Perchance: Part IX – Getting Across is, and Perchance: Part IX still is, but things may have changed since the last time you were here. Indeed, many things may have changed, and not just here. Click here for Part VIII, or here for the entirety of Part IX.
Are you paying attention now? Or has your mind wandered elsewhere? We really can’t let that happen again.
You know, as a professor, I would sometimes have extra days at the end of a semester, after I had finished up early with everything in my lesson plan. Sometimes, I would use that time to help my students review for final exams or final papers–or I might cancel those last few classes entirely and leave the students to use their time as they saw fit–but sometimes I used that time to teach my students the Truth, the only truth in this world meriting a capital T. I taught them as well as I could the very same thing that I am endeavoring to remind you of now: that none of this is really happening. None of this needs to happen.
I used to put it in a bit more of an eloquent way, at least as I understood it: reality does not possess the linearity that we assume it to have, or that we impose upon it; there really is no difference between assumption and imposition here. I had to phrase it “maybe, reality does not possess the linearity that we assume it to have, or that we impose upon it.” I had to phrase it that way, as speculation. That “maybe” was important. People cling to their reality. Any challenge to it, any threat to it, invokes hostility. Of course, you would know that better than most.
I tried to tell them. I was trying to tell them for you, Rebekah. I tried to tell them that, in all the folds of reality and unreality, that we humans were lucky: an oasis in the midst of chaos, the victors of order. I tried to tell them that all things were possible, but that in our waking world, we perceived only one course of events, only one thread of being. There is no discernable difference between randomness and order, if randomness keeps spitting out the same answer for long enough. Given enough time, infinite time, you could shuffle a deck back into the right order, and there was then no practical difference between a fresh deck and the reordered deck, and between those decks and the next time it might be shuffled back into the right order. Or, transposing the infinite digits of pi as letters, one might be able to find therein all the collected works of our reality, after sifting through all the chaos of the other digits. In short, how do you know that we exist in infinite order, or order in infinite chaos? Multiverses! Magic! All of it potentially valid.
I don’t think that many of my students understood. I think that even fewer cared. I don’t think that your plan was ever going to work.
Sorry. I shouldn’t lecture you. I didn’t think that I would have to tell you this. But you’ve been trapped in a fantasy for too long. Even a story is a lie.
None of this is real. None of it.
Of course, you were the one who taught me this in the first place. I just can’t understand why you don’t seem capable of admitting it to yourself.
It scares me more than any monster,
For I could smile at a monster
And then it might become a friend.
To see it, I hung it
Where I could always see it, pinned it.
But it can always see me too,
With eyes red, from a blood moon.
To feel the fear, that brings me home.
Duvern pulled herself up, leaning against her bed. She stared at the blank, silent wall. Her heart felt like it had expanded in her chest, pressing in on her lungs. She felt the blood pounding in her temples. The room was spinning.
She felt afraid. Something was inside. But there was only silence. She pulled herself up onto the bed, resting on her side so that she faced the wall. Then, she fell asleep. She dreamed. She dreamed outside herself.
Shortly after he turned thirty-four, Joseph Philip Wood moved to San Francisco. He lived there alone and had lived there, that way, ever since. He thought that he might get used to living alone. In a way, he did. In fact, most nights, he enjoyed it. He enjoyed the freedom. He enjoyed the company of his co-workers and friends, while also having a space entirely his own. He would have been able to enjoy it more, except some nights he had trouble sleeping. Sleeping by himself was difficult. Sitting awake, alone, the room lit only by the television at three in the morning, was lonely. On those nights, he sometimes felt sad. More often, he felt silent.
He tried to cut out coffee. He switched to green tea. He quickly abandoned green tea as well. He tried going to bed earlier. He tried warm milk. He tried different pajamas. He tried sleeping medications. In small ways, they worked, but every now and then there were rare nights where he simply could not sleep. No matter how much Joe tried, his mind never ceased. It itched, as though trying to remember something that he had forgotten.
After Joe retired in 2069 at the age of seventy-four, the restlessness became worse. He saw people less, but that never seemed to really be the reason. Beneath the high, vacuous ceilings of his apartment, he began to fear more and more the thought of dying alone. He feared the idea that his body would not be found until days later, when the smell of it reached beneath the door and the flies had already eaten his eyes. Still, even these fears were not the source of his sleeplessness. He had no idea what was.
