An Unpleasant Hiding Spot

The stairwell door slams shut, echoing off the white, unadorned walls.

“How long do we have?” Jane asks me.

“Less than 30 seconds, if I had to guess,” I whisper. “Try not to think about it.”

She nods, and turns her attention to a large trash can, sitting between the stairwell and the building’s elevator. She pulls the can to the side, revealing a small metal square. This is a tiny access panel, about two feet across. It’s totally flush with the wall, and perfectly matches the color, making it impossible to see from more than a few feet away.

On the left side of the panel is a tiny slit, meant for a flathead screwdriver. I dig into my pockets and find a quarter. I jam the coin into the grove, and turn the screw. After a little work, I get the panel to swing open.

“After you,” I motion for Jane to crawl inside through the opening. She turns on the flashlight on her phone, and enters the void. I follow after her, dragging the garbage can back in front of the hatch and closing the opening. A few seconds pass by, and I hear thundering footsteps overhead, directly on top of us.

“What the hell is that?” Jane asks.

“Shh,” I whisper.

We sit in the dark, and listen as the stairwell door swings open. When it slams shut, the deafening echo once again reverberates off the bare walls.

“You sure someone came down here?” A voice questions.

“Positive,” another answers. “The lights are on a motion sensor. Someone had to have been in this hallway in the last few minutes.”

“I don’t know why they would come down here, It’s a total dead end, and once…” the voices fade in the distance, as they travel past the hatch and down the hallway.

I lean against the wall and breathe a sigh of relief. “They’re gone.” I turn to look at Jane.

The light from her phone casts terrifying shadows on her face, making her eyes appear sunken and hollow. The glow bounces off the low ceiling, less than four feet high. Enough room is afforded to sit upright, but that’s about it. Thank God I’m not claustrophobic.

“What is this place?” Jane finally asks.

“Access panel for elevator maintenance,” I explain simply. “We’re directly under the staircase, which is why it can get loud. But I really doubt anyone is going to come looking for us in here.”

“How long do we wait?”

“As long as it takes. I’m looking to beat John’s record,” I say.

“We were looking for him for like an hour,” Jane protests. “I think that was the longest game of manhunt I ever played.”

“We’ll stick around down here, and after we’ve broken the record, we can come out before we give up the spot. There are so few places in the church we don’t know about, I’d like to protect this one.”

Manhunt was a traditional part of our weekly routine in the Youth Group – albeit an odd one. Our adult advisor was more concerned with fostering a sense of fellowship, than focusing on actual spiritual enrichment. This was perfectly fine. We had some atheists in the group, which was fine too.

I sat in the unpleasant hiding spot for the better part of an hour with Jane. More than once we could hear the hunters walk through the hall. Eventually, during a quiet spell, we slipped back out through the access panel and sealed it off. Every other member on our team had been caught by the time we turned ourselves in – dusty and a little rattled -but victorious. Jane and I agreed to never use the spot again.

Our opponents claimed to have scoured every inch of the Church from steeple to stone foundation. Obviously they had not.

Something occurred to me as I played throughout the years: every game was easier and faster. The more I knew, the less of a challenge there was. In a way, having that one off-limits location was a reminder that not everything had been explored, even in a building with a finite number of rooms to hide away in.

A.H.W.

I’m Sorry, I Have Standards

The whole cabin of my Wrangler shakes in the howling wind that blusters up the towering grassy hill. The night is cool and pleasant – the breeze has only just picked up in the last quarter hour, prompting us to end our moonrise picnic to the Top of the World. 

This hilltop lookout is easily the highest point as far as the eye can see, granting an unbroken panoramic view. Out here in the farmland, the lights of the city cannot obstruct our view of the stars; countless constellations and the cloudy arm of the milky way are all in view in the void above.

“I hate to leave,” She says, looking longingly at the sky. “It’s so beautiful out here.”

“It’s nice and quiet.”

“And romantic,” She smiles, and takes a step toward me, “This is literally the nicest date anyone has ever brought me on.”

I close the rest of the distance between us, and move in for the kiss.


 

We get in my car and take one last look up at the sky – I’ve taken off the roof for the occasion – before we drive back down the hill, across the fields, and though the woods to the road.

The wind screams over the top of the car, making the radio inaudible and conversation impossible. But I keep a smile on my face the entire way home.

