It is a skeleton of a house, if a house I can even call it. A house brings to mind comfort, rooms designed to suit a pleasant life. This place has nothing I can call “rooms”; only spaces, not designed—or rather designed to be a torturous mashing of angles and lines and unforgiving surfaces.
The air is thick, choked with dust that cascades from the ceiling or rises ghost-like from the floor. Each terrible, yawning space is suffocated, crushed between the heavy walls that seem to dance before my eyes so that I’m never quite sure which way I am going.
Most dreadful of all, however, most responsible for the oppressive antagonism of this demented labyrinth, are they who hound the corners of my vision. Manifested in the tumbling dust, in the sadistic patterns of darkness that shift across the walls: faces. Leering, tormented. Here and there, uncertain glimpses. A cadaverous grin, a hateful stare, always waiting around the next corner, then gone in a chaos of shadow.
Herded through this cursed maze of filthy stone and blackened wood, I’m loath to move forward lest I come eye to deathly eye with one of them, but I can’t stand still either, lest the others get me from behind. I can’t see them, but they’re there, just out of reach, broken jaws creaking open as they draw nearer, bone grinding against bone—
It’s always then, mercifully, that I awake.
Each night, they get a little closer.
I rolled over beneath my covers, my heart sinking as my bedside clock came into focus. The phone rang, and with a groan I reached over to answer it.
“I’m so sorry,” I began, already knowing who it was.
“This is the third time, John,” came the irritated reply.
I didn’t bother trying to give her an excuse. What would I say? I overslept? I’d already used that one twice, and her tone of voice implied that she wouldn’t suffer such a juvenile mistake again. I had a bad dream? That sounded even less mature. “I’ll be right over,” I said.
“Get your act together, John. I can’t afford to be late again.”
As soon as the phone clicked, I began flying around the bedroom. No time for a shower. It was too late for me—I’d get an earful from my boss, I was sure—but if I bent traffic law a little, I could still get Mary to her job on time.
Mary was waiting outside when I pulled up. She regarded my disheveled hair as I stomped on the accelerator, just barely making it through the light at the end of her street. “You made good time,” she commented emotionlessly.
With a frustrated hiss I slammed on the brakes, barely stopping in time to avoid running a red light and getting totaled. “I’ll do better, I promise.”
“Careful,” she replied. “Keep going like this and your promises won’t mean much.”
Just as I predicted, I dropped Mary off with a minute to spare, but I wasn’t so lucky. My boss was hovering by my desk when I showed up.
I sat down without answering, firing up my computer and scanning through the emails that had accrued in my absence.
My boss watched me for a while, then said, “Don’t let it happen again.”
“I’ll try, I responded, but deep down I knew those were only words. Three days in a row. What more could I do?
I slam into a wall at the top of a staircase, causing it to shudder and conjuring a burst of asphyxiating dust. For a brief, vulnerable moment I’m still, aware of the encroaching shadows, but temporarily distracted. At the end of the twisted, debris-choked corridor is a dim, flickering light. It isn’t natural light, that much I can tell through the black haze, and it causes my stomach to turn. I thought the discovery of even the tiniest, weakest illumination would bring some measure of comfort in this nightmarish darkness, but no.
I can’t go back. They are back there, closing in. Wake up…wake up…
My sight fades as the shadows creep into view. Here and there I can pick them out: a hungry sneer, a glare of contempt. I swear my ears are bleeding from the inaudible sound of their movement, that awful internal friction, that feeling of ethereal form tearing itself apart as it opens to consume me—
“I think you could try a little harder.”
I stared grimly out the windshield as I listened to Mary’s reprimand. The gas pedal was nearly floored, and I prayed the police were too busy with their morning coffee and doughnuts.
“For me, at least,” Mary went on, “I’d think you’d make a concentrated effort. It’s like you don’t even care anymore.”
My fists tightened on the wheel, partly because I taking a corner at forty, mostly because of the hopeless meaning behind Mary’s words.
“I do care. I love you.”
“And yet you can’t even be bothered to get me to work on time.”
We didn’t talk for the remainder of the drive. I dropped her off five minutes late, and we parted without any goodbyes. As soon as I got to work, my boss intercepted me.
“We can’t have this, John.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I just—”
“Save it. Go do your job. If you’re late again tomorrow, don’t even bother coming in. I won’t put up with it anymore.”
I reach a dead end—but it’s not; there in the corner, a small hole. Crawling is the only way forward. A vile thought, but they are almost upon me. I can feel them in the tendrils of darkness that seem to creep along the walls, reaching wraith-like fingers into the extremest edges of my periphery. I kneel and thrust myself into that abysmal hole and its unappealing promise of safety.
What darkness! Such utter blindness, so complete, as the debris of centuries wraps tight around me, invading my lungs with every breath. The floor of that hellish tunnel—uneven, climbing, winding, plummeting—is soft with dust, but riddled with slender, unseen things, like spider’s legs, that stick under my fingernails as I scrabble in the dirt. Invisible bricks and splinters abrade me from every side as I navigate collapsed stairways and crawlspaces sealed between the walls, squeezing myself through the forgotten entrails of the house.
