Urban Explorers

    “The rules are simple. Don’t destroy anything, don’t go off alone, and never bring attention to yourself. We’re explorers not vandals.” Scar addressed the group surrounding him. Today was Sara’s first expedition. She finally gained their trust after countless hours of questioning and tests. They even had her undergo many hours of grueling physical training. The job of an urban explorer was not an easy one. The fact that she was was a great photographer helped her out tremendously, with Scar instantly falling in love with her portfolio of photos and the fancy camera equipment that she carried around everywhere. Tonight she was the one with the most baggage to carry, in addition to her photography duffle bag she carried a backpack.

    Scar had sent her a long email a week before with a list of things she should bring with her. The bag had almost anything an archaeologist would require and then some. She carried a battery operated flashlight, extra batteries, a water bottle, an empty plastic container in case she needed to relieve her self during the exploration, a small pocket knife, duct tape, a walkie talkie and a whistle among other knickknacks. She also managed to lug along a tripod just incase she needed to frame hard to execute shots. She already felt the strain in her back and arms and they still haven’t left the meeting point. 

    They met in an empty parking lot a couple of blocks away from their destination. Scar made sure that Sara did not tell anyone of her whereabouts and asked her to leave a letter with someone she trusts for them to open in case she did not come back within twenty four hours. He had warned her that what they do is not necessarily legal, and should anyone find out where they’re heading they would be in a lot of unnecessary trouble. He also insured her that everyone in their group has a life other than this, they have families and secure jobs that require their presence the day after. In fact Scar is a university professor, his name is not actually Scar but everyone called him that due to the long Scar running up his right leg. Everyone in the group had a nickname, further insuring their privacy and protection, for the remainder of the night Sara would be known as Freckles. 

    “Our site today is truly unique, its a large compound smack in the middle of the city. It has existed for so long, standing in the background that everyone has gotten used to seeing. Looming behind every glitzy skyscraper. Appearing in every photograph taken of the city.” Scar addressed the group, he had a loud and authoritative voice instantly demanding attention. The group for the night consisted of him, Sara and two other men whom she hadn’t been introduced to yet. 

    “The building was built in the late seventies as a way for the government to meet the high demand for residential units. They commissioned to build thirty four multi-story apartment buildings in the middle of the city. Promoting it as a new way of living for young families. With the catchy slogan of ‘Live five minutes away from work and ten minutes away from the busiest market in the country’. It sure was an attractive proposal. It was a nice place to live in for the first couple of years, but things went downhill short after. Like most overcalled projects like this one, it was not built to human scale and people shortly felt alienated. People moved out into bigger homes down in the suburbs and rented out their apartments for other families.” Scar returned his attention to Sara the first time tonight.

    “Oh… I’m terribly sorry! We have a new member with us tonight. A truly talented photographer. Jam, Butter. Meet Freckles.” 

   “Hello.” Sara nodded bashfully, almost falling under the weight of all the bags she was carrying. 

    “Hey… I’m Butter.” The heftier man shook Sara’s hands first, taking one of the bags off her back. 

    “I’m Jam.” a thin almost sick looking redheaded man waved from where he’s standing. 

    “Anyways. I’m sure you all have seen the buildings we’re heading into today. They’re a unique case though. Unlike our other sites this one is still partially occupied, people live in most of the buildings in the outskirts of the development. It is the ones in the middle that are abandoned. I have a blueprint of the development here with me.” Scar took out a large rolled up paper and unrolled it on the pavement. We all knelt down observing the blueprint. The buildings were laid out in four alternating lines, they were eighteen in total, three rows had four buildings while the last had six. 

    “Today we’ll be heading into buildings ten and eleven,” Scar circled the two buildings with a red sharpie, “I think we need to go in pairs as to not attract attention to ourselves, please be extra careful today. Like I told you, the other buildings are still semi-occupied by people. No need for any unnecessary hubbub.” 

    “Sounds like a plan. Shall we bounce?” Jam was already up on his feet ready to begin. 

    “Sure. Freckles and I will go first, follow us in five minutes. We’re here now so just follow this line” Scar drew the line they should be taking, not a very long one. Not wasting anytime, they wore their helmets making sure the lights weren't on as of yet and they made their way to building ten. None of the towers looked inhabited, Sara found it hard to believe that people still live in them. Even the blocks that stood at front were in such a state of decay, with paint chipping off the concrete walls. Some of the round arched balconies were completely falling apart, with the concrete arch breaking and exposing rusted rebars beneath it. And these were the buildings with people living in them. Once they passed two rows of buildings they reached the row where buildings ten and eleven stood. 

    Half of building ten was charr black. Exactly half of the tower was burnt and the structure stood bare. The fire must have spread throughout the building stopping at the stairwell cutting each building into two symmetrical blocks. 

