Perchance: Part VIII is the eighth installment in the ongoing Perchance serial, where a new figure emerges with information about the search for Joe, and Joe and Sandra, making progress in their understanding of the island, confront terrifying entities and even more terrifying truths. For the previous installment, click here.
Still not asleep? Well, in case you forgot, I’m still here. This story does indeed have a narrator and, not to name names, it’s me. It’s quite alright that you forgot. I forgive you. I’ve been staying deliberately quiet since Part I; after all, this is a bedtime story, and I’m reluctant to be the one to disturb the illusion.
Speaking of illusions, let’s take a little survey – a rhetorical one: in dreams, how often do you think you consistently encounter the mundane? Is it a common occurrence to contemplate whether or not you’re breathing? Whether or not, so to speak, you have to use the bathroom? Whether or not you’re even walking on your own two legs, whether or not you are still human, whether or not you are still yourself? It’s easy to assume these things. You’re more likely to notice the absence of them than their certainty. You are more likely to perceive that you cannot breathe, or that you forgot to breathe, or that you forgot how to breathe, than you are to actively focus on the unquestionable, certain fact of your respiration.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward, when you consider the basic mechanics of a dream
or a nightmare.
As a dreamer, there often exists a certain anticipation to even the most chaotic dreams. If you get the feeling that a monster will be just around the next corner, it almost certainly will be there. Or it will be right behind you. Or, it will have always been with you from the beginning. If the idea that you ought to be hungry enters your sleeping mind, whether based on the orientation of the midnight sun or the time on the clock on the wall of the bedroom in the house – if it is a house, as it seems – that you should not have entered under any circumstances, regardless of the “real” state of your stomach, the mirage will address that hunger. The path of a dream is as much determined by your passive will and expectations as it is by the seeming randomness of the subconscious.
Coincidentally, perhaps, stories also often skip the mundane. When was the last time you read a book that consistently assures you that the main character is still making use of their lungs? Or saw a superhero movie stop and depict every single time a hero had to take a shower? Narrative cleanliness – it does not need to be shown. It’s assumed.
Except, can we make such assumptions?
Really, how often do you notice that you’re still breathing? How do you know that you’re breathing right now? More importantly, how do you know that you were breathing five minutes ago? How often do you check, without the idea being put in your head? How could you?
How do you know that you’re still breathing, even when you and no one else is thinking about the fact that really, you should be breathing?
How do you know that yesterday happened as you remember it? Or that it even happened at all?
Neither Joe nor Sandra were thinking about such things as they strode off the powdery beach and into a clearing of the Evergreen Jungle. This particular patch of forest was a perfectly circular haven of grass, cut around the centerpiece of a decaying, wooden table that looked more like driftwood than furniture.
“I wonder when they cleared this?” Sandra wondered aloud, the question lingering in the cool humidity. Joe took a seat at the table. He studied the circumference of the clearing, letting his gaze fall on the ever-receding array of tall tree trunks. Everything seemed normal.
Sandra sat down on the bench across from him. She pulled out the map and two scratched-up fountain pens from her messenger bag.
Joe unfolded the sheet of stale parchment, tracing an idle finger over the network of indiscriminate lines. The only intelligible aspect of the document was the word ‘MAP’ scrawled boldly in an upper corner. “What does the map look like to you?” Joe asked, opening up one of the pens and shaking the ink inside.
“A bunch of random markings. Like it’s incomplete.”
“It looks the same to me. But, and here’s my hunch,” he said, beginning to trace the pen over the lines, “what if it’s not the same? We aren’t seeing the same lines. Like the Lodging, we agree it’s a map or a cabin, but the interior has to be something shared?” Sandra watched Joe’s hand move over the map. A small smile coalesced at the edges of her mouth. She picked up the second pen and began to trace, from Joe’s perspective, entirely new lines. Interweaving the ink, meeting and branching into new shapes, they watched as the map emerged in a complete resolution. The edges of peninsulas jutted out into cartographic tides, and words like ‘Lodging,’ ‘The Wrecked,’ ‘The Neighborhood,’ ‘The Pit,’ and ‘The Stem’ became legible from incomplete scrawling, with dotted i’s and crossed t’s. As the picture became clearer, the island showed itself to follow the almost familiar contour of an imperfect oval. At the opposite coast, a thin strip of land, the part labeled as ‘The Stem,’ stretched to the edge of the map. Maybe, Joe thought, the island was not an island at all, but somehow connected to some larger continent.
