I awake, mildly dazed, with a vague nausea creeping slowly outward from the center of my gut. I am immersed in an unfathomable darkness. I have no clear idea of where I am, only that I’m lying on a cold, hard surface that lends the impression of stone. Have I gone blind? Am I even conscious, awake? Surely I must be awake – otherwise, I wouldn’t be reflecting upon the darkness, the coldness and hardness of the surface on which I lay, the very fact of my own consciousness. Or wouldn’t I?
Shaking my head, I strain my remaining senses to gather what little I can of my surroundings. I stretch my arms in front of me and feel nothing but damp, motionless air. On either side of me, I feel the same thing. But as I bring my arms in back of me, I feel another surface – a wall – that seems to be of the same material as the floor. An unidentifiable yet noxious odor snakes through my sinuses, exacerbating my nausea. Around me, I hear nothing but tense silence.
“Hello?” I call out, my voice cracking from within my brittle throat. The sound echoes before fading back into the silence. The smell has increased in strength. Should I stand up? Try to move? No telling what hides in this horrible darkness, and besides, as I try to raise to my feet, a swift pain burrows through the muscles of my legs. I release an agonized grunt as the pain spreads and dissipates. I manage to sit up, with no scant effort, and recline against the wall. How did I get here? I wonder… Recollection offers nothing. So I sit, back against the wall, for a few moments, minutes, hours… I can’t even tell. I can only conjecture that any time has passed at all by the fucking godawful smell growing in ferocity.
Suddenly, a prolonged, mechanized shriek lacerates the silence. I thrust my hands against my ears without thinking, though this does absolutely nothing. The noise muscles through the spaces between my fingers, rocketing through my ears with terrifying trajectory, and begins clawing at the interior of my skull in an almost psychopathic rage. I scream – I scream at the very top of my lungs in an attempt to overcome this noise, but it’s all in vain. The odor by now has become a thick blanket of rot. Amid my screaming, a surge of vomit courses up through my esophagus, followed by another surge, then another, then another. I shut my eyes tight. Fade out.
I am on a rooftop. It is twilight, late summer, and before me, an infinite sprawl of buildings crowned in the vibrant pink and purple light drizzling from the setting sun. The air is warm, comforting against the bare skin of my arms and face. I’m smoking a cigarette, dreamily observing plumes of vapor flow from my lips and swirl about in the dwindling light of the sky. I think of Van Gogh. She is beside me, her head resting against my shoulder, soft ebon curls brushing my neck.
Neither of us speak. We are simply there, staring out on the breathtaking expanse of the city as it relaxes from the hurried bustle of the day and prepares to settle into a drowsy calm. I bring the cigarette to my lips, drinking its smoke deeply, feeling it billow within my lungs before a slow, longing exhale. I offer the smoldering stick to her, which she takes between her index and middle fingers. She does not immediately take a drag. Just holds it there, gingerly, still fixed on the rows and rows of buildings. From the street, the gentle hum of traffic seeps upward, and I feel tranquil.
By now, the sun has fully descended, allowing for the vast network of stars keeping vigilant watch over the soon to be slumbering world.
“Such a lovely night”, She says, breathily. She drags from the cigarette, and passes it back to me.
“Without a doubt,” I concur. I bring my arm around her shoulder, grasping her tightly, she who is the very meaning of my existence. We are silent again.
“I’ll be so sad to leave,” She finally breaks the lapse, her words barely a whisper. She sighs, and I feel her shoulder rise in my hand.
“Let’s not think about that,” I clutch her tighter, “We still have a couple of weeks left together. And you’ll only be gone for six months. But let’s not think about that. Let’s just enjoy right now, just us two.” She nuzzles me gently. I turn and bury my face deep within her ebon hair, drawing in the faint aroma of jasmine. I kiss her on the crown of her head.
