Abner slowly walked down the dark hallway towards the light at the far end. He listened as he passed each door, but the only sounds he heard were the distant hum of the generator upstairs and water dripping into a puddle somewhere further up ahead.
When he was halfway down the hall, he stopped in the dim light to examine one of the large tarnished brass locks hanging from a door. Lifting it away from the wall, it was much heavier than any he’d seen before, and he tested its weight in his hand for a moment. On the bottom, instead of the normal slot for a key, there was a square hole, and he tried to picture what any such key would look like. There were no markings or numbers anywhere on the lock, and he wondered where it had been purchased—certainly not in Sigbee’s little hardware store.
The door itself was what his mother always called a pocket-door: mounted on overhead rollers, when opened, it receded into the wall without taking up any space. Constructed of thick, solid wood planks fastened together in a metal frame, Abner guessed the door weighed more than he did.
He was still holding the strange lock in his hand when he heard the now familiar thud coming from the building’s front door. Glancing quickly at the stairs, he dropped the lock, letting it fall back against the door with a sharp crack that echoed down the hallway.
Suddenly, the heavy wooden door sprang to life, crashing against its frame with such force that fine particles of dust blew into Abner’s face. The planks shuddered and trembled as someone or something thrashed and pounded from the other side in a frenzy to break through. Shocked, Abner let out a cry and began to back away, staring wide-eyed at the door as it shook under the fusillade of blows.
As he backed into the middle of the hallway, a high pitched wail rose from beyond the door. To Abner, it sounded like a cry of mixed rage and desperation, and the piercing howl—partly muffled by the door—made the hair on his neck stand up. He put his hands over his ears as he continued to retreat, blindly backpedaling until he bumped into the opposite door on the wall behind him.
When his head hit the thick wood, white light flashed in his eyes and he had to lean back against the door to steady himself. Before he could recover though, the door was struck from the other side, crashing and rattling so hard that its own heavy brass lock jerked skyward. For a terrifying moment, Abner was afraid it would crash inward as he leaned back. Pushing away from the door, he scrambled back into the middle of the hallway.
As he looked around desperately for somewhere to hide, the banging abruptly stopped. The darkened hallway went silent for a moment before a nearly identical wail arose from beyond the door, even louder and more tortured than the first. Then, like a wildfire consuming a swath of forest, soon the entire length of the hallway was a cacophony of the thick wooden doors slamming hard against their frames and the inhuman screams coming from the rooms beyond.
Abner knew that the man in the dirty white lab coat would be coming down the stairs at any second so—as there was no other way to go—he raced further down the long hallway. Reaching the lone light at the end, he saw that the hall actually ended at a T-intersection. He quickly looked left and right down both new routes, but each was a dark abyss beyond the limited range of the anemic lightbulb overhead. For no particular reason, he turned left and ran around the corner just as he heard the stairwell door open at the other end of the hall.
Elbert stood next to the truck with his fingers still resting on the silver door handle. As he peered across the moonlit vegetation towards the Sigbee Depot, he brooded over how much he didn’t want to go back down there to find Abner. In fact, what he wanted was to go home and never come back to this place again. All he would need to do is walk a little further out to the main highway and then catch a ride back into town with the next passing car.
If the prospect of landing into hot water with his parents—or the cops—weren’t reason enough to leave, the creepy man with the lantern was plenty convincing to Elbert that they shouldn’t be there. Whoever the man was, and whatever he was doing, he clearly didn’t want anyone else knowing.
Elbert had every reason to believe that the man could be dangerous. There might even be other people there with him, people inside the buildings that the two boys hadn’t seen. For all he knew, whoever was in there may even have ways of knowing when trespassers were snooping around, and…
Settle down, he told himself, you’re getting all worked up over nothing. You’d know it if Abner had been caught, he’s got the biggest mouth in Georgia.
Looking towards where the depot stood in the darkness, he strained to see anything that might offer a clue as to where his friend was, but the night surrendered nothing. Damn you, Abner, he thought to himself, you’re going to get us both killed one day.
With a deep sigh of resignation, he let go of the door handle. With any luck, he would run into him somewhere in the brush and be spared having to return all the way to the depot. Elbert tucked the keys back under the gas cap and returned to the bushes.
Abner pressed up tight against the wall just around the corner of the hallway as whatever was being held behind the doors continued to fill the basement with their unnerving screeching. As his heart drummed loudly in his chest, he heard the man bang on a door at the other end of the hall and shout something in a strange language. Abner listened as the man went door to door, pounding on the wooden planks and yelling the curt foreign words at the other side.
