This story is by Lori Nishimoto and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
With apprehension, Bart trudged up the steps of a job trailer bearing the logo “Better Tomorrow Demolition”. He took off his hardhat, ran a gloved hand through his hair to brush off a few chunks of gypsum, and swung open the door.
“Hey, Bart,” said his boss. “I’ve got bad news. We need to move up the schedule. Clear the site by Wednesday.”
“Archie, come on! Two days?” Bart frowned. “You’re kidding me!”
Bart envied the boss for his business success. Archie launched his company in Brooklyn years ago in the middle of a construction boom. Within six months everyone was hit by the Disappearance. Half of Archie’s team went missing. Somehow he still completed every impossible job for his clients, builders whose own teams were suddenly gone. Of course Archie would say ‘yes’ and push the problem downstream. He’d do anything for his clients.
“No joke. If we can’t do it, we’ll lose the job and that’ll mean layoffs.” Archie threatened. “The contractor’s under the gun. Got to get these luxury condos up before the competition breaks ground in Flatlands. I know you wanna move up, so make it happen, OK? Show me your ‘top management’ chops. Get kicked upstairs. Either that, or get the boot out of a job, if you know what I mean.”
Not too funny. “I’ll do what I can.” he said, shaking his head.
Bart walked back to his excavator, rubbing his chin, passing block after block where men with heavy machinery worked in unison, tearing apart the frayed walls of worn-out buildings. Kicking up mountains of dust and noise, buckets scraped, poked and hacked layers of plaster, wood and wire into piles of debris, while workers pointed hoses, spraying arcs of water across the destruction.
Luckily, builder’s intuition had told Bart not to mention the fact that his team was ahead of schedule. This time the impossible was do-able. If he could do the impossible, Archie had better come through with that raise. Getting a promotion would be a real morale boost to his family. Mary had never recovered after losing Sarah in the Disappearance. He kept telling her to stay hopeful, that they would find their daughter someday. But he wasn’t sure that he believed his own words any more. And sometimes not knowing hurt worse than anything.
His hand was on the door of his excavator cab when something caught his eye inside the crumbling warehouse. He jammed his hardhat back onto his head and moved cautiously toward the interior of the building to take a closer look, well aware that the structure was unstable. Demo-ing the front half of the building had warped the interior wall. The door inside dangled awkwardly from a single hinge. And past the opening Bart saw something, someone moving.
“Hey! Get outta there!” He shouted. Sometimes kids snuck onto job sites to see what sort of salvage they could grab. Or for a dare. The last thing he needed was an accident that could shut down the job site for weeks.
“Help, help me, please” a faint voice. He could barely hear it above the construction noise assaulting him.
Bart shoved the door and stepped inside the space. He confronted a huddled old woman in a worn red coat. Her head was a tangle of gray hair massed around a dirty knit cap. She’d obviously been living rough, sleeping in this abandoned building for a while.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he yelled, waving his arms for emphasis. “Can’t you see this is a construction site? We’re demoing all of these blocks!”
“No, you can’t…” she protested feebly. “Our store was here. Need to stay.”
Bart remembered that these warehouses had been a popular area for independent retailers to set up kiosks with trendy products. Sarah brought home a beaded necklace from one of these places, just a few days before…. He snapped himself out of it.
“Yeah, well, these buildings, they’ve all gotta come down. So you’d better go on home to your family. Can’t someone come get you, take you somewhere?” he said.
“No. There’s nobody. My husband, Mike, he got sick. A long time ago. And we didn’t have any care. No Medicare. No Medicaid. They took it away. Not even AmeriCare, No nothing. Nobody.” Her voice faded. “After Mike was gone.. I just couldn’t do it on my own.“
“Look, lady, I’m really sorry, but you’ve got to stay somewhere else. These buildings, they’re all coming down like I said. This one,” Bart pointed to the crumbling roof. “is comin’ down right now. So, how about you just head off the property so I don’t have to call the cops.”
“You can’t take this one. We need it.” She staggered up, nose to nose with Bart, grew wide-eyed and shouted. “WE NEED THIS DOOR!”
“We? Who’s we?” Bart backed up, reached into his pocket for his phone. Better to call the authorities and not get tangled up with a crazy broad.
“NO! I’ll show you!” The woman jumped forward with surprising speed and grabbed Bart’s arm. He recoiled, but her grip was strong. She screamed incoherently and pointed at the back wall. Bart worried about getting his eyes scratched out.
“Settle down! I’ll take a look.” Bart said.
“Good. You’ll see.” She tightened her grip and the two of them shuffled toward the back wall of the broken building. Through the dim light, Bart made out graffitied letters, animals and eyes on the grimy surface as he moved close enough to touch them. He resisted, but the woman pulled him tight up against the back wall. She jerked him forward and, instead of colliding into rough plaster, Bart found himself in a different world.
He stood in a sunny plaza surrounded by tall buildings. The space teemed with colorful urban life. Bart heard laughing, music, different languages. People looked at him curiously as they passed. A man in a suit and tie and a woman wearing a hijab walked by arm in arm, pushing a baby stroller. A group of teenagers in sketchy clothes giggled and pointed with ice cream cones. The crowd teemed with all ages and colors. Bart realized he hadn’t seen so much diversity in years, since the Disappearance. He turned toward the space they’d come through. No wall, just a blurry translucent smudge in the air. He reached out a gloved hand. Felt nothing.
“Wait,” the old woman maintained her tight grip. “He’ll be here soon.”
A well-dressed man got out of a car parked across the street and approached them, hand outstretched. “Hello, Bart. My name is Malachi Wordsworth.”
Bart shook Malachi’s hand slowly. “How do you…”
“Know your name? Actually, Sarah told me a lot about you,” he said.
“Sarah?” Bart asked. His heart pounded. He tried to form questions, but words failed him.
“Look, Bart, we don’t have much time. You’re our only hope. We asked Helen to bring you here so we could beg you to help us preserve the beautiful society we’ve built here. We’ve known for some time about your world’s plans for construction on this site. We’re moving the portal, that door that you just entered, but it’s taken longer than expected. Construction! Typical delay, right?” Malachi rolled his eyes. “It will be done Monday, I can assure you.”
“We must ask you to prevent one building from being demolished, that space back there, for just one week,” Malachi pointed to the blur. “For everyone’s safety and happiness, in your world as well as ours.”
Bart tried to fathom the implications of what he had seen and heard in the past ten minutes.
“After that, you will have nothing to fear.” Malachi said. “And to thank you for helping us, for your sacrifice, we want you to have this.”
“We?” Bart choked out a word.
But Malachi just shook Bart’s hand again and pressed a small envelope into it.
“OK, Helen, It’s time.” Malachi said to the old woman.
Helen jerked Bart back into the half demolished warehouse. She released his arm and ambled away. He punched the solid wall.
Suddenly finding his voice, Bart shouted to Helen, “What the hell!” But she kept walking, waved him off with one arm, and disappeared.
The excavators on either side sat idle. Lunch break, he figured. Then he looked down at his hands, pulled off his gloves and opened up the envelope. He fingered the familiar letter “S” on the crystal beads for a few minutes. He clenched the necklace and looked up at the crumbling warehouses. With a nod, he walked back to his excavator and jumped into the cab. He spun the vehicle around and drove it into the neighboring excavators, first one, then the other, crippling all three. Bart jumped down from the excavator and walked slowly back to the trailer to give Archie the bad news. Damn excavation delays. You never know what you’ll find once you start digging.