Chapter 21: A Warehouse of Knowledge
She blinked, turned away, and looked again. A double take didn’t make the scene any more believable. This warehouse held more than the ghosts of a deceased business, it was a home to a community of the forgotten. She estimated thirty people had colonized the place.
Lilly flinched when the swinging doors tapped her on the butt and reminded her to move.
Four paces in she scooted to the side. Her foot crunched down.
“Watch it, girly! Thems my toes.”
“Oh! Sorry, sorry.”
She jumped over to an open area and waited for her heart to catch up to her feet. Bits of Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, and other packing materials littered the floor. Abandoned dumpsters overflowed. But her eyes popped when she saw the waxy faces of the residents.
The flames from the burning barrels cast an unhealthy saffron glow over the entire hidden community. She gulped.
Calmer, her eyes swept the building’s interior as her brain mapped the geography. Lilly looked up. Fuzzy thick cobwebs dangled, heavy with dust. Stray feathers from roosting birds created weird dream-catchers. Three stories overhead random sections of the corrugated metal roof were missing. The stars showed through. Puddles from last night’s rain shimmered with moonlight on unoccupied sections of the concrete floor.
Catwalks framed all four walls. The only access to the upper levels was from the steel stairs near where Lilly stood. The grid work dangled from its moorings like splintered bones. Several sections had completely collapsed, others poked out at odd angles.
Chains, some as thick as a man’s arm, hung over pulleys attached to the iron beams spanning the building’s width. A pigeon landed on a dangling hook. It swayed and Lilly felt a shiver snake down her spine.
Flimsy shacks dotted every inch of available floor space. Their plastic and cardboard walls gave little privacy but did bring a small measure of order out of chaos. The residents had created a crude version of sidewalks between each dwelling that allowed tenants to come and go without invading each other’s territory.
Going ‘off road’ Lilly stumbled into an old man’s shelter and was greeted with a hand shaking a lead pipe. A couple more ‘no-trespassing’ glowers from other residents and she was careful to stay on the path.
‘Homes’ backed up to three of the four warehouse walls. The fourth wall opposite the entrance was unfit for constructions. Straw-filled crates, splintered wooden pallets, shredded clothes, spoiled food, plastic, paper, discarded furniture, and other human wastes was piled high and deep.
The mounds covered a third of the floor space. Vermin, all shapes, and species, free ranged over the sprawling mountain of rubbish. Hungry mosquitoes and juicy fat black flies buzzed in concert.
Lilly watched as a small boy walked over to the garbage heap and kicked a stray tin can onto the pile. When rats ran out, he unzipped his pants and peed on them. The kid giggled. The rodents scattered, dodging the yellow stream. It looked to Lilly like both the boy and the rats enjoyed the game.
How do people live like this? The stench coated the inside of her nostrils. Chichi, where are you? She had no more formed the thought when she heard his voice but couldn’t make out the words.
He’s over there by the burning barrels.
She swallowed hard and hurried along the crooked path toward the dancing flames.
Even at this late hour many residents were awake visiting with neighbors. The scarred, unshaven faces of men made ghoulish by the blaze brought her to a halt. Before revealing herself, she slid behind a dumpster and checked each man to see if her dad was among them.
She did not see her dad but one of the homeless was wearing his long coat. What had happened?
Lilly pulled on the neck of her hoodie as if it was tight.
The men exchanged money for something—maybe drugs? Maybe a drug dealer owned that fancy SUV?
Her heart raced. This was no longer a contest of wills between father and daughter. She was in trouble.
The flames pulsated. A bleak puppet show played on the walls. Misshapen silhouettes skittered around her. The hairs on Lilly’s arms stood erect.
Weaving around and between the locals, Lilly retreated. Where was her dad? She had heard him and that man had his coat. Could he be hurt? Dragged inside one of these shelters?
Laughter cut through the gloom. It came from behind her. Lilly twisted around to investigate and was pushed back by a stampede of children.
A woman, large silver crucifix swinging, wearing a knee-length navy blue dress, heavy stockings, ugly shoes, and the short black veil of a nun called out to the children. “Come and get it!”
Like hungry chipmunks, small ragged bodies emerged from the shacks. The nun had her back to Lilly. Still it didn’t take long to realize she was passing out the makings for s’mores. Little fingers snatched up the treats as fast as the nun pulled them out of the bag. Laughing and bumping into people including Lilly, the children ran to the barrels to toast their marshmallows.
“Bless us Father as we minister to the poor…”
Thank heavens. She was flooded with relief. Lilly couldn’t hear the rest of the nun’s prayer; it was drowned out by the children’s giggles. The nun crossed herself and ran to the barrels with the kids. Well, if a nun can come here it must not be all that dangerous.
