Amateur cartoonist and writer, actual architect, coffee lover, and professional et ceteratist. May contain offbeat cartoons, short stories, fan art, and/or platypuses. I'm also on Twitter and Instagram as aarondoodles, and Tumblr at http://aarondoodles.tumblr.com/.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
This may be the best thing I've ever written. It's at least the best short story I've written in a very long time. I had so much fun crafting this piece. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear comments about it.
"Nirvana" Aaron Matthew Smith January 25th, 2011
I came looking for Nirvana. I tracked it here, but when I got here it was gone.
That was what it said on the floor beneath my feet, written in simple black spray paint on the wooden floor. It was the fifth time I’d seen that exact message tagged in an abandoned building in the last month.
The little room at the top of the tower had a pointed roof and windows on all sides. I could see the gray, January Detroit skyline all around me. In the east I could see the outline of the river and Belle Isle reflecting the dark evening sky, a ribbon of black running to the horizon.
Sometimes I liked to compare myself to Indiana Jones, exploring the deepest, most forgotten places in the whole world. Except the temples that I raided weren’t lost in the middle of deep, dark jungles or caves man had never set eyes upon.
Urban exploring makes me feel alive, especially in Detroit. When the auto industry went bust, all the millionaires packed up and left. Some of them sold their homes, some of them just abandoned their multi-million dollar mansions. The result was a strange no-man’s-land existing within the once-great city, dotted with decrepit and disowned properties like discarded toys in a child’s playroom.
I wound my way down the stairs of the tower, careful to keep to the inside of the spiral staircase. I tried to ignore the creaks and groans of the boards as I descended into what I guessed was a den. I’d wanted to go into the old Romanesque mansion on the corner of Park and Peterboro for a long time, but I’d been too chicken. It looked like it was going to fall down any day, four stories of heavy stone walls, arched porticos and huge picture windows looking out onto the overgrown lawn like empty eye sockets in a monstrous skull.
How does a street kid like me know so much? I wanted to study architecture, but college was too expensive. So I did this instead.
The inside was covered in graffiti, like the majority of Detroit, despite the city’s best efforts to scrub it away whenever new artwork appeared. I didn’t know why they bothered. To me, it was like modern day cave drawings, images of what was important to people at the time.
Like Nirvana, apparently.
After the first time I found the tag, I looked up the word. Nirvana means something along the lines of ultimate fulfillment, like if you ever actually found Nirvana, you’d never have to struggle ever again. I didn’t even know what to make of that, exactly; like, I wouldn’t have any worries? So I’d win the lottery or something? Or maybe I’d still have all my old problems, I just wouldn’t care about them? I didn’t know what to make of it, except for one thing. I knew I wanted it, whatever it was.
I didn’t know how to track Nirvana, but according to the tags, somebody did. The strange thing was that I kept finding the message in more and more dangerous places. The first time was on the inside of an abandoned apartment building. The next was four days later in an abandoned subway tunnel, then on the ceiling of a dilapidated theater (don’t ask me how the tagger got up there). The next one was in another old house, and this last one was in a crumbling tower at Park and Peterboro.
So what did it mean? I slipped past the chain link fence around the mansion that was supposed to keep people like me out and headed down the street like I knew exactly where I was going. It was entirely likely that some kids thought they were playing a fun joke, tagging the same message over and over. Most taggers just used a signature, sure, but I would run across the occasional rebel or pretend anarchist who liked to write his manifesto on the walls of buildings.
If it was a joke, then I could appreciate it. The joke was on me. But a part of me didn’t want to believe it. What If someone really had figured out what Nirvana was and had managed to follow it to Detroit? Were they stalking it all across the city, chasing it from place to place?
Nobody knew this city’s ins and outs better than I did. The Nirvana hunter had hit several of the biggest spots in the city in the last month chasing down his prey, getting more and more dangerous each time.
And if I was Nirvana and running for my life, I know exactly where I’d hide. Best of all, it was only a couple blocks away.
In the fading evening light, Slumpy looked even more depressing than usual. The crumbling William Livingstone house on Eliot had been falling down since they’d moved this big ass mansion from its original location to Eliot Street in the early 2000s, and it hadn’t been put up quite right. It sat right in the middle of a huge empty lot all by itself, making it look like a depressed, lonely and deflated balloon made of bricks and mortar. Most of the walls on the front of the three-story house were hanging at such odd angles it looked like someone trying to stand up on two broken legs.
If I was Nirvana and I wanted to hide from somebody, I’d hide in there.
I never carried a flashlight with me when I went urban exploring- too many things you didn’t want to see in Detroit at night, and too many things people might shoot you for seeing if you did see them. The gray January sunlight was almost gone now, and a light snow began to fall as I approached Slumpy. There was a hole in the fence near the back that everyone knew about but practically nobody used. Slumpy was in such bad shape, only the truly brave or stupid ever got near it.
I slipped through the fence and walked once around the perimeter, stopping at the front door. It looked like the safest way in, though “safe” was a purely relative term. Most of the Spanish tile façade had fallen in heaps of shattered masonry at the front door. I climbed through the crumbling mortar, careful to not touch any of the walls- that’d be the easiest way to send Slumpy slumping down on top of my head.
The interior walls of the old mansion were almost totally free of graffiti. Which was why the message scrawled across the wall of what I guessed was the dining room stood out so much, even in the fading evening light.
It’s in here. I saw it.
Plain black spray paint on the walls. I walked carefully to the wall and touched the writing. It was still tacky. Even in the cold weather it had to be fresh, maybe only a few hours old.
