Chapter Eighteen: The Warehouse
I thought about the situation for a split second. Did I have to do anything? Should I just stay there atop the stairs and let whatever was happening take its’ course? It would sure make things easier for us, for my mother.
I should just leave, right? I should let the cops take care of it. I should…
I walked down the stairs, uncaring now if my slippers were besmirched with my one-time father’s life-giving fluids. My mind focused on navigating the pitch-black surrounding me. In my head I counted until I reached the number eleven and stopped. That was how many steps it took to reach the concrete floor. I extended my hand to the right, feeling for the surface of the boxes that should’ve been stacked there.
My hand closed over the flashlight we were in the habit of leaving atop the boxes. It was the way we did things in my family. In case of great need, we’d always know where to find a flashlight. I’m not sure if it was a by-product of having a father like Lenny. We seemed – my mother and we kids – always prepared for the worst. Whatever it was, it sure helped that night.
I thumbed the switch and a strong, steady beam shot forth from the four-cell Maglite. I trained it immediately upon the medieval door leading to the root cellar, all six by five and a half feet of it. Its’ huge oaken planks bound with iron and wood shod with large rivets had been cleaned and partially restored. The iron ring serving as the door handle was polished as well. The once-looking crudeness of it wasn’t as noticeable now that the thick hinges had been greased and painted black. It didn’t seem as foreboding as it had over a year ago when my mother and Eli had urged my sister and me down into the basement to ponder its‘ existence. Though it was large in comparison to modern doors, it looked relatively normal now.
Well, except for the ever-widening swath of blood running directly underneath it.
If you’re gonna do this, Jeremiah, you better get a move on, I urged myself. I shook my head, physically banishing all doubt, stepped over and pulled the circular latch downward, hard.
The portal opened readily. Nothing had changed there.
But, everything had changed beyond. I should’ve been staring at rough-hewn walls, dug out of the sandstone fundament of the hill. The other set of stairs should’ve given way to hard-packed dirt. It should’ve seen a passage supported by cross-beams every five feet or so. The thick layer of dust would’ve been gone. It had been swept away long ago by the men my mom had working down here six or seven months prior.
None of it was in evidence.
What I saw made my mouth gape so drastically, the hairs of my scraggly goatee should’ve been awash in Lenny’s blood when my jaw hit the floor.
Instead, there was no passage. There was a soft, deep blue glow that seemed to come from everywhere at once, but nothing else I would’ve expected. I was perplexed. I was struck motionless, incapable of making my body move. I don’t think I even breathed.
Before me was an alley, much like an alley one would see in the older portions of metro Los Angeles, only it was the strangest sort I had ever seen. Yes, there were what appeared to be tall buildings on either side, each one at least fifteen stories high. There was an assortment of trash bins, empty milk and produce crates, heaps of newsprint, broken glass, smashed soda cans and the like rubbish one would expect to find in an alley. It was dim with long shadows, because of the odd lighting. It was cold, much cooler than it was in the basement, where I stood. The entire passage was damp, but the verge of freezing. I could feel the icy air chapping at my cheeks, making my lips crack. There was even the typical smell of garbage, turned milk and urine, comingled as it would within any typical alleyway.
As I said before, though, this place was anything but usual.
To begin with, there was a roof. I could see the tops of the buildings – normal - except there was a small extension of the wall above and beyond the rooftops. Where this ended, an overarching ceiling – or whatever – began.
The doors leading from the alleyway were different as well. Unlike the windows, which faced perpendicular to the passage, they were turned, forty-five degrees in my direction. There were hundreds of them, as far as I could see down the alley, which seemed to have no end.
No end, the words repeated in my brain, my eyes scanned the distance, searching for some semblance of a terminus. I couldn’t see one. There were only stretches of differently colored, in-laid brick facades as far as my vision allowed. The bizarre roof covered all.
Down through the center of it all, leading away from where I stood, splotched and dribbled, was Lenny’s blood.
