used it to look for a more likely room and maybe an old chair or desk where he could sit for a moment. The tiny light wasn’t strong but in the near total darkness, it worked remarkably well when he held it close to placards near each door to read them.
The offices on his right had windows, so once he opened the interior doors, he could see at least a little of what was in them. The rooms on the other side of the corridor were meeting rooms or for utility or storage. He was about to enter the largest office he’d found when he heard a loud noise from deeper inside the large structure; a creaking, moaning sound that startled him and gave his adrenal gland another workout. It was followed by rattling noises. Likely just the wind, maybe some rats, he gave a brief shudder. “Nothing to fear Justin, just fear itself, so stop the paranoia trip.” he chuckled to himself in an attempt to relax his taut nerves.
The large office had a chair but it was broken. However, there was a solid looking if ugly little table in the corner by the window. “Perfect! Finally a break.” He said to the gloom around him. He had a couple of tissues in his coat pocket, this time of year, one never knew when the old honker would start to leak from changing temperatures; he used the tissues to wipe the worst crud from the surface of the table or at least spread it around some and then carefully sat on it. The relief was instant. He’d been walking outdoors in snow with shoes that were designed for interior office work. He hadn’t gone far but the dogs were already barking. He attempted to look out the window but it was covered in grime and the bottom ledge was filling with snow. There was little light anyway, just the last forlorn beams from the parking lot lights and they were weak to start.
He took stock of his situation. It couldn’t be too much farther to a bridge that would lead back into more heavily traveled parts to the city. It wasn’t too late in the evening. He didn’t know for sure, since he typically used his phone to keep time. Yet the clock in his SUV had read, “6:59 PM” before he’d locked and left it. He estimated that it was about 7:30, so people would still be around and someone would be available to help. He realized that he was thirsty; nothing he could do. His stomach growled… again, no resources. He was cold and feared that if he sat for too long the snow would increase and make walking more difficult. He was as rested and warm as he could be under the circumstances. He reached down and tugged at his torn pants leg and peered beneath to survey the damage. Just a scratch, not much blood he satisfied himself.
He had resolved to get up and get started again when the already feeble light coming through the window dimmed further. His eyes had adjusted to the gloom so he could tell that something substantial had occluded the space between the light and the window. He saw a vague silhouette outlined at the window. A hulking figure that appeared to face toward him. It looked somehow fuzzy and indistinct at the edges but was clearly tall and broad. There was no neck but it was definitely anthropomorphic and possessed wild looking hair. It loomed closer and he saw hot breath fog the window and block even more details. Some part of his mind knew that the lighting and smeared window were likely just distorting a human figure but the hindbrain, that little remnant of our early ancestors, screamed at him to run!
He decided to do just that, the figure could be anything from a crazed drug addict to a security guard but he did not want to find out while he sat alone in the near dark. As he reached the doorway, another groan and creak emanated from the interior of the building. This one originated from the front entrance and was even louder. It was accompanied by a moaning, hissing, organic sound, like a large animal breathing deeply through some sort of obstruction or maybe underwater. He had no choice, he turned right and fled further into the interior of the building. He was fortunate that nothing blocked his way as the shadows deepened to full on darkness. He all but ran full out, his arms stretched in front of him…
He hit an obstacle… a wall?… No, a door, a large swinging door with a heavy rubber seal. It stuck for a moment and then gave way when he broke the seal. He couldn’t see anything but the hallway seemed to widen into a larger space around him. He reached out to either side and felt no walls. He drifted right until he touched the wall he’d been following… a solid outer wall of the building. He again started forward, this time more cautiously but still at a good fleeing pace. Perhaps whatever… No, he corrected himself, WHO-ever, it was would give up the chase and decide not to pursue him into this murky den… Then he heard the swinging doors crash open behind him. He again began to run, arms outstretched. He was too frightened to consider the danger of his actions or obstacles that might be in the path of his feet rather than his upper body.
He heard the moaning hissing breathing behind him, accompanied by scraping, shuffling, thumping steps. There was no point in looking over his shoulder in the near total darkness but his fear addled brain did not make that logical connection. The head turn caused him to lurch left and he lost touch with the wall on his right. He was now in a wide open space, he could feel the air stir. He couldn’t see the threat that was still approaching behind him. He could run into something at any moment…
Then he did. Not a wall or door this time but something small and hard and set at just the right height to greet his shin as it rushed forward. His left leg picked up a bad bruise and pressure cut to go with the slice on his right leg from the window glass. Justin sprawled forward and skidded on his hands. His right wrist definitely took some damage. It may have been broken, definitely sprained. The painful shock of his landing brought back some sensibility to his mind.