“Will you hold up alright? While I’m gone?” She turns to me. Her emerald eyes are resonant, but also wet, wavering, “I need to know that you’ll be alright.” I ponder for a while before kissing her lightly upon her forehead, then the bridge of her nose, then her lips. Our tongues slide and coil around one another, and I am reluctant to pull away. My hand rises to touch the smooth, mocha skin of her cheek. Her hand rises to touch mine. Finally, we separate, and I peer deeply into her eyes, still wet, still wavering, now aware of the sadness encroaching upon my being. Burying it, I reply.
“I’ll be alright. I promise that I will.”
My eyelids flutter rapidly. Flickers of the scene seep through my mind. Scattered rubble and debris. An opposing wall of smooth concrete. Miniscule slits for windows running along its length near the ceiling. I open my eyes fully now. Slivers of light penetrate the window slits and dangle overhead like iridescent cobwebs. I glance around either side of me. I am in a corridor, though I am not sure how far it extends in each direction. My pantlegs are caked in dried vomit, but at least now I’m no longer nauseated. That smell, that wretched smell, though, still hangs in the air.
The mechanized shriek has also subsided, and in its place has arisen the dull creaking of gears. Small bits of stone are scattered over the floor, and razor blades, which catch flashes of light from above. I struggle to my feet, finding that I no longer experience the torrent of pain that I did before. Good. I can move. Figure out where exactly the fuck I am.
Feeling around my pockets, I discover a package of cigarettes, which I greedily yank out and open to reveal that I still have about half of them remaining. Thank you, oh grand and mysterious Universe. I haphazardly remove one, and locate a pack of matches in another pocket. I light, breathe deep. Relief bathes me as I inhale. The smoke lilts about in the light, and then fades.
Now – in which direction do I start? I weigh my options and then simply begin walking. At this point it doesn’t even matter. The little stones crunch beneath my shoes. The lengthening corridor unfolds before me. What strange place is this? How did I end up here? Why am I here? Why… The question is like excruciating needle pricks in my stomach. I can’t even scrounge up the memory of what occurred immediately before I woke to find myself here. The unseen gears heaving and shifting out of sight create a steady and monotonous rhythm. Reflexively, I move my feet in time with them.
This hall just seems to go on forever! What if it has no end? Just an endless stretch of concrete and scattered bits of rock and razorblades and the sound of cranking gears. What if there is no way out of this? This is a fucking fix. My reverie is disrupted by the cherry of my cigarette inflaming the skin of my fingers. Startled, I cast it to the floor, and continue forward.
There doesn’t seem to be anything to distinguish one part of the hall from the next. Have I even gone anywhere? I feel trapped in an endless reel of rolling film. As I walk, the faint sound of music emerges from somewhere ahead. It’s almost indiscernible at first, but as I walk forward, it gradually becomes louder and louder. I quicken my pace, approaching the sound. What is this song? It sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph record. I recognize that crackle and hiss anywhere. I recognize this song, but what is its name? Is it… “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”? That’s it. But from where is it coming?
Ahead of me, I see an opening in the left wall. It’s a doorway! The music must be coming from there! I throb with curiosity as I jog toward the door and find a small room in the shape of an octagon. Tall windows adorn each of the walls, and momentarily, I am ecstatic over being offered a view of the outside world. This feeling soon turns to dismay when I realize that the only thing I can see from these windows is a gauzy white fog. I light another cigarette, and continue my examination of this peculiar room.
Sure enough, an old Victrola style record player stands in the center of the room, thick black plate spinning on its surface. Like the corridor, the floor is littered with stones and razorblades, but also… I stagger backward… what appear to be dismembered heads! I expel an exasperated gasp, disturbed at first by the sight, before examining the morbid assortment more carefully. There’s no blood around the necks of the heads. No hanging strands of sinews and throats. The skin resembles not skin but… Molded plastic. Fucking Christ… These are mannequin heads.
I have to laugh at myself for such foolishness. Mannequin heads… That’s all. I saunter into the room, tapping one of the heads lightly with my toe. It rolls over to show me its face. It’s of an androgynous nature, its features generic, and the eyes are simply flat, black ovals flanking the bridge of the nose. The appearance of all these heads leaves me with a feeling of unease. There’s an eeriness about this room. What is the meaning of all of these disembodied mannequin heads? What of the record player? The white fog hangs solemn beyond the windows.