As my thoughts on the evening consume me, something breaks through the bliss and itches at the back of my mind. Conversations I had heard overheard, and scraps of information She had mentioned in passing were eating at me.

We pull up in front of her apartment, and I stop her as she reaches for the door.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“I know that you said you’ve still been meeting up with your ex on the weekends to hook up,” I start off slowly, then pause for a breath. “If you want to keep seeing me, that needs to stop.”

She looks at me without a trace of emotion in her face. She opens her mouth to speak but hesitates a moment, stunned by my request.

Finally she replies, “I’m going to keep seeing him. But I love going out and spending time with you. Can’t you just deal with a few more weekends while I get this out of my system?”

Good Lord, she’s not even kidding. I can see it in her eyes: that childish pleading look.

“I’m sorry – I have standards,” I say, curtly. “Now get out of my car.”

She steps out onto the curb, and I reach across to close the door behind her. I speed off in low gear without a glance back. For some of life’s concerts you should never be content playing second fiddle. No one is worth the price of your self respect.

A.H.W.

 

Punishment Fits the Crime – Sprint

Some things are so hard to deal with, your brain tries to just block them out – I tell myself as I grab the rim and throw up – but once you feel them again, the pain comes right back.

My nose and mouth burn, as I wretch, spit, and cough.

I lean back on the wall next to the tub, and groan. I reach out and press down on the handle to flush. What was once a few shots and many, many beers, sinks down the drain.

I look over at my friend, Matt. He sits, with his back to the sink. We have been here for an hour or so.

His eyes are shut.

“I- I feel, I, oh- this is rough,” he says. “Last night just- it just – it got so out of hand.”

“Don’t be dumb. I had a guh- (I fight back the urge to puke again) great time. Glad we went.” I mean it too; we spent the whole night at a ’20s theme bash. When I got home, I had time to take off my dress shirt. . . now here I am.

“We’ll live,” I say. But I’m not quite too sure, to tell you the truth. He groans again.

I reach for the knob to turn on the water. The sound helps.

“It was worth it, right?” Matt says. “I mean, you had your shot with Liz! You took her to her dorm, did you. . . ”

I shake my head. “I just made sure she got there safe. We did kiss. That is it.”

“Wow,” he says. “You are a good guy, you know that? I think we-” Matt stops, and goes limp. I look over to make sure he is ok. Still good – just out cold. My arms slip to my sides. I lean my head on the tub.

When I think of the night, the pain now does not matter much. If this is the price of living in the now, I will pay it.

 

A.H.W.

Lies!

Sarah’s fake boyfriend was five-foot ten, rowed stroke seat for his high school’s varsity crew team, and was training to get his EMT certification on the weekend. They met at a church event, but Jeff and I knew him for school. We all used to take AP Physics together.

Of course, we would never surrender all of this information to Ted at once. The man was as unrelenting as he was greasy, and once he got the idea into his head that he wanted to conquer Sarah, there was no shaking it.

The boyfriend cover was the best we could come up with for her. He would hound each of us about it, at length and separated – as any good interrogator would. Piece by piece we would feed him the details.

There’s the problem with laying down a convincing lie: you want to keep the story simple so it won’t collapse under its own weight, but you don’t want to be grasping at straws when the questions start coming in.

The middle road solution: a concise and uniform back story that you can draw upon, but only when necessary. Researchers claim you have a different look on your face when you’re remembering something, than when you’re making it up. Call it an easy tell.

I’m not a liar – at least not a compulsive one.

When I do lie, you’d better believe I have good cause. If you ask the high-and-mighty types, they’ll tell you: honesty is the best policy – but we all know that’s crap. There’s a reason you don’t tell your friend her new hair color makes her look like an angsty tween, ask your cousin if his Prius can outrun a Rascal mobility scooter, or nark on your amicable coworker when they show up to work late.

I’m not saying you should become a complete sociopath – just protect the people who are good to you. Because in that right, loyalty is far more valuable than honesty.

A.H.W.

Storm Salvage

The smell of ozone lingers in the air.

I sip my cup of coffee from the ancient wooden gliding chair on the screened-in porch, and look out at the water. The rolling cliffs leading down to the beach below are blanketed with grape vines; the light undersides of their leaves are exposed.

The weather stick – a novelty gift item my great grandfather had picked up in a Vermont country store – nailed to the wall next to me, pointed straight down.

