Before we begin:
This is the 2nd or 3rd draft of the story and currently rings in at 7765 words (hey, that’s novelette length. I’m a bit surprised, but also thrilled). To me, it’s as finished as it’s going to be, but I’m all for critiques and notes on where it doesn’t flow well. Also: the building I describe does actually exist. It’s been practically abandoned for well over a decade despite being located in Downtown Roanoke, home of niche shops and expensive condos (and almost no parking). Mill Mountain Zoo is a real zoo! It’s a small conservation zoo, located up Mill Mountain, right near the Mill Mountain Star. It’s not as exciting as the Asheville or DC zoos, but it’s ours.
Working Title: Heironimus
“I’m bored,” Mark complained before taking a swig of his beer.
“You’re only bored because you lost and have to wait to play the game again,” I replied, not looking up from the book I was reading.
“No, he’s bored because he has to stay home while the wife and kid get to go on a trip.” Alex, my husband, piped up.
Mark nodded slowly. “That’s the curse of being an assistant manager.”
“Or the curse of not knowing how to ask for time off in advance,” Todd chimed in, not moving his head and concentrating on the television screen.
Todd and Alex were still pitted against each other as the time wound down in the top corner of the screen. Mark sulked into his beer while Todd’s girlfriend, Cassie, walked into the living room with a fresh drink.
“What’d I miss?” she asked, plopping down beside Todd and stealing the controller from him.
“Mark’s complaining,” Alex deadpanned while effectively knocking out his opponent.
Mark huffed and crossed his arms, “Not complaining.”
“Whining then,” I laughed and put my book down. Mark stuck his tongue out and continued to pout. “You’re taking lessons from the kid, aren’t you?”
He stomped his foot and huffed again, refusing to respond.
“Well, if you’re bored, what do you want to do?”
He shrugged half-heartedly. “We could go to a bar.”
“We’re broke, homie,” Todd countered. There were nods of agreement around the room.
“We could raise the dead?” I offered, falling back on a long-used joke that none of us could remember where it came from.
“I’ve got the keys to the Heironimus building,” Cassie pulled out a set of keys. “I’m in charge of creating a new window display for it. We could go check the building out.”
Alex paused the game and sat back. “Wow. It’s been forever since I’ve been in there.”
I nodded, “I haven’t been in that building since Mom’s office was still in Downtown, and that was twenty-some years ago.”
“I can’t remember if I’ve been in there or not.” Mark seemed to perk up a bit.
“We can poke around for a while. Technically we’re not trespassing since I have the keys,” she jingled them slightly. “I don’t think anyone’s gone past the main floor in years.”
We were all in agreement. Go to the old Heironimus building and poke around. I got up to find some of the flashlights Alex and I had in various parts of the house that we had because we have an adventurous cat who tends to get stuck under the back porch. Eventually, everyone had a small flashlight to go with their phones and piled into the car.
The plus side was that it was late enough that most of the paid parking areas were in their “free” time so we wouldn’t have to park a few blocks away and walk to the building. The downside was that the closest area we could park was still a block or two away and we wound up walking through the Downtown area anyway. Roanoke’s not much of a happenin’ place despite what people would have you believe. If it’s evening and you’re near Downtown, it’s either you’re going out to dinner or doing something like Dickens of a Christmas or some other little festival-type thing. Normally, Roanoke is practically dead after about 7 or 8 at night, and even more so the farther out from the exact middle you go.
We are heading about 2 blocks from the epicenter of Roanoke, so mainly all we’d be seeing were cars passing through Downtown to get somewhere else. We might walk past a homeless person or some bored teenagers, but that’d be maybe once or twice on our way to the building itself.
After getting out of the car, we walked and joked about. We ignored the crosswalk signs in favor of just looking down deserted roads.
“This reminds me of when we were teenagers,” Cassie mused.
Mark laughed, “You’re right. We’re all banded together wearing black. All that’s missing is going to a show by a local band.”
“Man, I miss when we could do that,” Alex sighed wistfully.
“We could still do that,” Todd pointed out hopefully.
“Nah. How weird would it be if we showed up to a show full of teenagers?” Mark countered.
“About as weird as it was when the 30-something guys used to show up for the metal shows when we were teens,” I finished and looked down the block that held the abandoned building. “And I’m not about to be badgered to buy booze for minors.”
“Or be hit on buy kids who are half your age,” Cassie laughed.
“Or tell kids,” Mark bent over slightly and made his voice gravelly. “I remember when the basist was born, son! You don’t know what good music is.”
We all cracked up and stopped walking as we neared the front of the 4-storey building that had been there for as long as any of us could remember.