“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” reaches its completion, and now all the only music that I’m left with is that of those damn gears, grinding diligently in the background. This entire place is odd, and I resolve to uncover its secrets. I exit the room, and continue down the corridor.
I finally come to a point where the hall veers off to the left. The sound of the gears has grown louder, and I suspect that if I turn this corner, I’ll come upon the source. Within the wall directly in front of me is the sculpture of a grotesque face, bringing to mind a gargoyle of a European cathedral. Its mouth is gaping open, exposing two rows of gnarled teeth and a pointed tongue. The nose is absurdly long, hook-like, protruding and curves down toward the mouth. The eyes bulge in a look that conveys both rage and horror, and are fixed squarely on me.
I am not overly frightened of it. I know that it’s merely a part of the wall, made of the same material even, but as I stare deep into the eyes of this fabrication, my stomach becomes agitated and nausea begins to return. I turn the corner to find that the entire length of the visible wall is lined with these masques. My nausea flares. I start down the hall, starting cautiously at first. I see more and more of these faces carved into the wall, and suddenly I can think of nothing but escaping them. I begin to run, becoming more frantic with each step. I run and run until finally I reach another turn in the corridor. There are none of the faces carved into this section of the wall.
My legs are quite tired from the ordeal, so I pause for a moment to rest, away from the watching eyes of the stone faces. I pull a cigarette from the pack. I’m down to my last five. Great. Now I really need to figure a way out of here. Wherever here is… I can hear the gears so clearly now, but the sound is coming to me with equal intensity in both ears, and it could be coming from anywhere. I continue smoking my cigarette, pondering over my entrapment in this alien place. Then I hear my name being called.
I jerk my head up. My name again is called. Looking to the right, I see, maybe 50 yards away, among the cobwebs of light, a figure. An imposing, black mass bearing a vague resemblance to a human. At the moment my eyes fix on this shape, it sinks away into the bowels of the hall. I need to find this thing! I throw my cigarette, half finished, to the floor, running after the strange figure. The odor is stronger now, and assails my nostrils in great putrid sweeps. Where did this thing steal away? I spot another doorway up ahead on the left wall. Is it in there? I arrive at the opening, finding another octagonal room, slightly larger than the first. Instead of windows, the walls are lined with mirrors, which extend from the floor to the ceiling. A viscous black liquid rests in puddles on the floor.
My heart beats violently as I step into the room, confronted with my myriad reflections in each of the mirrors. The arrangement leaves me feeling disoriented. I see no trace of the figure in black. I step slowly to the center of the room. This place… This place just gets stranger and stranger. What is the meaning of these goddamned rooms? What other such rooms will I come upon? My nausea is now in full force. My vision blanks for a moment, and my knees begin to buckle. I quickly regain composure enough to stand up straight again. When my sight returns, I see in the mirror directly in front of me, that my own image is no longer reflected, but a scene altogether independent of that of the room. Multiple scenes, I should say. Memories.
First, there is a bedroom. I recognize this bedroom. This was our bedroom. The one that we shared before she left… But… Why did she leave again? I see her there on the bed. She’s reading a book, and the light from the lamp on the nightstand glints off of her brown skin. I watch as a mirror version of me enters the room from some point out of view, and flop on the bed next to her. We begin speaking, I see our lips moving, but I can’t make out any dialogue. We talk, we kiss, embrace… This could have been so many of the nights we spent together, and I’m not sure what makes this particular instance so significant. It’s simply making me miss her even more. Maybe that’s the point… The scene unfurls in silence, before fading to black.
