Perchance: Part IX is.
“Wake up, Pasthysa. This world is yours too, and it is a far greater world than the one to which he would possess you.”
Darkness. The pale light of the bathroom receded above him. Nothing below. The water from the tub dispersed itself into a cool mist, then into annihilation. Joe blinked, but there was no real difference between his eyes being open and his eyes being closed. The emptiness receded in all directions. The Deep opened.
He screamed, but his voice escaped beyond his ears and never echoed back. Silenced, he stopped.
He could hear himself breathing, but only barely.
Eventually, he could no longer hear his breathing either.
He could no longer feel air flowing between his fingers.
He tumbled naked, end over end, with no sense of direction.
He searched for something to anchor himself onto.
At times, he thought that he smelled something burning –
an electric burn more than the smoke of a fire –
or the faint echo of a voice. voice.
or many voices. voices.
At times, he thought that he saw movement in the Deep:
or a hand reaching out, huge, the size of Joe, with dirty nails that curled back on themselves, manipulated fingers to mirror his flailing arms and legs, like the hand was falling with him.
A stone face, eyeless, watching him fall.
He had no way of knowing if he actually saw anything.
Eventually, he gave up.
If he had had a sense of time, he would have known that he had been falling for eighteen hours, relatively. He knew that he was hungry. He was not cold. He would have been tired. He should have been.
But his mind felt as empty as the Deep.
He was afraid.
He was sad.
He was going to die here.
Finally, at the end.
Yet something is different.
Just as he became certain that it was empty, just as he had resigned himself to the notion of its endlessness, just at the border of fear and acceptance, of the shadow, sensation began to return to him. It started at the fingertips – a cold coarseness, nearly a friction. He felt the medium of the Deep: it was not like air, but like his hands were running over a fabric that ebbed and flowed across his extremities, over his nose, even down his throat, like swallowing hair
A single dot, a lone moon, in the distance, or the closest thing to such in this absence of space
that then diverged into two dots: that then multiplied into several dots: flooding: bending: swarming outwards: fading at intervals all around him: and soon, the void became full of these pin-pricks of light: holes punched in the cloth: it’s full of stars: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stele: and beyond his reach – he knew not how far – he passed some by, travelling through this silent galaxy: hearing his own strained breathing: three-dimensional: they were orbs: orbs, just like the orb that had brought him to the island that first night: drawing him in: dangling in the depths like the luminescent lures of angler fish:
next to him
one of the orbsmovedcloser:or he mayhavebeenmovingcloserto it: closer, its inner light dimmed: no longer an orb.
An image flashed on the other side, switching on like an old television screen or computer monitor: his mind struggled to make sense of it: he could see only the colors within: neon yellow, blue dusk, and black, not the same black as this wild Deep, but the darkness of shadows.
A window, suspended in the twilight reflection of an eye directed elsewhere.
Whereas Joe had thought the ring to be small, his approach revealed its monumental breadth: he turned his head to plumb its depth and dimensions: it throbbed like a stage light: resonated: blinked: searched: a searing heat: it burned and Joe felt beads of sweat form on his skin and instantly dry:
he feared the heat:
a heat that scorched and suffocated him like dead dirt of desert suburbs beneath three o’clock suns: fear broke through his blistered skin: into his bones: splitting the calcification: cracking his skeleton like an egg: and slithering beneath: into the marrow: fear caught his shallow breaths: his eyes began to water: but even the tears evaporated: he struggled to keep them open: the once featureless circumference of the ring licked the darkness: not like flames: like sound: like pounding: noise: sheer noise: sheer, sheer noise: blood rushing to the head: amplified: externalized: through eyes
Not a window.
An open door.
.flesti no denrut egami ehT The image turned on itself.
Neon yellow: a solitary lamppost.…………………………..
Dusk blue: indeed, recent night.……………………………………………………………
Gravity and mass latched onto Joe’s frame. He skidded forward onto the pocked concrete, grinding his feet to slow down. The painful friction ripped at his bare soles.
