Missing Person : Hector Alvarez
Michael drove through the shaded streets of Westside Avenue, toward the Cul-de-sac where Mrs. Zhang lived. It was a comfortable drive that Michael often enjoyed. The woman was kind enough, stayed out of his way, and hadn’t ever given him any trouble. That didn’t mean she was good with technology, or could go two months without her computer breaking down, but she was nice enough.
In fact, today was the third time Michael had gotten a call from Mrs. Zhang so far this year, and it was only April. He didn’t mind, though. It was a quiet afternoon, the sun was warm, the breeze was cool, and the work was easy. Of course, there was another reason Michael always like to visit Mrs. Zhang.
Her house was tucked away from the street behind immaculate hedges and a long stepping-stone walkway. It was an older house, but not old. And it was big. It had a huge basement and an upstairs with lots of bedrooms. Mrs. Zhang didn’t need all of those bedrooms; she always seemed to be home alone. What Michael really liked, though, was the rumor about the old house.
About ten years ago a boy who had used to live there with his family had gone missing. He’d never been found, either. Michael remembered that time only vaguely. He’d been nine years old and hadn’t thought about those kinds of things very much. It had seemed like such a grown-up problem to him, not something he really understood. Now, he was obsessed. And not just with Hector Alvarez, he’d listen to anything supernatural or mysterious.
Michael had listened to a lot of podcasts about the house where Hector had disappeared and wondered how the hosts would have felt to be him, who got to visit it a few times a year. Sure, it was to do electronics repair for the old Chinese woman who lived there now, but still. Michael always wondered if maybe it was the unquiet spirits that caused all of the computer problems. He knew that sometimes happened with hauntings, even though he wasn’t really sure if he believed it.
He parked his car. It was the one that his work let him use with the ridiculous stickers on the side that announced that he was part of the “Nerd Crew,” here to fix any computer problem in one afternoon or less. He didn’t love driving it, but it was nice to be able to get out of the store. Plus, he could listen to whatever he wanted.
He stood on the porch in his red polo and khakis. He hated the uniform, mostly because it was itchy and hot. He was not ashamed of his job, though it wasn’t anything special. He liked being out in the world, talking to people, a lot more than sitting in a store or at a computer. Of course he had his wishes and his wants, but those were not for today.
Mrs. Zhang let him in and showed him to her computer room, though by now he knew exactly where it was. She pushed the power button but nothing happened.
“Well, that’s it,” Mrs. Zhang said. “A lot of nothing. Tea?”
“That would be wonderful, Mrs. Zhang.”
“Two sugars and milk,” she said, then turned toward the kitchen. She’d never asked how he liked his tea, but for some reason had always assumed it was two sugars and milk. He just smiled and went to work.
He checked all of the most obvious things first, like if the computer was plugged in or if the power switch was on. They were simple things, but one might be surprised to learn how often that was the problem.
However, that was not usually the case when called to Mrs. Zhang’s house. It was always something more complex. In some ways, something too complex – it was never simply viruses or too many browser add-ons. Parts would fail, seemingly at random. Now, he’d have to check the power supply. He reached into his bag, looking for his circuit tester.
It wasn’t there. He’d have to go let Mrs. Zhang now, lest she turn up with his tea and find an empty room. He walked the familiar path from computer room to kitchen.
He found Mrs. Zhang standing next to her water heater, reading a novel as the thing began to steam. When he entered into the kitchen she looked up. “Tea will be ready soon. Be patient.”
“I just wanted to let you know, I need to go to the car to get some tools. I’ll be back….” He was interrupted by a knocking sound upstairs. Mrs. Zhang looked at him, her eyes wide but her face relaxed.
“Did you bring a friend?” Mrs. Zhang asked. Michael shook his head. “Me neither.” They both looked up, at the place on the ceiling where it seemed the noise was coming from.
“I’ll go check,” Michael offered, sounding a lot braver than he felt. He was afraid, per se, (it was probably just the house settling), but he didn’t want to go up there without a plan. He turned to walk to the stairs, considering his options, but Mrs. Zhang walked quickly past him. She went to a closet in the hallway and opened it, retrieved a baseball bat, and handed it to Michael.
“Lead the way,” she said. “When I say swing, you swing.” Michael looked at the bat in his hands. Was he really going to need this? Worst case scenario it was rat or squirrel stuck in an upstairs bedroom. There were so many of those, it was almost assured that one was festering with visitors. Michael swallowed hard. He’d thought, when he’d offered to go upstairs, that it was probably nothing. Now, with a weapon in his hands, it all felt real. He let out a ragged breath, but with Mrs. Zhang behind him it didn’t feel so scary.
They walked together up the stairs. Now that he was drawing closer he was certain that something (or someone) was making the sound. Michael turned to Mrs. Zhang. He felt compelled to whisper. “Maybe we should call the cops.”
“After. First, I want to look.”
“Might be dangerous,” Michael said.
“Might be exciting, too.”
Upstairs, there was a long hallway and a row of doors. He’d never been through any of them, though he had come up here one day to find Mrs. Zhang in her bedroom. That room was way at the end, and like the rest of the house, neat and put together. The bumps were coming from the third door down.
They walked, slow and careful, to the door. Michael put his hand on the knob, half expecting it to be hot or electric or something, but it was just cool metal. He took a deep breath. Mrs. Zhang pushed him lightly from behind.