These were the three surest signs of an impending storm I had; my family put more credence in them than any meteorologist. Our maritime radio, alongside a pair of high-powered binoculars, sits on the arm of the glider, within reach. The radio is on. Amid the static I hear bits of emergency broadcasts.

“Wind speed up to seven-tee-three knots. Seas ten to fifteen feet. Chance of showers, and thunn-der storms,” the robotic voice of the emergency broadcast warns.

I finish my coffee and step across the warped porch floor boards, damaged from years of exposure to the ocean just down the cliff. About a mile out on the water, I can see a wall of rain moving in. At the rain line, the water abruptly changes from glassy calm, to choppy and dark.

The leaves rustle, and I feel the first gusts of wind from the incoming storm make landfall. I know I don’t have long to prepare for the gale-force storm that’s about to hit.

I quickly zip up my light-weight rain jacket and matching pants, then grab the radio. I drape the binoculars around my neck, and take a long length of rope hanging from a fish scale next to the porch door, then head down to the beach.

The wind pelts the bluff with sand as I arrive at the top of the tall wooden bulkhead, so I shield my face with my hands. I stand at the edge of the wall and look down. Normally there’s about a ten foot drop to the beach, followed by a stretch of sand that slopes down to the ocean. But with the flood tide, the beach has all but disappeared, and the water is rising against the aged boards. Our stairs down to the beach have been carried up in preparation for the storm.

I take the length of rope and tie a quick clove-hitch around a tall post we use for hoisting up the rowboat. With the other end, I make a bowline around my waist. My rule for salvage is simple: stay on the line. The coming waves could easily crash over the bulkhead and sweep me out to sea if I’m careless.

But the risk is worth the thrill. In the past, I’ve found rowboats, an inflatable trampoline, even a small motor boat which I begrudgingly returned to its owner.

The sound of rain pelting the water shakes me from my reminiscing. I look up and watch, as the storm line dashes across the water and slams the beach. Chop springs up on the water, and a downpour beads off my Marmot rain shell.

The expanse of cottages clinging to the cliffsides quickly dissapears in a shroud of mist. All I can see is the edge of the bulkhead, and the swirling water below.

There is a thunderous crash as a huge wave broadsides the wall, spraying foam and mist. As the raindrops roll down my face I look up and down the beach, knowing not a soul is out doors for miles around.

But the lure of unknown keeps bringing me back to the edge – here.

A.H.W.

Punishment Fits the Crime

Some things are so unpleasant your brain tries to block out any memory of them, I decide – tightening my grip on the porcelain rim of the toilet bowl as I feel my stomach turning itself inside out – but once you’re exposed to them again, all those painful memories come flooding back.

My nose and mouth burn as I empty the contents of my stomach into the water. I cough, sputter, and spit several times, before I slump back against the wall next to the bathtub. My nausea temporarily subsiding, I reach out and press down the handle, flushing the toilet. What used to be more than a few rounds of champagne, Jameson, and Yuengling all recede down into the plumbing.

I look across at my roommate Matt. He’s slumped against the bathroom counter on the opposite side of the toilet. We’ve been here the last hour or so.

Matt groans, and closes his eyes. “I-I’m so sorry,” he stammers. “Last night just- it just- it got so out of hand,” he manages.

“Don’t be an idiot, that was a guh, (I fight back the urge to vomit again,) great fucking party. Glad we went,” I assure him. I’m not lying either: we spent the evening – leading into the early hours of the morning – at a 1920’s themed house party, with themed drinks and music to boot.

Upon getting home, I had enough time to take off my dress shirt before I started retching, but I’m still wearing the wool pin-striped pants I picked up at the thrift shop. My suspenders have slipped off my shoulders, and are partially tangled around my arms. Matt’s fedora is laying in the bathroom doorway.

“My head. Is kuh-ill-ing me. And my stomach isn’t doin’ great either,” Matt groans again.

“We’ll survive,” I assure him. Although I’m not so sure myself: I feel another wave of nausea swelling in my stomach. I reach around into the tub behind me and turn on the shower. Just the sound gives me something else to think about for a moment.

“It was kinda worth it, wasn’t it?” Matt mumbles. “I mean, things finally happened with Liz right? You walked her home, did you…” He trails off, as I shake my head.

“I didn’t want to try anything tonight. We made out a few times during the party, but I’m not that kind of guy. I told her I’d call tomorrow, and I will. If we ever get through this morning, that is,” I reply. I edge myself closer to the toilet again, just in case.

