word & illustrations by costa koutsoutis
The dirty walls were an odd mix of dusty and wet, mulch that seemed to flake off and float through the thick air if touched, even in the slightest. The light didn’t flicker as much as it seemed to throb, going from a low pulse to an almost-imperceptible hum felt more than seen, making the hallway seem impossibly long, like a tunnel down with you’d walk and walk and the end would just never come up, that end of the hall and the stairs leading you to another floor or, one would hope, an exit is just…too…far…away.
It wasn’t, of course, not at all.
The end of the hallway with the pornographic poster from thirty years ago in the dusty plastic faux-glass and faux-vintage frame was twenty paces end to end if that, cramped darkness and a sagging uneven linoleum floor, the tiles feeling uneven and shifting under every step to the dark and splintered but otherwise solid doors. Not so much barriers as slabs of wood with the necessary hardware bolted on, they nonetheless provided the privacy that the remnants of a bank account could provide in a place like this.
Inside the doorway, the walls were marginally better simply due to the constant motion within preventing the odd stagnation of the hallways from happening. Some form of weak light, either sunlight or maybe even outside streetlights, managed to fight its way through the dirty glass of the one large window, semi-shaded with a bedsheet that at one point, it had been decided was now a curtain.
The rest of the room was quite the same, furniture like a bed and nightstand, a dresser, and a mirror in the corner, leaning against the dirty wall, pressing into the wall material and creating a visible dent, a sagging imprint. A single dirty-hued lamp helped somewhat to add light into the room, adding something to the faint dirty glow from the window, but constantly tingling with electricity, as if the electricity surging through it was too much for the old light fixture to handle and it was going to explode at any minute. The mirror was dirty, looking, if you didn’t know any better, like it had been filled over with hand-done smears of black paint to block the reflective glass, to keep something at bay, be it the reflection of a late-life failure, or perhaps something else, something darker.
Rogers paced from the door to the dirty window, face constantly dripping as he sweat, twitching in almost seemingly every muscle, less a jittery mess than a true nervous degeneration in real time. Hands behind his back, clenching and unclenching, he peered over at the dirty unmade bed, a large single-size mattress with dark blue sheets meant to both appear homey but also hide potential stains and dirt. It didn’t really matter, Rogers not having truly slept in what must have been three or four days now, the passage of time in that room being almost impossible to track, even with the unerring schedule of television blaring from the old set plugged into the far wall, constantly on but still somehow dark in the room, static adding only more oppressive silence-noise.
The cell phone, the sterile-looking black slab of plastic and metal seemed oddly out of place in the room and on the bed, suddenly sprung to life, vibrating violently and making the dirty sheets shake, the odd rhythmic beat a hum that brought him to life, out of the stupor of pacing and staring, suddenly looking at the phone, kneeling on the floor at the bed as if praying, staring at the bright blue surface, alive now and blinking a familiar name and icon. Tentatively, he reached for the slab, fingers shaking as he swept the screen, lighting it up.
“H-hello?” he asked, a hoarse whisper of a voice unused for days, weeks now, into the phone, the voice at the other end not saying anything at first, only breathing, tentatively. “John? John, Jesus Christ man, is that you?” the other voice asked, digital-tinged tones of voice, male, unable to fully hide the concern and unbridled fear. “John where are you?”
“I-I-I…I’m, okay,” the man said, testing out his voice, his tongue, the gears of speaking working again, barely, a harsh gasp of air more than a voice.
“Where the fuck are you? Jennie’s worried sick and Christ, man, the board! What did you do to that student?” Allen’s voice kept going, but the man put the phone down, the yelling and questions and concerns, the pleas for him to just let Allan know where John was and come pick him up, a tinny voice coming out of the phone as the other stared at the slab, finally swiping the screen again to hang up, cutting the small sounds of yelling off with a soft digital blip and dropping the phone back on the bed. Sitting down amongst the dirty covers and the rapidly-dwindling light from the dirty window, head in his hands.
The shadows were growing longer and longer, the uneven light of the silent TV and dirty lamp making the room a maze of deep black pools and mangled dingy splotches of illumination, flickering in and out of existence, like so many deep unnatural breaths from deep, dark, unnatural things.
