“There’s nothing shittier than Whittier”. Every time some fat slob of a tourist says that, thinking it must surely be the first time I’ve heard that joke, it arouses within me a feeble urge to deny it. Out of some sorta tribalism, I guess.
Everybody defends their home town, whether it’s Dubai or a random, miserable backwater. It’s like how the mothers of murderers always swear up and down in court that their poor misunderstood boy couldn’t have done it, while privately knowing that he did.
The urge dies too quickly, I never say anything. I know they’re right. Besides, if they’re not already certain of it when they arrive, they are when the tour’s over. Why they even bother to get off the boat just to check this place out is a mystery to me.
If it weren’t for the cruise ships that stop here and the regular influx of tourist money they bring, Whittier wouldn’t last a year. Its existence is propped up, artificial. Just like this damned concrete block we all live in.
Not all of us, technically. Whitter’s grown over the past decade. Slowly, but by enough to justify new apartments and a few private homes. Even in a place like this, there are haves and have nots. Though, I wonder how much pride there is in owning the nicest house in Hell.
Speaking of Hell, when people talk about it freezing over, this is what it looks like. A big, blunt, rectilinear mountain of concrete speckled with windows and painted in banal pastels. It’s the only color this place has for all but a scant few weeks during Summer.
Talk about polishing a turd. There’s some method to the madness though. A single large structure is more efficient to heat than lots of smaller ones, so we’re all packed together under one roof...like a human warehouse.
It saves us from having to go outside to walk from one place to the next. From having to go outside for any reason, really. You can go the rest of your life without ever leaving this building, and many of the elderly residents do just that.
The school is its own building. But as it’s connected to the main one by an underground tunnel, you can get there without setting foot outside. Especially during the Winter months, the outside landscape may as well be nothing but a backdrop. Our entire world is indoors.
I laughed when I read about that reality show that was accepting volunteers for a one-way trip to Mars. It never amounted to anything, but that’s for the best. I don’t think any of the volunteers really grasped what the reality of spending the rest of their lives cooped up in a tin can would be like.
I mean shit, if you want to live in a bleak, frigid wasteland where you’re cooped up with the same people indoors year after year, just move to Whittier. Don’t actually, though. What really fucks with me is that people lived here before the internet existed.
It’s staggering to think about. There’s literally nothing else to do here. Dad tells me that Patrick and I wouldn’t have been born otherwise. Patrick always scrunches up his face at that. He’s still at that age where the idea of being interested in women for any purpose other than snowball targets is alien to him.
Of course it’s possible to leave the building. You just have to bundle up to a ludicrous degree. There’s no real reason to, so nobody does it except the few who have proper houses, or who live in the modest apartment complex. The main building still has the only post office, clinic and so on.
A few times we’ve gone down to the edge of the water. Dad calls it the beach, but there’s no sand. Just concrete and a slope of deliberately collected boulders. This one time, he whistled as a bundled up figure passed, looking something like a lumpy eskimo. “Check out the figure on that one!” he remarked.
I didn’t get the joke until the figure turned, and it was a woman. To this day I don’t know how he could tell, or if he just guessed. “Creating your own entertainment” he calls it. What Patrick and I were always told to do when we used to complain of boredom.
It was a strange sensation to watch Patrick go through the same slow process of realization and acceptance that I did when I was his age. That boredom is not the fleeting condition television and the internet make it out to be, but instead an inherent quality of this place that there is no lasting escape from.
Every day is identical to the one before it. Same sights and sounds, same few faces over and over. It’s eerily similar to clairvoyance. I know what will happen tomorrow, because I know what happened yesterday. The only variations are that Sunday means church in the morning, weekends are free, and the occasional holiday.
I can’t make myself believe that a loving God would intentionally create a place like Whittier, but I still go to church because it’s something to do. There’s precious little else to occupy my time, except shitposting on internet forums and playing stupid games with Patrick.
He and I explored every last nook and cranny of the main building by the time I was ten, and he was four. Nobody had much to say about the two of us running around unsupervised as so long as we didn’t go outside, there wasn’t much trouble we could get into. I’ve heard it said that it takes a village to raise a child. Never more true than in Whittier, though for the most part we raised ourselves.
Dad’s busy all day at the airfield, and Mom’s a teacher so she’s had her fill of rambunctious kids by the time she gets home in the evening. I don’t know how she’s amassed such an impressive wine collection given the rate at which she drinks it.
She was already passed out when I got home. No idea how she got here first, I should’ve seen her on the way. Must’ve been in a hurry to get wrecked. I dumped my book bag in my bedroom, then headed straight back out to find Patrick.
He was in the playground, our usual haunt. Lots of kids hang out here for the simple reason that it’s one of the few places adults aren’t constantly passing through on their way to someplace else, like in the main building. Of course, even the playground is indoors.
It’s the most depressing thing. When you picture a playground, you take certain stuff for granted. Grassy green hills, blue sky, puffy white clouds. Whittier’s playground is inside a concrete building like everything else.
I guess at least it has the biggest windows around here. That would count for something if there were anything to see through ’em besides snow and cloud cover. They should’ve just painted fake windows. Or a mural, maybe.
Patrick was huddled in a corner with his friend David, whose family moved in on the fourth floor about a month ago. I don’t pretend to understand boys, but I know when there’s more than one of them in a group like that and they’re giggling, some fucked up shit is afoot.
“What are you up to?” Patrick spun around, momentarily startled until he saw it was me. “David was teaching me how to launch a fart.” I snorted, despite myself. Why anybody would want to launch a fart is something which probably makes perfect sense to Patrick and David, but which will remain a mystery to me for as long as I live.
It apparently involves a lighter, as David had one clutched secretively in his hands, hunched over like a squirrel with some precious morsel it found. I snatched it from him. He whined about it until I threatened to tell his mom. “You used to be cool” he pouted. I laughed in his face and reminded him that he’s only known me a month.
“She’s right” Patrick joined in, “she was never cool.” I pocketed the lighter, then talked him into following me back home with the promise of some two player Sega. I know from the internet that it’s way out of date, but everything’s out of date here. Normal to me, but for visitors, probably a lot like stepping into a time warp.
If you miss some soda or cereal they don’t make any more, it can probably be found in Whittier’s convenience store if you dig to the back of the shelves. Greg is good about keeping the perishables current, but the nonperishables are a different story. I see his side of it though. Why call it “nonperishable”, then put an expiration date on it?
When we get home Mom’s still passed out, so I make dinner. Patrick’s easy to please, I just nuke him a can of Chef Boyardee. The pasta is that weird fluorescent orange color that doesn’t exist in nature, in the shape of cartoon characters from the 90s.
He’s already got the cartridge in and turned the system on by the time I emerge from the kitchen with our meals on the tray. He sets down his controller only long enough to scarf down his chow, which takes less than a minute.
“You were gonna let me choose the game” I scolded, though I didn’t really care. “I don’t remember saying that” he insisted, through a mouth still mostly full of orange pasta. I believe him, too. It’s a ‘good day’ by Patrick standards when he remembers to leave the apartment with his pants on the right way around.
