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    Geron Kees
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The Thief of Small Things - 9. Chapter 9

I had no sense of danger about what I was about to do. This was The Boltfort, a place I had grown up with, and loved like my own home. This was Granddad's place, always a safe haven from the bothers of the world. And this was the way that Mark had gone, and surely Mark was no danger to me.

Even as I ascended the ladder, I knew that Granddad would be astonished to learn that there was a hidden way into the home he'd lived in for thirty years, one he not only didn't know about, but one he had never even suspected existed. I was briefly reminded of my own thoughts on secret panels and hidden doors, and how Granddad had said such things would certainly appear in the building's plans. Then what about this attic door?

I reached the top of the ladder, and slowed as my head rose into darkness. But then I turned and saw a light, one some distance off, and plainly obscured by a plethora of bulky items stacked between me and the source of the illumination. I continued upwards, slowly now, and as my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I could make out a floor all around the opening. There were lots of things piled about that floor, some large and square, others smaller and with less definite form. The notion that these were the things that one might actually store in an attic came to mind, and with it a sense of wonder at how long all this stuff had been here. Granddad had never mentioned this place, certainly. And he had been living in the condo for thirty years!

I stepped out onto the floor, and paused to let my eyes further adjust to the dimness. Above my head, a vaulted roof trapped the shadows, the illumination from the distant light not strong enough to send them fleeing from their secret places. Darkness also crowded in from each side, providing a tunnel-like effect that spread as it approached the light, while what lay beyond that point of illumination was again reduced to a mystery list of indistinct outlines, shapes, and shadows.

It was eerie, no doubt about that, and I had to study the floor for what seemed a long time before I began to feel it was safe to move away from the ladder. There was a pathway between the clutter, and I moved into it now, watching where I put my feet, but also keeping an eye on the hazy sphere of light ahead of me. It wouldn't do to fall over something in the dimness, and announce my presence too soon.

As I moved I started to become aware of the things I passed. There were more boxes than anything else, and the smell of cardboard was strong in my nose now. The boxes ranged in size from large to small, and were piled atop each other in apparently random patterns. Mixed in with the boxes were all sorts of other things, some of which did not immediately identify themselves, but others which were obvious: rugs, curtains and curtain rods, furniture, books, papers - things that might normally find their way to an attic. The stuff had not been dumped here, but stored neatly, and there were odd divisions between the piles - areas of clear floor space - that suggested that the items might have been put here by more than one owner.

And yet, the place didn't seem dusty or musty. There was no real smell of decay here, no sense that the things stored all around me were moldering away with time. That seemed at odds with the apparent secret nature of the place, and would be something I'd want to investigate further after I settled my main reason for coming here.

Mark.

I was getting near to the light source now, and became even more careful how I stepped among the shadows. Finally, I came to what looked like a large trunk of some kind, upon which sat a tall box overflowing with pleated cloth, which hung down the side of the trunk like a silent waterfall in the night. Beyond that barrier was the light source, a single light bulb beneath a shade, that hung down low from a wire that vanished into the shadows above.

The light hung over a small table beside what looked like a camping cot of some kind. On the other side of the cot, a large piece of luggage stood opened atop a box, and I could see neatly folded clothing inside. A backpack sat on the floor by the bunk, and a jacket and a hat were hanging from a makeshift stand nearby. There were several things laying atop the table that suggested that someone had been here recently: a small music player with a pair of lightweight headphones, a box of crackers, a capped bottle of spring water, a wristwatch, and what looked like a wallet.

But no one was in sight.

I squinted into the shadows all around, but there was nothing to suggest that I wasn't totally alone.

"I heard you coming," a voice said quietly.

And despite that quiet tone, it made me jump. My heart thumped in my chest as I looked quickly around me. "Mark?"

"Yeah."

I looked around again. "Where are you?"

I heard him sigh. "At the end, I guess."

The depression was plain in his tone, and it set off little alarm bells in my head. "At the end? At the end of what?"

"Everything. What you see here. Us. Everything."

I shook my head. "It's not the end."

"Isn't it? I lied to you, David. About a lot of things."

I nodded to myself. "I know. I get that now." I frowned, considering it all. "Did your parents really die, the way you said?"

"Yes."

"In a car accident?"

He made a small, lost sound. "It happened so fast...so unexpectedly. One morning I had a family, and that evening, I was alone."

That was painful to hear. I knew my own upset at just having my parents separate. Losing both of them completely would surely be devastating. "I'm so sorry.'

"So am I. But it's done."

"What happened after that?"

"Does it matter?"

"Yes. It does to me."

"Well...I lived with an aunt for a few months after it happened. But she didn't really want me there, and so when I was eighteen and able to, I left. I came back to the city."