The next scene shows a door. It’s the front door of our apartment. I see myself approach, then open the door, and standing in the doorway is a younger man, short, coarse hair, average build, slight paunch developing in his belly. His cheeks are streaked with still flowing tears. Who is this man? Why is he crying? I watch as I let him inside the apartment, closing the door behind him. I see my lips move, but once again, I’m unable to make out what I’m saying. I recognize this man from somewhere… Wait… It’s… It’s her brother. But I don’t know why he would be in our home, crying his eyes out like he is… I watch him throw his arms around me in a grief stricken embrace, and I watch as I return the gesture, then pull away. Again my lips move. What is going on here? If this is an event that has happened to me, then I have no recollection of it. The man moves his lips, quivering and slow. I see myself step back, clutch my chest, and fall to my knees. And then I begin crying. The young man stoops down beside me, placing his arm on my shoulder, and he says something. The scene fades to black.
Now I am looking upon a street in some city which I have never seen before. It is clearly deep in the throes of destitution. A great many of the buildings have collapsed, appearing to have been demolished by something. Has there been some sort of disaster? Perhaps a war? Rubble lines the street like burlesque monuments of shattered promise. Dust swirls all around. Suddenly, coming into view, is a small group of people dressed in frayed and dirty clothing. They scramble up the pavement, and I see, lagging behind them, a girl of maybe about 10 or 11 in a ragged shawl. She is sobbing and struggling desperately to rejoin the group in front. One of the individuals from that group, a young woman, falls back to meet the girl. She is wearing a white tank top over military fatigues, and her ebon curls are covered with dust and sand. I nevertheless recognize the woman. It’s her. But what is she doing in this ravaged place? Who are those people she’s with? She scoops the young girl up in her arms, and runs frantically after the rest of the group. From the distance behind them emerges a brown jeep, sand tacked to the body and tires, barreling down the street after them.
In the jeep are several men, some of them also wearing military fatigues, some of them wearing civilian garb. They’re all hollering and wildly waving assault weapons. Occasionally, they’ll spew bullets at the group in the front. As they careen forward, I see one of them men pull a grenade from his vest. He bites the pin, and hurls it forward. And then black.
Intense despair throttles my bones, and I want nothing more than to scream out and shatter the mirrors by the sheer force of my voice, but my vocal chords are tangled in knots, and nothing comes out. I am immobilized and shivering, panting frantically. I need to know how the last scene ends! So many questions… Who were the men in the jeep? Why were they chasing after her and the rest of those people? Most importantly… What became of her?
The mirror once again reflects the room, and I look upon my reflection, standing solitary in the center. But wait… I am not alone. Lurking in the entranceway is the figure in black, a petulant monstrosity of shadow. I spin round to meet the figure, and it lunges toward me. Fade out.
“The work we’re doing over there could have a tremendous and positive effect on the region. Lives are being saved every day,” She pauses and takes a bite of toast, whole wheat, with a light slathering of marmalade, “I’m so thrilled to be a part of such an endeavor!”
We’re sitting in our usual booth in the diner a few blocks away from our apartment. It’s the Sunday breakfast rush, so the place is quite crowded and alive with conversation. I’m quietly sipping coffee from a brown ceramic mug with a slight crack running up the side, contemplating a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, glistening sausage links. I’m not sure if I’m hungry enough to eat it.
“I mean… This is a tremendous opportunity for you,” I begin, though I am unsure of what I want to say next. I stare despondently at my food. No, I’m not hungry anymore.
“Darling, what’s the matter?” She asks, and looks across at me with her wide emerald eyes plumbing deep into my own.
“It’s nothing…” I sigh, taking another swig of coffee. The bitterness irritates my throat and I grimace, “I’m just going to miss you. That’s all.” She brushes my cheek.
“It’s only for six months,” She coos, taking my hand in hers and giving it a gentle squeeze, “Six months, and then I’ll be back.” She smiles, and I, in turn, half smile back.
“It’s not only that,” I confide, “I’m worried about your safety too. I mean… You’ve seen the papers. That whole region is mired in civil war right now. Every day I read about some sort of temple bombing or attack on some village full of unsuspecting civilians. It’s dangerous over there.”
