Steve looked around at the small, sad room. He realized that staying here, just waiting, would be intolerable. He stood up and tentatively raised his arm. Tattoo seized his hand with a surprisingly powerful grip. “Good. Step up on the back of the couch,” he whispered. At the same time that Steve climbed up on the couch, he tried to pull his hand away from Tattoo, momentarily undecided. But Tattoo strengthened his grip and Steve found himself raised up by one arm, legs dangling. “Grab this rail with your free hand,” said Tattoo. “Now push off the wall and hook your left foot here.” After some grappling and struggling Steve was up inside the ceiling on all fours, on a narrow steel plate catwalk that led forward past the locked door below. “We’ll go slow,” Tattoo whispered, ahead of him on the catwalk. “If you hear a squeak or crack, just stop for a second and then and go slower. This thing is plenty strong to hold both of us.
“I think so anyway,” he added and started crawling forward.
Up on the catwalk, once again Steve was confused and found it hard to think or react. The oppressive attic heat struck him immediately and he started to sweat. For a minute he couldn’t understand what he was doing.
But crawling was a basic movement and he found himself creeping forward a few feet. Then he stopped, and without immediately realizing why, he turned back. Tattoo swung his head around and was about to hiss something, but stopped when he saw Steve carefully reach back to replace the ceiling tile. After a moment Tattoo whispered, “So now you are the big escape artist?” and resumed crawling.
Why did you bother with the ceiling tile? This isn’t going to work anyway. Well, just in case, he thought. As Steve followed on the catwalk he felt the warm metal patterns of the diamond plate surface against his hands and pressing into his knees. He tried to see the walkway ahead of Tattoo, to see how far they had to go. He guessed about fifty feet but it was hard to tell in the low light. Fifty feet! It’s impossible to go that far without breaking something or making a noise.
It hasn’t given way yet, he thought as they inched along. May as well keep going. The unreal feeling about the day, the complete disorientation he had felt since the parking lot, was still there but it was fading. He was concentrating on crawling and being quiet, and he also expected every second for the catwalk to crash down through the ceiling. He noticed old smells, musty and stale, and saw a workman’s glove layered in ancient dust on one of the tiles. As he crept forward he realized that he could be a little quieter if he put his left knee down just before his right hand, not at the same time.
After a few more feet Tattoo looked back and motioned to stay quiet – pointing down to show that they were now crawling directly over the room with the two men, Darnell and Whitey. The air conditioning ducts were whooshing next to Steve, but he could still hear the tiny creaks and groans of the catwalk as they shuffled forward. It didn’t seem as if the creaks were loud enough to be heard above the air conditioning but he focused on the sounds anyway so he could tell if they got louder.
What seemed a long time later but not much farther, Tattoo stopped and tried to peer through the cracks in the ceiling tiles. Steve crept up to him. What are you doing? He mouthed the words. He watched with growing panic as Tattoo reached down and with his fingernail pulled up on one of the tiles. Seeing Steve’s alarm, Tattoo tried to reassure him with hand signals. He turned around and put his mouth next to Steve’s ear. Barely whispering he said “Just a crack. I need to see where they are now.” He motioned for Steve to look through the opening. In the larger room, outside of where he had been kept, Steve saw Whitey slumped over the table, head in his arms. He looked asleep. He didn’t see the other man, Darnell. “Where’s the other guy?” he mouthed to Tattoo.
Tattoo shook his head. He lowered the tile and leaned over to get to reach a ceiling tile on the other side of the catwalk. I wouldn’t, Steve thought. The tile will fall or flake off. Tattoo lifted it up and peered through the opening. He shook his head again and lowered the ceiling tile.
This is bad. It’s pointless to keep going. Down below it will take them two seconds to walk over to where you will be climbing down. Stay here and wait for them to go away. Just stay right here.
Like hell I’ll stay, he answered. I am getting out of here. He got closer to Tattoo and with a sudden burst of initiative was about to push him forward when they both heard a sound… the unmistakable flush of a toilet. Tattoo looked at Steve, wide-eyed, and shrugged, “Let’s go” he whispered. They both started crawling again when they heard a voice, Darnell’s voice. “Hey, Lennie, flush next time.” Tattoo snorted softly. “Lennie?” Darnell called again.
“All right,” Darnell said after a minute. “Listen to this.” Steve heard a loud fart, loud enough to be heard above the air conditioning, followed by Darnell’s laughter.
Tattoo snorted again. Steve felt a crazy laugh start within himself, an unbelievable impulse. Tattoo turned around to look at Steve with a look that was both terrified and ferocious. He mouthed the words: Stay quiet. He lifted one hand and drew a finger across his throat. The hum of the air conditioning was masking some of their noise but only barely.
Steve nodded, Okay, okay he mouthed. But before he could crawl much farther he heard Darnell again.
“Wait…wait …wait …there we go,” he said clearly, releasing another loud braaaaaap.
Steve was horrified as the impulse to laugh grew. He tried to stay calm and not let the laugh bubbling up find its way out. I should be good at suppressing things, he told himself. Come on. Not now. Think of your family. Think of your cancer. They will hear you and kill you, he said to himself, being plain about it for the first time since he had been locked in the room. Look what they did to Tattoo’s face. They will laugh and kill you at the same time.