Like a couple of the other cartridges, this one’s got a label so faded and scratched up that you can’t tell what game it is just to look at it. We’ve been playing the same 8 games since Patrick was born though, so there’s no confusion.
Streets of Rage always confused me before I learned to read. Since I didn’t know the story, I just assumed the main characters you play as woke up one day and decided to beat up everybody in the world, one at a time.
“Get the turkey!” Patrick urged. True enough, he’d knocked over a mailbox and for some reason there was a freshly baked Thanksgiving turkey inside. We’ve still got phone booths in Whittier, but no mailboxes. The post office downstairs just has little lockers. I’ve never once found a turkey in ours.
When we got tired of that game, he switched over to Sonic. It’s the first one, so there’s no two player except the special stages. I groused about it and he offered to trade off each time one of us dies. I’m not about to fall for that. I’ve seen him beat the whole thing, on one life, with his feet.
“Wanna get out the pogs?” He grimaced. “...Yeah. Me either.” Then all of a sudden, his eyes lit up. “Hey! I read about this thing on the internet! About this lady, and she went and did this thing.” When he gets excited, it’s a chore to tease comprehensible details out of him. These days I just sit there and stare at him until his brain catches up to his mouth.
“...Oh, uh...it’s this thing you can do in an elevator, if you push the buttons in the right order. Some Japanese lady went and tried it. Nobody...ever...saw her...again...” He said the last part dramatically as if it was supposed to spook me. It might’ve if he’d actually conveyed some sense of what it was about. I told him to show me on the computer.
After the clunky old beast of a computer finished booting up, Patrick fired up the web browser. I don’t know what version of Windows this is, but I know it’s older than I am and it never fails to surprise me that we can get internet on it.
Patrick mostly uses it to play Club Penguin and some other game he won’t shut up about where you build stuff out of blocks. Dad uses it to look at secret internet boobs when he thinks we’re sleeping. I checked out his browsing history once out of morbid curiosity.
I don’t know where those women are from, but it’s not Whittier. Nobody around here looks like that. They have these huge puffy lips, tired looking eyes, shiny skin and the bodily proportions of a wasp. I hope that’s not what I’m supposed to be turning into…? Because even though I turned fifteen back in March, I still just look like a taller copy of Patrick, but with long hair and pimples.
Hopefully puberty’s just waiting on me to move someplace with better prospects. The odds are good in Whittier, but the goods are odd. The boys in my class are a mess of gangly limbs and patchy quasi-mustaches. A section of my biology textbook claims that this is the age humans used to reproduce at in the wild, but I don’t see how.
Mom told me that’s where wine comes in, but that’s her answer to everything. I hesitate to say she’s an alcoholic, because in Whittier, that word doesn’t mean much by itself. Alcoholic...relative to who?
I won’t start drinking for the same reason I’m determined not to start dating either. That’s how people start getting comfortable here, I’ve seen it happen. That’s how they begin putting down roots, and this is the last place on Earth I want to do that in.
“Found it!” Patrick tugged on my sleeve, rousing me from my introspection. Sure enough, pictures and video of various people in elevators. It was in Japanese so I couldn’t understand the captions or what they were saying, but the videos all played out the same way. They’d get in the elevator, then push one of the buttons.
When they reached that floor, instead of getting out, they just pushed the button for a different floor. In a few of ’em, a woman would get in partway through. The person who got in to begin with would stand there, rigidly refusing to look at her, as if pretending she wasn’t there.
Of course this would be Japanese. They do the weirdest shit. Googling “Japanese game show” is a bottomless rabbit hole, and a good way to blow a couple hours if you’re hard up for a laugh. “I don’t get it” I confessed. “What’s the point? Why is this supposed to be scary?”
I motioned as if to leave, but Patrick held onto my arm and opened a new page. It was more of the same, but in English. “It says if you go to the different floors in a specific order, it takes you to...another world.” He said it breathlessly as before, enamored with this load of bullshit that I now recognized as an urban legend of some sort.
I told him he shouldn’t believe everything he reads on the internet, and that somebody probably just made this up to scare people. “Nobody would do that!” he objected. “Besides, it’s not just one person. A lot of people have done this, and some of them disappeared. One of them was found dead a week later, floating in a water tank.”
I pried his hand loose and headed back for the Sega. “You wanted something to do!” he called after me. That is true, I thought. Not the worst way to spend an hour. “You can only do it with an elevator that has at least ten floors, too” he added. The one in this building has fourteen…
“Alright, whatever. But we need to be back before dad gets home, and David can’t come.” Patrick mimicked the last few words in a derpy sounding voice. I swatted at him, but my hand just barely didn’t connect. He’s too quick for me now, the little shit.
The elevator’s interior is all stainless steel panels. Probably the cleanest part of Begich tower, the official name for this building, but only because it’s easy to scrub down. Eduardo the janitor’s busy doing just that when I arrive.
A normal apartment building isn’t cleaned nearly as often, from what I’ve read, but that’s because the residents don’t spend all their time inside it. Begich Tower accumulates muddy footprints, wrappers, and the general detritus of human occupation much faster because of continuous occupation, and round the clock foot traffic between the various rooms.
“I’ll be done in a minute.” I didn’t see Patrick, so I asked Eduardo if he’d seen him come through here. “I told him the same thing I told you. He waited a little while but then just...ran off.” Sounds like Patrick alright. I’d be worried except he knows better than to go outside, and so long as you stay indoors, few places on Earth are safer.
I found him hiding in the boiler room. The stained, rusting hulks of the dual boilers dominate the room, built some time in the 60s. It was on a test a few years ago but I forget stuff like that nearly as fast as I learn it. I think they meant to instill some local pride by teaching us the history of Whittier. For me, it just confirmed that Whittier didn’t go downhill before I was born or something, it was like this from the start.
“What the heck Patrick. You said we were gonna do the elevator thing.” Silence. I’ve known him his whole life, so there was never any chance he’d take me by surprise. Even so, I knew if I played along it would be over with sooner. If I didn’t, he’d just try again later. “Ooohhhh nnnooooo... What a spooooky boiler room. I hope there isn’t a gross, mutated monster in here. I would be sooo scared if-”
He burst out from his hiding place beneath one of the boiler supports, just as I walked by. “GGGRRRAAAAHHHH!” he cried, arms above his head. I put my hands on my cheeks and feigned shock. “You really got me, wow. So we gonna do the elevator thing or what? Don’t tell me you forgot why we came out here.”
“You peed, didn’t you!” he jeered. “You were so scared that you peed yourself.” I flatly denied it, so he crossed his arms, grumpy that I wasn’t really frightened. “Alright, fine. I peed a little. Happy now?” He smugly nodded.
It is an enduring mystery to me why testosterone compels little brothers the world over to behave this way. What’s accomplished by it? What sort of satisfaction is there in scaring your sister? If he could still manage to, I mean. By now, I already know every trick in his arsenal, not that any of them are particularly clever.
