Chapter One: Acquisitions
Gil Sanders raised his auction paddle and arched his eyebrows. The auctioneer quickly spotted him, indicating as much with an enthusiastic pair of finger guns, and exclaimed, “I’ve got $60 for the broiler! $60! Can I get $75 for the broiler?”
The auctioneer continued in this manner at a pace one would normally ascribe to auctioneers, darting his pointed hands over the group of attendees in the warehouse.
Gil turned to face his friend, Daryl—an overweight man in his mid-thirties, who wore a baseball cap seemingly glued to the top of his head. Grey stubble was slowly conquering his otherwise-black beard, which clung to a face aged by stress.
“Daryl, you should really think about bidding on something,” Gil said.
Daryl grimaced. “Bid on what?” he asked, spreading out his arms. “What’s here for me?”
“Bid on w—?“ Gil stammered and shook his head, “It’s a restaurant auction, Daryl. Literally anything. Think about bidding on the next thing they cart out here.”
Daryl shook his head and chuckled nervously, “Yeah, no thanks, pal. Look, I’m down to hang out, but these places give me the creeps.”
Gil raised his paddle again. It caught the attention of the auctioneer, who acknowledged him with another pair of finger guns before continuing his chant. Gil then continued as if there hadn’t been a break in the conversation. “Come on, don’t be dramatic. What’s so awful about this? The restaurant goes out of business, and then they sell their stuff. I can’t even tell you how much awesome stuff I’ve walked away with from these things.”
“Yeah, I know, Gil,” Daryl admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’ve been to your house, man. Many times. It’s like a graveyard for failed businesses in there.”
“You’re so dramatic tonight! Look, I’m just saying I know things are getting rough. I heard about the gas range, and—“
“Sold! The broiler goes to Number 126 for $225!”
Gil looked at his auction paddle, which read 207. “Dammit, Daryl! I lost that one.”
Daryl shoved his hands into his faded cargo shorts. He stared at Gil and responded sardonically, “Sorry, not sorry, Gil. What is that—one out of a dozen so far? I’m already not sure if you’re gonna have enough room to sit in the driver’s seat.”
Gil scoffed, shook his head, and looked to the front of the warehouse. “I guess I can let that one go,” he allowed.
Several attendants rolled out a lightly-used industrial gas range on dollies and parked it next to the auctioneer, who looked up and launched straight back into the bidding process.
With a coy smile, Gil exclaimed, “Finally! Daryl, I know you need this—you know it too! Come on, man, make a bid.”
Daryl grimaced again. “Ugh, you knew this was going to be a part of the auction, didn’t you? Did you really drag me all the way down here for this? No, I can fix the one I got. I don’t want that range anyway—I recognize it, Gil.” Daryl pointed to a forlorn man in the far corner of the warehouse. “Hell, I recognize its soon-to-be previous owner over there. His little bakery was in the same strip mall as my restaurant. You should know that, Gil—you kicked him out.”
Gil considered this. True, as a commercial landlord, he’d had the ugly job of kicking the bakery owner out, but this had been a long time coming. The guy just couldn’t get his act together; he’d sunk every last penny into getting the bakery set up, but when it finally opened, he didn’t have an established customer base. And because he didn’t have enough cash in savings to cover the rent during this slow period, he was doomed from the start.
Frowning, Gil shook his head and stared at Daryl with arms akimbo. “Don’t do that—don’t you demonize me. Daryl, the guy hadn’t paid his rent in six months. I had to evict him and you know it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Daryl responded, waving his hand impatiently. “It just feels weird that you’re here now, snatching up pieces of the guy’s broken dreams.”
“Sold! The range goes to Number 326 for $700!”
Gil stared wide-eyed at his friend, momentarily ignoring the auctioneer’s proclamation. “That’s cute. Very poetic—are you sure you’re in the right line of work?” Gil jeered, but noticed a hint of genuine despondency in his friend’s eyes. “Well, it’s too late now… let’s get outta here.”
Daryl nodded, and the two of them left together.
In the parking lot—they’d been able to park next to each other—Gil slammed the back gate of his pickup closed and peered into the flatbed. Three large chalkboards, two cocktail tables, a toaster oven, an outdoor heating lamp, and a bundle of aprons met his eyes.
He pursed his lips and blew a raspberry. “I should have brought more rope. I’m probably going to avoid the freeway. You know, the aprons could just sit up front with me and…” he trailed off, noticing the still-sullen look on his friend’s face.
