Can you hear it? The distant rush of susurrus, ebbing and flowing like the waves of the ocean. Like the sound of traffic on a nearby highway.
Can you see it yet? Can you see what's wrong?
Nobody else does. I tried to show a few of them. People I thought I knew. Look at them all, riding their bicycles. Farming their vegetables. Selling their crops at the market to people they've never seen before and will never see again… and buying meat, milk and eggs on the way home.
Sometimes, one of the others who don't farm will buy what they need. Those are the chatty regulars. The people who come again.
It's the people who don't that creep me out.
They all come out of the Hospitality Hotels scattered around the town. And they all go back there. Normal, right?
But nobody sees them leave. Nobody sees them arrive. At the end of Market Day the distant susurrus gains a noise like a truck. I know it sounds like a truck because I've been told what it is.
Do you see it, yet?
Do you see?
Everyone's riding bicycles. There are no cars. No trucks. And no roads that lead to a highway.
There's a road out of the town. I rode it once. It goes up to Picnic Peak and, if you're like me and take the rest of it, it sweeps down to Swimming Pond and then back into town again.
But I've come to accept that there's no-one like me. Nobody else has ridden the road out of town, all the way. Nobody else has looked, as they bicycled along that long and winding road, for exits and turn-offs or signs of the highway that we can all hear but none of us can see.
Nobody else has even gone up to the windmill to find that there are no doors.
Nobody else asks, where does the meat come from?
I tried to help them, when I realised it. I tried to get the answers that nobody wanted to look for.
I gave up after the third time they put me in hospital.
I've been pretending to be like everyone else in the daytime. I sell portraits at the market and do landscapes when I'm not. I'm almost always in the park. Nobody asks why.
Nobody knows I only go to the house I used to call home to shower and change my clothes.
It doesn't seem to matter that I don't maintain it. The clothes are always clean and pressed and put away. Despite the fact that I never do laundry. The garden grows. Someone else sells my flowers and spare vegetables on my behalf and never asks…
If I'm always in the park, how does my garden grow?
I've stopped eating the meat that comes from nowhere. I keep worrying that it's made of the never-again creepy people.
They only frighten me. They don't deserve to die for it.
I sleep in an alley between two identical Hospitality Hotels that nobody ever questions. They never look further than the dumpster at the mouth of the alley. They never see the tent I made out of old tarpaulins. They certainly don't look far enough down the alley to see the strange door.
The half door.
It's half as high and half as wide as a normal door. And on the days when it's too wet to paint in the park, I sit on my mattress under my tarp and watch it.
There's no hinges. No handle. There's a place for a handle, a circle as large as a handle… but it's flush against the door and no tool I've borrowed will grasp it, nor fit into the tiny seam of the circle.
I tried that science trick on it, once. You know the one where you burn a piece of paper to get a boiled egg inside a milk bottle? I tried it with a big enough glass and a seal of vaseline.
The door didn't even take a mark. All the vaseline on the glass stayed on the glass. None of it, not even a tiny smear, stayed on the door.
I even tried getting help. I wove a story for the beat cop who fails to catch me sleeping in the alley. Something about a child crying on the other side of the door. I tried showing it to him.
I mean, could anyone miss spotting a glow-in-the-dark puce door?
It was right in front of him.
But all he saw was bricks. And he asked me outright if I wanted to go to the hospital again. Not as a threat. Not in a tone of worry or concern. Just as casually as anyone working at the diners asks if you want the house special.
That was the moment I knew I was alone in a town full of people who said they knew me.
It's a good thing I can think on my feet. I closed my eyes and swayed and almost dropped. And then I snorted 'awake' like I'd been having a nightmare.
I told another lie. Made up another story. About sleepwalking and nightmares and the last course of medicine the hospital still sends to my 'home'.
I measure out two spoonfuls, all right. I carefully measure the exact dose and tip them into the potted aspidistra that lives on the kitchen countertop.
Somehow, the people at the hospital know if I tip it down the sink.
The medicine takes me away. The part of me that wants things. That creates. That wants to move. That wants to eat or drink or sleep. That dreams and asks and notices.
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be me than some sickly patient in the hospital. Moved by doctors and nurses. Fed through tubes. Awake in the technicality that my eyes are open and I track moving things with them. Alive in the technicality that I'm breathing on my own and my heart hasn't stopped.
I don't want to be in a waking coma again. It's like being trapped in a fog of pink. The pink won't let me move, doesn't let me feel hungry or thirsty or tired or… or anything.
"Wow, that's… interesting." Blink. Just like that, all my careful words are forgotten. "Is my portrait done, yet?"
Yeah. It's done. Just… do me favour? Don't go back to the hotel, tonight. Stay in my house. Come sit with me in the alley and help me with the half door. Do something - anything different.
Listen, I know you scare the beans out of me but that's no reason for the things that are going to happen to you. Please. Don't go back to the Hospitality Hotel.
The folks who live here can't go in. The folks who stay there never come out twice.
I don't want you to vanish in the noise of a truck. Even though you scare me beyond reason, I don't want it to happen to you. I need a friend. Please? Here's my address and everything.
"Thanks for that. I'll look you up the next time I'm passing through."
The same words from all of them. The same words from all of the creepy people. Maybe they aren't real. Maybe they don't care. Maybe there's somewhere that they go to that I can't.
Maybe there'll come a time when I'm brave enough to take one of them away from the Hospitality Hotel and try to show them the things I've seen.
And maybe, one day, that door will open.
Whatever's on the other side has got to be better than this.