I squinted, trying to determine if the trail led to either side, possibly down a crossing passage, another alley. I couldn’t tell from my vantage. It appeared to go at least seventy - maybe eighty - yards before it faded from my view altogether. I knew the gruesome trail continued. It was merely obscured the further away I gazed.
If I wanted to discern where my one-time-father had been dragged, I was going to have to personally investigate it.
I stared down at my feet, standing as I was in the mess left behind by Lenny. I hadn’t stepped through the doorway yet. I saw the line where the concrete of the basement met the frigid sogginess of the alley. I had this odd notion, the moment I stepped over it; I wouldn’t be in the same place any longer. I wouldn’t be at 1052 Lincoln Drive, in Los Angeles, in California.
I’d be somewhere else entirely.
I glanced up at the long, crimson streak upon the unclean pavement, my mind uncertain. Thoughts, similar to those I’d thought before, bubbling to the fore. Did I really have to go after him? After everything he had done to us, was it necessary to seek out his attacker? Couldn’t I just let it go? Lenny was a world-class douche. Did he deserve my concern, or my time? Couldn’t I let the police figure it out? After all, we hadn’t done anything. He and his brothers had broken into the house. They’d been the ones who’d battered down the door. They were going to hurt my mother. Why should I bother?
I peered about, breathing in the fetid, chilly air, feeling my shoulders bunch, then release. The answer was simple. Though I hated it, I couldn’t escape it. Its’ simplicity made it so.
It was one word, without explanation, devoid of closure. It was open-ended, because there was no single correct way to finish it. Sometimes, especially when things no longer make sense, the only answer is a beginning, whatever sort that may be.
I could sit here and attempt to enumerate all of the “endings” to the beginning of that sentence. I could spell them out and explain them, in detail, if I chose. And, believe me, there were many. But, in the end, it would amount to the same thing. In the totality of the situation, it all added up to the same act.
I stepped across the threshold and entered the alley. I risked leaving behind everything I’d known in my short life and went in search of the reply to every query I had ever asked.
That night, I would find out.
Feeling I had wasted enough time as it was, I began my trek into that strange place at a jog.
I worked my way through the debris clogging one side of the alley and then the other, following the mild “zig” and “zag” left behind by the body of my one-time father. I tried to ignore the peculiarity of my environs, but it was hard not to look.
It wasn’t as though I felt an overbearing presence or felt anything threatening, but there was something about the place that kept my head jutting from place to place, my eyes flitting from one object to the next. And, it wasn’t as though the odds and ends within the alley were abnormal or even foreign for that matter. It was a certain characteristic, a particular aspect about them that made me uneasy. They appeared normal, but something primal, something stretching back into my genetic past told me otherwise. In here, something creeped, something...
I trotted along the ghastly trail, trying to figure out what it was precisely. What was so unusual about this place and everything in it? Why was I so unsettled?
Maybe, because it appeared out of nowhere. Ever think about that?
Then, without fading or showing signs of diminishing, I came to the end of the stream of Lenny’s blood. Within the length of a linear foot, it was there and then it wasn’t. It didn’t stop as if cut off nor did it drain away. It seemed to have ended, as if at that exact point my one-time father had simply bled-out.
I stopped, glancing around. Nothing had changed. I was still surrounded by the seemingly unending buildings, twin, sentinel-like walls peering down at me through two or three score nearby windows. They were like huge, rectangular eyes gazing at me, watching my every move, scrutinizing my intentions as if they hadn’t decided if I was a friend or a foe.
I frowned in consternation, a drip of fear tingling down my spine. I looked back the way I’d come. Far off, I could see the doorway back into the basement of my house. It appeared no different than any of the other times I had walked into the earthen passage to the root cellar and had peered back, only the distance was much greater this time. But, the door was still open. The bizarre indigo afterglow of the alley illuminated the first ten feet of the chamber beyond. I could easily see the things we had stored within. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
I inspected the blood trail again, but found no new clues. The sanguine fluid ended. Lenny’s life had finished seeping out. It was spent.
