I could just see the Wellview Theater from my bedroom window. It wasn’t especially fun to look at, and it blended in nicely with the surrounding buildings—a regular small-town installation. But Wellview was expanding; new housing developments were popping up like weeds, and with them came families to be entertained. Who needs community theater when there’s three Whole Foods and a Cineplex? Wellview High School grew in student population by the hundreds; freshman classes of fifty graduated two hundred strong. By the end of my time there we weren’t the tight-knit community we used to be. Soon, the school and the town would both be unrecognizable, even to lifelong residents.
I never spoke much with Andy during our time at Wellview High, but during the last few months we discovered a shared interest in exploring empty buildings. We frequented housing developments during construction. I enjoyed his company. He had a way of seeing through my bullshit, which is probably why I avoided him in high school. Now, though, I found it to be somewhat freeing.
When it was announced that the old theater would be torn down, a small group of artists and community organizers banded together to save it. They held bake sales, variety shows, even a haunted house. After meeting their goal of almost half a million dollars, the city government admitted that the building wasn’t coming down because the city needed money; it was about “progress.” They were told, “This is what’s best for our community.” Someone should’ve consulted city hall before they all exerted so much effort.
With our hands idle, Andy and I turned our attention to the old brick building. The fence around it was easy to climb, and getting inside was even easier. Looters and rambunctious ne’er-do-wells had already shattered the windows and busted the doors open. Inside, a pungent combination of rat poop, mildew, and dust punched me in the gut. I leaned on the faded brick wall while I caught my breath.
“Are you good?” asked Andy.
“I just need a minute.” I wheezed. I tried to dive in with a deep breath, but it was too much, too quick. I tried again with several smaller breaths. That was the sweet spot.
Once I adapted to my stinky new reality, I took a proper look around. The lobby was clearly grand when it was constructed, boasting sweeping arches and glossy celadon tile work. Andy stomped as hard as he could. The sound filled the room and echoed into the adjoining chamber.
My phone buzzed. I pulled it out of my battered old backpack and pressed ignore.
“Who’s calling?” asked Andy.
“Just my old friend. They keep trying to organize a going-away party.”
“Ooh! Can I go?”
“I guess. I’m not going.”
Pocketing my phone, I asked, “Do you think the bathrooms still work?”
“I doubt it. They’re probably all nasty and dried out.”
I poked my head into the men’s room.
“Hoo boy!” Somehow, it smelled even worse.
I tried pulling the sign off the door. It came off the rotting wood easily. I deposited it into my backpack, then followed Andy through the audience and towards the stage.
“Why are they even tearing this place down? It just needs a coat of paint, a little cleaning, some light fumigation…”
“They’re just trying to destroy our childhoods.”
Andy laughed. “I am gonna miss this place.”
“Wellview? It’ll be gone by Christmas at this rate.”
With the curtains gone, the line between onstage and offstage dissolved. Save for a few left-behind props, it was empty.
“Can I ask why you don’t want to go to a going-away party? It sounds awesome.”
“Why—” His question took me by surprise. “We’re all leaving. The sooner we can disconnect from each other, the easier it’ll be.”
“That sounds lonely. You don’t want to try to see each other?”
“Even if we do, we’re all going to change so much—it just won’t be the same.” I thought Andy and I were on the same page with that.
Andy picked up a bouquet of crispy flowers from the floor.
“For you! Truly a wonderful ballet!”
“Oh my!” I stuck my nose in the flowers and pretended to take a big whiff.
I imagined the crowds that flocked to the theater in the 1800s when the building was new. They were posh and proper, with monocles and the finest furs. Backstage, actors ran back and forth in a desperate race against the curtain.
From above me, I heard Andy shout. I spun around and saw a backdrop fall to the ground. Dust, previously settled in a fine layer on the floor, sprung from the ground and filled the air. Coughing and choking, I heard Andy shout, “Still, you’ve got to appreciate dust in front of an old west backdrop.” I made an obscene gesture, and he laughed.
“It’s authentic!” he said.
“How did you get up there?”
He shimmied down a rusty pipe____ and pointed to a decaying wooden staircase in the corner. He haphazardly rushed back up, but I took my time. Each step creaked, and I swear one bent downward under my weight.
A dark wooden door appeared on my left. The knob had fallen off, and the door was lightly ajar. I pushed it gently.
