“You’re gonna be a janitor?” Allie asked with disgust curling on her upper lip. “Why?”
Delaying my answer, I shoved a handful of spicy, curly fries in my mouth and made a point to chew them down to total mush. The real answer would be something like I need things to be easy for a while, so I could get myself together. I needed something mindless. Something without any social interaction, because faking a smile felt close to impossible. What I really needed was a full break, but the world doesn’t allow for that. While I fought to skirt the edges of a major mental breakdown, I still needed money to survive. Cleaning relaxed me some. Having a night shift job meant no people to interact with. In other words, perfect for now. What I told her was, “A job’s a job. It pays.”
From the slow nod of her head and the way she looked away while taking a sip of her wine, I knew her mind was plotting ways to escape. There wouldn’t be another date, and that was okay with me. The way I saw it, at least I got out of the house for a bit. That’s a good enough first step.
She slowly pulled out her phone. Here it comes. Her eyes widened. “Oh my god! I’m so sorry but─”
I put up my hand to stop her. “You need to go? I get it, it’s fine.”
Confusion spread across her face. For a moment, I thought she’d try to argue and tell me I had it all wrong. Instead, she took her easy out and said to “Have a good night, Tom.” No hard feelings from me. I could make something out of her not wanting to date a janitor, but I doubt that’s the real and only reason things weren’t going well. More likely, it was that I can’t hold a conversation, I barely smiled, and since I suck at keeping up with hygiene these days, I’m sure I looked like a deranged serial killer and slob. The first thought in her mind likely had been whoa, that guy looks nothing like his picture. It’s true. My dating profile has a happy, shirtless, beach picture. It’s okay to cringe at that. I do now.
That photo was taken at my friend Kenny’s beach house. I’ve gone with him to that beach house every summer since we were five. Now I’m in my thirties and Kenny is gone. In a lot of ways, I am too. Friendships like ours, they’re very hard to come by. I don’t know what to do anymore. People claim time heals, though I don’t believe it. Still, I’m going to clean at a local corporate office, like I used to work in, surrounded by the sweet silence of nighttime, and let time slip by. Maybe I’ll stumble into the healing at some point.
Leaving the date early gave me more time to mindless absorb tv shows and watch comedy specials without cracking a smile. I’m a real fun guy these days. Then I slept for like fifteen hours, forced food down my throat, listened to ten messages from my mom asking how I’m doing and expressing great concern, and slowly got ready for my first night of work.
I liked that I could listen to headphones while I worked. It allowed me to listen to the newest podcast episode about people who go missing in parks. This one theorized that witches were the culprit. Probably guessed by now, but Kenny went missing one day at a park. While I searched for a place to grab food after our ten-mile hike, he went to the bathroom and never came back.
Might be hard to believe, but for a while I was married and looking to start a family. My obsession with missing people put a stop to that. Not that I blame her. I had gone a bit full-conspiracy-theory-nut-job. I could try to claim she wasn’t supportive, but I’m sure it’s more the mix of my never spending time with her and never doing anything but obsessing and dwelling that really did it. It doesn’t make sense for someone you’ve known your whole life to one day go to the bathroom and never come back. I didn’t know if I should grieve and mourn, search harder, or what.
As I mopped one of the hallway floors, I looked up at the sound of a door opening. A woman stormed in and entered a room. The room had a second door, which stood in front of me, so I stepped in curious what was going on. I stepped in to see her drop beside a desk and vanish. Then I heard the door slam open. Instinctively, I ducked into the cover of a dark corner. A large man with a baseball bat lunged into the room. I crept quietly through the shadows towards him with my mop raised and ready to fight. I’m not particularly proud of this, but I was no stranger to bar fights and had a pretty good idea I could hold my own, even with this giant. Running or calling the police obviously were better options, but I didn’t know how to do either with drawing attention. If I could knock him out, and use the element of surprise in my favor, then I could do either of those more efficiently after he went down.
“Where you at, little spy?” The monster of a man bellowed into the darkness.
A clattering sounded behind me. Nothing I knocked over. Did she move? Like a raging bull, the man charged in my direction. I flipped the mop down and tripped him. His head smacked into the corner of a desk as he fell. I reached down, fumbled to find his neck, and checked his pulse. Relief flooded over me feeling the throb. I flipped on a light switch and groaned as the light pierced my eyes. Once I regained vision, I used a nearby phone chord to tie his hands behind his back. Time to let the police take over.
