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We always passed by that same factory after school. Maci, Lilly, Ryder, and I never really thought much about it. It was just a building after all.
But that Monday, there was something different. Something about the rickety, patched walls and boarded-up windows made Lilly stop- no one knew why. I knew from the way she narrowed her eyes at the yellow police tape that she was planning something.
“I wonder why that factory closed down,” she said. I swallowed; I knew this was going to end horribly.
“It closed down years ago,” Maci said. She crossed her arms and looked across the street. “No one cares.”
“I care,” Lilly argued.
I stepped in. “Come on. It’s getting cold,” I urged Lilly. She didn’t budge.
“Why don’t we check it out?”
I shot a glare at Ryder for agreeing with her, then turned back. “Look, I don’t think we should be associated with some place like this. I mean, if no one knows why it was quarantined, isn’t that a sign that we should forget about it?”
“Absolutely not,” she declared. Lilly finally tore her gaze away from the factory and locked eyes with me. “Don’t you think it’s be fun to go and explore it? It’d be like solving a mystery. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
“News stories, interviews, books written about us….” I swallowed. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And I loved a good mystery. “Well…” I faced the factory. Police tape surrounded the property; the main door was slightly open; the metal walls were covered in rust; and the whole building appeared to lean slightly to one side, as if it were going to collapse. It looked dangerous, and simply thinking of crossing the tape-border made me tremble, but I could just taste all the publicity we’d be getting if we would just find some question to answer about the factory. I took a deep breath, steeling myself. “We should go in.”
Maci blinked at me. “You just said-”
“I know, but think of all the things people will be saying about us if we, say, find out that someone was murdered in this factory….”
Maci looked aross the street again, like she couldn’t bear to look at the building. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem worth it.”
“I’m in,” Ryder said.
“What?” Maci looked up at him.
He shrugged. “It seems fun, don’t you think?”
Maci shook her head frantically. “You people are crazy.”
“C’mon, Maci,” Lilly said. “If Alison’s going, surely you will.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’ll come, won’t you?”
Maci looked from me to Lilly to Ryder, then sighed, defeated. I cheered.
“Alright,” I said, “follow me!”
So I marched toward the deserted factory, ducked under the line of police tape, and faced what might be my biggest fear. Maci, Lilly, and Ryder followed closely behind. When we were all clustered by the steps leading to the door, I took a deep breath and slowly pushed it open.
There was a loud creak. I peered inside, as did the others, but there wasn’t a single source of light inside. I glanced behind me. “Someone want to go first?” I laughed. Everyone else glanced around uneasily- except Ryder. He took the stops two-by-two and charged right into the factory.
I stared after him; what was he thinking?! Lilly made a growling sound and muttered something along the lines of “Well, don’t just stand there,” before bounding up the steps herself. She cast a glance my way. I swallowed and looked back into the dark building. Where was Ryder?
Without warning, there was a loud crash from inside. Lilly and I looked at each other, eyes wide, then both glanced at Maci. She seemed to hesitate, and then sprinted up the steps and into the factory.
“Maci!” I shrieked. I tried to stand in her way, but she simply shouldered past me, calling Ryder’s name at the top of her lungs. She disappeared into the darkness. I turned to Lilly. “Do something!”
Lilly seemed to snap out of a daydream. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. Frantic, I took a few paces inside, looking around but not seeing anything. All of the sudden, everything was illuminated, drawing me to temporary blindness. I let out a small gasp, rubbing my eyes. Lilly still stood at the open door. She surveyed the room and began walking my way. “Did you turn the lights on?” I asked. She shook her head. I swallowed.
Lilly laughed. “Relax. It was probably just Ryder or Maci.”
“’Probably’,” I repeated.
I looked around. The factory room was about a hundred square feet. Air vents hung down from the ceiling over rows of conveyor belts. Boxes were everywhere- on tables, in stacks in the middle of the floor, and flattened to stuff in industrial trashcans. A layer of dust had settled over everything; I left footprints with every step I took. At that thought, I noticed a trail of scuffed shoeprints leading across the room.
