The rustling noise in a small office off the main hallway could have easily been explained away. A displaced and deranged rat scuttling around, unexplainable but expected old building noises, but Graham insisted that we investigate before continuing downstairs. I slowly opened the office door. Then the smell, the stench of body odor overtook us.
“What is that?” Graham stepped away from the room covering his nose and mouth with a hand.
An abrupt crunch as I stepped into the room. I raised my foot to find the mangled and shattered remains of eyes glasses, the cheap wire frames had easily given way. Then I saw what I immediately wish I could unsee. A shoe sticking out from behind a desk. I cautiously stepped around the desk at the back of the room.
A man in his late forties lay sprawled out on the floor, his legs spread wide apart, the rolls of his belly spilling over his belt, his back against a bookshelf his arms at his side. His light blue button-up dress shirt was crumpled and soiled. The rings of sweat stains under his armpits denoted the passage of days wearing the same shirt. Beads of sweat were gathered on his forehead and his pale face had a greasy shine as he stared distantly at the ceiling unmoving as I approached him.
“Sir…” I said quietly. “Sir, are you alright?”
No reaction. What if he was dead? I cringed as I looked back to Graham who was now entering the room.
“Look at his leg!” Graham exclaimed.
A tear in his black trousers and the deep oozing gash below it. It was the smell of old blood that overpowered me now. I covered my mouth and turned away trying not to vomit.
“Heh…” The man’s voice was weak and wheezy.
“Hey, you alright there?” Graham rushed to his side putting an arm on his shoulder.
“Heh…” He coughed hard this time, layers of flab quivered violently.
“Take it easy.” Graham continued.
The smell, the greasy gross man, the gash, it was all to much. I rushed out of the room. No one should be here. There was plenty of time for everyone to evacuate. The fire alarm, the emergency responders, how did he miss it? What a stupid, gross, dying man.
“Can you get up.” I could hear Graham ask the man followed by a shriek and a thud. I felt sick. I felt no compassion, only disgust.
Graham walked out of the room to where I was pacing in the hallway.
“We have to go.” I said angrily.
“I know, but we can’t leave him here. We’ll figure something out.” Graham argued.
“No!” I didn’t expect to shout but I did. “No, we have to go, now.” I continued firmly. “If we stay here, we are going to die.”
“He’s in a bad way, he can’t even move right now. I’m not going to just leave him here like this.” Graham said slowly. The fire had left his eyes. “Julia, If we were going to leave we should have left a long time ago. Go, we’ll be fine.” Graham said weakly as he squatted down next to the man.
We both knew it was a lie.
“Fine, you can do whatever you want Graham. I’m leaving.” I crossed my arms tight to my chest and looked down as I walked away quickly.
I thought he would follow me and try to stop me, but nothing. I walked faster. I had no energy left to fight him. I closed the double doors of the main foyer behind me, sealing his tomb. I ran.
“Just don’t stop running. The moment you stop, you’re done.” My Dad’s words echoed in my mind powering my movement, propelling me forward as I ran barefoot on the hardwood floor. I could feel myself as a girl tucked under my Dad’s arm. It felt so safe, nothing could touch me there. My first track meet in Junior High. In my young life I had never felt as unsure and as vulnerable as I did then. My but Dad’s words were calming and simple. “Just don’t stop running.” I could do that. I was never the fastest or the most talented athlete, but I ran because of the way my Dad’s eyes lit up when I finished a race. In an uncertain time between girlhood and womanhood, I could still run into my Dad’s embrace and I was sheltered from what could be a demanding and overwhelming. If only my Dad knew how his words were driving me now. If he knew what his little girl had done. I shuttered at the thought.
“The moment you stop, you’re done.” I ran into another darkened hallway to the mahogany staircase and raced down, each step echoed hollowly. I had never felt so alone. With no plan my mind settled on one thought. Run.
-TO BE CONTINUED WITH THE FINAL INSTALLMENT NEXT MONDAY- PART 6: ASH