“Wait!” The woman popped out from her hiding spot behind a desk. She had an odd fashion sense like she stepped out of a time machine. Kind of old-timey looking. Peasant like. “I need to search for something before they take him away.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I think he knows where my brother is.” She dropped to her knees beside the man and dug into his jacket pockets.
“Sure, but why is he chasing after you with a bat?”
“It’s a long story, but he’s part of a cult. It’s very secretive and they don’t like me snooping around.” She reached into his pant’s pocket and took out a wallet.
“I don’t see why you can’t sort this all out with the police.” I dialed 9 then 1.
My finger hovered over the 1 but then moved aside. Something about that pleading, desperate look in her eyes connected with me.
“Your brother’s been missing?”
“Yes. I’ve been going crazy trying to find him.”
“I know something about that.” I muttered. “What’s the cult all about?”
“Corrupting vulnerable young men, it seems.” She scattered business cards, photos, and credit cards from his wallet across the floor in front of her.
“If I’m going to help you, I need more details.”
“I never asked you to help me. Never would.”
“Right. Well, I can’t walk away. I’m responsible for this building.”
She laughed. “Take this job seriously, huh?”
I held back the annoyance that coursed through my veins. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s a good job.”
“Then call the cops and do your job. I’ve got what I need.”
She held up a business card. The symbol on it caught my eye, since it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Before I could get a closer look, she jammed it in a pocket.
“I better go before the police come.”
She walked past me and out the door. I followed, but by the time I opened the door, she vanished. It didn’t make sense. I walked back to the man, but his body was gone too. No blood or any other clues he had been there. Did I imagine it all? It’s not something I’ve done before. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I have a particularly good imagination. I don’t even dream. What was happening?
The podcast host continued about a woman with a missing brother. The woman searched for her brother, thinking a cult had picked him up, but instead found a circle of witches casting spells. Maybe my mind played out the scene before me as I heard it. I shook my head, switched to music, and went back to work.
On my drive home, I passed a shop with a similar symbol to the one I saw on the business card. Maybe I saw it earlier and stored it in my memory in a weird way. I’ll stop by before work tomorrow. See what they’re about.
Once home, I passed out and slept about sixteen hours. When I woke, I listened to what I thought would be the usual messages from my mom. One was different.
“Tom…I’ve got some news. I talked to Rita. A hiker found one of Kenny’s sneakers with the…the foot still inside. They did the DNA test. They think…they think that’s a pretty good sign he’s really…you know, gone. Please call me. I worry about you.” I could tell in mom’s voice that she’d been crying. I had questions, so I called.
“Tommy?” Her voice sounded excited, maybe grateful.
“Got your message, mom. I don’t understand. Where’d they find this. We searched the whole area.”
“Bottom of a cliff. They think maybe he slipped and was injured by the fall and then maybe an animal ate him.”
“How would he slip off a cliff? He went to the bathroom. We weren’t even near a cliff.”
“I know, honey. It…it’s odd. They said it was about thirty miles out from where you were and that’s why they didn’t find it the first time.”
“So, they think he randomly walked thirty miles to take a piss and slipped and fell when the bathroom was like five feet away?”
She sighed. “You’re getting angry.”
“Cause it’s bullshit!” Spit flew from my lips at that last word. My voice cracked as I said, “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Did you call that therapist I gave you the number for?”
“Who’s the officer she talked to? I want to call them myself.”
“I don’t think…I don’t know. I’ll ask her. How’re you doing?”
“I know you’re trying to help, but…I can’t do this right now. I’ve gotta go.”
I hung up the phone and whipped it across the room. I could hear it smash against the wall and the pieces clattered on the floor. I pulled at my hair and screamed. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. He can’t be gone. He can’t…
I took a deep breath, but it didn’t slow the anger crawling through my skin like a thousand fire ants. I’m losing my mind.
As I often do in these moments, I found myself back at the spot where I last saw Kenny. I must have stopped here over a hundred times feeling the compulsion to check again. Always imagining I’d pull up to Kenny’s goofy grin as he said, “Finally, man. Where’ve you been?”
I traced the steps from my parking spot to the bathroom. Steps I had traced so often, I could walk them blindfolded. Any clues would have long ago been washed away by rain, stolen by an animal, or picked up by some other hiker. Still, I searched and searched. This time I tried to imagine how he’d suddenly be thirty miles away on some cliff.
