“Hey, it’s me again. I don’t know if you’re getting these, but I have to tell someone. The place doesn’t exist, bro. I mean, it’s there, but I don’t think it’s real. I asked Mom about it and she didn’t- she couldn’t…”
There was a burst of static on the voicemail, and he exhaled as if punched in the stomach.
“I drove her there and she still couldn’t see it. I’ll call you later. I’m going back tonight.”
The message was the last attempt at contact from my brother, Mike, now missing eight days. I stood beneath a sign that appeared designed to be forgotten, white, cramped letters on a dark blue background.
Poplar Street Eye Care
The voicemails and text messages were increasingly frantic, my brother’s steady baritone sailing into higher octaves as his observations devolved into a frenzied certitude. The ophthalmologist’s office was not real. There were no patients. No one ever entered but men did leave, always in suits.
“They walk out, adjust their ties, and walk down the street,” Mike said.
I did not recall having seen the office before, but could say the same for the various pawn shops and vape stores that littered Poplar Street. The parking lot had room for only four cars and both the entrance and exit were blocked by chains. A breeze kicked up a flurry of dried leaves and discarded napkins. I jammed my hands in my pockets and shuffled to the entrance.
My presence was announced by a single chime. I paused there, the wind whistling through the gap between the door and the frame, orienting myself to the small room, which was so dark it might have been illuminated by a lantern. There was a cluster of bulky chairs in the center of the room, tufts of cotton jutting from gashes in the upholstery. The walls were bare save for a single poster of the anatomy of an eye.
I walked to the counter where a woman sat in an oval of yolk-colored light. Atop her hair was a bundle of curls, white with a bluish tinge. She did not acknowledge my arrival, but dipped her fork into the Tupperware container. A bit of quiche trembled on the tines of the fork, which she inserted in her mouth.
I turned my attention to the small television set wedged near the ceiling in the corner of the room. It showed a news channel, but the image was grainy. I squinted and saw that the attire of the anchors was dated. The woman’s burgundy blazer was squared off by shoulder pads that nearly touched the tassels of her dangling earrings. A reporter in the field inserted a yardstick into a drift of snow to the amusement of the studio anchors.
It was early autumn and I was in Alabama.
“I am looking for my brother. He’s been missing for about a week and seemed to have some strange ideas about this place. If he came in you might have remembered it,” I said to the woman behind the counter.
She directed the fork into her mouth again, held it there, and withdrew it. The quiche still quivered on the tines. I looked at the container and saw that only a single morsel was missing.
“No openings today, I’m afraid,” she said, placing an extra emphasis on the last two words.
I snatched my cell phone from my pocket, intending to offer a picture.
“Someone will be right with you,” she said, then abandoned the desk and her meal.
I remained at the desk but returned my attention to the TV. The broadcast must have been from the early 1990s, and was clearly not from Alabama. A few minutes passed and a chime alerted me to the fact that the door opened. I watched the back half of the man’s slacks as he departed. I dashed to the front door and saw him on the other side of the glass, elbow out to the side as he adjusted his tie.
My cell phone chirped at the desk and I raced to retrieve it. The old woman was back in her seat pretending to eat the quiche.
“No openings today, I’m afraid,” she said again.
I made no reply but retrieved my phone and sprinted out the door to catch the man in the suit.
The street was empty.
I listened to my brother’s messages, sought meaning in his texts. Mike mentioned visiting the office at night and claimed once to have seen the waiting room filled with men in suits on one occasion. With my options dwindling, I did the same, parking my car across the street that evening.
“What in…” I said, opening my car door.
Where Poplar Street Eye Care had been there was now a pet store. I darted across the street and cupped my hands around my face, touching my nose to the window glass. There were snakes and lizards, the blacklight glow of aquariums in another room.
Al’s Exotic Animals
The sun-bleached signs taped to the inside of the windows indicated they had been there for some time.
I sensed my story about the vanishing ophthalmologist’s office complicated the investigation into Mike’s disappearance. Each time I called the case had been transferred to a more junior investigator.
Six months after his final voicemail I received an alert on my phone. The front door camera was triggered while I was at work. It was the time of day the mailman typically arrived, so I did not view the video then but did so later that night.
A man in a suit, face shielded from view by a fedora, stood on the porch. He pressed the doorbell once and retreated. A few seconds later he adjusted his tie and turned away.
As he did the camera captured three frames of the bottom half of his face.
The cell phone shook in my hand.