“Hey, look, I’m sorry I brought you out here. I didn’t mean to bum you out—I was just trying to help.”
Daryl, who had been lost in thought, snapped out of it. “Nah, it’s okay, man. Truth is, I don’t even have—what was the winning bid? $700? I just don’t have it. This weekend’s gonna be all about me getting my hands dirty fixing that piece of crap. My wife’s gonna help too—she’ll be working the play button on a ton of online tutorials.
“Thanks for thinking of me and all, but this place is still a little too rich for my blood… and it’s kinda depressing.”
Gil chuckled. “Well, maybe to restaurant owners, but—”
Daryl held both of his hands out as if he were about to pick up a large box. “But I’m a restaurant owner.” As he said this, he took his hands inward and pointed them to his chest. “And I’m your tenant. You’re my landlord, Gil. I mean, Jesus, you—you sound like a sociopath. Is this supposed to be a vision of the future? How long until you’re out here buying my old equipment?”
Gil looked puzzled. “Are you worried I’m not going to renew your lease? Daryl, as long as you pay your rent—”
Daryl interrupted again, which visibly peeved Gil. “See, that’s the thing. The rent’s not the problem… yet. But who’s moving in next door, huh? A fast food restaurant? Because, if so, I got news for you pal: I’m not gonna be able to cut the mustard. My margins are already so low that even discounts aren’t in the cards for me. If some chain moves in there and starts offering six hamburgers for a dollar, I’m finished.”
Gil hadn’t considered this. It would be nice to put a chain restaurant in there—they’d probably pay their damn rent—but Daryl was right; it would likely just put his friend out of business.
His mouth worked for a bit, then he responded, “I just want someone who will pay the bills on time, Daryl. That could be a music store, an accounting firm, or even an antique shop; it doesn’t matter.” Putting his arm around his friend, he donned a wry smile and added, “Besides, why would I give one deadbeat the boot just to create another?”
Daryl didn’t laugh, but he did seem reassured. “Very funny.”
Gil sighed. “Look. Truly, man, I’m sorry. I know what this place is and what it probably means to you, and I’m sorry for making light of it. I shouldn’t be cracking jokes right now. It’s just… Linda mentioned to me yesterday your gas range had gone belly up, and I knew this guy was going to be out here to auction off his stuff to try and recoup some losses. I wasn’t scoping him out, though—he told me he was gonna be here tonight. I mean, he probably knew I’d wanna buy up some of his gear. And I guess I thought it would be a quick fix for you.”
“It’s okay, Gil. Maybe I’m a little touchy. It was just scary is all, seeing someone get evicted. We’re good. But I better get going.”
Gil nodded. “Yeah. I’ll see you Monday.” They shook hands, got in their respective cars, and drove to their respective homes.
Gil pulled into his garage and walked inside—he decided he’d unload the truck later. As he set his wallet, keys, and smartphone on a side table and turned on the lights, he scanned his surroundings and admitted to himself with some reluctance that Daryl had been right: his house did resemble a sort of hunting lodge, and the game was indeed failed startups.
But it’s not like he put them all out of business; in fact, the bakery owner had the honor of being the only person he’d ever had to evict from the small strip mall he owned. Gil just… had a knack for keeping an eye on local businesses with going-out-of-business signs.
There was a tax preparation company a few miles away that always rented the same space from January to May. By June, they’d be hauling all the furniture off to the dumpster, and there would be Gil.
And when the fifth sushi restaurant on the edge of town went out of business due to lack of patronage, Gil saw deals in his eyes when a sixth sushi joint took its place. One could say it was something of a thrill for him.
He walked into his kitchen, outfitted with various bits of industrial cooking gear, and slumped his shoulders. Having all this stuff had gradually inspired him into quite a capable cook, but he just wasn’t feeling it tonight; he’d struck out pretty bad trying to help a friend fix a rather serious issue.
He briefly thought about the pork that’d been marinating all day in his fridge, but ultimately marched to the pantry where he pulled out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.
Striding into his eclectic living room a few moments later with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk, he flopped onto the couch that used to sit in the waiting room of a barber shop.
Folding his sandwich into something that resembled a taco, he took a gigantic bite as he turned on a flat screen TV that at one time hung in the lobby of a sports bar. A rerun of an old sitcom flickered onto the screen, and it was boring, but there wasn’t really anything else on at this hour.
