By Natty Soltesz
West Virginia summers were always green, but it had been two years now since we’d been on our own, and Deep Hollow was positively choked with it. Green was overtaking all the houses, and ours was no exception. Vines had started to creep under the back door.
We’d found a whole stack of clean blankets and sheets when we first found the house on Spring Street, and a good stock of canned food and water. But all of it was gone now, and the towels were just as filthy as the rest of the place. So I suggested to Haley that it was time to move to the west side of town.
“That’s where everybody else is, anyway,” I said. Haley got an anxious look on her face. She put down her magazine – Vogue, with a water-crinkled cover.
“What about all my clothes? I can’t even imagine moving all of this stuff.”
“Just leave it here! It’s only like a fifteen minute walk over to where Donovan and those guys are. I mean, this whole house can be our personal closet, if we want. We can take our time moving it.” Because, I didn’t add, we had all the time in the world. Nothing but time, really.
I walked down the street to the rancid market (as Haley had dubbed it, due to the stench from rotting vegetables that were melting on the shelves during the first year) and found a pallet on wheels that we could use to transport the generator.
I took the long way back home, past the old junior high school. A dark, stone building, it loomed imposingly above the road.
I heard a voice call “Hey!” It was Timmy, waving at me from a window.
“Come up, man! Come check out my place!”
“Okay,” I said, but I hesitated. The junior high school building had always kind of creeped me out. All those shiny dark hallways; the huge, echoing auditorium. Just the thought of the dusty basement gymnasium and the locker rooms where I’d once changed for gym class made me shiver. I took a deep breath, and ascended the steps.
It was quiet when I entered, but the wind whooshing down the hall had a voice of its own. I felt dizzy, like I was entering a past life.
“Timmy?” I called out. For a minute my voice just hung there, racing down the halls like a ghost.
He had made his home in one of the classrooms on the second floor. I had to admit, it didn’t look so bad. He’d hung all kinds of posters and cool stuff on the walls and had put a bed in the middle. He was making bongs out of chemistry equipment and there were some half-finished ones on the teacher’s desk.
“Doesn’t it creep you out to be here at night?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep in a place that had a hundred empty rooms. Timmy just smiled.
“Sometimes I’m sure I hear people,” he said. “You know the teacher’s lounge on the fourth floor?”
I did. It was the only thing on the fourth floor, the highest and deepest point of the building. It wasn’t really a floor at all. A flight of steps from the third level just stopped at a tiny green room, where the teachers used to smoke.
“I don’t ever go in there, man,” Timmy said. “I try to avoid the third floor, too, actually. I only go up there if I absolutely have to.” He said he was growing pot on the roof, and his favorite thing to do was to smoke it in the principal’s office.
“We’re moving, if you want to come help us. We’re trying to get this one house near Donovan’s place,” I said. Timmy perked up. I always thought he might have had a thing for Haley, but he was too shy, and I supposed Haley just hadn’t noticed him yet.
Timmy threw a chemistry bong in his knapsack and I all but bolted for the door. I only felt better when the place was out of my sight.
I told Timmy my theory about how buildings retain the souls of the people who have lived in them, how they become their own entity.
“You know those storage spaces on Rt. 428?” Timmy asked.
“The ones with all the orange doors?”
“Yeah. Has it been tapped yet?”
“I don’t think so. We could hit that up on our way, maybe get some stuff for the new place.”
“Yeah. There could be anything in those storage spaces. Little capsules of people’s entire lives.”
When we got home Haley had made some mac & cheese with tuna, so we all sat down and ate. Timmy said hi to her, but for the most part they pretended not to notice each other. I thought that was kind of sweet.
“I guess I’m all packed up,” she said. “I guess.”
When we left the sun was getting lower in the sky. The world sure looked beautiful that way. It always made me feel strange but comforted. We walked down the middle of the sun-dappled road in a procession, the green trees high above.
We got to the mini-storage place and set our stuff down in the parking lot. I looked down the row at all these spaces, all these lives that I would never lead. I got this feeling, sad and nostalgic. It had something to do with the dying afternoon sun. It was a heavy feeling and I stood with it.
It was twilight when we ran into Donovan and his friends skateboarding underneath the railroad overpass. At first I just saw his friends, grinding against the concrete ledges that separated the sidewalk from the street. Those boys always made me feel a little uncomfortable. But they just nodded at us, and Haley and Tim went right up to them and started talking.
Donovan was sitting on one ledge, his close-cropped head silhouetted against the purple darkening sky, the orange cherry of his cigarette floating over the bottom half of his face.
“What brings you guys over here?” Donovan said, engaging my hand in a complex shake that I awkwardly tried to follow. He took a drag off of his cigarette. I could see his face better now that I was close, his soft eyes and handsome jawline. He glanced at the pallet. “Moving?”
“Yeah, Haley and I. The Spring Street house was getting too run down.”
“You know there’s a place on Walnut – the old Palmer place. Ron and I were just there the other day. It’s pretty sweet – working fireplace, or good enough to where we could get it working. Wine in the cellar. We took a couple bottles but there’s a bunch left.”
“That sounds good…”
“Plus it’s right down the street from me. It’ll be nice to have you guys around – it’s like we never see each other.”