The glass panels sparkled as though it had been recently cleaned and no one had dared touch it with bare fingers or marker like some of the other buildings had been. Cassie’s dedicated team of zoo volunteers had scraped off the deer silhouettes and snowflakes that had been stuck on to the windows from the inside by some local artist years before. There were counters in the background, once cream colored and now covered with moss-colored fabric.
“So, what are you guys doing for the display?” I asked Cassie while looking at something that resembled either a large sloth or a large orangutan. I couldn’t tell which as I could just barely make out fur and long arms.
“We’re trying to work on something that conveys conservationism without it being overly ‘Stop killing he planet you idiots’. It’s going to be a mix of museum-quality toys, some built animals and forms of enrichment, and some stuff that some kids have made after visiting the zoo.”
She pointed to a couple boxes at the corner of one of the counters, “That is filled with drawings done by kids. We’re hoping to put them up in the background after the bigger stuff’s gone up.”
Cassie took the lead of the group, bright auburn hair reflecting the nearby streetlights. She lead us around the building and through a small, empty parking lot before winding up in something that looked like a small alleyway.
“Where’d this come from?” Mark looked around us confused. “I don’t recognize this area.”
She grinned and nodded, “Isn’t it weird. People come up and down the roads around the building, but hardly anyone notices this back here.”
We found ourselves squished around a steel door, black paint flaking off in pieces. One or two flashlights already on but pointing to the ground.
“Before we go in,” I interrupted. “How do we want to do this?”
Everyone turned in my direction, their faces hidden in the shadow.
“What do you mean?”
“Are we going to go from the first floor and work our way up? Do we walk to the top floor and make our way down? Do we just wander around until we scare ourselves silly and run out because someone’s gotten hurt?”
Alex scratched his beard, “She’s got a point.”
Mark shrugged, “It might be easier to start from the top and work our way down. That way people won’t notice us as much or think that the lights are from something else.”
“Aren’t the top floors just open?” Todd asked. “Like it’s just the outer walls and nothing else except maybe a few pillars or whatever.”
I shrugged, “Maybe? I remember the last time I was in the building, there was one floor that was like that. But I really can’t remember if they were all like that.”
“Well, then it’s settled. We’ll go up to the fourth floor and work our way down.” Cassie was taking charge as she put the key through the lock. “If the floors are just open-plan, then there’s really not much to look at and then we won’t be wasting time and can leave in like half an hour and, I don’t know, go wander around Walmart or something.”
Everyone chuckled while the door was pulled open smoothly.
“Y’all should’ve heard it the first day we got down here. I have never had to use so much WD-40 in my life. I swear, it was like the building was actively trying to make our ears bleed.”
She kept the door open, ushering everyone inside before slipping in herself. Alex shined the light around the door frame and settled on the push-bar. “Did we just come in the emergency exit?”
“Pretty much. Come on. The stairs are this way.”
We all cut our flashlights on, sending the beams in various directions. One landed on some plastic crates stamped Mill Mountain Zoo, one landed on a counter covered in various fabrics that looked as though the small pile could fall at any moment. There were two beams trained ahead of us while the last was bouncing from ceiling to floor.
“Did you guys have to clean a ton in here?” Mark asked, moving his light towards the ceiling.
“Nope,” Cassie shrugged as we went from thin, blueish-gray indoor-outdoor carpet that was popular in the early 90s for flooring stores to dark tiles. Her shoes squeaked as she stopped at the doorway. “We figure the owner of the building had someone come in and clean before we got in. “
“But, didn’t you say that you guys had to scrape the things off the windows?”
The doorframe was free with no sign that there was ever a door to separate this area from the rest of the store. I found this weird, but honestly couldn’t even remember seeing a staircase the handful of times that I had been in here with my mother all those years past. All I could remember was the large, clunky, terrifying warehouse elevator that looked like it had come out of a movie about living in the heart of New York.
“Yeah, it was kind of weird. The areas that we’re supposed to transform were clean. No dust, no cobwebs or bugs. The paint is a little off-color, but the only thing peeling is the outside of the back door.”
Our footsteps reverberated within the concrete pillar of space. It was a lot like walking down from a carpark to get to the street below. The walls were painted a white or light gray color, but it was hard to tell in the dark and based on how long it’d been since it was last painted, there was a chance that it might even be turning into an egg-yellow color. The rubber treads were still on each step. By the fleeting light, it looked as though they had either been used rarely or just recently replaced.
“Did anyone come up to check out the other floors while you’ve been here?” Alex asked, flashlight aimed at his feet and free hand gripping the handrail tightly.
“No. Everyone’s been busy working on the display. Any downtime is spent running down to grab more coffee from the shop. Or going to a craft store because we’re always losing supplies.”
“Maybe there’s a gnome or something who finds your craft supplies tasty,” I joked as we passed the closed door for the second floor.