Lilly’s voice came from over my shoulder. “Ryder and Maci must’ve gone that way.”
I nodded and looked back at her. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Lilly started walking to the other end of the room. I followed, watching the trail they had left rather than her. I nearly ran into her when Lilly decided to stop without warning. I was about to ask her why, when she pointed at the ground solemnly.
The concrete floor was tainted red. The two sets of footprints merged into one from that point on. The factory was eerily silent. I tugged at the collar of my shirt, suddenly feeling overheated. This couldn’t be happening- not now, not today, not ever to me.
Lilly began to continue towards the back of the factory without me. I quickly grabbed her arm, making her stay. “We have to get out of here.” Her expression remained stolid. “But we have to find Maci and Ryder first,” I added. Lilly nodded, not saying anything. I cleared my throat. “We stay together, okay? Just to be safe?” She nodded again, then turned around and kept walking, appearing unfazed by anything. I wondered if she thought this was some kind of joke.
I began to follow her, when I noticed a shadowy figure standing in the back. The silhouette was blocking the doorway to what may have been a supply closet.
“Lilly,” I called in a harsh whisper. She spun around. I pointed at the person. Lilly froze when she saw them.
And then a familiar voice called out, “Alison!”
“Maci!” I felt a wave of relief wash over me.
“You guys came after me?” She was jogging down the aisle between two conveyor belts, coming towards us.
“Well, yeah,” I began. “After you and Ryder.”
“Have you seen him?” Lilly asked.
Maci paled. “I don’t know where he is,” she admitted softly. Lilly and I could do nothing but stare. “I followed him to the back room, but it was like he just… vanished.”
I swallowed, glancing at the door Maci had come from. “What’s in that room, anyway?” I asked.
Maci shrugged. “I never found the light switch.”
“So you don’t know if Ryder left any footprints we can follow?” The blank stare on Maci’s face said enough. “Come on,” I said with a sigh. I shouldered past Maci and Lilly and led the way to the room. Lilly and I would’ve been here soon anyway, even without Maci’s reappearance, since the footprints trailed inside. Before pushing the door open, I turned back to Maci. “Why is there only one set of footprints?”
Maci looked down, startled. “That’s weird,” she said. “I swore I was following Ryder.”
I sighed, resenting Maci’s cluelessness. “I just hope you’re not leading us in the wrong direction.” With that, I shoved the wooden door open. It made a creaking sound, and we all exchanged nervous glances.
Let’s find Ryder,” Lilly said, “and get the heck out of here.”
I nodded in agreement and led the way into the room. My eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, but I still couldn’t see much, even with the light from the main factory room illuminating a small area in front of me. “Spread out,” I told the others, “and find a light switch.” Neither said a word, but I heard footsteps shuffle away obediently.
My arms outstretched, I took a few steps forward. One of my feet kicked something, which skidded across the floor. I crouched down, searching the concrete with both hands. Finally, I found what I was looking for.
“Hey, guys,” I called. “I found a box.”
I heard Lilly snort. “There are boxes everywhere.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but there’s something in this one. I can’t see, though.”
“I can’t find a light switch,” Maci called from somewhere to my right.
“Maybe there’s a breaker box or something,” I suggested.
“No,” Lilly said. “The only things on these walls are posters. And spider webs.”
“Lots of spider webs,” Maci agreed.
“You guys,” I whined, “please just keep looking. There has to be a light switch somewhere.”
And just like that, as if I had spoken the magic words, the room was instantly bathed in dim yet blinding light. I rubbed my eyes. “Thanks, Lilly.”
“I didn’t find any switches,” Lilly said. “It was Maci.”
“No,” she said slowly. “It wasn’t me.”
“Ryder must’ve found a main power switch,” I said quickly. “That’s good. It means he’s alright.”
“Well, Ryder scared the heck out of me,” Maci muttered.