Closing my eyes, I replayed what I knew. Kenny in his blue t-shirt. Or was it green? The memory somehow got foggier with each recall. Shouldn’t it be stronger? He took off his baseball cap, ran his hand across his sweat soaked hair, and said, “Hey, I’ll be right back.” Then dropped his backpack in the bed of the truck and walked off. There wasn’t anything obviously wrong. He didn’t seem dehydrated, stressed, overly tired, or anything like that. Matter of fact, I remember being impressed by that since I was about to collapse.
Sometimes you never get an answer. One of the cops had said that to me after I had been searching non-stop for six days in a row. I even took a tent up and camped in the woods looking. Even after day three, a small part of me expected him to pop out and say it was all some messed up joke. I wouldn’t have been mad. Well, maybe I’d be mad. Yeah, I guess I’d be. It’d have been better than still searching though. Better than missing him all the damn time. Thinking about it, I couldn’t hold back the scream any longer. I let the sound scratch and claw up my throat and take all the power of my voice out with it. Nothing here, like always. Time to go. Time to move on.
Before work, I stopped by that place with the symbol from the card. I imagined this witchcraft type store with some vampire looking man running the front desk. Instead, it looked almost like a spa. Serene blue painting, plants, and soft cushioned chairs decorated the room. A plump, friendly looking woman stood at the front desk. Something about her smile, made it easier for me to breath and let go of some of the tension. I didn’t know what to say though. I came here based on some hallucination.
“I’m interested in the cult?” I whispered uncertainly. My eyes narrowed and my cheeks burned with embarrassment.
“Excuse me?” She asked with a sweet, syrupy voice.
“What is this place?” I asked.
If she was judging me, her expression didn’t show it. “We’re a resource center for people who have lost someone. Sadly, a lot of people go missing in the woods.”
I nodded. An eerie feeling sprouted goosebumps over my skin. It felt like when things are too good, so you expect a disaster to overfold any moment. I stepped back.
“There’s someone you have lost, right? We can help you.”
Suddenly I felt like a thousand eyes were on me. I shook my head, and she stood with her hands folded in front of her, patiently waiting for me to say more. Giving me a look like she knew I wasn’t telling the truth with my head shake.
“We’ve got a program that could really help you.” She smiled robotically, “A support group.”
“I don’t understand how you got in my head.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, sir. Would you like a brochure about our groups?”
“No, I should go.”
“Getting help can be intimidating. I understand. Walking in here is a big first─”
“I don’t want any help.” Something about this place didn’t feel right. My ears rang with alarm. It’s like how you can feel the difference between one of those display rooms at a furniture store and a real-lived-in room. It wasn’t real. I backed away and ran out the door. Kenny wasn’t there. They couldn’t help me. Sometimes you never get an answer.
At work, I mopped listening to music instead of the podcast. I glanced out the window and saw several people standing out there and staring in through the windows. All of them dressed in the same soothing blue uniform as the woman at the resource center. Am I imagining it again?
If I’m going to hallucinate and none of this is real, why not at least picture something good. I squeezed my eyes tight and thought of Kenny. When I opened them, he walked down the hall in his favorite football jersey.
“What’s good, man?”
“I don’t understand what happened to you. It doesn’t make sense you’d walk away into the woods, fall off a cliff and lose your foot.”
He shrugged. “Why would I join a cult and chop off my foot to lead you all astray?”
“Cults are crazy, but I’m pretty sure they don’t kidnap people, man. They want you to think you want to be with them.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve thought of aliens, witches, mountain lions, cults, murderers…everything. None of it makes sense. Where did you go?”
He tilted his head sympathetically, and said, “I miss you all.”
“I miss you too.” I wrapped him in one of my big bear hugs and tears slid down my cheeks. The good thing about the night shift is being able to openly cry. No one was there to see. I don’t know how long we stayed like that, but eventually he disappeared, again.
I heard the door open and wiped my eyes on my sleeve. I turned to see my new boss.
“Angela.” I tipped my head.
“Can we talk a moment?”
“I was looking over the security cam footage from last night, and I saw something odd.”
“Odd? How?” What did she see? Was it real?
“Let me show you.” She clutched a flash drive in one hand. In the other she held a folder. On the folder, I happened to notice the symbol again. My jaw dropped and eyes popped.
“Maybe you don’t need to show me.” I backed away.
“What’s the matter, Tom?”
Sometimes you never get an answer, and maybe sometimes you don’t need one. Whatever this was, I didn’t want any parts. I dropped the mop I didn’t realize I was still gripping tightly, and bolted out the door.