"So not everything you told me was a lie," I decided.

"No. Not everything."

A desperate thought came to me then. Something I had to know. "You didn't lie about us, did you? About liking me? About...wanting to be with me?"

I heard that little whimper again, the one I'd heard on the phone the previous night. "No. Not about that."

I closed my eyes and gulped a breath. "Then it's not over."

He was silent a moment. His voice had seemed to come from off to my right, but when he spoke again, it was out in front of me somewhere. "It has to be. How can you ever trust me again?"

Thoughts came and went so fast in my mind that I was tripping over them, not able to sort out which ones I wanted to say. My mouth sensed this, and spoke on its own. "Why are you living here in the attic?"

"I didn't have anywhere else to go."

Now his voice seemed to issue from over to my left. I looked that way. "What about your apartment?"

He gave out a small, bitter laugh. "Oh, I had that. That much was true. I had it for a month, when I first got here." He stopped, and seemed reluctant to go on.

"What happened?" I prodded. I needed time to think, and I also knew I needed to keep Mark talking. He sounded desperate, and afraid, and so very alone that it hurt to hear.

"Well - I got back to the city about six months ago. I dropped my stuff in a cheap motel and went down to The Village. I knew I couldn't afford to live here by myself, and that I needed to share a place. I figured The Village would be a good place to start looking, you know?"

I understood what he meant now. He'd been looking for a gay roomie, someone of like mind that might take him in for a share of the rent. "What about your trust fund?" my mouth asked, before I could stop it.

Again, he sighed. "I had that, but it was just ten grand. Not enough to live on long in the city. I have some left, but not much." He stopped a moment, and I was afraid he might not go on. But then he did. "I met a guy named Luke in The Village. He managed a restaurant near here, and he said he was always looking for good help. I said I needed a place to stay, and he said he'd hire me, and that he even had a spare bedroom in his apartment, and that I could pay some rent out of my pay. It seemed like a good deal, and it was just what I needed to stay here."

I sensed where this was going. "But it wasn't such a good deal, huh?"

"No. Luke was nice at first. But he was interested in me, you know? And not in a way I wanted. The guy was twice my age, and while he wasn't bad looking, he just didn't ring my bells."

I winced at that, able now to actually feel his upset. "That sucks."

"Yeah. After a few weeks of being nice, he suddenly wasn't. He suggested that a room wasn't the only thing he'd thought I was looking for, and that if that was all I wanted, maybe I should look elsewhere. He gave me to the end of the month to think about it."

"Did you?" I was caught up in his story now.

"Yeah, but not the way he wanted. I came over here to The Boltfort and talked to Mr. Santini, and he agreed to let me stay with him a few days until I figured something out."

The name rang a bell, but I had to think a moment before it hit me. "You mean the maintenance guy here?"

"Yeah. He's alone in that little apartment, and it has two bedrooms. He said I could use the extra one until I figured out what to do."

That made no sense to me. "Really? Well...how do you even know this guy?"

"My dad knew him."

"Your dad?"

Mark made another small whimpering noise, and followed it with another sigh. "My dad used to be the maintenance man here before Mr. Santini. I used to live here, David."

The shock I felt at hearing that made me gasp. Thoughts whirled about inside my head, until, oddly enough, something my Granddad had said about Mark came to the surface: "He's very...comfortable, too. I almost had the impression I'd met him before."

"You lived here," I repeated, flatly.

"In the apartment downstairs, in back. When Mr. Santini said I could stay with him, I moved back into my old bedroom, in fact."

"That was nice," was all I could think to say.

"You know, I...I used to see you when you'd come to visit your granddad.."

There was somehow a smile in those last few words, and it pulled me from my shock and actually made me smile, too. "You saw me?"

"Oh, yeah. I mean, the first time I saw you, I was like fourteen. I already suspected I was gay. And after I saw you, I was sure of it."

I laughed at that, tickled. "You liked what you saw?"

He sighed. "Yeah. And I never stopped, either."

Four years. Mark had been aware of my existence for four years, and I had never once suspected his. "You couldn't have said hello?"

"No." The smile was gone from his voice now. "My dad said that the help didn't mix with the tenants. Especially not the condo owners. He was really class conscious, for some reason."

"That's stupid," I said, before I could stop myself.

"Yeah. But that's how it was. So I could only see you from a distance when you came to visit your granddad, and not do anything about it." I sensed another smile come into his voice. "But I did dream about you a little, and wondered what it would be like to know you."

"I can't believe I never saw you." But it was my turn to smile. "My granddad told me he felt like he had met you before."

Mark gave out a soft, strained laugh. "I'm sure he saw me around. I was always helping my dad with something. I've grown a lot since we moved, and I was hoping he wouldn't recognize me."