He stumbled forward, nearly collapsing, but his sore legs managed to hold him up. After the emptiness of the Deep, his eyes took a moment to adjust. He felt cold. He smelled salt.
He was standing near a body of water, although he could not tell what kind it was, whether lake, inlet, or ocean. There might have been a bridge. Yellow light shimmered on the surface, issuing from short buildings huddled together on the coast. In the night, the stars were gold. The rasping, boundless exhale of city traffic sighed through this dismal park, a dimly lit quarter of grassy turf settled between two distant apartment buildings. The grass was dead.
High above him, the light in the lamppost flickered, spilling the ground in uneven monochromatic yellow. A sickening yellow. Joe approached the lamppost, as though it might provide some warmth. It didn’t.
He looked up, directly into the light.
On invisible rungs, two featureless lumps were crawling down the lamppost, followed by another round, featureless husk affixed to the trunk of a featureless neck. They emerged into thin air, from the light itself. And the lamp light had never actually been flickering; as the body of the thing descending shifted back and forth, it eclipsed the light with less and less totality. In moving silhouette, the being had a passingly human shape, upside-down. That was all that Joe could make of it.
“Hello?” Joe wondered aloud. He blinked, pressing his eyelids closed a moment too long, as though he was trying to remember something. The silhouette made no reply. Joe backed up to the edge of the light, but remained within its radiance.
As the top of the being entered Joe’s full field of vision, its appearance became no clearer: utterly featureless, dark as ink. Weightless, it seemed – it flipped itself upright around the post. Its legs reached the ground, bending backwards further than a human knee should allow. There, wherever its shadow should have been, the silhouette shed glowing flakes, embers which sparkled on the sidewalk like discotheque sequins. Joe lost a sense of its form as it maybe turned, a turn signaled only by the shift of its lower right appendage and the glittering outline beneath it. The being had no face, no definite fingers, no place where flesh might end and clothing might begin. It seemed to hold the shape of clothes upon its skin, even with the profile of an eight piece cap upon its head, but every part of it oozed unlit and unlimited. To describe it as smoke would have neglected the deliberate intelligence of its motions. To describe it as flesh would have overlooked its fluidity, its edges flaring against the light in frothing prominences. This was no simple trick of the light.
Joe stepped away, into the dark, afraid. The silhouette stepped forward, following him. As it did, the circumference of luminous lamplight accompanied it, dragging Joe back within its glare.
Taking a quick glance behind him, Joe’s plan to run froze in his locked ankles. There, further up the path, identical silhouettes lingered beneath each successive lamppost, motionless shadows, perfect copies, expectant. He turned back to face the original figure, noting the mirrored silhouettes visible behind it too. “What are you?”
The silhouette was looking at him, with its empty oval of a head. Joe was convinced of it. He watched its dark visage with silent anticipation. Focused so on its absent face, he failed to see the steady progression of the appendages at its side. From the formless fabric of its body, twelve fingers unfurled into jointed branches, wriggling in the air like the legs of an insect. Joe only perceived them when the fingertips ignited in golden flames. He stepped back in fear, but the circle of lamplight still followed him.
“L A M P L I G H T E R S,” the burning digits replied noiselessly, spelled out in flame above the twelve fingertips.
“Lamplighters,” Joe read. “What do you want with me? Why am I here?”
The Lamplighter’s gnarled extremities receded back into its shrouded form, until only one finger remained. It swelled, a mute arm pointed upwards. A torch upwards towards the lamplight.
And the lamplight was a door, a yellow ring to another place.
“You want me to go through that?” Joe’s voice echoed towards the Lamplighter and down the path.
That is when he noticed: the city had gone quiet. The traffic no longer breathed through the park. Nothing. Silence.
