The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2021 Winners Anthology, A New Story Rises here.
“In the Back of a Building” by Rogan deCalesta, Churchill High School
First Place, High School Level, 2021
In the Back of a Building
By Rogan deCalesta
Churchill High School
Idris Lovelace had a fear of back rooms.
Well. Not just any old room in the back of a building, where tired employees go to smoke or scroll through Twitter.
Idris, specifically, had a fear of Back Rooms. Those half-lit, flickering fluorescent rooms behind locked plywood doors that leak a muddy yellow light through the cracks in the frame, faintly and malevolently buzzing in the dark recesses of gas stations like termites chewing away at a house. It was irrational, sure, but she knew. She just knew, deep in her gut, that they were a very bad idea. But it wasn’t like she noticed them that often; Back Rooms were not a widespread species of predatory architecture.
So, in Idris Lovelace’s defense, her guard was down.
It was the empty, hollow weeks of August when the news hit. Papers traveled fast through the sun-battered town of Vale, Oregon, where Idris Lovelace worked as a car repairman, so it only took so long before the whole population was abuzz. Repairwoman, she’d always scold, swatting at Matthew from the front desk as he answered the phone and referred the next poor soul to Idris’ care. She lived alone, in a tiny, well-kept condominium with her two cats and many houseplants, and she drove to work every day in a battered ‘94 Volvo 960, blasting reggae and mariachi music through her rolled down windows, much to the chagrin of her white suburban neighbors.
She considered it a charmed life, and at the spry age of forty-one, few disagreed. Disagreeing with Idris Lovelace wasn’t advisable anyways, as she was the only repairwoman in Vale with the know-how to fix your car’s broken chassis and the motive to overcharge you for last week’s spat. She was well known in the community, and well liked; children would run up to her workstation through the open bay doors of her shop and beg her for stories about her time in the Navy; the newly married couples would always receive a small potted-plant and a coupon wrapped in a neat package on their doorstep not a day after the ceremony; and on the whole, she was known throughout Vale as a saintly, noisy angel with a kind smile and whip-quick wit.
Understandably, the headline that was blazoned across the Malheur Enterprise sent the small town of Vale, Oregon into quite a stir.
“LOCAL CAR REPAIRMAN MISSING, PRESUMED DEAD IN STATE-LINE CROSSING CASE”
Repairwoman, she would have scolded.
But Idris Lovelace wasn’t there to do the scolding.
Idris Lovelace wasn’t anywhere to be found.
* * *
Now, the logical question is why. Why was Idris Lovelace afraid of back rooms?
She never told anyone. It was a mystery. Case closed.
That’s not exactly true.
She almost told her sister, once, in the dark of night after an uncommon amount of whiskey.
This is how it went.
(12:47) Me: Nahh. Nah, I don’t really go jnto the back part of the shop
(12:47) siszter l: right u have that thing w/ the back parts of buildings
(12:49) Me: Damn straight. I don’t fuck with them, no ma’am
(12:49) siszter l: lmao
(12:50) siszter l: why is that again
(12:50) Me: I’m claustrophobic, you jnpw that
(12:50) Me: know* I am waaay too drunk to be using these little cell-phone keyboards
(12:51) siszter l: ur not claustrophobic u dumbo u did that whole thing with the caves in sunriver
(12:52) Me: Yeah, and I didn’t like it one bit
(12:52) siszter l: ur lyiiiing
(12:52) siszter l: u loved that trip, u geology nerd
(12:53) siszter l: is it something embarrassing, is that why u won’t tell me
(12:53) siszter l: bcuz mama im afraid to tell u but i’ve seen u cry over taylor lautner’s abs u can’t hide ur mediocrity from me
(12:54) Me: That was one time, and no I’m bot telling you why
(12:54) Me: not* Damnit
(12:54) siszter l: why nottttt
(12:54) siszter l: just tell me u dweeb
(12:55) Me: I’ll tell you some other time, okay? Not right now
(12:55) siszter l: why not now
(12:55) siszter l: cmonnn
(12:56) Me: It’s too late, and it’s dark out
(12:58) siszter l: why does that matter
(12:58) siszter l: wait
(12:59) siszter l: is it a scary reason
(1:02) Me: Just not now
(1:02) siszter l: well now im curious
(1:03) siszter l: dont leave me hangin mammmmma cmon tell me i love a good spook
(1:04) Me: Nah
(1:04) Me: I gotta get to sleep anyway I’m driving to Boise tomorrow morning to go pick up some parts
(1:04) siszter l: okay but ur telling me tomorrow got it
(1:06) Me: I haven’t thought about it in years so I gotta remember the story
(1:06) Me: Head hurts like a mfer. Sleep good you monster
(1:07) siszter l: sweet dreams dumbass
(3:23) Me: fcuk msrgo ihad a vad drwam
(3:23) Me: wnot lwabe me alone
(3:25) Me: hesd buzxes so nad whu is it so liud
(3:26) Me: voicemail sent
(4:04) siszter l: jesus dude what happened
(4:04) siszter l: r u okay???