A set of double doors to my right caught my attention. They were the first set I’d given more than a cursory glance since I’d been within the alley. There was a sign hastily written and secured to the painted wood with masking tape, most of it had come loose, but what remained in place held the sign. It was scrawled in marker as if the writer had scribed the words in a hurry. The words written there were the odd, especially given the situation.
“Don’t go in before 6:45 in the morning.
Don’t leave open after closing,
And definitely no later than 10:30 at night.”
I felt my head turn slightly to the side of its’ own volition. It wasn’t just the way the sign had been made or how it was hung. The way it was transcribed was just as difficult to explain. It didn’t seem as though an adult had scrawled those words there. It was written the way Eli might’ve written, not using abbreviations of any sort. There was no “am” or “pm” at the end of the specified times. Someone older would’ve been satisfied with merely that. Someone older wouldn’t have spent the time to spell out the time of day. And, that was just the tip of the iceberg… Why was it there in the first place?
What time is it? I asked myself. Then, I recalled I’d been awakened in the dead of night. That meant I was standing before it during “do not enter” block of time outlined upon the sign. But what if Lenny had been dragged inside?
So what? Leave his ass there!
The earlier conundrum had resurfaced once more. Was my reject of a father worth it? Was he worth any risk on my part?
I probably would’ve stayed rooted in place, forever at odds with myself, if the sign hadn’t fallen to the ground. I stared at it as it cascaded downward, falling slower than it should’ve, like a feather upon the breeze until it landed upon the ground, soaking through in some areas, where moisture had puddled underneath it.
Wasn’t it too cold for liquid to act in that manner?
My eyes found what had been stenciled onto the doors themselves, professionally done, as one would expect to find in any warehouse. “Clothing Storage”, it said upon the left side door.
I brow furled even further. I must’ve looked like Winston Churchill standing there, hands at my sides, my face wrinkled to the point of disfiguration. What is this place? I gazed at the door knobs. They were normal. There wasn’t a locking mechanism on either door.
So, why had someone put the warning there in the first place? Why shouldn’t I go inside during the night time hours? And, if there was something dangerous within, why wasn’t it locked, or chained, or something?
Where was I? What was this place?!?
I could feel my frustration rising. Everywhere I looked, everything I inspected became all the more surreal, unusual. Yet again, I peered about, seeing the over-sized trash bins, industrial-sized, made of thick steel. I saw the empty juice cartons, the broken bottles, the squeezed soda cans, the crates – all sorts - some broken, some whole. There were scraps of discarded metal, smashed-up car bumpers, old-style trash cans scorched from within as if, long-ago, someone had tried to warm themselves by lighting a fire in their middles. There were old magazines and newspapers strewn every which way, plastered to the ground, stuck fast upon the lower portions of the walls. And…
…There were no footprints!
I spun around as if wound-up, my orbs questing, finding without problem a lone set of tread-less tracks, my tracks. Where there should’ve been two, there was only one. If someone had pulled Lenny into this place, where was the evidence of it? Where had the other set gone? There was mine. Where was…?
I’d had enough. I needed answers. Everywhere I looked, every second I spent down here, there were only more questions. I needed answers, now!
I turned back toward the doors, walked briskly toward them. I placed my hand upon the door knob of the right side door, twisted. It came open as if the mechanism had been recently oiled. There was no resistance or screeching protest of any sort. I threw it wide and found myself gazing before a truly massive pile of clothing set directly in the middle of an equally humongous room.
Clearly, it was a warehouse of some sort or at least it was big enough to be construed as such. I walked in, noticing the overall dampness of the alley and its’ persistent smell had permeated within the confines of the vaulted chamber as well. I stopped ten yards from the jumble mass of cloth. I was amazed that it towered over me by more than fifty feet! It had to be a square acre of garments, at least. I had never seen such a conglomeration of apparel before. In fact, I had never heard of a place housing such an amount. Not even the Society of Saint Vincent Du-Paul had stores of accouterments on this scale. I was stunned. I was gazing upon every sort of garment ever sewn together. Pants from every era, shirts from the same, coats, jackets, vests, dresses, tank-tops, tube-tops, tights, shorts, miniskirts, and more and more, wherever my eyes fell. I couldn’t believe it.