But still…a nun alone in Liberty Square at this late hour? She was either very brave or very stupid.
It was then that Lilly saw the white collar of a priest near the entrance.
“Ah, they are together. I’ll be okay.”
The priest seemed to be working his way from shelter to shelter. It all made sense. The nun and the priest were a team and these people their flock.
She set her spine. Seeing that man in her dad’s coat made it more important than ever to find him, but at least now she had an angelic back-up team.
She eased around a lawn chair stacked high with redeemable plastic bottles. She had seen many backpacks and carts full of similar recyclables. She leaned down to get a better look inside a shelter. It reeked of ammonia, feces, booze, and body odor. Her eyes burned. No dad.
The sluggish overheated air was glue for all things rotten. She imagined the smell stuck to her clothes and skin.
She moved on.
The garbage heap was the halfway point. Reaching it she realized there wasn’t much to sort through that would hide an adult. The few refrigerator-sized cardboard boxes that might hide a grown man had been crushed.
She prepared to walk on when she saw the nun was a few hovels in front of her. Determined to introduce herself she took a half step and was pulled down into a shelter. She squealed before seeing it was full of children.
They barked with laughter and munched their s’mores.
One very thin boy, maybe six years old, his jeans and shirt no more than rags, climbed onto her lap. There was no time to stand and escape. He laid his head on her shoulder, and looked up at her with the smiling eyes of a leprechaun. His thick lashed sapphire blue eyes were huge. He hugged her close.
She gently pushed free.
He refused to release her. “Pretty lady.” A dirty hand reached up to her with an offering. Uncurling his fingers, he presented a sticky snack.
“No,” said Lilly repelled by his filthy state. “Let me go. Go to your family.” On hands and knees she backed out of the shelter and bumped into a mother holding a baby. “Is this one yours too?” The blue-eyed boy had followed and reattached.
“No and watch it, sister.” With a slight nod she whipped her beautiful long red hair back out of her face. A second child clung to her pink gauze skirt. The little girl played peek-a-boo with the baby.
“Mama.” The little boy wrapped his arms around Lilly’s legs.
Prying him loose, she hurried to create distance between them. It was then that she was struck by the dismal situation. It never before entered her mind that children could be homeless. She spied the corner of a box, the Game of Life. It poked out from under a tarp. These kids were much like other children, finding joy where they could in spite of their living conditions. There are so many. She regretted her treatment of the blue-eyed boy and waved him over.
“Pretty lady.” He petted her face. “Mama?”
Sad blues tugged at her heart. “No. Oh, no. I am not equipped to care for you.” She was too quick to deny him. His chin hit his chest.
“Sorry. I am so sorry.”
Again, he offered to share his precious marshmallow. “For pretty lady.”
“I wish you would stop saying that. I am not pretty.”
She looked around for someone to rescue her. Take the boy. She saw his hand was still clenched.
“Eat pretty lady?”
“Um…okay. Thank you.”
He grinned and watched her.
Lilly gagged but managed to swallow it. He clapped for joy. She patted his head. Her fingertips smoothed his dirty cheek.
“Now go, please.”
He plucked an aluminum ring, the pull-tab of a soda can, off his index finger, and held it out to her. A red flower made from a twist tie was hooked in the center.
“That’s beautiful.” He held it out to her. “Oh, no. You keep it.”
An older boy, close to her own age, appeared, and picked up the child. “It’s late. Bedtime. Come on, bro.”
“He’s your brother?”
“Not really. But close as he’s got. Come on, Billy.” He threw him over his shoulder playfully. Billy wailed and reached for Lilly.
“Is he all right?”
“Sure. Sorry if he bothered you.” Billy squirmed. The older boy ignored him. They disappeared into a lean-to.
She moved on, couldn’t look back. Around the side of the dumpster she was forced to veer off the path. A French poodle big, black, and skeletal blocked the way. A child’s pink clip-on bow dangled from the dog’s kinky topknot. It was a pet suited for a ghost story.
The dog sniffed, opened one eye, and yipped.
The owner’s veined hand came out from under a sleeping bag and patted the dog’s head. He made hushing sounds and the dog lay down. Lilly walked around him to get onto the path.
She fidgeted with a few strands of hair and for the first time weighed the possibility of not finding her dad.
How would she get home? Sobs, grunts, and the incoherent ramblings chilled her bones. Someone giggled, another cried, a child laughed, and people argued. The cacophony left her frightened and desperate to find the priest or the nun. She needed help.
Out of the darkness a voice boomed above the rest.
“I’ll kill you first! Kill you.”
Lilly froze. She had found her dad.