One night, he went to brush his teeth at the sink and realized that he was not alone. He flipped the switch, and the lights above the sink blinked, flashed between bright and dim, clicked like a chirping grasshopper. He watched the light, wondering if the bulbs were loose, wondering if the breaker was fried. Toothpaste drooling lazily from the side of his mouth, he began to detect a pattern in the clicks, not a decipherable one, but an intention, like beauty from the notes of a Schoenberg twelve-tone composition. As he turned to shut the lights off, they turned themselves off. The red filaments dulled. The pale light from the next room filtered through the bathroom door.
With the kind of foreknowledge typically reserved for dreams, nightmares, or encounters with the supernatural, the kind of creeping feeling gifted by ghost stories, Joe knew not to turn around. He backed out of the bathroom, weary of his own wrinkled reflection, a reflection that he watched and that watched him back, with eyes that seemed more intent than his own. Even in the darkness, they looked red. Bloodshot.
Joe closed the door behind him, and, with the click of the handle – whump – a knock came from the front door of his apartment, followed by another, and a third. Each knock was gentle. Making his way over, Joe looked through the peephole in the door. Finally, he undid the chain lock and opened to the hallway. There, a black woman with wet hair stood across from him, but she did not look at him. She looked past his head, into the room beyond, lit vaguely by a single lamp.
‘You’re not safe here,’ she whispered. ‘Follow me.’
‘Who are you?’ he asked, but she walked away, down to the end of the hallway and out of sight. Joe followed her, closing the door behind him. His eyes adjusted to the green glow of the exit sign. Beneath it, the door to the stairwell stood half ajar.
Joe hesitated. Looking back, he saw the door of his room open, from the inside. Without a second thought, he went into the stairwell. The woman’s footsteps banged against the metal steps, down towards the lobby. Joe skipped down after her, his legs aching beneath him, but he could never quite catch up.
As he passed the landing on the fifth floor, the air began to smell like salt water. As he passed the fourth, the metal began to rust and turn a ruddy hue. Joe could hear the screeching of gulls but no longer the clang of the woman’s footfalls. Stepping onto the third-floor landing, he noticed that the door, a red, metal slab of a gate, was half-open. He pushed it out of the way, into fog. The ground was made of concrete, and the ceiling – there was none, only the fog and the night sky and crimson cables, attached to a burgundy tower. He stepped out a little more. The headlights of a car passed on his left, following a line of receding lampposts into the mist. Somehow, Joe realized, the door had exited onto a walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge.
He went back to the door, but darkness filled the entry, and – and it might have been his eyes playing tricks on him – a silhouette was there, in that darkness. So Joe kept moving, hurrying along the sidewalk of the bridge. He hoped to catch up with the woman, but there was no one in sight. A few cars crossed here and there, but he seemed to be alone. He approached the railing, hanging over the side. The dark water danced below, impenetrable, frothing up in currents intent. Joe’s grip on the railing grew tighter, resisting the sting of the cold metal. He leaned further forward, catching sight of the chain-link net.
“Everything alright, man?”
Joe pulled back from the edge, turning to face the speaker. A short man in a thick tweed trench coat, with a sunflower clipped to his collar, held a wooden cane in one hand and the hand of a woman in the other. It only took Joe a second to realize that the woman was the same woman who had brought him here in the first place. Her hair was still wet, and her eyes shined like watery reflections on the stony roof of a grotto. “I know you,” the man continued, his honest smile barely visible beneath his mustache. “We live in the same building.”
“Who are you?” Joe pressed, pushing pleasantries aside.
The woman squeezed the man’s hand and let it go. “We volunteer,” she answered. “Walk the bridge between both sides. Make sure that everyone makes it one way or another. Across. Across safe. Across alive.” She took a step closer. “Some people who come here don’t plan to make it to the other side. Some people come here because they’re afraid. Some people come here. Why are you here, Joe?”
“You brought me here.”
The woman nodded. He was surprised that she admitted it. “Are you afraid, Joe?”
Joe did not know how she knew his name, a name that he had not gone by since college. That did not seem to matter. “Yes, a little, yeah.”
“But not of the darkness. You shouldn’t be afraid of the darkness. You don’t have to be. It’s just something else. Someone else.”
The man spoke up. “But you’re afraid of yourself.”
The woman snapped a look at the man. “Fear is not your enemy, Joe. But you have to accept it. There are horrors in your world that you cannot imagine. But you must face them.”