“Or, it could be a bored trickster spirit. They could be living here and realized that you’re making the first floor pretty, so they want to make the other floors like that too,” Todd piped in.
“You guys are so weird,” Mark laughed. “They’re probably just misplacing things. I’m sure you’ll find extra supplies in your car when you’re done with this whole project.”
“Aw, you’re no fun, Mark. Where’s your sense of wonder? Where’d your imagination go?” I huffed. These stairs were going to be the death of me. I used to be able to breeze up a flight of stairs like this with no problem when I was younger and going to see my mom at her office. Now, this same type of stairs was acting like they were twice as steep and twice as tall. I huffed again.
“I still have an imagination. Currently it involves stuffed robots and reruns of Sesame Street.”
“So, you’ve gone into Dad-Mode. You need to start making terrible jokes now.”
“Nah, I’m storing those up for when I can get a nice annoyed groan from him. I’ve still got a couple years for that, unless he ends up being a genius. Then I’ll have, like, a year to fill my arsenal of dad-jokes.”
Todd laughed, “If he’s a genius, he gets it from your wife’s side.”
“Hey! That’s not fair.” We trudged our way past the door to the third floor and continued upwards. “I can be pretty smart.”
“This coming from the same guy who insisted I hit him with a car once,” Alex grumbled.
“No, I told you to drive and I’d jump onto the hood of your car. You’re the one who hit me,” Mark pointed the flashlight at Alex’s face.
Alex grimaced, “You’re still the one that got the cops called on us for your idiocy.”
Before the argument could continue, we were finally at the fourth floor. It seemed as though the small trip up the few flights of stairs had taken way longer than it should’ve. The door swung outward towards us and was painted the same color as the walls. A large black 4 stenciled above the frame shone brightly in the lights we had.
“Did someone start remodeling here or something?” Todd asked, staring up at the large 4. “It’s like this whole area’s been repainted and stuff.”
I nodded, “I was just thinking about that.”
Cassie had found the kickstand for the door and used it to keep the door propped open. The room was black; like someone had bricked up the large windows that made up three of the four sides of the building.
“Wonder if there’s still a floor,” Alex pointed his flashlight down.
“There should be, otherwise it would’ve made the paper.” I poked my head through the door as Mark slowly made his way through the door, but edged his way around. “And, we didn’t see any sign of damage when coming up here. If one of the floors were to fall out, there’d at least be cracks in the walls.”
I took a few steps into the black expanse. The darkness seemed to suck in the light from our small flashlights and I couldn’t see any soft orange glow from the streetlights below us. I didn’t want to go any further. Five flashlights roaming back and forth, and we couldn’t see more than a few inches ahead of us. If we were able to see where the windows were, windows that were practically floor-to-ceiling, we’d be able to make out more. All we could see was the darkness.
Cassie sighed, “This is disappointing. Come on, let’s see if the third floor is like this.”
Mark pushed at the door to release the kickstand for it, and shoved the door closed. Todd lead the way down the steps, humming a tune I didn’t recognize.
“Maybe someone blacked-out the windows,” Alex mused while we were making our way down. “No one really looks up at the building itself when they go past. So maybe someone came in and blacked them out. They could be getting ready to remodel it or something.”
We watched Todd fight with the third-floor door while Mark poked his flashlight into the corners. “There’s no dirt in the corners.”
“Because no one comes up here?” I asked.
“There’s no dust or cobwebs, either.”
I shrugged as Todd managed to wrench the door open. Cassie put down the kickstand as Todd did a small victory dance.
“Success is mine,” he grinned.
We peaked in to find there were small lights dotted around the area. The floor was open-plan, with only the load-bearing pillars being in the way of things. Low-hanging lamp lights were scattered around, showing off what looked like a small party going on.
“Oh shit, sorry homes,” Todd said, stepping back towards the hallway.
There was no response from the person closest to us. Alex shined his flashlight onto the person who was sitting with a companion at a small table about five feet or so to the right of us.
“Todd, that’s not a person,” he looked over at us. “They’re mannequins.”
Mark laughed loudly, doubling over. “Aw man, dude. You thought they were real!”
Todd shrugged and began walking towards the mannequins. “Hey, at a quick glance they did look real.”
Mark started to wheeze, finding the whole thing more hilarious than I thought it was. Cassie walked around him, ignoring our friend sitting on the floor, and made her way towards her boyfriend.
“Dude, this is pretty cool,” Todd said, studying the display. “It’s like an art thing. Check out this spread!”