After a few moments, the screaming and pounding died down before finally stopping altogether, replaced by the steady hum of the generator above. Abner could hear the man’s footsteps approaching in the empty hallway and he knew that he only had moments left to hide. Racing a short distance into the darkness, he found a shallow recess in the wall where a pair of large steel pipes extended up into the ceiling. Squeezing into the recess behind the pipes, he slid down to the floor to make himself as small as possible.
His heart was pounding in his chest as the footsteps came closer. He suddenly felt incredibly exposed, certain that as soon as the man came around the corner, he would spot him. The footsteps seemed to echo unnaturally loud as the man reached the end of the hall—now close enough to again smell the combined aroma of cigarettes and medicine—and then stopped.
The seconds ticked by like hours as Abner waited to discover which direction—left or right—the man was going to take. If he came left, he was almost guaranteed to see Abner crouched in the recess behind the pipes. If he did—there would be nowhere for Abner to run.
Thankfully, the tall man turned right, and Abner breathed a sigh of relief as he heard his footsteps recede down the other hall. He knew he wouldn’t have very long before the man returned, and he went to stand up in order to sneak away while he was gone. When he tried to get up however, he found that he couldn’t move as his foot was tightly wedged in between the wall and one of the pipes.
Apparently, when he had quickly crouched down in the recess, he put enough weight on the foot to jam it in place, but now—so low to the floor—he couldn’t exert enough force upward to prize it loose. A cold flash of panic washed over him as he frantically pulled on his ankle, but it wouldn’t budge.
He tried twisting to adjust his seating for more leverage, but there was no extra space between the wall and the pipe. He strained until his eyes watered and it felt as if his ankle would break, but his foot still held fast. Exhausted and scared, he slumped back against the wall.
Elbert made it back to the depot in time to see the tall man, still carrying his lantern, walk back into the main building where Abner had gone. He crouched in the bushes and considered what to do next. He couldn’t go inside, not now that the man had returned. Disheartened, all he could do was hope Abner had heard him coming with enough time to hide.
He decided to sneak back around to the front of the building to see if he could hear anything from inside; with luck, Abner would manage to sneak back out without being seen. Clouds had begun to move in, and the pale light from the moon ebbed and flowed as they traversed the sky.
Across from the depot building, Elbert found a large bush beside the train tracks and slid underneath the leafy branches to wait. He could still hear the generator humming inside the building, but otherwise the only sounds were the crickets that shared the bushes with him.
He lost track of just how long he had been watching the door when it finally opened with a flourish. To his relief, the thin man didn’t act as though anything were out of the ordinary, and he began his all-too-familiar loping walk back to the smaller building on the edge of the depot yard. Elbert watched as the man walked around the side of the building and disappeared, and the yard was again bathed in darkness.
Leaving his bush, Elbert scrambled to the door in a crouched run. He glanced back once more to the smaller building and then went inside. Like Abner before him, the bright light and generator noise was disorientating, and it took him a moment to get his bearings.
He looked around the large open room with confusion; there didn’t appear to be anywhere for Abner to have gone.
“Abner—” he whispered loudly, but there was no response. Damn it, he thought to himself, looking around. He spotted the path worn through the dust on the floor and followed it to the small room. Putting his hand gently on the handle, he listened for any sounds from the other side.
When he heard nothing, he opened the door and quickly stepped through, closing it behind him. Standing at the top of the stairs, he decided against calling down for Abner; he didn’t know where, or even if, he was down there—nor did he know if he was alone. He descended the steps as quietly as he could, looking back and forth from the door behind him to the hallway to his front.
At the bottom of the steps he saw the doors lining both walls leading into the darkness before reaching the lone light at the far end. Walking softly down the hall, he listened to the generator humming upstairs. Other than water slowly dripping into a puddle somewhere, the hallway was as silent as a crypt.
Abner thought he heard a door close in the distance, but he couldn’t be sure. He remained as still as possible in order to listen, but his heart was pounding too loudly in his chest and all he could hear was its rhythmic thumping. The tall man had left only a few minutes ago—walking by close enough to smell again—and Abner didn’t expect him to be back so soon.
In the darkness behind the pipes, once again he again pulled hard on his ankle but it still wouldn’t come loose. His legs had been bent tightly for so long now that it was as if his muscles had gone completely dead. He knew that the man in the lab coat would be back before long, and he swallowed hard to fight down the panic. With a frustrated grunt, he stopped pulling on his foot.
Sagging back against the wall, he heard a noise in the hallway and he was certain this time that it had been footsteps. Like before, the man stopped at the end of the hall just out of sight and Abner held his breath again in fear of being found.
To his surprise however, the door at the top of the stairs suddenly opened again—definitively this time—and he heard the man closest to him scurry around the corner to the right. While Abner still couldn’t see him, he could hear his quick breathing at the start of the other hall.
Wait—who the hell is that? he wondered to himself, though he already knew the answer.
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