. . . shapes moving in the half-light . . . the falling droplets spatter hollowly on their dark hides . . .
I fought my way to awareness, taking in distorted gasps of the waking world before the dream pulled me back down like a savage undertow.
. . . faces that are not faces, with mouths that jut and wide eyes that glitter and reflect . . .
Whimpering, I fought to keep my eyes from closing. The musty bed creaked beneath me as I twisted and thrashed.
. . . they know me . . . they chose me . . . their slick, gloved hands conceal a brutal strength . . .
Choking back a cry, I found myself fully awake and half-falling out of bed. My clothes were damp with sweat and I couldn't stop shivering. I let myself slide the rest of the way to the floor and sat there cocooned in the dank bedclothes.
I didn't know where I was, but this sure as Hell wasn't my bed. Slivers of memory came back to me -- a wedding reception, too much to drink and harsh words with a woman whose face I could barely recall. A relative? A friend? A lover? I tried to think but my stupor had robbed me of any coherent recollection.
Christ! I had a class in the morning -- the last one before mid-term exams!
I struggled out of the bedclothes and got to my feet. The room I was in offered no tangible clues as to where I was. Thick boards had been nailed over the windows, the frayed rug was a black and white chessboard pattern. The paint on the walls and ceiling was cracked and rotted away, revealing sable wallpaper. The bed was slender as a coffin and sagged in the middle, the nightstand beside it had no drawers, just gaping sockets. A single lamp illuminated the room with faint yellow light. It certainly felt like a motel room but there were none of the usual motel room amenities like a pad of paper, a bible or a telephone.
Something about the place disturbed me -- more than my inability to remember where I was or how I'd gotten here. Had I really been that drunk last night? And where for that matter was my fiancée? Visions of all my personal possessions lying on the front lawn spurred me to action.
There were two doors on either side of the closet, one of them had to be the exit.
My first guess landed me in the bathroom. Oh well, I thought as I flicked on the lights, best make use of the facilities while I'm here.
Puddles sat on the tile floor, veins of mold crawled along the underside of the toilet. A strange coppery scent hung in the air. I caught sight of my reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. My suit looked like I had run the three-minute mile in it, my gray eyes were underlined with dark circles. Somewhere in the course of the previous night's adventures I had lost my best silk tie.
I relieved myself quickly, afraid to touch anything with my hands, and stepped back out into the room. I debated between sneaking out or searching for a front desk to pay my bill, when I heard a voice out in the hall, a female voice.
" . . . who's there? Come back!"
"Hello!" I answered, relieved that I wasn't alone.
"My name's Ron," I stepped outside, "Ronald Mills, and I know this is going to sound crazy, but I don't have the slightest idea where I am."
I found the hallway in no better condition than the room. It was a foul-smelling, crazy quilt of peeling paint and decaying plaster. Piles of debris, some almost waist high, ran along the left side of the hall. The sprinklers were rusty and dripping. More and more I had to wonder if I had stumbled into a condemned building.
"You don't know where you are either?" There was a tremor of fear in the woman's voice. She was short and slender with long dark hair. She wore a sweater and faded bluejeans. However she had gotten here, she had gotten here without shoes, her feet were bloodied and filthy.
"What's your name?"
"What do you remember?"
She paused thoughtfully. "It was about ten thirty, I had just gotten home from work. I kicked off my shoes and tried to turn on my apartment lights but there must have been a fuse out. It was pitch black. I was trying to feel my way to the phone when my . . . my hand brushed something."
"What was it?"
"I don't know, it was greasy and . . . and . . . and it felt like skin."
. . . slick gloved hands . . .
A memory tried to stir but somethi ng held it at bay.
"And the next thing I knew," she concluded, "I woke up here."
First slipping off one shoe and then another I said, "The problem is that we don't know where here is."
She tried to refuse the shoes but I insisted. "I was searching for an exit," hissing with pain, she carefully slipped the shoes over her wounded feet, "but this place is huge. It's like some kind of a maze."
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't know my watch was gone when I woke up."
I checked my wrist, "Mine too. Have you discovered anything?"
"There are elevators but none of them are running," she pointed back the way she had come, "and I haven't found any stairwells. All the doors around here are either locked with a deadbolt or torn off their hinges."
"Wonderful." I looked first to one end of the hall and then the other, both went on for several yards and then branched out, "None of the locked doors have room numbers on them either."
"Yeah," she paused to peer into my room, "and all the windows are boarded up."
"I don't like this." I went over to one of the piles of debris and yanked out a sizable board. I pulled out a second and handed it to her, "Who were you talking to when I came out into the hall?"
She hefted her board uncertainly, "I don't know, I thought I saw somebody."
"Well, lets keep heading the way you were going."
"Sure." Rose said, "And watch your step, there are nails everywhere."
One corridor spilled into another, one hour of exploration became three. We found no shortage of doors, some of them locked and some not, but we failed to find any that led to the outside world.
It was kind of funny in a way, to feel trapped in a place so vast.
As we continued to explore we found more mysteries -- corridors that doubled back upon themselves, rooms filled stacks of water-damaged books, and wide chambers empty of anything save for a few pitiful mounds of sodden clothing. Padlocked steel gates blocked en try to the non-functional elevators and neatly bisected some of the corridors. Sometimes we got the feeling that we were being watched. One of us would spy a furtive movement out of the corner of our eye, but when we tried to investigate we found nothing except more hallways and dead ends.
I found out more about Rose than I did about our surroundings. She was a waitress with dreams of becoming a paralegal. Married right out of high school, she found herself divorced by twenty-one. She had no children and I gathered from her tone that she wasn't in a hurry to have any.