I walked over and looked. The mannequins were dressed in modern clothing, jeans and t-shirts mainly, positioned in a way that made it look as though they were carrying on a conversation. One had their hand out, as though making a gesture to emphasize what they were saying, while the other had their chin in their palm. The hands were pretty simplistic, looking more like doll hands with the impressions of fingers than individual molded fingers themselves. The small table they sat at was laid out as though they were on vacation and having a brunch. There were flutes of what looked like mimosas, cutlery scattered around, and partially eaten bits of toast and bacon. Around the plates were pieces of fruit, the cloth on the table also had small stains where the faux fruit sat.
I walked away, deeper into the floor towards the other displays. There were light, everyday scenes. People at a party, standing around in a faux living room. The couch holding a few of the mannequin-people, holding wine glasses, the low wooden coffee table with plates of hors d’oeuvres and wine bottles and glasses of varying emptiness. There were a few of the mannequins standing around, clustered towards the couch-dwellers, at though in conversation about something.
Others were walking around the area, light bouncing off of various displays.
“Well, this isn’t creepy at all,” Alex deadpanned as he stopped beside me.
“Looks like an exhibit of some sort,” Mark responded, shining his light onto the faceless mannequin beside him. “Y’know, I wouldn’t be as creeped out by these things if they had at least some facial features. Even a nose or an outline of eyes.”
Alex nodded, glancing around the living room display. “Maybe it’s someone’s art piece?”
“Well, we do have a lot of artists around here,” Cassie piped up, standing near a kitchen island where a mannequin was set up as though preparing a large meal. “Remember when those handful got busted a few years back for sitting on the sidewalk and “watching” the broken television?”
I laughed, “Oh yeah. Wasn’t it some sort of protest or something?”
“Yeah, I think so. The whole thing was weird.”
Alex started walking towards the doorway, “Come on, guys. Let’s check out the second floor.”
“Are you scared, dude?” Mark asked, trying not to speed-walk past Alex.
“Mannequins are fucking creepy. Faceless mannequins are even creepier,” he walked through the doorway and down a step or two. “The sooner I can get away from that exhibit, the sooner I’ll feel better.”
Mark barked out a laugh as the rest of us came out into the stairwell. “Really? Mannequins? They’re giant stuffed dolls. Inanimate objects. It’s not like Chucky’s going to pop out of a corner and try to turn you into one.”
“We’re more likely to see a recreation of that knife-handed puppet from Puppet Master,” I pointed out.
“Dude, or Six Shooter.” Todd sighed wistfully. “I love Six Shooter.”
Alex stuck a finger in his ear, “I am not listening to you guys. I am not hearing this.”
Mark nodded, following Alex down the steps. “Six Shooter was pretty cool. But, I always thought Tunneler was the best.”
“I wish you guys would shut up about puppets.”
“Ignore him. He’s just mad because—” I looked over. “Wasn’t that door shut when we walked up to the fourth floor?”
“See if there’s a light switch near the door,” Cassie poked Todd. “If the third floor had those lights on, maybe this floor will have something.”
Todd nodded, poking his head into the doorway and stayed quiet for a few moments. He walked in, sliding his light around the wall closest to us. “And homie said…Let there be light.”
Harsh fluorescent light flickered on, showing off pale gray walls lost in a sea of cubicles.
“What the crap,” Cassie whispered behind me.
“Well, isn’t this weird.”
Mark shrugged and pushed past me, “Maybe they’re renting this floor out to some company.”
I looked around at the old, washed out gray-brown cubicle walls. They came up to about my chest, and were situated in three long rows. I looked down at the one closest to the entrance. Light gray desk bolted to the walls, mid-90s computer monitor taking up most of the space with a yellowing keyboard haphazardly stuck in front of it.
“Christ. This looks like the call-center I used to work at.”
Alex put his hand on my shoulder and muttered, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
I nodded, watching the others meander around the area. “It feels like this floor is smaller than the others.”
Mark held up a phone receiver, becoming about as discolored as the keyboard I saw in the first cubicle. “I feel like we walked into the Twilight Zone.”
“No, I think it’s another part of the exhibit.” Cassie replied but didn’t look over at him. She continued to stare towards the cubicle that she was near. “There’s another one of those mannequins back here.”
“What? Is it set up to look like it’s working?” I asked.
She looked over at me. “Yeah. It’s kind of unnerving.”
“Hey, there’s another one over here,” Todd pointed to the cubicle beside the one he was standing at.
I shook my head. “Yeah, no. I’m ready to go. This is taking art to a creeptastic level.”
Confused, Mark shot me a look. “What, even creepier than Waxwork?”
“Which one, the funny one or the terrible one?” I asked.
Mark’s mouth dropped open. “Are you kidding me? The awesome one! The one where the waxwork monsters come to life after enough people are shoved into their sets and try to take over the world and they’re the kill-humans kind, not the derpy kind of waxworks.”