After finishing his sandwich and drinking most of his glass of milk, he finally started to doze off just as the family on TV began neatly wrapping up and resolving whatever ridiculous issue they’d been presented with thirty minutes prior. But with the last bit of consciousness fading away, Gil snapped back awake and touched his forehead. Garbage night, he remembered.
He had to walk across the street and peek at his neighbor’s cans to remind himself whether it was recycling or green waste that would be picked up the next day, and then rolled his cans down to the street. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a neighbor about five doors down who was out for a late-night walk. Gil waved to him, and the neighbor lifted his hand to wave back before suddenly leaping into the air to an astounding height—something like twenty feet. He hovered there for a moment, eyes so wide Gil could see the whites, and then came screaming back down to the sidewalk.
Gil was stunned for a moment, but seeing the man groan and writhe in agony snapped him out of it. He started towards his neighbor at a jog. En route, a parked car between the two men reared up on its hind wheels, stood for just a moment, and then unceremoniously tipped over onto its hood. Its alarm began blaring as shattered glass spilled into the street. Face curled in confusion—he’d lost his nerve—Gil skidded to a halt and sprinted back towards his house.
As he ran past the home of his next-door neighbor, bark nuggets from the front yard rose up towards the sky. Many of them lazily slapped Gil’s face as he ran through them, and then they abruptly fell to the ground. Passing the garbage cans he’d just rolled down to the street, he saw one lift slightly and slam into the other, knocking them both over and regurgitating their contents.
He made a dash up his front lawn; however, gradually coming to a stop during a full sprint, Gil looked down in a panic and discovered that his shoes no longer touched the ground. He flew to a height of nearly fifty feet, and then freefell back towards the lawn.
Screaming, and mere inches from the ground, he was jerked back up into the air at an angle, hitting the back of his head on an illuminated street lamp. As the glass of the street lamp shattered, covering his front yard in a blanket of darkness, the lights in Gil’s head went out as well.
Gil coughed. He lay on his side now with vomit pooled in his cheek like a ladle. His lips curled back from his teeth, and he groaned. The vomit started to slide out, and he puckered and spat to hurry it along into the small puddle in front of his face. He could feel a warmth behind him—something near his back that was now reaching uncomfortably-high temperatures, which was in stark contrast to the freezing cold he felt over the rest of his body. His arms and legs broke out in goose bumps. He started to open his eyes, but his lids slammed shut—the overwhelming brightness was too much for his unadjusted pupils.
Where the hell am I? he wondered. He tried to retrace his steps through the night, but couldn’t recall where he was or how he got there. The last thing he remembered was dozing off on his couch. Am I dreaming?
He pointed his face at the cold, hard floor. Shivering—it was like lying on the floor of a walk-in refrigerator—he slit one eye enough to let some of the painful light in. Underneath the smear of his partially-digested sandwich, he was able to determine he was lying on bare metal. The dark grey surface had the dull sheen of a piece of Barro Negro pottery—meticulously polished so it was smooth to the touch, and shiny enough to produce a blurry reflection. Gil’s breath was visible, and it fogged a portion of the metal he was staring at.
Slowly and stiffly, Gil picked himself up until he stood on his hands and knees. Eyes gradually adjusting to the bright light, he touched his chin to his chest and looked down the length of his body. He must have rolled the back of his head in his vomit, because it now ran up his downturned head.
He was still dressed in his faded black t-shirt with dark blue jeans and sneakers. The t-shirt displayed a Hard Rock Cafe logo with Sacramento printed underneath in capital letters. He could see a small hole had been torn near the shirt’s logo, but he didn’t mind—he had a whole box of these shirts at home. Beyond his feet, Gil saw the source of the warmth that was on his back a moment ago: a rapidly-spinning disc, maybe five feet in diameter, an inch thick, and glowing bright orange. It hovered a little ways off the ground, emitting a low and steady hum.
Beyond the spinning disc, panels consisting of the same dark material underneath Gil extended outward and slightly upward until reaching a wall. Looking side-to-side, Gil was able to determine that he was sitting just outside the center of a large, circular room. The spinning disc must have been the exact center. The ground below it seemed to dip lower than the rest of the room—almost imperceptible, the ground seemed to be just concave enough so that water would pool in the center of the room.
He looked at his shirt again and reread the several words that decorated it. I think I heard somewhere that you can’t read while dreaming, he thought, so that’s ruled out. So where am I? At last, Gil lifted his head and looked in front of him, locking eyes in an instant with one of the four figures at the end of the room.
Then, Gil urinated. And indeed, it did run to the center.