Sandra’s smile had grown bigger as more and more of the map coalesced towards inky completion, breaking into a full grin. “It seems I was always going to need a partner-in-crime for this. I just can’t believe it was here the whole time.” She pointed at the map, letting her finger fall on a space not too far from the Lodging. “We must be around here. I always knew that the island was big, but this is massive.”
“Have you ever seen The Stem?”
“No,” she answered. “I haven’t.”
“Maybe there’s a chance that it could be a way out of here. The map doesn’t show where it goes; it could be connected to somewhere else, where I might be able to find a way home.”
“You’re going to try to leave?” Sandra enquired.
“Yes. I have to,” Joe curtly answered, nodding his head. “Are we sure there isn’t more of the map?” He tugged at the edges, checking if there was some further layer and finding none.
Sandra placed her hands on his, stopping them. “When you go, I’m coming with you. I’ve lived here all my life. I want to leave.”
“Sure.” Joe looked at their hands, then at her face. He squinted his eyes and looked over her shoulder out into the deep woods. “The sooner we get out of the place, the better. You know, you were right about this place being dangerous. And last night, I experienced that danger first hand. There’s something on this island. I don’t know how – maybe it’s a hallucinogen, maybe it’s something else – but the fog does things. Your nans called it a night mare.”
Sandra furrowed her eyebrows. Her nose wrinkled. For a moment, Joe thought that her face expressed some kind of recognition, but her words followed a different train of thought, something that seemed to have not occurred to her before. “What is life like, out beyond the island?”
“Life can be,” Joe thought aloud, “a lot of different things. There are no monsters, at least not the kind with claws. There are more people.” He paused. “My family and friends are there. Home – I’ve lived in the same house for years, so there’s a lot of memories. I used to have a dog there, Whiskers – it’s a stupid name for a dog, but I was eight – but he died right before I left for college. There are movie theatres and restaurants, and just a lot of people. Most days, everything is ordinary.”
Sandra nodded. “Ordinary.” She picked up the map. “I still wonder who wrote this.”
“It’s not your nans’?”
“It’s not their handwriting.”
“That’s probably just because we were the ones tracing over the lines. Where did you get it in the first place?” Joe pressed.
“It was under my bed a few days ago. The morning you arrived.”
Joe shook his head, grinding his teeth in thought. It suddenly occurred to him that, in the last few days, since the Lodging had no visible bathrooms, he had not made use of such utilities. He had not taken a shower. Nothing. At the exact time as this thought, Joe, between the forest’s natural, arboreal pillars, spotted a dark shape far wider and more rigid than a tree.
It was a building.
“What’s that?” He said, pointing in the direction of the structure and standing up.
Sandra turned. “I don’t know.”
Dr. Marcus Walton sat across from the Woods in their living room. When he had entered, introducing himself warmly, he had removed his hat and gloves and positioned himself in the middle of the couch before Robert Wood even had the chance to invite him to take a seat. Walton was shiny for his age, a tall, puffy man with a strong build, and his countenance – well-shaved, firm eyebrows, deep-set eyes – indicated the kind of probing intelligence that could both impress and put-off his peers. He seemed just on the cusp of old age, not quite ready for wisdom but not young either. He contemplated the scratched, glass hutch, the incandescent-gold ceiling-lamp, the east coast wallpaper – glossy, earthy flower patterns pinned two-dimensionally against creamy white. He had been watching their house for the last few days. It was a little strange now to see it from the inside.
“You said that you’re a professor. Are you one of Joseph’s?” Carol Wood broke the uncertain silence that Walton normally enjoyed.
He smiled in reply, scratching a hand abruptly through his uneven, white hair. “No, I don’t know your son. I teach at a university up in Washington. North Pacific. Psychology.” His voice was eloquent, bordering on casual pretention, like an American actor performing an unfamiliar monologue from a Shakespearian tragedy with no greater emotive effort than an English RP accent.
“Then why are you here? Do you know something about Joe?” In a moment, both of the Woods had suddenly shifted from welcoming to hesitant, and the change was audible in Robert’s questions. Walton worried that that hesitation would soon turn into suspicion, and he would lose his chance.
