Fiction: Trespassers

Read More: A brief interview with Nora Bonner

Mindy is alone in the basement, searching an educational site for a good high school math book when the phone rings. Jim and the boys are out. Normally, she wouldn’t answer it, but a nasal voice blurts, “Free Press,” through the lousy speaker on the answering machine. It’s a reporter calling. He wants to talk to David.

Mindy darts up to the kitchen and picks up. “This is David’s mother,” she says.

“Good afternoon,” the reporter says. He explains again that he needs to talk to David and asks for his cell phone number. This filtering of calls to her sons is exactly why Mindy and her husband have yet to disconnect the house phone.

“I’m sorry,” she says, keeping her voice kind. “May I ask who’s calling?”

The reporter gives his name: Max Johnson, and something in the way he pronounces the surname convinces Mindy that he is black. He goes on to explain that he is following up on a call her son made to the police. About a body. “The one in the depository,” he says, as if the word explains everything.

“What body?” Mindy says.

“By Corktown,” the reporter says, referring to a neighborhood in the city. “By the old train station.”

Mindy knows her son plays hockey after church every week with the boys he met at community college, but she has no idea where they go to play. He’s never said. Mindy assures the reporter that David is a good kid, a homeschooled kid. He made it all the way to Eagle Scout and before this, never caused his mother any grief. He organizes the church youth group’s bi-annual trips to the nursing home, she tells the reporter.  His little brother, Ethan, really looks up to him.

The reporter asks if he might come at six, sounding as though he has his mind on something else, probably something on his computer screen.

Mindy says sure he can come, only later realizing that six is dinnertime, and the reporter, coming all the way from Detroit, an hour up I-75 when it’s snowing, will probably be starving when he gets there. She has no idea what the reporter would want to eat. What does a reporter eat? What does a black reporter eat?

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It’s now five o’clock. David studies biology at the table in the front room. His brother, Ethan, sits in front of the fireplace, teasing the cat with an old sock. David looks serious, his shoulders tense, his head down, but Mindy doesn’t think he’s really concentrating. He’s erasing his sentences as soon as he writes them. He’s clicking his ballpoint pen in an even rhythm. He reads a little, underlines a word, and then goes on clicking. He glares up at her and says, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“How am I looking at you?” she says.

She draws the heavy red the curtain over the window behind the couch so they all can see the driveway. Snow flutters gold in the streetlamps and everything else is a dark blur. She returns to the kitchen to stir the marinara. “You shouldn’t have been down there,” she calls over her shoulder after a few stirs. Her voice is loud, like she’s outside. “We shouldn’t have let you go.”

“What are you yelling about?” David now stands in the doorway to the kitchen. He’s got one side of his t-shirt tucked into his jeans, pants tight enough to be a girl’s because that’s what the boys are wearing. “I’m old enough for college. I can vote,” he says, which is funny because his wardrobe suggests otherwise, especially because he’s got one of those crazy cartoons from Japan on his shirt—a puffy purple monster.

“If the best decision you can make is to hang out in dangerous places with dangerous people,” Mindy says, “maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to vote. And why don’t you change your shirt?” It’s the sort of thing he hates to hear her say. “You’re dressed like a child.” Also, that.

“Don’t tell me what I’m allowed to do,” he says, his face scrunched up with anger the way it’s done since before he could talk. “If they wanted to keep us out they should have boarded up the place better. If they didn’t want us there they should have made it impossible for us to get in.”

Jim yells from the basement: “Why are we yelling?”

“Nobody’s yelling,” David yells down the stairs.

Mindy licks her spoon and finds the sauce is bland. The shaker’s out of salt. “The way I see it,” she says.

“The way you see what? The guy was already dead.” The church bulletin is inches from his ear, urging the reader, Come taste and see! across the top in red cursive. Somebody, probably Ethan as a joke, used the hamburger magnet to hold it into place on the side of the fridge.  “He’s been dead for a long time,” David says.

“Nobody’s arguing with you,” she says. “Grab me the salt.”

