Slow Drift

The lights went out as I turned the engine off, my decrepit 2002 Saturn carefully parked across the street from the shadow that towered overhead next to a dumpster and an overgrown patch of eucalyptus trees. They were probably planted here those 30 years or so ago, with the hope that they would grow alongside the buildings and the project’s ambitions. But now this lot is empty, with only some stray scaffolding sinking into the dirt across from where the car is parked, and the weeds and the eucalyptus trees have overtaken these half-realized landscaping plans, shedding their bark and their toxins onto a concrete who only speaks now through the chill whistling across its tiny canyons. Among this decay, anyone who found my car would likely assume it was abandoned by one of the junkies who lives in the nearby woods. The perks of driving a beat up shitbox.

I grab my bag, a black military surplus assault pack with MOLLE webbing onto which I’ve attached the essentials: A secondary flashlight, a first aid kit, a crowbar, an extra pack of cigs. Safely inside is an N95 mask and an old Canon camera, mini Ka-Bar knife hanging from my hip, MagLite in hand, dew from the ocean breeze already adorning my hair and the black BDUs chosen for such an occasion to hopefully be less visible in the night in the unlikely event that a guard shows up. Officially, these abandoned buildings always have some kind of caretaker who is supposed to be hanging around, keeping watch to make sure the jealously held secrets within an old abandoned housing project are given up to no one besides whichever anonymous real estate development corporation currently owns this wreck in the hopes that one day whatever curse hangs over this plot of land lifts.

But tonight, walking a tightrope across the deserted street between casual night walk and stealthy trespassing, my only interlopers are a single flickering orange streetlight and the moths nearly blocking out what little light escapes from those degraded circuits. On either side the road stretches out into the distance before being lost in the fog and the moonless night.

Approaching the shadow, reasonably sure that I’m alone, I turn on the MagLite with a heavy click and what’s still visible of the address is put in its icy spotlight: 207 ASH. This road is not named anything with “ASH” in it anymore, but the address is otherwise completely worn off. Hanging over the shadow’s entrance, beneath its concrete steps and the weeds which have forced their way through, is its name: SLOW DRIFTS.

The entrance, of course, is boarded up – the heavy oak double doors, added as a bit of flair by one of the architects of this place, unceremoniously covered up by cheap 2X4’s. I already knew this before coming; only an amateur goes urbexing without doing their research first. But I already know that there are some loose bars on the second window. I wedge my crowbar between the concrete wall, regretfully chipping off more of the building’s already extremely cracked and faded painted exterior of bright, almost psychedelic patterns, shoving the rusted grating aside enough to push and eventually dislodge the sliding window that I then squeeze through.

I’m in the lobby, which fitting with the city’s coastal location is decorated in a kitschy oceanic theme. Or what’s left of it. The front desk is a shattered wicker, with administrative paperwork scattered about, accumulating in piles as if someone had tried to rake it up, an old rotary phone probably from the late 60s perched atop the wreck prophesizing the death of this dream to an audience of moldering aquamarine vinyl furniture and faded mermaid wallpaper. Miraculously, the crystalline jellyfish chandelier is still hanging intact, its stingers once always just out of reach of the building’s occupants as they went about their day passing behind the desk to the elevators and the neon cursive sign overhead which reads: LOBBY.

The Drifts is almost one of a kind, a unique attempt at importing Soviet urban planning sensibilities into the United States during a period where some of the state and city’s counterculture managed to influence local politics to combat a plague of homelessness, amphetamine abuse, and seemingly random but frequent acts of horrific violence. The architects built the Drifts with the bold but ultimately doomed idea that cities could be built in the States to serve the public good by providing liveable, adequate, mixed-use housing for the poor, and not only that but housing projects built according to standards of taste and style that would be tactfully maneuvered into its design wherever it was possible to give a facade of life and artfulness to otherwise very cost-effective utilitarian constructions. Or rather, standards of taste and style for the time in the 60s and 70s when they probably decided to be of the people by giving the building less stodgy design decisions and instead make something a bit groovier than the government usually built.

