Issue #79

Summer 2021

The Man in the Building

by Michael Canfield

There's a man in that building over there, I'm almost sure. I feel like we can get at him if we tried. We might get in there. It might take a group of us, but I think we could do it. It would be interesting.

What things would he tell us? What things would he do? Would he be surprised to know that we had come for him?

What is he thinking now? He might well be thinking, "there are people on the street down there," he's almost sure. I'm certain if he exists he has thought of us at one time or another. If we wonder who is inside, he might wonder who is outside, and therefore we might not be so different.

I close my eyes and try to visualize the man. I see a gray room. I see a gray man, balding—no, as bald as he's going to get—just a fringe around the back. He's much, much older, perhaps fifty? He is square. He is square in the sense that he has broad shoulders, and not tall; he is not fat, but his waist is wide nevertheless. He wears a suit, a coat that is open, but no tie. A knit collared shirt underneath. A polo type shirt.

He is on the top floor. Where else would he be? That would be the twelfth floor, a nice number of floors.

He leans on a glass table with one arm, his hand is clenched, so he is leaning on his knuckles, leaning on his fist. The wall, very distant behind him, is exposed brick. There doesn't seem to be much other furniture. There is one painting or print on the wall. An abstract, three different vertical shades of gray—or perhaps there are actual colors because the room is not really gray, this is just a trick of the light coming in through tall windows. Because the day is gray, you see, and that has cast everything.

Now, along the wall facing us, facing this street, I mean, facing this street that the man also faces as he leans on the glass table heaving on his fist, is a long, low bookcase—or I guess it would be called a bookcase. It's storage, anyway. It is two shelves high, the top of the case coincides with the level of the sill of the very tall window, so three feet from the floor. The window is twelve feet high. The ceiling extends another two feet about the top of the window, making the height of the space eighteen feet. The window (and the bookcase) extend the full length of the wall, perhaps thirty feet, making the room very large indeed.

Now, back to the bookcase. Though one could put books in it, especially large ones such as atlases and art books, say, it is filled with binders, manila folders, even reams of loose papers, all shoved in. These might be plans of some kind. They indicate a work environment and I imagine an architectural firm, or a construction company or something like that, although my vision contains no visual further evidence to corroborate this: no drafting tables, no rolled up blueprints, for example.

I would like to get a look at what is on those papers, it might be interesting, but still the man must be more interesting, especially if he exists.

Of course, the building has no address, the names of the streets in this city (if it is a city) having been repealed long ago, nor any points of ground-level access, these former points of access all having been boarded up, and then bricked up, and then cemented over, in a series of increasingly robust cautionary measures. Similarly, the windows on at least the lower few floors have been bricked up from the inside. Similarly, the fire escape has been pulled down. I see its outline like a blast-shadow on the wall of the building that faces a now inaccessible access alley. The alley is inaccessible because someone drove a troop transport truck that was too wide for the alley into it. This was not an accident as, around the block, someone drove a tank into the alley's other end.

I wonder what the man eats, or where he sleeps. How long does he keep the pose, the fist on the desk pose, of my vision? All day? Just today, or every day? It seems every tidbit, every notion, I manage to pull from the air leads to more questions.

Getting in the building might be possible if a bunch of us climbed atop the troop transport or the tank and made a human ladder, standing on each other's shoulders until someone reached an upper floor window which isn't bricked up.

This is a nice thought experiment but I'm not exactly a leader around here. I don't have the slightest idea of how to get people involved in such a strenuous project. Especially since the majority of those involved would be at the bottom of the ladder with more and more of us crushing down on their shoulders while one designated explorer gets into the building and meets the man (if the man exists).

I would've liked to be that designated explorer, but that is a lot to ask. Alternately, I might spontaneously develop the power of flight—which is as likely.

That would be the end of the story if I could forget the man in the building, yet this is something I have been unable to do.

So I began a propaganda campaign to raise interest in the man in the building. He needs our help, I told the more nurturing people down here. He has valuables, I told the more venal. He has answers, I told the intellectually curious and the spiritual. He can get things running again, I told the practical.

I really got people talking, but it was all talk until something else happened, a thing I did not anticipate, someone came and broached the subject with me!

This someone was not simply any someone, but one of the leaders down here. I didn't even imagine any of the leaders down here even knew my name, barely even my face, but this one did.

And he wanted to know everything I knew, or thought I knew, about the man in the building.

I have to admit I started having doubts. All of a sudden I didn't know what I thought I knew, that there was a man in the building and we needed to get to him if for no other reason than that he was there. But maybe he wasn't there. What do I know? I'm in many ways just a doofus and dumb piece of shit. (But in other ways, a good person). So I stammered and stumbled, but the leader guy managed to get me to tell the whole story. After hearing all my theories about the man in the building he asked me how, if I was the one in charge, I'd go about getting up there.

Well, I'll tell you it was pretty flattering. He had this way of listening which made me think I was not so crazy after all, and my human ladder idea would work.

Of course, I knew even as I was telling him about it that, if it happened, the one to be on the one to top the ladder was going to be him.

Still, I felt it was a move in the right direction, and at least I would have an answer to the problem of the man in the building.

And that's how it went. The leader guy talked to the other leader people and they got everyone worked up and excited about the human ladder project.

Which is how the whole thing came about. I wasn't a big part of it any longer, but, as one of the bottom rungs of the ladder, I had to concentrate on my legs not giving out anyway.

The grunts of the other lower rungs and the shouts of the climbers cheering each other as they climbed toward the accessible floors were background noise as I put all my effort into not collapsing and messing up the ladder and the whole day.

It seems like an hour, but it was only a few minutes when word came down that the leader guy was in. The human ladder disassembled among huge cheers and sighs of relief and exhilaration as the weight at the bottom eased. All I had to do was wait now. And I waited. And waited.

The bunch of us waited, until dark. (And we'd started early.) At first, people were excited. There was a hubbub of general enthusiasm. People were friendlier than usual. No one paid any particular attention in me, because no one but the leader guy connected me with the whole deal. People started drifting away.

Most probably weren't that clear on what the whole thing was about in the first place, just some lark, something to do, and those wandered off first. Others—more perplexed, more answer hungry—lingered longer. The leader-type people seemed the most engaged. I watched them. They were closed-mouth about it, but you could tell something was up. They exchanged glances with each other. Some were angry, but sublimating their anger. Others seemed more bemused. I imagined what I would be thinking and doing if I was part of their group. Yeah, I would think, that fucker played us good, that fucker ain't coming back.

Then days passed. Then more days.

When I think of the building now, I don't get as singular a vision as I once did. I get oscillating visions: The man in the building killed our leader guy. Or, our leader guy killed the man in the building. Or they met and became best friends. All the binders and papers and stuff on the shelves were plans to get the city (if it is a city) up and running again. Or they were the secrets of the universe. Or they were nothing of importance. Or…

Or anything. Who can say? The men in the building, if they exist, that's who. They're not coming down, ergo they're not telling me. And since they're not telling me, I can't tell you.

Author Bio

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Michael Canfield has published horror, mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, and just-plain-odd stuff in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, The Pedestal, Weirdbook and other places. His story "Super-Villains" was reprinted in the Fantasy: The Best of the Year series, edited by Rich Horton. Born in Las Vegas, he lives in Seattle and blogs occasionally at MichaelCanfield.net.