It occurs to me to wonder at the nature of the dust through which I scramble. It’s more than can be accounted for even by the advanced ruin of the place, and—what hideous thoughts beset my imagination! My progress falters as in panicked horror I writhe in vain, attempting to escape the claustrophobic hold of this stygian tunnel. With violent flailings I strive to cast off that macabre dust, but only succeed in bruising and cutting myself against the crushing enclosure. All the while they close the distance, slithering forward in their demented way.
In my struggles, something brushes against my leg—an extrusion of rubble? Or something more intangible, yet far more diabolical? A choked scream erupts from my throat, smothered to little more than a breathless cough as I squirm away from my phantom pursuers, wriggling worm-like until at last I feel the closeness of the tunnel give away.
Still blind, I’m aware of a vast space, the dimensions of which are only hinted at by the echoes of my frightened breaths. The softness of the floor is gone, replaced by hard piles of clattering things that crunch sickeningly beneath my feet. It’s hard to keep my footing atop the shifting piles, and my progress slows.
Bone against bone. The sound is amplified a hundred times over as broken remnants slide beneath my struggling feet. It’s echoed in the grinding of my own tired joints as they try to propel me across the morbid, invisible landscape. My ears ring with the insufferable scraping of unhinged jaws—
My fists pounded into my pillow as the sun taunted me. That cursed nightmare! Tearing the sheets off, I leapt out of bed, tugged on some clothes, and stormed out to my car. I may have been fired as of half an hour ago, but I still had a responsibility to Mary.
She was nowhere to be seen when I pulled up outside her apartment building. I got out of the car and went inside, already guessing where she was, but wanting to make certain anyway. After all, it wasn’t like I had anywhere to be.
When I reached Mary’s apartment, I found a note taped to the door:
I crumpled the note and stuffed it in my pocket, standing there in the hall for several minutes before stomping back to my car.
The layout is never the same—not quite, but just similar enough to bestow that eerie sense of familiarity, just enough to ensure I get lost if I try to cling to accustomed paths. Tonight, things are fairly normal again. No claustrophobic tunnels or yawning bone pits. I’m careful to avoid climbing any stairs, for I have no desire to ever again see that light.
I manage to avoid the hunters. I still catch hellish glimpses from time to time, but their mouths never open. The only groaning is that of my own limbs.
I awake more tired than ever.
“Sorry to hear you got fired.”
From across the table, I acknowledged Mary’s condolence. We sat in a dimly lit restaurant—probably not a financially sound decision on my part, given the recent handicap on my income, but I’d guessed what Mary wanted to say when she called me earlier that evening, and I was trying to smooth things over, trying to stave off the impending catastrophe.
“It doesn’t change things, though,” she continued. “Let me get right to the point. I’m done. I can’t put up with it anymore.”
I could feel myself melting in my chair. I’d expected it, but it still stung.
“I need someone I can rely on to take care of themselves and to take care of me. Right now, you’re not that someone.” She rose from her seat, graceful, poised. I tried not to think about what I was losing. “Goodbye, John. I hope you can turn things around.”
At first I try my strategy from the other night, but I can hardly move my legs. That’s the price for one night of relative peace. Already, little tentacles of darkness writhe along the walls. My ears ache. My head spins from the many sudden changes in direction. I turn a corner and there is one of them. Turning back, I wrench open a rusted door, and another leers at me, its maw gaping painfully. Thus I wander new paths, discover new chambers, stumble into new scenes of ruin and decay.
At the end of a winding labyrinth of silently screaming faces and crushing walls, I once more find the light.
The feeling is just as before, a lurch deep down in the core of my being, something rotten. Sickened, I turn away, forcing my legs to push through their fatigue and leave that flickering glow far behind.
Little cascades of dust—and occasionally something heavier and more solid—rain from the ceiling, tickling my face as I dart through the maze. Icy drafts slither over my shoulders and drip down my chest. My eardrums begin to tremble with the torturous vibrations rippling through the air—
Light. There it is again, flickering before me, just as I’d left it. It’s fruitless to conjecture how I managed to return in spite of my determined flight away from the glow’s hidden source. I can only stare in horrified shock as my pursuers drive me forward. The black haze clears as I close the distance. The piles of unidentifiable debris move imperceptibly aside, and there it is: a flashlight. The lens is cracked and caked with filth, and the battery must be nearly dead. The discovery does little to give me hope. I wonder briefly why there would be a working flashlight in a ruin such as this. I think of the dust that in places piles up like snowdrifts, of the clattering mounds that fill colossal chambers. I direct my shivering gaze toward the mass of splinters which cradle the flashlight, the splinters which I’d simply assumed were composed of wood.
I’d have thought the discovery of such a useful tool would grant me some relief. Instead, it only reminds me of death.
I’ve stood still for far too long. Outside the feeble glow, the maze seems darker by comparison, and in that stygian void I’m aware of grinding joints and spectral stirrings. I’m surrounded. The flashlight sputters sickly, growing steadily dimmer. I realize I don’t want to run anymore; I’m not even sure I want to wake up. Let those broken jaws close over me. It’s just a dream, after all.
Darker…darker…dead. The ensuing sounds are deafening, crunching, creaking—silence. Everything is black. I can feel nothing, I can’t even move. Am I still dreaming? Will I ever wake?