I turned my attention back to the box. “Hey, guys, this is the box I found.” I turned it to the side, looking at it carefully. The box was unmarked except for the manufacturer’s label. “It’s taped closed.”
“Like we can’t see that,” Lilly grumbled. She plopped down to my left.
“Well, help me open it, then.”
The three of us managed to pry the box open, but what was inside disappointed me.
“They’re just… files,” Maci said, sounding perplexed. She slowly sank to the ground.
“Maybe they’re a clue as to why this place was shut down,” I suggested. I started picking up stacks of the manila folders that had been stuffed inside the box. I handed a few folders to Maci and the same to Lilly. “We can go through the folders and see what happened; this has to be some sort of record-keeping.” I flipped open the first folder. “Sure enough…”
Inside was a paper clipped document, titled Safety Guidelines. A note had been scrawled across the top. I read it out loud. “’Section four, article two’.” I casted an uneasy glance at Lilly.
I flipped through the pages until I found the part. It was hard to miss, having been circled in red. I cleared my throat, skimmed the passage, then looked up. “It’s just talking about safety guidelines for manufacturing…” I squinted at the text. “…knives.”
A silence settled over us. “So,” Lilly said, “Ryder is lost in a knife-making factory… and we’re still here, reading a manual?”
I could almost understand why she was angry, but we had something to accomplish here. I closed the book with an annoyed ruffle of pages. “We have to find Ryder,” I insisted. “If something happens to him, it’ll be our fault.” I saw realization creep over her expression. “And, now that I know what happened, I want to find out exactly what happened to this factory.”
“I think we should get out of here,” Maci said. She rose and looked down at us. “I hate to think about Ryder, but I’m too scared.”
“No,” I pleaded, “please stay. We have to find him, and I need your help!”
To my dismay, Lilly stood up. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but this is too dangerous. It’s not worth it to me.”
I jumped up, frantically looking back and forth between them. “Guys, no! It’ll be alright. There’s nothing to go wrong.”
At the end of my statement, a crash sounded from the main factory room. We were frozen, not sure what to do. I was the first to snap out of it; I took off, sprinting out of the room. I stopped not far from the doorway. Everything seemed in order, except-
“The door’s shut!” Maci shrieked. I realized she was right, and the three of us bolted between the rows of conveyor belts, skirting around piles of boxes and what I knew now to be the disassembled parts of knives. Lilly reached the door first and tried- in vain- to pry it open.
“It’s locked,” she said when Maci and I reached her. Maci looked as though she were going to burst into tears. I shouldered by Lilly and tugged on the door handle. The door only budged half an inch. I groaned. “It’s barred from the outside,” I told them. “And since the door opens in, we can’t just ram it open.”
“So we’re… trapped?” Maci folded her arms across her chest. She was showing the feelings that I was trying to hide.
“Well,” Lilly began, “we might as well find Ryder while we’re here.”
“There’s no other way out?”
I shook my head. “Not that I know. Factories built thirty years or so ago weren’t required to have secondary fire exits. So there might not be another door.”
Maci groaned. Lilly patted her on the shoulder teasingly. “Let’s go find Ryder….” The three of us headed back to the storage room. I walked in first, ready to resume sorting through the files that had been abandoned when the door was boarded shut.
I froze in the doorway. Lilly nearly ran into me, calling out “Watch where you’re going!”
“What now?” Lillly grumbled.
“Do you notice something… missing?” I combed my fingers through my hair nervously.
Lilly walked around me, surveying the room. Maci peered over my shoulder. “No,” Lilly said slowly, drawing the word out, “I don’t really-”
“The box!” Maci interrupted. “The files- they were just… Where did they…?”
“Gone,” I breathed. “Someone must’ve taken them. Maybe it was the same person who boarded the door shut.”
“And now my life is a horror movie,” Lilly shouted at the ceiling. “What next? Maci gets killed?!”
“I’m serious!” Lilly yelled, facing us. “This is creeping me out! We need to find Ryder now so we can leave and I can get on with my life.”