“Don’t worry about that,” She squeezes my hand again, tighter this time. I can tell that she is also afraid, but not showing it, “Our government has the research facility closely guarded. Armed soldiers. And besides, it isn’t like any of us on the team weren’t trained in basic combat and firearm operation. We know how to defend ourselves. You have no reason to be afraid.”
“I dunno,” I mumble. The idea of her leaving for such an extended period of time to such a perilous part of the world has imparted a subtle nausea. I don’t like this idea at all. But this is what she wants. And I can’t really dispute that this wouldn’t be a great opportunity for her. For us.
“My gut sometimes has a funny way of being right about these things,” I down the rest of my coffee, “Don’t let it be right. Please safe. And come home to me.” The waitress comes by to check on us. I ask for a refill of my coffee. Normally the trickle of the liquid from the pot to the mug comforts me, but not this time. I thank the waitress as she moves on to her next table, and then stare blankly at the mug.
“I’ll be back, I promise.” She states. I don’t respond.
“Darling…” She whispers. I stumble back to reality, and peer into her eyes, swooning and aching all at once.
“I’m sorry,” I stutter. “But… Without you… When you aren’t with me… Safe and sound… It’s as if… As if I’m wandering aimlessly through a vast, bleak labyrinth without a beginning or an end. Forgive the poetics, but… Ugh. You’re the love of my life, and I can’t bear even the thought of losing you. Understand? So promise me… Really promise me that in six months, you will be back.” She reaches across the table, placing her elbow on the surface and then extends her pinkie finger. I smile, and wrap my own pinkie around hers. Simultaneously, we plant quick kisses in the spaces between our thumbs and forefingers.
I come to, sweating and panting, a fierce cold jettisoning through my nerves. I’m in the room with the mirrors, alone, the figure in black nowhere to be found. Where has it gone? I know, I just know that vile entity holds the final piece of this puzzle. I jolt to my feet, electrified by determination. Resolute, I vacate the room, and begin bounding down the corridor, stomping over the stones and razorblades.
The sound of the gears has grown noticeably louder, and the smell has overtaken every inch of space in the hall. It spurs my nausea, and it takes every bit of strength in me to subdue it. I follow the corridor as it twists and turns, not even paying attention to how long or how far I’ve fun. I am simply running, indistinguishable from the act itself. I am running. Though I remember more clearly the circumstances which led up to my ending up in this foul construct, there are still some details that remain ambiguous. The nausea is fighting to express its presence and I’m afraid that at any moment my body will rebel. Still I run.
The hall concludes at a large wooden door, inscribed with various, triangular characters. Runes, ciphers of some ancient (alien?) tongue. I nearly crash into the door due to my own momentum. I need to catch my breath. Short, biting gasps escape from my chest. Sweat trickles down my nose and onto the floor. I feel with each breath that I could vomit. Stay strong. When my breathing returns to normal, I push hard against the door. It is of tremendous density and weight, requiring a great deal of strength to open. I step inside.
The first thing I notice about the room is that the sound of the gears is clear and resounding. This must be from where they’ve come… In front of me is a small balcony, and on either side of the balcony, a staircase. Each staircase extends outward, then curves back toward the center they near the floor below. The room itself is immense, both in height and length, and the very apprehension of this fact leaves me with a feeling of gnawing dread. On the lower level of the room, I see a circular, concrete platform surrounded by a ring of empty space. Each of the staircases concludes here. The platform is rotating in a clockwise direction, and as I make my way down the right staircase, I see that the empty space surrounding the island is not empty at all, but that at the bottom is lined an impressive array of cogs of varying sizes, similar to that of a clock. I detect no sign of what force or mechanism is setting these cogs in motion, though I can guess that they are what causes the platform to rotate. Why? I have no idea. Nothing else about this place has added up to anything. Why should this room be any different? I continue down the stairs and see the figure in black standing in the center of the platform.
“You!” I shout. The figure does not move, nor acknowledge my presence. I proceed closer and call out again, a dull rage spreading and enveloping me.
“Was it you that brought me here?” The question is met only with the cranking of the gears.