It’s kinda like how some rainforest frogs developed toxic skin as a defense against being eaten. So the species of snake that eats them evolved higher resistance to the venom. So the frogs become yet more venomous and so on, like an arms race. Patrick never stops devising new ways to fuck with me, and one by one, I always get wise to them.
“If you’re done being a derp, Eduardo’s probably finished by now. If we’re gonna do the thing we gotta hurry, Dad gets home at 6.” His eyes lit up and before I could stop him, he once again ran off. I’d invest in one of those child safety leashes, except he’s the last person I’d want to be tethered to. I bet he’d just keep running anyway, dragging me along the floor behind him.
When I returned to the elevator, it was on some other floor. I hammered the button until it arrived. When the doors parted, there was Patrick, looking irritated. “I was trying it first to see if it works!” I shrugged. If he wants to be the guinea pig, suits me.
“You’re still here though.” He looked sheepish and confessed that he’d forgotten the exact sequence of floors. “You coulda printed it out, idiot.” He half-heartedly tried to headbutt me. “Don’t worry, I’ve got the site up.” I scrolled through recently visited URLs in my phone browser, and tapped on the elevator ritual website.
Dad won’t let him have his own smartphone until he’s older. Probably for the best, I shudder to think of what he’d get up to with it. He’s the sort of kid that really oughta be put on all those government watch lists pre-emptively. I’m joking, but barely.
I beckon for him to get in the elevator with me, but he shakes his head. “Read it again, it says you gotta do it alone.” Huh, so it does. He hastily recounts some other detail of the process to me the split second before the doors close, but I’m unconcerned. I have it all laid out step by step on my phone anyway.
The first thing to do, according to the list, is to head to the ground floor if I’m not already there. I did so, then for good measure got out and got back in. I felt silly...like I really thought it would affect the outcome or something? The next button to hit was 4.
I arrived at the fourth floor. Nothing, of course. Then to the second floor. Mrs. Rose ambled past with her walker, turning to look quizzically at me. I just smiled and briefly waved, not wanting to embarrass myself by explaining what I’m up to. For all she knows, I’m on important business.
Now the sixth floor. Still nothing. Back to the second floor? It felt more than ever like a wild goose chase, where the punchline at the end is simply that I was gullible enough to try it. I considered skipping the rest, but realized Patrick would never let me hear the end of it.
Now to the tenth floor. Took a little while. It was a pleasant, if brief, respite from constantly preparing to explain myself to any given adult who might be waiting outside when the door next opened. Nobody outside this time, thankfully. Now to the fifth floor.
A little note next to this step advised me that I was under no circumstances to speak to the woman who would get on at the fifth floor, and to look at her as little as possible. I shrugged. But when the doors parted, there was actually someone there. I tensed up until I recognized her as Mrs. Saganawa, a Japanese woman who lives on this floor that my mother sometimes plays cards with.
She got on, but said nothing. Neither did her expression register any surprise or recognition. I still didn’t speak to her, but only because her English is poor. She usually jumps at any chance to practice, but today she just stood there, silently staring into space.
I waited for her to tell me which floor she wanted, or to press one of the buttons herself. She never did. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. Still just standing there, silent and rigid. So, as instructed by the website, I pressed one.
To my surprise, the elevator ascended. I jammed on the button for the first floor as if that would do any good. Of course it didn’t. I tried emergency stop on a whim but it did nothing, and shouldn’t anyway without the maintenance key to activate it.
I looked back at the instructions. It said this would happen, but only if I’d performed all of the steps correctly. Mrs. Saganawa still stood perfectly still in my peripheral vision, saying nothing. When the elevator reached the tenth floor and the doors opened, I stepped out.
When she spoke, I froze in place. Not because the list said she would, that simply would’ve been a funny coincidence. Rather, because when she asked me where I was going, there wasn’t any hint of an accent in her voice. My blood ran cold. It...couldn’t be, could it?
I turned to look back, but remembered that the list urged me not to. But it’s just a stupid prank or something, right? I pictured Patrick laughing at me. The snot nosed little goblin! Could he have talked Mrs. Saganawa into participating? No, it wouldn’t be like her. But there’s no way I can let myself be fooled, that’s exactly what he was hoping for.
I turned around and began to speak...just in time for the elevator doors to shut. I recalled hammering the button for the first floor on the way up and concluded it was probably headed there now. I’m sure I’ll see Mrs. Saganawa the next time she comes over for cards, I’ll have to ask her what that was about.
I check the list. It says if I did everything right, I should be in a different world now. I head straight for the nearest window. Same bleak, snowy tundra. Same mountains. Same grey, overcast sky as always. I scolded myself for being afraid. Even just momentarily uncertain that it was a load of shit, which it was from the beginning.
As I head back to the elevator, I notice the bulb’s out in this hallway. We still use the halogen ones, some political thing on TV a few years back made everybody dead set against using those swirly ones that are supposed to last longer. I never understood why, but loads of things that adults think are important seem trivial to me.
The light in the elevator flickered on the way to my floor. When the doors parted, to my surprise, the bulb in this corridor was burnt out as well. I scratch my head. That’s not like Eduardo, he’s always on top of stuff like this.
Dad would say it’s because Mexicans are lazy. But he also says they’re taking all the jobs. Something about that doesn’t add up, maybe another one of those grown up things I’ll suddenly understand when I turn 18.
The doors open...but Patrick’s not there. I groan. “You’re the one who dragged me out here to do this!” I called down the corridor. When no answer came back, I begrudgingly set out in search of my little brother.
Mom once gave me time out for telling Patrick that Mom and Dad got him from the clearance bin at the maternity ward, like how dented cans are half off at the Kozy Korner. I dunno how she could punish me for lying. It’s only lying if you know for sure what you said isn’t true.
I kept expecting the bulb in the next hallway to be on, but none of them are. Power outage? It’s been known to happen. Usually because a snow laden tree collapsed on the power lines during a storm. My first thought was that I’d find him in the boiler room again.
With the lights out, it would actually be kinda spooky in there, and he’d be harder to spot. Everything I know about ‘Patrick logic’ confirms it. On my way, I kept expecting to run into someone. Mrs. Rose. Mrs. Saganawa. I just...never did.
The hallways are almost never this empty. When they are, it’s because there’s some community function. A church potluck, movie night in the gym, something of that nature. I check the calendar on my phone. If that’s what it is, I didn’t make any note of it.
When I reach the boiler room, it’s pitch black as expected. “Patrick, I know you’re in here” I shout in my most accusatory tone. “...David better not be with you.” It dawns on me that the two of them might have come up with this together, just because I took David’s lighter.
“Patrick, if David put you up to this I’m gonna beat both your asses.” Still no answer. So gingerly, I step into the cool, cavernous chamber. Pulling up the flashlight app on my phone illuminates a modest patch of the floor in front of me. Just enough to avoid tripping, or stubbing my toe. As I sweep it to and fro, it reveals some graffiti on the far wall I don’t recall seeing before. “Control the tone”, it reads.