When the police contacted Margo Lovelace—Idris Lovelace’s twenty-two-year-old adopted sister—about Idris’ whereabouts, all she could give them was the address of a repair shop in Boise, Idaho, her sister’s email, and her sister’s phone number. The texts exchanged between the two women the night before Idris’ trip across state lines were looked over as trivial and ignored.
But one Matthew from the front desk, when Margo came to him, distraught, found something a little suspicious.
He said that when Idris was in a hurry, she would send voicemails instead of texts.
Margo said the voicemail was just her sister rambling about her dreams, nothing important.
Matthew, who called Idris repairman and got scolded for it, asked to listen to the voicemail.
This is what he heard:
“Margo? I just woke up, and I, I need to tell you something. I had a dream, a nightmare, really, and fuck, that buzzing is so loud—okay, I need to go. I’m leaving for Boise, right now, I can’t wait. I’ll text you when I get there, but please, lock your doors, okay? Fuck, kitty, shut up, get away from the houseplants—okay, I’ll text you. Lock your doors, oh, and listen, the inside ones. Remember that. Fuck, okay, I’ll text you, goodb—”
Voice message complete.
Idris Lovelace left that morning at 3:47 a.m., driving out of Vale, Oregon in her battered ‘94 Volvo 960, blasting radio static and clutching a crucifix.
Of course, that didn’t save her.
See, what Idris wanted to tell Margo, before she crossed the state lines, is the story of why she was afraid of back rooms.
But Idris Lovelace isn’t here.
So I’ll do it.
At forty-one, Idris Lovelace filled her life with as much stuff as she could, because she hated emptiness. She always had, as a kid who moved a lot. She grew up in rooms with no furniture, houses with no residents, holes in the fabric of her existence. She got used to the emptiness. And emptiness, in turn, became well acquainted with her.
Her parents, two well-meaning but harried ophthalmologists, decided to take new jobs when Idris was thirteen and packed up their whole lives to do it. They stuffed themselves into two pickup trucks and a trailer, hopping the fence from Wyoming to Idaho with a dream, Idris stuck in the backseat, counting passing Dollar Trees and clutching her teddy, the only thing she could keep with her from her childhood home. She passed the time by assessing her parents’ driving choices. Their problem, as Idris knew from her automobile catalogues, was that their trucks guzzled gas like wilted houseplants guzzle water. So, at 12:47 a.m. on a Tuesday in the empty, hollow weeks of August, Idris Lovelace and her parents crossed the border between Colorado and Idaho, desperately in search of gas.
It followed her like a shroud.
And at 1:07 a.m. on a Tuesday, it introduced itself.
They pulled off an exit ramp, unmarked but for a simple, rusted sign that said “Gas – Next Right.” The road wound into the trees, the only sound around the little family the humming of wheels on asphalt and the oh-so-quiet buzzing of their empty gas tank.
Idris Lovelace, forty-one, drove across the border of Oregon and Idaho, clutching a crucifix, cursing as her fuel indicator turned red.
With dread in her heart and the oh-so-quiet sound of buzzing in her ears, she pulled off an exit ramp, unmarked but for a simple, rusted sign that said “Gas – Next Right.” The road wound into the trees, the wheels of the gas-thirsty car humming on the asphalt.
The Lovelace family turned around a corner, lurching as the road became gravel. The cracking of stone under rubber was accentuated by the insistent noise of the near-empty tank beneath Idris’s seat, growling like a hungry stomach. They pulled up to a gas station.
Something that looked like a gas station.
A single pump held up by a cracking strip of shingles that connected to the station building itself. A single, flickering streetlamp that bathed the area in a weak orange light, reflecting off the dirty windows found at the front of the station.
The Lovelaces pulled over.
Idris Lovelace’s battered ‘94 Volvo 960 crunched and crackled as she drove down a gravel path, pulling into the parking lot of something that looked like a gas station. She turned off the car, and she heard the buzzing.
She was not there to get gas.
Idris Lovelace was thirteen, getting out of the truck as her parents fussed with the old gas pump. She had to use the bathroom. She brought her teddy with her. As she raised a hand to knock on the sliding glass doors of the tiny station store, she felt something in her lurch.
Idris Lovelace was forty-one, walking up to the sliding glass doors, feeling something in her lurch like a hunger.
In the back of the store, behind shelves full of dead houseplants and walls covered in dirt, there was a door. It bled dirty, yellow light underneath the cracks of the flimsy plywood, and it buzzed.
Idris Lovelace, thirteen, stared through the glass, feeling that something in her lurch again, harder. Her parents called for her. She did not respond.