The lights in all the nearby buildings burst at once, plunging the distant water into darkness. Only now did Joe see, but the black sky had quenched the stars. “What’s going on?” Joe yelled, his voice resonating through the empty cityscape. Without moving at all, the Lamplighter seemed to point upwards with greater insistence. Joe rushed to the lamppost.
He reached out for whatever rungs the Lamplighter had climbed down on, but he found nothing to hold onto. Frantic, he stretched out again, and a third time, but his hands grasped no handholds. Bewildered, he went to turn back to the Lamplighter, but he couldn’t; the ground gave way beneath his feet. Joe floated off the footpath, rising like a smoke ring, turning over in the air. Blood rushed to his forehead.
The lampposts at either end of the path blinked off one-by-one. In the oncoming darkness, the embers of the Lamplighters burned at their disappearing feet. Before long, only those distant embers and this last lamppost cast light into the deep twilight. At almost a leisurely pace, Joe’s feet passed through the ring, then his torso. He feared that he might not make it before the darkness reached him, but, nearly through, he watched the Lamplighter lower its arm. It looked up, and Joe saw them: its eyes.
Human eyes, or so they seemed.
And with that, another world died.
Gravity disappeared. Darkness. Unlike his last fall, Joe did not feel like he was falling at all. In fact, he was not falling at all.
In an instant, the Deep tore his skin from his body, his muscles from his bones, his spine from his skull. His thighs split, wrenched asunder, and he fell from deep within his bowels. He did not have time to scream, but he did have enough time to feel the pain, the fulfillment of the process that had begun as he retched blood in the shower stall so many hours ago. Removed. He had enough time for fear to flash through his eyes and rest there, in his pupils. Desperate, he was desperately afraid. Afraid, until only his eyes remained.
She ran through the woods, crushing dead leaves beneath her shoes at a pace that rivaled the speed of a falling tree.
“What did you do?” she screamed in horror, unable to understand. “What did you do?” and he did not answer her. He heard her but did not follow her. He had to continue his plans for the both of them. Even so angry, her voice seemed optimistic, albeit with a misplaced hope. From the moment that he had first heard her voice, he had been enthralled. She carried herself with some untraceable, confident energy, unable to be confined. He could not tell if it was simply in his own head, but whenever she entered a room, the whole place seemed to brighten.
She found the first body at the edge of the lake, the body of a woman with black hair and sharp, lifeless eyes, set into a gentle face. Kneeling and clutching the frail form, she shook her desperately, wailing. She did not know how to hold up the severed neck, still strewn in wet blood, slipping in the mud to keep this woman whom she loved, a woman who had raised her and held her in childhood, in a position of dignity.
Laying this woman down, she looked to the cold water, through the fog. A little ways away, the second body bobbed face down, the waves still lapping the shore violently after the fresh struggle. Rebekah waded heroically into the frigid shallows and pulled the body back to shore. Her damp dress and soaked hair felt like they might freeze as she dropped her own shaking frame next to the second corpse.
She had positioned them side by side, where they belonged. The second woman had raised Rebekah together with the first. They were her family once. The second woman had a freckled face and a pinched, upturned nose, divoted at the tip, which had lent a sense of false or unintentional patronization to her countenance. She had wide cheeks, which had taken on a sickening blue hue, and a firm jaw, outlined by her auburn hair.
The young woman held onto them both, but she had to let them go. The people whom she loved were gone, and there was only one person left. She should have understood why, yet only one idea occupied her passions, a thought that entered her heart at the same time the smell of smoke reached her nose. The smoke came from the distance, billowing over the unreachable needles of the pine trees. It came from the direction of her home.
She marched silently against the pollution, blinking the burning sensation from her eyes. The late evening air darkened, and the orange glow of fire fed the sunset. Her march became a run.
