Jack wavered next to the open window, the nothingness teeming at its edge. His peripheral vision slowly faded. Specks of light danced near his eyes. It was a strange thing not having a sense of depth or direction, every point in his gaze an immutable darkness. At times he felt that he was merely steeping in it, letting the inky atmosphere wash over him and he would breathe in deeply and hold it there until his lungs forced him to expel it back into the void. At other times, he felt utterly detached, the emptiness stretching for miles in every direction, his body barely a point on an infinite landscape, scarcely denting its surface.
He blinked. Something moved. Jack squinted and tried to adjust his focus both farther and nearer. There, a swirling, a dancing. Their trunks firmly planted in some unseen network of roots, their bodies stretched upward, the branches danced in impossible directions, twirling and falling and twisting. Jack’s stomach tightened into knots, but he could not avert his eyes. Every time he blinked, he would lose their image only to have it roar back into view, penetrating into his brain and into his stomach, the earthen scent of rotting leaves hanging in his nose.
His heart beat in unison with his breath and Jack watched as his body floated outward, carried on tendrils that tickled and stung. He closed his eyes and let the vibrations in his skin bounce and crawl. He embraced the hollowness. He viewed himself at the center of an ever growing expanse, those beneath him raising him up to greet the dark universe.
The house growled and Jack hurtled back into his body. The landscape was filled in with houses, streets, lights, and the night sky. In the distance, a dog barked. Jack looked to the shadow hovering in the corner. It tapped its wrist as though to say, “It’s time,” and then slunk into the walls. Jack shivered.
When Jack was a child, he had dreamed a nightmare about a house with ever shifting walls, the distance always caught up in thick fog. As he walked, whispers bounced in his ears, directing him left or right or forward or back, and as he journeyed further, he began to sense the entirety of the structure until the ground beneath him shook and the sound of a bell reverberated throughout.
Now he turned around and faced the interior. He closed his eyes and inhaled sharply. He moved his right foot forward.
Forward, the house grumbled. Jack’s body tingled and he pushed his left foot forward. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Right! Jack stopped abruptly and slowly turned his body until the pain in his heart subsided. He opened his eyes face to face with another door.
His knees wobbled and his head spun. He winced and clutched his stomach. He hadn’t eaten in god knows how long. His body churned. The thought of turning on his heels and rushing for the front door whirled around his brain. Fantasies of escape buzzed and electrified his body. But somewhere, deep in his gut, he knew the front door would disappear or he’d leave to only inexplicably find himself here again, in this godforsaken house. What option did he have?
He turned the knob, swung the door open, and stepped through. He swore the house was laughing as the walls creaked and groaned. The floor beneath him rattled while it stretched and shrunk in different corners. He stood in the exact same place he had stepped through.
Exasperated, Jack threw himself into a pile of boxes, awkwardly reclining, trying to appear as comfortable as he could. “Fine!” he shouted at the house. “Fine! You win! I’m here. I’m not leaving. Now what the hell do you want from me!?” His voice thundered down the hallways and echoed into his ears.
Odd light trickled down the newly formed hallway, jumping from the wall to the ceiling to the floor until it hovered before Jack, a pulsating ball of bright green a few inches from his eyes. It did not blind, but soothed. Jack reached out his right hand and attempted to cup it. The light darted back and shifted blue and red, spewing letters from its center until it read “Release Me.”
“Nope!” Jack shouted and leaped to his feet. His swung at the light with his right first, but it darted down the hallway, a sing-songy hum trailing it. Jack ignored it and ran for the front door, nearly tumbling down the short set of stairs. His shoes were missing, probably several realities away. He pressed his head into the cold of the door. He closed his eyes while he turned the knob. He leaned back, threw it open, and jumped through.
The low roar of murmurs struck him first. He opened his eyes and squinted while they adjusted to the dim red and blue and green lights. Lamps adorned every surface, multicolored shades and bulbs casting strange shadows on old furniture and ancient cloths. The faces shifted while he blinked, glowing eyes staring at him deeply before turning away. In the corner of his vision he saw horns and wings and scales and teeth gnashing and slithering. In front of him he saw an oaken bar, old and sunk, scars of time etched upon its surface, and behind that, stacks of bottles filled with liquids bright and dark with unrecognizable labels or shapes.
Instinctually, he looked behind himself and was not surprised to see only a brick wall, crude graffiti clutching to its surface in a language that he did not recognize. “Of course,” he mumbled under his breath. Keenly aware of his lack of shoes, he sauntered up to the bar and plopped down on a rickety bar stool.
The bartender slithered up to him. “What’ll be, human?”
Jack flinched and brushed his dark hair from his eyes, attempting to not wonder what the alternative may be. “Uh,” he stammered, “I’ll have a bourbon, make it a double.”