Inside was a small room lined on one side with curtained stalls. Opposite them was a wall of sinks, with one long mirror stretched across the length of the wall. Metal costume racks, withered from misuse, sat empty scattered throughout the room. They punctuated the small debris that carpeted the floor.
As I approached the mirror, a paper-maché dragon mask caught my eye. It had been rudely shoved into the corner.
Actually, to call it a mask is reductive. It was built around a motorcycle helmet, and expanded so far outward that it needed extra support from rods attached to pauldrons.
I couldn’t see any spiders or lice inside, so I put it on.
“What’d you find?” Andy asked from the doorway.
“It’s a sick mask!” I roared and waved my arms around, demolishing an imaginary skyline. Andy laughed.
“Very nice. Maybe you should be doing theater.”
I took the mask off and started shoving it into my backpack.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I doubt I could handle the risk of fucking up in front of everyone.”
The pauldrons wouldn’t fit, so they had to go.
“They say that when you get onstage, as you say your first line, you get so caught up in the performance that it all melts away.”
“Maybe, but I’d rather not find out.”
We continued up the stairs.
“What if you could do it in the dragon mask?”
“Then I would consider it. Romeo and Dragon Juliet? Yes, please.”
The stairs were creaking beneath my measured steps. Andy dashed up two at a time, then turned around to wait for me to catch up.
“Actually, I can stand to lose the theater.” I said, “Even the cupcake place can go, really. But did you hear they’re going after the art gallery next?”
“They’re tearing down the gallery?!”
“That’s what I heard.”
The stairs gave way to a series of narrow pathways lined with ropes and wooden pulleys—it all seemed very technical. There were hinges attached to the shattered remains of a door on the wall across from us. We ventured to it across the catwalk.
“So what’s Sheila gonna do? And all her artists? What about the art show?”
“That’s what I’m saying! They’re trying to get rid of everything Wellview.”
The next room was dark and I felt a cold wind blow from it. Naturally, that was the next place we needed to explore.
This room wound around the flyspace, and brought us over the audience. A maze of two-by-fours criss-crossed the floor, serving as bridges over the floor of flimsy ceiling tiles.
“This is what I’m talkin’ about!” whispered Andy.
He dashed away to the far end of the room, careful not to linger too long on any one plank. I stuck close to the wall, as though it would help me if I fell. I gently prodded a tile with my foot. It didn’t take much before it dislodged from its place and somersaulted into the audience. It crashed against some seats and shattered.
“Are you alright? What happened?” Andy started navigating back to me.
“I’m fine. I was just testing…”
“Careful.” He warned.
I continued along the wall until I came to a pile of shattered tiles. I pulled a large one out from the middle and added it to my collection.
“Y’know,” Andy volunteered, “my friends and I made this pact; every Thanksgiving weekend, we’re all gonna get together and have another Thanksgiving dinner.”
“No way! Every year? What if someone moves across the country?”
“We’re probably gonna lose some people eventually. But I think it’ll be worth it in the meantime. Hey, come check this out!”
I made my way to him; he’d found a hole in the wall, just big enough to fit through. About three feet away from the hole was a brick wall—disappointing—and a ladder leading into darkness—promising.
“Score!” Andy whispered.
“Hell yeah! That goes really far down…”
He shined his phone’s flashlight down the hole.
“I can’t see the bottom. Can you?”
I squinted downward. “No. What do you think’s down there?
“Only one way to find out.” He slid through the hole and onto the ladder; I followed, careful not to lose my footing, and we began our descent.
“Where do you think we are?” I asked.
“Uh…we went up, and now down…”
“Definitely below stage-level, right?”
“Yeah, we must be. It wasn’t this far going up.”
The chute widened slightly before we touched down. It had a dirt floor, littered with rat poop and trash. The walls were brick, with occasional cracks and a break where a large black staircase led upward, and another for one conspicuous door. Andy corrected me when I pointed it out—not a door, a hatch. I grabbed the handle and pulled, but it stayed closed. We both gave it a try, but it refused to open.
“Maybe if we could unscrew the hinges…” I suggested.
“Oh, and you have a screwdriver?”
I snatched his glasses from his face and stuck the end in the screw’s head.
“That’s an interesting application.”
“I’ve almost got it.”
“Be careful not to break those!”
“Why, do you need them? Aren’t they more of a luxury item?”
“I guess I don’t really need to see.”