I’ve only been here at night once. Sophie told me some of the guys in our class bring girls here to make out. I found a dirty bra and some crushed beer cans, but didn’t catch anybody in the act. None of the boys have ever asked to meet here at night. I dunno what I’ll do if one of ’em ever does. Pretend to have a stroke, I guess.
Next most likely place would be the playground. “I bet he’s there with David” I thought, fidgeting with the lighter in my pocket. David’s father is an ex-con. I don’t know much else about him, and I know it’s possible I’ve got him all wrong...but it would explain why David’s always got a knife, firecrackers, a lighter or something of that nature. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
The playground was better lit than the boiler room on account of the big windows. Dim patches of sunlight dominated the floor, coated from wall to wall in bark dust. Comforting, but they ruined my night vision, so that the light from my phone wasn’t as much help. “Patrick? If you’re in here, come out. This isn’t funny, I’m gonna tell Mom when we get home if you don’t come out.”
That didn’t budge him. I was about to leave when I heard the metallic jingle of a jostled chain. When I turned round, nobody was there...but one of the swings now lazily drifted back and forth. “Patrick?” I waited a little while, sweeping the light around, then set off for home.
Once again, I didn’t run into anybody on the way. It feels cooler than usual. I wonder if the furnace is busted too. I then wonder why the generators haven’t kicked in yet. They’re supposed to start up whenever the power is interrupted for longer than a minute.
There’s a wood fired backup, in the event of prolonged outage. It hasn’t been needed since before I was born though. Probably full of cobwebs and rat nests, could be why Eduardo hasn’t gotten it fired up yet. “Yes, that must be it” I told myself in a firm voice.
But when I got to the apartment, it was empty too. It makes no sense. Mom should still be here, at least. When she’s black out drunk, she’s no good to anybody until the next morning. There’s no way she could get up and leave on her own.
Maybe Dad took her out for a night on the town? The only tunnel into or out of Whittier closes at 10pm. Plenty of people have had to sleep in their cars just because they got back from Anchorage a minute or two late. That can’t be it either, though. It’s still light out.
I hesitate before calling Mom. If she’s up, then she found out Patrick and I went out without permission. But it just rings anyway, she never picks up. Probably she has it on silent and the phone’s in her purse. She’s always doing that. Dad gets on her case sometimes about how there’s no point to carrying a phone if nobody can reach her with it.
I hesitate even more before calling Dad. He bought me the phone as a birthday present, but it came with all kinds of conditions attached. One of them is never to bother him at work unless it’s an emergency. I look around. Is this...an emergency? I don’t really know. It’s not lying if you don’t know.
“Hey Dad? Listen, I know you told me never to bother you at work, but-” He interrupted me, barely intelligible through the static. “I’m not at work young lady, I’m at home. Where you should be right now. I hope Patrick’s with you, because if you let him run off on his own again-”
“Wait. Where are you?” He repeated that he’s at home right now. “Dad, you can’t be at home. I’m at home. What room are you in?” Not like there’s many possibilities. There’s just two bedrooms and a bath, the kitchen and living room are kinda smushed together.
“I’m in the livingroom. Is Patrick with you or isn’t he?” I didn’t answer. He continued badgering me through the phone as I turned in place, slowly studying the living room around me. “Dad, I’m in the living room. I don’t see you.” He just went on lecturing me about Patrick.
The static grew worse until I could only make out every other word. I banged on my phone a bit, not knowing what else to do, until the screen flickered. If I break this thing, there’s no way I’m getting a new one. It was hard enough to sell Dad on the idea to begin with.
Only one bar. The reception in here isn’t the best. It’s highly dependent which room you’re in and how close it is to the center of the building. There’s no reception in the elevator at all, something to do with the metal panels. Come to think of it, I can never get a text out from the bathroom stalls at school for the same reason.
Not here, though. It’s always been three or four bars. The battery’s at 62%. I hunted down my charger and plugged it into the wall, but nothing happens. No “boop” sound to register that it’s charging like usual, no tiny lightning bolt over the battery icon.
How could he be at home? Why would he lie to me? Patrick couldn’t have orchestrated all this. I slowly began to take seriously my growing suspicion that something’s gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I can’t...be alone here...can I? I ran into Mrs. Saganawa in the elevator. She should still be around here someplace, at least.
I tried calling Dad again, but it bounced. Again and again I tried, with the same result every time. Likewise when I tried to call Mom. For the first time, I caught myself wishing Patrick had his own phone just so I could track him down easier. Last time I asked I Mom why that’s automatically “my job”, I got an earful, so I haven’t asked since.
When the apartment phone rang, I was powerfully confused until I remembered these old land line telephones keep working even when there’s no electricity. The school subjects us to this gay safety assembly every year where we’re supposed to memorize emergency tips like that, I guess some of it actually sank in.
I pick up. The girl on the other end sounds faint and scratchy. Not so much like static, more like a worn out old recording. “Control the tone” she whispered. Tone? I ask if she means the dial tone. There’s a pause. “The mood. What joined you in the elevator…it will only appear when it’s cold, dark, and grey.”
I asked her name. She just babbled on. “The tone of the situation. The feeling. The atmosphere. Control the tone, and you can stop it from following you. Colors, lights, music. Disrupt the bleak, dismal tone, and it will stay away.” I asked if she lives in this building. She hung up on me.
Control the tone? Prank call, surely. If Patrick didn’t set all this up, she must’ve. I looked out one of the front windows. The windows of every apartment in the smaller complex, every shop and the handful of private homes were all dark.
That’s when I saw a distant, glowing red cross atop the Buckner building. It’s the other half of the military base all of this used to be, back during world war two. Begich tower got bought up and converted into what it is today. The Buckner building was just left to rot.
In the Summers, sometimes we’d go out there after dark just to poke around inside with flashlights and spook ourselves. Or play hide and seek, or take pictures. Probably some of the boys in my class also use it for the same...sorta thing...as the boiler room.
But the cross suggested a new possibility. I’ve never heard of the church a few floors down holding services in the Buckner building. I’ve never heard of it being put to any use at all. Yet there stands a great glowing crucifix, plain as day.
Can’t be a holiday I’ve forgotten, they’ve never gone out to hold a service there before. I doubt it’s a marriage either, those are usually held either in the lounge or the Ptarmigan room. Could someone have specially requested it? I don’t see why anybody would want to do it there, though.
As I watched, the cross seemed to grow brighter. So slowly I almost didn’t notice. Larger too, as if it’s getting closer. At the same time I felt pressure on my ear drums, and a slowly intensifying feeling of dread. It manifested as a weight in my chest which only pressed more and more sharply by the minute.
“Control the tone”. Someone had written it in the condensation on the window with their finger. I wiped it away. With the dehumidifiers down, all the other windows were starting to fog up too. I waited by the phone a little longer before setting off in search of Patrick.
The weight in my chest wouldn’t go away, but it seemed to lighten somewhat as I put more and more distance between me and the apartment. Still, I felt consumed with anxiety. Hard to place the exact kind. It’s like when you’re little, hiding from a thunderstorm. It sounds like something huge is angry with you, and trying to find you.
