Excerpt

Famous Men Who Never Lived

K Chess

March 8, 2019 
The following is from K Chess' Famous Men Who Never Lived. When New York succumbs to nuclear war in an alternate universe, Hel seeks refuge in our New York, where she tries to preserve what remains of her destroyed culture. K Chess was a W.K. Rose Fellow and her short stories have been honored by the Nelson Algren Award and the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University and currently teaches at GrubStreet. She lives with her wife in Boston.

It all ended in a rush nearly three years ago now, when the first lots of lucky people moved through the hole into this world. Groups of one hundred at a time—men, women, but no children—stepping dazed into the spaces between the grave markers of Calvary Cemetery in Queens. There were ten entry groups per lot, lots coming at precise hourly intervals, the hole closing up behind them each time like a wound healing in time lapse. Emergency crews had their hands full, moving the newest arrivals out of the way to make room for more. All of the newcomers told the same story—coordinated teams of domestic terrorists, young men radicalized by pro–America Unida messages hidden in visor games from the south. The power plants in Poughkeepsie and Richmond and Escondido simultaneously sabotaged, all timed to the minute, and the sulfur-yellow radiation clouds blowing with the prevailing winds. Then retaliatory strikes across the Caribbean, backup from allies. Old promises called in and standoff agreements abandoned.

And that miraculous escape hatch, shining in the air above Calvary. Their Calvary—the one that corresponded. All these people, the gathering crowd of onlookers realized, were New Yorkers, too.

Finally, another hour passed and a 157th lot did not come through—it just never showed up. An unexplained end to the exodus. Of course, that spurred further media coverage and more speculation about what might have happened on the other end to halt the evacuation.

At first, public curiosity had been intense, the attention not unfriendly. The scientifically inclined and the religious were equally fascinated by this miraculous proof of the existence of a version of creation other than the one they knew. Multiple universes seemed likely, each one fully formed and somehow held apart from the others until now. It made great copy. It took a while to dawn on the amazed people of this New York that they had 156,000 new citizens to feed, house, and somehow integrate. Individuals diverse in their needs but all propertyless and homesick, some of them elderly or disabled, some trained only to do specialized jobs that did not exist here, many suffering from PTSD or immobilized by grief.

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The newcomers, whose reality had betrayed them. Here they all were, crash-landed. Resented and resentful. Universally Displaced Persons.

Meanwhile, everyone who hadn’t gotten through the Gate had died. That was a given. The Gate was a prototype. One of a kind. One-way.

The logbook didn’t mention anything unusual, so Vikram left the guard shack for his first tour of the perimeter in good time, by 23:15. He liked working late tours, knowing that the self-storage warehouse would be quiet for hours. The last person he’d talked to was Kabir, in such a hurry to leave for a date that they’d barely exchanged two words, and Vikram, if all went as expected, wouldn’t see another living soul until 06:00 or so, when the front desk worker arrived for the early shift. Sometimes, adventurous teenagers snuck into the parking lot behind the building in search of a wall to tag or a dark corner to hide a tryst. Sometimes he found a homeless person huddled by the fence like wind-sent trash. But most nights he spent entirely alone.

He took the keycard-operated elevator up to the top floor of the old mattress factory. Some entrepreneur had gutted and retrofitted the whole building back in the ’90s, converting it from three stories to five. During the retrofit, most of the old windows had been sealed up; only the ones in the hallways remained uncovered. They no longer corresponded properly with the stories of the building; on some floors, hazy illumination from the parking lot came in near the ceiling, but on five, half windows disappeared into the floor.

Vikram made his way down the narrow corridors between the rows of locked doors, pointing his light into every corner. He walked in a winding pattern that took him past each unit on his way to the fire stairs, then pushed through the heavy doors and walked down a flight, where he swiped his card to access the next floor. On four, he followed the same pattern. The beam revealed nothing but the narrow corridor, the faceless doors of the units, the sprinkler heads up above and smooth cement floor below. He found the routine comforting; the pleasant indistinct scuffing of the rubber soles of his own shoes on the cement and the intense prickle of watchfulness he felt on each new level when he pushed open the door from the stairs. Would someone be there waiting?

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He’d held this same menial job since the early months of his displacement. The only real duties were the rounds, but video monitoring of the guard shack made it impossible to read a book or sleep without getting written up. Kabir had warned him of this. Kabir, a fifty-five-year-old Pakistani, had been standoffish during the half-hour overlaps of their shifts at first, rushing off to the bathroom to wash his hands at any accidental touch, as if Vikram were the carrier of some unquarantinable disease, but as the silent weeks wore on, the older man’s natural pedantry won out and he began to spend their overlap time instructing Vikram, delivering heavily accented lectures on such diverse topics as John Grisham, Cher, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Brooklyn Nets.

