I’d passed this two-story building a dozens of times when I was growing up. My family would pile into the station wagon and drive to the mountains of West Virginia to visit my mother’s family. It was a ritual we did several times every year. The building sat across from our motel and I would skip across the road to buy candy.
Now, however, the building has been abandoned for decades. I have come back to visit my siblings who ended up settling in the hills and the cousins and aunts and uncles and miscellaneous other distant family.
This time, however, I study the building with a frown in the setting sunlight.
Branches and limbs have grown through the concrete out front and a tree is growing inside the front window. I peer through the broken glass to study the shelving units drooping and the Coke machine that had faded in the slant of sunlight that comes through the windows nearby.
I back up and look at the painted brick walls and faded sign, vines growing up it and engulfing the side of the building as if nature is reclaiming the structure.
A car passes by slowly and someone glares at me. I’m used to that. The folks in these hills know an outsider when they see one. I slip around the building to the side, out of sight, and lean through a broken out window to inspect piles of clothing, clothing racks, chairs, a TV turned upside down. The smell is rank and stale, a mixture of mold, pine oils from a nearby tree and musty wet dust.
Then, I look around me. I can’t help it. An abandoned building, lots of weird archaeological finds…I love places that have been left as-is and possessions left to age and weather, rot and be claimed by the earth…
I step through the window and tug my jean leg loose from the nail sticking out and stumble right into a mirror propped up against a coat rack. I slip off the slick glass and fall onto a stack of books with an “oomph!” The wind is knocked right out of me.
When I turn my head, I realize that the side door was wide open right beside the window, had I walked a few feet more. No need to bruise my ribs. I dust myself off and tip toe over the piles of miscellaneous items from a hair dryer to a pile of clothing and then stop short in amazement. Someone has left tea cups on saucers and a hot plate near the wall.
I look around and then inspect the rotted box of biscuits nearby and look into the dirty dry cups. Whoever was squatting there was gone for some time.
I can’t help myself; I see the open door into the hall and have to climb through the clothing rack to check it out. I stumble through and find the hall completely empty. I am rather surprised by that find.
I walk the length of it, stopping in the doorways to look into rooms that are equally crammed with random things from tables to dishes, wrappers to bottles and cans. The moldy smell makes me sneeze several times and I study the origins of dripping water. It’s coming from the second story and not a really good sign of what’s upstairs.
The stairwell at the end draws my eyes, but I’m not certain about how stable the building is. I know it’s at least 30 years old, but I’m certain it’s more likely 50. Still, I figure I can test a step or two and see what it offers.
Just as I step onto the first stair, I look over into a huge room filled with junk, but not like the other rooms. This one is lined up as if someone was trying to sort through it or make sense of it.
I’m curious by nature, I have to explore.
So, I walk into the huge warehouse-like room and study the padded ground. Small beds are lined up, made of leftover clothing and some kind of sofa cushions. There are four of them in the room, all along the walls. I squint across the darkening room to see a shape and I gasp and duck back into the hallway, peering cautiously to see if the human figure moves.
It stays much too still to be a person.
I step back into the room and walk between piles of like items; backpacks in one row, fishing poles in another. It appears to me like some kind of crazy Dr. Seuss experiment. Then, my foot falls into a crack in the floor and I yank my sneakered foot from it in pain. My eyes settle on the mannequin figure. Someone has dressed it in a bikini and drawn an exaggerated smile on its face from a tube of lipstick in its hand. I run my fingers over the lipstick. It is hardened and dried on. The broken windows nearby are covered with the vines and the light of the day is almost all gone.
If I stay any longer, I will be there in the dark without light.
When I turn to walk away, something catches my eye. There is a cooler up against the wall. I open it up, afraid of rats or bugs pouring out of it, only to find icy sludge in the bottom of it and a six-pack of beers with one beer missing. I put my hand into the freezing water and a chill runs up my spine. I see a line of melted candles atop of a loose floorboard and a pack of matches.
It’s not the cold doing it.
Someone is staying there and considers this a home of sorts. I have just encroached on what looks like four adult’s home for the night.
When I spin around to leave, the stairs call to me. I wonder what’s up there, but I also wonder why water is dripping down below from above. That could mean a hole in the ceiling, weak floors…
But, I’ve come this far and if the people aren’t back at nighttime, then they are likely at the bar across the street on the riverfront.
Knowing I won’t try it a second time, I go up the stairs cautiously. They are stable and strong. It’s a good sign. I can barely see as I turn the corner up to the second set of stairs and then I see light. Not bright light, but lingering daylight. There is a hole in the ceiling. My eyes rivet to the room and realize that someone has over the years removed walls from the upstairs. A bathtub sits on the floor in the middle of an empty space. I walk over to it and look at the hole in the ceiling at the darkening sky. It appears that rain fills up the tub.
I lean over and watch as a leaf floats across the murky water. There is a bar of soap on the rim of the tub, worn down to a thin sliver.
