Right out of school I wasn’t really ready for life yet. I needed to get out; get away – see the world, and if the money wasn’t enough for the world, then at least my own country.
I stumbled into him on the way South. A kind lady threw me out on a country road – and he was already there, lying in the dry grass with a cheap grin on his face.
“Been here for an hour,” he said. “Hard spot to catch a ride.”
We talked. Shared a cig he had stolen from his last ride. When there was still no car in sight – at least none that would stop – we walked side by side, our loose shoes sliding over the dirt in unison.
The heat was bad, but worse was the lack of prospects. No cars in sight and only an occasional house interspersed between the large fields. Max saw it first. The blue sky was still above our heads, but a front of gray was approaching from the horizon.
“Better find some roof,” he said.
We had passed the last house nearly twenty minutes ago. The next one, a large building with white walls, was not that far ahead. We pressed on, with larger steps, while the front of gray already swallowed the color of the land.
A large sign, nailed against the fence. The first word must have fallen off, but most letters of the second one remained:
When you’re outside you can hear the hail before it hits you. We ran towards the large door and Max thrashed against the bar that had been nailed across it. I ran to the side, found a window and a stone and I just pulled Max into the room as the hail started drumming on the wooden roof.
“Made it,” he said while he pushed himself up from the stone floor. “Hope no one’s in.”
Most windows were boarded shut and as the outside world was getting darker the bare light inside the room was dimming even more. The room was empty except for two lone chairs in a corner and the remnants of a campfire between them.
“Let’s take a look,” I said. “Maybe there’s food.”
“The best you’ll find is probably a stuffed bear.”
He laughed, then quickly muffled himself.
“Let’s just make sure no one’s in.”
Of the two doors the left one was missing the handle. Max pressed his ear against the right one. He lowered his hand on the handle, turned back to me for a moment and then slowly opened the door.
Human eyes stared at me. I screamed, scrambled backwards and ran towards the window.
Max was right behind me as I was climbing out, then a hand grabbed my shirt. I tried to rip free.
“Dude,” he said.
I was still struggling with his grasp, but the calmness in his voice cut through my panic.
“There was a guy crouching on the floor,” I whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Dude relax,” he said. “It’s just a statue.”
He spoke too loud for my taste and he still held onto my shirt. I twisted his hand, but he held his grip.
“That wasn’t a statute,” I whispered. “That guy was definitely alive.”
“Be quiet,” I whispered.
“Wax,” he said.
“It’s wax. A wax museum. That’s what it said above the front door.”
He pointed towards the open door.
“Look,” he said. “He still hasn’t moved. It’s a figure. Nothing to be scared of.”
“I swear he’s real,” I said.
Max finally let go of my shirt and instinctively I took a step away. The hail was hurled against my head and body and in a second I was back, pressed against the wall, and watched with horror as Max calmly walked back towards the door. In the twilight I saw how he raised his foot and placed it on the man’s shoulder.
I heard Max cursing under his breath. His body was moving heavily. With a loud crunch the figure finally slid backwards and against the wall.
“See?” he shouted back to me.
He picked something off the ground and walked over to my window. When he opened his hand there were three stiff fingers lying in his palm.
“Touch it,” he said. “It’s wax.”
With my eyes still towards the open door I picked one of the fingers up. Cold and smooth, with the texture of dry soap. Wax.
He turned again towards the door.
“Come in, this place is pretty cool.”
There were at least a dozen figures in the room, all frozen in place and time, waiting to scare or entertain visitors. Women and some children, but mostly men. All in ripped clothing.
Max wanted to explore further, but I stopped him from opening the next door. The place was making my hands and feet turn cold.
The figures weren’t just lifelike. They even seemed to interact – some holding onto others. Another pressed against the wall. Several were lying on the floor with gaping mouths and bleeding eyes like the bodies of soldiers after a lost battle.
“Fine,” Max said. “We’ll stay for the night and then let’s explore the place when the sun is back up.”
Max grabbed another chair from under one of the sitting figures as we left the room. The woman’s figure was left in place, well balanced even without the chair.
Even in his new position, lying on his side, the figure that had crouched behind the door seemed menacing, as if ready for a leap forward.
“Why did you break it?”
“You wanted proof, so I pushed him over. But the fingers stuck to the ground somehow.”
We closed the door from outside.
Later, while Max was cracking the new chair apart to make firewood, I took one of the other chairs and wedged the door shut.
“Now you’ll sit on the floor,” he said.
“Makes me feel better.”
“Well and I can sit,” he said. “Get another chair, there were more in the room.”
“I prefer the floor.”
Even with the light of the fire the room was dark; the flames only seemed to make it move. Every moment I thought I was hearing movement or footsteps or whispers from the figure room. Max was humming to himself.
The chair burned well. A can of beans, boiled to mash. Max had some dry bread from one of his rides. A decent meal for a night without host and the room was quickly heating up.
