FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180109

I felt around for a light switch and found it.  The pale white light from fluorescent bulbs instantly illuminated the entire space, showing me the pile of left over junk I assumed Julio could never sell.  With everything lit up, I could see that the glowing object seemed to be impaling the pile of weird junk.  It was spilling it’s own light around the back of the pile and in front as well, despite the bright fluorescence.  The warm yellow light from the object still managed to seem brighter than the light from the ceiling.

I held out the worry stone and the throbbing synchronized.  

“What IS that thing?” Wise asked.  I had no idea, but it was becoming pretty obvious that the worry stone and this oblong, rusted football looking thing were connected somehow.  With my left hand I gently pulled the oblong football thing out from the middle of this pile of stuff while still holding the worry stone in my right.  As I got a better look at it, I could see toward the side closest to me, there was hole in the shape of the worry stone.  As I slide the worry stone into the slow Wise held out his hands.

“No wait–!”

Almost instantly, the glowing faded away, leaving me holding a weird looking, rusted metal football that featured a removable worry stone-looking homing device.

“So, what now?” I asked.

“You don’t know what that is?” Wise asked.

“No!  Do you?”

“Of course not–why do you think I was asking you?”

“So, this isn’t what Julio had of yours?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Well, if the thing you are looking for is anything like this, it may be in this pile.”

“So, this is Julio’s place?”

“Yeah, but it looks like it was abandoned years ago,” I said.  “This room was his little warehouse of weird junk he’d sell weird people but clearly he left this junk behind.”
Wise began looking over the junk, seeming to recognize some of it.

“So, you know what some of this stuff is?”

“I do.  Some of it.  You don’t?  But you just said you recognized this stuff as Julio’s.”

“Yeah, I recognize that this stuff is his, but I don’t know what it is,” I said.

Wise seemed to be ignoring me.  He had made his way from one side of the pile to the other and seemed to have decided that what he was looking for was not there.

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180108

The moment we stepped inside, an unusual mix of mold and mustiness hit our noses causing both of us to wince.  There was only the light from the doorway illuminating the room so we could not see much, but Wise noticed something.

“Are you getting a phone call?” He asked.  I put my hand on my heart, on top of which is where I put my phone but didn’t feel it vibrating.


“No, down there.”  He pointed at the front of my right thigh.  I looked down to see light blinking through the light colored jeans I was wearing.  Something in my pocket was flashing brightly enough to pass through the stretchy denim of my jeans.

With a bit of trepidation I reached into my front right pants pocket, felt past my keys, wondering what the hell could have been so bright.  Then I found it–or found it again–that weird little “worry stone” looking thing that I’d found when I went back home for Dad’s funeral.  It was flashing slowly as I pulled it out of my pocket.  It was giving off so much light, it actually allowed us to see the room around us.  It was Julio’s old living room.  Not quite as I remembered it, but close enough.  Some of the furniture was different but what of it was there was dirty and falling apart (literally).  It also looked like there was some water damage to the place.  That explained the moldy smell.

As I held the worry stone object up to see more of the room, I noticed that it began to flash a bit faster.  Instinctively, I moved toward the back of the room, toward’s a doorway I found myself remembering from all those years ago.  As I came closer and closer to it, the worry stone flashed faster and faster.  As I reached the door it stopped flashing and took on this soft warm, yellow glow that sort of throbbed, almost like a heartbeat.  I saw, coming from underneath the door, a similar, soft yellow, throbbing glow.  I opened the door and saw a massive silhouette of a tangle of metal objects. In the middle of it all was an object, placed in a position that almost made it seem like it was placed there for us, or maybe me, to find it.

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180107

Just standing outside Julio’s door again, had me flooded with so many memories.  I raced over to the same double doors we’d gone through all those years ago and…

…they did not budge.

That’s when I heard his voice again.  “Are you sure you don’t know where Julio is?  Because it seems like you might.”

I took a deep breath and let it escape me.  I turned and saw him standing about in front of Julio’s apartment door.  “Remember me?  My name is Wise.”

“Yeah, I remember you.”  It hadn’t been more than fifteen or twenty minutes since he wandered off.

“I had an idea that you knew where he had been years ago, but I wasn’t sure.”

“I thought you lived in this building.”

“Uh, yeah.”

“So, why don’t you go through the front door?”