I crossed my arms, “Even creepier than the waxwork film where Vincent Price’s face gets torn off.”
He looked around, nodding slowly. “I can see that.”
“What are you doing?” Cassie asked as she was walking towards her boyfriend.
“I’m checking out this mannequin. We didn’t get to do it upstairs, so I’m going to do it now.”
We all watched him reach out for the mannequin he was closest to, the one that he had pointed out just a few minutes earlier. I could barely make out the top of its head because of how it was positioned in the cubicle. I couldn’t make out much of what he was doing because of the cubicle walls in the way, but a look of shock came over his face as he jumped back.
“What the hell!”
“What?!” We shouted in unison.
“It moved! The thing moved!” He turned towards us and became to hustle away from the mannequin.
Mark crossed his arms, “You’re full of it.”
Todd was a few steps away from me when he shook his head vigorously, “No man. That thing moved. We should get out of here.”
He and Alex clicked their flashlights back on in at the same time as Mark rolled his eyes.
“Mark, I don’t think he’s joking.” Cassie was walking back towards us as well, pointing towards the first mannequin they’d found.
It had changed position, from where it had sat near the back corner. I hadn’t seen it, where it had sat lurking in that corner cubicle when Cassie had found it and now it was poking its head above the cubicle. Blank face, just like the ones upstairs, and tips of the fingers sliding over the edge of the cubicle wall. I clicked my flashlight on.
“We need to leave,” Alex tugged on my arm.
“They’re probably robotic,” Mark snorted, refusing to leave the room. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”
“Do artists usually make their mannequins with Arduino boards underneath fabric?” Cassie asked, taking a few steps in our direction.
Todd looked at her, surprised. “Do you know any artist willing to put in the extra time to cover up that kind of work?”
There was a soft sound of something moving from the first floor.
“How many of those mannequins did you guys see when y’all were walking around?” I asked, looking back past Mark, towards the handful of new heads peaking up from cubicle walls.
“Just a couple, why?” Mark asked, looking down at Alex and me. Alex was already down to the landing between the first and second floor while I was a few steps above that.
“What? Like three or four?” I watched the color drain from Todd’s face and shake his head. He started to push Cassie down the steps to convince her to move.
“Yeah. And your point…?” he was beginning to become annoyed.
“There’s more than just three or four,” I pointed past him. “And they’ve all changed position.”
Mark snorted, “You’re paranoid.”
Cassie and Todd slid past me and stopped on the landing where Alex had stayed. There was a sound coming from above us, like a light clicking noise.
“Yeah.” I looked past him again, “But sometimes paranoia is a good thing, especially because they’ve moved again.”
“Nope. Nope nope nope.” Alex pulled my arm. “We are getting out of here.”
Mark looked back at the mannequins and shined his flashlight at the one closest to him. The one that Cassie had found was now standing up, facing Mark, hand still on the cubicle wall. Another one was standing and had an arm out, hand outstretched like it was silently calling out to us.
“Police!” someone screamed as a door slammed against a wall.
We shrieked, not expecting any voices except our own. Mark’s flashlight was trained on the mannequin closest to ours while the rest of ours was focused down the steps. We’d heard the jingle of metal on metal.
“Identify yourselves,” the voice bellowed as a light from the first floor met our own.
“I’m Cassie, I have keys,” Cassie stammered out. “I brought my friends to check out the building I’m working in.”
“How many of you are there?” the voice sounded calmer, but also strained.
“There’s five of us. Can we come down?”
Cassie was always the calmest of us all. The one who was somehow always able to be the level-headed person we needed when something went sideways.
“Come down slowly,” the voice stated. “I want you to have your hands in front of you and stop at the bottom of the stairs.”
I looked up at Mark, “Come on, Mark. You can’t investigate them.”
Mark sighed and began following me. “I still think you guys are paranoid.”
Soon, we’d all gathered at the base of the stairwell facing an irritated-looking young officer. If the building had power, I’m sure he’d be crossing his arms while glaring at us instead of gripping the giant Maglite in his hand.
“Do you want to explain what you are doing here in the middle of the night?”
Cassie spoke up. “It’s my fault, sir. I’m the lead for the zoo conservation project that’s working on the first floor of the building, so I have the keys. Y’know how it is. First one in, last one to leave. That kind of thing.”
He didn’t look thrilled at the explanation. Cassie pointed to her pocket that held the keys, “If it’d be ok, I have the keys in this pocket. I can pull them out for you to look at.”
He nodded grimly, “Keep your left hand down by your side and slowly pull the keys out.”
They became silent for a few moments and Mark twitched his head upwards, frowning. He moved his flashlight from shining on the old, yet pristine, tile to up the stairwell. I followed the streak of light upwards and thought I saw a scuffed shoe poking out from between the rail and the step. Mark and I exchanged confused looks.