I sighed. “You guys, we need to find that box. Obviously, whoever is harassing us doesn’t want us to find out about something in one of those files.”
“And again with the horror movie!” Lilly complained.
“Look,” I said, “if you want to get out of here without getting killed, I suggest we find out who keeps harassing us, chew them out, and forget about this, okay?”
Before anyone could speak- though I doubted it would be anything positive, anyway- I heard the distinct sound of a door creaking open. We didn’t have to say anything to know we shared the same thoughts. I whipped around and shooed Maci out the door ahead of me, Lilly rushing on behind us.
Out in the main room, we looked around frantically. I scanned each door along the wall, trying to remember if any of them were closed before. Lilly pointed at two doors that were near the corner of the room. I signaled for them to follow and crept towards the rooms. The first was a supply closet. I kept walking; Lilly and Maci’s footsteps echoed behind me. I peeked around the corner into the other room.
It was furnished similar to an employee break room: A table and several chairs were in one corner, with a TV set up- I guess this place wasn’t as old as I thought. Maci was suddenly behind me. She whispered something I didn’t hear. I nodded and replied, “Okay,” before walking across the room to a mini fridge. It was unplugged, which I suppose made sense. Curious, I gave the door a tug. It opened easily, and I looked inside, not really caring.
“The files!” I shrieked. I turned around. “They’re here!”
“Why are they here… in a fridge?” Maci said. Her voice, unlike mine, was still low and hushed as she walked carefully toward me.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. I paused mid-thought, looking from Maci to the doorway. “Maci?”
She was pulling the box of files out of the mini fridge. “What?”
Probably detecting the sense of urgency in my voice, she froze and slowly faced me. For a few seconds, we just stood there, staring at each other, searching our expressions for a hint of hope: Surely this was a joke. I was the first to break into a run. Maci ran right behind me, both of us shrieking Lilly’s name on the way out the door.
I halted a few steps out the door, glancing around. “Where is she?” I breathed. Maci shook her head. I searched for a sign that Lilly had found a way outside, or that she was hiding somewhere, trying to scare us. “This isn’t good,” I concluded. “Definitely not good.”
“Hey, look up there.” Maci pointed. “It’s some sort of balcony or something.” She was referring to a rickety metal walkway that lined the wall about ten feet over our heads. Doors were visible, as was the fact that the metal was rusted, there was no guardrail, and the whole thing was an obvious safety hazard.
“It’s a second story, more or less,” I said, taking a few steps back. “I don’t see any stairs, though.”
“Great, because I’m not going up there, stairs or not.”
“I understand that you’re afraid of heights, -so am I- but we have to find Lilly and Ryder, and after seeing what happened to them, I’m not letting you out of my sight,” I declared. “Sure, this thing is completely structurely unstable, may capsize under our combined weight, and was probably the cause of this factory’s shut-down, but think of it as an adventure.” Maci scowled at me. “Just imagine you’re walking across a swinging rope bridge in Venezuela,” I suggested, “and a thousand dollars is waiting at the other side.”
Maci sighed. “Fine, but for your information, rope bridges scare the heck out of me.”
“Fair enough,” I replied, “but that’s why there’s a thousand dollars at the end.” Maci rolled her eyes. I looked around. “There’s a ladder over there.” I pointed across the room. There, the balcony dropped to a ladder, rusted and elevated a couple feet from the ground. As we walked toward it, the ladder swayed a little; the bolts creaked as it did. “Well, this is going to be fun,” I said. We were standing in front of the ladder, and I was preparing to lead Maci. “I’m not looking forward to this,” I admitted under my breath. I walked up to the ladder, putting both hands on separate rungs. “I’ll go first, and at the top, I’ll signal for you to climb up.” I heard a faint whimper, which I took to mean “Okay”. I lifted myself up to the highest rung I could reach with one leg still on the ground and began climbing.