Like something bad is coming. The weight, and pressure of it bearing down on me as it draws near. That nameless feeling of impending doom. Given how old Begich Tower is, unsurprisingly there’s a few ghost stories associated with it.
Most to do with soldiers, still roaming the halls, some whistling. That’s what they say. Someone will be walking alone at night when they hear footsteps behind them. But when they look, nobody’s there. That’s when the whistling starts.
I strain my ears, but hear no whistling. Nor do I hear any footsteps other than my own. Only after I’ve gotten into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor do I realize that it has the only working light in this place. For that matter, why does the elevator still have power when nothing else does?
I search the elevator but see no clues. Only “Control the tone” carved under the button plate with a knife. Was that there when I started? I exhale, and notice I can see my breath in front of me. Just keeps getting colder. I’d better find somebody soon.
It didn’t take long to decide. However I searched, I could find nobody in the main building. It left me with no option other than to check out the Buckner building. That glowing cross was never there before, it’s the only obvious lead.
I took three jackets I found hanging on the rack by the front entrance. Nobody around to tell me not to, and I didn’t want to return to the apartment just yet. Once sufficiently bundled up, I headed out into the blank white expanse.
I didn’t get far before noticing little things are amiss. The cloud cover, as tumultuous as ever, isn’t moving. Normally it slowly undulates like the surface of an upside down ocean, but as I stood there watching, it didn’t budge. Several minutes passed with no visible motion before I gave up and pressed on.
The next thing to catch my attention was the snow. I didn’t even realize it was snowing when I left, but only because it wasn’t falling. I couldn’t accept what I was seeing until I got right up close to an individual snowflake. Hanging motionless in the air, like the others around it.
What is this? I’ve never seen anything like it before. I waved my arm around, which scattered the snowflakes, but they wouldn’t fall. Like they’re in space or something. That’s when I thought to check the time on my phone.
49% battery? Shit, I left the light on. That’s the least of my problems though. The clock still reads 5:28 pm. I didn’t bother to write down when we started, but that sounds about right. What is all this? It can’t really be what it looks like.
I can’t make myself deal with that on top of everything else, so I ignore it and keep trudging through the snow. Certain that I’ll find the Buckner building packed with familiar faces. A surprise party? It isn’t my birthday, but it could be someone else’s.
It’s just a short ways down the road. Easily reached in ten minutes of walking, during the Summer. When there’s snow blanketing everything, it’s a different story. I begin to work up a sweat, and feel tempted to peel some layers off, but something I vaguely recall from an assembly stops me.
I don’t remember exactly why, but when you’re out in the snow and start to feel overheated, you’re not supposed to strip down. Better too warm than too cold out here, I guess. I ignore the sweat and keep walking. As I draw near, I despair that the windows are all dark.
But then if it’s a surprise party, they would be. Or if they lugged the projector out here to watch a movie. Every conceivable possibility except the one I didn’t want to seriously consider swarmed around inside my skull. They’re all in there waiting for me. They have to be.
When I reached the door, I saw no signs of life inside. Just cold, silent darkness. Maybe they’re further inside? I get my phone out and turn the light back on. I hate how it chews through the battery, but I need it right now.
I find no traces inside that anybody’s been here at all since last Summer. Only rusted beer cans, some cigarette butts. A lone, filthy mitten. I didn’t trek all the way out here to give up so easily though. So I ascend the staircases one at a time, calling out for Patrick along the way, until I’m on the top floor.
Still no reply. I wander to the outer wall, peering through the window back at Begich Tower. If he’s not there, and he’s not here...where has he gone? For that matter, where is everybody else? I can’t make sense of it. Their cars are all out there too, so they can’t have all gone to Anchorage either.
As I studied Begich Tower, my gaze snagged on a little black dot near the entrance. I’m a bit near sighted so I couldn’t make it out, but after a minute of watching it, I could at least be sure of one thing. It’s getting closer.
Patrick? I squinted, but it was no use. The closer it got, the more confused I became. Whoever it is should be bundled up, but they’re not. They aren’t heaving back and forth the way I do when I’m trudging through snow either, and they’re not leaving behind the usual trough carved into snow that deep when you walk through it.
The figure just seems to...glide. Over the snow. Not moving their arms or legs, just drifting along. I retreated from the window. Pressure built on my ear drums. The weight in my chest returned, and steadily increased. However desperately I hoped someone would find me until now, some deep seated, primal instinct told me that I don’t want it to be the black figure.
I descended the stairs, floor by floor, my heart pounding. I almost tripped over myself a couple times on the way, but just kept going. I have to get to the bottom floor before...I don’t know. I don’t know what. Sweatier still, out of breath, I made it to the entrance...only to find Mrs. Saganawa standing there.
I seized up, one foot still on the bottom step. “...I didn’t see you come in. Where is everybody?” She didn’t reply. “Did you see somebody else on the way here? Dressed all in black?” Slowly, she shook her head. Then advanced towards me.
“Don’t come any closer.” She continued, step by step, regardless. When I climbed up a few steps, she lifted a short ways off the ground and began to glide towards me. I turned and scrambled up the stairs as fast as I could, choking back a scream.
It’s not her. Of course not, it never was. I knew since the elevator, I just didn’t want to believe it. Two steps at a time, then three, I hurled myself up flight after flight. I couldn’t hear it behind me, but I felt it getting closer. Pressing more and more sharply on my chest, my eardrums burning.
After the sixth flight of stairs, I stopped to catch my breath, never taking my eyes off the bottom of the steps where I knew she’d appear sooner or later. After the seventh set of stairs, I started to wonder if maybe I’ve miscounted. This building only has six floors, above ground level anyway.
After the ninth set of stairs, I was sure of it. Something’s gone wrong. I rest a little bit more, then ascend another three flights. Useless. So instead I set off down the hallway, but soon realize that won’t help me either.
After several minutes of running straight down the same corridor, it dawns on me that I should’ve reached the far end of the building by now. Shining my light down the corridor reveals only the next ten or so feet in front of me. Just a thick, soupy darkness beyond that point.
I slow to a jog. Then simply walk, wondering if there’s any point. When I turn around, I haven’t gone but twenty feet from the top of the stairwell. My phone rings. I hurriedly put my finger over where the sound comes out hoping to muffle it, and answer the call.
“Who is this?” I demand. “What is this place? Where is everybody?” A few seconds of faint, scratchy breathing follow. “No others. She got them all, but she won’t get me. I’m good at hiding, and I know her weakness.” My ears perk up. “C-control...the tone?” I ventured.
I heard muffled laughter on the other end. “Running won’t work, not where you are now. Any place with repeating features, she...she extends it. Warps it. So that it goes on forever in the direction she wants. You’re like a mouse in a wheel. But I will open a way. Don’t let fear take you, or you are lost. I will open a way. She’s close now. She’s close!”
