Only the slightest bit of pinkish light filters into the old warehouse from the streetlights. Max can just make out vague, hunched forms of the things in the room with him. The scent of mildew and rotting paper fill his nostrils like a toxic fog. He steps into a puddle he can't see, in a deep, velvety darkness that boils with things from his imagination.
“Where are you?” he whispers. He hears only water trickling through old pipes and small rustlings coming from every direction. He’d thought he might hear footsteps, but the guy he followed in here seems to be hiding from him. He's sure he’ll feel a cold hand grip his shoulder.
He forces himself to breath normally as his heart stutters mad tattoos of fear against his ribcage. All he wants to do is turn around and get back outside as fast as he can. He wipes his sweaty hands on his jeans and hefts his knife into an overhand stabbing position. Got to be ready for anything.
He blinks his eyes, hoping they’ll adjust to the low light soon so he can get a sense of the space. He wonders if he can find Katelyn before something bad happens. What if she’s already. . . He swallows hard. "You can't think like that," he whispers to calm himself, as his fingers tighten around the handle of his knife. "Get it together!"
He takes a deep, shaky breath and walks forward as quietly as he can, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness for a moment, before he realizes that he can just use the flashlight feature of his cell. He turns it on, illuminating the detritus of years on the floor: he sees dust motes swarming around an antique manual typewriter, a three-legged wooden chair with a crushed beer can perched on the seat, a baby doll head, one of its eyes closed in a wink, all of its blonde hair shorn. The doll head freaks him out, forcing him to look away, because he's convinced the other eye is going to open suddenly in a vicious leer.
"Just keep it together," he tells himself, but jumps when the sound of his own voice startles him.
He heads down the hallway, holding the knife up overhand now, so he can use it more easily. He pads down the hall, avoiding glittering slivers of glass on the floor that would telegraph his advance and draw unwanted attention. He steps around a big piece of machinery in front of wide double doors at the end of the hall, easing the unblocked door open, amazed and gratified that it opens so silently after all these years of abandonment. Hopefully he hasn’t been heard yet.
Inside, he can only sense how large the room is around him. The beam of his flashlight only illuminates a few feet in any direction. He looks all around, willing his eyes to adjust; terrified he'll see some shadowy thing loping towards him, endless frights from horror movies flickering through his mind in a nightmare loop.
His mind flashes horrifying pictures of Katelyn, lying dead on the floor, blood on her face, and he has to force himself to stop seeing it. "Stay in the moment," he thinks fiercely. "Just get through this and find her!" He takes a few more steps toward the center of the room, every atom of his being willing him to turn around and run out, expecting he’s going to see the guy he followed in here any second, until the shadowy outline of something big, like a desk or a piece of machinery takes shape ahead of him.
He shines his flashlight onto it and sees something glossy, flat and oblong: a cell phone with a neon green case. Katelyn’s phone maybe? Where the hell is she then, he wonders, just as he smells something spicy and fragrant rising around him, the presence of someone behind him.
He turns, his heartbeat storming in his ears, as the spicy smell intensifies. A shadowy figure with eyes like fire looms in front of him, moving in close to his face, as if they’re about to kiss him. “Hey!” he croaks and tries to raise his hands up to push the figure away. The figure darts closer, touching his face with hot fingers and he tries to back away as the figure whispers, “Sleep.” Strong arms wrap around him as he sinks into blackness.
Five weeks ago
Deering High School, Portland, Maine
The hall is packed with kids rushing to cram in lunch before their next class. It’s a swirl of laughter, conversation and sporadic shouts from a clump of freshmen boys who are on the football team. They obviously think they are today’s lunchtime entertainment. They keep looking around the hall self-consciously, as if hoping someone will take notice.
Sierra slides in between her two friends, Kiana and Hannah, setting the tray down on the floor in front of them, and ripping open the carton of chocolate milk on her lunch tray to take a quick swig. “Ugh! It’s been such a crap morning!”
“Why? What’s up?” Hannah asks, raising her eyebrows.
“I bet it’s Theo,” Kiana speculates, leaning in to hear. Sierra rolls her eyes at them, stabs a forkful of tater tots and stuffs them in her mouth before admitting, “Yeah, it’s Theo.” Her friends swim in front of her as her eyes fill with angry tears. “He’s such a dick!”