“What the fuck,” I muttered.
“What was that,” the officer barked.
“I said ‘What the fuck,’” I responded, looking over at him. From the corner of my eye, Cassie had stopped pulling the keys out of her pocket, but they were still by her side.
The officer took two steps and was looming over me. “Oh, so you don’t think I should see these so-called keys your friend has? Is that it?”
Mark was still looking up at the shoe we had noticed as I opened my mouth to speak. Instead of being able to say anything, a scraping noise came from higher up the stairwell. We all looked upwards, Alex and Todd adding their lights to Mark’s.
“How many people came in here with you,” the officer started.
“Just the five of us,” I replied. “Cassie said we should check it out because she wasn’t sure if the other floors were occupied. Hell, none of us were sure if any of the other floors were unoccupied. This place has been practically abandoned for gods know how long.”
He looked down at me again, “So you guys just wanted to traipse along and play in a mostly-abandoned building.”
I shrugged, “We thought it’d be cool to look around. Look, not touch, and get out. It’d be an hour, tops.”
His irritation slowly melted into confusion, “When did you start on this little adventure?”
“Uhh, about 9.30 or so,” I replied. “It was a little after it became dark.”
Confusion turned into skepticism, “It’s 2 in the morning. There’s no way that y’all started before midnight.”
There were murmurs of disbelief from my friends. There were also sounds of heavy shuffling coming from the stairwell above us.
The officer looked up again, “You didn’t see any squatters or anything?”
“No, just the art exhibit that’s in progress upstairs,” Mark deadpanned, still not looking away from the stairs.
“Art exhibit?” the officer took a step back, popping the holster button for his gun. “The only thing set up for here is the zoo thing. There isn’t anything else set to go into this building. No one is renting any of the other floors.”
“Why not?” I asked a bewildered face. “Come on, it’s good space. I’m surprised the Taubman hasn’t claimed this building to set up more stuff.”
Alex shook his head, “Too far away. It’d have to be hipsters.”
Todd shot a look at the officer, “How did you know we were here, anyway? The windows upstairs are blocked off.”
The officer looked over at him and shook his head, “We got a few calls that flashlights were seen. Heck, I even saw one of your lights from the second floor before coming around the building.”
“That’s impossible,” Todd started.
“I know what I saw,” the officer took a deep breath. “I need to get you guys out of here so I can see what’s going on. I need you to make your way, slowly, towards the back door. This way I can get a better look at all of you while we go through more questions.”
There was the clicking sound again coming from the darkness. It sounded as though someone was turning a doorknob back and forth. The heavy-footfalls came from the steps again.
“Did you go through the ground floor?” he asked, looking into the darkness of the ground floor beyond the little alcove for the stairs.
“No, not yet,” Alex shook his head. “We agreed to go top floor down. That way we could just walk out and lock up when we were done.”
The officer nodded. “Alright, I need all of you to form a single-file line and slowly make your way towards the backdoor where you came in from.”
We all nodded, Mark finally tearing his gaze away from the steps. Cassie was first in our line of trespassers while Mark brought up the rear. The young officer kept his light trained on us in a general sense, like he was trying to keep an eye on all five of us. The sound of feet stomping down the steps stopped us all, the officer flipped around to stare behind us in the glow of his Maglite.
“Identify—” he began loudly.
They were there. Those no-faced mannequins, stationary on the steps. The one closest to us had its doll-like fused-together fingers gripping the railing, one foot hovering over the next step. Others were behind it, some pointing, some holding onto the railing, two or three stopped and simply looking over the banisters over at us.
“What is this?” the officer demanded, turning to face us but keeping his light trained on them.
“I don’t know, man,” Todd muttered towards him.
The clicking noise from deeper within the first floor continued, but became a background noise to more shuffling that was hard to tell if it was becoming closer or farther away. It was that awkward, sliding socked feet across a floor to build up static electricity kind of sound. Alex moved his light from showing our feet to in front of us, piercing through the black void that made its way to various counters and detritus of Cassie’s group.
A disheveled mannequin was standing near an entranceway to one of the small, walled off sale counters that was usually only noticed through the large windows that looked out onto the sidewalk.
“We should leave,” Alex repeated his earlier statement and began sidling towards the exit door.
“It’s like those statues from that show,” Mark commented, his light joining the one from the officer.
“What? Weeping Angels?” Todd turned towards him.
“Can’t be,” I replied. “We’ve all blinked while looking at them.”
Cassie glanced at me, but kept her light trained on the mannequin on the first floor while Alex edged his way towards the door to open it. The mannequin moved slightly.
“Did that thing just move?” Todd jumped.
I nodded, “Yep.”