“As I said at the door, I think that I can help you. I think that your son’s disappearance is not the first time something like this has happened.” Walton looked for the best words to keep a grasp on their interest. “I teach psychology, but I have a special interest in the abnormal and the subconscious. I have some expertise in similar cases. The person who took your son, they’ve done it before.”
“So you think Joseph was taken?” Carol asked, disturbed by a likelihood that she had already accepted, even before this stranger had knocked on their door.
Walton nodded. “But he’s probably not dead.”
“No. Not yet. This is only based on the circumstances that I’ve seen from the news reports. I don’t want to say more and give you false hope, at least not any more than I’ve already given you. First, I need to see your son’s room.”
Robert was not quite convinced. “Why aren’t the police exploring something like this? If this is a serial killer … kidnapper, surely that would be the first angle they would look at.”
“They wouldn’t think to.” Walton had reached the trickiest point in the conversation. “They don’t even know that this person exists. This has been going on for a while, but there was never a confirmed connection between a lot of the cases. Not before me.” Walton paused, tightening his grip on his messenger bag. “And the last time that this individual acted, as far as I can trace it, was fifteen years ago.”
Carol and Robert looked at each other. Robert stood up. “Thank you, Dr. Walton, but I think that’s enough for one day.”
Walton did not get up. He strained his grip even tighter on his bag. He looked at Robert firmly, unwaveringly. Finally, he sighed. “Look, you might not believe me or might not think that I can help. I just need one look in your son’s room, to confirm my suspicion. The police haven’t helped you yet. They can’t help you. To them, it’s just another impossible locked-room mystery. A riddle. To me, this is important. Very important. Please.” Walton stood. “Not only can we find out who’s doing this, but I promise you that, if I can, this is the best chance of bringing your son back intact. Before the damage is done.”
Robert looked back at Carol. She nodded, and Robert shrugged and frowned. “Alright. Five minutes. Follow me.”
Sandra and Joe walked close-together towards the flat structure. Dead leaves, leaves which belonged to no nearby tree, broke crisply beneath their shoes. Each broken bit of dead foliage exhaled a cough of barely visible, unnoticed moisture, each snap bursting out like warm breath in cold air. Like a person’s last breath. Like fog.
As the two neared the gray prism, Joe recognized that it was made out of concrete. He picked up a large stick, the only thing that he could find to defend himself. “This doesn’t look like anything else on the island.” Sandra shook her head. “You’re sure no one else lives here?” Again, Sandra shook her head.
They came closer. The afternoon sun dusted the air with orange rays, playing in long shadows amongst the dirt and treeless leaves. A sign solidified legibly on the side of the building: ‘Lavatory.’ Joe dropped his stick and laughed. “Just when I need it.”
The building opened up on two ends, with one passage leading to the men’s side and the other to the women’s. Joe had seen plenty of bathrooms like this at rest stops on the side of sparse highways. “This is good,” Joe spoke aloud. He immediately made his way to the left passage, approaching the space between the wooden outer panel and the concrete interior.
“Joe, wait,” Sandra stepped toward him. He turned around at the entrance. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“It’s just a rest stop. A bathroom.”
“It wasn’t on the map.”
“It wouldn’t be. It’s one building, not a region.”
“The Lodging is on there.”
Joe shook his head and smiled. “It’s fine. It’s a necessity. I’ll be fine.” Before she could respond, Joe turned through the empty doorway and out of sight.
Sandra heard the sound of crunching leaves behind her.
The stairs creaked unevenly beneath Walton’ heavy boots. He limped, holding himself stable on the railing. In passing, he contemplated the family photos hung stepwise, in parallel to the slope of the stairs. Baby Joe, dressed like a bumblebee, smiled out from one blurred photo. Walton moved too slowly for Robert’s liking, who waited for him at the top of the stairs. “Come on,” Robert insisted.
Carol followed behind them. Together, the three entered the room. The two men stood in the doorway. Seeing the window open, lifted far more than she had remembered, Carol crossed the room to close it.
As she moved, taking care to not disturb any of the random objects left on the floor, she noticed the closet door twitch in the corner of her eye. She turned to look but saw nothing. Finally, she arrived at the window and shut it firmly, locking it without a second thought.
