“Write something stupid, then, you little” – she stopped herself, by gritting her artificially grinned teeth. So hard that white dust rubbed off like it was sandpaper. The other women in the room looked at her, then at me. But I was already out the door.
All I had asked is what she thought I should write. I slunked away, with my bundle of recycled paper in hand. On the backsides were blueprint drawings, from whatever beauty product they were making. The blueprints were of the packaging, but that was the most important part. The ones I held now seemed to show a gleaming plastic reversed teardrop, floating up to you from your vanity countertop, always ready to dispense a gleaming fluid of marketed immortality. My mom continued her wordless silent conversation behind the large glass panels and doors, to the other 40-something executives huddled around her. Her angry eyes were polished wet and beautifully, like a shoe freshly spit at. I turned the corner into the warehouse floor of lower, lesser cubicles. I didn’t know the titles — how could I, I was six — but I knew these people here were lesser, because they acted lesser, because they thought of themselves as lesser; their backs were always curved. Even though the cubicle walls were low, they all hunched themselves over to make their necks fit underneath that invisible roof, even the tall men. They must get arthritis, and have to crack their necks.
Johnny poked his head out from the corner as I rounded it. He must have heard me coming. Small footsteps, he always said. Johnny had a bright smile like a kindergartener, matched with weary eyes set behind a weathered face. His face was like leather, itched by wrinkles like cracking glass. He was bald. His eyes were bright and beaming blue, like the sky lit up from behind. He grinned rubber, and made his customary joke, “Tough day at the office?” He outstretched from his small cubicle like it was a minuscule clown car. He towered above them, above me. He was gaunt and skinny. His arms draped themselves in a white shirt, buttoned to the absolute top with no tie. His silver whiskers shook and crumpled. His wrists were large; they held the billowing fabric in place. His fingers large, long and exaggerated, with knuckles like plums.
“What’s she working on this time?”
“The same: work.”
Johnny made a big laugh that he forced from a small one. It still made me smile, even though I recognized it.
“I’ll tell her to go easy on you…”
“…and I’ll tell her to go to easy on you.”
He laid down in his hand in our spit shake motion. We did it, but only in mime.
“What else to do?” He asked,
“I’ll just explore a bit.”
He slunked back to his desk, buttoning his long limbs behind his chair, like they would stab out like pistons, like an umbrella snapping, as soon as he let them go. “Okay. Just don’t go too far to the back edge, to the basement.”
The basement. I didn’t know they had a basement.
To a child, an office building might as well be a theme park, if left properly unsupervised and if not taken to a theme park first. They are not wrong in their assessment, because of where they are looking. It is a wonder so many of us see past it, everyday.
I paraded past the secretary. She was beaming, she had to be, “Hi kiddo!” I waved. She was perky. Her lips and cheeks were like a doll’s, I thought, in that they were permanently drawn up in a painful smile. If I pushed them, they wouldn’t go back down; my finger would pop first through the skin, the porcelain or the plastic. Whatever thin and hard vacuformed thing it was. “Where you going?” A little more concerned. She had to care, I was the boss’s kid. “Around,” I swung around the corner, but paused before thundering down the stairs. They were right there; the blackness swallowed them up right beyond that small opening, one step at a time. But she would come after me. I spun back, and perked up my own smile, “Exploring.” She smiled back, assured that she had marked her insurance check box with appropriate due diligence, “Have fun.” I rolled my eyes a bit at her. She wasn’t nice to me, she just pretended to be. I had a feeling that she wouldn’t be a good baby sitter. She would pretend too hard to be one. And maybe too hard to be a mother too. She didn’t really like kids at all, you could see it in her smile, and her eyes, and the way she held her fingers above whatever she was giving to me, like she was dropping a Kleenex in the garbage can. She didn’t like kids, she just had to.