After failing to break into any of the locked rooms, we pried the boards away from one of the windows, only to find ourselves staring at a wall of bricks. The room on the other side of the hall offered a similar view.
"Well that's it," I ran a hand over the obstruction's cool, slimy surface, "we're in Hell."
Rose shot me a glance that was both angry and terrified, "Don't say that."
"I was just joking."
She stormed back out into the hallway, her eyes close to tears, "I don't care!"
I hurried gingerly after her. The rubble-strewn floor had reduced my dress socks to tatters and was threatening to do the same to the undersides of my feet.
A thousand bad movie clichés paraded through my subconscious as I chased after her; everything from billionaire madmen to alien abductions. Of course, I knew in my heart of hearts that the truth would be far more mundane because the truth was that I was no dashing movie hero and that billionaire madmen contented themselves with running for president.
When I found Rose again, she wasn't alone.
Her captor had her in a headlock, there was a desperate sheen to his eyes.
"We don't want any trouble." I said calmly.
"Then drop the friggin' board."
The makeshift club slipped from my fingers, I had almost forgotten I was carrying it. The man looked to be in his fifties but was still heavily muscled. Even with a 2x4 in my hand, I wouldn't have wanted to tangle with him. Hopefully I wouldn't have to.
"Now," he continued, "you two f uckoes are gonna show me the way out of here or I'm gonna break the both of your necks."
To emphasize the seriousness of his threat he gave his hold on Rose a momentary squeeze. She issued a crackling gasp, her face turning purple.
"Look," I drew closer but held up my hands in what I hoped to be a peaceful gesture, "we don't want any trouble, but we can't help you. We're trapped here the same as you are."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"I sure as Hell hope you do because it's the truth."
For a few tense moments he scrutinized us, then released his captive and shoved her my way, "What're your names?"
"I'm Ron Mills," I put my arm around Rose drawing her close only to have her push me away, "and this is Rose."
"My name is Bob, Bob Murdzik. I don't remember how I got here."
Rose answered "Neither do we."
"How long have you been here?" I asked.
"A couple of hours, I woke up in a room at the end of the hall." he pointed to the ravaged corridor behind him, "You're the first people I've seen since I started exploring."
Rose shook her head, "What's going on here?"
I pointed back the way he had come, "Have you found anything?"
"Just a lotta weird shit."
He waved a meaty hand, "Just weird shit, there's this one room that's all empty except for playing cards nailed to the wall and then there's another that's got all these fucked-up lookin' scuba diving suits in it . . . "
. . . faces that are not faces . . .
Another image washed through my mind.
Rose drew closer to Bob, curiosity overriding her fear, "Diving suits?"
"No air tanks though, just the suits."
I leaned against the wall to steady myself, "Take us there."
"What?" Rose exclaimed, "Why?"
"Shouldn't we be trying to find a way out of here instead of doubling back?"
"This may help us to remember how we got here." I explained.
Rose peered at me quizzically, "What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure," I picked my 2x4 back up, Bob got one of his own, "but I don't think that we're going to be able to find our way out of here until we figure out who it was that brought us here and why."
I motioned to Bob and with a sigh of resignation he led us back the way he had come.
The room, I mused, must have once been a banquet hall of some kind, perh aps even a ballroom. It was the widest of any chamber we'd come across yet, and it was also the most despoiled. Blood from my feet mingled with the inch deep layer of stagnant water that covered the wide marble floor. I craned my neck to examine the pallid remnants of the extravagant frescoes and intricate scrollwork that lined the walls. A length of copper cable had been strung from one decaying wall to the other, and on it hung the four "diving suits" Bob had told us about.
The sight of them brought the memory I had been struggling with crashing to the su rface.
. . . the world lurches around me like a ship in a storm but I'm feelin' no pain. I finally told the bitch what I've been wanting to tell her for so long and Holy Shit if I didn't do it in front of an audience. Not that I care, they were her friends, not mine. In an alleyway -- at this point God only knows where -- I stumble into the cool shadows not sure if I have to piss or puke. The wall is cool and inviting and I slump down it's length and end up falling into a deep sleep . . .
"What are they for?" Rose asked, prodding one with a 2x4.
. . . rain wakes me, I'm soaked to the skin but still too drunk to be concerned. I'm about to drift back off again when I see the shapes moving in the half-light. No. Not moving -- shambling. As they draw closer I can hear the falling droplets spatter hollowly on their dark hides . . . .
Rose's prodding knocked the strange costume from its perch, it fell to the floor with a muffled splash.
"Damnedest thing I ever saw." Bob said.
A tiny squeal escaped from my lips as I watched Rose run her soft hands over the leathery material.
. . . they loom over me, scrutinizing me with faces that are not faces, with mouths that jut and wide eyes that glitter and reflect. One of their hands brushes my face, its touch is oily. I can feel it leaving a slug-like trail as its blunt fingers trace my jawline. I scream and try to claw my way to freedom . . .
The "suits" were completely sealed, the arms ended in gloves and the legs in soft, rubbery boots. A stiff-necked cowl sprouted from the neckline. The cowl's protruding, almost snoutlike mouthpiece and broad, dark-tinted eyepieces combined to give it the semblance of a bestial face.
"There's somethin' real familiar about them." Bob commented, making me wonder if perhaps he too was beginning to remember.
"There's no zipper," Rose observed, "How do you put it on?"
. . . there is something nightmarish, yet dreadfully familiar about their touch. It makes me realize that they know me, that they chose me. But why? And for what? My pleadings and cries are unanswered. They lift my swooning body up with ease and I cannot break free for their slick, gloved hands conceal a brutal strength.
Consciousness begins to slip away from me and I can only sob as they take me to . . .
"DON' TOUCH IT!"
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