The bartender grinned wide, flashing several rows of teeth. “No bourbon here, mortal, but I have just the thing that’ll pick you up.” The bartender ducked down and hopped back up with a glowing green bottle in its hand. Its, Jack thought while a tail flinched at his periphery.
“What is it?” Jack inquired. After the day, week, month, whatever he’d been having, he’d try anything to make this go away.
“Angel’s Tears,” the reply snapped while pouring two fingers into a lowball. “You won’t regret it,” it slid the glass to Jack’s hands.
Jack picked it up and peered at it through the different colored lamps. Specks of light were suspended in its body, flitting this way and that. Jack looked up at eager red eyes. “Fuck it,” he said, raising his glass toward the room in general. “Cheers,” he called out and then slammed the liquid into his throat.
His esophagus burned but only for a moment before time slowed and satisfaction welled at the top of his head and wiggled its way down to his middle, bursting out to his extremities, one atom at a time until it shot out of his fingers and toes.
Expectant eyes and teeth stared at him.
“Another!” he shouted.
The room bristled. Jack, for the first time in a long time, felt calm, serene. Ever since his parents had died, Jack had wobbled between self-pity and depression, filling the void with school and work and bourbon. His friendships had grown more distant as he retreated into his head, terrified to let anyone know that a person could feel the way that he felt. He knew, deeply, that he was not the first to let person to let their own brain crumple their body into a heap of hollow stares, but he resented it to the point of it becoming a burden, one he did not wish to share with others. The machines didn’t judge and allowed him the space to wallow in his pressing insignificance.
But this, this brought life where none had existed, even before, in the deep recesses of his memories. This felt otherworldly and powerful and in fucking control. Jack rolled his shoulders up and back before tossing back another shot. His skin rippled.
Either the room was getting smaller or the shadows were growing closer, he couldn’t tell.
“Another!” he yelped. He shivered as the bartender poured another shot, a glimmer in its red eyes. Its, Jack thought again. The flicker of lights in the corner of his vision were sharp and wide. Jack surveyed the room. There, there it was, in the far wall, a door unlike any other in the room. Its blue surface bled against the dim lights. Jack clasped his fingers around the glass. “How much’ll this cost me?” he slung the words across the bar.
“Oh,” the bartender smacked its lips, “nothing at all.”
Jack reached between the light and pushed the darkness into his chest. The room phased and then stopped, teeth and horns and wings frozen. Jack tossed back the shot, shivered, and then sauntered up to the door. The handle was colder than any of the previous and his heart tugged at his ribcage as he threw it open and stepped through.
Jack had walked a lifetime before he reached the end of the tunnel, the effects of the Angel’s Tears long worn off. There were no lights here, the only guidance given by his hands outstretched to the earthen walls, stung here and there by sharp roots and thorns. But he knew he was close. He could feel it. His body careened forward like a hook had been dug into his chest, an eternal crank being turned at the other end.
And then suddenly it stopped and he was confronted with three walls, a ceiling, and a floor. He pressed his hands into the soil, hoping perhaps it was just a small cave in, the tunnel continuing on the other side. But the wall was thick and sturdy and he slowly resigned himself to the idea that this was the end of the line. And yet his body ached to find it. He wished for anything else, for home, for Finn, for his phone, for a door back to the goddamn haunted house, but nothing came. He slunk onto the ground with his back to the dead end.
And then the whispers began to tickle his ears.
Days passed, he surmised. All he heard was the voice. Sometimes it was soft, pleading with him to set it free. Other times it was harsh, screaming to be released. He tried to plug his ears, but the sound bored through his skull, unobservant of sound waves. He tried to welcome it, to hum along with its incessant cries, but each time he memorized the stanza, it shifted keys. Several times he stood and tried to walk away only to be met with the same fate on the other side of the dead end hallway. Darkness crept into his skin and he collapsed into a heap on the dirt floor.
He heard the click before the light burst into the hallway. A door flung open in the distance and someone or something stepped through. It stood as tall as a man, its shoulders hunched over, a cloak tossed over its head, obscuring its face. Behind it, a swirl of dust glowed brightly in the newfound light, red and blue orbs dancing in the air. Thunder echoed against the walls.
The creatures stepped toward him, a scratchy voice reverberating through the air, “I thought I saw someone go through that door. Do you have any goddamn clue where the hell you are--” the voice stopped short as it shuffled up to Jack. “--oh, I see.” It hunkered down next to him; the swirl of dust leaned in close.
Jack licked his dry lips and peered upward, no longer able to feel scared or relief. “I need to find it and release it,” he mumbled.
The creature touched Jack’s shoulder, the stack of dust following suit. “Oh,” its voice whispered, “you’re not you, are you? This is going to hurt, but I know someone who can help.”
Jack screamed as his body was torn out of space through layer upon layer until the darkness receded and the weight of reality sunk heavily into his chest.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)