/ Chloe Esser
Fiction — 15 min reading time
When Mark throws the ropes down, there is no indication that they’ve hit stone. Instead, the cords, which had seemed so official and needlessly long when Dave handed them to him, hang loosely against rough concrete. This all seems less like the urban rock climbing expedition Dave had promised and more like that one episode of Game of Thrones where Jon Snow and the wildlings are trying to scale that giant ice wall. Mark remembers getting bored during that scene and convincing Amanda to make out instead. But he also remembers rope breaking and the wildlings falling splat down on the ice.
He isn’t particularly eager for that to be him.
“Dude, how far is it down there?” asks Dave, peering over the edge, but carefully far enough away for a missed step to not send him careening downward. Splat.
“I don’t know,” says Mark. “Does it matter?”
“Yeah,” says Dave. He gets closer now, feet spread wide apart and awkwardly leaning forward, peering squinty-eyed into the blackness like a golfer after a swing or an appraiser of fine jewels. “Because if the rope’s only hanging like, 10 inches from the bottom, then we can sidle right down there. But if it’s like 10 miles down, then we’d better just move on.”
“Pussy,” Mark says casually, but he can’t help but agree. This entire day was such a fucking stupid idea. He can hardly stand Dave as it is — handsome, mouthy Dave, far too close with Amanda for Mark’s taste, and too caught up in his weird hobbies.
Urban exploration for fuck’s sake. As if malls aren’t boring enough when you can actually buy things in them.
Dave laughs good-naturedly, a loud sequential “Hah!” that makes Mark want to deck him. “If you want to check it out, be my guest, I guess. I have no clue what’s fucking down there though. Haven’t seen anything about creepy death pits on the forums.”
Creepy death pits seem almost preferable to the concrete labyrinth they’re in. They stand only a little outside of the abandoned office park, where Mark imagines must have the beginning of expanding the site. It’s possible this is just out of the way enough for past explorers to miss, but it still seems unlikely. Mark walks a few feet over, when his feet suddenly catch on something. Mark can feel himself beginning to careen forward, towards the pit. Desperately, his arms pinwheel backwards. He’s successful, but at the coast of landing squarely and stupidly on his back.
Dave is beside himself with laughter. “You okay there, dude?”
Mark is still too busy calming down to get properly annoyed, but he still takes the time to extend his middle finger.
“Please make an effort,” Amanda had said. “You know how much it would mean to me — my boyfriend and my best friend getting along. And Dave really likes you; he never likes any of the guys I date. The fact that he invited you along on one of his trips means a lot.”
Mark had almost asked Amanda why Dave would like him, especially compared to Amanda’s exes. He’s seen some of the douches she used to date; they seem right up Dave’s alley. Maybe that’s the deal though — Dave can like Mark because he doesn’t drive a car worth twice the price of tuition, so he won’t seem like a threat when Dave decides to finally swoop in on Amanda.
“What was that?”
Dave leans over and pulls up a discarded flashlight. “Somebody must have lost it earlier. Here,” he says, tossing the flashlight in Mark’s direction. “To the victor, the spoils. Since it tried to kill you and everything.”
Mark catches the flashlight easily, examines it, and shakes his head. No good — It’s the exact brand of flashlight he already brought with him.
“Hold on,” he says. “I want to see something.”
He tosses the flashlight into the pit. In unison, both boys lean forward, tipped halfway on the side of their shoes, waiting, waiting, controlled more by unnamed instinct than actual thought.
For a moment, Mark almost thinks he sees something moving in the pit beneath him, but after a moment he knows it must have been a trick of light as Dave sets his flashlight to the side.
“Well, shit,” Dave says. “Maybe not down here,” and begins pulling the rope back up. There’s something about this practiced movement, one of someone who knows how to climb in and out of the world around him, strained muscles and untied knots, so familiar and masculine, that makes Mark angry all over again.
Dave swings his backpack over his shoulder, a big sturdy thing that Mark can’t begin to imagine the contents of. A little self-consciously, he hoists up his own bag — all he has is a water bottle, some beef jerky, and a puffy jacket he hasn’t needed all night, and his still doesn’t seem anywhere near as big or prepared as Dave’s.
Dave shakes his head again, clicking his tongue like a cartoon version of someone’s mother. “It’s bizarre,” he says, looking into the pit one last time. “This is one of the most popular spots around here; almost every dumb kid with a flashlight has gone snooping through this place and I’ve never seen anyone mention the gaping hole in the ground.”
