This isn’t actually my story. It was related to me, a while ago, by an elderly gentleman that frequented a convenience store I worked at. I think back to that night where I followed him to the junkyard, and my hair still stands, along with that quiver of gooseflesh that has nothing to do with the temperature.
I worked in a relatively quiet part of the city, out on the edge, and we had little to fear from crime. The job didn’t pay well, but what little I got helped to pay some of the bills for college and the nightly customers were few and far between – giving me more than enough time to do some reading or languish on the internet.
Now, you think that we don’t notice people when we’re behind the till. We do. We just don’t give a shit, mostly. We can tell when we should card someone; or that desperate, almost slimy, look of lust on the face of a young man buying condoms at eleven in the evening. Then there was the old man. He showed up, every Friday, like clockwork. He wore a flannel shirt with the rolled up sleeves that had seen one wash too many and he counted out his change with the reluctance of one used to thrift.
He was polite, that man, always a warm hello and thank you after he left with his purchase. He was stooped with age, but there was steel in that spine, I could tell. And he always bought the same thing. A small packet of milk, and a little paper bag of cookies. A strange thing, for an old man to buy. A doting grandparent, perhaps, but I never saw him enter the shop with another soul.
This piqued my curiosity. Boredom has a way of amplifying novelty. Through the long evenings, I counted cracks on the ceiling, arranged merchandise in strange geometric shapes, saw patterns in the repeating squares of the linoleum on the floor. This strange man vexed me. Milk and cookies, a treat for a young child, yet purchased late in the night. Was he, perhaps, reliving some long forgotten time in his youth whilst partaking of these goodies?
Dark paranoia raised its head, perhaps the old man was one of those psychotic perverts that kidnapped young girls and raised them in his basement. Week after week, we swapped perfunctory greetings, exchanged merchandise for cash. I couldn’t unravel the mystery. I couldn’t read it in his rheumy eyes, his shaking hands or his slow gait. I couldn’t take it, this strangeness.
I decided to follow him.
It took me a few weeks to plan. I’d pop my head out to track him down the street, until the first turn. Then I’d lock the front door and trail him to the next turn. And so on. One day, soon after he’d made his regular purchase, I made my move. Quickly locking up, I followed him at a distance, never too close, never more than a block away. There was a feeling of the forbidden in what I was doing, a little like being a child again and doing something naughty. He never suspected a thing. The streetlights gave us both long twisted shadows as I chased him through the dark streets.
He found his destination in an old junkyard, practically a landfill. The rusty chain clanged to the floor after he gave it a gentle tug. Nothing worth stealing here, it seemed. The old man walked in confidently and I had to hurry to catch up. I quickly lost him in that maze, wandering amidst the piles of society’s detritus. The light and sounds of the city faded into the distance, the half moon in the sky giving everything an unearthly silvery sheen. The panic was there, only a heartbeat away, in that strange alien landscape. I had nearly given up hope when I finally chanced upon a small clearing, my erstwhile quarry sitting there on the dirt, showing his yellowing teeth in a wry smile.
“It took you long enough to catch up,” he said.
I stopped short. I had nothing to say.
“Come here, kid. There’s nothing to fear here. I reckon something’s got your interest all fired up. That’s why you followed me here. You’ll get in no trouble for this?”
“The owner trusts me. She knows I don’t steal, and I’m ok to close the shop early if business is slow.”
“Slow enough that you’d spend half the night playing spy to hunt down an old codger like me.” He laughed, a dry wheezing series of exhalations that broke into coughs.
“I’m here,” he said, pressing his forearms against his creaking knees to get to his feet, “to keep a promise, an old, old promise. I come here every week because that’s all I got left. Ain’t much left in the world for me, no wife, no kids, no job. But a man’s gotta be true to his word. If he don’t got that little bit left, well… then he ain’t much of a man, is he.”
I had to nod to keep him going. He gestured at something behind him, shifting out of the way to let me see. A pair of pale doors jutted out from the junk, looking so much like the entrance to some ancient crypt. The old man pulled one of the doors open, the shriek of the hinges carrying through the still night air.
Even from a distance, I took in the thickness of that door. I quickly closed the distance between us. The man placed the milk and cookies behind the threshold of the door and pulled it shut. He reached out a hand in greeting and introduced himself as Miller. He didn’t say if that was his first or last name.
