Billy found the keys in his dad’s truck one day, shortly after they shuttered the kitchen store and the place that once sold bargain books. His dad had changed light fixtures, mended walls, and tightened pipes for five years, but without the tenants, the building no longer needed maintenance. Searching for work at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, he didn’t miss the keys. Not until later.
So the mall was abandoned, a playground in which our imaginations touched other places.
We rode our bikes after school and stashed them out back, in the high grass just off the trail near the railroad tracks behind the building. Billy was always eager to go on nights his mom worked late. We first entered the dark spaces while the world shed her summer greens for the browns and tans of fall, the dingy grey of winter lurking behind the turn of the calendar.
The game was Billy’s idea.
We built a circular wall of boxes in the storeroom of one of the anchors to the mall, the largest building on the south end. In our circle, our sanctuary, we told stories, we pushed our imaginations to the blackened corners to flirt with spiders and dust. Our stories grew arms and legs, fingers and eyes; they flickered just past our musty cardboard fortress. Our flashlights inspired stacks of empty boxes to cast shadows of strange cities on the walls. Games of chicken hung on who could bear the darkness the longest, who could leave his flashlight off in the dead, empty space.
We made monsters, and Billy was the best.
Maybe his father was the inspiration: the rasping, liquor-tainted voice, scuffed knuckles, and glassy glare. Maybe Billy saw something different through the bruises around his eyes. Maybe he found something in the worry lining his mother’s face. Billy’s beasts crawled out of the darkness and ran their stunted claws over the cardboard boxes on the outer ring of that wall, sending a twist of delightful terror into my bones. Gabe’s expression echoed mine, both of us pale and contorted, hanging on Billy’s voice.
A tiny voice, really.
Lost and afraid.
We heard the sirens, Gabe and I, one night just after supper. We met in the street, both of us all wide eyes and whispering mouths. My guts could have been ice, frozen and scooped by the shovel load from my aching chest. The sirens came from three blocks down, police and ambulance, together.
“You think it’s Billy’s place?” Gabe asked, breathless.
We’d planned to meet again that night, all three of us, and perfect our tales. We’d planned to go together into the darkness of the old mall, flashlights in hand, creeping through the silence, lonesomeness of the place. Billy had promised mystery that night.
At his house, lights from the police cruisers and ambulance chopped the night into tiny bits. Billy’s dad leaned face down on a police cruiser, hands cuffed behind him. The paramedics wheeled another body down the concrete steps, thump, thump, thump. I searched the crowd for our friend.
Gabe looked at me.
The October air numbed my cheeks and my hands, frosting my heart while it hammered against my ribs. I felt every bump, every jostle of the pocked asphalt in the streets, the grass that snapped against my legs as we arrived behind the building. We rode through the dark at other times, but never with so much fire, so much recklessness.
Panting, Gabe and I found one service entrance open, the key still in the lock. Neither of us had brought a light.
We staggered into the darkness, the abyss, Billy’s world, groping against the painted cinderblock walls. We stumbled toward the end of the line, the big storeroom, our ring fortress of empty cardboard and stories. A single, stationary light reflected on the ceiling, casting square shadows in looming distortion.
“Billy?” Gabe’s voice was a tiny thing, prey swallowed by the predator darkness.
I followed the glow and found Billy’s flashlight on the floor next to a crumpled pile of his clothes. Our friend was gone, naked and alone into the other places. We knew. On his words, the shadows had swallowed him. He’d joined them.
Billy’s face was printed in the paper, and they spoke of him on the evening news for weeks.
The smaller minds called him a runaway, just another missing boy. All too common.
Gabe and I knew the truth. We had heard the tap of claws on cardboard and tasted the frosty air from Billy’s words. We lived his world in that dark, lonesome place.
Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar. He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and even a book of lullabies for baby vampires.