Kabir had explained the concept of online poker and what an “ass-load” was. The information he provided was far more essential to Vikram’s education than anything he ever learned in his Reintegration Education group. In return, Vikram confided in Kabir about his loneliness. Fat Kabir, with his bad teeth and bad advice, rocking in his wheeled desk chair. Vikram felt sheepish about how much he’d revealed, back in that period of his life. He looked at it now as his adjustment period—a time when he believed he was too good for this work. Vikram had complained until there was nothing left to say, sharing far too many of his disappointments. He preferred the loneliness of the storage company after Kabir was gone.

The layout of the first floor of the old factory differed from the floors above because of the placement of the centrally located reception/security desk, and because of the larger, more expensive units. Vikram peered into the cage that enclosed the vacant desk, sweeping his light across the blank-faced monitors, the row of hooks on the back wall, the dangling keys as yet unassigned. Then he checked both first-floor hallways, holding his breath as he turned the corners. His radio hung from his belt, tugging at the waistband of his trousers, and his big flashlight was solid in his hand.

Sometimes, he imagined what it would be like to hit someone with it. An action he’d take only in extremity, of course, only if the intruder seemed dangerous.

Gravel crunched under Vikram’s shoes as he toured the inside perimeter of the high cyclone fence to check the rest of the property. The locked gate and, next to it, the shack, lit from inside, which when seen from a distance reminded him inevitably of the watch post on the frontier of Victory City in The Pyronauts. There was the parking lot, yellow lines dividing it up into spaces for trucks or moving vans, all empty—Vikram himself having taken the subway to work. There were the concrete ramps. The low sad bushes clotted with dirty leaves and plastic bags where Kabir had discovered, one shift, three nervous high school girls with a sack of rocks, out on a window-smashing dare.

All clear.

A full two decades and a universe away from here, sixteen-year-old Vikram and his friends once broke into the partly burned-down and abandoned New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum, prying the plywood off a boarded-up side door. The boys intended no vandalism. They were dizzy with the excitement of exploring the time capsule that the decommissioned children’s ward had become, untouched by modernity or the fire that had taken the north wing of the building in the ’60s.

After half an hour inside, scaring themselves silly, they’d heard the crash and the raised voice from downstairs: “Police! You’re all consigned for trespass!” The area must have been on the department’s regular patrol; they should have thought to park their borrowed pods and motorbikes off the access road instead of right out front.

The sticks were coming up to find them. No time, nowhere to run. The boys’ only option was to shut off their electric lantern and freeze where they were, crouching in the aisle between two rows of diminutive beds. In the pitch black, Vikram listened to his own quick breathing and to the sounds of his friends’ shifting bodies, listened for the footfalls of the officers two floors below and their gruff stick-voices calling out to one another as they searched. He imagined where he was and what was around him unseen, what the lantern had just revealed piece by piece in the minutes before: the line of rusted metal bed frames, the dusty sheets, the spiderwebbed glass of the nurses’ station. The peeling, amateurishly executed cartoon mural of Rocket Pig and friends. Rocket Pig, so familiar and so desolate in his bubble-shaped ship, painted there to make these sick children of a generation ago feel at home in a place without parents, a place of needles and drugs and restraining straps. Electric lantern near to hand, he fought himself not to turn the dial that would give them away, just to see it all again.

“I’m scared,” Keith Chen whispered into the dark, barely audible.

“Shut up,” the rest of them hissed back, all more intently alert than they had ever been before. Listening for sounds of the police coming to find them, yes, for they were obedient boys, good students from hardworking immigrant families. They hated to break the rules. They were not superstitious. But they listened for more, for some sound, a cry. They were waiting for a sign of an otherworldly presence, for the breath of an extra set of small lungs.

Rounds completed, Vikram made his way back to the guard shack, tossing his Maglite in the dark so that it flipped once in the air before he caught it. He knew its balance intimately. He’d lived through the death of his world and everyone he’d ever known and escaped to start anew. He wasn’t scared of flesh-and-blood intruders. In fact, he was ready.