    “A fire broke in one of the apartments about seven years ago late at night, no one noticed it until it was too late. Ten people died that day, really tragic.” Scar turned on the light on his helmet shining a spot of light ahead of them, Sara did the same. 

    “Why is it still like that? Why not fix it?” Sara asked, not understanding how a building in such a state still stood right in the middle of downtown. It’s just unfathomable. 

    “Damn… This thing is barbecued.” Butter looked up, the cone of light scanning the burnt building. “Are you sure its safe?” 

    “Yes… The structure is intact, only the furniture and windows were damaged in the fire. The concrete structure is still sound.” Scar scouted the surroundings, they were the only people standing. Between each row of buildings were small linear parks with some trees and concrete benches. The park they stood in was unkempt, weeds were growing out between the pavement and graffiti covered every flat surface around them. All the towers stood on columns, opening up the ground floor for parking spots and passage ways. A dozen or so cars were still parked under the buildings, tires flat and some of the windows broken in. One car was burnt to a crisp, its entire body distorted like a rotten tomato. 

    “We climb up via the stairs, they should be fire rated so I don’t expect any damage to have reached them from the fire. Some of the apartments on the other half should remain intact, people left them for summer holidays expecting to come back and carry on with their lives like normal.” Scar lead the way again heading towards the stairs, Sara and the two men followed. A pungent smell filled Sara’s nostrils as soon as they entered the stairway, the smell of rotten food mixed with dust. She gaged, trying as hard as she could to keep her lunch in her stomach. 

    “The smells are always awful,” Jam was climbing up the stairs behind her, “Sadly you’ll get used to it over time.” 

    The stairwell extended above them endlessly, the concrete steps turning around blind corners. The walls were painted a pale yellow, barely any of the original paint remained most of it was chipped off or spray painted with some uninspiring graffiti. 

    They finally reached the first level landing, two doors stood one on each side, the door on the left was warped. Scar tried pushing the door open, the wood has distorted so much that it was wedged in place gripping to the door frame. 

    “The heat from the fire must have distorted the door,” Sara pointed out the smoke prints around the door edges, “this must be a fire rated door.” The door on the right hand was open, exposing a long corridor ahead of them. A sole window stood at the end of it, allowing a faint glow from the moon into it. Sara took out her camera and took a couple of pictures of this view, both Jar and Butter appeared in frame with their backs turned towards the camera disguising their faces. This was another of Scar’s rules, any picture she took must not reveal their identities. 

    Sara and Scar followed the two men into the hallway, apartment doors stood on both ends, eight apartments in total. The musty smell of dampness filled their nostrils, mixed with burnt wood every time the wind blew through the cracked windows. There was barely any sound other than their footsteps. The main corridor was carpeted causing small clouds of dust momentarily materializing with every step they took. Sara coughed, her eyes burning from all the dust. 

    “Dust is a normal thing in such places, a single sandstorm would fill it up with an olympic pool’s worth of sand. I bet you that half of the lungs of all the people living in this country are filled with sand particles.” Butter was so soft spoken, everything he said came out as a faint murmur.

    “Should we try our luck?” he proclaimed as he turned the first apartment’s door knob, it did not turn, locked.

    “Let me at it,” Jam retrieved a small pin from his pocket and started fiddling with the keyhole. 

    “Jar is our personal lock picker, so handy in such situations. We don’t like breaking doors, so picking locks is our only option.” Scar’s eyes glistened with admiration, he must be proud of his group and their infiltrations. A satisfying click sounded, Jam turning the knob with a grin plastered on his face, the grin quickly turned into a frown. The door was unlocked but only opened an inch or so, something must be blocking it from the inside. 

    “No luck!” Butter was already at the next apartment’s door, this one opened without much resistance he almost fell into the doorway losing balance. 

    “Careful!” Jam ran towards him, yanking him by his left arm and stabilizing him. They peered into the open door. Shortly after Scar and Sara joined in. The door opened into a thin and long hallway ending with a circular window. Four open doorways stood in perfect symmetry at each end. The floor was also carpeted here, Sara has assumed it was peach unable to discern its true color with the thick layer of sand coating it. 

    “All of the apartments in the first five floors have the same layout. A dining and living room on the left next to a kitchen, and two bedrooms on the right sharing a bathroom. The ones on the upper floors have three bedrooms. He led the group into the apartment. The walls stood bare, some parts were discolored where picture frames once were hanging. The first door on the left lead them into a kitchen, the cabinets were still intact with some of the doors hanging loose while others were completely missing. 

    “No appliances?” Sara asked.

    “Who ever lived here must have moved before the fire, maybe after… They did not leave anything worthwhile behind.” Scar answered her, eyes scanning the room. They moved into the dining and living room next, the same carpet in the corridor extended into this room. The space was entirely empty except for a thin mattress next to the window.

    “A mattress? Here?” Jam creeped closer to it, he shone his flashlight on it. “It’s not as dusty as everywhere else… You think someone is sleeping here?”

