The grate in the base of the old mill’s chimney opened onto nothing much I could see – just a hole, with something metal on the wall that might have been a door. And that was the trouble. I couldn’t see far enough. I needed to know how far down the floor was, and whether that metal something on the wall was a door or not. And I had a plan. Yes, I did. It was just a matter of doing it. Which brought me to the real problem – money. Always money.
I counted what I had. Twenty-three dollars and forty-six cents, from mowing that guy’s lawn yesterday, and then selling the gift cards from the drop-in. Minus the cost of a hamburger combo and a single beer from the liquor store. A feast. I remembered it with my belly, empty now the morning after, and I calculated whether there was enough money for the plan and for breakfast too, even just coffee and a bagel. Probably not. I’d be better off charming a coffee off Pastor Megan at the Baptist Church. Sometimes she even had leftovers for me, from a baby shower or a funeral. Today was Monday, right? Chances for food were good.
I stood, stretched to feel the nine o’clock sun, then took the foot path beside the half-fallen mill, its floor open to the air, used for wedding receptions and open air concerts and things like that. There was a newer building in one corner though, like a shed, where they kept the sound equipment and chairs. It was always locked, but I’d seen them setting up for concerts.
By the time I’d climbed the hill to the bike shop, Todd was just opening up.
“Hey, Einar,” he said. “How’s the bike?”
“It’s at my friend’s house still,” I told him. Todd works on my bike for free, unless it needs a really new part that he can’t get from an old bike. I can cope with Todd.
“Well, get it out, man. It’s riding weather now for sure.” He was wearing a spandex suit. His custom road bike was parked just outside the door, not the one he rides in races, just his street bike.
“Yeah, I know, but my friend isn’t really talking to me right now.”
“I see.”Todd pulled a sign from inside and set it on the sidewalk. “So, what’s up then?”
“Well, I was wondering if I could borrow a hacksaw. To cut a lock.”
He looked at me, dubious. “A lock, eh?”
“I’m just getting my bike back. It’s not stealing if it’s mine, right?”
Todd shrugged, began walking his bike toward the workshop at the back of the store. “A hacksaw would take hours,” he said. “What you want is the cordless angle-grinder. It’ll nip that baby off in thirty seconds.” He made a snipping motion with his fingers. “But you need to have it back right away. Cool?”
“Is tomorrow morning right away?” I asked.
“Sure, tomorrow, first thing.”
“And then I need a new lock too.” I pointed to a padlock that looked like the one on the grate, not exactly, but close enough. “And some batteries for my flashlight?”
He wandered over to one of the displays. “…yep, here we are. And with the lock…” He came back to the counter and tapped at the cash register. “…that’s twenty-one, thirty-five.”
I counted out the money.
“Hey, you’re loaded today, man,” Todd said.
I shrugged. “I mowed some lawns.”
The door bell chimed, and two people came in – a mom and a girl, pushing a child’s bike. They didn’t set me off right away, but I knew they might, so I said goodbye and went the long way around the shelves to the door, just to make sure.
My stomach had started to grumble by the time I made it to the church. Pastor Megan buzzed me into the long dim hallway. I can cope with her too.
“Hey, Einar,” she called from the office, out of sight. “Coffee’s in the kitchen, and cake’s in the fridge.” There was the sound of rolling wheels, and her head came leaning backwards out of the office door. “Then could you help me stack the chairs in the gym?”
Her head disappeared again. “Take your time though. I’m still fighting with this file.”
I followed the smell of coffee. It had cooked long enough to be bitter, which made up for the sweetness of the cake. I don’t like things too sweet, but I ate all the cake anyway, and I drank the rest of the coffee as I stacked the chairs. Then I snuck up to the youth room to nap on one of the couches.
It was late when I woke, maybe five o’clock. Time to go. I wanted the tools from the boiler room though, so I went to the basement first. The tools were all hanging on the wall, with black marker outlines like chalk lines around corpses. There was a big crowbar, tall as my waist, but I couldn’t carry that without getting noticed. I took the little one instead, and a hammer, a chisel, an awl, and a thin prybar for pulling nails. It made for a heavy pack.
Outside, it still wasn’t dark enough to try the grate, and I was hungry again. There would be a meal at the drop-in, only sandwiches on a Monday, but still something. I got there just as it opened. The line was long, so I went to the kitchen instead, poked my head around the corner. “Hi, Carol,” I said. She was the only one there, washing pots.