He looked around fruitlessly, then held his harsh, forceful breathing for a moment and just listened… He could hear his heartbeat in his ears. He could hear the weird breathing sounds and freakish footsteps but they sounded farther away from him than they had. There was a coarse, whispering conversation between two or more of whoever had chased him but the sounds were too low and garbled to make out the words. He had to breathe and tried to take in air through his nostrils to be as quiet as possible. The result made him gag and he nearly retched. A smell came across the lightly stirring air. The stench of rotting flesh and plant life, of mold, mildew, and choking spring pollen with just a hint of fishiness. It smelled like a swamp… No, it smells like the very polluted river! He realized.
The entire space was filled with the vomit inducing stink and it was getting stronger. It was then that he registered the shuffling, scuffing steps approaching from the blackness. He felt around himself with his left hand and attempted to find his bearings. His hand came across a hard object, a piece of wood, squared off, about three feet long with grooves running along the length like something used for… packing! His mind registered. He grasped his new weapon and used it like a cane to help him stand. As he put pressure on his left leg, the pain from his severely barked shin shot up his leg to his spine and beyond.
He knew wouldn’t be doing any more running tonight, the best he’d be able to manage was a fast limp. He reached out with the stick to try to locate a wall or anything that would give him some security. He hit something semi-solid and the sound and feel produced was that of wood on wood. He followed his guide stick and felt around for a few moments… stacked wooden pallets he reasoned. He was definitely in the warehouse portion of the structure. He felt further and found the wall against which the pallets were stacked. He felt up along the stack and determined that the pallets were stacked to a height just above his head. This was it, as safe a corner as he would find to make a stand.
The sounds of large beings with shuffling gaits approached and the moaning, hissing breaths grew louder and the odor more pungent. At least some of the stench came from these… Two? Three? More? Things! His mind gibbered, back on the verge of panic. Then the eyes glinted and flashed. They were large and obviously belonged to nocturnal creatures. There were three sets that he could see. If they were on human figures then based on the height, he’d stumbled upon the lair of some kind of pro basketball player zombie / vampire / swamp monster people, he thought as his mind drifted toward a break. Then he thought of his family and indeed his own life. Whatever was out there was a threat. He’d tried to run, tried to hide, now it was time to fight!
“Get away!” He shouted. “Get back and stay back or I will hit you!” His voice sounded more high pitched than he’d always thought it was. He clutched his right hand with the injured wrist to his breast and used his left hand to swing the stick forward and back in front of him to ward off his attackers. “I don’t want to hurt you but I will!” I don’t sound that committed he realized, I don’t feel it either but no choice. He swung the stick as hard as he could toward the closest set of eyes…
Something grabbed the stick and before his mind could even register that the motion was arrested, the stick was snatched and flung. He could hear it strike something in the distance and the ensuing clatter as it ricocheted and fell, echoed in what was clearly a large empty space. The moans grew louder and the eyes came closer, the stench became overwhelming and his brain shut down. If there had been light, he would have seen the greyness obscuring his peripheral vision until it tunneled. As it was, the last sensation he experienced was the train tunnel rush of sound in his ears as he descended into the mineshaft of unconsciousness…
His mind registered pain and motion all at once. The pain was in his legs. Something gripped them, they were both pressed together in a large crushing vice of a hand or paw. The motion was from his being dragged behind a large… creature. His arms hung limply above his head and the right wrist registered a sharp pain as it limply struck some small, rough object. It was still mostly dark around him but they were once more in a room that allowed some exterior light to penetrate through a large window. When the dragging motion stopped, he was lifted and slung unceremoniously atop a large table. He let his eyes drift slightly open and immediately wished he hadn’t. He squeezed them shut and turned away his head from the intolerable sight…
He heard loud moaning and hissing and some type of slobbery speech. He could almost make out the words… “Not food… [slobbery mush]… look for… [slobbery mush]…”
“Cold… [slobbery mush]… …gry” Another coarse speaker urged. “… [slobbery mush / moaning breath]… now.”
The, “discussion” went on like that for several minutes as a third, vaguely whiny voice joined in with the others. The argument became louder and each party grew more insistent and agitated, though less coherent. Eventually the argument, the entire mess of slobbery mush-mouthed speech, descended into shoving, grapples, and blows.
As the sounds of combat resolved, Justin finally had to open his eyes to see if he was in even more danger. NO! no! no! no! no! his mind internally screamed over and over. The three beings before him tussled and slugged at one another in mindless fury. The light was poor but his eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness. They were all well over six feet tall and disproportionately wide through the shoulders and chests. They were covered in what initially looked like green, slimy fur. He’d seen a movie with a sniper in a ghillie suit, that memory came rushing back. They were a mottled mixture of greens and browns and slimy tendrils in place of hair, like a mound of swampy moss had risen and grown arms and legs.