I nodded. "I think my granddad thought a lot of your dad. He said he took wonderful care of the building. He doesn't feel the same way about Mr. Santini, I'm afraid."

"Mr. Santini is a good guy," Mark countered. "He takes good care of the important stuff in this place. He just --"

The silence suddenly grew. "He just...what?" I prodded.

"He just doesn't love The Boltfort like my dad did. Not yet, anyway. And he's not really a people person. He does his best, but he comes across as a little sour."

I remembered what Granddad had said about the man, and nodded. "I heard your dad was very good with this place."

"Yeah. He loved this old building. All of us did. But when he got offered the job in Boston, it was more money, and he wanted me to go to college. He didn't want to leave, but decided he had to. And so he wanted to make sure the building was left in good hands. He pulled strings with the owners to get Mr. Santini the job."

"Really? He thought Mr. Santini was that good?"

"He is that good," Mark corrected. "Sure, he doesn't worry about the looks of things like my dad did, but he takes great care of the building and all of its machinery. He and my dad were in the Navy together. They've been... they were friends for a long time."

I was amazed by all this, but also somehow very pleased. It was a relief to know that Mark had been aware of me for years, and had just made a move when the opportunity had recently presented itself. It was a far cry from the feeling I'd first had that he'd set everything up on the spur of the moment like some kind of weird stalker might do. He liked me, and he had for a long time!

"Why do you think this is the end?" I asked then.

He was quiet a moment, and when he spoke again his voice was once more off to my right hand. "Man, I lied to you. About so much stuff. How can you trust a guy that did that to you?"

I considered that. "So you don't work at a restaurant?"

"No. That job went when I left Luke's place."

I shook my head. "You've been living in the attic of The Boltfort for five months?"

"Well, more like four. Mr. Santini was starting to get nervous about me being there in his apartment. He hadn't been thinking I would need to stay very long, and had told his boss that I was a family friend just visiting for a while. But that kind of started to look weird after a month, you know? And the building super is always at the apartment, telling Mr. Santini that this or that needs to be done. That guy is a pest! So it's not like I could always just hide from him."

I nodded. "I can see where it might have gotten a little strange."

Mark laughed, this time a pleasant little sound that made me smile. "I know every inch of this building. I played here when I was little, and I explored everything and everywhere." His affection for The Boltfort was clear. "I suggested to Mr. Santini that I could kind of float around the building, and not stay in his apartment any longer. He thought that was crazy, but he finally said he'd just look the other way. I know it was risking his job to have me here. But he felt he owed that to my dad."

I was amazed at this. "How do you...how do you come and go without being seen?"

"Oh, that's easy. The maintenance apartment has its own entry around the other side of the building. When they built this place, they really wanted to keep the staff separate from the tenants."

I nodded. "Ah. So that's how you get in. But how do you get up here?"

"There's a spiral staircase behind the maintenance apartment. There's a steel door at the end of the hallway on each floor over in that quarter of the building that gets you to it. The maintenance man used to use it to get where he needed to go."

My jaw dropped at that. "It's twelve floors up here! Well...thirteen, I guess! That's a lot of climbing!"

"You're telling me? But that didn't bother anyone back then. The help was the help. Mr. Santini uses the elevator now, just like anyone else. But the stairs were perfect for me to get around with."

I shook my head. "I can't believe my granddad has lived here all these years and doesn't know there's an attic."

"He's gotta know," Mark countered, stunning me. "I'll bet some of this stuff here is his, even."

I grunted. "He's never once mentioned it! And he didn't know about the ladder in his hall closet, I know!"

"Oh. That." Mark sounded embarrassed now. "The tenants keep stuff up here, David. When they want to store something, they call Mr. Santini, and he comes up to their floor. There's a little cargo elevator, like a big dumbwaiter, by the spiral staircase. He puts the stuff in that and sends it up here. Then he comes up the stairs, unloads it, and puts it together and marks it. So your granddad knows there's an attic for storage, but he's just never been up here.'

I gaped at that. "But what about the ladder in my granddad's closet?"

"Only the apartments...the condos...on the top floor had that access to the attic. Those ladders were capped off fifty or sixty years ago for security reasons. I, uh, I removed the caps myself."

A light went on in my head then. "So that you could sneak into the condos and steal stuff!"

I hadn't meant it to be an accusation, but there it was, and I could tell it had hurt Mark by the tone of his reply. "I never planned to do that. I just wanted access to bathrooms and sinks. There's eight big condos up here, and at any given time, at least one is empty while the owner is out. I got to know everyone's schedules, and so I could take a shower, shit and piss, and do stuff like that. I didn't mean to become a thief."

I considered that, and nodded. "Just small stuff, huh? My granddad said bread and food was missing sometimes."