The architects hoped to prove that the state could in fact be used to combat social ills and create the conditions of community and diversity through urban density that would encourage citizens to actively participate in the democratic process. Unfortunately, that commie bullshit was quickly kneecapped by cut funds and willful bureaucratic incompetence, and by the end of the 70s, the last of the building’s occupants either had moved up north or southeast or they were back on the streets, the entire project remembered by history as an example of excessive government spending and mismanagement. At the top, on the roof, there’s supposedly a radio station that’s even rumored to still somehow be operational. That’s where I’m going.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I began to notice that this oceanic theme ended up being more fitting than the architects had originally intended. The floor was full of pools of grey water which had sunken into the hardwood floors in places, turning this lobby into a minefield of potential broken limbs in the basement. I looked closer at the wallpaper and also noticed a sea of black mold spores pooling up through the painted aquamarine waves, toxic greenish black environmental catastrophes killing all the marine life in the wallpaper. I shone a light on the mermaids and also saw the mold’s tendrils wrapping around their tails from the deep, up their torsos, their faces. The wallpaper seemed to repeat at pretty frequent intervals, but the more I looked at it, the more the sea life in it began to look unlike anything I’ve seen before. Evil looking things with huge fangs and a rubbery skin made black by the mold which had also made the waves black. The further down the wall I went, the wallpaper seemed to change entirely, with the mermaids still being present, but now drowning in the depths, being crushed by the mold, or strangled by it, and surrounded by those monstrous fish. Their faces seemed to be in anguish.

I snapped to and realized that I should absolutely not be breathing this shit and put on my N95 mask before scoping out the floor to determine which places seemed the safest to walk. Just my luck that the elevators are out of order; guess I’m going to have to take the stairs. I knew better than to risk trying to walk through the small lake in front of the lobby entrance to the stairs and decided I’d have to take the long route through the west wing of the first floor.

Many of these apartments were abandoned towards the end of the Drifts’ life before being condemned. Those occupants who were left were forcibly evicted. Walking through these hallways, many of the doors are locked or boarded shut, and I don’t have time to try to get into every one. But some of them are ajar, either because someone else already opened them up, or they were never properly sealed off in the first place. Since these hallways are all so nondescript, with only the same repeating pattern of faded wallpaper and wall fixture lights hanging off the walls between every apartment, I decide to let myself wander through the halls until I’m drawn somewhere, which just so happens to stop me in front of apartment 106.

The door is open, but I can’t see inside from the hallway. But I’m suddenly hit with a feeling, something like deja vu, that I should go in here. This apartment has a blue door – not a heavy piece of craftsmanship like the lobby doors, since this building was meant to cut costs where it was practical and be extravagant where it was crucial, but cheap and nondescript. Maybe that’s why it feels like a door that I’ve stood in front of before.

It opens up into a parlor with an ugly beige carpet and some destroyed couches off to the right wall with a green and blue pattern. No coffee table. The walls are an anonymous white, with no pictures or decorations of any kind. But as I pan my flashlight over to the left side of the room I realize that this apartment is huge, far bigger than it should be, and on the left there are even stairs. The downstairs area stretches back into the dark until a living room with a kitchen to the right of it comes into view through the lingering mist of dust. How is it even possible for one of these apartments to be this big?

Before going upstairs I walked in and proceeded to the back where there might be more of interest, and noticed an alcove behind the living room area with photos of the people who used to live here. Dozens of them, in fact, all crowded together such that most of them are obscured by the ones in front of them, and many are also fallen over. For a place of this size I was expecting to find family photos, but instead all of the people living here are clearly not related to each other. They all look completely different and many are in their 20s-30s, though some are older, some are younger. Most of them aren’t even in any of the same photos. Trying to guess what kinds of lives these people have, judging by their age and their clothes, most of them seem like artists, or students. Not exactly hippie types though; a bunch of hippies living in cheap government housing would have explained this a little bit. Many of them are women, many of them are wearing pants instead of dresses, with blouses tied up past the midriff, old ratty looking sweaters, turtlenecks, tight tank tops with jackets, striped tops. In a lot of these they’re smoking cigarettes or joints.

One of them towards the front is very short, with a pixie cut, bleach blonde hair, big round glasses and overalls, with a canvas in front of her painting something and looking from around it for a second to get in frame of the photo. She’s not looking at the cameraperson though. Her eyes are downcast to the right, towards the canvas, with a slight frown. Maybe she’s been painting the cameraperson, and the photo is supposed to be paired with the painting, like two sides of a mirror.

The more I looked over the photos and moved others aside or turned others up, I began to notice that she shows up a lot throughout many of these with another woman, the only subjects in these photos that recur together. Maybe this is the camerawoman. She has longer hair than the other, a bobcut, tall and a bit more traditionally feminine in style than many of the other women in the photos but still displaying some of the counterculture’s boldness in her apparent preference for skirts that are hemmed above the knee.