Reaching the edge of the Evergreen Jungle, she looked on as fire consumed the upper floor of her Lodging. A pile of firewood and an axe lingered beneath the back windows. She snuck from the woodland, watching for his approach, and hoisted the axe in both hands. She circled the house, finding no sign of him until she arrived at the porch. On the steps, he waited for her and smiled at his heroic attempt. Ash sprinkled his hair. “We can finally leave, Rebekah,” he beamed with a smile. “They won’t stop us. Give me the map.”
“Why?” she hissed, somehow still unable to understand his actions. She raised the axe over her shoulder and approached him.
“Why? What do you mean why? I did this for us.” He pulled himself up onto the deck of the porch and stood. “Bekah, what are you doing?”
“You killed them.”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Don’t be an idiot. I didn’t kill anyone! They weren’t real. The only real thing here is you. I’m saving you.” His smile became a desperate snarl. He continued backing up, reaching around behind himself for the door handle. “Bekah, put down the axe.”
She ran at him, but he opened the door and ducked inside before she could bring her weapon down on his head. He tried to push the door closed. She barged in, pushing through the gap. He reeled backward down the hallway, looking for something to defend himself. Inside, a smoky haze obscured the ceiling and stung their eyes. The Lodging groaned and deteriorated.
“Why are you doing this?” he yelled. As he rushed to grab a lamp, his hands passed through it. Then, the lamp was gone. The side table that it rested upon likewise vanished, as did the carpet beneath it, and the adjacent wall. On the other side, two ornate sofas burned in a wrecked living room. He dashed inside to the far wall near the kitchen, attempting to escape her. She swung the axe towards him and once again missed, burying its blade inches beneath the wallpaper. “What’s happening?” he hollered, as the sofas too disappeared.
“How could you do this?” she screamed back. “You destroyed everything.” She struggled to remove the blade from the wood paneling, but it refused to budge. Deprived of her weapon, he charged her and threw her onto the ground, tripping over her in the process. She scrambled on top of him, beating his nose and cheeks with her fists, but he struck back, knocking her onto the charred floor. Pulling himself upright, he dragged her by the arm back towards the entrance of the Lodging. She struggled against him. He would not let her go. He never planned to let her go. In the main hallway, opened with the disappearance of each inner wall like a hungry maw, a loud thud from behind, heard above the roar of the flames, caught him off guard. His grip slackened for a moment as he turned to see what could have made such a sound. It slackened just enough for her to get her arm free and scramble to her feet. She ran to the noise somewhere near the kitchen, and he followed her.
The wall had disappeared. The axe lay on the ground, just outside of a tract of flames. He nearly got to her first, but she dove for the axe and swung at him. She caught him just below his left knee, tearing all the way to the bone. He fell to the ground in howling pain, unable to hold himself up. She had crippled him. He began to drag himself away towards the front door, blood leaking from the wound in a crimson stain along the floor. She tracked behind him, holding the axe limply, watching him. “Please, Bekah. No,” he repeated over and over, his voice hoarse. The heat felt closer now, and the smoke swam in her mind.
She stalked him to the entranceway. There, on the other side of the doorframe, two figures waited: the Night Mare and the silhouette of the Lamplighter. The Night Mare’s eyes reflected the fire, her glare directed towards the human.
“He did not see us.”
“He must not be allowed to live. He cannot be allowed to live. He should not be allowed to live.”
She nodded and hoisted her axe in the air, yet, as another wall faded to reveal another room, she stopped. In the corner of her eye, almost too far away to see, she saw her reflection in the glass of a picture frame. She was not alone. She was not herself. Two people held the axe with her: the truth, and a young man, torn from himself, and his eyes torn from his body. Fear crept over her skin. She dropped the weapon and lurched back, further into the Lodging. “It isn’t real,” she assured herself. “It wasn’t real.” Her family was dead. She thought that she was alone, but there was someone else there. “It isn’t real,” but she spoke these words without comfort.
“You are real.”
The man turned onto his back and watched her, confused. He reached for the axe and propped himself up. “You see, it isn’t real!” he yelled to her. “I a-,” he began, but a light surrounded him, and he was returned.