“Because Julio’s apartment used to be down here,” I said without thinking.  He looked over at the door marked “B1-a.”

“This is Julio’s apartment?”

“Was.  The city banned basement apartments years ago.  No one’s supposed to be living there now.”

“So, what are you doing at that door over there, again?”

“I was hoping to get inside the same way my sister and I had when we were kids, didn’t you see my flashback just now?” was NOT what I said to him.  Instead I said: “I was just checking around to see if maybe the door from his apartment to his living room was unlocked.  It’s probably just a big storage room now.  His apartment.”

Wise eyed me and smiled.  I think I can get us into his old apartment.  Come on,” he said, moving to the doors under “B1-a.”

Instinctively, I approached him as he fiddled with one of the knobs to the double doors of Julio’s old apartment.  Before I could even reach him, the doors opened.

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180106

He grabbed us both by hands and dragged us back to our apartment.  It had to be close to two in the morning by then.  That didn’t stop Julio from pounding on the door hard.  When Dad answered he had such confusion and anger on his face.

“I found them down in the laundry room after it was locked.  I thought I should make sure they got home safe.”  Julio lied, but why?  He also spoke in a way that seemed warm and friendly.  Dad seemed to like him.  To this day, I have no idea why.  Eventually, Julio became a trusted person by our parents.  So, when he offered us jobs helping him in his junk dealing business, and to our amazement, Mom and Dad agreed to let us work for him.  

In that job, we learned a lot about running a basic business.  Setting up meetings, showing people around our mini-warehouse, accepting money from customers, and even general book keeping.  And Jill?  Jill was hooked on the junk.  She’d always ask about what all this stuff was. He told us, but we’d never heard of the stuff before or after that job.  I can’t even tell you what one of those pieces of junk were called.  I mean, it was twelve years ago.  But that junk got Jill interested in technology.  Not just computers, cars, too.  When she got older she started teaching herself about car engines and learning about the software that controlled modern cars.  She said she got started with an online video.  Eventually, she went to college after getting a scholarship.  She didn’t finish because she started getting job offers halfway through.  She took one with a government contractor and shortly after that, stopped replying to our emails.  It’s been over five years since we’ve seen or heard from her.  She missed Dad’s funeral completely.  She missed Mom’s sixtieth birthday completely.  She missed my college graduation (I also got a scholarship) and every Christmas since 2005, I think.

Now that I think about it, it was that job working for Uncle Julio that eventually drove her away from us.
I wish I knew where she was.  I wish I knew that she was OK.  She must be OK.


FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180105

She pointed to a door in that wall.  “I’ve seen him come through that door with his laundry.”
I rushed to the knob and tried to turn it.  It did, but only slightly.  Jill pushed me out of the way and tried the knob herself but with the same results. I looked over at the trash cans at the far side of the laundry room.  Jill saw them, too.  “Jacob–go check those trash cans for anything we can use to open this door–something flat and hard like a credit card.  This knob barely has a lock in it at all.  I ran over to the trash cans and started flipping their lids back.  I smelled some nasty-ass rotting food in one can and decided to move on to the next can.  I found a pile of paper trash that looked like it was mostly junk mail.  I dug through it and found one of those prepaid cash cards.  I took it and ran back to Jill.

“Awesome!  Perfect!” she said, taking it from me and sliding it in between the doorframe and the door knob thing. In seconds we were inside Julio’s apartment.  We found the light switch next to an open doorway, flipped it, and discovered we were surrounded by shelves of really weird looking stuff.  Some of it looked like computer parts, while other stuff looked like it might have been engine parts.  And honestly, some of it, didn’t look anything like anything I’d seen before.  I should also add that none of it looked entirely recognizable.  All of it just sort of looked familiar.  

Jill was fascinated with it, and I guess, because she was, so was I.  I remember her staring at several pieces intently trying to work out what they were for.  Honestly, now that I think about it, my memories of the items on Julio’s shelves is a little foggy.

After, what didn’t feel like that much time, we heard Julio’s front door open and I felt my whole body go cold.  Jill’s face looked tense as she shoved me back toward the door that opened into the laundry room.  

“HEY!” we heard a voice yell.  We froze and looked toward that open doorway.  Julio stood there looking shocked, quickly putting his hands behind his back. 

“Kids?” he muttered.