I did thunder down the steps, rounded the corner. This was only the first floor, the semi-basement, the cut out of the offices where they sat in the hill. Inventory. That’s what the adults said. Long lines of endless steel shelves. She had taken me to the fair a few weeks ago. At the fair, the railings, like the ones on stairs, were just on the ground. To tell people which way to go, they said. That seemed like a maze; but one very easy to solve, because it all only pointed in one direction. Where did these ones go? I ran my fingers along. Little cardboard fibres gave me invisible slivers that felt more like tickles. They dried out my fingertips, running down the cardboard boxes. Exiterea was marked along the sides of them, in black. A woman’s smiling, winking face, well made up, but distorted, since it was all only black. There were some binders on other shelves. Samples? Color swatches. Stuff from manufacturers, whatever that meant. Did they make their own makeup, or did they just keep it here? I went back and forth through the shelves. They curved around each other in L-shapes. Soon I could only see shelves. The ceiling was small behind the tops of the shelves; the lights towered above, and flickered, and sometimes parted to make a new fluorescent strip, but they were all the same. I went back through the shelves, and then forward. I wasn’t sure which one was which. I ran my fingers along the boxes, and tried to tell them apart, but they were all the same.
How could a place be this big? The whole city didn’t seem this big! Where could it go? It wasn’t something I could solve, just find, because it all went one way. I grabbed the shelf surface with my fingers. The metal was cool, a little wet even, against them. I traced my way along. If I found where I came from, I would just have to go back the other way. Weird mechanical noises rumbled from the ceiling. Where must they be coming from? They were supposed to be seated above it all.
After fifteen turns I was back at a doorway. It looked just like the one the stairs came through except now it had a door in it. I opened it, hoping I wouldn’t see stairs on the other side; or at least, stairs going up. These ones went down, and looked nearly the same, like they were mirrored from what I had seen before. I touched my own face, thinking for a second that could somehow tell me if I was in a mirror; if I was just the version of myself I had said goodbye to after I brushed my teeth this morning.
I might as well walk down. If it was a mirror, which seemed to make sense, I might wind up right back where I started.
Up many stairs from the little boys’ head, the office was thinning out. The hourly employees were forced to go at first, and, ironically, the salaried ones were tied to their styrofoam cubicle walls a bit longer, by the unbreakable weight of appearances. The sun hung low outside, winking through the few windows. Mrs. Fleason exited her glass cube, rubbing her eyes not so much with sleeplessness but with fury, and paraded her sharp heels down the grimy office carpet. Why was office carpet always grimy? Why do they always put carpets in offices?
At first she checked the leather couch around the corner and behind the printer from her perch in glass. He was not there. She darted her high, wobbling head on wobbling heels through hallways and down into the tops of the low-hanging cubicles. He was not there. “Joe?” She always got it wrong; so much so that he stopped correcting her. She must do it, he thought, because Joe is a more regular, more small sounding name than Johnny. Johnny sounds happy, which is why he chose it. He knew to answer: “Yes?”
“You chat with him sometimes. You know where he’s hiding?”
“He said he would go exploring around,” Johnny’s face was decidedly more tired, and, barred from any smile, looked now more like a tumbleweed.
“Christ,” the mother walked away, muttering to herself, “I’ll have to go through all this place finding him and…. Sarah!” The secretary, a few dozen feet off, cringed at the shrill call and expectation of some new and awful task. Johnny hung his large head in his large hands, perched like a bird over his small twig body, and shuddered his eye lids and brows, for other reasons. Had it happened?
The stairs took me lower. I could tell it was lower, because this room had no windows. So either it was further inside this big hulking building, or lower, and that was all the same. But it also smelled lower; it was drenched in a smell of dust, and that special smell of old things in the cold room at grandpa’s house. The ceiling looked like the underside of the dirt, the underside of the grass, far above me. This whole room was drenched in yellow. It must be cast out from the lazy bulbs, but it was so strong that it looked like everything had always been, was designed to be, yellow. The carpet was dirtier; the walls had water stains on them. The floor was checkered in little patterns that were so dense and dark they almost hid the numerous spills. But oddest of all, there was nothing in the room. So it was not also storage, I thought to myself. I thought of so many possibilities: was this a murder room? A secret lab? A holding area, for the frankensteins they tested blush on? But no, even though all of those seemed quite plausible, this room seemed too boring for any of them. That was more painful; it was just too normal. Too normal to be anything.
