Few pairs of eyes could match the overwhelming weariness embe dded deep within Chuck Comber’s watery gaze as he stepped into the hotel lobby. The youth behind the counter set down his magazine and raised an eyebrow at Chuck’s condition, inquisitive brow tightening as he watched Chuck glance hesitantly over his shoulder, motionless in the middle of the lobby as if he’d heard a peculiar noise.
Pronounced stubble, matted down hair, and reddened eyes made Chuck feel like the bum he knew he appeared to be. Though wrinkled badly, the suit Chuck wore still reflected the wealth he had access to. Even the hint of a manicure was visible on the tips of the fingers Chuck held out a credit card with. “Like a room,” he croaked quietly.
Chuck grabbed the key quickly and hurried on towards the elevator. When the door opened Chuck had to pause, almost unable to make himself walk into that confined box, but the thought of the eyes still curiously watching him from the desk forced him to step inside.
As soon as the doors closed he could hear the metal begin to squirm. He clamped his eyes tightly shut, stomach sucking into itself when the elevator shook and began moving. He knew it moved up to the third floor, but all his senses told him he was being taken deeper into the ground instead. The light ding of the elevator came to him from far away.
Rows and rows of closed doors greeted him. Behind all of them he could hear the scratching, the faint screams of pain, the warbling cries of things he’d never seen in the flesh before. Some doors creaked open as soon as he passed them, but a quick glance back showed only an empty, silent hall of wooden doors.
Thankfully his room offered him limited peace. The second he entered he unzipped the bag over his shoulder and began writing across every wall he could. With each completed image the abnormalities grew more distant, until by the time he finished, he finally felt himself again.
Chuck fell face first onto the soft bed. Though his eyes closed instantly, his mind still seemed to writhe inside his skull, presenting him with day after day of endless paranoia, of sounds growing closer, and the deformed husk Odell Kottke had become.
Perched on the bed, Chuck stared at his reflection in the dark TV, saw through the screen to a different room covered in similar symbols, except on the floor and ceiling as well.
What had sparked this descent into the unknown? Chuck could barely remember the days once filled with little more than pissing away his bottomless inheritance, sheer boredom to blame for his first conversation with the more scholarly Odell. Chuck had taken to giving out money to almost any vague academic cause to make himself feel intellectual. Odell’s interests prompted a greater degree of curiosity from Chuck. A friendship of sorts bloomed between the two men, even if Chuck always suspected Odell merely befriended Chuck’s money. Still, the money was what allowed him to sit in that room when Odell first picked up the book and began reading.
The writing on the walls was meant to protect them, and perhaps if Chuck’s nerves had been stronger it might’ve. Their warning had been very clear: if a single symbol was incorrect, they would have no protection at all from the existence they were opening a doorway to.
The skinnier, more bookish looking Odell with his pronounced overbite and neatly combed red hair hid any hint of fear. Chuck watched the wall before them melt away, shimmering into a twisted, violent caricature of what it had once been. The rising cries of pain, the rolling echoes of massive things moving towards them, even the hallways taking form in the altered wall wasn’t enough to draw any hint of reaction in Odell, stern face opening up more in wonderment then fear.
The first hint of real fear marred Odell’s face when Chuck grabbed hold of the door handle. The second the door opened, as it altered the protection they’d drawn, Chuck understood just how protected they had been. A deep wrenching jarred his organs, so painful he thought his lungs were being torn through his back before the door slammed shut behind him, and the sensation ended.
The last sound he’d ever hear of Odell was a hysterical shrieking. It didn’t matter that the symbols had been returned to their rightful place. The seal couldn’t be fixed.
Three days passed before Chuck found the nerve to return to that horrible structure. He didn’t go back for Odell, too sure of his friend’s death to believe he’d find anything, but for the papers instead.
Trips through unsavory regions during their research had embe dded in Chuck the desire to always carry a gun. Standing in the dim living room, Chuck was glad to have the weapon as he listened to a faint scratching from the floor above him.