“I knew it!” Kiana makes a sad face, and puts her hand on Sierra’s arm, comfortingly. “What’d he do now, Si?”
Sierra wipes the tears off her cheeks, looking around quickly to make sure no one saw her crying. “I caught him. . .” She can barely get it out. “I saw him kissing some freshman at the lockers this morning. . . He was all over her!” That does it. Tears spill over onto her cheeks and she dashes them away with her sleeve.
Hannah growls. “God, you need to just break up with that asshole now, Si!”
“I know,” Sierra says thickly, shaking her head, tears still threatening. “I know. . .”
“No, this has happened twice now,” Hannah says firmly. Kiana nods in agreement. “You can’t let him keep walking all over you just because he’s on the basketball team.”
“Yeah,” Kiana agrees. “That boy can’t keep it in his pants. You need to find someone who respects you. Know what I mean?”
Sierra nods tearfully, pushing her tray away with one foot. “I can’t eat. . . I’m too upset.”
“Oh, honey!” Hannah says, hugging Sierra. “Once you break up with him, you’ll feel so much better.”
Sierra looks down at the table. “I know. It’s just. . . I’ve liked him since seventh grade, and. . .”
Hannah and Kiana both violently shake their heads, no. “Uh uh!” Kiana says. “Don’t do this again. You’re gonna pretend like it never happened and go back to him, just like the other two times, aren’t you?”
Sierra doesn’t say anything, can’t meet their eyes. She knows they’re right.
“You’ve gotta respect yourself, Si,” Kiana says, scowling.
“Yeah,” Hannah says, starting to put a hand on Sierra’s shoulder, but Sierra shrugs it off, standing up abruptly and grabbing her tray.
“I’ll figure this out on my own,” she states, tears still falling. “I’ve gotta go.”
Hannah and Kiana stand up. “Wait, Si!” Hannah calls.
“No, it’s okay,” Sierra says, walking away. “I just need some time alone to think before Math.”
Sierra Oberman: I am SO pissed at Theo! And my friends just don’t understand. They don’t know what he’s like when it’s just the two of us. He’s so sweet sometimes.
James Parish: I’m sure. . . What r u going 2 do?
Sierra Oberman: My friends say I should break up w/him. What do u think?
James Parish: IDK. It’s ur choice in the end.
Sierra Oberman: Yeah, I guess. You’re such a good listener. . .
James Parish: Thanks. Hey, did u like my pic?
Sierra Oberman: Yeah u look hot! And ur really tan! Is that really u?
James Parish: Well, yeah.
Sierra Oberman: U must work out a lot.
James Parish: Yeah I do.
Sierra Oberman: Why won’t u tell me where u live?
James Parish: It’s kind of embarrassing.
Sierra Oberman: Why?
James Parish: Bc it’s not a v nice place, u know?
Sierra Oberman: Aww, that’s ok. No judgments.
James Parish: Wanna meet me somewhere?
Sierra Oberman: Ha! How dumb do u think I am? You could be a total perv!
James Parish: Now I’m crying! How could u think that? You’ve known me a long time!
Sierra Oberman: Sorry. Yeah, you’ve been a good friend here.
James Parish: We could meet at a coffee shop. U can’t get perved in a coffee shop.
Sierra Oberman: I guess. I do want to meet u.
James Parish: How about that place on Congress Street @ 6:30?
Sierra Oberman: Need to finish HW & beg for car. 7:30?
James Parish: k. See ya then.
Sierra Oberman: U just better hope u look like ur pic! ;-) If not then I’ll know you’re a perv.
James Parish: ;-)
Imagine for a moment, that you are someone who would exercise extremely poor judgment and climb the rusted chain link fence surrounding a certain derelict factory building on the waterfront. Filled with false confidence, you might then continue through the sea of knee-high dead grass and weeds, carefully avoiding bits of broken glass and rusty nails, until you come to the half-boarded front door, in which most of the window glass is shattered. Jagged pieces remain in the frame like rotten teeth. You would most likely look all around to make sure no one is watching.