But it was too bizarre. It was too much to ignore. He felt the laugh build to a wild yawp, a combination of a cry and a shout, an outburst of months of trapped thoughts and emotion. He couldn’t hold it back for long.
He heard Darnell shout and follow it with another braap aap aap aaaaap.
“You had to hear that one, man,” Darnell called out.
He saw Tattoo start to turn his head. Oh God, don’t turn your head, Steve thought. If you look at me I will laugh out loud and we both will die. Don’t turn around. He lowered his head and kept crawling, hoping he wouldn’t bump into Tattoo’s feet.
He heard a muffled choke from Tattoo and heard him start crawling faster. He crawled faster himself, heedless of the noise. The urge to shout was stronger than ever and he started feeling light-headed, almost giddy.
The last seconds were frantic. They passed over an interior wall to the other office, and Tattoo was leaning over to remove a ceiling tile. Steve hissed at him. “No, no. Too much time. Look, where the catwalk goes.” He pushed Tattoo to keep going. “It’s a goddamn exit,” he pointed to an exhaust fan mounted at the outside wall of the warehouse, about ten feet ahead. The catwalk led right up to it. “Come on, go, go,” he hissed, feeling that the hissing was also comical.
“Len…nie” they heard behind them.
He pushed at Tattoo again and then started crawling over him. Tattoo moved to the side to let him pass and whispered “What are you doing?” Steve knew he couldn’t say anything without a shout of laughter. He just hissed again, a low shush! which only made him feel giddier.
He had enough room to stand in a crouch, and tried to concentrate on the shutter ahead as he shuffled forward. The building is old, he thought. I will be able to pull it off from the inside.
“Exactly!” Steve whispered to himself, reaching the shutter. It was about 3 feet square, tacked loosely to some decaying weather stripping. He grasped the two sides and tried a small tug, and then a stronger pull. The shutter came off in one piece and bright Arizona sunlight flooded in. They were about 10 feet off the ground, over some sort of trash dumpster. Steve set the shutter aside and was turning around to climb down backwards when he heard Tattoo say aloud “Have to go now!” and pushed to go through the opening. There wasn’t enough room for Tattoo to get through and both of them tumbled out, falling from the opening. Steve stifled a cry and thought: But we were getting out! They fell into the dumpster, landing on old drywall and cardboard with a heavy whump!
The fall stunned him thoroughly. For a long time he lay helpless on the rubbish, looking up at the bright sky, unable to move, barely able to breathe, ears ringing. He could see dust particles swirl above his head, flashing and shining as they caught the sunlight and then fading into shadow, and then back into light and shadow again, but he wasn’t comprehending. He saw the walls of the dumpster but couldn’t understand what it meant. I’m inside something, he thought. A big box. A railroad car, a hopper? No, a garbage thing. A dumper. He closed his eyes against the dazzling sky. In a dumpster for trash. Maybe I got thrown away, he thought. I can’t move or remember anything. I missed the part where everything happened.
No, that’s not right, he thought. I’m supposed to get out of this. He felt his breathing come back and the ringing in his ears seemed a bit less. He felt the beginnings of pain and knew it as a familiar sensation. I need to get away from this place, he thought. I need to get out of this box and get away from the building. I need to talk to Gail about something. I need to talk to the kids. And there was something else, something else he couldn’t remember.
After a while Steve heard a voice that he didn’t recognize. Then he realized it was the tattooed man next to him. Tattoo spoke again quietly, “Sorry, but we had to go.
“Are you okay?” Tattoo asked, sitting up and looking at him. “You look okay. Anything broken?”
Steve sat up, hurting all over now from the impact. Tattoo, Lennie, Darnell, he was remembering. “I don’t know. No, I guess not.” He stood up slowly and unsteadily on the cardboard, his back aching. He looked at Tattoo and blinked. Tattoo’s wound on his cheek seemed to be sliding down to his chin. Steve shook his head to try to clear his vision.
“What had that Darnell guy been eating?” he said.
Tattoo laughed and gave him a funny look. “I guess you are all right,” he said. “Hurry, let’s get out of this.” He helped Steve climb over the dumpster wall and then jumped over himself. He groaned. “I thought you would cushion my fall more,” he said, stretching his back.
“My car’s not here,” Steve said slowly, looking around at the alley in-between the two warehouses, still dazed.
“They’re not going to park a stolen car next to their building, moron. It’s probably down at the end of the alley there.”
“Oh. Yeah, that looks like it,” Steve said.
“And I’ll bet that you have the little magnet box thing with another key.”
Steve had to think for a second. “Yeah, I do” he replied, remembering where he would have placed the key box. Without another word Tattoo ran off the other way.
I don’t know his name or why he was even here, Steve realized. He heard a door slam inside the building, and heard shouting, and he started jogging toward his car, slowly picking up speed. As he moved down the alleyway his gait changed from a jog to a lope, and if for some reason, for security or something like that, if there had been a video camera pointing down the alley, it would have recorded that lope turning into a skip that had a couple of heel clicks along the way. And if an audio recording had been made it would have captured a loud and long shout, a continuous cry that you wouldn’t expect from someone trying to sneak away, a shout that got bigger and bigger between the walls of the alley, big enough to go over the warehouses and over the roofs of the nearby motels and houses, and even big enough to reach the open spaces of the nearby reservation.