Something made a heavy thump noise from upstairs, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Plaster dust crumbled from the ceiling, dusting my hair with white.
There was something upstairs.
Everything in me wanted to turn and run, leave Nirvana and whoever was hunting it and crumbling old Slumpy behind and just run back to my drafty apartment, go to bed, get up and go to work tomorrow and forget this ever happened.
I stopped and held my breath for one second, then two.
No more sounds from upstairs.
I couldn’t go. This was what urban explorers did. This is what we lived for, the unknown, the journey. We were pioneers. I tried to imagine myself as Daniel Boone, discovering Montana or whatever the heck it was he did.
One of the walls that the stairs were connected to had half fallen down, and several of the stair treads had rotted completely through. I climbed them slowly and deliberately, my heart skipping a beat every time a board cracked or creaked.
I stepped onto the second floor landing. Light from the street lamp outside fell onto the decrepit floorboards, dying the otherwise pitch black foyer a strange orange color. The stairs rose another flight, to the third floor.
A small thump nearly sent me toppling over the rotted railing. Of course it came from the third floor. Nirvana wouldn’t be so easily caught to be found on the second floor of the most dangerous relic in Detroit.
The stairs nearer the top were blackened, and the last three risers were gone entirely, their edges black and ashen like a fire had broken out in here god-knows how long ago. The banister continued up to the landing, like a strange ghost of where the stair used to be.
What if my weight made the floor collapse when I jumped?
Before I could think any more about it, I jumped. The toe of my sneaker clipped the edge of the landing and it crumbled away, and I landed hard on my elbows, my chest hitting the edge of the landing. I cried out as my legs swung in dead space for an instant before I scrambled onto the landing, finally rolling onto my side on the grimy wood.
Almost there. This would be my last struggle in life, I could feel it. As soon as I had Nirvana, it’d be just fine.
The little landing lead into a huge room- it must have taken up most of the top floor of the building. There were more eerie, tall windows like in the Romanesque place, but these were all broken out. The walls leaned and bulged at odd angles. One or two of the wooden columns in the middle of the room were splintered, and one had fallen over altogether. The ceiling had fallen in around it, scattering wooden roof beams, broken plaster and roof tiles all over the floor. I could just make out the orange-red Detroit night sky beyond the hole in the roof.
So where was it?
I waited. A sudden scratching noise made me spin around- at the back of the wall I’d just come through, a dozen feet down the wall from the door I’d used, a huge hole was torn in the wall. The hole was big enough for a man to fit through if he crouched. Jagged little pieces of wood poked through the shattered plaster like broken teeth. It was pitch black beyond.
At the mouth of the hole was a can of black spray paint.
This was it. No turning back.
I braced myself and took a step toward the hole.
A sudden earsplitting screech shattered the silence around me, and I screamed. A flurry of tiny black shadows exploded from the hole, flapping and chittering and squalling around me like an angry bee hive. I backpedaled away from the bats and swatted blindly at them. I collided heavily with something heavy behind me, and there was a crash and suddenly I was on my back on the dusty, bare floor, falling chips of plaster raining down onto my face.
Bats. They were just bats. They’d made a home in the house.
But something else was happening. I rolled aside and fell onto what I’d back into- it was a wooden post, an old rotted four-by-four that had splinted when I’d hit it. One of the columns that was holding the roof up.
A roar like a maddened animal tore the night, and suddenly wooden beams and ceramic tiles were pouring through the new hole in the roof. I scrambled out of the way, but the floors were creaking and groaning at all the weight. Another column splintered, then toppled.
The place was coming down. Slumpy had slumped his last, and I was stuck inside.
Time seemed to slow down. No way could I make it down the stairs in time- they were just as likely to fall apart. Plaster and mortar filled the air with choking white dust, and I coughed. There had to be a way out.
The hole. The bats lived in there because it never got any sunlight. I suddenly knew what it was. I’d seen them in a hundred old houses in the city before.
The roof caving in sounded like a huge tidal wave crashing on a beach. I was out of time. I dove into the hole and thrust out my feet and elbows, snagging my sneakers and jacket against the bricks. I plummeted down three floors through the dumb waiter shaft, and I prayed I could slow my fall enough.
At the second floor, I felt something in my right ankle snap. I cried out and lost my grip with my elbows and fell the other fifteen feet to the ground floor.
I landed in a heap among crumbled, decaying wood and god knew what else. Chips of plaster and broken ceramic tile rained down on my head, but nothing else. For a horrifying moment I felt the walls closing in on me in that cramped, pitch black space. It felt like I was stuck in the bottom of a well. A pale orange flicker of light illuminated the choking dust near my feet. I crouched and crawled through the little hole and found myself in the ruined kitchen.
I didn’t even bother going back to the front door. I climbed out of one of the kitchen windows, falling onto my face when I tried to land on my bad ankle. It was sprained, maybe broken, but I didn’t care. I limped away from Slumpy, feeling every bit as bad as it looked, and didn’t turn around until I was at the end of the empty lot.
Slumpy’s roof had fallen in entirely, demolishing the whole third floor and making it look even more deflated than before.
For a manic moment, I contemplated going back. What if I’d missed it? What if Nirvana was still in there somewhere? If so, whoever was hunting it was either going to find it tonight or it was going to move somewhere else. I’d never find it again.
I was sore all over. I dusted the grime and plaster out of my hair and turned to limp my way home. I’d choose living over Nirvana tonight.