The fight had taken the creatures to the far side of the room. It appeared to primarily be between the two larger figures. The third figure now crouched in a corner and clutched at a wound to its elbow. Justin stared for a moment, mesmerized in horror. Then he saw his opening. The largest monster had shoved the middle-sized one into the corner above the now moaning and screeching smallest one. It held the other by the throat and pummeled at the plant-man with an enormous fist. Justin hobbled / ran at the top speed of which he was capable. He fled through the open door and looked around. He was back in the dark. Back in the large space. The room had been some sort of break room for the warehouse workers. Then he saw it, to him it was like the proverbial shining city on a hill, a small door with a small window at the end of a long dark space. It was a cleaner window than he’d previously observed in this warehouse of woes and he could see tiny, flickering lights on the other side…
He made his limping way toward the emergency exit; if this wasn’t an emergency, he couldn’t imagine one. The sounds of the battle faded behind him as he reached the bar. Even in the dark, without looking, he knew that there would be a sign on the bar that read something like, “Alarm will sound if pressed.” If only, he thought as his mind flooded with temporary relief. Then he heard the moaning and bellowing calls from behind. Apparently the dispute between the monsters had been resolved one way or another and his fate was once again their concern.
He stepped back from the door and into the shadows. He felt a crate of some kind behind him. He hobbled to the other side and crouched. He saw angry, alarmed eyes flash in the dim light from the break room. Then two hulking shapes lumbered out into the darkened spaces of the warehouse. A third limped behind them, it held one arm in the other and slowly made its way directly toward him. This was it. The creature would have him shortly. No weapon this time, no big one to jump on it and stop it from devouring him alive… just Death… slowly dragging its embodiment toward him…
When it reached the emergency exit door, it paused, looked over at him, where his head rose above the crate and his eyes reflected the modicum of light. It let out a last moaning, hissing breath and pushed through the doorway. Justin crouched in place, he was too afraid to open the door and try to leave with that thing lurking just outside. He was sure it saw him. He didn’t know why it hadn’t attacked. Maybe the beatdown from the big one had convinced it to pass on this happy meal.
Then he noticed that the sounds from the other two had faded as they moved towards the front of the building. Perhaps it would be safe to follow them. First, he took out his little fob light. The feeble beam reached several feet into the gloom. His eyes had truly adjusted and the thing was of some use. He took a look at the crate behind which he’d cowered. The wood framing around it was crushed on his side. There was another crate, possibly metal or plastic, inside the wooden casing. The inner crate had holes in it but whatever had been inside was gone or dead; it certainly smelled dead. He made out a label on the wooden frame, some East Asian lettering alongside Anglic letters that read, “HANDLE WITH CARE / PRODUCT OF CHINA”.
“Well, thanks, China.” He said sotto voce. He used his tiny light to get back to the break room and then, a little further past the entrance to it, he found a side exit near some lockers and an old employee punch clock. He first cracked open the door and carefully peeked around outside; nothing. He listened carefully; nothing. He sniffed the air. The foul odor was trapped in his sinuses but the air outside was fairly fresh, wonderfully so in comparison to what lay behind him. The snow had stopped. It hadn’t been a heavy fall after all. The cold night air awakened his mind and he finally stepped out with confidence. He glanced toward the sinister gloom in the direction of the river. He saw a well-lit restaurant district just on the other side, the source of the light through the emergency exit door window. He wondered briefly how people could eat so near the stench of the river…
The colors on one of the signs registered somewhere in his subconsciousness and bubbled up into recognition: “Phineas Phubarr’s Fantastic Fish Tacos”! He knew that place, he knew where he was. He had only to make it a short distance, cross a bridge, and he’d be free and clear and on the way home. He started quickly limping toward the front of the warehouse building. He made it to the front corner and the welcome light from the parking area greeted him and the icy breeze slapped into his face, followed by a large hand that slapped him to the ground. He was out before his body struck the pavement and sprawled supine in the fresh fallen snow…
**** * ****
SEVERAL YEARS PRIOR
“C’mon guys, be careful with that thing. You know the boss wants it put here for a reason.” Big Sam, as the warehouse foreman was known, rumbled at his normally most trusted hands, the inseparable duo of Charlie and Miguelito (Little Mike).
Charlie, at the controls of a small forklift glanced at his supervisor, “Sorry Big Sam, you know this lift is about to give out. Shoulda been replaced a long time ago.”