“Hey, Einar.” She started to wipe her hair back from her eyes, then saw the suds on her arms and stopped. “Have you eaten yet?”
“Nope. Line’s too long. Can’t take all those people. I’ll come back when everyone’s gone.”
“Good idea. Take a walk around the block or something.”
“Can I leave my backpack? It’s really heavy.”
“Sure. Just put it under the counter there.” She went back to her dishes. I watched her as I put my things away. She’s really pretty. Not beautiful exactly. Just pretty.
She looked up and saw me watching her. “You can stop staring now, Einar,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said. “You’re pretty.”
“Yeah, I know. Not beautiful, just pretty. Now go for your walk, and let me get my dishes done.”
I went out the back door. Guests aren’t supposed to go that way, but they let me do it. I’m not like most of these guys. Some of them are old, and they don’t have anywhere else to go. Some of them are kids, just bored, with brand new clothes and cell phones. Some of them are crazy. And some of them really are poor people, like that family with the four kids and one of them just a baby. But mostly they’re drunks and addicts. I see them on the square or under the walking bridge or in the train tunnel, all over the place, drinking and shooting up and smoking whatever they can get. The drop-in staff know I’m not like that though. It’s just that I can’t handle having people around.
I walked along the side of the church to the wrought-iron stairway. I sat on the bottom step for a while, thinking about what was behind the grate in the mill, whether there really was a door down there, or maybe just an electrical panel or a vent cover. By the time the lineup was gone there were only egg salad sandwiches left, but I took a whole handful anyway, and some chicken noodle soup too, the kind that comes from a can. Sometimes they have homemade, but not today. I wanted coffee too, but the lady on drinks was new, and I could tell I wouldn’t cope, so I took my sandwiches and soup back outside to eat.
When it got to be dark for real, I picked up my pack and headed through the back parking lot, down the hill, then over the footbridge to the mill. No one was around when I got there. Sometimes there are kids hanging around or a couple out for a walk or something, but tonight I was lucky.
The grinder blade looked too thick and dull to cut anything, but I knew what it could do. It sounded loud in the night, and it was even louder when it started cutting into the metal. At first the lock kept spinning in the loop, so I braced it with my foot. Sparks sprayed like sparklers, and then I was through. I turned the grinder off and listened. Nothing.
Opening the grate, I leaned over the edge with my flashlight. The floor was only four or five feet below, so I threw my backpack down and slid down after it, pulling the grate closed behind me. It seemed wrong to lock myself in, even if I did have the combination, but I hooked the new lock through the latch and closed it anyway. Then I sat down in the corner closest to the grate where nobody would see me even if they tried to look in.
When I figured I was clear, I turned my flashlight back on and looked around. The walls of the chimney climbed up high above the reach of my light. Some leaves and candy wrappers had blown into the corners of the floor, but there was nothing else except the metal on the wall. It was about shoulder height, and it was definitely a door, like the inside of a woodstove, only ten times bigger. It had a long latch that was controlled from the other side, but I thought I could move it with the hammer. I tapped it once. It shifted easily. A firm push sent the door swinging open on quiet hinges.
I shone my flashlight into something like a storage room, just tall enough for me to stand. On its left-hand side were four cement platforms, each about ten feet long, like a row of giant beds. The first two were empty. The second two had machinery on them, engines or boilers, their pipes cut off just below the ceiling. On the other side of the room there were a few packing crates leaning against the wall, a small pile of two by fours, bags of cement, empty pails, a few concrete garden tiles, and a roll of gardening fabric. Metal rungs ran up the wall to a hatch. There was an electrical panel beside them, and a light switch with an outlet, and a water tap.
I tossed my bag ahead of me again, then hoisted myself through the opening. It was probably stupid to turn on the light, but I couldn’t resist. The bulb, bright after so much darkness, revealed a circular grate in the floor, about the size of a manhole cover. I tried to pull it up with my hands, but it had no real handholds, so I had to use the prybar. It opened onto a wide pipe, like a sewer drain.
I could almost live here, I thought. I didn’t quite mean it yet, but then I started to think about it more, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The place had electricity and water. It was dry and out of the wind. It even had a place for me to piss. I could make a bed on one of the empty platforms, get a hose to wash out the sewer after I used it, maybe even find a little cookstove. The more I thought about staying there, the better I liked it.
The problem was that somebody would eventually come down here, wouldn’t they? I looked up at the hatch, tried to picture where it would open. In the little shed building, I realized. That was where it opened. Which meant there was no predicting when someone might come down. They might come tomorrow to get the gardening fabric, or in August to get the cement, or whenever. Still, it was such a perfectly hidden place.
