Trish doubled over and careened into a stack of cardboard boxes, sending packing peanuts and newspaper flying in the air and floating languidly out the open window. Finn clenched his jaw. He had never been stabbed in his life, but he imagined this is what it would feel like to be jabbed in the gut.
“What the hell--!?” Finn howled.
For nearly a year, Finn had not stopped searching for Jack. Jack disappearing for a few days at a time was not uncommon. He got overwhelmed, Finn surmised, and needed to retreat into his own space to recharge. It made sense, in its own way. But then days had turned into a week and Finn blindly rushed into Jack’s apartment. He had even ridiculed Trish for saying it, the idea that Jack would just be at home, chilling out, totally forgetting to return calls, but deep down it is what he had hoped. The apartment being haunted was far less ideal.
As weeks grew into months, Finn let his imagination run wild with possibilities. Jack needed an escape from life, a new start. For Finn, the concept of running away was typically reserved for young children and angsty teens, but it was not unheard of for the occasional adult to say fuck it to everything they knew, pack up silently in the night, and run away never to be seen again. Maybe Jack was an undercover government agent and the mess with his phone was his call to arms. It would make sense, what with his abundant knowledge of the machines and technology in general. Jack had never told Finn about his new job. Maybe Jack was dead, overwhelming the sensors and securities on his vehicle until it veered off the road and plummeted into some unknown precipice, his unmarked corpse floating in the reeds. But then here he was.
“Finn,” Trish whimpered as she stood to her feet. “Where are we? Jack, what did you do? Fish--?”
“That’s not Jack,” Finn interrupted, pointing a shaky finger at Jack.
A smile crept across Jack’s face.
“What is that?” Finn asked the room. “Fish? What the hell are we doing here?”
Iris poked her head up from a pile of ancient books, the hullabaloo ineffective in distracting her from research. “Oh that?” Iris scoffed. “That’s nothing. He’s just a key for this place.” She cast a sideways glance at Jack who appeared to be ignoring her entirely. “Now, dears,” she turned and addressed the newcomers. “Welcome to the house. What were your names again? I didn’t quite catch them.”
Finn shifted uncomfortably, “Well, she’s Trish--”
“No, don’t!” Fish yelled and lunged across the room at Finn. “Names have power--”
“And he’s Finn,” Jack cackled.
Fish stopped in her tracks and spun to glower at Iris. “You know I could I tell them yours.”
“And I know you won’t,” Iris dismissed, jotting down notes in a thick notebook. “I’m far too powerful for you to contend with. We’ve known this since you were a child, dear. None of those scars on your arms ever summoned more than a few bandages.”
“Fish,” Trish’s voice was trembling. “What is she talking about? Where have you been?”
“Where have I been!?” Fish stared dagger eyes into Jack’s body. “Shit, Jack, I was trying to help you. How much goddamn time has passed? How much of my life have you wasted?”
Iris licked her fingertips and held them into the air like she was divining the direction of the breeze. “I’d say about 9 to 10 months,” she said, “or about 30 minutes, either one, give or take.”
“Give or take?” Finn’s voice quavered. “Will someone please just tell us what’s going on?”
“Fine!” Fish shouted and faced them. “You want to know what’s happening? You want to know where you are? Every nightmare you’ve ever had, every false set of footsteps clanging down your basement stairs, every shadow in the corner of your dark room, every curtain flap, cupboard croak, missing set of keys. That’s where you are. There are monsters and worse on the other side of the air and you’ve stepped straight through to the other goddamn reality that some of us have dealt with our entire lives.”
“Nicely said!” Iris squealed and stood, twirling a knife adorned with an ornate hilt in her three-fingered hand. “Now, please, let’s get down to business.” She outstretched her other hand to Jack. He brushed passed her and unceremoniously tossed open the fresh cut door. Iris dusted herself off and followed him. “Ugh, these modern types, no sense of tradition or grace.”
Fish sauntered toward the door.
“Wait!” Trish bellowed, and then softer, “wait. What is happening? What is going to happen to us?”
Fish hung in the door frame and averted her gaze. “They’re going to sacrifice you.”
“Sacrifice?” Finn asked somberly, consternation spreading across his face. “As in… human sacrifice? Are you saying we’re going to die?”
“Not if there’s anything I can do about it,” Fish tossed the words into the room and then plodded down the stairs.