“Let me do the talking,” Jill whispered to me.  I did as she said and said nothing.  “Sir, I am so so sorry about this–we were just–“

“Just… what?”  His face had gone from shocked to a kind of concerned suspiciousness.
Jill hesitated.  “Honestly?”


Jill took a big breath and just started speaking.  “Our parents, well, our parents don’t really get along and we like to sneak out of the apartment to escape all that and well we had been seeing your friends coming and going and bringing some weird stuff in and out and they come and go at all hours and sometimes we’d see some of the stuff they’re taking out and think, ‘hey that stuff looks cool!’ and tonight we decided we wanted to check it out.  I mean, we could have done something worse like go get into drugs or gangs but we just thought your stuff was cool.”

It was the most awkward minute of my life to that point.  I wanted her to shut up about a quarter of the way into that mess, but Jill seemed to not want to ever finish talking until she did.  I looked up at Julio, who was a fit guy, maybe in his late twenties, early thirties, with long hair and a love of denim.  His face had now taken on a look of, well, warmth.  “Alright you two, take me to your parents.”

My heart sank.  We’d spend all of our time with our parents trying to avoid getting them upset again and this guy was going to tell on us.

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180104

I remember reading somewhere how New York City used to allow people to live in basement apartments but that, at some point, somebody decided it was kind of cruel to let people live in New York City basement apartments so they passed a law stopping landlords from doing it.  But somehow Uncle Julio convinced the super of our building to let him run his business out of one of those old apartments that was supposed to be converted for storage use only.  Not only was Julio running his unlicensed business out of an illegal basement apartment, but he was living there, too–which meant he was living in an illegal apartment.  This is a long way of saying that he was a guy who had to be careful who he answered his door for.  I remember he told us once how he had “convinced” the super but never told us how he did it when we asked.  He must have had something big on that guy.

The convenient thing about basement apartments was that lots of times they have a door to street level–sometimes also a back door to the alley behind the building.  That was the case with Julio’s place.  As I moved down the sidewalk, around the corner, down a gentle slope, and around the next corner again into the alley, I had a sudden memory pop into my head–there were more than a few times when Julio had gotten mad at us.  The first time, of course, was when we broke into his apartment to see what all those weird people were taking in and out of his place at all hours.  Our apartment overlooked that alley and so our fire escape was a perfect vantage point to see everyone who came and went.

We had gotten curious and, very late one night, we climbed down from our little sanctuary.  I guess we just stayed out there after a fight between mom and dad ran so long, Mom had stormed off to bed and left dad asleep on the couch.  Neither of us wanted to go back in and risk waking him.  That’s when we got bored.  I think Julio was way too trusting of his neighbors.  Or at least us. 

Once we were down to the floor of the alley, we saw the number over the double-doors to his apartment–it was B-1a.  The door was about sixty feet in from the street.  We had seen trucks back in and men of weird shapes and sizes cart things out of there.  Jill tried the door knobs.  Both were locked.  

“C’mon!  We’ll try through the laundry room,” Jill said, leading the way to the other double-doors on the backside of our building.  I followed dutifully.  She always did have something commanding buried deep in her voice.

She turned the knobs of the other double-doors and gently opened them but only far enough to allow us to get inside.

“Shouldn’t these doors be locked, too?” I asked.

“Yep,” she replied flatly.

I decided that was the only answer I would get from her and continued to follow her past a row of card-operated laundry machines, to a wall that Jill said was one of the walls of Julio’s place–though we didn’t know his name was Julio, yet. 

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180103

“You’re looking a little lost, kid.”  I looked up from my confusing trip down memory labyrinth, recognizing the voice as awfully young sounding for someone calling me “kid.”  The face I saw looked about my age–late twenties.  He was a white guy, though.  I guessed my old Washington Heights neighborhood had become the latest front in the gentrification wars. 

“No, I’m not lost–I live here,” I said without thinking.  How would he know where I lived?

“Ah, great–I’m actually looking for someone who lives around here,” he said.  The guy wore khaki pants and a blue button down shirt with some kind of boring brown coat over it.  Damn he was a bland white dude.

“OK?” I said, eyeing him suspiciously.
“You know a Julio Velasquez?” Did he know Uncle Julio?
“Who are you?” I asked, not wanting to give away too much information.

