This story is by Collier Ward and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Phil bowed his head into the opening he had just discovered. His tie and suit coat hung nearby, his haste didn’t allow time to change. The sealed space smelled like nothing Phil had ever encountered, and he had spent a lot of time in crawl spaces and shafts. The entrapped air was still and heavy with the smell of cold concrete and long-settled dust. It was not unpleasant, merely unfamiliar.
Phil was midway through an obstruction he had known since he was ten. It was a wall of mystery that his grandfather introduced him to decades earlier, here in the basement of a structure built many years before that. Phil knew the old building would be forced in upon itself by noon the next day. The basement would be filled with rubble and any useful artifacts would then be lost forever.
That bitter fate had an upside. Those who prepared the building for its demolition had chosen to explore this void. Now, the wall that Phil began wondering about thirty years ago had actually been breached. Phil paused, calculating his next move, and wondering what sized worker could have gotten through this hole.
Phil lifted his right knee and twisted his foot to clear the broken block. He couldn’t see it but he felt a flange of sharp clay end of useful life of his wingtip shoe. Undaunted, he turned his shoulders and then pulled his other leg through. Into the dark he staggered, skittering a few steps to maintain his balance. With caution he stood upright. Phil’s wide eyes saw only blackness. He pulled his phone from his pants pocket and fingered around to activate the flashlight. Phil had no idea what he would find.
An hour earlier Phil had stood in an open conference hall with a span of glass so vast it was as if the building was missing its rear wall. The view beyond was a of the five-story family legacy, a red brick building now destined for demolition. Sydney did not look at the vacant structure, but nodded back toward it and asked, “Any last thoughts, Phil?”
Sydney was silhouetted by the wall of daylight behind her. Phil couldn’t fully read her expression but they had been fighting the same battle together for almost two years. He knew what she was thinking. The building was coming down and there was nothing either of them could do. “No, Sydney,” he said, looking past her to the condemned landmark, stripped of its windows and robbed of its signage. “We’ve done all we could. There’s nothing left to say.”
“What would our grandfathers say if they were living?”
“Something pragmatic,” Phil said.
“True. Neither of them was much for nostalgia.”
Phil knew Sydney was referring to their pioneering friendship; one white, the other black, long before such things were acceptable. Phil’s grandfather Phillip owned Drake Construction, started it after the war, and Sydney’s granddad Ronald was his chief foreman.
“Remember how they’d let us play up there?” Sydney asked.
“Those two practically invented ‘bring your kid to work day’,” Phil said. “We loved that fifth-floor office. But we couldn’t play in the warehouse.”
“Forbidden. At least until we got old enough to work,” Sydney said.
“And man, did they put us to work!” A series of grueling summer scenes flashed through Phil’s mind.
“But we turned out alright,” she said, “You, a self-employed Architect.”
“And you, an established Civil Engineer.”
“Our granddads would be proud of us,” Sydney said.
“And they’d consider the razing of the Drake Construction building as a mark of progress, no doubt.”
Sydney put her hand on her friend’s shoulder and asked, “Do you have your speech prepared?” Phil tapped his heart, indicating the notes in his coat pocket. “I’ve got that covered.”
Phil then turned and the faced the front of the hall with Sydney. Preparations were underway. Someone from Khan/Quest was testing the screen, a hand raised in a half salute, pressing an unseen button to advance the slides. Phil had seen them all before; photo-realistic images of the new tower, flyover animations, and interactive walk-throughs. The new corporate tower was artfully designed and masterfully marketed. Phil and Sydney could freely admit that. Their disdain for the project was this: Khan/Quest Digital was replacing Drake Construction Company and removing any tangible record from that holy ground.
Sydney motioned toward the presentation screen and Phil smiled. They saw a projection of the Drake Company logo. An Art Deco inspired image of two men holding high a mason’s trowel. The chiseled relief image on a gold disk was nearly as old as the abandoned building behind them. “I’m surprised they’re including that slide.”
“It was at my insistence,” Phil said, “and only during my introduction.”
There was a pause before Sydney spoke again. “Let me ask you something,” she said, moving an empty chair. Phil sat next to her, at the edge of the only occupied table in the vast array of tables. “Our logo,” she began, “it’s history. Will people ever remember the story? Will people care who the two men are?” Phil looked out past the arrangement of round tables to the stage and the screen behind it. The golden Drake logo looked grand there. Phil felt the familiar pride but it was dampened by his friend’s concern. The two of them witnessed the iconic logo, honored it, but no one else seemed to notice or to care. The staff went about their preparations. Then the screen went blank.
“It will have to be an oral history after tomorrow,” Phil said. “The company’s been dissolved, the property’s been stripped, the building comes down at noon, and life will go on.”
Sydney looked uncharacteristically somber. Phil regretted the finality of his tone.
“I wish I’d saved something of granddad’s,” she said after a moment.