David reaches into the pantry, slams it shut, and then slams the salt container on the counter in front of her. He goes to his room and slams the door.

The silence that follows stuns Mindy into deep thought. Why are they always so escalated with each other? Why do they raise their voices as soon as they hear the other one talking? Did she do that first, or did he? Ethan doesn’t do that, just David. He’s always been that way—a Molotov cocktail of want and need and stubbornness.

She shakes the salt too hard and the cap pops off, releasing a white stream into the pan. She steps on the garbage can’s lever to open it up and drops the sauce in, pan and all. She doesn’t care. The others don’t. She’s been working at that sauce for over an hour and she doesn’t care.

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Water’s boiling now. The reporter calls again, this time from the freeway backed up because of the snow. He says he’ll be twenty minutes, but when he tells Mindy where he is—by the zoo—she tells him it will be more like forty-five.

“Oh,” he says, sounding hesitant, probably deciding whether the trip is worth it. “I guess that’s all right.”

She tells the reporter, “Be safe,” and drops noodles into the pot with a tablespoon of butter to keep them from sticking. What she really means to say is, Get off the phone already, you’re on the road in a blizzard.

Jim and the boys sit around the table, ready to eat, and she tells them they will have to wait a little longer. She hands Ethan a box of Cheez-its to hold them over when Jim asks David what he’s going to tell the reporter. “Of course he’s going to tell the truth,” Mindy says. She did not raise her sons to be liars.

It is here that he confesses to his parents and brother that he hangs out with the boys at this abandoned warehouse downtown. They go there to play hockey. The place is pretty creepy but as far as he knows, pretty safe.

“It doesn’t sound safe to me,” Mindy says, grabbing a handful of crackers.

David says it’s usually empty; it used to be a library and now it’s a dumping ground for the city’s schools.

He says he was by himself when he found the body. The other boys were running late, and so he decided to do a little exploring. He found the man frozen in a pool of water at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Both legs were sticking up from the surface with the rest of his body encased in ice.  David couldn’t see the rest of him.  The other boys showed up one by one, and they all had a look.  By the time they had enough players for a game, nobody was in the mood for hockey.

Instead, they explored the rest of the building, carrying their hockey sticks like walking sticks. They crawled over piles of textbooks from the 70s—the covers had kids in corduroy, wearing giant pairs of glasses.

“You’re telling me,” Mindy interrupts, “you found a body and then you went exploring?” Jim hushes her, and her son says, “Yeah,” oblivious as to why this might be a big deal.

He says he and the boys crawled over books piled in places three feet deep. They found old pamphlets from the Civil Rights Movement.  Others came across a room of old gym equipment. All of it was rotting.  All of it in decay.  David told his friends they should figure out what to do with the dead man.

One of the boys—David didn’t name him—said they should just leave him there, that the city wouldn’t want to bother with digging the guy out.  They might as well wait until the ice melted.  David didn’t feel right about that. He said they should call the police.

“Atta boy,” says Jim.

“Wait,” says Mindy. “What didn’t you feel right about?”

“I thought the city would want to know,” David says.  “The police would want to know who the guy was who died, but the other guys laughed at me.”

Mindy knows why the boys laughed. She knows the city enough to know that the boys were probably right—if the guy was homeless, the city probably wouldn’t care. It was sad, but beside the point, which was that no son of Mindy’s, no matter how old he is, should be hanging around a place that big and empty; a place where people can just sit dead for days encased in ice in a city that might not care. Mature people don’t hang around places like that.

“Someone said they should ask the homeless guys in the building if they knew the dead man,” David says, “but they were like, the guys who lived there already knew about it, probably, and wouldn’t want to be bothered.”

“The reporter can bother them,” Jim says. “The police can.”

To finish the account, David tells them on his way to the basement that the boys decided to play a game of hockey. After a few moments, the downstairs television blares a terrible comedy show with a laugh track.

“Turn it down,” Jim yells.

Mindy says, “That was the part I didn’t want to know.”

Jim asks what part.