Once again, she hung up on me. When I looked up, Mrs. Saganawa stood quietly at the top of the stairs. Just standing, waiting. Listening. My heartbeat quickened as the familiar pressure threatened to puncture it. “What do you want from me?”
Slowly, she extended one arm. Weakly, as if exhausted. At the same time, her mouth opened, but no sound came out. I turned to run, but after a few seconds I looked back. Like before, I hadn’t actually moved at all relative to the stairwell. But Mrs. Saganawa had gotten closer. Arm outstretched, jaw hanging open, head just barely tilted to one side.
I backed away, step by step. In the process I realized I was now actually moving relative to her, so long as I didn’t look away. So I backed away quicker. Her head snapped upright. Startled that I’ve discovered a way to flee? I now jogged backwards as fast as I could without tripping, never taking my eyes off her.
She screeched. It sounded like a mixture of whale calls and an angle grinder. At once, she lifted up off her feet and drifted towards me. Faster and faster she came, gaining on me as I backed away at full tilt. Then suddenly, a window came up behind me on my right.
Jacked up out of my mind on adrenaline, I threw myself out the window. A six story fall is nothing to sneeze at, but the thick snow drifts around the base of the building were cushion enough. When I picked myself up, wiped the snow out of my eyes and looked back up at the window...there she stood.
Staring. Face contorted into an angry scowl, mouth hanging open further than it should be able to, arm still outstretched. I hoofed it back towards the main building. Heart now racing such that I felt sure it would burst.
But I couldn’t stop, nor even slow down. What I knew was behind me in close pursuit would not have to trudge through the snow, as I did. She could simply glide over it. I didn’t even need to peer over my shoulder. I could feel her getting closer.
When at last I reached the entrance to the main building I was drenched in sweat, heart thumping raucously in my chest. I threw off the layers the moment I was inside, then spun around and locked the door. As I did so, I scanned the snow covered landscape outside, but saw no black figure. No trace at all of Mrs. Saganawa, or whatever it is that pursued me from the Buckner building.
Control the tone. The phrase pulsated in my mind. I raced down the stairs to the storage level, an austere concrete chamber lined to either side with chain link cages. This is where residents store belongings that won’t fit in the cramped little apartments.
I never bothered learning David’s last name, but I know his apartment number. After some searching, I find the storage cage with the same number printed onto a thin metal plate just above the lock. But if there’s guns inside, I can’t see them. It’s just all of David’s old baby stuff like a crib, a walker with little colorful dangly plastic shapes, that sort of thing. Why did they bring this?
I know Dad keeps his moose hunting rifle in storage, but it’s not my first choice. A breech loader with just one barrel, if the bullet either missed or didn’t have the desired effect, I wouldn’t get another chance. The fuckin’ thing is also as long as I am tall, and burdensomely heavy.
A gun is a gun. With no better plan jumping out at me, I ran up the stairs to the apartment and set about rummaging through Mom and Dad’s room in search of the key to their storage cage. I found it in the drawer where Mom keeps that “shoulder massager” she told me never to ask about again.
There’s also a pack of full sized candles in there with it. I shudder to think of what Mom and Dad do with these. Before I turned away, it struck me that candles should still work here. A non-electrical source of light, one which is commonly used to create a certain mood.
Not that I wanted to do that. Just any mood other than dark and barren. So I set up the candles all around the apartment, then lit them one by one with David’s lighter. After wandering these shadowy halls for hours, to suddenly illuminate one small portion of this place felt utterly strange. Like a precious little island of reality, surrounded by a waking nightmare.
With the storage key in hand, I returned to the cages. It was in the process of unfastening the lock that I heard a faint whimper from the far corner of the storage room. I spun around, sweeping the light from my phone over every inch of the room until I spotted a curled up little mass, huddled just behind the last row of cages.
“...Patrick?” But when the small, frail form stood up, I was in for a surprise. “David! What are you doing here?” He shivered violently, having come in just a t-shirt. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around him. “Patrick told me about the elevator thing. I didn’t believe him. After he went to tell your parents, I tried it myself. Is she...is she gone yet?”
Intuiting that he meant Mrs. Saganawa, I told him about the Buckner building, and how to control the tone. He registered brief shock at the last bit. “Who told you that?” he asked, his voice now more stern than frightened. I asked why it mattered.
“Did she say where she is? To meet her somewhere?” he pried. I then briefly wondered how he knew the voice on the phone was a girl, until a new possibility occurred to me. Warily, I started backing away. When he took a step towards me, I dashed into the storage cage and slammed it shut behind me.
Before he could pull it back open, I slipped the lock on from the inside and clicked it shut. He grabbed at my hands just a split second too late. “Come out of there. What’s gotten into you? I’m cold and scared. I need your help!” Acting his little ass off, but I remained unmoved.
“How do you launch a fart, David?” I loaded a round into the rifle while awaiting his answer. “Launch?...A what?” I shuddered. Then leveled the rifle at his forehead, held my breath, and squeezed the trigger. Having never shot any sort of gun before it knocked the wind out of me.
David vanished. Only ever an illusion, replaced by the black figure I saw out in the snow. What it looks like, when it doesn’t realize someone’s watching. Mottled and smeared, like a mannequin coated in dried oil, with thick black bristles poking out of it here and there.
No genitals, though it’s naked. No mouth or eyes either. If it were someone in a costume, they would suffocate inside a minute. The sizable hole I’d blasted in its chest did not heal, but nor did it kill the impossible creature before me. Instead, it approached the fence.
I whispered “no” over and over as if to stop it. But it continued coming, pressing itself bit by bit through the aluminum mesh. I turned and set about frantically searching for anything else that might be useful as weapon. Only cheap junk bought as birthday gifts in Anchorage years ago, then stashed down here to rot.
Control the tone. Again, that phrase leapt to the forefront of my mind. Inside of a trash bag, along with busted up crayons and a variety of my old dolls that Patrick beheaded, I found the musical projection night light Dad bought me. I don’t know why he thought a fourteen year old needed a night light, but right now, it’s exactly what I want most.
No outlets in here, but it runs on batteries. The power outlets didn’t work. Is it just the outlets, or electricity in general? As the mass of greasy black shit continued forcing itself through the door of the cage, I flipped the switch...only for nothing to happen.
I nearly gave up before I noticed the little cloth tab. I never even used the damn thing once. It still has the tab in there to prevent the batteries from making contact. I yank it out, flip the switch, and suddenly the whole room is bathed in colored light.
The oily thing recoils from it. Stiffening up immediately both in posture and consistency, then slinking away with a limp as if in pain. “Rock a Bye Baby” blared from the gadget’s tinny little speakers as multicolored stars, unicorns, crescent moons and clouds slowly circled the walls and ceiling.
I cried. Too tense until then, the sudden respite set loose my tears. On my hands and knees amid dusty old junk, I bawled with relief. Everything I did between the Buckner building and the storage room was down to fear. Like a robot, forcing me to do whatever it takes to protect myself, step by step. Never any time to process it all.