And then, because you have come this far, you would duck inside, the thick smell of dust and long-dead animals filling your nostrils, and you would stand, looking around the large waiting room at an overturned wooden chair missing one leg, a desiccated leather boot, an inside-out ripped black umbrella and, inexplicably, the hairless head of a child's baby doll, one blue eye open, the other closed in a perpetual wink. Occasionally, you might hear water gurgling through old pipes and the scuttling and small noises that mice and rats make as they go about their business in the dark. But not even this would give a brave person like you pause.
No, you would decide to continue on down the large, dark hall to explore, perhaps turning on the flashlight in your cellphone and watching it capture whole colonies of floating dust motes in its bright beam. You would find the hall surprisingly free of the detritus of years, which would mean nothing to you. Perhaps you would peer briefly into the dim offices on either side of the hall as you creak your way down the splintery wooden floorboards, but most likely, you would walk purposefully to the end, where you suspect the interesting things are kept.
And you would be right.
The double doors are partially blocked by a large machine that no sense can be made of by your modern eyes, so you push open the left hand door silently and ease your way into the big, shadowy room beyond, which smells of ancient oil and explosively hot summer days long gone past. Because your flashlight doesn’t do much good, you wait for a moment until your eyes adjust to the dim light that filters in from milky skylights and floor to ceiling windows grimed with years of dirt.
At last you can see that machines just like the one outside the door line both sides of the room in mostly orderly rows. Someone told you this was some kind of shoe factory in the early 1900s. Sure enough, there are a few mismatched old boots lying about here and there on the floor. If you were to walk along between these machines to the other end of the vast room, you would see something equally dark but very recognizably human, hanging by the wrists, tied to splintery old wooden beams with lengths of thick, jute rope.
If you were to move closer, you would see that the human is a teenaged girl, her blonde hair tangled, hanging in her face in oily waves, her eyes closed, dark eye makeup smeared around them raccoonishly. Maybe not even seeing her here has made your heart skip a beat, but when you see that a small smile curls the corners of her lips, you would stop in your tracks and feel your palms grow slick with sweat, your breathing shallow and quick.
And that would be when you realize that perhaps you shouldn’t have strayed into this place.
Portland Press Herald
Body of Missing Portland Teen Found in Portland Harbor
Sierra A. Oberman, 16, a Sophomore at Deering High School, had been missing since Monday. Her parents had made three appearances on local TV news affiliates asking anyone who knew anything about her disappearance to come forward. The body was found in Portland tidal waters by Portland Police Officers, Mark Waltz and Samuel Johnson around 6:30 am Saturday.
Investigators from Portland haven’t yet ruled out whether Oberman’s death was suspicious. This is the third similar death of a teen in a year in the greater Portland area. The Maine Medical Examiner’s Office will examine her remains to determine how she died.
Authorities said that her pocketbook was next to her body, with her wallet and identification inside.
Deering High School
“What the hell is wrong with that dude?” Anna asks, walking into the hall. She’s holding a Starbucks coffee in one hand.
Max follows. “What dude?” he asks, busy trying to push papers, notebooks and a dirty hoodie into his backpack so he can zip it.
Anna reaches up and grabs Max’s chin with her free hand and manually turns his face to look across the hall at a boy wrapped around a girl, their lips locked together like suction cups. Max feels an embarrassed smirk spread across his mouth. “Well, it’s kinda gross, but who died and made you the kissing police?”
Anna sighs in frustration. “No, dummy. . . His girlfriend is the one they just found, dead, in Portland Harbor.” She drops her hand from his chin, and stares up at him, eyebrows raised, blue eyes wide and irritated, waiting for him to get it.
Max’s mouth drops open. “Wait. . . You mean another one of those disappearances?”
“Hello, hashtag CLUELESS? Sierra’s been missing since last Monday. Where have you been?”
Max frowns, wishing he dared to say that maybe some people have other things going down in their lives and don’t notice every little detail. But Sierra is in his Spanish class. Or was. Every day. How did he miss her not being there for an entire week? And now she’s dead? He glares at the guy—Theo is his name, he’s pretty sure—busy sharing spit with the freshman girl pressed up against a locker. He’s seen Sierra in exactly that position for weeks now. He didn’t really know her, but he’s pretty sure she deserves a little bit more respect than this. Finally, he tears his gaze away from the scene to look at Anna again. “Whoa, that’s messed up. Doesn’t he know she’s. . .?”
“I know, right?” Anna murmurs, shaking her head and frowning. “Some people are completely brainless. He has to know.”