“My name is Wise and a friend gave me is card.  Told me that I should look him up the next time I was on–” he hesitated, “–Manhattan.”

He handed me a business card with a bent corner and banged up edges.  I recognized it immediately as one that Julio gave to customers.  It simply had his name and the word “consignments.”

I remember when Jill and I were working with him, it was the first time I’d seen the word and had to look it up on the family computer.  It made what Uncle Julio did sound much more impressive than I remember it being.

“Yeah, he used to live around here.”

“Yeah, I know. I already went to the address and apartment number on the back of the card, 
but he doesn’t live there currently.”

I looked at the back of the card, and saw the address of my building and his old apartment number, which was in the basement.  So, I guess Uncle Julio had moved away, or at least out.  “I haven’t seen him in years.  No idea where he lives now.”

“Oh, that’s a shame.  I think he has something of value to me,” Wise said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a little personal.  Let me give you my card.  Reach out if you happen to get back in touch with him or know where I might look for him.  It’s very important that I get in touch.”
I handed Julio’s card back to him and he handed me his own card.  “Sure.  If I do either of those things, I’ll contact you.”

“Thanks,” he said moving off, down the street.

I thought about what he had said, the fact that Julio had moved on, and that this Wise guy said Julio had something of value to him.  I thought about all of that old junk again and wondered if that Wise was looking for some of that.

I decided to check out Julio’s old apartment for myself.

FIRE ESCAPE Chapter 1 20180102

I don’t know what made me think of it.  Maybe it was that weird thing I found when I was home for Dad’s funeral.  Maybe it was that random day trip I took back into the city last month.  Either way, I found myself having weird flashes of memory.  I don’t really mean “flash”, what I experience is more like a instinct with details.  Not with any useful details, of course.  Just images from the camera that is my eyes.  A camera that took photos that are now fuzzy, covered it specks and scratches that barely allow me to make out what they depicted anymore.  A city sidewalk, an alley, a big metal door, and a glimpse of my sister’s leg and foot dangling over the edge of a… fire escape.

The images weren’t constantly distracting me from my work.  They were more haunting me.  They’d sneak into my mind when I least expected it.  I’d be in a meeting and someone would say a word and suddenly I’d find myself thinking about a time I heard that word around one of those images.
When I would think about these memories and trigger words, I’d find myself fiddling with that weird thing I stumbled across when I was home last spring.  It was this object that was a dark, cloudy blue color that physically resembled a cross between a bar of soap and one of my mom’s old worry stones.  A worry stone is a flat, oblong disc made of some kind of polished stone.  They have a kind of indentation in them for your thumb to rub when you are nervous, concerned or just worrying about something.  It’s funny.  Mom would always tell me that we shouldn’t worry whenever things would get scary.  Things got scary a lot when we were kids.  Mom and Dad would fight a lot.  Whenever we’d move to a new place, one of the first things Jill and I would do was explore.  Dad would always tell us not to, but we knew we had to find the best hiding places for when they’d start yelling at each other.

We lived in the city for a couple years when we were teenagers.  I was 12 and Jill was 16.  We found a few good hiding places in the building we lived in but the place we settled on was our apartment’s fire escape.  Is that what I was remembering?  It must have been.
The fire escape didn’t afford us much secrecy.  I mean, Mom and Dad could always just look out the window and see us, but somehow, it was enough insulation from them for us to feel OK about life.  We could felt high up, we could see a ways down either direction of the alley behind our building and it was quiet.  

When we’d finally come back in, it would be quiet, too.  But I knew that’s because the volcanoes were done erupting and the lava was still hot.  And Mom had her worry stone that she was rubbing like crazy.

Then there was Uncle Julio.  He wasn’t our real uncle, but he treated us like he was. He was another kind of escape for us.  I remember how he had hired us to help him with his junk business.  

What was that junk, anyway?  It was weird junk.  Bits and pieces of things that were clearly meant to fit together with other bits and pieces of things but I had no idea what.  He had a little kind of shop in the basement of our apartment building.

I wonder what ever happened to that guy…

We moved away before I got to middle school and before Jill finished high school.  That whole part of my life seems like those fuzzy memory photos now.  Something was pulling me to those old memories.  I couldn’t seem to make them any less fuzzy just by thinking about them.  It was like, I’d lost my way inside my mind and couldn’t find my way back in time.  

