I'm standing in aisle 13, near the eggs, watching this guy, who has a few opened items in his cart, eating yogurt with a spoon. From where I'm standing I can see he's eaten a few small containers of yogurt already. I notice that he's opened a loaf of bread, a package of turkey, a bottle of mustard, and a 20-oz. soda. He's also got a backpack, but I can't tell what's in it, if anything. In any case, as a loss prevention associate, I have enough evidence to detain him, and then turn him over to the police, so I approach him.
"Excuse me, sir," I say. "Were you planning on paying for any of this?" I nod down at the cart.
"Uh, yeah," he says. "After I eat."
"Usually people pay for the items first, and then take them home and eat them. It looks bad when you do this. Other people will think it's okay for them to do the same."
"Your manager, Bart, told me I could."
"Bart told you that?" I ask. I'm not sure whether I should believe him, even though he does get my manager's name right. Still, I haven't seen Bart in a few days—conflicting schedules, I suppose.
"I don't think you'd believe me if I told you."
"Okay. Well, I have this house, right, but it's in the sky, so it's really hard for me to carry all my groceries up the ladder. So instead, I just come to the grocery, eat a meal, load the rest of the food in my backpack, and carry it up the ladder."
"You can't just wait until you get home to eat?"
"I could, I guess, but the less weight the better."
"You don't believe me, do you?" he asks.
"No. I have to say that I don't believe you."
"Wanna see it?"
"Yeah. When do you get off work?"
"Not for a while. I'll be here the rest of tonight—until midnight, when we close."
"Okay. Are you off tomorrow?"
"Yeah," I say.
"Come by tomorrow then."
He places his yogurt in the cart, unzips his backpack, pulls out a pad of notebook paper and a pen, and writes something down. Afterwards, he rips the corner off the piece of paper and hands it to me. It's his name and address.
"How about noon?" he asks.
"Sure," I say, looking down at the piece of paper, "Jin. That will work, I think."
"I'll see you then, and make sure you wear comfortable shoes. I'm gonna go pay for these," he says, before he pushes his cart down the nearest aisle towards the front of the store.
I watch him until he's out of sight. Once he is, I gaze at his address, trying to figure out where it is and why I've never heard of his house in the sky. Wouldn't everyone in town know about something so uncommon? I attempt to picture the house in my mind, but can't. I have no idea what it looks like, and I'm skeptical that I'll actually see it tomorrow, if such a thing even exists.
The next day, I use MapQuest to get directions, and immediately, I can tell that it's outside of town, in what we call the country. Eventually I turn onto a dirt road, which I hate doing in my tricked-out Accord, that takes me to a clearing where I see a tall ladder that looks like it leads to nowhere. I park at the end of the road and get out. I walk to the ladder and look up, squinting to see if I can decipher what's up there, but all I see is the ladder until it gets so small that it's nothing but a gray dot in the sky.
"Tall, isn't it?"
The voice comes from behind me and I turn around.
"Oh, hey," I say, addressing Jin, who I didn't notice when I pulled up. His black hair's tied into a ponytail, whereas yesterday it hung free. I notice his black goatee and acne scars again—both of which are as noticeable in the fluorescent light of a supermarket as the natural light of the sun. He's wearing a black and orange harness, and is also holding one in his right hand. Since he's lean, I assume that he climbs the ladder regularly, and is also, I hope, good at it.
"Didn't see me?" he asks.
"No. Where were you?"
"I was hiding behind that tree over there." He points to a tree near the road. "Oh."
"You ready to do this? Sorry. I didn't catch your name yesterday."
"I'm Paul. So, we really have to climb all the way up there?" I look up again.
"Yep. But, I'll go first and we'll strap our harnesses together. Luckily, as you can see, the ladder has a basket guard on it—some people call it a cage—so we'll be safer in that way, too. Plus it has steps instead of rungs. Don't worry. I climb this thing day in and day out. You'll be fine."
"All right," I say, trying not to sound intimidated, though I am. I'm too interested to say no, despite the feeling that I shouldn't trust him. "How long's it gonna take to get all the way up there?"
"It'll take a couple hours. It's over a thousand feet tall. We'll have to take some breaks here and there. You still up for this?"
"Yeah, sure. Let's get going."
Jin hands me my harness and I step into without hesitation. He fastens it in certain places and then hooks us together.
"This line," he says, shaking it for a second, "shouldn't get us tangled up, but watch to make sure it doesn't. I'll go first. If you need a break, or I'm going too fast for you or something, just holler up at me and we'll stop or slow down."
The ascent begins. We're several feet apart from one another, but not so many that I feel separated from Jin. Before I know it, we're as tall as the tallest trees, and then we're above the tree line and anything else as far as the eye can see for that matter. I feel like we're headed to the sun, or at least as close as we can get. The climb is tiring, so it's no wonder that Jin doesn't like to haul groceries up this ladder—much less even leave his house knowing that he'll have to make the climb down and then up again. This makes me curious about why he hasn't installed an elevator, but those are expensive, I guess, and maybe I'll ask him about it later. We take our first break, which, thankfully, is pretty easy since all we do is stay stationary, after a while of climbing.
"Hey," I shout up at Jin.
"Yeah?" he shouts back.
"You ever think about getting an elevator?"
"Of course! But they cost too much money!"