She looked at the man, then back to the door, open, barely discernable through the cool vapor.
“Start. Get across. Leave your door open.”
Joe followed their gaze to the door and began walking towards it. He expected them to follow but did not hear them. When he went to look for them from the doorway, they were no longer there.
Duvern woke up the moment her nose hit the floor. It was nearly noon. She frantically threw on a new pair of clothes and went out to her studio area. The couch was empty. “She must have left,” the detective observed, confused and a little annoyed. “Not even a note.” Her conclusion was further affirmed by the absence of Martha’s car down by the sidewalk.
Without a ride, Duvern hailed a self-driving taxi to the police station so that she could pick up her own car. After wading through traffic for nearly half-an-hour, she got out of the car a block from headquarters. As she went to close the door, the scanner refused to recognize her wrist code for payment. Several failed attempts later, she resorted to punching her address into the monitor, so that they could bill her at her house later. Satisfied, the car affirmatively chirped and zipped away towards some new customer.
By the time that she arrived at the gate to the bullpen, Duvern had already had enough with the strangeness of these last two days. She conjured up a smile to McDonough as she reached into her back pocket for her badge. Normally, he would have ringed her in on sight from fifteen feet away, but today he looked straight at her and didn’t seem to register her. Feeling around, she found only empty air in her pocket. “Can I help you, lady?” he grumbled, barely extending her the courtesy of looking at her through his bifocals. It was in this brusque moment that she recognized how stupid his flat haircut looked on his globular forehead.
“Damn it.” She felt around in all her pockets but could find neither her badge nor her wallet. “Zach, could you just let me in? I think I left my badge on my desk last night. I stayed late for a case and forgot it.”
“What badge?” McDonough shut his crossword book and lowered his bifocals to the end of his nose, “Are you confused, lady? Who the hell are you?”
“Listen, Zach, I need you to let me in. I don’t have time for this.”
“That’s Officer McDonough. I don’t know you from Adam, so don’t expect me to let you in without some kind of id. What did you say your name was? Do you have an appointment?”
“It’s me, Zach. Detective Hope Duvern. We’ve worked together for years.”
“Like Hell we have.”
“You’re not on the list, Hope.”
“Did Martha put you up to this?” Duvern smiled, finally thinking that she had caught him. She laughed lightly and waited for McDonough to do the same. “Come on, Zach.”
Duvern saw the complete ignorance in McDonough’s face. No twitch at the corner of his mouth, no strain on the eyebrows. There was no indication he was trying to hide something, trying to play some kind of prank. Duvern, however, tensed her shoulders, trying to keep herself anchored to the ground, trying to keep her mouth from shaping to the circle of the full horror cast before her. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Just a mistake. Have a good day.” She backed away slowly, watching McDonough as he seemed to debate whether or not to let her go so easily. In an act utterly inconsequential, he dismissed her existence and opened up his crossword puzzle to a new page.
“Across. One Across,” he droned.
Her car was gone. As several of her former colleagues trickled in and out of the station, none of them looked at her with anything approaching recognition. She had no phone, no money. Her attempts to call her parents on a stranger’s phone led her to strangers on the other end.
So here she was, back at the apartment building with a third floor that did not exist.
“Hello!” Angela greeted her at the desk, refreshed in the early afternoon. Duvern didn’t answer her. She was about to pass her by, when suddenly the young woman added, waving her hands. “Long time no see! Here to solve the mystery?”
Hope Duvern nearly cried as she approached the desk. “You remember me?”
“We all remember each other here.” Angela’s eyes widened in devastating thrill, shining from her eye sockets like lightbulbs. “You should take the stairs.”
The detective decided to heed her words. She went to the stairwell next to the elevator. With each step, Angela’s eyes widened more and more, saucers in the skull. “Good-bye, Hope,” Angela called, as the door to the stairwell closed, empty. The Night Mare placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
The lobby was empty.