“Isn’t this the third disappearance?” Max asks.
Anna nods, taking a slow sip of her coffee. “Yeah, creepy, isn’t it?”
Someone runs into Max’s back hard, knocking him right into Anna, and to his horror, his right hand grazes her breast as it finds its way to keep him from falling. She shrieks, “Beck! Watch out! You totally spilled my coffee, man!”
Max feels a ferocious blush spread up from his chest to overtake his face with heat as he scrambles back from Anna, hoping she doesn’t notice. He turns around to glare at Beck, “Jesus, dude. . .”
He grins at them in that mellow ‘Beck’ way of his. “Sorry, guys. I saw you were having a convo without me and I just knew I had to be a part of it all! C’mon big man, we gotta get to Math,” he says to Max. Max hates when Beck calls him big man. Sure, he grew six inches over the past year, but doesn’t Beck get that it’s embarrassing to be taller than everyone else?
Max slides one strap of his backpack over his right shoulder and sighs. “Okay, see you at lunch?” he calls back to Anna, who nods distractedly, more concerned with mopping up the small spot of coffee on her sweater. “Later!” Beck bellows as they walk away. Max looks back to see Anna give Beck the finger, a half smile playing across her lips as she shakes her head at them.
Anna is already sitting with her back against the wall in the hall, her lunch bag tipped over on the floor, munching on a celery stick and hummus. She hasn’t bought lunch at school since kindergarten. Max’s heart flutters when he sees the way one tendril has escaped the messy ponytail she’s pulled her dark, wavy hair into. It curls beside her right eye, and every part of him wants to brush it behind her ear, but he keeps his hands to himself.
When did this happen, he wonders, plopping down beside her with his lunch tray. When did Anna Doyle become a girl he can’t stop thinking about? For that matter, when did she become a girl? They’ve been friends since kindergarten, when they played in the school sandbox together, making what she called “concoctions” out of sand and acorn innards.
“Hey,” she says, nudging him with her shoulder, which makes his breath catch in his throat. He tries not to touch her at all anymore. He’s afraid she’ll be able to literally hear his heart beating louder whenever she’s near.
“Hey,” he says, successfully sounding as casual as he hoped he would. He looks at her out of the corner of his eye, trying to ignore that stupid curl. Ditto the long, dark lashes that frame her blue eyes. Shit. . . Shit, shit, shit. . .
She turns to him with a worried look on her face. “Listen, what’s up with you lately? You’ve been super jumpy for weeks!”
He stares down at his lunch tray on the floor beside his legs, grabs a chicken nugget, dips it in some barbecue sauce and pops it into his mouth, shrugging without looking at her. His voice comes out garbled with food when he says, “Nothing, why?”
“Will you look at me when I’m talking to you, Maxfield Crabtree?” she says and pulls the grabbing his chin move again, forcing him to look her in the eyes. Her very clear, blue eyes.
It’s hard for him to form coherent thoughts when he’s this close to her. When she’s touching him. His brain goes completely blank at the feeling of her warm fingers on his face. “Uhhh.” is all he manages to say before Beck flops down beside Max with his lunch tray.
“You two look cozy,” Beck teases, and then elbows Max when he sees the blush spread across his face. Twice in one day!
“Shut up, dude!” Max elbows him back, so hard that he almost tips over and they all laugh. Situation defused.
They start eating, Anna and Beck quickly getting into a heated discussion about sexism. “Max, back me up here,” Anna says at one point. “You don’t really think girls put on an outfit each day just because we think it’ll attract a guy, right? I mean, I know when I buy something, I’m thinking, ‘Hey, this top looks really cute on me,’ not ‘Gee, I wonder if some random guy is gonna see me in it and like my boobs!’” She looks at him for confirmation and he can’t believe it: he finds himself blushing again. He likes her in pretty much anything she wears, but he’s obviously not going to say that.
He stammers like an idiot for a moment before managing to get out, “Right on.”
Anna rolls her eyes at him. “Whatever. . .You’re like a thousand miles away today, Max.”
“Sorry,” he says, smiling and shrugging.
“I’m sorry,” Beck interrupts. “But humans evolved to look for the perfect mate, Anna. You can’t tell me that you’ve never put on an outfit, thinking that it’ll look good to the opposite sex!”