“Alright.” Walton clapped his hands together. “Alright,” he muttered to himself, putting his gloves back on. “Alright, let’s see.” From opposite sides of the room, Carol and Robert watched Walton inch slowly along the walls, always facing the center. “Ok,” he muttered, without any further explanation. Finishing with the perimeter, Walton went to the bed and stuck his head underneath.
Beneath the mattress, the floor was surprisingly bare, except for some spare books which, based on the width of the layer of dust on their face, Joe had probably forgotten about for the last seven years. Walton moved his head about, first this way, then that. He might have found nothing, but a stray splotch of color caught his attention, a withered pastel vibrant against the jet black of one of the legs of the bed. Walton pulled himself closer. Growing out of the wooden side of the bed leg, a small, purple flower, the new buds of a young anemone, had embedded itself into the solid frame. No markings betrayed any human intervention putting it there; the thing had simply come to be, fused and alive. The professor reached into his messenger bag for a plastic Ziploc and, with his trembling, gloved hands, plucked the flower from the wood at its stem. The small, green shoot hung loosely between his large fingers; he tenderly dropped the frail thing into the plastic bag.
“Did you find something?” Carol asked, kneeling down next to Dr. Walton.
The professor pulled himself out and looked up at them. “Yes.” He held up the bag, but just far enough away that Mrs. Wood could not grab it. “It’s as I hoped and feared. This flower, particularly, is the symbol of the predator in question.”
“Yes.” Walton’ face was grim. “A predator.”
Sandra whirled around to face whatever might be coming her way. A single sheet of parchment fluttered along the ground past her, tumbling like a lost bird that had forgotten where or how to fly. It moved slowly and alone. She looked at its motion, confused; there was no wind, not even a breeze.
Another piece of parchment skipped along the leaves, followed by another, a paper trail leading back to the clearing. She bent down to pick up one of the sheets, but it was blank, an empty blue-gray swath of nothing. Glancing back at the lavatory, Sandra stepped forward towards the clearing.
The closer she got, the darker the air became. A stray cloud covered the sun, darkening the tree trunks into black pillars. The shadows stretched toward the timbered circle.
sheet of blank paper covered
the clearing dirt.
They covered the table, and every sheet seemed rooted in the map at the center, growing like vines. Most of the sheets were blank. At first, she tried to avoid stepping on any of the sheets, but this proved impossible. There was no bare dirt to tread upon. The paper crumpled and tore beneath her boots.
Yet, as she came closer to the table, the sky getting darker still, she saw that the lines of the map had stretched outward. ‘The Stem’ – it formed a line off the first page, continuous, in the opposite direction of where she had entered the clearing; the incessant reams of The Stem did not end at the clearing either, but continued onwards, curving off beyond her line of sight. There was no evidence of a continent beyond, nothing but an endless, narrow peninsula, leading nowhere at all.
Sandra picked up the map from the center, holding it closer to her face. She scrutinized it: the shine of the fresh ink, the depth of the etchings, the yellow gradation at the edges. In the bottom right corner, written almost too small to perceive, words had been scrawled where there had been none before. Which is the greater horror: that nothing is real, or that everything is?
Behind her, Sandra again heard the sound of cracking leaves. This time, when she turned around, she really expected to see nothing. She feared being wrong. In the split second of the twist of the hips and the neck, she feared what being wrong meant. This time, she hoped that she would see nothing at all.
This time, she saw a woman. The woman was moving towards her slowly, hunched over, one arm and a hand held out, as though in a show of peace. But her eyes, they bulged around the edges, too large for a human face, and her irises were ringed in purple and red circumferences. The woman’s fingers were sharp at the tips. Sandra remembered Joe’s description of the monsters, and this woman was one. Sandra pivoted on the back of her feet, crushing more of the papers behind her.
The woman took a step closer. Sandra was about to run, but the woman stopped. She spoke, almost babbling, rushing her gravelly words. “Pasthysa, you must stop this, please. Please.”
Sandra stood her ground. “Don’t come any closer!” she yelled. “Stay back!”
“What is that? I don’t know what you are, but just stay away. Just leave us alone.”
“You are Pasthysa.” The woman looked down, lowering her arm. Sandra thought that she heard her sigh. “Remember me, please. I’m your friend.”
Sandra shook her head. “We’ve never met before. Go away. Go away!”