The doorway was empty.
She watched the rekindling fire consume everything until the only thing left was her. The ceiling disappeared. The inner walls disappeared. The furniture disappeared. Only the roof, the floor, the outer walls, and the windows remained, amidst the blaze.
The smoke overwhelmed her lungs. Her vision faded. The flames licked her body, but she could not feel them anymore. Suffocating, she could not feel them destroy her flesh and her mind. There was the spoiled smell of cooked, rotted meat. Eventually, she died, the open door in front of her, a door that she did not want to exit. As her carcass collapsed, colliding with the planks, a second body sprung out of hers, through her eyes – a new vision. Frail, it crawled through the embers to a perfect circle of orange cinders. The circle broadened and united into a ring, and darkness inhabited the center. The frail body reached out with an uneasy hand. Finally, it dropped through, into the Deep, deeper than he could understand.
“He used to play chess,” the little boy observed to Detective Duvern. The child hung his arms limply over the back of the striped couch and rested his cheeks on the cushion in utter boredom. “In the courtyard. He used to play with a knight in flower armor.”
“I said that’s enough, Will,” the little boy’s mother said, shooing him away. She returned her attention to Duvern, who was sipping a cup of lukewarm tea at the kitchen table. “Sorry about him.”
“Don’t worry about it, Miss. That’s all the questions I had anyways. Thank you for your time.” Duvern stood, following the mother as she showed her to the door. In all her time on the police force, Duvern had never dealt with such a strange case. So far, none of the old man’s neighbors had offered any substantial leads. Nobody seemed to really know him at all. He had odd habits, like always leaving his door open. All she really knew was, earlier that day, a few of the tenants saw him fall past their windows from the roof and heard a thud when he hit the ground. He fell from eight stories onto the courtyard concrete below. There was a point of impact, a crater outlined in red. Forensics tested the blood, a ring of O-negative splattered around a perfect radius, and it matched the blood type that they had on file for the old man. She had no doubt that DNA tests would prove the same. There was only one problem: his body was nowhere to be found.
Consulting her phone, Duvern decided that it was too late to continue her interviews. She summoned the unreasonably slow elevator from the lobby and, after nearly five minutes of waiting, stepped inside. “Maybe that’s why he jumped,” she joked morbidly to herself, listening to the cables of the elevator swing and the walls screech in protraction. “Any way down is faster than this.” When she neared the fifth floor after what felt like an eternity, her heart sank as the elevator chimed. The doors rolled open like a cat’s yawn, and a man stood on the other side. “Sorry,” he observed, avoiding her gaze. She noted the scratched face of his watch when he reached over to press the button for the third floor. “Sorry,” he repeated again, leaning into the corner on a tree branch of a cane. Once again, the doors shut. The cables yanked the elevator downward. The man watched the numbered lights: “four, three,” she heard him breathe.
The third floor emerged. It was an older looking floor, with wood paneling completely different from the interior decoration of the rest of the building. “Forgive me. Sorry to use you like this,” the man sighed, hurrying out. He spoke like a guest at a funeral, addressing a child of the deceased. She found it peculiar.
As he turned the corner, she noticed something else odd. On his lapel, the man wore a pin, the crest of a flower bouquet. “A knight in flower armor,” she repeated to herself, but before she could pursue the man, the doors shut more quickly than they had before. The elevator shook towards the lobby. Duvern went to press the button again for the third floor. She stopped. The button was gone. The labels skipped directly from level two to level four. Uneasily, she waited and read the panel over, again and again, but the third floor did not return. The third flood withdrew, folding between ceiling and floor, roof and wall.
The unblinking doors of the elevator waited for her to exit, opening into the unremarkable lobby. Plastic chairs, unsuccessfully painted to resemble wood, lined the egg-shell walls, and an emerald vacancy sign hung in the barred window. Duvern backed out and turned to the main desk, manned by a girl who, based on the depth of her dark circles, had clearly been working a double shift. The detective, resting a hand on the desk to get the girl’s attention, leaned forward and hurriedly inquired, “Why doesn’t the elevator have a button for the third floor?”
