Abner’s legs began to burn from the effort of holding perfectly still in front of the depot building. The moon’s silver light cast an incandescent glow around the open area where he was hiding—half-crouched—between the building’s brick façade and the defunct train tracks. To his left, bushy weeds crowded in amongst the rusted rails before disappearing into the leafy darkness of the trees surrounding the abandoned complex. Large overhead doors—meant for driving cargo loaders through—covered nearly the entire front of the building except for a single pedestrian door halfway down the wall.
He had only been ten feet away from the lone door when it suddenly swung open, forcing him to freeze as the tranquil night exploded in bright orange light and the steady roaring of a running motor from within the building. He watched as the same tall man the boys had seen earlier emerged from the doorway, still holding the lantern. The man hadn’t noticed him crouched beside the building—almost close enough to touch—and now Abner could see his features clearly.
The man looked to be in his late 40’s, with dark, close-cropped hair. His angular face was covered in a coarse stubble except for where his thin lips were drawn into a taut pink line. He wore a pair of safety goggles pulled up onto his forehead, and Abner could smell the bitter aroma of medicine intermixed with stale cigarette smoke coming off his lab coat.
Abner watched as the man briefly stopped to tuck some loose papers under his arm, then—as suddenly as he had appeared—the man left. Still gently swinging the little lantern, he walked back to the other building and away from Abner, his shoes crunching on the gravel underfoot. He had only gone a few steps when the door beside him swung closed, and the noise made Abner gasped in surprise.
The lantern never stopped swinging though, and soon it and the man disappeared around the adjacent building, allowing the darkness to pour back into the empty depot yard. When he was gone, Abner finally sank to the ground in exhaustion, groaning quietly in pain. A moment later, as he sat there rubbing his legs, Elbert materialized from the darkness, crouching low as he trotted closer.
“Jesus,” he whispered as he came up to him, “is that close enough? Can we get out of here now?”
Abner rolled his eyes and got up to his knees. “No, I told you: I want to see what he’s doing in there. You didn’t have to follow me back here—I told you that too.”
“I followed you because you’re going to get yourself into deep shit—or worse,” said Elbert, getting angry.
“From a guy in a lab coat and goggles? I think I’ll be okay. What’s he going to do if I just sprint off into the woods? Nothing. He wouldn’t even know who I was. I don’t plan on it coming to that though, I just want to know what he’s doing in there.”
“Fine. Have it your way. I’m out of here—I’ll be back at the truck,” said Elbert.
Abner scoffed under his breath and said, “whatever, if you’re going, go now then because he’s gonna be back any minute.”
Elbert just let out an exasperated huff and turned back for the corner of the building. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson this time, he thought as he slipped back around the corner, still crouched over. He glanced around the edge of the building one last time and saw Abner slip through the door of the building. Idiot, he thought before pushing into the weeds.
The abrupt change from darkness into light burned Abner’s eyes, and for a moment he was blinded as he entered the depot building. He slowly closed the door behind him, and—as his vision returned—looked around the room. A bare bulb overhead was the only source of light, its orange glow fading to darkness just past the entranceway. Now inside, he saw that the entire building was little more than a brick shell, and he could sense the vastness surrounding him.
At once he saw the source of the humming noise he and Elbert heard from outside: on the far side of the room, a portable generator sat running, its pale blue exhaust drifting high above to the ceiling. An electric cable ran from the side of the generator to a small metal box mounted to the wall, and Abner guessed the man was piggy-backing on the depot’s old wiring to power the building using the generator.
There were a few old pallets and broken crates scattered around the floor, but otherwise it looked as though the large building was empty. What industrial debris did remain was blanketed in the thick gray dust that only accumulates in decades of stagnant air. All around the floor, piles of bird droppings—each one generations in height—stood like testimonial monuments to neglect and abandonment. Confused, Abner was just about to turn and leave when he saw footprints in the dusty floor leading away from the doorway.
Following the footprints with his eyes, he saw they led to a small room no larger than a broom closet set against the wall. Abner followed the prints over to the room, glancing back over his shoulder as he crept closer. The noise from the generator echoing inside the building made it impossible for him to hear anything else, and he was afraid the man would be back at any moment.
When he got to the door, he pressed his ear against the wood in an attempt to hear any clues from the other side, but there was only silence and the reverberating hum of the generator. Grabbing the door handle, Abner twisted it slowly, surprised to find that it was unlocked. As he opened the door, a cloud of damp, musky air hit his face, causing him to lean back in recoil. Just inside, another bare lightbulb hung down from the ceiling by a wire, its dim light swinging gently back and forth in the tight space.
Rather than the small storage closet Abner been expecting, a short flight of heavy wooden stairs lead down to a basement deep beneath the depot building. At the bottom of the steps, just out of sight, another lone lightbulb illuminated what looked to be the beginning of a narrow hallway. Closing the door behind him, Abner carefully descended the steps, leaning close to the wall as he crept lower.
As he had suspected, the stairs led to a long, brick-walled hallway with a dirty tile floor that looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in decades. Resembling a shadowy tunnel, another light at the far end revealed the hallway’s length and he guessed it to be that of the entire building above. Evenly space along the walls, heavy wooden sliding doors with thick metal latches stood like guards on promenade. Each door’s latch was secured to the wall with a type of large brass lock that Abner had never seen before.
He glanced back up towards the door at the top of the steps one last time and then turned and walked into the darkness beyond the glow of the stairway light.
Elbert was still mad when he finally got back to the truck. He had made better time on the return trip, not even bothering to keep quiet once he was a short distance away from the depot. He had glanced back occasionally in the thin hope that he would hear Abner crashing through the dry weeds behind him, but each time he only heard the soft rustling of the leaves and the distant cries of those animals that prowl the darkness.
The truck keys were under the gas cap where Abner had left them, and Elbert unlocked the truck before climbing into the passenger seat. He’s such an idiot, he thought, he isn’t going to do anything but get us both in trouble… or worse.
As he sat there in the dark cab thinking, his mind returned to the thin man with the lab coat carrying the lantern back and forth between the depot buildings. Maybe Abner is right—maybe—but if he is, then that’s all the more reason to get away from here. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got. This was nothing more than Abner’s typical selfish behavior.
Still… if he is right, then he’s likely in more danger than he even realizes.
Suddenly, his anger began to subside, replaced instead with guilt. He realized that what had originally been intended to teach Abner a lesson could very well get out of hand, and quickly. Abner seldom knew when to quit—often relying on Elbert to provide balance and reason—but this wasn’t the same thing as shaving Mrs. Buxley’s cat.
Come on, Abner, he thought, just get back to the truck so we can get out of here. He stared through the window into the night, hoping to see the silver moonlight reflecting off Abner’s brown hair as he bobbed through the high brush, but the leafy bushes only rocked and swayed with the breeze in the moon’s pale light.
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