“Do it,” she whispered, so loudly she may as well not have. “Open the door. Don’t be a baby.” Michael let out a sigh. He felt too silly to be worried after that. He twisted the knob and pushed the door open.
Michael had expected a lot of things. He’d thought there would be nothing. Maybe there would be a broken window, evidence of mice or bats, or even a wild animal, sitting in the middle of the bed. He’d even considered, in the very back of his mind, that it might be a homeless person or teenager, breaking in for beer money.
What he saw instead was a young man inside, going through the drawers. Michael watched him at first, too stunned to move. He was looking for something, searching frantically, and hadn’t noticed them yet. That, however, was not what Michael focused on. It wasn’t what the man was doing, it was who he was. He was young, with an athletic build and dark hair, but Michael had seen that face, and Michael could remember those eyes. It was the boy, the one who had disappeared years before. It had to be him. He looked almost the same, somehow magically untouched by time. “Hector?” Michael asked. At the sound of a voice, or maybe the sound of the name, the man turned.
“It’s not here,” he said. He walked, almost stumbled, to the door. “I have to find it,” he muttered. “Have to go back. Have to.” He lurched. He wasn’t coming quickly but Michael was stunned, shocked. He felt his mind screaming for him to do something but he couldn’t move. It really was him, Hector Alvarez, after all these years. He was heading right toward Michael, and there was something dangerous, something aggressive, in the way he came up.
“He’s coming,” Mrs. Zhang screamed and slapped him on the back. “Swing, swing, swing!” Michael didn’t think, he just reacted. He took a step forward and swung the bat.
He’d played before, for a while, in High School, and for fun in College. If he’d been thinking, he would not have swung quite as hard as he did. Instead, he put his weight into it, not thinking that he might kill the man if it struck.
Just before impact, however, the man seemed to step forward and to the side at the same time. It was slow fluid and quick that for a moment Michael didn’t even see it. The next thing Michael knew, he had lost the bat and hit the ground. He opened his eyes and found he was looking up at the ceiling. All of the air had gone out of him, and he found himself gasping just to breath. After a moment, Mrs. Zhang stepped into view. Michael blinked, trying hard to focus on her.
“He went to the basement,” she said. There wasn’t much sympathy in her voice, but there was some. “I’ll call the cops. Do you need the hospital?” Michael just shook his head. A few moments later, he heard her walking down the stairs.
Michael thought he might just lie for a while, but that was Hector, wasn’t it? He’d seen the pictures from when he’d disappeared, all those years ago, and he’d seen the look in the boy’s eyes when he heard his name. Michael wasn’t an expert, but he knew enough to recognize Hector Alvarez. It was the same person. It had to be. And he somehow hadn’t aged a day. How was that possible? Michael felt he had to know.
He picked himself up and, breathing hard and trembling, stood. The baseball bat lay on the carpeted floor, just out of reach from where he’d been laying. He rubbed his throbbing head and followed Mrs. Zhang and Hector down the stairs.
Hector had been in Mrs. Zhang’s basement only once before, to check the fuse box. He didn’t much like going down there and apparently neither did she. The stairs were half rotten and creaked terribly. Cobwebs ruled down there, and there were boxes and boxes from previous owners who apparently couldn’t wait to get away from the place. There was definitely some weirdness around the Zhang residence, and nowhere was that more evident than the basement.
When he finally made his way down into the basement proper he saw the man hunched in the corner. Hector was going through a big box of something. It wasn’t until Michael drew closer than he saw what it was: a box of old video games. Hector was still muttering to himself, though Michael couldn’t make sense of it. He just held his hands up in a placating way and spoke in a slow, even tone.
“Looking for something? Hector? Is it you?” Hector, if it was Hector, didn’t look up from the box of old games. He was intent on his search. Finally, he seemed to find something. He held one of the old gray plastic cartridges up, then brought it down to his lips and kissed it.
“I found it,” he said. He motioned toward an old TV. “Plug that all in and stand back.” Michael could hardly believe what he was seeing. But Hector had spoken to him, hadn’t he? Maybe Michael was getting through to him. He walked over to the old set and, as he worked, he tried talking again.
“What game are you going to play?” It seemed like a stupid question, but Michael thought he’d heard that in situations like this it was good to keep the other person talking.
“Legacy of Heroes,” Hector said, his voice far away, like it meant something no one else in the world would be able to understand.
“Cool game, right. I’m into retro stuff, too.” Hector didn’t reply. When the console was set-up and the TV was plugged in, Michael backed away toward Hector, or who he thought probably was Hector. The game switched on, the blue glow of the TV filling the basement. “Maybe you should hold off on the games,” Michael said. “The police are coming. We’re going to get you some help.”
But Hector didn’t seem to hear. The game music started to play, the crunchy tinny sound of .
“What the hell?” Hector asked himself, confusion and fear in his voice. Michael drew a little closer.
“It’s cool man, just, come upstairs with me and we’ll get this sorted out.”
“New game plus?” Hector turned to Michael, a question in his eyes. “Why is it different?” Michael reached out for the controller.
“Don’t worry about a new game,” Michael said, and as he grabbed the other man’s wrist there was a surge of electricity. Static filled the air as bright colors flashed on the screen, bathing the room, and the two young men, in blue, purple, yellow, orange, red.
Then, Michael felt like he was falling.