Julius examined the lawyer’s check, front and back. It said what it said: $300,000, the address of some bank downtown, and Julius’ name. He pinned the check to his fridge with a magnet and pulled up a chair. He stared at the different fonts, suspicious that they were a sign of inauthenticity. He took the check down and signed it.
Julius went to work the next day out of habit. He was a pharmacy-technician at a drugstore, a lazy man for whom laundry day came once a month. The check cleared. He quit without telling anyone and went for a walk.
The $300,000 was family money, handed down in death from grandfather to uncle to Julius himself. Julius had known that his grandfather was dead, of course—had never known him to be alive—but the death of his uncle was a pleasant surprise. The family money was supposedly long gone.
Julius lived in the city that his grandfather had helped to build. He walked along Fourth Street between downtown’s towers. Most of these buildings were newer, all glass and steel, but some the old ones still bore markers inscribed with Julius’ family name. He stopped in front of one such plaque. It was set into a limestone column and flanked by eagle statues:
Teller and Son Construction
Erected, thought Julius, chuckling.
He kept walking, finding an old warehouse. It was one of his grandfather’s buildings, a boxy brick behemoth with big windows. Beside the front door was a billboard that bore the picture of a realtor. He looked down upon Julius, his chimp-like smile a display of dominance.
For Sale, said the sign. Motivated Seller! Prime Downtown Lot!
Julius wanted to see the inside of his grandfather’s building. He called the realtor, who arrived an hour later, all smiles. He shook Julius’ hand like it was a carnival game.
They donned hardhats and walked the creaking floors, their footsteps echoing. Decades of dust rose to meet them. The realtor led Julius to the center of the first floor,
The realtor explained that the building was “fucked.” The water supply line was broken, and the faucets spat brown water. The building’s roof was “not exactly present.” The copper wiring on the first floor had been stripped by thieves, the windows smashed and boarded. The building’s demolition was imminent; the only uncertainty was who would pay the $250,000 asking price for the privilege of pulling the trigger.
Julius listened, nodding, fighting the urge to cough.
“I’m a Teller, you know,” said Julius.
“A teller?” asked the realtor. “Like, at a bank?”
“No! Teller, the construction company. That was my grandpa.”
The realtor shifted. “Cool. Yeah. About that…”
“Exactly!” said the realtor, smiling. “What stories?’ Never mind.”
The realtor showed Julius the rest of the building, floor after floor of warehouse and office space. Most had been abandoned as-is, crates and boxes still boarded up, desks and chairs herded into corners.
“Does this all come with it?” asked Julius.
The realtor laughed. He didn’t bother answering.
The pair finished atop what was left of the roof. Julius stood at the crown of his grandfather’s building, looking over the city. There were cars and people down below, oblivious. Pigeons strutted upon the roof of a lesser building, chasing one another. In the distance was nature, green hills that rose and fell like blankets on an unmade bed. A breeze slipped through Julius’ shirt, and he lifted his arms like a fledgling.
He had an idea, and it wasn’t demolition.
“Would I have to tear it down?” asked Julius.
“What?” said the realtor, smiling.
The sale moved quickly.
Julius paid the asking price. He broke the lease on his apartment and moved into his grandfather’s building with a box of snack cakes and his cell phone. He didn’t bother bringing his old furniture, figuring that what the building had would be plenty.
Julius spent his first evening finding the best floor to sleep on. Not the first—what with the broken windows, shattered glass, and water damage—and not the roof, since it was noisy and brisk. Julius found an old couch on the penultimate floor. It smelled, but so did Julius. He laid on the couch, playing with his phone as evening fell.
The building came alive around him, slight at first: scraping sounds from between the walls, windows creaking and popping in the wind, pipes banging from above and below. Julius ignored it all until a roach tickled his ankle, climbing up as casual as anything.
Julius didn’t sleep much that first night. He still had a chunk of money and went out the next morning to buy some bug spray and a tent.
Julius spent his first day on the roof, researching his grandfather’s company. There wasn’t much information, since the company had come and gone before the internet. Most of what Julius found was about buildings that were relevant in the present: a bank on Third Street that was being turned into condos; an ugly building of the “international style” on Court Street that was facing demolition; the old headquarters of Teller Construction, now an art camp for inner city kids, seeking donations.
Information about the company itself was always the same few details. Founded in 1930; builder of the city’s tallest towers between 1952-1968; bought by an out of state rival in 1977.