I started shoving more and more of the other photos aside because I couldn’t stop seeing them. In every one, it’s always the same. The same downturned expressions. This persistent sadness in colorless frozen fragments of time. All the other frames were starting to pile up towards the sides of the alcove. Some had fallen on the floor. I kept finding more and more as I worked my way back until they started to appear in every photo. They’re even with other people, in the background, but no one else is paying attention to them. It looks like they don’t even know the two are there. I kept trying to find more until I finally reached the back. There, a single frame was laying face down.

I turned it up and the two of them are in a forest, next to each other wearing white dresses with floral patterns in them, maybe twenty feet or so away from the cameraperson who I now realize must have been taking all the other photos the two showed up in together. They’re frowning like in all the other photos, but this time they’re also not quite. It’s more like a half-smile. Their eyes aren’t looking downward but looking at the camera this time. Oh, and I had a camera too, in my backpack. I completely forgot until just then, but this seemed like a perfect use for it. I take a picture of the first photo, where one of them is painting the cameraperson, then this last one.

Before lowering the camera I realized something else: This is the only photo I’ve seen of them where I can actually see their eyes. I can still barely make out anything about them in those distant grainy photograph eyes, but the longer I look, the more their frown-smiles seem to have an infinite depth, the more they seem to curve upwards. They almost seem apologetic that I’ve wandered into this clearing with them, and I’m lost, I don’t know how to get back. But they seem to want to help me, they seem kind. But I should not be here, I don’t belong here even though it feels so weirdly familiar. I never was here, or I never belonged here, or whatever was once here is gone and I have to leave. It’s all I can think about now. I’m sorry, I don’t belong here, I have to leave. It’s starting to look like they’re sardonically grinning at me, and they’re not staring at the camera that took the photo but the one that I’m looking through right now. They’re staring at me.

A moment later I remembered where I was and realized I was staring at the back of the alcove. I must have dropped the photo. Shit. I didn’t want to damage anything here. It’s a miracle everything in this building was in as good condition as it still is. Reaching down to pick it up and put it back where I found it I noticed that the back of it had popped out a bit. But there was something else in it.

Taking off the back of the frame, a piece of canvas fell out. A painting. It looks like the same forest where the photo it shares the frame with was taken, in the same clearing. Towards the edge of the clearing is the forest, though unlike the photo, it’s very dark. It had to have been a stylistic choice to paint the forest this dark, in fact it looks like there’s no color at all. But then I realize that this canvas is covered in mold, silhouetting the trees in the dusk in front of which stands a lone figure. I can tell it’s not one of the two in the photo. A different woman, in a long grey dress. I can’t see her face. She’s holding up a camera to it.

Upstairs, the floor creaked. The blood drains from my body and I immediately turn off my light. Maybe it’s just the building “settling”. Just like my mom used to tell me when I couldn’t sleep, right?

Then footsteps stride off in the other direction.


I’m frozen for what feels like an hour, but I count my heartbeats to approximate the time. What am I thinking, that’s not going to help. My heart is pounding a dozen times a second. I guess I’ll just wait twelve times as long as I think I should then.

Enough time has probably passed by now and I haven’t heard anything. Maybe it’s just another explorer, which means I’m fine. Maybe it’s a homeless person, which could be nothing or could mean getting into a knife fight with a junkie if they don’t want one of my extra cigs. Maybe it’s the guard, which means I’m gonna get some cardio. Hell, maybe it’s a ghost. But staying here too long isn’t a good idea.

As quietly as I can manage, I peek my head around the corner back to the door, which now that my eyes have adjusted to the dark I can see through the dust that there’s a very faint amount of ambient light coming from the hallway. No idea what that could be coming from but I can see through it that there’s a silhouette hanging over the stair railing. She’s looking at me.

Then she bolts back upstairs.

Every one of my instincts is screaming at me to leave now. This whole expedition has been burned and the last thing I should be doing is pressing my luck with whoever or whatever was just staring at me in the dark. But I’m already running up the stairs. I can’t let her get away. I’m already being pulled along in the current of that same out of time feeling that brought me in here and now is making my hand turn a doorknob at the top of the stairs.

The door opens up into another hallway. There’s another apartment directly across from me, more down either direction. Right now I should be thinking that it makes no sense that I just went through a staircase in an apartment to another floor, but for some reason I’m not questioning it. But then I noticed what the number of the apartment across from me is: 601.