“Man, how did we get so trashed?” Matt massages his temples.

I knew exactly how: a complete game of Cheers, Governor, followed by a few rounds of Civil War and Keep Drinking and Everybody Explodes – a game of our own creation. Then we shook all that liquor up with an hour or two of dancing.

“I shouldn’t have had the jungle juice,” Matt doubles over. It looks like he’s about to start throwing up again, but he steadies himself.

“I think that’s pretty fucking sound advice for any situation,” I laugh. “You know Tommy makes it with like, half Everclear, right? You’re lucky you aren’t in the E.R. right now.” A smile flickers across Matt’s face. His eyes are still shut tightly.

“I think I, we sh- ” he trails off, his head lolling to the side. I’m briefly concerned, until I hear Matt start to snore. He’s out cold.

My arms slip to my sides, and my head rests against the plexiglass shower door. I shiver, but my head hurts and I worry if I stand up to get warmer clothes, I’ll start heaving again. I decide to rest for a while right here.

As my stomach finally starts to settle down, I start reliving the highlights of the party in my head; dressing up, dancing to old music, drinking games with my closest friends. And of course there was Liz in her blue dress. The way she kept leaning in during our conversations, her face getting dangerously close to mine.

These thoughts make the current misery seem trivial. More than that, they make it seem fair, or justifiable. If every night out could be this fun, I would take the accompanying hangover with no complaints. If that’s the price paid for living in the moment, so be it.

A.H.W.

The Mountain’s Shadow

I slide the heavy plastic napkin dispenser – I swear I’d seen the exact same one a thousand times, like the entire country went and made a standard national napkin dispenser with the same dimensions, cut from the same half-opaque plastic, with the same little slot on the bottom that drops individually wrapped toothpicks – on top of the flimsy paper menu, looking to plan its escape and hitch a ride on a passing wind gust.

Leaning on the balcony railing, I stare past the empty chair across from me and look down at the park below where a few of my friends lay on their backs in the grass by the fountain. They’re looking up at the dark clouds hanging low overhead.

Opposite the fountain, near some paving stones and what looks like a tiny raised stage, a handful of burly, tanned men are struggling to dismantle a set of temporary bleachers. They throw the iron piping supports into a growling diesel flatbed that sputters exhaust in an impatient idle. They take their time, yet still are careless with their handling of the set pieces. The tubes clang together, punctuating the quiet afternoon.

Still beyond the park, are a myriad of tourist-y shops crowding with gawkers. One is built to look like an authentic teepee, complete with sour-cane and palm leaf roofing that the indigenous Bri-Bri Indians would use. Along the short stretch of the park, directly opposite the street the restaurant sits on, is a whitewashed Cathedral whose steeple towers over the rest of the town. It ought to have been attached to a different church though: it was much too big for the tiny house of worship it was part of.

Ornate streetlamps flicker to life out of sync as the mountain grumbles beyond the church and the foothills, bringing early nightfall. The breeze reaches out from the mountain, billowing passed the hills and the church, zigzagging between the out-of-towners in their khakis and “I love Costa Rica” paraphernalia, slinging cameras and snapping pictures of the most commonplace things. It crosses the park, politely sidestepping the construction workers, stopping briefly to mix with the exhaust from their truck. It cuts through the ring of teenagers by the fountain, scales the storefront below, and blows over the balcony.

The breeze is flavored now with mild smoke and cinders, reminiscent of a July-evening barbeque cooked over a proper charcoal grill with just a hint of mesquite that your father swears makes the meat taste momentously better. The smell sits somewhere in the back of my nose until I cough over the sulfur that came along with it. I almost don’t notice when my companion steps back out onto the balcony. She stands over me, next to the table, opening her mouth to speak, but the growing wind gathers up all of her auburn hair and rudely casts it in her face.

“Ah!”

“Ready to go?” I ask.

She wrangles her hair with a Scrunchie lasso before replying, “Yes,” with a giggle.

I toss a few thousand Colones – local currency, I honestly can’t be bothered to explain the exchange rate – onto the table, think about it, then move it beneath the safety of a salt shaker, before rising.

“Come on, we want to get to the falls before dark,” one of her curls has gotten loose and absolutely refuses to behave.

I take one last look at the town before descending to the streets below.

A.H.W.