“Huh?” The girl, half-asleep in her chair, leaned up. She pressed a finger against her neck, powering on her e-drums. Duvern noted the prominent scars; the procedure had been recent. “Can you repeat the question?” the girl hesitated, signing out of habit along with her spoken words. The detective repeated her question. Immediately, the girl’s eyes widened. “You’ve seen floor three?”
“Why is that a surprise?”
“Well, yeah! It’s a big one. Back when they built this place in the Nineties,” at this point, the girl realized that she was signing. Her hands eagerly flew in explanation, ahead of her words. Bringing them to a stop, she situated her palms on the desk.
“You’re fine,” Duvern assured the girl. Her assurance ended in a pause, indicating that she did not know the girl’s name.
“Angela.” Angela loosened her rigid shoulders, resting on her elbows and freeing her hands again. “When they first built this place,” she resumed, her fingers dancing, “the construction crew, the architect, whoever it was, they were superstitious. It’s common practice in a lot of buildings, but they planned to skip the thirteenth floor. Except, when they sent out the work orders, they forgot the one, so three ended up getting deleted from the schematics, not thirteen. The mistake was even implemented in the elevator panel. Somewhere along the line, just before they finished building the place, someone else bought it and the mistake was missed in the transition. So there is no floor three, and no one has ever been bold enough to fix it.”
“But there is,” Duvern protested, pointing back to the elevator. “I saw it. A man pushed the button, and the floor was there.”
The girl nodded. “On any given day, if you were to take any set of stairs or ride any of the elevators, you would never see floor three. There are residents who have lived here for more than thirty years, and most of them would tell you that they have never seen any indication of a third floor.”
“But-,” Duvern pressed.
“But, not every resident would have the same story. My first day working here, a few months back, a maintenance woman claimed she nearly got stuck there. She quit the next day. There’re even articles about floor three, and a website with some stories.”
The detective took a picture from her bag. “Did this man ever mention anything about the third floor?”
Angela’s eyes furrowed at the sight of the photo. She sighed. “Philip. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“That remains to be seen. Did he ever talk about floor three?”
“Yes. Yes, Philip talked about the third floor all the time. He never left the building much, so he just used to wander a lot, especially at night. Some nights, he would come down to the desk and tell me about everything happening here. Gossip mostly. But he also claimed to see things. According to him, he had been on the third floor a few times. He claimed it was a gateway.”
“He never said. I never really believed much about it, even though it definitely made this place more interesting. I’m sure that people have theories. I know that he wrote a few posts on the website. When Philip would talk about it with me, he would always grin like he knew something else he couldn’t say, like it was some kind of magical secret. It was like a bedtime story, where he expected you to believe anything just because it was fantastic.”
“Did he ever mention anyone else along with the third floor? Someone who lived there?”
“No, no one specific. But he never really talked like he was alone there. Honestly, it just freaks me out.”
Duvern leaned her back against the desk, staring thoughtfully at the elevator. She shook her head. “Huh. Ok. Thanks for your cooperation. I may have some more questions later.” She handed Angelica her business card and grabbed a peppermint from a bowl at the exit. “Call me if you think of anything else important. Have a good night.”
“Do you think he was pushed or he jumped?” Duvern’s partner speculated over the rising steam of a newly-filled styrofoam cup of coffee. Duvern had worked with Detective Martha Wingard for the last two years. Whereas Duvern had lived in San Francisco for most of her life, Martha had transferred up to the Bay Area after nine years working for the LAPD. Duvern admired her partner’s cool sensibility. A mother of two children, family life had made Martha no less gruesome on the job, and consequently no less astute. “I think he jumped. Definitely,” Martha continued, answering her own question while staring at the pile of evidence strewn between them. She picked up a photograph of the impact crater. “Jesus, that’s a lot of fucking blood.”