And that decided it. I dumped my pack out onto the nearest platform. Then I climbed back through the chimney and crawled out into the night. It was probably after midnight already, but I had slept most of the afternoon, and I still felt wide awake. I took the path up the hill again, right past the bike store, down to where the other used bookstore used to be. The one where the owner got drunker and crazier and drove all his customers away, so now it’s empty.
My friend Aaron’s apartment is above the bookstore. That’s where I keep my things. I knew that he’d be asleep, and he’d be pissed when I woke him up, but I didn’t want to wait until morning. It took him a long time to answer the door.
“What the hell, Einar!” he said. “It’s like three in the morning!”
“I’m just here to grab my stuff.”
“At three in the morning?”
“Sorry, man. I need it right now.”
“Fine. Whatever. Get your crap and go. I have to work tomorrow.”
His apartment has one of those retractable stairway things to the attic where my stuff is and where I crash when it’s cold. All my outside stuff was up there, my sleeping bag, my pillow, and my tent. My memory box was up there too, with my pictures and letters and things.
“Do you have everything?” Aaron asked. He was yawning, his hands leaning deep in the pockets of his pyjama bottoms.
“Yeah. I’m leaving the bike though.”
“Fine.” I could hear him throw the bolt closed behind me.
I strapped the sleeping bag to my backpack, and I jammed my pillow in the top, and I fit the plastic bag of dirty clothes into the dufflebag by leaving the zipper open, but walking was still awkward. I was worried that some early morning runner might see me and start wondering what I was doing, but I made it to the chimney room okay.
It already seemed like home somehow, even in the dark – not a regular kind of home, but a place for hiding, like a cave. This is what it must have been like for cavemen, I thought, living in the dark, hidden from their enemies. Maybe I was just living in the wrong time. Maybe I should have been a caveman. I stood there in the darkness and imagined myself living in one of those caves they found in Europe, with the bear skulls on the floor and the drawings on the walls. It was a good imagining. I felt like I was there.
I turned on the lights and started putting things away. I didn’t bother setting up the tent, just arranged my sleeping bag and pillow on the cement platform nearest to the chimney door. All the rest I piled neatly on the second platform. Then I laid myself down and went to sleep. Like a bear in a cave, I thought.
When I woke, there was no light or sound to tell the time of day. It was like time didn’t exist down there. I could have slept for a thousand years, like that guy in the fairytale. I pried up the floor grate with the crowbar and pissed into the pipe, then I poured a bucket of water, washed up a little, and dumped it down the pipe too. I did it all like I was the only person in the universe, like I might leave my cave and find nothing but wilderness.
I filled my backpack with the grinder and the tools from the church, then I headed to the bike shop. The sun was high, probably noon or a bit later, but Todd didn’t seem to care that I was late.
“Did you get your bike, man?” he asked.
“Sort of,” I told him. There were a half-dozen people in the store already, and I knew I couldn’t handle it for very long.
“So you’re on wheels again?”
“Yeah.” I could feel myself starting to panic. Todd said something else, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I didn’t exactly run outside, but I didn’t exactly walk either. I just started for the church as fast as my heavy pack would let me. Even the people on the sidewalk were setting me off now. All I wanted was to get back to my cave. There weren’t even that many people around, but I was shaky the whole way there, and it seemed like forever before Megan answered the buzzer. I was rocking from one foot to the other.
“Einar,” she said. “Two days in a row? What’s the occasion?”
“Hi,” I said, but I couldn’t even cope with her right then. I went by her office to the back stairs without stopping, went straight to the boiler room and dumped the tools on the table.
“Are you okay?” Megan’s voice was coming from the hallway just outside, and I knew I couldn’t take the time even to hang the tools properly. I hadn’t had it this bad in years, maybe not since I was a kid. My pack was lighter now, so I could run for real, and I did, up the stairs, through the side door, with Megan calling after me the whole way. I didn’t even check to see if the door closed behind me. I just ran for the cave.
When I got back, my hands were shaking. Like an addict, I thought. I had trouble opening the lock, but as soon as I was through the grate, I could feel myself getting calmer. By the time I was in my sleeping bag, I felt so good I could hardly believe how bad it had been just then. I closed my eyes again, just for a minute, and I fell asleep.