I wasn’t paying attention enough, or at all really, to tell how far up those stairs went. Maybe they just went up five stories. Just a weird architectural decision. Maybe I was just too full of adrenaline to notice that I had run up five stories. That’s the only explanation that makes sense.

Remembering why I’m here, I decide to go left to try to find her, again letting myself wander through the halls until something draws me. That’s when I find the school.

I knew that this building was meant to be mixed-use, but I always assumed it’d be things like a few really tiny cottage industries run out of community spaces that could have otherwise been built as apartments. Instead this floor opens up to a huge hollowed out core of the building. They must have had to extend the height of this floor compared to the rest to somehow accommodate a whole recess field surrounding the center where what appears to be the classrooms are. There’s even planters in here where trees once somehow stood.

The walls on my side of this schoolyard area seem like they were once a bare concrete that had been painted over with a mural to create an artistic simulation of being outside. On the other sides, it seems like there are big windows all along the length of the building, which must have been quite a view for the kids who used to go here. I can only assume that this was put in the middle of the building to even out the distance the building’s inhabitants would be from the school instead of making things harder for the people at the top floors. The mural, of course, has mostly chipped off now, and walking along the length of the schoolyard past decaying playground equipment and fields of dirt that probably used to have grass, I can’t see anything outside the windows in the dark right now. In fact, I’ve somehow walked far enough that I can’t see the entrance to the apartment units that I just came from. It’s as if this school has been displaced from wherever it once existed on the ground, suspended in the air and inside of a cabinent whose drawer I’ve just entered.

A door clicks shut somewhere in the dark. That’s where I need to go.

The best I can approximate from the sound is that the door marked 693 is what just closed. If she’s in here, there’s probably nowhere else to go. Whatever is going to happen, there’s going to be no avoiding it if I open the door. But I’m already turning the knob and swinging it open and clicking on my flashlight to illuminate a figure slumped over with a dead unblinking gaze pushing me back almost to the ground.

But after a moment I realize that it’s just a mannequin. This must be some kind of supply closet. Well, much bigger than a closet; it’s more like they dedicated an entire building to storing miscellaneous junk. A lot of this is probably from other parts of the building, because most of this stuff doesn’t look like it would be of any use to a school, like mannequins. There must be a seamstress workshop somewhere else here, because aside from mannequins, the room is full of sewing machines and piles of fabrics amidst all the old textbooks and desks. The fabrics are particularly dense with mold. Some of these stacks go up almost to the ceiling, many as wide as wood pallets, and many of these are so sopping wet with mold that I can’t even tell what fabrics these used to be. Even with an N95 mask, being in here for too long isn’t a good idea, but if she’s in here then I need to make sure to get her out.

Maybe there’s some sort of watering system that ran through this room and was used to maintain the grass and trees in this part of the building, and unsurprisingly after decades of neglect it’s turned this whole storage building into a flooded mess. I keep having to sidle past all the destroyed kipple of the room through puddles of stagnant water, afraid that if I try to push aside anything it’ll just crumble into a damp mound of fungus and release its spores into the air. Going deeper, this room begins to turn into a swamp filled with the petrified corpses or clones of others, always staring at me with their vacant eyes as I walk past trying to determine if any of them is a real person.

Instead of finding her I find three mannequins arranged in a way that almost looks deliberate, as if they were being posed for a display in a scene that a seamstress was trying to get herself into the feel of to design a piece. Some attempt at mimicking some piece of everyday life that anyone could find themselves in, where they would also be wearing some piece of clothing that would also have its place in the scene, in the memory of the scene. Whoever was wearing it, the people the mannequins represent, would have chosen it deliberately, fashionably dressed for this outing to set the conditions for what kind of memory they wanted to form. And here these mannequins stood, the ghosts of some memory that never existed.

One in particular, the one in the center of the three, I walked closer to. It was wearing a blue dress, with a head of very long and very black hair that was somehow still intact, with its completely white mannequin skin, vacant doll eyes and neutral mouth. Much like all the other mannequins, its face was fairly anonymous, with only a rudimentary variety of different features to choose from when it was made, but like the other two and even more so than them it somehow stood out from all the others in this storage building. I started to imagine what sort of person she might be in the parts she played for her seamstress’ projects, or who she might have been in another life, in the stories the seamstresses created, in another time, now sitting here forgotten within one massive tomb of forgotten things, lost times, lost lives. In my own story of her she became someone who mattered once to many people, who had been deeply flawed but still done great things. In those vacant eyes I sensed an immense well of sadness, one that had been yawning within her throughout her entire existence until it finally swallowed everything else about her and finally her body could no longer remain in motion. Maybe she dragged herself here in her final moments, to this dark and lonely grave before she finally ossified into a pale plastic replica waiting to be made by this story or memory I had of her into someone more real than anyone I’d known.