“The hockey part,” she says. This is the part she doesn’t want to believe. She doesn’t want to try to understand, and she definitely doesn’t want anybody, especially not a reporter, knowing about it: they played a full half hour after they found a dead body and then they went home.

Jim reminds her that after all, David did call the police. He called them because he thought it was the right thing to do.  “Let’s see about this warehouse,” he says, and heads down to their computer desk in the basement.

She follows him, where her son is numb in front of one of those New York City sitcoms.  “Why are you watching this trash?” she says. “I’m guessing you finished studying?”

“He’s an adult,” Jim says.

Mindy’s not convinced. She’s not convinced that calling the cops was the right thing to do, though Jim seems to think so.  He even gave his name to the operator, though he didn’t give her any of the other names.  That’s how the reporter found him and not them.  That’s why he’s on his way.

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Mindy’s wiping drips of sauce from the floor when the doorbell rings.  “Ethan, get the door,” she says.  She digs the pan from the garbage and more sauce drips from it on the way to the sink.  The doorbell rings again.  “Ethan.”

Ethan answers the door but leaves the man standing outside.  “He’s here,” he says to Mindy.

“Wipe the rest of this.” She tosses him a rag.

As she expected, the reporter is a young black man. She did not expect him to be wearing a gray pea coat, and he reminds her of those men from Nation of Islam she and Jim spotted on an overpass by Ford Field.  Mindy had no idea who those men were, but Jim knew; Jim knows stuff like that. They ignored the car when Jim drove up close to them. This was to be expected, he’d said, laughing. These guys didn’t want anything to do with them. Mindy was both relieved and a little troubled by the whole thing.

Free Press,” the reporter says, as if they didn’t know who he was, as if he hadn’t talked to Mindy twice. “Is this the home of David Billingsley?”

She says yes and asks him if he’s eaten.

“Not yet,” the reporter says.  “But you don’t need to feed me.”

“She insists,” Jim says. He’s the one to invite him in.

“It might be a few,” says Mindy.  She points at Ethan through the doorway on the kitchen floor.  “This is Ethan,” she says, taking the reporter’s coat.  “We school Ethan at home.”

The man sits at the table in the front room and writes something in his notebook.  “What about David?”

“He’s taking some general classes over at the community college.”

“Wayne County?”

“Oakland.”

“Of course.” The reporter’s shaking his head, a little flustered.

She sticks her head down the basement steps and says, “He’s here.” She says to Ethan, “Ask him what he wants to drink.”

Ethan leans into the dining room from the kitchen. “We don’t any have beer.”

“I’m fine with water,” the reporter says.

In the kitchen, Mindy drains the penne, butters it and sprinkles it with Parmesan.  She arranges turkey cuts, cheddar cheese slices, and baby carrots on a large plate. She transfers mustard and mayonnaise into small serving bowls and places them on the dining room table.

Jim comes in behind her and says, “I thought we were having marinara.”

“I killed the sauce,” she says.  She grabs the bread from the top of the fridge and hands it to Jim.

“Dinner,” she says, pounding on David’s door again. He comes out in a plaid red button down shirt.

They sit.  Jim grabs Mindy’s hand on one side and David’s hand on the other. They bow their heads. Mindy waits for the reporter to finish writing before she offers her hand.

“Do you say Grace?” Jim asks.

“Sorry,” The reporter puts down his pen.  He takes Mindy’s hand.  His palm is soft like a woman’s. He waits, puzzled. “Did you want me to say it?”

“Only if you feel like it,” says Mindy.

Jim says Grace.  They eat.  Mindy brings out the coffee. The reporter talks to David while Mindy and Ethan clear the table.  David tells the reporter everything he told them earlier, and then returns to his room.  The reporter asks to speak to Jim and Mindy together.

She tells him David is a good kid.  Both of her sons.  They always do what they’re told.  “We trust them,” she says.

“No doubt,” the reporter says.