What does emptiness want? What does a quiet room yearn for? What does an abandoned house grasp at?
Slowly, the door began to open, and though glass and drywall separated them, Idris Lovelace, forty-one, heard the creaking plywood and buzzing fluorescents clear as day.
What does a lonely child have in common with the back of a building?
From behind the door there came a shape, shuffling hesitantly, crawling on weak limbs.
The crucifix slipped from Idris Lovelace’s forty-one-year-old fingers as the glass doors of the gas station slid open.
The teddy slipped through Idris Lovelace’s thirteen-year-old fingers as she put a hand to her stomach, feeling sick.
The door creaked wider and the shape looked up, movements jerky, like a newborn lamb. Stringy hair swung through the air as the mockery of a face flashed through the door’s opening.
Idris Lovelace, forty-one, stepped into the store and felt the hole inside her scream with joy.
Idris Lovelace, thirteen, doubled over as her insides lurched again, screaming to get out, to run into the building, to get away from the truck with all its packed-up furniture, to stay. The houseplants on the shelves all turned to her, dirt streaking the walls, symbols burned into the floor, buzzing growing louder and louder and louder and louder and louder and louder AND LOUDER AND LOUDER AND LOUDER AND LOUDER AND LOUDER AND I SAID COME CHILD COME THROUGH THE DOOR—
A hand landed on her shoulder and she jerked back, breathing fast, vision swimming. Her parents stared at her, eyes misty, faces blank, the words they spoke crawling through the air like static. She looked at them, then back into the store, then back to her parents. Her vision was tunneling, and her stomach was clawing at her, jerking her limbs. Idris Lovelace, thirteen, knew that she did not want to ever be near that room in the back of the station ever again. She ran toward the truck, teddy forgotten, desperately trying to ignore the something inside of her that just as desperately wanted to stay.
And the emptiness that followed Idris Lovelace like a cloud became manifest.
As she ran back toward the truck, she heard the buzzing grow louder, filling her ears, screaming through her blood, a visceral, retching feeling that ached like hunger, like thirst, like need, and with a choked howl, the hollowness inside of her ripped itself out. She fell to her knees, vomiting bile that smelled of gasoline and wood rot as a shivering dark shape crawled out of her skin. Her parents picked her up, running to the truck and slamming every door shut, not bothering to wonder in their panic how their gas tank was suddenly full. Behind them, convulsing on the ground, lay a wretched thing that wept beneath the orange light of the flickering streetlamp.
Driven by instinct, it fled, crawling into the store, hiding in the room behind the flimsy plywood door, rocking back and forth, shivering. The truck made a cracking noise as it drove away, spraying gravel beneath its wheels as the Lovelaces made their escape. The lights outside went out, but the one light inside the gas station continued to flicker, humming quietly. In the back of the building, the thing began to make itself a home.
The lights faded.
Idris Lovelace grew up, and she filled her life with as much stuff as she could in some hopeless attempt to pacify the hunger.
Unfortunately for Idris Lovelace, one night, after an uncommon amount of whiskey, a text conversation brought all the memories back.
And oh, how long it had been since she was full.
Idris Lovelace, forty-one, heard the glass doors slam shut behind her. She smelled rotten wood, cloying earth, dead tissue. The wilted houseplants stared at her. The symbols on the ground seemed to waver at the edges of her vision. She put a hand to her stomach and felt it buzz beneath her skin.
The door of the back room creaked open all the way, flooding the store with sickly yellow light as the thing that had festered for so long inside hopped forward, looking up with an expression twisted past the definition of hunger, childish and grossly innocent, termites crawling through empty eye sockets. It hopped forward again, and held something out, riddled with bite marks and crusted with spit.
It was a teddy bear.
Idris Lovelace, forty-one, looked down at the thing and found herself staring at a rotten, grisly caricature of Idris Lovelace, thirteen.
She knew what it was.
She knew what had to be done.
Worst of all, it was the only thing she had ever truly wanted.
To be full.
She spread her arms, and it pounced.
The buzzing completely hid the sounds of a body being wrung inside-out like a washcloth, bones breaking all at once with a wet snap.
A lonely child, a dusty floor, an abandoned house. A back room. The unholy union of rot and new life.
Idris Lovelace—ageless—wasn’t empty anymore.
* * *
A month later, in the sleepy town of Vale, Oregon, the owner of the Lovelace Auto-Repair shop picked up a newspaper on his way to work.
Matthew read the headline and shook his head, sadly.
“LOCAL MISSING REPAIRMAN FOUND DEAD IN IDAHO AMID GRUESOME SCENE”
Idris Lovelace, who was found in an abandoned gas station off the freeway spread all over the walls, was not there to correct the newspapers, and never would be again.
I made sure of it.