The ladder creaked and almost gave out at times, and once I reached the top, I felt partially relieved and partially nervous. I crawled across the metal gridding, then called out, “Alright, Maci, come on.”
I was answered by eerie silence. I peered behind and below me, overwhelmed by sudden nausea. “Maci?” There was still no reply. Slowly but swiftly at the same time, I shimmied down the walkway, staying a few feet away from the edge at all times. At the first door, I reached up and turned the doorknob. The door opened into an office. I army-crawled inside frantically. Once I was a safe distance from death, I rolled over onto my back and sat up.
“Maci?” I called. I noticed how desperate my voice sounded, as well as how much I was trembling. This was impossible. She had just been there, waiting to follow me up the ladder. How could I have let her disappear when she was right beside me?
“Alison?” The voice was soft and faint, but I recognized it immediately. I crawled over to the door and peered around the corner at the ladder. “Maci?”
“Ali!” The voice was behind me. I turned, and there was Maci, completely unscathed.
“How did you get up here?” I took my time standing.
“I found a staircase in one of the back rooms,” she said, not missing a beat. “Sorry, I couldn’t bear the idea of falling off that ledge.”
I nodded, noting the door behind her as she kicked it shut. “You wandered off,” I said softly. “You scared the heck out of me.”
Maci shrugged, walked around the desk between her and me, and pointed at a door along the wall. “Come on, we need to find Lilly.”
“And Ryder,” I added.
“Yeah,” she agreed, “and Ryder.”
I noticed the falsetto tone when she spoke. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Maci said quickly.
I frowned. “You’re lying,” I accused. “Something’s up.”
“Ali,” Maci said, “we’re wasting time. Let’s go.” She reached for the door to the next office over, but I stepped in front of her.
“Tell me what’s going on,” I demanded.
“It’s nothing,” she insisted.
“I’m not lying!”
“I can tell when you’re lying,” I snapped. “Your voice gets all high-pitched, and you never make eye-contact with me, just like you’re doing now.”
“I’m not lying!” Maci yelled.
I stopped, refraining from firing back another accusation, partially because I wanted the argument to end, partially because I was cut off by the sound of loud, heavy footsteps coming from the staircase. Maci apparently heard them, too, because just as she moved to duck behind the office desk, the door burst open. A familiar person stood in the door.
“Ryder!” I shrieked happily.
“Hi, Alison,” he said coolly. Apparently, he wasn’t too thrilled to see me.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” I went on. “I was so worried when we couldn’t find you-”
“’We’?” Ryder said, smirking. “And where’s the rest of this… ‘we’?” He took a couple steps toward me. “Maci and Lilly? They’re missing.”
I stared at him. “No, they’re not.” Before I went any further, I noticed Maci ducked behind the desk, where Ryder apparently couldn’t see her. She mouthed “No” and shook her head violently. “They’re just lost, that’s all.” I hoped he couldn’t read the lie I was telling. “I’ll find them soon.”
Ryder snorted. “Oh, give it up,” he sneered. “You’ve seen the horror movies. Only one person makes it out alive- the hero. I’ll bet you think you’re the hero, don’t you, Alision?” I gulped, but inside me, things were starting to make sense. Frantically, I shook my head. He laughed. “Don’t be scared,” he taunted. “I’ll make sure everyone knows how innocent you were. You thought it’d be fun, using this deserted factory as a secret hideout for you and your friends. And then, the accident…” He laid a hand over his chest in faux sympathy. “You tripped on the balcony- if only there’d been a rail to prevent you from falling....”
I shook my head slowly. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“You don’t know,” he snapped, “how long I have dreamed of having you dead.”
“You’re sick,” I spat. Ryder laughed. “What did I do to you?”
“Oh, Alison.” He paced toward me. To my dismay, I took an involuntary stop back and ran into the wall. “You don’t know what you’ve done? Shame, shame.” He made a tsk sound. “I’ve always despised ignorant people.” Ryder stopped pacing. His eyes locked on me, as if just noticing that I had been standing there. “Oh,” he said, “it looks like you want to get out of here.” Ryder smiled satirically. “Well, in that case-” He lunged forward and grabbed my arm, close to my shoulder. I shrieked. “-let me show you to the door.”