“Good God, why would all of this be here?” I heard myself ask aloud, to no one in particular. My mouth and throat had moved with the thoughts in my head.
I walked toward the edge of the gigantic pile, stepping from side to side as I went. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I wanted to go much closer. After all, there had been a sign out front warning all-comers not to come in during a specific time frame, a string of hours I was within at the moment. What if there was something hiding under all the clothes?
Like what, a clothes-hoarding dragon? Come one, Jer, get it together!
I smiled crookedly. Maybe I was sort of over-doing things. But, who could blame me? This place was outlandish. It was making me think abnormally. Bending at the waist, I reached down to grab a handful of the nearest garments. Surprisingly, they were dry. When I brought them closer, they were odorless as well. I had expected them to be dank, decrepit with mold and mildew, but they weren’t. They appeared no different than I would expect from something hanging in a closet for a long period of time. They might smell dusty, but beyond that, they were no worse for the wear. This seemed wrong. The rest of the room was damp, even the air was moist. Why were the clothes dry?
I looked around, dropping the two shirts and thin windbreaker I had picked up.
“Leonard, you in there?” I asked for no reason in particular, a smile more like my own etching my lips.
The room did not answer.
Shrugging, I stepped deeper amongst the clothing, stooping lower, feeling with both hands, trying to understand through touch. Everything, all of it – the jeans, the socks, the underwear, the wife-beaters, the push-up bras, the scarves, the gloves, the tunic-like tops, the bell-bottoms, the hip-huggers, the running shorts, the camisoles, the trench coats, the ascots, the long johns, the slacks, the blouses, the tuxedo shirts, the sweat pants – every single article of clothing I touched was the same. There wasn’t a drop of moisture, not a speck of decay, only the impression I could glean was they were old. They’d been here for a long time.
I waded deeper into the pile, high-stepping, bringing my knees nearer to my chest in order to negotiate the ever-thickening amount of cloth underfoot. The further I went, the harder it became to walk without the use of my hands to steady myself. The amount of compression beneath my slippers was increasing dramatically. The garments continually shifted and bunched as my weight altered from above.
For some reason I cannot readily describe to you, I kept on. I continued to search the pile. I would step and grab, toss handfuls aside, dig down a few feet until I had to move on or risk sinking deeper into the morass of fabrics and buttons and zippers. I would crab-walk aside, wary of the depression I’d created, knowing if I wasn’t careful I could be up to my knees, maybe my thighs, in clothing. I would skirt the edge, turn, then grab more, throw it in another direction, then part the way with my fingers, gaze down deeper. Always, I would find even more, whether it was cotton or rayon or wool or cashmere there would always be more below.
I continued for twenty minutes maybe until I began to perspire in my pajamas. I wiped at my brow with a forearm, leaving a trail behind sweat on my sleeve, wondering why I was so frenetic. I gauged the situation, realizing I was a good seventy yards into the pile. I twisted at my beltline, amazed that I hadn’t even made it to the outskirts of the outskirts of this monumental mound. The sheer amount of human coverings was overwhelming.
“He’s not here,” I said aloud. Even if he is, I will never find him. My shoulders slumped. I ran a hand through my stubbly hair. You have only checked one room, Jeremiah. There are hundreds, possible thousands, out there in the alley.
Something shifted. The moment the word “alley” crossed my mind, the pile of clothing moved. Not all of it, but a sizable portion nearby.
I side-stepped, hands thrust outward for balance, fingers splayed, should I fall I could grab onto something quick. Despite the chill, I was still sweating, but ignored the perspiration beading above my brow. My breathing was hoarse, felt harsh in my lungs. Had I overdone it? My pulse was in my ears.
Another movement came, jerkier than the first, but from a different area below the surface of the pile.
I squared my body to it, crouching lower, walking away, poised upon the balls of my feet. It was something an athlete did when on guard, whether on the court or on the field – get up on your toes, be ready.