I heard Haley laughing and I glanced back. The boys were hovering around her. Tim had borrowed somebody’s board and was trying to do an ollie. The boys were smiling and so was Haley and I was hit with how long it had been since I’d seen her relaxed. I knew we’d made the right decision.
That was the best summer of my life, or at least since we’d been on our own. All through July things blossomed and grew. Tim and Haley got closer; he all but moved in with us and left the school building to its own devices, moving his pot plants to the woods of the old playground behind our new house.
Because we were by the playground we’d sometimes see the younger kids, and the older girls who’d sort of adopted them. I liked having kids around and so did Haley. She’d invite them up to the house.
We organized huge block parties, people would come from all over town. We’d stay out all night playing release, building campfires out in the woods, and setting off fireworks.
Donovan would often mention journeying to the city. He said it would be good to find out what was out there. Plus we were running out of gas for the generators, and we needed to act.
We put it off until September, when the weather started to cool and we couldn’t avoid it any longer. We woke up early one morning and just decided to go. We wrote a note in chalk on the street and left by way of our backyard, which led to the path beside the river.
The path ambled between the river and the railroad tracks, through the unknown and barely-seen backyards of other towns like Deep Hollow, all rough and weedy and hiding rusty swing sets and dead cars on blocks. We saw a few faces poking out of windows and backdoors but nobody greeted us.
Late that evening after we’d been walking all day we found a string of abandoned rail cars sitting on the tracks. There were a few coal cars but the last car was white, made of fiberglass. I’d never seen anything like it. It looked like a refrigerator car or something.
There was a ladder and Donovan climbed up the side. He lifted a hatch in the top and looked it. Then he turned to me, giving me the strangest look.
“You’re not gonna believe this,” he said. He dropped into the car and I climbed up to see. Inside was a room, a bedroom. The walls were painted a warm off-white. There was soft carpeting on the floor, a bed on one side complete with pink bedspread and a pillow; a dresser next to the corner with a lamp on top of it. There was another ladder leading down in. Donovan tried the lamp. It turned on.
“Battery operated?” I said. I took one last look at the darkening night sky, the trees rustling in the breeze, then I dropped in. The place felt instantly comfortable; it smelled like sheets hung out in the sun.
“Magic-operated,” Donovan said with a grin. He opened the top dresser drawer. “Money,” he said. The drawer was filled with twenties, rolled and crushed up and stuffed inside. He opened the next one. It was filled with nightgowns and underwear, all clean and folded. The last drawer had nothing but a little round stuffed thing, a pillow the size of a coin. It was a dark and brilliant red, a smooth rounded disc with a divot in the center.
“A red blood cell,” I said, and knew Donovan had been thinking the same thing.
“Wonders never cease,” he said, laughing as I put it in my pocket.
We slept there, the night air flowing down from the hatch and swirling through the sheet. I slept amazingly – no dreams.
But when I woke up we were moving. Donovan was on the ladder with his head sticking outside. He waved to somebody.
“What is it?”
“It’s another train; they’re hooking on to us. Hey!” he called out. I heard a response but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“They’re from the city,” Donovan said when he went back inside. We were rumbling along at a clip. “They were picking up these cars anyway. They said we could ride along. They seemed cool.”
“What did they look like?”
“Strange. Kinda grungy. But friendly.” I climbed the ladder to see for myself. There was an even longer line of cars ahead of us now, and kids were hanging off the sides of them, wearing dark clothes and bandanas and sporting dirty hair and piercings and stuff.
As we neared the city the sky got darker and the river got wider. We started passing factories and old smoke-stained buildings. Along the river were huge heaps of slag and leftover metal parts. The city kids were everywhere, picking through it, hauling some of it with construction vehicles.
We rounded a bend and I saw the city skyline. But what I saw straight ahead shook me to the core. There was a huge metal beast rising into the air, at least fifty feet from the ground. I must have gasped because Donovan squeezed past me and stuck his head out next to mine.
“They must have built it,” he said. It had thick pipe arms that draped down to the ground, holes where its eyes should have been and a lifeless face.
“Why would they want to build something like that?” I said. Donovan didn’t respond. I guess I knew the answer.
The train slowed and we got out. The kids were friendly enough, but also distant in a way. You could tell they were caught up in their pursuits, and it was pretty amazing and overwhelming. They were working as one, creating a vast menagerie of these metal beasts. Most were smaller but no less fierce, all of them battling in the wasteland of the industrial riverside.
We asked a dread-headed kid where we could get some food and he pointed to a large house clinging to the hillside. We climbed up a steep rambling row of concrete steps to get to the top. The house was full of kids eating cafeteria style. The food was good, grains and vegetables. I gave the red blood cell pillow to one of the girls serving the food. She had dark hair and a sweet face but there was a toughness and solidity to her. She softened as she looked at it, held it to her heart.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. I considered what it would be like to live here, what mysteries lay in its abandoned office buildings and skyscrapers.
We stood on the porch overlooking the riverside, the huge beast poised above it all. It leaned forward with its arms, empty head cast to the horizon, ready to continue.
Two construction cranes hovered over it, screaming tall into the sky. And as we stood there, one of the cranes began to tip over. Screams came up from the river valley and multiplied as it came crashing down.