“Back of a refrigerator truck,” he said, giving the door a slap. The dull smack again reminded me of how thick the walls were. “I guess you’re curious as to why I’m here every week. It’s a long story, and one I haven’t told to many people. I’m old now, ain’t got many years left. My bones ache in the rain and it hurts more and more every day. Guess it’s worth telling.”
His voice seemed to gain strength, a rich baritone instead of the weak, cracked sounds earlier.
“This was back in the old days, before the Second World War. I never served of course, too young then. I must have been nine maybe ten years of age. We didn’t have all these newfangled toys and com-pu-ter thingies…” he pronounced the unfamiliar word slowly, his jaw working around the edges of the syllables, “that you have nowadays. “Back then, we’d play wherever we could. Cowboys and Injuns, Cops and Robbers. No television either. That was for the rich folk. This yard has been here longer than I have. We had forts on hills of trash, played soldiers, everything kids oughta be doing. That day was hide and seek, and old one game but a great one for a place like this.”
“I wasn’t a big kid. Didn’t win at most of the games we played, but I was going to win this one. I’d seen this big ol’ refrigerator unit here before, right on the edge of the yard back then, and I knew exactly wheres I was gonna be hiding. I was small, yeah, but I was a fast ‘un. May not look like it now, but I got away from the pack of them even before the count had reached twenty. Didn’t want no one else to hide in here with me.”
“It was dark in there. Cool, too. Before I closed the door, I could see that some of the junk had made its way into the truck unit over time. Last thing I remember seeing was that one line of daylight before I pulled this here door shut. At first, there was nothing but the sound of my breathing, bouncing off the walls. I imagined that I would always win at hide and seek from then on. I counted breaths and heartbeats till I got bored. Then I realised that there wasn’t a handle on the inside.”
I could see his hand starting to shake as he remembered that old fear. He clenched his fists to stop the shakes, and when the balled fists themselves started quivering, he put his hands in his pockets.
“It took me awhile to realise the game was over. I’d been in the dark for a long time. Too long. I threw my entire weight at the door. I hit the walls till my hands were bloody. I screamed till my throat hurt.”
His Adam’s Apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed at the memory.
“Then I sat to wait. I must have fallen asleep. How can you tell if you’re asleep when you’re all alone in the darkness? You can’t, boy. You can’t. I got thirsty first. Then hungry. It’s the only way I knew time was passing. I felt the hope go out like the sun setting. I yelled in that dark place. I called out to God but he didn’t answer. I would’ve called out to ol’ Nick himself, if I had dared. I cried. For hours there in the dark I cried, the sound bouncing offa those thick walls, till the air was filled with the sound of tears and sobs. I thought I was going to die. You ever been close to death, boy?”
“No, sir.” I shook my head. He fixed his eyes on mine, those almost cloudy eyes, suddenly sharper.
“No, you haven’t. I can tell, when a man’s looked death in the eyes. He just ain’t the same after that. It was a trick of the echo I thought at first, but I swore there was another person crying in there with me. It sounded a little higher, a little further away than my own voice. This was it, I told myself, I’d been in the dark so long that I was going batshit crazy. I counted to five and held my breath, and still the crying continued.”
I was rapt. The man was looking at me, but not looking at me. The dreamy half focus of his eyes told me he was seeing something else, something far away.
“I called out in the dark. At first there was no answer but that quiet sobbing. It was another child, but not a boy. A little girl. There was enough light before I shut the door to know I was alone in there. I was panicking a second before, but now I felt a creeping fear. The crying started up again. I backed myself into the corner next to the door. You ever seen a mouse in a cage trap, when it tries to get away from you? Yeah, like that. The crying didn’t get any closer. I figured I was dead there anyway, nobody was coming to get me, so I called out again. The crying stopped. There in the dark, the little girl answered. She sounded like she was about my age as well.”
“She told me her name was Helen. A pretty name, even then. She’d been stuck there in the dark for a long time. She tried calling for help once, but no one came. She got real hungry, then she wasn’t so hungry no more. She’d given up on calling for help, on seeing her family, of ever having another friend. The walls, she said, were too thick for any sound to escape, and nobody would ever know that I was in there. Nobody’d ever found her. One good thing, at least she wouldn’t have to be lonely any more, since she had me. I heard her shifting there in the dark and she held my hand. Her hand was small and it was cold, like she’d put it in the freezer for a few minutes, but it was all I had, and I squeezed it with all my strength.”