Jim tells him that once he’d learned that his son started hanging out there, he felt it was his responsibility, as a good father, to find as much information as he could about the place.  He pulled up information on the Web.  It used to be Roosevelt Public Library until it burned down in the 80’s, he says, tapping at some printed sheets. The ink blurs a bit in the photos, and grays towards the bottom.  “Mindy wanted me to show her a map,” he says, laughing a little. This was not true and she didn’t know why Jim would say it, or why he would bring her into this conversation in this way. “She wanted me to show her the hockey rink.”

“There never was a hockey rink,” the reporter says to Mindy.

She still does not get Jim’s joke—did he think it was funny to make her look dumb in front of this young black man? She would say something, but she’s lost her ability to speak.

“And it’s not a library anymore,” the reporter says. “It’s a depository for the schools.” Now, in combination with what David had told them about the place—the papers, the books—the word depository makes more sense.

“See, Jim,” Mindy says, gaining a bit of confidence from her ability to understand. “He knows all this.”

The reporter writes something down.  “Did he tell you when they found the body?”

“He was already dead,” Mindy says.  “That’s what David told us.”

“Did he tell you the same day?” the reporter asks.  “Or did he wait a while to tell you?”

Mindy crosses her arms and checks her cuticles.

“David found the body.” Jim says.  “And if David hadn’t called the police, the guy would still be in there.”

“That’s exactly right,” the reporter says, writing again.  “That’s the point exactly.”

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The family sits in the living room long after the reporter leaves.  The cat sleeps between the boys on the couch.  Mindy and Jim sit in their reclining chairs around the fireplace.  At eleven o’clock, Ethan flips between the three local news channels but a half hour passes and none of the shows mention the man in the warehouse.  The boys go to bed.  “I need a walk,” Mindy says to Jim.

Jim says, “All right.”  They bundle up.

Their unpaved road is now packed with snow. It glows under the moon. The street is quiet, save for their boots crunching along the edge of the road, where the snow has crystalized to ice.  The neighboring houses are dark and Mindy figures everyone must be in bed, or in their dens in front of late night talk shows.

They’ve lived on this block since David was three and Mindy was pregnant with Ethan.  It was in the country, then; that’s why they moved out here. Their house was once a shack for hunting.  There were huge yards on either side, woods in the back. Just one other house sat half a mile down the road.  Developers came since then and filled out the street.   There’s an elementary school on the corner.  Along the side, a soccer field, flooded and frozen for the neighborhood children to skate on.   “I don’t understand it,” Mindy says. “David could have brought his friends here and had a game.”

“Leave it alone,” Jim says.  He leads her to a plastic slide and brushes off the snow.  “He’s an adult.” He draws her into his lap, wrapping his arms around her.

“How many people do you think are out there?”  She knocks her boots together to get the snow off before her toes start to ache with cold.  “Out there, freezing to death.”

“Don’t think about that.”

“It’s in my head already,” she says.  “I’ve thought about it.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to think about something else.”

It’s in his head now.  She knows he’s thinking about it.

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In the living room the next morning, Jim shuffles through the Free Press while the boys look on.  Mindy sits alone at the dining room table.  The story is not on the front page.  It’s not on the front page of the local section.  When they’ve finished looking, Jim slides it onto the table in front of Mindy with the article on top. It’s two pages into the local section; a single column on the right-hand side and near the bottom.

The reporter wrote that a group of boys came to the building to play hockey and one of them called the police. He called David an urban explorer from the suburbs, one of the many. The reporter wrote: a first year student at Oakland Community College stumbled upon the body during a weekly game of hockey at the depository. 

“That’s not right,” Mindy says. She says to David, “What did you tell him?”

“What I told you,” David says, defensive. “You were sitting right there.”

In the whole article, he does not name David as the boy who thought to call the police. He doesn’t mention the family.

“I don’t know why he came all the way out here,” Jim says.  He refills her coffee mug from kitchen and hands it to her.  “I thought those men were short for time,” he says, standing over her. He takes her hand. “Looks like we got out clean,” he says.  “I know this is weird, but I’m kind of disappointed.”  He kisses her forehead.