The drumming of the hail had long faded away and only a howling wind remained. Occasionally things seemed to fly by the windows, leaves or twigs or birds, quick there and quick gone. My back was against the wall and his chair tilted on its hind legs and the back touched the wall right beside my head. My eyes were moving from window to door and back. Window to door. Window to door. Window to – left door.
My eyes, transfixed towards the left door, the one without handle, the one we hadn’t checked.
Max stopped humming and looked down to me.
“Chill out man,” he said. “It’s probably just another empty room.”
“I just wonder if it’s open.”
“Don’t think so.”
A loud thud came from the figure room.
“Dude,” I said.
“Probably the broad fell down because I stole the chair.”
The room felt hot.
“I can’t take this,” I said.
“Do you want me to check? Shall mommy scare the boogeyman away?”
“I’m serious,” I said. “Didn’t you see their eyes?”
“Shoddy work,” he said. “They didn’t even look real.”
“Damn man, they looked real. And they looked terrifying.”
He laughed and threw another piece of chair into the already big fire.
I was still staring at the left door. His gaze followed mine.
“Do you want me to check the door?”
“I think I just want to get out.”
Something, somewhere, made a clattering sound. I thought I heard shuffling feet.
Max pushed his chair up.
“It’s okay. I’ll check for you.”
He stopped, looked at me with a grin and walked towards the door.
He moved his hand towards the hole where the handle had been, then he stopped and took a step back.
“Woah,” he said. “That’s actually creepy.”
The room was boiling.
“What man, what?”
“You can look through the hole here. One of those figures is leaning right against it.”
“Fuck man, let’s get out!”
“Ha, I can poke it’s eye.”
“Are you crazy?”
His hand moved slowly towards the hole. He grinned at me.
His fingers went through the hole, slowly, then, instantly his whole arm pushed inside.
“It got me!”
I rushed towards him.
“Oh no,” he screamed. “It’s so scary!”
I grabbed his shoulder and pulled.
I pulled his arm out. Easily.
He was shaking from laughter.
“Ohohoh. It got me! It got me!”
I punched his shoulder.
“Not funny ma-”
A loud thud shook the right door.
He stopped laughing.
“You heard that?”
I nodded and took a step back towards the window.
Another thud shook the door. The chair moved slightly.
“Let’s get out,” I screamed back. “Out!”
He just screamed and shook his body.
I looked back towards him.
“What the hell are -”
He had his feet against the door and his left hand against the door and his right hand was inside the hole.
“Something got me!”
For the fraction of a second I thought it was a joke. Then another thud shook the right door.
I ran towards him and grabbed his shoulder; my foot against the door; pulled.
His arm partially slid out, but his hand was still stuck.
“Help me!” he screamed.
I stemmed my other foot too against the door; pulling his shoulder with full force.
Another thud hid the right door; the chair slid.
Max shrieked. We both fell to the ground. Something warm rained on my face.
I rolled over and pulled myself and then him up. His hand was bleeding heavily. We scrambled towards the window and I pushed his sluggish body up and outside. He fell to the floor outside the house. I pushed myself up.
A loud crack behind me. Something hard hit my back. Something hard slammed against the wall to my right.
I pushed myself out, just as the man that had crouched in the door was turning towards me. Something grabbed my shoe, but it slipped off my foot. I fell and Max, rolling away, pulled my further. An arm reached out the window, then a second.
We pushed ourselves up. As I turned I saw the figures pushing through the doorway, rushing behind him for the window. His face, pure rage. His hands grabbing for me, then for the windowsill. His second hand was bleeding.
We scrambled onto our feet and ran, Max first and I right behind him, first towards the street, then into the fields on the other side and further through the corn; just away.
We didn’t see them behind us, but with every step I still felt as if they were close.
We ran until my stomach started to cramp. He saw me struggling and stopped a few steps away from me.
For a long time there was no sound except for our heavy breathing.
“Holy crap,” Max finally said.
I breathed another deep breath, exhaled, inhaled, and looked up.
“You’re an asshole,” I said.
We walked for the rest of the night; just straight ahead through the fields in the direction of the moon until we hit another, larger road.
We walked along the road without a word, sometimes shaking our heads, sometimes cursing to ourselves. We had no bags or gear. I had one shoe, first I switched it occasionally from foot to foot, then I left it at the side of the road. He held his right hand in his left. At times he felt for his missing finger.
Cars passed by us, but we made no attempt to stop them.
At some point Max was behind me. By the time the sun came up he was nowhere to be seen.
A nice old lady picked me up around 9am. She was on her way to the mall; on her route she dropped me at the train station.
I begged until I had enough for the trip. Home.
It was in the train bathroom, that I looked at myself for the first time in weeks. A reddish beard and tired eyes. There was blood on the right side of my pants, reaching from my pocket nearly down to my knee. I washed my hands, dried them and as I left the bathroom I stuck them in my pockets.
I froze as my right hand reached the bottom of the pocket; as it touched the cold and stiff and soap-textured object.
The finger was bent differently than when Max showed it to me.
I threw it out of a train window.
That blood on my pants, right below the pocket – I searched myself for cuts or scars. It definitely wasn’t mine.