The Milk Grotto
By Jeff Baker
The police were after me.
I’d been in the city three weeks and I was pretty sure I was innocent of anything, but if they really checked they’d find out that my name wasn’t really Bryce Going and I was a runaway from New York City and I’d been working my way across the country for about a year. And they’d find out that I’d only just turned seventeen, making me pretty much legal but I was still a runaway and I didn’t want to spend any time in a youth center. That was why I’d run away after my Mom split. Teenage gay runaways didn’t do too well in those places in 1978. The police had come into the place I was working and started asking questions about the employees. For all the above reasons I’d ducked out the back door, cut across the parking lot, jumped the fence and run over to the old stadium that was largely vacant since the city lost the arena football team.
I looked around quickly for security and then ran down the stairs labeled “Exit,” climbed over the gate that had been set up and found myself in the dim back hallways of the stadium. I saw a door labeled “Basement,” and I ducked inside. There had been a couple of lights on upstairs but the basement was pitch-black; a good place to hide if anyone came looking for me. And I knew the electricity worked but I wasn’t going to fumble for any light switch yet.
I felt my way carefully down the stairs and stayed still, listening for any sounds from upstairs. Instead, I heard a rustling in the room with me. I stayed in the middle of the stairway, unwilling to walk into a basement of scurrying rats.
“Company,” a voice said.
“Don’t turn the lights on yet,” said another.
I heard a scuttling on the stairs behind me and I groped for the lights. After a moment I found the switch and the lights turned on. When my eyes adjusted to the light I realized this wasn’t the huge stadium basement I’d imagined in the dark; just a medium-sized storeroom lit by a bare bulb. Probably not the only storeroom or basement. I took that in in an instant as my major concern was the three men I saw standing at the bottom of the stairs, all wearing grey sweatpants and sweatshirts.
“We’re not going hurt you,” came a voice from behind me. I almost jumped down the stairs.
“We saw you running from next door,” one of the men said.
“We figured you were trapped,” said the other.
“Cornered,” said the third man.
“We unlocked the doors. Locked them again. Anyone comes in; they’ll think this door has been locked for years,” said the man behind me.
“Look, where did you…” I started. Then one of the men put his finger to his lips.
“Shhhhh,” he said. “People. Upstairs. Lights.”
The man at the top of the stairs turned off the lights. I thought I heard someone upstairs. I didn’t make a sound. I hard rats squeaking in the storeroom. I wanted to run. I would have counted the seconds except I had no place to be at any time. After a while, I couldn’t hear anything from upstairs, just the rats downstairs. I waited a while longer. I was sweating. Then, the rats suddenly stopped squeaking.
“They’re gone,” said one of the men.
“We can tell,” said another.
“Our hearing is better than yours,” said the third.
“You can stay here for a while,” said the fourth.
I let out a deep breath. “I’d better be going,” I said. “Thanks. You guys got a place to stay?”
“We stay here,” one of them said.
“We like the dark,” said another.
“And the nearby dumpsters are kept full,” said the third.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks again.” I cautiously opened the door and made my way back outside into the evening air. Luckily I had been keeping my money in my shoe. I would catch a bus out of town, no sense trying to settle down in this city. I realized I’d seen a lot of strange things as I glanced back at the closed stadium, imagining the four men in grey in their storeroom, as they dwindled down to smaller shapes, the grey clothing becoming grey hair covering them entirely, their voices becoming the squeaking in the communal dark.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: “The Milk Grotto” is a reference to a legend connected with the Biblical “Flight Into Egypt.” Most of my other stories about Bryce Going have titles using that imagery “The Miracle of the Palm Tree,” “The Way of the Sea,” and the aforementioned “The Flight Into Egypt.” “Riding the Rails” from a few weeks ago didn’t fit the pattern; I couldn’t find a reference to the Holy Family riding a train. And one of the cool things about this flash fiction gig is that I found I like writing series stories!—jsb