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.