“Maci!” I screamed. “Lilly!”
Ryder laughed. “Oh, give it a rest.” He flung the door open. “We both know that no one’s going to swoop in and save you.”
“Maci!” I shouted. “Help!”
“Ryder continued to drag me out the door. I shrieked again. “Don’t do this!” I pleaded.
“It’s too late,” Ryder snapped. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done, Alison, whether you like it or not.” He forced me to take a few stumbling steps toward the edge. I began hyperventilating, my breathing growing shallow and quick as the concrete floor came into view far below my feet.
“Please, don’t,” I wailed. I grabbed his arm.
“Don’t worry,” Ryder sneered. “I heard that people who die from falling usually have a heart-attack before they hit the ground- virtually painless.” I let out a shuddering sob.
And then, there came a loud yell from behind us. “Now, Lilly!” Ryder spun around, losing his grip on me. I tumbled to the ground, precariously close to the edge. I looked over my shoulder in time to see none other than Maci clinging to Ryder’s jacket sleeve. She was trying to drag him back into the office room. Ryder suddenly grabbed a fistful of Maci’s blonde hair and threw her to the ground beside me.
“Lilly!” Maci shrieked.
A figure darted out from behind the office desk. Lilly ran straight for Ryder. He had no time to react before Lilly seized his shirt in her fists. Ryder tried to take a swing at her, but Lilly smiled wryly. In one swift motion, she let go of Ryder’s t-shirt, and he stumbled back.
My heart seized in my chest. “No!” I didn’t mean to yell the word, but still, I did.
Ryder took a final, staggering step back, and then fell.
“Ryder!” I caught myself shriek. He was out of sight. Before I could move, I heard a sickening crack. I rushed to stand up and raced to where Lilly was standing. One glance down, and I burst into tears. “No, no, no,” I wailed.
Lilly turned me away, leading me back to the room, then down the stairs. She and Maci kept trying to calm me down, but I had lost all self-control. Ryder was most likely dead, and it was my fault. He could’ve been playing a prank on me, and I might never know what really happened.
Either way, I continued sobbing. We reached the door leading out of the factory. It was still boarded shut. Lilly called one of her friends who lived nearby, and about fifteen minutes later, we were standing outside the deserted factory. The police had shown up first, followed by several ambulances.
The paramedics carried something to one vehicle; I broke down again when I saw a flash of red. “It’s alright,” Maci murmured. “Everything’s going to be alright.” I just shook my head and buried my face in the sleeves on my jacket and cried harder.
I heard footsteps head our way, and I looked up. “Girls,” the paramedic addressed. I sniffed. “Your friend is going to be okay.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s going to take a long time for him to recover, but you’re lucky.” The paramedic smiled. “Most people can’t survive a fall from ten feet to a concrete surface. If there hadn’t been those boxes to break his fall…” He shook his head and walked away, muttering something else along the way.
I turned to the others. “So,” I said.
“You want to find out why the factory got shut down, don’t you?” Lilly asked.
I laughed. “Yeah,” I said, wiping my eyes, “I do.”
“I’ll go with you,” Maci offered.
I looked at her, shocked. “You, the scaredy-cat?”
She nodded. “Yeah, it’d be fun, don’t you think?” She giggled.
“Don’t mock me,” I teased.
“I’ll come too,” Lilly said.
“Thanks, guys,” I said with a sniff. “You know, for a minute back there, I thought I was going to die.”
“Yeah,” Lilly mumbled. Maci nodded and said “Hm…” The three of us fell silent.
“So,” I said.
“So,” Lilly repeated.
“Wanna race to my house?”
Lilly smiled. “Ready…” We all scrambled to stand up. “Go!”
We bolted down the sidewalk, the factory disappearing behind us. As I ran, I felt like things just might be alright after all.