The woman muttered something under her breath, then charged at Sandra. Her dragging legs broke the plane of parchment.
of insects, violently
Sandra turned and ran back towards the rest stop; she had to warn Joe. They needed to leave. Sandra looked up as she ran, and the sky was dark now. There were no clouds. Where the sun had been, a thin crescent moon now smiled down at her. In front of her, fog oozed out of the leaves and over the ground.
She could not have seen it. The fog obscured a thick root stretching up out of the soil and rot, reaching a handless arm from the turf. Like a cliché, she fell into the leaves just a short distance from the rest stop. Looking up from the dread, shed, shredded foliage, she scrambled forward.
There it was again, or nearly again, written in creeping purple on the side of the lavatory:
Which is the greater horror: that everything is real, or that nothing is?
Sandra moved to stand, but the ground bulged beneath her. The soil was breathing.
The bathroom looked like the kind you would find in the rooms of a newly-renovated chain hotel. It was clean, featureless, aggressively bleached, sterile, lit such that it admitted not even the tarnish of shadows on its unused floor tiles. From the inside, it seemed smaller to Joe than he would have expected from the outside.
There was only one toilet, a shower, and a sink. Above the sink dangled a plain mirror without a frame, floating vertically from the glow of the white wall-lights concealed behind it. The mirror looked somehow detached from the space, a quarter-inch removed from the reality of every other object in the room.
Seeing the shower, a narrow bath-shower combination, Joe took off his clothes and kicked them to the wall. He turned the handle and sat on the edge of the tub for a few moments, watching the clear water spit out of the showerhead. A splattered spray of little droplets coalesced and pooled on the grey tiles that covered the shower walls. He was waiting for some sign of danger, to see if the water was safe; even if he had not admitted it to her, Joe too felt anxious entering this new place. More than that, the room had no door. He was defenseless. He passed his left hand through the pouring stream, letting the droplets roll over his fingers. His hands had felt dry.
Eventually satisfied by the consistency of the flowing water, Joe went to the sink and opened all the drawers underneath it. Most of the drawers were empty, inlaid with old wood that seemed out of place in the immaculate gloss of the setting; not only was the wood inside the drawers faded and cracked, but it was caked with patches of the scum of soap and toothpaste. In the bottom right drawer, however, Joe finally found a single, unopened bar of soap: Moonlight soap, a brand Joe had never heard of with a box that felt like the thick cardboard used to house animal crackers. He ripped open the antique box and tossed it onto the tile, taking the light-green bar from inside and cradling it in both hands. Pulling the shower curtain completely open, he stepped over the lip onto the plastic sheet inside.
The water was a relief. He stood under the showerhead for several minutes without washing, just letting the dampness flow down his neck and back. He lowered his head and held his breath, taking in the comfort of something that, even for a few days, he had missed.
The only sound in the room was the pitter-patter of the droplets on the floor of the tub, falling not quite rhythmically, sometimes with varying force, amassing themselves in bigger and smaller beats of the tension of gravity and adhesion. Joe blinked, turning around, letting the water flow over his face. It passed his ears, rumbling, like he was drowned in the ocean currents once again.
Something pierced the texture of constancy, a thumping that seemed to come from both within and without. Joe found himself coughing, retching his head out of the stream of the showerhead. He opened his eyes, the water streaming out of his hair. Blood circled in the bottom of the drain, dribbling from his bottom lip. His throat tightened.
A moment later, barely audible above the soft roar of the water’s cascade, Joe heard a thump. No, it was more deliberate than that. Confused, he reeled further out of the stream. He heard it again this time: a knock.
Joe threw open the curtain. He turned off the water. No one was there. Something else was not there: a door. No one could have knocked.
Someone knocked again. The knock came from the right side of the room. It came from the mirror, the mirror that had no back, the mirror suspended in space, almost like a window. An open window.
It came as a dark motion, a reflection that was not on his side of the glass, but it pushed forward. Talons, verging on tendrils, crept their way around the frame from the inside of the mirror. The thing was pulling its way into the room.
Joe stepped out of the shower as the top of the creature’s bulbous head began to take shape above the mirror’s surface. The moment his feet touched the rug, Joe felt his throat tighten further. He coughed again, blood staining his chin. His back felt weak and he fell backwards into the shallow water. He willed himself to get up, but his legs made no response.
Nowhere to go.