    “A homeless person or a runaway for sure…” Sara answered.

    The second room had a single piece of furniture in it, a teak dresser stood in the middle. None of the drawers were there, only a wooden frame. Sara crept closer to it, shining her flash light illuminating a couple of profane words carved on the wooden top and a date ‘the seventh of June nineteen eighty nine’. Sara took our her camera and took a couple of pictures of the engraved date and messages. 

    “Come on lets go up, we don’t have all night,” Scar was already out of the apartment, “and made sure you close the door behind you Freckles.” They ascended the stairs, the walls were lined with graffiti until they reached the eighth floor. The burnt part of the building wasn’t as damaged as the levels below. Sara and the two men suddenly crashed into each other. Scar had abruptly stopped at the landing. After a brief pause he went into the burnt part of the building. 

“Smells like barbecue here, who’s hungry?” Jam kicked a loose part of the burnt carpet.

  “The apartments weren’t really damaged by the fire, but everyone in this half of the building moved out after in fear of structural damage.” Scar muffled his mouth with his sleeve, it still smelled like bunt furniture. “The apartments were left as is, it’s like their owners still lived here carrying on with their lives. Ghosts of what was there before.” 

    “It’s like a museum in here. A museum of someone else’s life, this is my favorite part of any infiltration,” Jam’s sheepish smile never left him for the remainder of the time they spent in the apartment, “I always love imagining how people used the buildings before us. How they lived, how they settled in them and how they adapted them to their needs. This is why I started doing this. I was always fascinated with architecture, I studied it and practiced it. But like any product once it’s done and sent out you lose attachment to it. I can’t simply walk into a house I’ve designed and expect people to be okay with me barging into their private lives. I never knew how people used the spaces I gave them. But since I became an Urbex I started understanding human behaviour more.” Jam was really enamored with his surroundings, he kept on talking as the others stepped into the fully furnished living room. The TV was big and bulky, sitting on a wooden stand. The couches oversized and the thin upholstery had already worn out. 

    “I can see how people change the space to fit their needs… Like this for instance,” Jam opened the bedroom window, waking a sleeping pigeon that took off the instant he moved the glass frame. Causing him to yelp, before recomposing himself. “See what they did here… They closed off half of the balcony and turned it into a green house, I bet they grew vegetables or something here. They changed the architecture to make it their own. They even painted the outer walls… So fascinating.” 

    “The building is beautiful, not many people like brutalist architecture. But I love it, I love how unabashed the designs are. So unapologetic, so monolithic so strong.” Jam peered out of the window, from this higher vantage point Sara could see the row of the buildings on the other side much better than below. The semicircular balconies stood intact in the row before them, some of the windows were lit, some had plants while others were dark. She wondered how the view looked like from the other side, waking up to a half burnt building every day. Like a constant reminder of what could happen to them, what is waiting. She took out her camera and took more pictures, one of which was of Jam peering out of the window the buildings behind him glowing like stars. 

    “This is beautiful. I never knew concrete could be so beautiful.” Sara was awestruck by the beauty of this structure, a modern ziggurat of apartments and balconies.  

    “It is… It really is.” Jam answered, his eyes never leaving the window.

    “Alright, lets head to the roof. Two more stories, the view will be even better from there” Scar shouted from the apartment’s door.

    She also did not anticipate a view from the roof of a ten story building would be so breathtaking. She had climbed mountains before, rode elevators to tops of skyscrapers, but something about the view that stood before her was special. The development occupied a large area, the buildings stretching almost endlessly before her. All identical in design and height, but no two looked the same anymore. Each building was different now, some completely abandoned, some were occupied with their residents altering the balconies to fit their needs. Some closed them off completely adding make shift walls and windows that do not fit the rest of the architecture. Before her stood a collage, an unabashed image of what her city truly was. This view wasn’t like the glossy images she saw online of her city, this view was real. Each apartment had a story, each broken balcony once housed a family. Each window, each burnt wall had a distinct voice. 

    “Wow…” She could not say anything more, this was the only thing that came to her. She took out her camera and started taking pictures like a crazed paparazzi, the shutter bursting like gunfire. Scar, Jam and Butter stood back, watching her work in silence. “This place is amazing… Why haven’t I noticed it before.” 

    “We forget things exist, You would be surprised how much we miss just because we get used to things. We got used to having these buildings around us, we forgot about them. It’s like the entire city has forgotten about this block of buildings. Forgetting that people still live here. How can anyone live here is beyond me, It’s so fascinating so…” Scar paused searching for the correct term.

    “Surreal.” Jam filled in.

    “Exactly, so surreal. For such a thing to exist in this time and age. What really fascinates me is the building we’re standing on now, how could such a building remain in ruins like this. Especially with people living right across it, how could such a thing be okay?” 

    No one answered. They all stood in silence watching the building below.

    “I could really get used to this.” Sara thought to herself.