Someone has been using this rain tub. There are towels across the space draped over the lower half of a half torn-out wall. I wonder at the person who can live in these conditions, especially in a mountain wintertime when it comes around.
Maybe this is just the summer home?
Afraid to test the floorboards, I go back downstairs. When I hit the bottom step, I hear voices. I stop and listen, holding my breath. I can hear them walking alongside the building and their voices coming through the broken windows. The hall is dark now and I creep down to the end of it, debating whether I can go back out the way I came in, which is where the people are, or if I should try to make my getaway through the front of the shop that opens onto the riverfront street.
When I hear shuffling in the “living room,” I realize the people are home for the night and I’m in their territory. I back up into the front room of the store. Outside the moonlight is starting to glow on the rushing river across the street. I hear the sounds from the bar and cars slowing down to pull up for a Saturday night of revelry.
A car pulls into the parking lot of the empty building and the headlights move across me in the large open room. I duck behind the bar counter and my mind races.
Could it be the cops? Some people joining the others?
The space I’m hiding in doesn’t provide much get-away. If someone entered through the broken windows of the store, they would walk right past me and if they looked down—there I’d be.
I will myself to become invisible.
Then, I hear the thumping bass of a radio in the car out front. It sounds like teens laughing and talking but the car is idling, the lights making the room so bright that if I try to leave, I will definitely be seen, not to mention this is my only way out at this point unless I want to disturb the squatters.
Minutes tick by, the radio booming, the voices rising up. Someone at the end of the hall doesn’t like it. He yells loudly and I realize at any time he could hike down the hallway to the front of the store and right past me. I tuck myself in against the wall, praying that with the lack of light I will become invisible. My fingers touch the counter and I realize I can scoot it slightly, able to drag it enough to remain hidden.
The occupant rushes the hallway, screaming like a maniac in a hillbilly dialect that I am not at all acquainted with; and I have heard them all. For a delirious minute, I want to giggle at how stupid this whole idea was and how I manage to get myself into these situations and how his voice sounds like some freaky rural Scottish dialect and not English.
He pounds the frame of the broken display window at the storefront and the horn on the car sounds a bunch of times. Laughter rises up and the car pulls out of the gravel driveway and takes off, leaving me completely in the dark with this angry redneck who is also territorial.
I force my mind away from “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Wrong Turn,” but I shiver anyways. One thing I know about panic is that once you let in a forbidden thought, it becomes a focus and obsession. Now, I can’t stop thinking of whether I’m going to end up in pieces packed into the cooler with the melting ice at the end of the night.
He hasn’t left the front room and I’m trying desperately to not sneeze, not cough, not make a sound of breathing. My knees are shaking wildly because I’m down on the balls of my feet and crouched, but if I try to resettle, he will hear me in the stillness, even with the country-western music playing in the bar across the street, the room is eerily still.
He paces the room and grumbles to himself and then I hear him pick up something and throw it, crashing the last bit of glass in the window.
When he races past me to the back of the building, I wait a time. I know that if I go soon, he will rush out thinking it was the teens again. I also know that without their radio blaring, he will hear me shuffle the bar aside to get out of my crouching spot.
It’s come to my realization that if I just shove it back and run, I only have 20 feet to go before I’m outside. I doubt the hillbilly with the weird dialect is going to chase me down into the bar across the way.
My desire to flee is stronger than my commonsense and I shove at the bar only to find there is something obstructing it and I have pushed it past that obstruction, causing it to fall forward. My arms flail to grab it back, but it collapses like a mighty earthquake with a dust cloud.
Now, I’m sprinting to the windows and the tiny light I see outside the door of the bar across the way. The redneck is in the hall and pounding the walls with something metallic.
As I vault out the window and into the gravel driveway, I realize my car is down the street at the Dairy Queen where I left it when I went for my stupid walk.
Breathlessly I pump my legs, not looking back, sprinting into the street and past the taxidermy shop with the creepy stuffed bear on its porch, past the smelly bait and tackle shop and then I realize two things:
There are no streetlights or cars and there is someone in the gravel chasing me still!
I fumble through my pocket as I gasp for air and pull out my keys and rush to click them into the door lock and get inside. The rental car is unfamiliar. I laugh hysterically out of fright at my ridiculous redneck chase scene and turn on the car, flicking on the lights and seeing him about 50 feet away with the iron bar in his hand. It looks like a towel rack. He's swaying and swinging it over his head as he hollers.
I feel safe now and secure, but still I wonder if he’ll come at the car with the weapon, so I turn and go the other direction back to the hotel.
NOTE: I still go into abandoned places, but now I make sure there aren’t squatters first. I start out by making plenty of warning sounds for them to come greet me outside instead of in. I look for signs of habitation that are current. I listen carefully for anyone approaching. And, I always bring someone as a guard and lookout.
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