I was ravenous when I woke. I snuck out through the grate, and it looked early enough that the drop-in would still be serving food, but when I got there, I couldn’t go in. Just asking one of the smokers to go get Carol was almost more than I could handle. By the time she came out, still wearing her apron, her hair tied up off her face, I was leaning against the wall just to keep myself steady.
“Carol,” I said. I tried to sound calm, but my voice was thick and shaky. “I can’t go in, Carol. Could you…” It was hard to breathe. My throat felt like it was closing up. “Could you…”
“Don’t worry,” she said, and I could see she knew. “I’ll bring you something.”
I sat on the bench by the front door, closed my eyes, tried to imagine that I was back in my cave, safely hidden away from everyone. I didn’t even notice that Carol had come back until she put a styrofoam container in my hands.
I tucked the food under my arm and headed for the cave. I couldn’t think of anything but getting there. I imagined it waiting for me, and I saw a campfire there in my imagining. That’s what I need, I thought, I need a fire. There was plenty of wood around, mostly small sticks that had fallen from the trees, but a few bigger pieces too, and I found some newspaper in one of the garbage bins. I threw it all into the chimney, then dumped it through the stove door into my cave.
I left the door half-open and built the fire right beneath it. The wood wasn’t really dry, burning smokily. It began drafting up the chimney, but the room was soon full of smoke anyway. I sat close to the fire, eating the food Carol had given me – two buns with roast beef and gravy, roasted potatoes, and boiled carrots. I didn’t bother with the plastic utensils. The grease from the gravy and the potatoes dripped down my hands. I licked it off, tasting the dirt on my fingers.
My stomach full, I sat in the warmth of the fire watching the shadows on the wall, and it was like I was drugged or something, because I could see the meaning of them. They were talking to me about my cave and about all the places around me, and I thought, I’m not going to let myself go crazy now, not after all this time. But then I saw that I wasn’t crazy, that fire always says these things, only I’d never really listened before. I thought about how the cavemen had painted their pictures on the walls, and I knew it was because of listening to the fire that they did it.
I grabbed one of the sticks that lay half in the fire, and I started to draw on the wall. The concrete scraped away the charcoal quickly, but I got a new stick, and I added more of them to the fire, so I always had one ready. I wasn’t really drawing anything at first, just following the lines of the shadows, and then one of the shapes looked like a building, so I made it into the bike shop, and then I started drawing everything around the shop. I drew the square and the footbridge, the church and the drop-in, the old book store and my friend’s apartment, the park and the mill. And then I drew the chimney, taller than anything around it, as tall as I could reach, pointing into the sky, like an arrow or a prayer. I drew everything, so that people could see it a thousand years from now, like the paintings in the bear caves.
I laid down again when I was finished, laid down beside the fire with my sleeping bag pulled up around me. The drawings on the wall grew dimmer as the fire settled, but I watched them, my creations, and I felt like I was a real caveman now, not like the old cavemen maybe, but a new kind of caveman that there had never been before.
When the fire burned down, I broke up the packing crates and burned those too. The smoke filled everything. It burned in my lungs, so I laid on the floor by the grate where the air was freshest, feeling the heat of the fire on my face and watching the shapes of the shadows on the pictures I had drawn. I must have watched them a long time, and maybe I slept a little too, because somehow the whole night passed, and suddenly there was a scraping noise above me, and the hatch was being lifted, and I heard someone saying, “Whoa! What’s with the smoke?”
I won’t let them have my cave, I thought, and I grabbed one of the sticks from the fire. The end had been burned to a point, and I knew I could stick someone with it. I could see work boots, lit from above, descending the top rungs of the ladder, and then a Parks and Recreation uniform, and finally a man’s head, craning downward. He turned on the light, and he stopped when he saw me, and I thought what I must look like to him – dirty and unshaven, covered in grease and soot, balled up in my sleeping bag with my cave paintings.
He paused for a moment, his eyes meeting mine, and there was a look on his face like he wanted to ask me something. Then he turned away, and he dropped to the floor. He hoisted one of the bags of cement over his shoulder, carried it up the ladder, returned, took another, until all five bags were gone, and when he went up for the final time, he turned off the light.
Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Gordon Hill Press, a literary publisher based in Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director of Vocamus Writers Community, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry and short prose called Island Pieces, along with several chapbooks and broadsheets. His writing has appeared in The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Filling Station, Free Fall, The Goose, HA&L, The Maynard, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review. Image: Roofs and Chimneys in Venice, Canaletto, c. 1735