Duvern walked up each step cautiously, listening to every sound, every bend of the thin metal sheets beneath her feet. Every motion felt momentous. Finally, she reached the second floor and kept going. Again, she reached the second floor. The number ‘2’ blazed against the black panel on the wall. Still, she kept going. She reached the second floor. This time, she stopped. She went through the door and explored the circumference of hallways, winding around back to the stairwell. She went up another flight of steps. There was the second floor. She sprinted up the stairs. ‘4.’ Back down. ‘4.’ ‘4.’ 4. 4. 4. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 4. 4. 4. 4. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 4. She sat on the steps, her head in her hands. She cried but eventually, as she had had to, stood up. 2. 4. 2. 4. 2. 4. 2. 4. 2. 4. 2. 4. 4. 4. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. 2. She took a break, exhausted, clutching the railing.
How could she go on?
- The third floor. She stumbled through the door, her hands trembling. Pillars of red metal broke through ornaments of scuffed wood panels, like the shadowy engine room of some ancient, crushed cruise ship. Shadows hung on the walls like tapestries.
The hallway continued onwards, and, as it did, the metal melted away until only the wood remained. The shadows became torn curtains of a deep blue cloth. At the end of the hallway, a vacant doorway.
She entered. Empty desks faced the setup of an empty podium. A brass plaque was scrawled in mostly gibberish, except for the number 1965. A painting of an old man hung dead against the pallid lumber. There were tables at the other end of the room. Most of the chairs at the tables were empty. Not all. A head of white hair, facing away from her, looked out an open window through the blue curtains. There was nothing that she could see on the other side of the window.
She approached cautiously. Reaching for her holster out of habit, she found that it wasn’t there. Despite herself, the wood creaked beneath her boots. The face turned.
“Hello,” Joe Wood offered, standing up from the chair. “Who are you?”
“You’re dead!” Duvern fired back.
“No, I don’t think that I am.”
“You jumped off the roof! Two days ago.”
“Believe me when I tell you that I have spent a great deal of my life trying to avoid that exact outcome.”
“Who are you really?” Duvern said, rejecting his answers. “You can’t be him!”
“Something tells me that both of you are getting very tired of those kinds of questions.” The man from the bridge, the same man from the elevator, sat at a desk at the back of the room, watching them both. His clothes were covered in living flower petals, as was his wooden staff. His sharp eyes darted between them. “I know that I was, once.”
“Then you should try answering them,” Duvern offered in exasperation.
She threw up her hands. Still, she was unwilling to let the topic go. “I saw you. In a dream, you spoke to Philip. You and that woman. Told him to leave his door open. Why?”
Joe offered an answer. “They would visit me, sometimes. Most nights, they wouldn’t, and people would just pass by. My neighbors, mostly. A few of them asked me to close my door. They said it wasn’t safe, but I never listened. I left it open. Of course, there were some nights I hesitated. Some nights, strangers would pass by and linger and stare just a little too long. It freaked me out. But they never came in. Only those two. We discussed things that I … can’t quite remember.”
“But how did you get here?”
“I don’t remember that either.”
“You wouldn’t,” the man in flowers interrupted. “That’s not how these things work. But you will eventually.”
Duvern confronted him now. “Why does no one remember me? Or Martha? Where is she?”
“She is fine, I assure you. She exists. You exist. You just never existed here. And, Hope, I have to apologize for the way things had to go. You see, Joe was leaving his door open for you.”
“What does that mean?” Her eyes widened. “Tannhauser?”
Joe Wood staggered down the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge. He ignored every sign that tried to tell him something he no longer cared to hear, racing to outpace his eyes. Waning moonlight filtered around the towers and onto the right side of his face. Bikers weaved between the traffic of pedestrians, and cars zipped over the lined asphalt in either direction. Everyone had somewhere to go, including Detective Hope Duvern.
As the old man reached the middle of the bridge, he came close to the railing and trembled, attempting to exert a calmness and acceptance over his fear. Most passerby would have thought that he shook because of the cold. But he was wearing a warm jacket, a scarf, and a wool shirt. A few people glanced at him wearily. He leaned to look over the side and squeezed the bar until his knuckles showed themselves for bones. The deep water bubbled randomly in swirling eddies. He could hardly imagine how cold it would be. But he did not imagine he would feel it for long.
“Don’t jump.” A woman’s voice grabbed onto his mind. In his periphery, he saw her lean over the railing with him.
“Sorry for assuming. Is everything alright? Need to talk?”
“I’m fine,” he whispered.
Detective Duvern slid a little closer, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad to hear that. Tell me more.”
Joe looked at her but did not recognize her. This no longer surprised her. That was no longer the point. “I’m.” He could not think of anything else to say.
“You are. You are you. You are?”