“Maybe they move when you’re not looking.”
Alex groaned. “Great, just great. See, and you give me shit for thinking dolls are creepy and this happens.”
He’d managed to get to the door before it pulled open. He jumped about the same time the silhouette in the doorway.
“What did you do with Officer Bryant?!” the echo bounced around, making it sound as though someone was asking for this person on a floor above us.
“Shut up Kyle and get these people out.”
The new guy, Officer Kyle I guess, stayed in the doorway. “What’s going on?”
“Crazy voodoo shit, man,” Todd responded, slowly raising his arm towards Cassie’s shoulder.
“Seriously? Kyle. Get these people out of here.” He hadn’t moved his head from facing the small group of mannequins above him. “There’s something seriously weird going on.”
Todd started to lightly push Cassie towards the door, encouraging her to follow Alex’s lead, but keeping his light on the mannequin that was standing on the first floor, just a handful of yards away from us. “If we work together, we can all make it through.”
“I’m going to grab your belt,” Mark told the first officer. “Not the gun, just your belt.”
“I’m keeping my light with yours, but I’m looking away. I’m going to help you walk backwards. Let me know when you want to switch.”
I moved my light to Mark’s feet, noticing that the light on the mannequin closest to us was brighter than it had been. There was a little bit of light reflecting towards us, making it easier to move. I wasn’t sure if it was from the floor or if it was something else.
What was I thinking. It had to be from something else. These floors couldn’t have been newly primed and shined. It had to be something to do with these mannequins. The bright-white of their fabric skin contrasting from the rumpled clothing they were put in.
“What is that thing?” Officer Kyle asked, moving into the building so Alex could slide behind him.
“I’ve got the door,” Alex called out, keeping his light in our general direction.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” I said. “There’s no telling what these things are and what they want.”
“It’s just some prank,” Officer Kyle retorted, staring at the mannequin near us. I think it had moved a foot closer.
“These things weren’t around when I came in,” Officer Bryant’s sarcasm dripped through his words.
Cassie and Todd remained stationary, lights pointing towards the rumpled mannequin, while Mark kept his gaze on the floor to help bring Bryant closer to the group. Everything seemed so painstakingly slow. Mark, creeping closer to where I stood, Bryant shuffling back, not picking up his feet but sliding them across the tile.
Mark stopped beside me, relieved to have made it the handful of feet. “We’ve still got a little ways to go.”
Bryant and I nodded in unison. “Yeah,” I started. “We can work it.”
Bryant agreed and I looked towards the stairs. The lead mannequin was still stationed the way it was when I first saw it. Hand gripping the railing, foot hovering over the next step. I was surprised to see that it hadn’t fallen forwards and tumbled closer to us. It just stood there, waiting, like it could stay there forever.
“We need a plan,” Todd piped up.
“Who’s looking at the stair people?” Alex asked.
“Ok,” Alex breathed out. “Who’s looking at the floor one?”
“This is fucking stupid,” Officer Kyle huffed. “There is nothing going on.”
“And how long did it take before you came in here?” Bryant shot over his shoulder.
“It’s been like half an hour. I figured you’d found the trespassers and were leading them out.”
Kyle stepped in front of Todd and Cassie, blocking their light from the thing watching us, crossing his arms. “What do you think you’re doing, breaking in here in the middle of the night.”
“We weren’t breaking in. I have the keys,” Cassie responded.
I realized her full attention had gone from watching the creation ahead of us to the irritated officer, Todd was trying to poke his head over the guy’s wide shoulder. The socked-feet-over-carpet shuffling noise came back and all I wanted to do was back up or get out. But here I was, stuck between two friends who’d been stopped so they could be loomed over and Mark holding onto the wide belt of an officer who looked ready to shoot something if it moved while he watched.
“This is a joke,” he turned towards the door that Alex was holding open. “You need to leave now before I arrest you all.”
His movement was just enough for me to see where the mannequin now stood, barely illuminated from Alex’s small light. It was about ten feet or so away from us, arm stretched out.
“Who’s closest to the door, you or Todd?” I asked, moving my light from my feet to the mannequin in front of us.
“Todd is,” Alex responded.
Officer Kyle turned his head, noticing the thing in front of us. “This is stupid. One of you has programmed these things.”
“I’m a stupid clerk.”
“I work for the zoo.”
“I’m a manager,” Mark and I said at the same time.
“And, besides,” I continued. “We’re broke. Robotics, if you don’t have the connections, is damn expensive.”
“And why would you cover robotics like that with fabric?” Todd continued. “Silicone, yeah, sure, I get it. But fabric? What’s the point in that? Fabric pills and tears in weird ways.”
He started walking towards the mannequin, clearly put off by the obviously faux apprehension we’ve all shown him.