Finn and Trish were alone, frozen. The darkness nipped at their edges. They tried to reconcile the words echoing in the room, rattling around inside of their brains, but the more either dwelt on them the more the entire space morphed into a waking nightmare.
“But we were just--” Trish faltered.
“Yeah,” Finn groaned. “We were. I was having fun, probably for the first time since the four of us went out.”
“At least we’re together again?” Trish attempted. “Wherever it is we are, that is.” She gestured outward, attempting to ignore the void lingering on the other side of the open window.
“Fuck this,” Finn retorted and stormed toward the front door. “I’m just leaving. Let them play out whatever bullshit Satanic fantasy with each other.” He turned the knob and swung the door open.
Trish heard him scream, scrambling backward and up the half flight of stairs into the living room. His eyes were red with tears and his voice was hoarse.
“What the hell, Finn!? You scared the shit out of me!”
“We have to go down the stairs,” Finn blabbered. “We have to follow them.”
“What did you see!?” Trish howled.
Finn shook his head and scrambled to his feet. “Trust me,” he said and swung the door open, holding it until Trish entered the doorway, her silhouette cast brilliantly against the emptiness of the house.
The door slammed shut behind them. Finn grasped Trish’s right hand with his left. His other tread the earthen wall as they descended the newly cut stairs. A dim haze greeted them at the bottom, an ancient door halting their progression. Finn shrugged and whispered as he turned the knob, “Stay close. I don’t trust them, not even Fish.”
They walked for what felt like hours, the same cycle repeating every time they felt they were getting closer. Door, stairs, door, hallway, door, house, door, stairs, door, hallway, door, house, door, stairs, door, hallway, each step the atmosphere settled a little heavier, colors paler. And then there it was. Another door, but not like the others. This one was blue, all around. Finn planted his ear onto its cold body. A low murmuring trickled in from the distance.
Finn pushed the door open as quietly as he could. Light burst into the passageway from behind their bodies, casting long shadows that crept along the ground and walls until it met with the others.
“Long time, no see!” Finn tried to sound jovial, but the vibration in his voice betrayed him. Trish squeezed his arm, hard.
As they approached, the light surrounding them dissipated and was replaced with a dim red that permeated the entire atmosphere. Iris was hunched over, putting the final accents and details into an arcane symbol, scrawling into the dirt with a knife. Fish leaned against the wall, her arms crossed, her sweater pulled down to her knuckles. Jack stood with his back to the wall, his gaze staring at Finn and Trish as they trudged toward them, his lips moving rapidly.
“--you who have not spoken with It,” he was intoning, “you who are strangers to Its thought, Its power, you who have not been broken and rebuilt in Its image, you who do not know True Power--”
“Oh, give the Biblical talk a rest, honey,” Iris pleaded. “I’ve been at this game longer than you’ve been alive and let me tell you, no demon, devil, principality, dominion, or god talks that way. Never did. Just say the damn words as they’re written.”
Jack glared at her.
Finn and Trish met them at the foot of the symbol. They simultaneously looked to Fish, their eyes pleading, hers downcast.
“Please,” Finn whispered. “Please.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Iris exclaimed and then shouted a phrase in a language none of them recognized. The symbol in the dirt glowed red. Iris stood and stabbed Jack in the neck with the ornate blade, blood spurting upward and down, pooling on the ground beneath their feet.
“What the hell!?” Fish exclaimed.
Finn and Trish froze.
“Oh, honey,” Iris shushed. “You didn’t think that after all of these years, I was going to let him have this power, did you? I’ve been meaning to add a dominion into my repertoire for a long time.”
Fish shoved her sleeves up to her elbows, wrenched sharp roots from within the dark earthen walls, and shoved them into her forearm. She closed her eyes and moved her lips and pleaded with air to call something into being while her blood trickled into the dirt.
Finn and Trish backed away as Jack slowly rose to his feet, placed his hands around Iris’ neck and twisted until she collapsed into a limp pile of lifeless flesh.
“Thanks honey,” he spit. “I would’ve so hated to have had to kill my dear old friends.” He turned his back to them all, a green door growing into existence in front of him. He turned the knob, swung it open, and hopped through.
The door vanished, leaving Fish, Finn, and Trish in total darkness.
by Dan Diehn (@diedan)