Mark doesn’t look back at the hole. He can’t help but feel unnerved by the thing even at a safe distance five feet away. He maintains his nonchalance the best he can. “Maybe they started construction again here since then?”
“Where’s the equipment then bro?” Dave pulls out his phone to take a few pictures, before leading Mark back to the main site. “I tell you what this is — it’s creepy.”
Today’s adventure is a trip through an abandoned, half-constructed industrial park. Mark and Dave had climbed over thick, 90’s style concrete seating, sat on pilling artificial grass still as green as the day it was purchased, and followed empty pipes up and down the park’s length — all leading them to that incomprehensible pit.
As they head through this industrial maze, Mark keeps looking behind him. Not quite at where the pit was, but at the path they’ve taken since then. It’s a silly, stupid feeling, like a jumpy kid who snuck into a horror movie, but he keeps thinking there might be footsteps just behind him, stopping the moment he does. But one glance, then another, then another, repeatedly proves him wrong.
“What do you think is down there?” he can’t help asking.
“I don’t know,” Dave shrugs, already over the mystery. “Probably nothing? They must have packed it all up when they left.”
Mark hates this place. It isn’t just because he can’t quite shake the feeling of having seen something — of having been seen. It isn’t just because Dave is here, and it isn’t just because it’s a Friday night and he could be spending it rewatching The Office with Amanda or smoking with his roommates. It isn’t just because it’s late or because it’s cold. It’s because of the wetness. Something here feels unfinished, and whenever Mark sits down or steps through the concrete it feels like somehow, in two decades, it hasn’t had the time to finish drying. Sometimes Mark will feel a hand on his shoulder, and swivel to find Dave still standing several meters away, and he has no choice but to just curse this sticky, heavy air.
He doesn’t want to make small talk, he wants to get tonight over with before it’s even begun, but he can’t help but want to know the story of this place. Somehow, Dave seems to get that. Or maybe Dave just likes to run his mouth.
“It was never even used,” Dave says as they wander through half demolished doors and hop over moldy construction tape. “But it was supposed to be huge. They got this big contract from the city and there was going to be like these bougie cafes and funky architectural office spaces and little dog parks and daycares. Like Google — the nice Google buildings, not the shitty ones they stick their moderators in — have you heard about that? Shit’s fucked up man, if you’re not a Google programmer, or like, white and middle class—”
Mark cuts him off. He already read that news story in The Atlantic and he doesn’t really care anyway. “Why didn’t they finish building it?” He doesn’t realize until the words are out, hung in stale chill air, that he has been waiting for the answer to this. He doesn’t know why he can’t help caring. Maybe it is the impossibly deep pit they found. Maybe it’s the eerie sound of their echoing footsteps that carry on just a second too long after they stop moving. Maybe it is the state of in between this park is in. Mark can almost hear the workers, almost see the cubicles set up, almost feel the silk gray tie knotted around his neck.
The liquidity, the potential, seems to seep from everything. Any infinite number of Marks could live here, in any of the infinite futures made of raw cement — gone onto business, to debt, to satisfaction, to loneliness.
Mark thinks again about the darkness of the pit.
Dave shakes his head. “Oh, yeah. Basically they got bought out. The state wanted to build the university here because cheap land, easy recruiting for the base, yadayada, so they cut the investors a fat check and they ditched it to do fuck all somewhere else. I think the school was supposed to build over here, but they never did. They could probably just have us move in now.” He kicks at a pile of rubble. “Looks about the same as my freshman dorm.”
“What did the investors do? Where did they end up building this place?”
“Fuck if I know,” Dave says happily. He turns into one of the park’s larger buildings, still a skeleton of an office building, but with several stories built all the same. “They just left it all here. Too bad for the office workers, but exciting for people like me.”
“Right,” says Mark. They walk in silence for some time, and Mark tries to picture the vision they must have had for this place. Somehow, he can’t quite ever see this as being complete.
He must have gotten too lost in his own thoughts, though, because suddenly, Dave is meters ahead of him.
“Woah, slow down!” he calls, and Dave turns to him, grinning wickedly.
“Mark?” Dave’s voice. Behind him.
Mark turns frantically to see Dave rounding the corner toward him. He quickly snaps his head back. Nothing.