The higher we climb, the more the wind picks up, so we keep our conversations to a minimum. I find myself comparing our height to things I've been on or ridden in during my lifetime—rollercoasters, hot air balloons, skyscrapers, planes. At this point, when I'm able to pause for a little bit and look down, everything is tiny, which, whenever I'm up this high, always reminds me of when I was a kid and used to play with Micro Machines. As we near the top, I can make out what looks like the underbelly of a house, but I still don't understand how nothing except the ladder supports it—especially considering that I haven't felt it sway at all. Nonetheless, we make it to the top of the ladder. Said ladder ends at what appears to be a trapdoor, but one that has a knob and a lock on it. I can't see all that great, though, with Jin above blocking most of my view.
"If I drop this key, we're screwed," he says, prior to unlocking the door and pushing it open. He climbs up and into his house. I follow.
After Jin helps me up, he offers to show me around his place. To my surprise, it's a normal house. I figure he's single since there's no trace of anything remotely feminine—I'm assuming he's straight, you see—and everything practically says bachelor. It's interesting that he has a walk-in closet and freezer, though, but when I ask him about them, he says the house came with them.
"So," I say, sitting on the white couch in his living room while he's in the kitchen grabbing a couple drinks, "how's this thing supported?"
"I don't know," he says from the kitchen. He enters the living room and hands me a bottle of beer, the same kind he's drinking.
"Thanks. So you really don't know how your house stays in the air?"
"Nope. The guy I bought it from didn't know either. I've owned this place for about eight or nine years now—a little while."
"Yeah," I say, and then take a drink.
"I do have some warning lights on the roof, though, so planes and helicopters know I'm here. I haven't had any troubles so far."
"What's crazy is that you'll see some of those warning lights on the tops of rollercoasters, the high ones, I mean. I've ridden on a couple that high before. Pretty scary, I guess, even if you know you're relatively safe."
"You afraid of heights or something?"
"Nah, not really. If I was I wouldn't have been able to climb up here."
"Yeah, I figured that much."
"So, what do you do around here all day?"
"Just the usual—watch TV, get on the Internet."
"Wait. You have electricity up here?"
"Oh sure. Got everything up here. I've got electricity, water, gas."
"No clue, man, but I got 'em."
Right then, there's a knock at the door followed by a muffled guy's voice telling Jin to let him in.
"Hold on," Jin says. He walks over to the door and opens it. Standing outside is a mailbox with an open lid, and the box itself stuffed with letters and magazines. "Mail's here."
"No shit," the mailbox says, after Jin removes the contents from its mouth. The mailbox hops over to the loveseat and plops itself down. It's merely a box on a post. "Standing out there like an idiot gets old."
"Paul," Jin says, still holding the knob of the open door, "this is M. M, Paul."
"What's up?" M says.
"Not much. How are you?"
"Fine, but I'd be a lot better if that jackass over there didn't leave me out there standing for hours on end. The mail got here a long time ago."
"He came with the house," Jin says as he closes the front door. "Which is obvious, I hope."
"Yeah, yeah," M says. "If you didn't have me, how would you get your porno mags?"
Jin shrugs. "Hey, Paul. You hungry?"
"Sure, I could eat after that climb."
"You a carnivore?"
"Good," Jin says. "I'll cook us some meat."
While Jin is in the kitchen cooking—grilling burgers, I guess—I think about striking up a conversation with M. I consider asking him about the previous owner of the place, or the logistics of how everything works around here with no visible support, cables, or pipes. I figure that Jin must receive his mail via helicopter because how else could he? But before I can deliver my questions, I hear M snoring on the loveseat.
"Food's up," Jin says when he enters the living room. He's carrying two plates with burgers on them. The top buns are off, but each has lettuce and two slices of tomato. He then retrieves plastic bottles of ketchup and mustard from the fridge and sets them between us on the couch, which seats three, and maybe even four, people comfortably.
"He's asleep," I whisper. I point to M. Jin only nods in agreement. The plate is in my lap while I wait for Jin to finish with the condiments. I put ketchup and mustard on the meat, cover it with the bun, and lift it to my mouth. It tastes like meat, but different, like a kind I've never had before. "What is this?" I ask. "It's not beef is it?"
"No," Jin says.
"It's not turkey."
"What is it then?" I'm genuinely puzzled.
"I'll tell you after you finish. Actually, I'll show you. The rest of it's in the freezer."
"Must've been tough carrying all that meat up here," I say, envisioning Jin carrying a pig, and then a cow, and then an elephant on his back up the ladder, but I know the latter two scenarios are impossible, especially with the cage in place.
"Yeah. Sometimes I'll get a ton of meat in one day so I don't have to continually climb up and down the ladder. It feels like it takes forever sometimes."
"I'm sure it does."
"No other guesses?" Jin asks when he sees that I've cleaned my plate.
"No, not really. I honestly haven't tasted meat like that before. It's probably some weird animal you imported, right, like ostrich or something?"
"It was good, though, whatever it was."
"You wanna see?"
Jin gets up from the couch and I follow him into the kitchen to where the walk-in freezer is located. He pulls the door open and flips the light switch to the on position. "It's that one in the back corner there," he says, pointing. I walk in, noticing a few different cuts and slabs of meat here and there. I'm not ready for what I see next, though. Hanging from a hook is a fully dressed Bart, sans legs. I stumble back against the rack, too afraid or too shocked to say or yell anything. I look over at Jin, who's holding a clean butcher knife.
"You sure are a carnivore," he says. "A cannibal, too."
"So this is how you get your food," I say. I consider lunging at him, but am too scared to try.
"They say that freezing to death is a very painful way to die." Jin backs up and out of the freezer. He shuts the door, still brandishing the butcher knife in the other hand, and then, a second later, flips off the light. I shiver in the dark until I feel myself about to lose consciousness, all the while wondering how I got myself into this, and, of course, how to get myself out.