“I can so say that!” Anna protests, and Max tunes them out. They do this a lot. Anna is really into Feminism. She’s always talking to them about it. As a result, he’s often nervous to talk about anything to do with girls (women, he reminds himself) because it’s likely to upset her in some way.
Max notices Sierra’s two best friends, Kiana and Hannah, sitting alone in a corner with their lunches, looking glum and whispering to each other. They must feel terrible about their friend. He doesn’t want to think about what he would do without Anna and Beck.
By the end of the day, Sierra’s death has metastasized. Suddenly everyone knew Sierra. People are telling stories about when they skated with her at the roller rink at the fifth grade graduation party. Max has seen at least four girls crying in the halls throughout the day. Just before they leave for the day, word gets around that a candlelight vigil will be held at 8 pm tonight, at the waterfront, where Sierra’s body was found. No one is sure who organized it, but Anna convinces both Max and Beck to meet her there. “It’ll be good to support Kiana and Hannah,” she says.
Max isn’t sure what to think about this. He has never been to a vigil. He isn’t sure what one does at a vigil. And he doesn’t feel like he knew Sierra very well. He doesn’t remember if he’s ever even spoken to her before. She was always wrapped up with some boy in between classes. And in class, they were always working on Spanish, not getting to know each other. And he’s definitely not sure he wants to see where Sierra was found dead. He wonders if maybe people just want to see where someone died. He wonders if her boyfriend, Theo, will be there. He hopes not, after seeing him with another girl this morning.
“How ‘bout if Beck and I pick you up and bring you with us?” Max asks, thinking about her coming alone.
Anna frowns, tilting her head to one side and planting one hand on her hip. “What? You think I can’t handle myself in the big, dark Old Port at night, Max?”
“No, it’s not that,” Max says too quickly, feeling stupid already, knowing this is exactly what he was worried about. “But that girl. . . She was probably killed by someone, you know?”
“Max, I’m a big girl. I have my pepper spray and I’ll watch out for the scary bad man, but I don’t need you and Beck to protect me.” She’s always like this, Max thinks. It’s so irritating.
“Just bring a candle, Max. And don’t be late!” Anna reminds him sternly, hand on her hip, just before she runs out to meet the bus. Max watches her run to the bus, her hair bouncing against her shoulders, and winces. How can even her hair be adorable?
After school, Max and Beck walk home together, as they have done every school day since Kindergarten. The spring breeze keeps blowing his hair in his eyes, but it’s sunny and nice out; a welcome change from the tense atmosphere at school.
“You’re awful quiet today, Maximo,” Beck says, nudging Max with his shoulder. The nickname refers to when Max was really into being a magician as a nine year old. Max usually chooses to ignore it. It was a pretty silly phase.
Max kicks at a stray pebble, watches it bounce into the street and down into a sewer grate. “Yeah, I guess. . .” he agrees, and then looks at Beck. “What do you think about this vigil thingy tonight?”
Beck shrugs, shaking his short, sandy-colored hair out of his eyes. “I dunno. . . It seems a little creepy, I guess.”
Max nods, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. “Yeah, really creepy. Who wants to see where some poor girl died?”
“We could bag out on it,” Beck suggests.
Max shakes his head, shifting his backpack to a more comfortable place on his shoulder. “No, man, we promised Anna.”
Beck grins. “We don’t have to do everything Anna wants, you know. Oh, wait. . . I forgot: you do!” Beck makes a kissing noise.
Max pushes Beck off the sidewalk and laughs when he trips over his own feet. “Shut up, dude. . . Seriously.”
“Admit it,” Beck teases, hopping back up beside Max. “You’ve seriously got it bad for her, don’t you?”
Max turns away and starts walking, trying to look as casual as humanly possible. He can’t look at Beck. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Beck sighs theatrically. “C’mon, man! You can tell your old pal, Becks! I know you like her. . .”
Max stops again and looks all around, making sure no one will hear. He grips Beck’s arm hard. “You can’t tell anyone, you hear?”
“I knew it!” Beck crows, and Max punches him in the arm lightly. “You’ve been all stupid around her like some lovesick puppy. . .”
“Come on, man, don’t make a joke out of it. This is serious.”
Beck nods, the smile slipping off his face. “All right, sorry. . .”