“I dreamt that there were voices outside, calling my name. I wasn’t sure about it, until I squeezed my ear to the corner of the door. The lining must have been rotted with age, because I could still hear something from outside. If I could hear them, maybe they could hear me. I tried to scream, to shout, all that came out was a tiny croak. I’d been too long without water. I tried to wet my tongue with spit, but even that failed. I slapped at the door with my free hand. The time without food and drink had left me weak. I wasn’t sure that they could hear anything from me. Hope died there a second time. That dark box was going to be the last thing I ever saw and nobody would know.”
“I felt Helen’s little hand tighten around mine. Don’t go, she told me. Stay. It’ll be fun. I’ve been alone for so long. She started to pull me back into the depths of that dark place. I couldn’t fight her, she felt so strong. Please. I whispered to her. My parents will miss me. I still have friends outside. Even with her tiny nails drawing blood from my hand, I could feel her sadness through that tiniest bit of contact that we had. I have no more friends. Her crying started again, soft in that space, so sad that it seemed that her heart would burst from it. I can be your friend. Help me. I promise. I’ll be your friend forever. I told her and I meant it.”
I saw the old man’s hand flex in his pocket, remembering that ghostly touch.
“She let go. Or maybe she was never there. I touched my hand to my cheek and it was still cold. Just then, I heard the door open. I’d been found. Strong hands lifted me out of the dark. The light hurt my eyes and it was a while before I could see my rescuers. Someone brought water. I gulped it down. It was the best thing I ever tasted. No water’s ever tasted the same since. Tasted… like life, you know? They sent for my parents as I sat there with the big man who’d found me. He sized me up with a squint. Said I was bigger than he’d thought. The voice he’d heard was much higher. Almost like a girl’s cry. He messed up my hair with one huge, rough hand. No shame in crying in there, boy, he said. If I was stuck there, I’d be scared too.”
“My parents came to see me, brought over by the police. They scooped me up with big hugs. We were going to leave when I asked if they’d found the girl in there with me. The rescuers looked puzzled. I’d been the only one in the refrigerator truck. I wouldn’t leave until they took another look. I kicked up such a fuss that they just exchanged looks of frustration and brought me back to those huge doors. They threw them open. No girl came out. The light didn’t reach all the way to the back. One of the cops took out a flashlight. One of those big silver ones, you don’t see ‘em around anymore. The trash of the junkyard had found its way into that old refrigerator truck. It was only on his second sweep of that unnatural cave that we saw the bright blue of a girl’s dress.”
He sighed deeply, his tale near its end. He suddenly looked very frail, as though the telling had leached the very life from him.
“She’d been dead for years, of course. All dried out like one of them mummies from the National Geographic. I think I went a little crazy when I saw her. I don’t know what I said but nobody believed me. Been in the dark too long, they said. Apt to drive a boy mad. But I never stopped believing. And I never forgot my promise. Seventy years, it’s been. What transpires between us, well, that’s just for me and me alone to know. I’ve not always been able to come here, but I’ve tried my best, which is more than some men can say.”
He leaned against the door, out of breath after the sharing. He straightened up and cleared his throat, still with one hand on the thick metal.
“Good night, friend. I will see you again next week.” His voice was suddenly clear again, and the sound rang out across the junkyard. I half opened my mouth to return his farewell, before I realised that his eyes weren’t on me. No. They were focused on the door instead. He slowly made his way across that clearing.
I stood up, also leaning against the door for support. “Sir. You forgot your milk and cookies,” I called out to the man, now all the way across the clearing.
He looked back, and again I could tell that he was not looking at me, but at the doors I was leaning against. “No, boy, I did not. A good evening to you, too, and I will see you next week.”
A strange encounter, I thought. The unease I had felt with the telling of the story sloughed off me. A simple campfire tale, nothing more. Just some old man, probably addled with dementia, living out some half-imagined childhood fantasy. I sighed. The moon was already high overhead. I supposed that there were worse ways to spend an evening. One thing niggled at me, just before I turned to find my way from that still place. For the second time that evening, the refrigerator doors were pulled open. A wave of stale air belched out. I half expected to see Helen’s bones, still laid out after all these years. There was nothing there, I chided myself for for my childish fears, giving a little nervous laugh. Nothing in the empty crypt of the refrigerator truck but an empty milk packet and cookie crumbs.