She bobbed her head and laughed, tightening her grip. “I’m me. I’m Hope. What are you afraid of, Joe?”
“Nothing.” He tried to pull away. She loosened her fingers but did not let go.
“That’s not exactly the truth, is it?” He did not respond. “I used to be afraid of a lot of things, and I still am. It’s a bit silly, but I’m absolutely afraid of birds.”
“Yeah! And I’m afraid of that thing where you mix pop candy and soda, that it could explode your stomach, because I really like both of those and I don’t want to give them up. Black holes freak me out.”
“Huh.” He didn’t really notice, but she watched his left hand let go of the railing.
“I’m afraid of other things. Some personal ones. Generally, I’m afraid of no longer being myself, and I’m afraid of dying. I’m really afraid of leaving before I can help enough people. Not to be remembered, but just because I should do more while I can. That last one keeps me up at night. That last one makes me feel like I’m slipping from my own throat, like I can’t breathe, when it hits me sometimes. Do you ever feel like that?”
“I guess so.” Joe again attempted to pull away from her. “Is that why you’re talking to me?”
“No, Joe. I’m talking to you because you ‘guess so.’ Because it’s a start. Because you’re afraid. And you’re alive. And because you’re crying.” Joe’s other hand fell from the railing. “Because you made a promise that you have to keep. To stay alive. And to help a friend of ours. It’s alright to feel afraid, Joe, as long as you keep feeling.”
More people watched them now, but no one stopped. Joe fell away from the railing onto the path, his mouth shaped in a circle of horror. Duvern sat next to him. “I won’t always be here for you again. I’m sorry that you have to go through this. But you have to stay alive. For all of us.”
“Why?” Joe cried.
“I have a feeling that you are getting very tired of those kinds of questions, but I can’t answer them. All I can do is ask you, please, stay alive.” Despite herself, her cheeks were damp. “Ok?” She took Joe’s hand. He nodded, still sobbing. “Things aren’t going to get easier. But you have to hold onto yourself through it all. I know you can. And you won’t be alone.”
“No. Just look.”
She looked up, and Joe looked with her. Through his soaked eyes, returned to him, he saw the moon darkening. It was red, a lunar eclipse at totality. “It’s beautiful,” he managed.
“And a little spooky,” she added.
A glowing red ring formed around the edges of the blood moon, flaring against the night. The inside of the ring continued to darken, until, like a red eye, the door looked down upon the pair from above. “Maybe someday I’ll get across too,” she stated hopefully. “Maybe I’ll see you then. But until then, take care of yourself.” She squeezed his wrinkled hand and let it go. All around them, the Golden Gate bent in on itself, black asphalt ringed in ruddy galvanized steel. The mass warped upwards, towards the bloody ring, and, yet again, Joe found himself falling, but this time he was falling up, not down.
An open door.
But not open for everyone.
Night circled in moonlight circled in lamplight circled in fire circled in blood.
“Are you afraid?”
He hit the ground, but softly. He clutched the back of his head, keeping his eyes closed as he attempted to understand everything that had just happened. Through his eyelids, a shadow interrupted the soft light of early daytime.
The woman with wet hair helped Joe up off the stones. His naked body embraced the sunlight that filtered through the treetops and flooded the wash. “Welcome back,” she said, contemplating their familiar surroundings.
“Where am I?” he wondered aloud. He thought he knew the answer, but she was gone.
As it rushed at him, its mouth took the crescent shape of a sharp grin. But he had learned to smile back.
If the thing bled, the carpet would have been soaked. The sheets would have been stained. The walls would have been splattered. It did not bleed.
The room was a mess: a chair turned over, a lamp smashed against the floor, and bits of light bulb scattered in the room’s uneven darkness. None of the adjacent rooms were occupied. Otherwise, another guest would have almost certainly called the front desk. But the entire hotel was all but empty.
With his limp, he nearly lacked the agility to defeat the thing, but he had the strength. He had to find a way.
If this night mare bled, Dr. Walton’s hands would have been red. His forehead would have been red. It did not bleed. But it did cry.
“Hush now,” he hissed, cradling the limp body in his arms, balancing it above the phantom scars below his left knee. “Now, you’re real.” The mangled, torn limbs went limp. And upon that final word, he ripped one of the wings from the night mare’s back, dropped the body, and held it up to the light in a toppled lamp.
I’m afraid that things are about to change even more.