I felt my eyebrows rise when something long, sinuous seemed to stretch, then settle ten of feet below my position. Whatever it was, it was bigger than me, and longer by more than a dozen feet.
Though I hadn’t seen anything, not a single feature, I decided it was time to leave. Unheeding, I began to stride down the slope made of cloth, my feet plunging to the ankle, but I didn’t care any longer. I wasn’t being careful. I wasn’t methodically searching anymore. I wanted to leave. I was doing so in a hurry.
I stumbled forth, my movements faster with each second. I used my hands to gain additional purchase, clasping at wad after wad of clothing. Each was like a handhold, giving me a net gain in leverage. It was like pushing off something solid while swimming, each hold gave me a slight burst of velocity before it bled away and I had to find another. And, I did. Over and over, I stepped, sank, grabbed, pulled, repeating the process. I could see the solid concrete of the warehouse floor wasn’t more than twenty feet away. I was making good progress, swimming through an ocean of apparel.
The notion lightened my heart. Good thoughts, Jerry! Keep up with the good th -.”
Something hard and unyielding caught the edge of my toe and I went down on all fours, my feet still hidden. I was about to push off with my hands when I felt something new. Whatever was below the textiles, no more than a quarter of an inch from the skin of my palms, it was warm. No, it was hot. I could feel the heat being transferred from it to my hands, then my arms. It was an incredible amount of heat. Maybe that’s why the garments were so dry. Whatever was beneath them was searing.
Faster than I can recall, I bolted upright and sprinted for the concrete. I didn’t care how many times I fell or rolled or summersaulted, I was going to get off this uncanny mountain of fibers.
I scrambled, scurrying like a rodent across the uppermost regions, using every available part of my body. Clawing when I had to, scratching when it was necessary, and kicking when I was sure there was something unnatural beneath me. I came toward the edge. I was no more than six feet away, the height of your average man, when I struck something hardness with the back of my right hand. My wrist crumpled painfully, and suddenly I felt myself overbalance. Where my fingers should’ve given support, they were no longer capable. I lurched forward, shoulder first, hitting the clothing, and then unceremoniously flopped onto my back.
I had no more than a second’s respite when something long, very hot and round roiled below the entire length of my body.
I recoiled like a spring, repulsed, using its’ own firmness to attain my feet. Within moments, I was off the garments and on the concrete, cradling my wrist, which was throbbing now. Unsure why, I continued to stare at the pile and felt my jaw become unhinged when I saw the entire expanse of clothing was moving now. It wasn’t the movement of a solitary thing. It couldn’t be. There was nothing coordinated, nothing congruent. All along the pile writhed what had to be hundreds of long, ropey structures. Things I couldn’t describe, but things all the same.
Whoever had written the sign had been correct after all. It was time for me to leave. It was the wrong time to be in this place.
I swung toward the double doors, then thought better of it and placed myself perpendicular to both the exit and the pile, which allowed for me to see what was coming from either direction. I wasn’t about to be surprised again. I wasn’t going to be one of those idiots in a Hollywood horror movie who turned away right before they got mauled. No, that wasn’t going to be me. I was smarter than that.
I got to the doors, scuttling through them with my proverbial tail between my legs, and made to close them. From without the vast chamber, I could see the things beneath the pile were still moving. No faster or slower than before, but moving all the same. They were worms, huge, or maybe tentacles or both. I was too far away and they were too well covered to make an adequate assessment.
I slammed the doors shut and replaced the sign written my some very smart little kid and stepped back into the middle of the alley.
I probably would’ve left then. I most likely would’ve decided enough was enough, that Lenny wasn’t worth it and made my way for the door leading back to the basement. I know I should’ve, but I didn’t.
It was the blood-curling scream of Leonard G. Favor that stopped me - stopped me cold like I’d been frozen in place.
Further into the alley, “a few doors down” like Dolly Parton would’ve sung, on the opposite side, were two more doors much like the one’s I’d just shut. Only, they were wide open. From within, Lenny was wailing. It sounded like he was being flayed alive.