Snot frozen under my nose during the trek through the snow finally thawed, and began to drip. I wiped it away with the sleeve of my jacket, reloaded the rifle, and picked up the night light. Holding it out in front of me like a lantern, I cautiously unfastened the lock with one hand and swung the cage door open.
I leaned into the hallway and peered as far as I could see down its length in either direction. No sign of the black figure. Inch by inch, hands shaking, I made my way towards the stairwell. The repetitive tune coming from the night light, only irritating before, is now the sweetest music I’ve ever heard.
As soon as I reach the elevator, I jam the button over and over until the door opens. So warm and inviting inside, the only electrical light besides the one on my phone. My...phone? When I look down at it, the light is off. I press the power button, but the only thing on the screen is a blinking battery icon.
No. No, it can’t. Not now! I shake it. I slam it against the side of the elevator and scream. After a minute of doing that I calm down, check the phone for damage, then stash it in my pocket. If the night light batteries work, there could still be some way to charge the phone stashed in one of those cages.
If only I’d believed sooner. If only my dumb ass had come straight back to the elevator. I bash my forehead with one hand and resume screaming for a bit, before regaining composure. Nothing else to do but look for a way to charge the phone.
I’ve seen those things you put batteries into, which then plug into your phone. I just don’t have one and I don’t know if anybody in the building does. There’s never any need. We’re indoors all the time, there’s always an outlet handy.
It was something to latch onto, though. Something to hope for. So I set off for the cages again, dreading the prospect of being cornered by that...whatever it is...a second time. I couldn’t have anticipated that I wouldn’t even make it far enough for that, or I would’ve stayed in the elevator.
Halfway there, the night light tune started to slow down and distort. The thing about disposable batteries is that they don’t just up and quit on you. They get weaker and weaker before they give out. What I never took into account is that a slowed down, distorted, low pitched rendition of “Rock a Bye Baby” creates a very different mood than it does when properly played.
Especially when the colored lights died. Just like that, the sharpness in my chest returned. Just a hint, but I knew it so well by now that it didn’t escape my notice. I ripped the batteries out of the cheap plastic globe, but kept it with me in case I could find a fresh set of batteries for it down in the cages.
“Oh thank God.” When I turned towards the voice, it was my Dad. Dirty, disheveled, with bags under his eyes. The expression on his face was one of profound relief. “D-dad? Is that...you?” He held out his arms, soliciting a hug. “What do you mean, is it me? Do you have any idea how worried your mother and I were when Patrick told us you were gone?”
I carefully loaded another round into the rifle. His gaze shifted to it, and at once his relief gave way to concern. “You’re never to handle that rifle, young lady. Put that right back where you found it. Then you and I are going home.”
I asked him what he said after he whistled at the bundled up woman, that day he took me down to the “beach”. He raised an eyebrow. “Is this really the time? Listen, I’m not exactly sure what this place is. I just did the steps on the list Patrick gave me. I think if we do them again, we-”
I sent a round straight through its head this time. One in the chest didn’t kill it, but surely it must have a brain. The sticky black creature did stumble backwards as if in pain, or at least disoriented. I seized the opportunity to run straight past it and up the stairs.
The remaining rounds in my pocket jingled as I scrambled up the steps. I briefly contemplated what I’d do when they ran out. When that train of thought reached its only logical conclusion, I shut it down. It could still come to that...but I’m not ready to think seriously about it. Not yet.
What would happen if I let it get me? Would it eat me? I can’t see how, it hasn’t got a mouth. Would it kill me? What for, if not to eat me? Would it take me someplace? The wounds don’t seem to close up or anything. If I cut it apart, would it die? Would the pieces come after me, or fuse back together? What if I set fire to it?
I fled to the only place I knew would be safe. The apartment, still drenched in the flickering tungsten glow of so many candles. I felt a subtle, but discernible change as I entered. As if I’d crossed a threshold. Penetrated into a bubble of normalcy, carved out of the wrongness around it.
Colors don’t exist without light. Everything outside the apartment is the same dull shade of grey, if it isn’t pitch black. Given that the sun still hasn’t gone down, I have reason to doubt if it’s even a sun at all. If there’s anything but emptiness outside the immediate surrounding landscape, or above the cloud layer.
The phone rang. I stupidly checked my cell first. Wishful thinking I guess, it doesn’t even sound like that. “Get paper, and something to write with” the voice commanded when I picked up. I dutifully hunted down a magnetic notepad from the fridge Mom usually writes her shopping list on, and a mechanical pencil.
“You must write down the numbers I tell you in the exact order I read them. It’s the order you need to visit the floors in, if you want to return home.” I assured her I was ready to transcribe, so she started reading them to me one by one.
Partway through, I realized it was the same sequence of numbers, but backwards. “I think...the website said to do it in the same order” She sighed. “It has an ally, then. One who conspires to trap the unwitting here, so it can feed. The floors must be visited in reverse.
When you arrive at the last step, do not step out of the elevator without first checking to make sure everything outside of it is as it should be. It could be a trick. If even one thing is different, stay in the elevator and perform the steps again.”
I eagerly assured her I would, and thanked her for everything she’s done. When she answered, it was with a weary tone. “You...if you could see me, you would not thank me. You would understand if you saw. This place...it sucks the energy out of everything. The electricity, but also the life. It would kill you if you remained here for too long.
What chases you...it was human once. It feeds to replenish what this place drains from it...and from us. This place has changed me too. I am not so far gone, but close. I, too...have had to feed in order to live.” I gasped. But before I could say anything, she hastily added “...but only what’s necessary so I may help others! One in ten, if that. Never children.”
I pondered the revelation. It made me feel nauseous. Then mild guilt for feeling that way. After all, I would be dead if not for her. “Come back with me!” I begged. A few seconds passed, and I thought I heard sniffling. “I can’t. I belong to this place now. I will stay, and atone for my sins. But if I can save you...that would really…”
Her voice broke into static, and the call dropped. My heart sank, and I suddenly felt a lot less excited to leave. But I trust her. If she says she can’t leave, it is what it is. I tore the page with the instructions on it from the magnetic note pad, carefully folded it, then tucked it into my pocket.
Slowly, carefully, I stuck my head around the edge of the doorway. Peering left, then right down the full length of the corridor to be absolutely sure it’s not out there, just waiting for me to leave this little pocket of light and safety.
Step by belabored step, I crept down the darkened hallway. Rifle at the ready, I quickly trained it on the source of any little noise I heard as I made my way back towards the elevator. I could’ve brought a candle, but one wouldn’t have been enough. I couldn’t very well bring them all.
Just a distraction, though. What really troubled me was the girl. Thoughts of her hiding somewhere, all alone in this world with that thing. I never even learned what her name is. More than anything, I wish it could end some other way. That she could come back with me.
I stiffened when I felt an ice cold breath on the back of my neck. In an instant, I spun around and brought the rifle to bear. Only a broken window! I might’ve laughed at myself...under different circumstances. Not much further now.