“Answer me!” I demand. The cogs continue to turn, their grinding and creaking seeping into my every pore. For a few anxious moments, the figure stands erect as a pillar. Then, it speaks in a hideous rasp.
“Amid the festering sea of its wounds, the mind shall mimic the birth of serpents.”
“What… What the fuck are you talking about? What does that even mean? Tell me why you’ve brought me here, God damn it! Tell me why you’ve brought me here!” In my fury, I grab the figure by its shoulder and spin it quickly round so that it now faces me. I scream in unequivocal horror at the sight that I now look upon.
It’s a face, and it’s my own face, only the flesh is deteriorated, gray, and falling off in small clumps. The lips have been peeled off, exposing sickly green gums and fragmentary yellow teeth. The eyelids are sutured together with finger length needles. The nose is gone; in the space where it should be are a bunch of wiggling, shiny red tendrils that resemble earthworms. I stumble backwards, forcing my eyes shut to this abhorrent vision. I cry out in anguish, which precedes a rush of bile and vomit spilling from my throat and splattering across the floor of the platform. I dig my fingers deep into my eye sockets, making every attempt to blot the image of that face from my mind. I scream again. For a split second, I open my eyes to see the ghastly specter gliding towards me. I shut my eyes again and feel frigid hands grip the sides of my skull, and I’m being lifted with violent force to my feet. Fear, all-encompassing fear, seizes me and I struggle to break free from the grip of this… this… THING. But I’m paralyzed in its hold. I am crying hysterically. I open my eyes again despite the deluge of tears pouring from them, and watch helplessly as the thing stretches its jaws beyond the capacity of normal human jaws, as if readying itself to devour me. It emits a terrible sound, a shriek of an unearthly decibel, the same shriek that I heard at the beginning. The sounds of the cogs are drowned in the wake of this sound, and then I hear no sound at all. Images explode within my mind.
Now all the only music that I’m left – black mass horror- psychopathic rage – I scream – I scream – and the sound of cranking gears – what spaces between my fingers – rocketing unfathomable darkness. I have no clear besides – as I try to raise to my feet – bridge of her nose – then her lips -our cobwebs – I glance around either side of nothing – the noise muscles through the breathe deep – relief bathes me as I figure out where exactly – the fuck I twilight – black mass horror – late summer – and before me – of the gears has grown louder -and I light – and then fades – I am floor, running after mannequin heads – I heads lightly with my another turn in the light – a figure – an through the tulips reflected – but a scene than the first -enough to stand up of an androgynous equal intensity in the floor – my heart and curves down toward foolishness. mannequin that if I turn this wall – black is no longer with a feeling – I carved into the wall – black mass horror – moment instead of windows – trace of the figure in the right – grotesque face – my legs are these disembodied figure – a way out of disoriented – I see no it’s merely a part of myriad reflections in bearing – a vague of the stone faces – I myself for such bridge of the nose – turn the corner to and I resolve to gears – grinding from the watching eyes down the hall – not overly frightened – I spot another are simply flat – black is no longer with a feeling – is that the sound of eye sockets – making does that even mean the balcony – seizes me – and I nothing else about specter gliding earthworms – I stumble brought me here – god be from where they’ve staircase – black mass horror – each sounds of the cogs are its jaws beyond – the guess that they are the image of that face- horror at the sight staircase extends my eyes again – despite all-encompassing fear – grab the figure by its eyelids – are sutured stairs and see the motion – though I can what the fuck are you again – for a split watch helplessly as second – I open my eyes – eyes shut to this and on either side of pouring from them – and shall mimic the birth spreading – and of bile and vomit scream in unequivocal – should this room be met only with the varying sizes – black mass horror – similar the platform – I dig my backwards – forcing my yellow teeth – the gums and fragmentary hideous rasp -amid the very apprehension each of the staircases of the shriek of an unearthly platform is rotating – eyes again and feel that I now look upon – detect no sign of what which precedes a rush talking about – what sides of my skull – black mass horror.
I awake, mildly dazed, with a vague nausea creeping slowly outward from the center of my gut.