"Jesus! I tried not to be greedy. It started out with just a slice of bread or some cereal here and there, maybe a can of soup. I figured people wouldn't miss small stuff, and it almost didn't feel like stealing."

"It was," I pointed out.

"I know. Believe me, I know. But as my money went down it became harder to make ends meet. I got so I needed that extra stuff to keep going. I was afraid that if I started eating all Mr. Santini's stuff, he'd eventually make me leave. He sends a lot of his money to his daughter in Florida, to help raise her kids. He lives on a budget, and he didn't need me messing that up. But he didn't know what I was doing. We almost never see each other anymore. I come and go through his apartment, and he's never asked me for the key back. I think he's relaxed now, because no one seems aware I'm here. I really didn't know your granddad knew I'd taken some of his food."

"And that you showered in one of his bathrooms," I dared. "And some of his neighbors have said that their food has gone missing, or the TV remote was moved, or that they just felt like someone had been there."

"Fuck. I didn't know that. I guess I was getting so relaxed that I got careless." He sighed, and this one sounded like a broken one, a defeated one. " I guess I really need to find somewhere to go."

"What about me?" I asked.

He was silent a moment. Then: "I'm sorry if I hurt you. I really didn't want that."

"What did you want?"

There was a pause before he answered. "I guess I hadn't thought it out, you know? As soon as I found you were staying with your granddad, I thought I finally had a chance to meet you. I heard you guys discussing going to the catacombs, and I just about killed myself getting there ahead of you. I just wanted to meet you, and ---"

"And?"

"I don't know. I didn't really start to think about all the lies I was telling until after you and I had dinner together. Until after...after I kissed you. I thought there was a future there, then, and that's when it hit me how much I'd lied to you. And then I couldn't see a way to undo that. And that's when it started to come apart."

"You were going to tell me in the museum, weren't you?"

"Yeah. But...that toddler yelled, and it spoiled the moment. I got scared, and I couldn't finish."

"I wish you had," I said quietly. "Because I think I love you."

There was silence a moment, and then a sob. "You can't," he said softly, his voice breaking.

I had been listening to my thoughts while we had been speaking, and my emotions...and my heart. They had all agreed, and the path ahead was clear. I turned, zeroing in on his voice, and moved towards him, my own reply issuing forth as a whisper: "I already do."

He was sobbing softly, and I made my way towards the sound. I moved silently and quickly, afraid the moment would be lost if I hesitated. I rounded a pile of boxes and there he was, his face down on his arm, leaning against the other side. I went to him, and put an arm around his shoulders. He started violently, and looked up at me, his face wet, and twisted in anguish.

I think my heart broke completely then, and I felt tears brimming forth from my own eyes. I leaned closer and nuzzled him, and kissed him, and he came into my arms, and we just stood there and held onto each other, while everything that had come before that moment dissolved and was swept away, no longer important. I knew what I wanted then, and where I wanted it to go.

The silence between us lengthened, but I also felt us each relaxing, the hard and worried edge slipping away. Mark was quieting, regaining control.

"Don't you want this?" I finally managed, drawing back and trying to smile at him.

He nodded, and I could see the yes in his eyes.

I nodded, too. "Then come with me. I think know someone that can help."

Copyright © 2020 Geron Kees; All Rights Reserved.
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I think David is going to see if his grandfather has any waiting jobs available (or connections to someone else who can offer Mark a job). I’m sure David would be willing to share his room with Mark. I’m not certain grandpa wants a roommate after David returns to his father though.
;–)

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2 hours ago, mikedup said:

Absolutely brilliant, this was certainly a very emotional chapter, I am glad that the truth is out , now onto what happens next

Thanks. I hope you like what happens next!

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5 hours ago, travlbug said:

"Bad things happen to good people," and Mark's situation is a case in point.  His aunt makes clear that he isn't welcome, and his first attempt to get by in the City doesn't work out; and without additional adult guidance, he goes back to the only thing he knows.  In practice, he is trespassing and stealing:  He is extremely lucky that the person who exposes him is the person who loves him, as he otherwise could have wound up in jail.  While Mark thinks his discovery signals "the end," it actually presages a new beginning. His story is archetypal in showing the need to put trust and faith in others, as it demonstrates what can happen when an individual tries to go it alone. 😊

One of the best non-mysteries I've read this year! :worship:

That's a very kind statement about a fairly short story. Thanks. :wub:

 

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3 hours ago, Fae Briona said:

It also shows David's maturity, and ability to see past the lies to the "why" of things. That's something not all adults have, or at least use.

Some people are born reasonable. Maturity is the ability to use that quality wisely. In David's case, he was just learning, but he had some good teachers, and that counts for a lot!

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