But the closer I got and the more real the image of who she may have been was, I started to see sickly greenish black flowers bloom over her skin until it was all blotted out. Her dress and hair had sloughed off her in a wet moldy slop, and in disbelief I reached out, tried to grab her face, maybe thinking it would make her more real. But the moment I did, whatever was left that was retaining that form gave away, and she imploded and crumbled in my hands, fell through my fingers. Now there was nothing left of her but an anonymous sopping wreck of mold on the floor. I could not bear to look at it and left the building as quickly as I could. I don’t think the woman I was looking for was in here anymore.

I went out back the way I came in expecting to enter the schoolyard, but instead, I looked up and saw a night sky more visible than one I’d ever seen before in the complete absence of a moon or any nearby lights. I was on the roof. The door behind me read 900. Whatever disbelief I still had I threw off the edge of the building when I ran over and looked over it. As when I was on the sixth floor, I couldn’t see anything at the bottom. Maybe the streetlight had gone out, and in the pitch black I may have been standing between an abyss and the infinite canvas of stars above me.

And then I turned around to check the roof, and there it was: The radio station, a small detached square building on top of the Drifts. There was supposed to be an antenna, but maybe it was too dark to see it, or maybe it was high enough in the sky to not need one. But it seemed that it was indeed still operational, because outside of its door I could see a faint red light which had somehow stayed on for all those decades. All I wanted was to be in that station now, outside of whose heavy metallic door was the number 999. I swung it open into another lobby, one not unlike the one at the ground floor, but this one much smaller. Instead of a nautical theme, the desks, the couches, the furniture, all of it was made of old rusted metal. And there she was – the woman in the painting, within arm’s reach looking exactly the same as she did 30 years ago, who had run from me but not out of fear.

My voice wasn’t my own anymore, so I just reached out to her. Even in the gloom I could tell that I knew her, that she’d been watching me this entire time I’d been in the Drifts, and haunting me even before that as I now realized. Maybe she had even drawn me here to this radio station at the top of the Drifts so that I would finally remember and understand. For a moment I knew that I was supposed to be here, supposed to meet her. We didn’t need to say anything to each other, because she knew this too, and she reached back and gently took my hand, then held me close.

Her embrace electrified me, all the dead signals within me being activated suddenly and channeled through the station, through the air, through the entire building. Whatever of me was still left in me was taking flight. I could feel that I would become something else in that night. But then what was left of my consciousness woke up just enough to realize that something about this was very wrong. I just as abruptly realized that none of this is happening, because none of it could ever happen. I backed away, pushed her away. The signal was broken. “You are not you. You are not you. You are not you.” was all I could say, and I turned away from her.

But it’s too late. There’s nothing left in this body now. Whatever me of me was still left in me has taken flight, yet somehow before a hollowness suddenly spreads through it I feel an immense pain. The infection has reached the heart, and now a rot is coursing through this body, and everything in it has died. I’m looking down at my hands and they’re becoming transparent like a ghost. I think to myself that maybe even I’ve been dead this whole time, or maybe I ascended through some kind of Purgatory in this building, and maybe I failed. Maybe I’m going to Hell now. But then I realize that no, it’s not transparent, I’m not a ghost, this is not Purgatory and it isn’t Hell. My hands are becoming the same color as the floor, as the walls, as the particles in the air. Greenish black grave flowers.

I run over to the mirror in the lobby and tear off my mask. I cannot remember how I got here, what I did today before I drove to the Drifts. I don’t remember my name. I lift my arm up to my face and smell it, but all I smell is musty cardboard as I realize that this thing in the mirror that’s now screaming isn’t me. All I want in this moment is to ask it what I can do to make it stop screaming, but my voice is no longer my own, so all I can do is watch this moldering body shudder until it cannot retain a form anymore and slowly collapses onto the floor, a forgotten pile of spores in the dark.

Created: 2023-04-02 Sun 04:36