The only other discerning feature in the room was a door, the same kind of a door, on the other side. It was hauntingly mirror like; the door behind me opened on the right, this one on its right, approaching from the other side. The room was a cube, the same on the diagonal, as if one side had been drawn and made, and the other side simply copied. Copied, poorly, an obvious fake, as soon as I walked into the room. Walked in to… it was folding out for me, and
If this room was this boring, surely it must just be an entryway for something more exciting. I went further.
The cool shoe polish mascara was for once showing holes and nicks; nicks in the eyelids themselves, nicks in the facade and the real. The slightness of tears had stained them, had caused them to bleed through the paper thin lid skin worn out from long hours awake and staring at work one foot in front of her. “Where is he?”
I wandered feet tumbling onto the next room, full of the same grimy carpet. I wanted to pull away my shoes. When the laces became frayed, I did not stoop to tie them; who knew what was in this carpet, that looked like it had decayed over a hundred years? It was a cube, I was in the inside of a math class, full of the same room, as if printed on all sides. If anything, the grime spots and stains on the carpet were illuminated, were more vivid and bright, like spilt blood. Lit up by a solitary sign up and to the left, at neither of the doors, but positioned in the room in general. It was an Exit sign, red and fluorescent block letters, but now stretched out to contain the word Last hovering above it. Like the small signs at the carnival in the snaking rows of wrought iron queues: Last Exist, the last chance to leave before you’d have to go on the ride. Would the people at the front, the teenage kids with pimples and stollen cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, really make you go on if you started crying? It only stood hovering above the blank wall. As always, no one — nothing — else would give me the answers. I rushed over to it, and ran my fingers down the peeling wallpaper. It had a grit to it, grooves in it, like sandpaper with fingerprints. There was nothing; no platform and three quarters openings. Last Exit. It boded ominously. It brought a stench to the room, glowing like a black light and bringing out the stains on the square floor, which looked like they were dancing. Dancing on the already muddied and chopped pattern.
He tapped his feet wearily in front, one after the other. The rug, the floor, was a swimming sea. He could not tell where was solid to put down his steps. He stumbled. The stains, he realized, were mirrored, drawn, created on the diagonal like a Rorschach card. He looked at the sign. It flickered, casting a lighted silhouette against the dark ceiling. He wanted to turn back, only: he could not remember which door, of the identical two, was the one he had come in.
Johnny told the mother that he would walk down the block the opposite direction, hanging the posters they had hastily made at the copier bearing the label Missing Child after the police had been briefly and skeptically informed. The secretary was long gone. At the exit to the door, he lingered a longing stare at the adjacent opening, stairs sinking to a lower level. Was he there? How could he have been sure? He frowned to himself. Not for what he had done but… if he himself had been misled.
He did set off the opposite way. He saw the lazy outline of the woman treading down in gleaming heels, in the snow, sinking away from him block after block. He clung the posters beneath his arm, passing many lampposts and bare brick walls without a second glance. They got dirtier as the blocks took him to the seedier parts of town; to home.
Something had gone wrong; he had made the wrong decision. Still, only fifty fifty it was blind. And he had intuition, subconscious memory in his favour: how had he found himself here? In a final room, there was only one door in the cube. The room was much darker, the door unopened; not the way he had come, and yet: how had he come in? There was only one direction to go: into the further yellowing and dampening subterranean haze, like the air itself was filling up with dirt. Like the world itself was wearing out as an old photograph.
He still had crumpled recycling papers in his back toddler-sized pocket. At some point he sat, in one of the mazing interlocking rooms that all looked the same; he sat and took them out, and tried to scribble down a note. Maybe there was somebody else who could find it. Or maybe he could follow them out like breadcrumbs. It was better than nothing. It was kind of fun. And he did not feel hungry anytime soon.