If there was a noise in the dark. If it was a man—a full-grown man with ill intent, a thief wielding a weapon. How the halogen lights mounted on the side of the old factory building might glint off a blade. Vikram would yell an order to freeze, but the intruder would ignore him. He would rush at Vikram with that blade extended and Vikram would bring down the flashlight hard on the top of his attacker’s head, cracking his skull.

Self-defense. The knife skittering away on the blacktop.

Take that.

Imagining scenarios like this might have made some people jumpy. It made Vikram feel prepared. He would never admit it to Hel or even to Kabir, but he liked it. He liked it.

He took out his cheap Bic—its precarious mechanism different from the steady-burning lighters at home—lit up, and began to walk back toward his comfortable chair for an idle hour. He was thinking about the logbook and about the unfamiliar oldies he would play on the old radio in there. Thinking about what would be on the grocery list he should probably make for tomorrow. He inhaled deep; though it was more inconvenient and far unhealthier than sniff, he secretly enjoyed smoking, the act of firing the lighter as pleasurable to him as the nicotine. And just then, Vikram became aware.

Later, he would wonder about this, second-guess himself a bit, but it really wasn’t a noise that made him turn around. No clink of chain-link, no rustle in the bushes that might have been rat or cat. It was a feeling.

He looked behind him—still no one there—but up ahead, a line that bent two corners glowed distinct on the side of the building, an upside-down U, vivid blue. It hadn’t been there before. It took Vikram a minute to recognize the phenomenon as light—blue light—escaping from one of the units on the third floor, a glow from inside seeping around the two sides and the top edge of the boarded-up window that corresponded only partially with that floor.

Based on its placement, he knew it couldn’t be coming from the hallway, but from beyond one of the doors he’d passed. Somebody inside.

Should he call the police now? Should he check the security recordings? The front-door-mounted camera would have caught anyone who wasn’t supposed to be present. Vikram sprinted back to the building, let himself in a second time, rushed past the empty cage, the vacant desk. The elevator doors were secured as always, the floor indicator as quiet and dark as it ought to be. He went to the fire stairs making as little noise as he could, conscious of a strange and gratifying calm suffusing him. Outside the thick steel door he paused to listen, though this was futile, of course. Then he counted to ten, bursting through in a sudden movement. The stairwell interior remained as black as a mine shaft until he pointed his beam up. No movement but the shadows cast by the light in his own moving hand. “Hey,” he said in a quiet voice. “I’m coming up.”

Blue light. He knew that color.

He turned off the flashlight and followed the railing, his heavy shoes patting the stairs in a steady and deliberate rhythm, not quite a run; he didn’t want to be out of breath by the time he reached the door.

The lock on three clicked as he swiped his card. He looked straight down the first corridor, bathed in the dim glow of the security lights. Nothing, but then, the unit in question must be on the other side of the building—the side that faced the parking lot. He moved forward. Yes, his heart was beating faster than normal. Yes, he was frightened. But he didn’t mind.

The weight and balance of the flashlight in his hand, a cudgel.

Around the corner now, moving as silently as he could. One of these units then, on the left, but which? No light leaked from under any of the tightly fitted security doors. It was impossible to tell. He satisfied himself by tugging on the padlocks, one after another, first the three belonging to the doors he most suspected might lead to the unit he’d noticed from outside. All locked.

He advanced methodically down the corridor, checking every single lock. All held fast.

How could a light turn itself on within a locked unit?

The most sensible answer was a timer, one of those devices that could be set for a certain hour to give a home the impression of occupancy and deter thieves. Some common appliance in this world that glowed blue, something that he’d never heard of. That was all it was. Vikram felt his breathing slow a bit and he was glad that he hadn’t called the police, but he still felt himself on edge. For there was another answer, one he wasn’t allowing himself to think about. Keeping quiet, he retreated down the hall and descended the fire stairs back to ground level. He pulled the main door behind him, listened for the catch.

The parking lot looked just as it had before, as did the half-familiar but immutable skyline—low, workaday Queens with Manhattan ranged out behind, buildings he knew from his world and buildings he didn’t, the angry sky bruised purple from light pollution.

The old factory loomed behind him. The light that glowed the same color as the Gate he’d passed through was snuffed out. He hated to hope. And yet. What if there were more of them coming.

Or a door. A way to return.

In the guard shack, he settled back in the chair in front of the static monitors and pulled out the incident log. He licked the tip of his pencil. Checked the time.

Exactly 12:13 AM. He wrote 0:13 in the log, paused.

Back at home, where everyone used the twenty-four-hour clock, they’d called that bad luck time.

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From Famous Men Who Never LivedUsed with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by K Chess.




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