“What makes you so sure?” Duvern pulled her chair in closer.
“For starters, this.” Martha handed her a picture. It was a photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge. Bathed in blue light, the sun blocked out by fog, the image felt cold in Duvern’s hands. She held it up to her desk lamp, peering at it with tired eyes.
“What about it?”
“Look at the back.”
Duvern flipped the photo over. On the back, in black ink, a poem consumed the blank space and left no margins:
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.
“Where did Miller find this?”
“He found it on the fridge. Held up by a magnet” Martha replied, extending a hand to take the photo back. “The old man was clearly disturbed.”
“Or, maybe he was just a poet.”
“What’s the difference?” Martha chuckled to herself. As she saw her partner’s face, however, she stopped. “What’s wrong?”
“Look at the grocery list, the address book. The handwriting doesn’t match.”
“That can’t be right. Let me take a look.” Martha compared the scraps of paper, considering and weighing every single letter in her head. “Alright, so what? So someone else wrote it for him. That’s fine. That’s a lead.”
Duvern slid a piece of paper across the table to her partner. It was not in an evidence bag.
“Where’d you get this?” Martha prodded. Duvern only shook her head. Scrutinizing her colleague as thoroughly as the handwriting, Martha finally arrived at a conclusion. “The samples are the same, I think. Maybe.”
“I think so too.” Duvern leaned back in her chair, clutching her eyes.
“What’s going on, Hope?”
“It’s my handwriting. That’s my handwriting.”
Martha did not respond. She simply reached over and grabbed a notebook off Duvern’s desk. Thumbing through it, ripping the corners of pages with each increasingly frantic turn, she slammed the notebook shut and dropped it on the floor.
The impact rang hollow, muffled by the dense carpet and cubicle walls of the police station.
“What the fuck?” Martha breathed.
“So a whole floor just disappeared?” Martha managed, exhausted. The microwave clock behind her read ‘3:07,’ and the jade lights of the city skyscrapers, visible through the curtain of the kitchen window, defied the approach of daylight. She sat across from Duvern in the latter’s apartment, having driven her partner home from work. After the enigma of the poem, Martha refused to leave her partner alone. Initially, she had offered to stop for a drink, but both knew they were too tired.
“Yeah. It’s weird.”
“We need to figure out what the hell is going on. Tomorrow, we go back to that building and find that third floor. The answers have to be there.”
Duvern nodded, but she was not completely sure. “We need to get some sleep. You can use my couch, if you want. It’s late, and I don’t think it’s safe for us to drive right now, given everything.”
“I’m not leaving you until we get this thing figured out. Taryn can handle the kids. Someone copied your handwriting. Let’s hope they don’t try to get into your apartment.” Martha placed her sidearm on the table. “Or they’re going to have to deal with two of us.”
Duvern half-heartedly smiled. “Thank you.” She stood and walked to her room, closing the door gently, taking a last glance at Martha as she did. “Good night.”
After she turned off the lights, she got into bed without bothering to change her clothes. She tried to fall asleep. She really tried. Surely, she thought she would feel tired. She should have been. But her mind would not stop. She felt like she was running in place. An image flashed across her eyelids: the image of the old man, the victim, but the image was not like a photograph. It was like a reflection, and she felt suddenly as though she was going to be sick. She rolled out of bed. With open eyes, the room looked strange, cast in visibility blue and trickling. The unhinged objects blurred like a projection. Every part of her body felt overheated.
Whump. A shallow knock came from the wall closest to her. Whump. It moved lower. Whump. The knock became level with her head.
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 within 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 only way you could ever be.” The mangled, torn limbs went limp. And as his words faded away, he ripped one of the wings from the night mare’s back, dropped the body, and held it up to the light with hungry, curious eyes.