Julius craved more information and bought a subscription to the local paper’s online archives. He traversed the decades, discovering just how different his grandfather’s time was. Buildings were a big deal. They took years of planning and years to rise. Their completion was celebrated with broken bottles of champagne, like a warship being sent off to battle. OSHA wasn’t a thing until 1971, and Julius discovered that it was once routine for workers to die on the job; crushed by beams, or trucks, or the street as they hurtled from on high and into the asphalt. Julius read article after article about the construction of his grandfather’s buildings and came to expect the blase mention of death. It was like any other metric for measuring a building; it took x-number of dollars, y-number of bricks, and z-number of dead bodies.
One death, however, stood out.
Julius read and read, going back in time, arriving at an article from the 1966. Julius’ grandfather—an old man still in his prime, still running the show—died at “his new project on 4th Street.” There had been an inspection, and an accident, all very vague. The article was mostly about who would be attending the funeral. Julius looked for more details, for the specific building—this building?—but found nothing. He searched and searched, and the city settled into night around him. Julius’ phone died. He groaned. His building didn’t have power, and he’d have to go to the library tomorrow for a charge.
Julius returned to the penultimate floor and set up his tent, hoping that it would keep out the roaches and rats. He hadn’t thought to buy a sleeping bag or mat, so laid on the nylon covered floorboards, staring at the tent’s top. Julius’ skin crawled thinking about the roaches, but every time he brushed himself there was nothing. Julius finally relaxed, but couldn’t get comfortable on the hard floor. He left the tent for the cushions from the couch, banging them against a column for good measure, choking himself on their dust.
Julius returned to the tent and laid on his cushions. It was cozy, and comfortable, but the tent couldn’t keep out the building’s sounds. Rats still crawled through the wall, the windows still cracked in the cool evening air, the pipes still banged like kids clanging cast iron pans. Julius closed his eyes. He waited, and eventually he dozed, half dreaming that through the noise he heard a voice.
I know you, it said. Do I know you? I know you. Do I know you?
I don’t know, thought Julius. There was another bang, but different, like a dictionary fallen from a shelf. Julius sat up in a daze, disoriented by the dark tent around him.
The room was quiet—no scraping, no cracking, no banging—but it wasn’t silent.
There were footsteps, faint footsteps from across the room. Julius went for his phone, his only source of light, but it remained dead.
“Hello?” said Julius. In his daze he thought of the realtor, but couldn’t remember his name. “Is that you?”
The footsteps stopped, and there was silence. There was nothing; not the sounds of the city, or the building, or even Julius himself. He didn’t dare to breathe.
Julius jumped when the volume returned, all at once. The pipes banged, the windows cracked, the rats returned to their highway between the walls. Julius laid back into his cushions, sweating. He closed his eyes, telling himself that he hadn’t heard anything at all.
Light peeked between the buildings. The dust of the penultimate floor floated through the ambient light, a haze. The pipes stopped banging. The walls stopped crawling. Julius snored in his tent, spread eagle across his couch cushions.
Bang! The tent tore open and Julius was awake.
Out! shouted a voice.
Julius flung up his arms, defending himself from nothing, scrambling to his feet. All around him was dim light and dusty haze. Julius bumbled into the column, grabbing it like the mast of a sinking ship. His eyes adjusted. Somebody was in the room, towering over what used to be his tent.
“Realtor!” asked Julius, his voice cracking.
I am no realtor, boy!
Julius ran for the stairs, up to the roof hatch. He heard footsteps behind him, strong and getting stronger. Julius screamed.
Julius burst through the door, onto the roof. The first beams of morning cut between the buildings, lighting the roof in slices. Julius ran through them to the roofs’ edge. He heard his name. He felt a presence, the hair on his arms cranked stiff, as if pulled.
Julius turned back to the stairwell. Somebody was there, shimmering at the edge of the dark.
Boy, he said. I know you, and you have fallen short.
Julius stepped back, the edge of the roof at his heels.
I know you, and I know my own failure. Be gone!
Julius stepped back and slipped, his world falling up. He kicked out for his footing and missed. He flung out his arms for a ledge that wouldn’t hold him. Julius was falling, thirty stories slipping by like water from a broken pipe, the world a blur of limestone, brick, and asphalt.
Julius didn’t see any of that. All he saw was that last image of the roof:
The door in the distance.
Light slicing across.
Somebody emerging from the darkness.
Somebody stepping out into the sunshine.