He came to another room. Each room had grown darker, more tinges yellow, like more and more layers of transparent tape were pinned to his eyes as he stepped in further. He could see less and less. Still a taller, darker figure lingered in the corner. At first it slithered away, behind the turning of the steel shelves, the wallpapered walls, peeling, as if it was shy or afraid of him. Though he was scared, this pull drug the boy further in towards it; pulled him with an electromagnetic curiosity. He could see only the last glimmers — the long leg, the arm of the shadow — get drawn behind and away from him at each turn. He padded a step at a time on silent feet; the walls, the ceiling, the tops of the shelves towered above him. Unseeable, they were lost in an ether or void up there. The black heel nicked behind a final corner. He closed in: turning, there was nowhere left for the tall figure to slither to. The boy wanted tom turn around, but, perhaps knowing nothing was behind him, felt a pull drawing him forward. Bringing the figure into view. Reeling him in like a fishing line? The boy shuddered down his spine at the thoughts, tried to step out of the dance toward. But he found he could not move his feet any direction but front ways. The shadow turned into a man; ambiguous black to ghastly, corpsely white. A tall, battered, bruised man. Trying desperately to make himself shorter at the site of the child; folding his long arms and legs and fingers, their own limbs, inward. Bowing his bald head which caught and reflected the lost specks of lights, crawling all around, trying to fly their way out of the oppressive room like moths with minds of their own; the blackness and lightness swirled on the head of this man. Until he lifted it, and let him in on his eyes. His cutting blue eyes, set behind weary lids, weary bags. Set behind a slowly offered weary smile. “Johnny?”
At first I was confused. “Johnny!” I shouted at him, ran towards him to hug him with excitement. Here he was! Here he was! If he hadn’t found me I had found him. I was no longer lost. But when he flinched, drew his long grandfatherly praying mantis body further into the splintering wall, my eyes dropped. “Johnny…” something was wrong, “Where are we?” I asked because I felt he knew. He knew. And he was keeping it from me.
“I don’t know just as well as you, kid,” his smiled faded to an uncertain point, quivering lip chewing at imaginary nails. “No,” I said. It was all I had to say; it was true. “No, you do…”
He straightened his back, his limbs. His shirt poured off of him. He towered above me, and now I found myself flinching back, stepping back, even, to make way for this enormous beast of a man. Still somehow thing and delicate; like a creature made from iron nails. Hard, imposing. “I didn’t know,” he at first boomed, angrily, but retreated. His voice ran into itself. It wavered. He sounded as though he might cry. He repeated, “I didn’t know.” His voice was quieter, farther. “I thought,” he smiled, maniacally. Impossibly, “I thought we could have fun? Have fun, you know, kiddo?” His voice was pleading with himself just as it was pleading with me. I backed up. I found my back pressed against cold slats of metals; the shelves, but they felt like prison bars. They had left up into the blank space right behind me. “I thought we could have fun, you know? Your mom… your mom is always nagging you, huh? Isn’t she?” He laughed to himself. It started as a small forced chuckle, like he would make at my jokes to show good faith. But it slipped away from itself; cackling, coughing, erupting from his throat with a phlegmy hoarseness and uncontrolled rhythm. “She’s always on me. Huh? Huh! They’re always, they’re always on all of us,” He went into a fit of laughter again. He was walking closer, towards me now. But I had nowhere to go. “Don’t you like being with your old pal Johnny huh? Well now we can be down here, together, forever! You can be a kid your whole life! You don’t have to worry about anything down here.”
“Where are we Johnny.”
“That’s just the point!” He grinned wide, stepping closer, eyes burning an electric arc,
“That’s just the point kiddo! I have no idea! We’re nowhere, see? Nowhere! Look at this place! Look at it! It’s nothing. Nothing at all. It’s a story I heard. I heard it over and over, but the first time back, all the way back, when I was just as old as you,” my eyes were darting through the endless twists and turns of the metal shelves, seeking for a way out of the wallpaper and plywood and dingy carpet bubbling black. But I hadn’t found a way out yet; only forward. Where else was there to go?
“It was a legend, huh. Well not likely! Turns out it’s true. It’s all like this. Under every belly of every basement, behind all those locked maintenance doors. Where do those go? What do they mean? It’s a trick! There’s nothing there, nothing! Oh but it’s something: it’s where we are right now. All that city, it’s the tip of the iceberg. This is what what’s real. It’s true! If you go far enough into the back, grey storerooms, you don’t come out!”