Big Sam was a reasonable sort, “I know, but it’s not like business has been great lately. Prolly why the boss makes these deals. No idea who the guys are that come to the back door but I suspect they’re guv’mint types. Anyways, what they pay is why we still have jobs. Next round of layoffs is coming soon. Places are shutting down all over the river district. We prolly best start looking… BUT… keep that under your hats. We don’t need a panic. Besides, this means we’ll get to start applying for jobs before the rest.”
Miguelito piped up, “Cool, Big Sam, you always lookin’ out for us, thanks, man.”
Charlie nodded in agreement, “Definitely. Maybe we can get hired at the same place, keep the team together.”
“Yeah, well first we need to get this monster unloaded and on the floor.” Big Sam directed and flicked his chin toward the crate.
Charlie fiddled with the controls and the machine whined but the lift mechanism did not budge. He rolled his eyes over to Big Sam, “It ain’t budgin’. It’s lifted and lowered its last load.”
Big Sam cursed in a low voice. “Okay fellas, guess we do it the old fashioned way. Just us to lift though; nobody else handles the back door freight.”
Charlie let out some grumbles as he climbed off the little machine. Miguelito shrugged and moved to the front of the box. Big Sam and Charlie did the heavy lifting and Miguelito lifted the front as best he could and guided the load toward its destination. They almost made it but when the back of the wooden outer crate cleared the forks, the load shifted and that end of the crate crashed to the floor. The wood splintered and a few boards sprang.
Big Sam stepped back and cursed, he had a gash on his arm and hand. Charlie and Miguelito had open scrapes on theirs. The bleeding trio gamely pushed the crate into place beside the emergency exit door, despite their open wounds. They set aside shop rules, this job was off the books and they needed the money. They cleaned up the area and themselves and met in the break room. Big Sam had detoured to the front office to meet with the manager and collect their fees. The boss morosely informed him that it would be the last extra income, the owners had decided to shut down the warehouse.
Big Sam handed out the bonuses to his friends as they stood around the break room. “Enjoy it fellas. We are all getting the axe next week. Hey, lets get together Monday and go over to DMT Solutions to apply. Boss said that’s where he’s going. His guv’mint friend tipped him off that that’s where the backdoor business will be shifting to too.”
The others agreed and they all took a good look around the break room where they’d taken their lunches together and talked about all the things that people think are consequential. Then each man filed out and hit the time clock as they left through the side door.
**** * ****
They met again Monday morning, just after the boss came back and made the grim announcement to all the employees about the warehouse closing. The trio was back in the break room and this time they spoke in whispers. Big Sam held up his arm so the others could see clearly, “By the time I got home, I had a fever. I slept all weekend and when I woke up today, this shit had started.” He displayed the greenish rash that was lumpy, like spongy moss on his arm around the gash from the crate. The other men had had similar experiences and had similar growths on their hands around their wounds. They all left work to see their doctors…
Justin’s Next Day
**** * ****
Justin gripped Ashley’s hands as she held little Krystal up for him to kiss goodbye. His son, Caleb had insisted that he was too big to be held up and had caused his dad to painfully stretch to lean over and hug him. He had also insisted that he was too big for kisses and would accept only hugs. He got them and Justin was glad for the pain. It reminded him that he was alive and that he had his family around him and he would soon return to work and their lives would get back to normal. He’d even discovered that no one had disturbed his SUV. The tow truck driver had found it and the insurance company had paid for the tow. The repairs were under warranty. He was covered and he would be out of the hospital tomorrow morning, absent only his phone but that was covered too and he’d pick up his new model on the way home.
“Yeah Ash, hopefully the fever stays light and I’ll get out in the morning as planned. Doc increased the antibiotic dose. Can’t wait to get home to you and the babes.”
“I’m not a baby!” Caleb declared.
“Okay, big boy but you’d best mind mom and be nice to your sister.”
“ ’kay daddy.” The child readily agreed. Justin knew that the agreement was unlikely to last even from this room to the front door of their home, yet he smiled fondly at his son and winked at his daughter, who was just old enough to catch on to the gesture and giggle as she tucked her head against her mother’s neck.
Ashley kissed him last, on his forehead, “Ooh, you are hot big daddy!” She leaned in and whispered, “It’s not just the fever.” She raised a little, met his eyes, then waggled her eyebrows.
Justin let out a little laugh and whispered, “Sexy mama. Oh, if you hear from that nice lady who found me on the bridge, let’s invite her and her… whoever she might have, to dinner when I get out of this place.”
Ashley agreed and bundled the kids out of the room. It was just as well, Justin was exhausted. He felt incredibly sleepy and his open wounds itched a little. His bed was raised, so he looked down at his legs before he covered them with the scratchy hospital sheet and put the bed in sleep configuration. Hmmm, funny, he thought as he drifted into slumber*, kinda looks like moss growing around the open wounds; probably just the drugs… and I have a big imagination…*