Under the bed, the air stirred and the absolute blackness pulsed. A single white slit opened up, unseen, unobserved.
A pupil came into focus, a black slit down through the white, catlike, unhuman, deep in the dark.
(Four Months Ago)
John Bertham sighed, stretching in his chair, the last of the papers in front of him done, graded and filed, ready and waiting for the teaching assistants to redistribute to the students. The history professor had been waiting for this moment for months, the last few hours of the semester before he got a chance to spend the holiday break delving into a new batch of contributions to a private collection he’d been curating the past few years.
The collection, books for the most part, belonged to a patron of the New York Public Library, and John had even managed to, after spending a good while earning the mysterious man’s trust, get some of the more mundane works donated to the library for displays, something he was proud of. This time though, he knew that it’d be a little different.
The curating, a constant cataloguing and preservation job, had come his way after a dinner party, cocktails in the academic history circuits in New York, a small circle that welcomed new arrivals like the patron, who had taste and money to burn, and after drinks had asked the knowledgeable history teacher with an interest in rare anathema historical texts if he’d be willing to take a look at his personal collection for a consultation…
That had been two years ago, and John’s work and reputation, as well as his appetite for those texts, had only grown. Periodically, there’d be a phone call or email about new incoming books, and after a certain point, John had stopped asking where they’d come from. Some he knew had originally been in other collections.
Some, he’d never even seen in person.
Some he’d never heard of at all.
Especially the one, the lambskin cover wrapped in horse pelt and the binding seemingly held together by slivers of something white and brittle, crumbling into fragment he swore were human bone. The whole thing was in a crate that he knew was separate from the rest of the collection, his iPhone lighting up a few weeks ago with pictures from the patron, texts as the shipments came in, waiting for something to unpack and catalogue everything.
He couldn’t wait to see it, to check out the cover, the first few pages, to run gloved hands all over it and inspect it in the climate-controlled room the patron had set aside for his collection.
He couldn’t wait to try and read it.
The man huddled against the far wall, realizing too late he’d let himself get backed into a corner, away from the phone, away from the door, away from the light. The creeping darkness was…it was sliding…a slow tide of tendrils that were both barely-there whisps of black smoke as well as solid and heavy, thick black forms reaching out from that ever-growing, slow creepy approach seeping out from under the bed.
“Oh Jesus Christ!” he wailed, his crackling voice gradually finding volume and power, but still, not enough to be heard beyond that now seemingly-vast expanse of room, to the dirty and empty hall outside with the dirty walls and sagging floors where people paid to not have to get involved. “S-s-so-someone!” he called out faintly, trying to summon the volume to be heard, even if it was only out of curiosity.
The eye, he could see the eye at the far end of the room under the bed, the white unblinking oval with the black-slit pupil, serpentine, unfeeling, and utterly inhuman.
The shadow flicked against this shoe, and instantly, like a pull of a magnet, he felt the pull.
“OH GOD NO!” he screamed, voice fully back now in a painful yell, but sadly far too late, as inhuman strength pulled, a slow but steady retreat of that inky stain back under the bed, back towards a mass, a space that the man, deep down in his primal gut, knew was more than just the underside of the dirty bed. All around, the tendrils, inhuman shadows of tentacles and arms swept through the room as it got darker and darker, the last of the dirty light from the window dying off and the lamp slowly, finally, dying off. Only the faint flicker of the TV gave off any light, a clear but shrinking sphere against the inky dark black form that was, inch by inch, square meter by square meter, consuming the walls, the floors, the surfaces of the room.
The man cried out now, a soundless gasping sob as he clawed at the floor, seeking any kind of purchase, a futile attempt, something he knew would never work but, in that corner of his brain that refused to accept the inevitable, he had to try anyway.
He didn’t dare turn around, didn’t dare turn to look back under the bed as he slid, inch by inch, bit by bit into a biting cold. He just focused as hard as he could on the far wall, the dirty floorboards, the stained, peeling, and uneven edges of the floorboards. Focused on a single crack at the edge of the floor, near the corner, focusing on it, reaching it, desperately pulling against the force at one ankle to reach it as it got smaller.