That’s why I decided to find my way back to that old neighborhood.  I had the feeling that it would bring back plenty of old memories.  I hoped they would help pull some of those old memory photos into better focus…

So, I took the day off from work and headed back into the city.  As I look back on that trip, I don’t remember much of the getting there, but boy do I remember seeing that old building for the first time in over a decade. All six stories of it’s pre-war glory.  All kinds of images flooded my mind.  I remembered my father teaching me how to ride a bike and then yelling at me for not scrubbing the bathroom faucets clean enough.  I remember my mother, doting over us as we went off to our new schools for the first time and then yelling at us for getting bad grades.  I remembered Uncle Julio and his junk and some of his customers.
I remembered Jill, getting out of bed one night and climbing out to and up the fire escape.  Where did she go?  Was she following someone up there?  Why didn’t I follow her?  Or did I follow her?

I suddenly found myself obsessing over an entirely new set of memories…

MOMENTA Prelude 20180101

Jenny Ellsworth was 32 years old when she found that spot.  It was a spot damn near in the middle of the country.  Some seemingly random place in Kansas.  The land was owned by a farming family.  The year had to be, oh, 1941 or so.  I remember she stuck her cane in the middle of a corn field as though she were breaking ground.  
“Ellie, I think somebody owns this land,” I said.
“That may be, but that’s gonna change.”
She had a youthful sort of tone to the way she spoke.  Despite her older age, she would fall back onto almost flirty ways of a young girl trying to impress a boy.  Only when she spoke that day, and because I knew her pretty well by then, I knew the only boy she was trying to impress was herself.  
I guess you could say I had a crush on her back then.  She was so smart and so pretty, but she never had time for any man.  But being around her was electric.  It was better than electric, it was… inspirational!  
Back at the DARPA, we had rubbed elbows with some of the most brilliant scientists of the time and she was smarter than all of them.  
“But Ellie, what do you mean that’s gonna change,” I said, imitating her.  
“I’m gonna buy the land,” she said.
“You are?”
“You have no inkling of the egg I am sitting on.”
“The nest egg, you mean?”  She had been hinting that she has sold patents to some of her ideas to the government.  I supposed she actually made some decent money.
“Yes, that.  Nest egg.”
“Well, Mother Hen, what do you have in mind?”
The sky was blue, the air was crisp and cool, that late afternoon in early June.  
“The world is changing this century, Ned,” she told me, “…and by the end of it, we’re going to drive that change.”
She had fire in her eyes and that made me feel fire in my soul.  That made me feel like I’d do anything for her.  The one thing that worried me, of course I was willing to do anything for her, but not everyone was.  Would the other scientists on our team be willing to let her lead them?  They were brilliant, but would they be smart enough to recognize her brilliance above their own?
Time would answer that question.

©2018 Pete Nicholls /

Writing update: I actually wrote some fiction (and some other stuff)

So, I’m nearly through with the very first post for my “Saving Hollywood” blog. I’m psyched about that. What I’m more psyched about is that I actually just wrote about 1200 words in a new/old project that I’ve been wrestling with for years.

I think my main problem with it was that I couldn’t find characters interesting enough to make the story go. I’m not entirely sure I’ve done that yet, but I know my new lead is much more interesting to me than the last one. I have a feeling it may also be about structure. I love first person, probably too much. This story may need a third-person structure, but I want to give first-person one last try.

There’s just something about a first-person story that I prefer. When you’re reading one, it’s like you meet a new person without having to do the work. Plus, you can generally trust that person to not lie to you. There’s a lot of stability with a first-person perspective for the reader and also for the writer. As a writer, I get to climb into just one person’s head and interpret the fictional life around them instead of having to do that for every character who ever holds the perspective of a scene in an entire novel. Sure, I have to come up with realistic voices and motivations for other characters, too, but living inside of more than one character is hard work!

Plus, it guarantees I’ll get through the project. If I have one person “in charge” I can follow that person through until the end. No other character is going to derail things by going off in some other distracting corner of the story universe.

Aaanyway, I should wrap this up. It’s a Saturday night/Sunday morning as I type this and want to sneak in a movie before bed. I hadn’t planned to write any fiction tonight, but did. Which is a welcome thing. Writing fiction is my favorite thing in the world to do.