She sits at the table until she finishes her second cup of coffee and reads over the article more closely.  Instead of their family, the reporter focuses on the homeless men who live in the building.  He writes that the men knew about the body but went on living there anyway.  The boys, one of which was her David, found the body but played a game of hockey anyway.  The reporter guesses that the man may have fallen from another floor while searching for scrap metal, something to sell.  He might have been drunk or, with the city’s murder rate so high, been murdered.  He does not, thank God, pose the “urban explorers” as suspects.  He finishes by saying that the man is still there waiting for the police to come dig him out.  Waiting—phrased as though the man is still alive.

“You think he’s still there?” she calls to Jim or anyone who will respond, but Jim’s already left the house.  Ethan’s in his room working on a math project and David’s gone back to bed.  In the basement, her husband’s left the map of the warehouse next to the computer monitor.  She studies the area more closely than before.  She didn’t know the warehouse was so close to where the old baseball stadium used to be.  She wonders if David remembers her and Jim taking him there.  Probably not.  He was a toddler then.

She puts on a pair of jeans and one of her husband’s sweatshirts.  Then she writes a note on the back of a church bulletin. Took the van out to run some errands. D, will return before you need to leave. E, remember US Hist Ch’s 4&5.  She posts it in the fridge with the hamburger. She shakes her pen and writes beneath the rest, —Mom.

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Outside, it’s sunny but cold.  She drives first through farmland, over train tracks and icy bridges.  The van doesn’t fully heat up until after she’s on I-75.  She passes a golf course, a shopping center, and the Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Pistons play, though the marquis announces a concert this weekend for Vampire Weekend—either an out-of-season Halloween party, or a band she’s never heard of.  She passes more shopping centers and more golf courses until she spots the water tower for the zoo. The road gets choppy when she crosses the city border.  She takes the exit for the old Tiger Stadium.

She slows as she passes an overgrown lot near the overpass.  Her father used to work here on the weekends, a parking director for the games. She circles the van around the chain link fence surrounding what’s left of the old ballpark: the upper and lower decks of bleachers around home plate. Snow covers the field and construction cranes across it.  It’s good her father didn’t live to see this.  She wonders if Jim’s seen it, though she can’t remember the last time he was down here.

As she glances around, she spots more life on that block than when she’d noticed when pulling off the freeway: a young couple walking a dog; a woman waiting at the bus stop; another couple ducking into a sandwich shop a little further down the avenue.

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A handful of parked cars line the drive to the warehouse: three stories of busted windows; scorch marks climb the bricks between them. What was it her son came down here for, anyway? To glimpse the last of the crumbling Wild West, post-apocalyptic neglect before developers transformed it into something more suitable for families? That’s what the news had been saying—developers were finally getting a hold of this place, after decades. What was wrong with suitable for families?

She parks the jeep and spots a pair of white boys headed for a loading dock on the side of the building. As she opens the door she sees that, just her luck, she’s parked right smack in a puddle of gray sleet. Of course she didn’t think to put on her boots.  She thought: gym shoes because she would be walking around, but not boots. She puts one of her gym-shoed feet on the ledge beneath, crouches in the doorway before she leaps over the puddle, splashing a bit of watery snow as she makes contact with the asphalt, and closes the door. The bottom of her jeans are soaked.  Even so, she heads over to the loading dock, where the boys she’d seen are still in view.

Up close, their ears are lined with silver piercings.  The shorter one wears a red windbreaker; he has a tattoo vine crawling up his neck.  He hoists himself onto the dock, then turns around to help Mindy, only then acknowledging her.  “You’re alone?” he says.

Mindy isn’t sure of the best way to answer that. From his face he might as well be asking how old she is. Obviously, she is a grown woman. And what if she had been alone? Alone, as in, what if these boys weren’t here at this time?  She hadn’t thought it through.  This is where David gets it from, from her. She’s the one that doesn’t think it through.  “It’s my first time here,” she says.

“First time,” the boy says. “Us too.” They don’t know David.

“We’re here to see the body,” the other one says. […]


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Nora Bonner writes and teaches in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is a PhD student in fiction at Georgia State. Her stories have appeared in various journals and anthologies including Shenandoah, the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, the Indiana Review, and Best American Non-Required Reading.