Max shakes his head, starting to walk again. “You can’t ever tell her. I can’t ever tell her. You know how she is about guys that she thinks are friends and then turn out to like her. . .”
Beck walks beside him, nodding. “True.”
Max looks at his friend. “Promise me, Beck.”
Beck draws a cross over his heart, and says, “Promise. Stick a needle in my eye. . .”
Max stares Beck down until he stops smiling. “She’d never speak to me again, dude.”
Beck rolls his eyes. “I seriously doubt that. You guys have known each other since elementary school.”
“All the more reason!” Max argues. “She probably thinks I’m like her brother or something. Just. . . Just don’t say anything, okay?”
“Okay. . . Jesus. . .” Beck looks at Max. “So, when did this happen?”
Max rakes a hand through his dark hair. “I don’t know. It’s like I just woke up one morning a couple of months ago, and. . .” He trails off, unsure how to explain it. He’s not even sure he understands it.
“And BAM!” Beck suggests, clapping his hands together hard and raising his eyebrows, ever the comedian.
Max nods shakily. “Yeah. . . Kinda like that. Now can we drop this? Like forever?”
“It’s not just gonna go away, y’know. . .”
“I know, I know!” Max growls, turning to glare at Beck, and then dropping his voice. “Let’s just let it go now. I’ve gotta go get my homework done before this stupid vigil.”
“I’ll pick you up at 7:30, okay?” Beck says, pointing at him. Max nods, waves and continues down the street to his house.
Max stands in the foyer of his house, clutching a pile of junk mail and bills from the mailbox in one hand as he lets his eyes adjust to the dimness of the hall. It’s quiet and cool and his nose prickles with the scent of dust. He and his father aren’t very good at cleaning. He runs his index finger over the surface of what his mother used to call the phone table. It comes away gray with dust. He looks at the black cordless phone sitting in its base. No messages. As usual.
He goes through the pile of mail: the three bills are addressed to his mother
He sighs and stares at the painting over the phone table for a while: a picture of a house in a clearing in the Maine woods on a gray day, the windows shuttered and blank. The pine trees all cant toward the house, as if trying to protect it from something. His mother painted it a couple of years ago. She’s a pretty successful painter. Or she was, Max thinks, running his fingertips over the whorls and runnels of oil paint until he comes to the edge of the blond wood frame, thinking, she touched this.
He sighs and heads to the kitchen, where he opens up the fridge to discover that they’re still out of snacks. And pretty much everything else. “Guess we’re not much for shopping either,” he murmurs, shaking his head as he unscrews the cap of the milk jug and sniffs it. “Ugh. . .” Just like everything else, it has gone sour. He pours it out in the kitchen sink, watching it gurgle away in sheets of white that slide down the drain, gone.
He digs through the cupboards, moving aside four dusty wine glasses and a couple of boxes of stale crackers, and strangely enough, because his parents don’t usually drink, a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam whisky, lying on its side in the back of a bottom cabinet, until he comes up with an old packet of shrimp ramen noodles. “Awesome,” he says drily, grabbing a little pan to cook them in.
He wonders if his father will be home with dinner tonight before Max leaves for the vigil. He hasn’t actually seen his dad for a couple of days. Maybe even longer. His father works a lot lately. He’s gone before Max has even gotten up most days, and often doesn’t come in at night until eight or after. A couple of times a week, he’ll remember to come home around seven and bring some sort of takeout for them to eat out of the containers before going their separate, silent ways for the duration of the evening. Leftover takeout is what they generally eat the next night, too. Better than ramen noodles, he supposes, and shrugs to himself.
“Really, Max?” Beck teases. “That’s the best you could do?”
Max laughs softly, in the darkness of Beck’s car, looking down at his hands holding the candle. The fat, white very scented candle. “It was all we had in the house!” he protests. He wouldn’t exactly have been able to ask his father to get a plain, white candle for him. Dinner had consisted of a bowl of instant oatmeal. Cereal had been out because he didn’t want to eat it dry and stale. In retrospect, he probably should’ve eaten the ramen noodles for dinner, and had dry cereal for a snack.
“Very. . . Martha Stewart of you. . .Well, I’m sure Anna will be impressed, dude.”
Max snorts. “Ha! Don’t start with that again. Let’s just go.”