His arms still worked, barely. He thrashed to pull the curtain closed. The rings squealed and screeched in abrupt, rusted jerks along the rod. Drawing it shut, Joe threw himself up onto his knees in a last effort, clutching the sides of the tub. He waited, as silently as he could, but the water at the bottom of the tub splashed around his legs.
The lights shone softly through the curtain, a pale glow. Joe heard nothing on the other side. He could not bring himself to move, but he hoped that the thing had stopped or had not come through, or maybe it left the room through the door. Deep down, he knew it hadn’t.
Which is the greater horror: that every The light Which is the greater horror: that no
thing is real, or that nothing is? darkened faintly thing is real, or that everything is?
Which do you fear more: that beyond the curtain, at Which do you fear more: that
nothing is real, or that every first just a shade off. The everything is real, or that no
thing is real? Everything is real. shadow became a form, thing is real? Nothing is real.
It’s just a dream. Wake up. the dim outline of a It’s just a nightmare. Wake up.
Are you afraid, Joe? Branching You should be afraid of Joe.
It’s all real. Joe, every thing figure, almost humanoid. It is real. We aren’t things.
We are not nothing. leaned towards him, the outline becoming We are not things.
Are you afraid? more precise, like a projection brought into focus Are you afraid?
Are you afraid? on a screen. It was a dark shape, the familiar figure Are you afraid?
Are you afraid? of the thing that he had encountered in the wash, Are you afraid?
Be afraid. the fi rst night mare. It could not have bee n more Very afraid.
We are not than a few inches from the curtain now, an d then no things.
he saw them glowing through the fabric with their own wrathful light: the eyes.
The ringed eyes, opened as wide as the jaws of an eel, night circled in moonlight circled in lamplight circled in fire circled in blood – black in white in yellow in orange in red – glared at him through the cloth. They watched him. He stared back. He tried, the water rippling around his trembling legs. The eyes did not blink. He blinked.
The Night Mare lowered its head, pressing against the cloth, its bulbous head impressed in the curtain. Its eyes came closer, nearing his own, wide with intent. The head stopped. The eyes stopped. Joe’s eyes struggled to focus, as though squinting at something far away: blood, fire, lamplight, moonlight, night.
Joe found himself speaking, but he did not know why. He muttered words that he would not remember for some time. He blinked. The form was gone.
Where the curtain had been, a sliding-glass door was shut across Joe’s vision. The room beyond was empty, but Joe could tell that, outside, daylight had passed. The pioneering shadows of nightfall crept over the doorframe, resisting the vacuous light of the room.
Joe’s limbs held rigid. His neck rolled like taffy in a press. His head felt like it was dried and crammed with salt, as though it were bubbling at his temples. He rested his forehead against the speckled glass.
A movement blinked in his periphery. He could free his tense neck just enough to turn, just enough to see that, in one of the tiles of the wall, two eyelids opened to two bulbous eyes. Joe’s mouth hung open limply, and he could taste blood and saliva leaking out the front. He tilted his head up, and another set of eyes opened in another tile, then another, until every tile in Joe’s view watched him, glaring wildly. Joe could not read the eyes; he could not tell if their stares aimed hatred or fear.
In a violent snap, the tiles bucked their necks into faces, lining the walls like the skulls of the Paris Catacombs. Their heads bobbed, withdrawing until the walls of the bathroom gave way to emptiness, to darkness, and Joe could just barely make out their frail, starved, broken frames in the shadows. The walls, which were never walls at all, had opened to a void that Joe’s eyes could not penetrate, but the creatures, seemingly smaller forms of the Night Mare, danced around him through the air on no ground. There was no floor, only darkness.
They danced and tumbled, staring at him, waiting, it seemed; their heads swiveled on their necks to keep him always in their sight, with fixed expressions like the grimace of a puppet.
Joe could not comprehend. He could only taste the blood that continued to seep out over his lips, into the water, and down the swirling drain. With blank confusion, overwhelming even the terror that stifled his breathing, Joe pressed his forehead further against the glass.
The room dimmed like a movie theatre. The shadows crept further over every surface, from both without and within. Eventually, only the blue electricity of the cylindrical wall lamps shone forth, glowing with a luster barely more intense than starlight. The shadows settled on Joe’s shoulders. He could see himself sharply in the reflection of the glass. He saw the void and dancing creatures in the reflection, behind him.