I felt almost surprised at how easy it was. It must’ve given up. Did I scare it? Is that possible? The light pouring out of the elevator’s open doors was so welcoming that I didn’t think twice about why they were like that. I ducked inside, then wasted no time digging the list out of my pocket and pressing the button for the first floor.
Nothing happened. I pressed it again. The doors didn’t budge. I felt a familiar sharp pressure building in my chest. I pressed the button again. I hammered on it with my clenched fist. Still, the doors wouldn’t fucking close. What is this? She never said this would happen.
That’s when I spotted it at the far end of the hallway. Just standing there silently, floating a few inches off the ground. Mocking me? Or just waiting for me to give up, and come out? I kicked the panel under the buttons. Then again, as hard as I could.
I only didn’t kick it a third time because the overhead light flickered. My heart skipped a beat. It can’t...go out...can it? When next I looked up, the figure stood slightly closer. Or am I imagining it? Then it occurred to me that I might’ve been led here.
For the first time, I entertained the possibility that there never was any girl on the other end of the phone. That it impersonated her in order to corner me here. But then, what was all that stuff about controlling the tone? It worked, didn’t it? I teared up, overwhelmed with fear and confusion as I begged the doors to close.
When next I looked up, it stood right outside. I shrieked and fell back against the elevator’s rear wall. “WHAT ARE YOU” I demanded as the tears streamed down my face. “WHAT DO YOU WANT!?” It didn’t react at first. But then, the thick, muscular, greasy black appendages comprising its body unraveled before me.
I sat there stunned, unable to form words as its entire body unfolded to impossible dimensions, revealing...everything. I can see everything in there. A whole universe. Nothing more than an infinite black void, speckled with floating islands.
Mouth hanging open, eyes wide, I watched as one of the islands approached. I watched through the unfolded, spread out mass of tangled black flesh, a living portal. Closer and closer it came until I could make out some detail.
The structure looked artificial. Not formed from rock and soil but instead expertly carved out of a bone-like material. Ivory? Except that it looks to have stained and darkened with age, to a yellowish brown. Curvilinear spines make up load bearing pillars and buttresses. Columns carved out of femurs. Tiny humanoid figures everywhere, busy with a variety of tasks.
All of them going about their lives, as if it’s normal to them. As if they are oblivious, even to the massive skull forming the centerpiece of the island, watching over them all. So ancient that it looks to be on the verge of crumbling.
Why? Why? Why show me this? But as I studied the activities of the little figures, I noticed some among them resembled the creature. Whisper thin, wiry figures made up of bundled together leeches, or something similar. Like greasy black tongues, wrapped around themselves to form a head, torso and limbs.
Some stacked up human remains near the edge of the structure. Others led captured men, women and children to a series of bone cages. For what reason? By whose order? As if in answer, a pale little figure appeared atop the central skull.
Standing on a platform, something like a podium at the front, encircled by a dizzying array of levers and switches. He dashed about pulling one lever, then the other. Then yet another, seeming to direct the activities taking place below.
Are they aware he controls it all? Do they know he exists? My mind raced feverishly as I processed it all. Why show me this? What does it mean? Under the circumstances, what I did next seemed most natural. Like the only thing I possibly could’ve.
I raised my rifle, took careful aim at the little man on the platform at the top of it all, and squeezed the trigger. I don’t know what I expected. His ghostly pale, translucent form suggested that a bullet wouldn’t do the trick. It sure got his attention, though. The ground rumbled beneath me, dust falling from the ceiling.
The ghostly, emaciated little dictator flailed and thrashed. In fear? Anger? All the other figures below panicked, running this way and that. The black flesh folded back into itself. Bit by bit, compressing back into its original shape. Its face tore open where a mouth should be, and it howled.
I shot it straight through the chest again, sending it staggering backwards. No more help than it ever was, but I wanted to see it suffer. It rose from the ground without actually getting up. Just sort of floated back to an upright position, then advanced towards me.
It...it still can’t come in here. Right? The light will stop it. I resumed pressing the button anyway. But still, it came. Drifting lazily over the carpet, nowhere touching it, gradually raising one hand towards me with its fingers contorted into a claw.
The doors closed. I nearly threw up from anxiety, falling to my knees as the elevator at last descended. The light flickered again, and I caught myself praying that it doesn’t go out. Not now. Please, not now. The ground floor. I stepped out only as far as I thought necessary, then back in.
Now the fifth floor. I trained the rifle on the seam between the doors, trembling violently but ready to unload should they part to reveal anything but a concrete wall. The doors parted. Nothing. Still, I kept the rifle at the ready as I pressed the button for the tenth floor.
It was a repeat of the fifth. Got me all worked up for nothing. My nerves are already fried, I can’t take any more of this. I can’t. I just want to go home. I want it to be over. I pressed the button for the sixth floor, then once again readied the rifle. It’s given up now, hasn’t it? Does it even know which floors? Does it know the order? The doors parted to another dark concrete hallway.
Now the fourth floor. Almost there. Almost. Home stretch. I felt certain that if it was going to make a desperate final attempt to stop me, it would be here. Yet when the doors parted, just another dark hallway! Still no sign of the black figure.
My thoughts returned, briefly, to the girl’s words. That this place changed her. That it would’ve changed me if I stayed long enough, feeding on others to survive. Does she still cry? ...If not, I wonder how long it’s been. I warily lower my rifle, and hit the button for the ground floor.
When the doors parted, I almost collapsed with relief. The hallway is brightly lit. Out the window I can see a constellation of backlit windows, the various other homes and businesses outside the main building. But before I can step out, something within me prevents it.
Something the girl said, about looking for anything out of place. I carefully backed into the elevator and studied what little I could see outside the window. The donut shop was always there, right? Should it really be dark? I wish I could check the time on my phone.
“THERE YOU ARE!!” I tensed up and squeezed myself into the far corner of the elevator as Patrick approached the open doors. “Where were you!? Mom and Dad freaked when I told them you were gone. There’s a search party out there right now with flashlights, looking for you!”
I stared at him. Studying every little detail of his face. “Patrick...” I mumbled in a tense monotone. “What’s inside of the mailbox. In that game we play, you know the one.” He furrowed his brow in confusion. “The...what? Look that’s not important, you’ve got to come with me so-”
In one swift motion I raised the rifle, steadied it and squeezed the trigger. Now accustomed to the recoil, my aim was true and the bullet tore its way straight through the creature’s head. “Patrick” tumbled over in a heap. Then blood began pooling under his head. Never seen it do that before.
It must be pulling out all the stops this time. “Mom” and “Dad” came in through the front doors, bundled up, carrying those bulky emergency flashlights with the heavy battery hanging from the handle. Their eyes lit up when they spotted me. Then their excitement faded as their gaze came to rest on Patrick.
It must think I’m stupid. The two impostors made a show of screaming at me. One of them knelt as if distraught that I’d shot the smaller thing pretending to be Patrick. I just calmly reloaded and brought the rifle to bear, as the rest of the “search party” rounded the corner to see what the commotion’s about.
No problem. I have plenty of rounds left.