“You wouldn’t be missing much.”
One of the screws landed on the ground with a light tinkle. The other three quickly followed, and we lowered the door to the ground. Sorry, the hatch.
“Well that’s disappointing.” Andy commented.
“This is a theater. Did you expect a skeleton?”
“I don’t know, I was kind of hoping for Mr. Tumnus.”
We stared beyond the hatch at the brick wall. There was no ladder this time, just a small cubby. The bottom part was full of plastic tubes, labeled from “57” to “98”. On a shelf above them was a pile of half-eaten posters.
While Andy explored the rest of the barren room, I opened a canister labeled “74”. Inside were three posters: The Phantom of the Opera, The Pajama Game, and The 3rd St. Misfits: A WCT Original. They were faded, but otherwise very well preserved.
I returned them to the tube and stuck a few other tubes into my backpack.
“Are you ready to go?” Andy asked, “I think I’m ready to move on.”
“Yeah, I could go. Let’s see where those stairs lead.”
Andy started to move towards the staircase. Just as he reached it, the whole building shook.
“What was that?!”
“Hush, hush. Listen.”
He stayed very still. From outside, we could hear trucks moving around and people dashing about.
“I thought they weren’t starting the demolition until next month!”
“That’s what the sign said! Six-three—July third!”
That didn’t sound right.
“June is the sixth month. June is six.”
“Then what’s—” He counted on his fingers. “…February, March, April…”
There was a crash, and the building shook again.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
Rocks began to fall from the ceiling, and the room filled with thick dust.
“Ladder or stairs?” Andy shouted.
“Stairs are too risky! We don’t know where they go!”
“Up, dude! The ladder’s too far to climb, and then we’d have to go all the way around!”
“But—” I was cut short by another crash, and more shaking.
“C’mon! We don’t have time for this!”
Andy dashed up the stairs. I followed him up; it was only one flight, but our way was barred by another door. The building shook again; this time, the low wooden ceiling above us cracked.
“Dammit! It won’t budge!” Andy yelled. He threw himself against it.
“C’mon! Help me!”
I joined him, and our combined weight gave way to a inch-wide gap.
“Yes!” he shouted.
He pried the door open a little more, then wedged himself through. I started to slip through behind him, but stopped.
“What are you doing?!”
“I can’t get through! I’m stuck!”
My backpack, full of souvenirs, was too wide. I took it off and tried to shove it through first.
“We don’t have time for this! It’s not gonna fit!”
“Well, I’ll just take everything out and pass ‘em—” Another crash cut me off, and the crack in the ceiling grew even more.
“Leave it!” Andy pleaded, “Please, leave it!”
The ceiling started to buckle. I dropped my backpack and squeezed through the door; behind me, the ceiling collapsed.
Andy yanked me forward. We were backstage again! He led me across the stage and out a side door.
Once we were outside, I collapsed on the ground. Fresh air never tasted so sweet.
“Oh, crap.” Andy wheezed.
I sat up. “What? What is it?”
“My shoes.” He said. “They’re filthy. These were brand new shoes and they’re just—”
“…filthy! Look at ‘em!”
The fence was harder to climb with a lungful of dust, but Andy eagerly leapt over it. He pointed to a nearby hill overlooking the theater. We made our way out of the demolition area to watch the building fall down from a safe distance.
“So what if, at this Thanksgiving dinner of yours, someone is just completely different? And they just don’t fit in anymore?”
“I’m kinda hoping we’ll all be different. It’d be kinda stupid to go through life as the same person you were in high school. Hopefully we’ll all grow together.”
We settled on the grassy hill and watched as an excavator pawed at the lobby, then scooped up a mouthful of bricks.
“Sucks we had to leave that cool stuff behind.”
“Yeah.” I said. “Man, I had that backpack since, like, middle school.”
“That was a really cool mask, too.”
The roof caved in on the main auditorium.
“Yeah, but you can make another one when you do The Importance of Being Dragons.”
“I guess elaborate masks don’t have much application offstage.”
“I keep thinking about the art gallery.” Andy said. “My sister had a piece in the art show. It sucks to see this town go down the tubes.”
“Maybe Sheila can still do exhibits in Mr. and Mrs. Santiago’s pharmacy. I think Ricky has some pieces in it, too.”
My phone buzzed; amazingly, the screen was still uncracked after that ordeal.
“Is that them again?”
I answered it.