He saw the ringed eyes of the Night Mare open in the reflection. No, they opened on the other side, exactly where they had been before; the glass shattered, and the Night Mare threw itself out of the darkness of the bathroom, grabbing Joe with rooted fingers. The smaller creatures swarmed alongside it, clawing at him, pulling him like a ragdoll. The tub itself began to turn over and the water spilled over the sides. The Night Mare and its creatures were pushing him, pushing him over the edge of the tub, out of the room, spilling him with the water. He fell. They released him and he fell.
Dr. Walton left the Woods’ home. He even gave Mrs. Wood a hug as he left, holding her sympathetically, and shook Mr. Woods’ hand warmly. He had brought them hope, and that was good news for their cooperation.
Walton spent the next hour driving around the town. Most of it was completely unremarkable, nothing more than a residential arrangement of model homes and chain stores. Still, he had to remember everything; he had to be ready, for things here could change if he was not paying attention. He paid attention to the Woods’ house number, which is 1113, to the number of lamps on Joe’s street, to the number of parking spaces in the lot of the grocery store, to the patch of dead grass that occupied the corner of the exit to the town.
Satisfied and using the driving time to think – for as long as he could remember, Walton had always found that driving cleared his mind: the continuous rhythm of the tires and the smooth turns of the wheel – the professor eventually arrived at his hotel, a small, mostly empty, and recently stack set of cheap rooms. The sun was just setting as Walton arrived, driving his car up to the concrete barriers that separated the lot from the overgrown brush. The hotel had been built in the middle of an empty, marshy field. It was a strange location, but Marcus did not think much of it. Hotels like this were always in the middle of nowhere.
Grabbing his messenger bag from the passenger seat, he gingerly closed the door of his rental. He passed through the lobby with a nod to the awake, but not alert, concierge. The lobby itself was silent, graced only with the brief drone of elevator music as the elevator doors whooshed open and closed.
As Marcus arrived at the top floor, he stepped out and looked cautiously both ways, down either end of the long hallway. Somehow, the boring patterns on the red carpet, a zigzag of salmon triangles dotted with a seemingly random but intermittently repeated pattern of differently-sized circles, made the hallway seem to stretch off to an infinite point. In other words, Walton probably needed to have his glasses checked.
Strolling the hallway, he arrived at room 723. He knocked. As he had hoped, he heard nothing, not even the slightest shift or crinkle. There was
no thing inside. Walton’s key card slid easily through the slot, the little light on the reader flashing green. The door opened with a crack, as the seal between paint and wood exhaled and let new air into the room. The lights were off, and he could only see the immediate entryway and the little red light on the television.
Marcus flipped on the lights, moving hesitantly. He checked the room, looking under the bed, behind his coats in the closet, in the bathroom, even taking a cursory glance at the air vent in the ceiling. Apparently finding nothing, he locked the door and finally settled down on the bed. He withdrew the plastic bag holding the pale bud of the anemone from his messenger bag. “I’m going to find you,” he whispered. It was a promise.
After quickly washing off his face in the bathroom, Walton felt exhaustion settle in. He was tired, especially after the flight that he had taken to come here. He took off his outer layers and threw himself onto the bed. For a moment, he debated whether it was safe or not to turn off the lights; with a grunt, he leaned over and struck the switch on the lamp, leaving only the bathroom light on. Long shadows covered the room, and darkness inhabited the space beneath the desk, the wall behind the television, and the closet.
Marcus was laying on his front. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the closet. He could see his clothes hung up on hangers in the closet, his black coats and white shirts just a shade apart in the shadows. Suspended like that, the clothes almost looked like they were occupied, like there was something in the closet, a figure in the clothes.
Almost looked like, as though it could just be his imagination.
It was enough.
Marcus was about to close his eyes when he saw the motion, something lowered itself, its arms as spindly as the coat hangers themselves. It descended from the top of the closet, like a balloon slowly losing its air after a few days, silently but quickly reaching the floor. He had seen spiders move like that when they spindled down from their web. Marcus could see its eyes; they were bulbous and familiar. He saw them clearly as the being rushed at him, mouth spread wide in a grin of sharp teeth.
The ground pulsed up and down beneath Sandra, as though something were pushing its way up from beneath the leaves. The moss and dirt seemed to breathe beneath her.
But, something that I inform you now, something that you can no longer take for granted: Sandra was not, and she had not been for a very long time.