“Todd, start walking towards me. Grab Cassie’s hand if you need to help her along.”
Alex’s voice was oddly calm. The only thing I could guess was that he had decided that none of this was real and his anxiety over dolls was shutting down everything that did not involve helping get us out of that building.
I felt Cassie grip my sleeve, “If you watch it, I’ll pull you along.”
“There is nothing to worry about.” Officer Kyle mused. “There’s probably someone else in here and they’re using your fear against you.”
He shoved his face towards the mannequin’s non-face. He was careful to not brush up against the outstretched arm. Lazily, he pulled out his own Maglite and cut it on, holding it above the white head to shine down as if doing an interrogation.
If he was looking at this thing, that meant that I didn’t have to. I turned my head and realized how close that damned doorway was from the two of us. A handful of small steps, two or three quick bounds. She and Todd were already outside, heads peaking around the corner.
I took a step. Mark took a smaller step, becoming closer to me, and Officer Bryant followed his lead, continuing his shuffle-slide back-step.
“There’s no seam on this thing,” Kyle sounded entranced.
Bryant glanced over at him, causing a loud clanging at the steps. Mark backed up into me, pulling Bryant just enough to cause him to look back over to the stairwell entrance. The mannequins were closer, the one in the lead was only a few steps away from touching the ground floor. Looking behind the lead one, there were more than I had thought there were when we were upstairs. It was like looking being back in high school where the swarm of students had to cram themselves onto the steps to shove their way upstream to the majority of the classrooms.
I looked over to where the other officer was standing, poking and prodding at the rumpled mannequin that he’d decided to get up close and personal with. He was gone. They were both gone.
Cassie pulled me out of the door, pulling my attention away from the black, empty area where the two were. Mark, trying to hurry his way to pull the remaining officer and himself away from everything, tripped over the lip of the doorway. He and the officer came crashing down onto the cold pavement.
Bryant bounced back up, “Kyle!”
Todd and I helped pull Mark up from the ground as Bryant pulled out his sidearm. Alex’s and Cassie’s lights forming a small halo around his frame. The interior of the building was silent.
“What do you think happened?” Cassie asked, trying to get a decent look into where we just were.
Bryant looked over at her, “I don’t know.”
There was a change in atmosphere around us, like the darkness was sucking in the air or everyone was holding their breath. I looked over at Alex, mirroring the growing unease in his eyes. A low rumble started deep within the building.
“I need backup. Something grabbed Smith.”
Bryant’s walkie chirped in response.
He looked down at the little walkie-radio attached to his shirt, “We must be standing in a spot where the radio can’t pick up.”
The low rumbling sounded as though it was making its way down from the top floor down. Bryant lowered his weapon, Alex still holding the door open and staring at the ground.
“Are you alright?” I reached out and touched Alex’s arm.
He huffed, “I’m telling myself this isn’t happening. If I don’t look around, it helps the lie.”
I rubbed his arm, not really being able to think of anything reassuring to tell him. Bryant’s walkie chirped again and crackled. Static was the only sounds coming out of it for a few brief moments. I heard some shuffling movements.
“Anyone else hear that?” Todd asked.
He shook his head, “No, the breathing.”
Mark smacked him on the arm. “You’re full of shit, dude.”
Bryant re-holstered his firearm, but left the thing unbuttoned. Clicking his light back on, he added it to the dim light from Cassie’s fading flashlight. A toe, white like the rest of the visible skin of the mannequins from earlier, was peeking just into the halo of light. Todd and Mark added their lights to the mix while Cassie clicked hers off and backed up to smack the compact flashlight with feeble hope to bring more juice to it. Mark and Todd’s lights caused more of the mannequin to fade out of the darkness. Its hand reaching out towards us, calling us silently to wait or come back. I could start making out the others behind it, hands reaching out towards the open door, blank faces all facing towards us.
The rumbling we’d heard stopped. It was like something was standing in front of us, waiting for us to do something. To look away or to come back inside, I’m not sure.
“Shut the door.”
Alex let go of the door without hesitation, still refusing to look anywhere but the old asphalt under our feet. Bryant moved enough to let the door start closing beside him, keeping his eyes on the mannequins as much as possible. The shuffling noise came back, sounding faster than it had while we were in the building itself.
Bryant shoved against the door, “Get the keys!”
There was an ear-shattering scream from in front of us, the door moving against Bryant’s efforts to keep it shut. Cassie dropped the little flashlight, fishing for the keys. Mark pushed forward, adding his weight to the door in an effort to help keep it closed. Finding the small brass key that locked the door, Cassie ran forward and shoved it into place, locking the door. The scream filtered out again through the crack of doorframe with a final weak shove from the other side of the door.