“Dude, you completely spaced. I said we were going to turn around that corner, remember?”
“You turned the corner?”
“And I kept going down the hall.”
Mark shakes his head. Don’t be stupid. It’s the light here — he can hardly see anything out of the range of his own flashlight; of course his mind showed him Dave in the shadows when he expected to see him there. “Never mind, man.”
He hesitates as Dave begins to climb the building’s stairs. Half-built and never secured with concrete or flooring, the steps are a skeleton of the finished product, and Dave looks like he’s climbing a spider web of thin metal. “Is that safe?”
“We’re good! Look, they were already building the walls and everything, this is secure.”
Still, the ground seemed to creak and sway beneath Mark’s feet. “So does Amanda ever come with you on these… expeditions, whatever.”
“She has a couple times. With big groups, you know. Freshman year, I would get loads of people from our building to come out with me and we’d hit up the old park ranger’s office near the canyons and then we’d climb through the tunnels by the sewers. I was like the tour guide, man. But I’m glad I get to show you around. As soon as I met you, I was like, ‘This guy doesn’t know it, but he wants to go on an adventure.’”
Mark tries to picture Amanda, with her sleek blonde hair and perfect nail polish, shlucking it in the sewers with Dave. He can’t, nor can he ignore the twist of anger in the pit of his stomach. He imagines Dave, with his easy smile and perfect tousled hair with his hand on Amanda’s arm as he guides her through darkness. He doesn’t know Amanda-in-the-sewers, isn’t dating Amanda-with-Dave, and he isn’t even sure he wants to. But it’s discomforting, knowing there’s a version of this girl he knows so well that she still hasn’t let him meet.
Scores of minutes pass by, Dave happily prattling on about his classes and some cave he went spelunking in over the summer and some girl he met at a party, before Mark cuts him off.
“Are we still climbing?”
“Well, duh,” says Dave, before realizing what Mark means. They’ve been climbing stairs for too long now, too many flights for the height of the building they saw on the outside. Mark likes to think he’s a pretty fit dude, he hits the gym with his buddies a couple times a week at the very least, but even he’s beginning to get kind of sore. “Huh.”
Together, they step out past the stairwell, into the abandoned office space. If Mark thought the stairs looked suspect, this is worse. The walls of this section are incomplete, gray paneling started in some areas, though faded and cracked with time, and in other areas, the floor gives way to nothing but empty air.
“Okay, NICE,” says Dave. “Are you seeing this?”
He is seeing this. The closer he gets to the edge of the room, the more what’s below tilts and whirls in front of him. They are high, high up, the rest of the office park laid out before them. On a factual level, Mark know this is far from the highest up he has ever been, but something about standing on an edge where you would expect to find a wall sends his stomach spinning. He looks up. Despite all their climbing, they are somehow not on the highest floor.
Dave sits down, content, legs swinging from the side of the building. Not wanting to look like a bitch, Mark joins him, gripping the wall next to him with shaking hands, and hoping Dave won’t notice.
“Look at these stars,” Dave says. “These are incredible.”
But Mark is not looking at the stars. Mark is looking across the expanse of cement and trees to the nearest building, where he sees two shapes sitting on the edge, legs swinging, hands thrown over each other’s shoulders in unthinking affection, eyes towards the stars.
Mark has read that if you saw yourself in real life, at a party or walking by on the street, you wouldn’t recognize yourself. Something about the face no longer being a reflection, something about how you focus on different features when you’re looking at other people than you do when staring into the mirror. Mark doesn’t remember exactly what the reasons were. It doesn’t matter; it’s not true. Even 50 feet away, and even in this dim light, Mark can recognize himself.
“Do you want some trail mix?” asks Dave, and wordlessly, Mark stretches out his hand, face unturned, for the first time not caring when Dave’s skin brushes his own in the transfer.
The two figures reach for the bag together, uncaring, unconcerned with whoever may be watching. Mark doesn’t turn his head. He doesn’t have to to know that Dave hasn’t noticed them yet. He clutches the trail mix tighter in his hand, feeling blandly salted peanuts and raisins slip between his fingers and fall through the air, as he watches himself from 50 feet away. This other Mark has an unconcerned smile, his legs hanging in open air, and seems to breathe more freely than Mark can imagine. This other Mark locks eyes with the other Dave and presses his food, wet with night air and the smell of cement, into his mouth.