“You salvaged his office door,” he said, “with his name painted on the frosted glass. That’s a classic piece.”
“True,” she said. “And the old drafting table you and I used to play under. I love these things of course, but I wish I had something more personal. Something of the man himself – one last treasure – before this all goes away.”
There was silence between them that indicated there was nothing left to say. But in the shared quiet Phil’s mind was leaping; logo, men, trowel, treasure.
Phil raised forward to kiss Sydney’s head and then sprang to his feet.
“I’ll see you before the show, Sydney,” he said, “Hang in there!”
With his flashlight app Phil cut through the dark of the underground void. It wasn’t a large space, he discovered, as he surveyed its concrete boundaries. Phil recalled his grandfather’s explanation from long ago, “We thought there was going to be a subway nearby, so we prepared a connecting lobby. That project got scrapped so when we completed the building we walled off that odd space.” And here Phil stood, inside that odd, old space. Phil was pondering one particular moment; his grandfather had pointed to the unadorned stucco wall and said, “I’ll tell you a secret, boy. Sometimes people will hide a memento in the building’s foundation, in a cornerstone or such,” and with a warm grin that Phil could still see, the man added, “In there’s where our treasure is.”
Phil ventured further into the hold, studying the path before him, the space above him, disappointed with each view. The harsh light from his phone matched his stark realization; his boyhood fascination was misplaced. His grandfather’s tale of hidden booty simply wasn’t true.
He chided himself for such silly hope. He had jumped up from the table, leaving Sydney in her waxing regret, to rummage in a condemned basement, to trace the demolitionist’s path.
Phil turned to make his way back through the wall. He needed to get cleaned up from this fool’s errand before his part of the presentation. As he swung his flashlight toward the broken passageway a glint of reflection caught his eye. Off to his left, deep in a chest-high recess in the wall, Phil saw what looked like a toolbox.
Phil made his way over to the object to take a closer look. Placing the phone into his shirt pocket (the veiled flashlight now giving only a diffused glow to work by) Phil used both hands to slide the heavy box out. Then, finding the handle, he lowered it to the floor.
Now on one knee, as he unlatched the twin clasps of the ancient box, Phil noticed something that made him shiver. A strand of wire ran along the floor where he crouched; it led to hole in a nearby column. He let the box lid fall open. This was part of the demolition set-up. It was one of the charges placed to bring the building down. Before Phil could console himself that the charges wouldn’t go off until the next day, he was gripped with a new sense of urgency.
Phil knew that preliminary charges where sometimes used to pre-weaken selected columns. He knew there would be no warning for these detonations; they were controlled by the experts in their office elsewhere. Phil had worked around the barricades and sneaked past the pair of demolition workers upstairs. Nobody knew he was down here. The charge could go at any second.
The mystery vault of his childhood – the place of wonder and promise devised by his grandfather – could become his sudden tomb. The dark space closed in on him with unbearable pressure. He had to get out.
By reflex Phil grabbed at the top-most tool within the open box. He rose and spun toward the jagged light. He moved to the breech in a panic and used the tool’s handle to force a clean exit. Frantic, Phil fought the wall until he stumbled through, landing hard. His phone and the implement clanged across the floor – the basement floor where he and his grandfather had stood decades before.
Phil was a mess as he hurried to the stage. He noticed the gash in his shoe and the wrinkles and dust on his pant legs. He felt remnants of that same dust in his hair. Bruises were forming on an elbow and knee, but he felt no pain. He was grateful to be in one piece. The wired charge in the basement did not explode.
He greeted the Master of Ceremonies with his free hand, proceeded to the podium, and placed a last-minute prop just out of sight. He pulled his note cards from his suit pocket and set them aside as well. At least his coat and tie were presentable.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” Phil scanned the crowd to find Sydney. He noticed that the glass wall, exposed earlier in the afternoon, was now covered by a series of over-sized curtains. Khan/Quest wanted all eyes directed toward the stage. Phil had their attention.
“The good folks from Khan/Quest Digital will be presenting their design tonight,” Phil said. “But first, my name is Phil Drake and I’d like to say a few words about the legacy that has stood on this land for three generations.” Phil caught Sydney’s face, her wide questioning eyes.
Phil spoke succinctly, mentioning both Drake and Jackson. The logo appeared on screen and he identified the two men. Phil concluded his impromptu remarks with, “It seems their era has ended.”
Phil Drake then bowed his head and spoke in a reverent hush. “To my friend and co-laborer, R. Jackson, from P. Drake.” After a pause, Phil thrust the inscribed object above his head. The resemblance to the upraised trowel in the logo was unmistakable. Phil held aloft the long-hidden trowel and nodded toward Sydney. Her smile was pressed shut by tense fingers.
As the uncomprehending crowd looked on, Phil lowered the trowel and twirled its handle outward toward its rightful owner, who was now beaming.
“Here’s your treasure, Sydney.”