The bright glare of the overhead light revealed to him what his friend had become. He saw only the vague resemblance of Odell’s humanity, his body melded into a new, grotesque form. Several additional limbs had torn loose from his torso, but they remained curled, rotting against his body. Both legs had all but melted into each other, though Chuck could see the jagged edge of flesh covered bone splinters shoving upward. Dried blood coated most of the nude, bulbous body, and Odell’s gut looked like watery skin that had oozed across the floor.
The abomination could barely move, one stubby hand with a single clawed finger groping towards Chuck. What must’ve been Odell’s eyes glistened wetly within deep sockets of flesh, but Chuck couldn’t actually see the bulbs themselves, and was thankful for it. The mouth that opened looked like it had once been covered entirely in skin, but a few patches had been torn loose, the edges of the flesh crusted with dried red. Only a thick gurgling came from Odell’s attempt at speech, and before he could try further, Chuck shot two bullets into the creature’s head.
Countless days of research and sleepless flight had led him to his seat on the edge of the bed, the slightly more public setting of a hotel chosen on purpose, too afraid to be completely alone when he opened another gateway.
Leafing through the old tome, he understood now what had happened when he’d opened the door and left Odell to his fate. Something had approached the gateway, perhaps had merely been waiting for its opening, and as soon as the barrier was broken it had stolen from Chuck something deep within him, what could be considered his soul, he thought.
“You have no choice,” Chuck told himself, but the command couldn’t make his body stop shaking. Stuck as he was between the world he knew and the other existence where some part of him was being kept, he would continue to deteriorate until he’d no longer be able to tell which one he existed in.
Survival, rather than any sense of bravery, led him to open the book to the page he had marked and begin chanting words similar to what he’d heard Odell utter. Behind him the window rattled. The TV shook on the dresser, skittered towards the edge, and a pungent odor seeped into the room.
A crescendo of mournful wails nearly masked Chuck’s carefully formed words, his eyes clamped tightly shut until the last syllable faded. At first the room dropped into darkness. Things rattled nearby, and he could still occasionally pick out faint whimpers as if carried from a distance on the wind.
His eyes opened to a soft, dark purple glow illuminating the room, the light just bright enough to allow him to make out the furniture. His barrier kept the walls mostly intact, save for a single space roughly the size of a door that he’d left untouched.
Odell’s chant had been intentionally forceful, one meant to draw the attention of whatever creatures this other world might contain. They had wanted to observe, after all, not walk over the threshold. His incantation had been meant to create a smaller opening, a silent backdoor, the gateway opened up before him.
Words of self-encouragement lingered on his tongue, but he thought better of doing anything to potentially catch something’s attention, and instead passed a shaking step into the tunnel. Immediately a muggy blast of air washed over him, but within it he felt also a frigid touch, the temperature shifting rapidly from extreme heat to bitter cold.
The tunnel opened into a warped variation of the hotel’s hallway. In here the walls seemed to squirm with life, almost as if they were covered in thousands of maggots crawling over each other. He thought he could even hear their fleshy undulations.
Just as quickly as he noticed them, the tiny creatures were vanishing into the walls, though he saw no holes for them to crawl into. The walls themselves seemed to ripple, as did the ceiling. A thick, mucus like substance could be seen oozing from beneath some of the doors, only to soak rapidly into the floor, gone as quickly as Chuck could see it.
Nothing about the hallway remained constant for long beyond its general shape. Even doorways melted into the walls, only to tear open further up in a spray of black liquid. Every so often he swore he could feel various things crawling across his skin, the back of his neck, but he never felt a thing when he’d jerk his hand up to swat them away.
Near the middle of the hallway, close to where an alcove with what should’ve been the elevators lay, Chuck saw the opening in the wall and the staircase leading down. A sense beyond normal reason told him his other half rested at the bottom of that staircase. Even before entering this place he’d known that his other half would never be far from him, and this idea alone had allowed him to work up the nerve to open the gateway.
The staircase twisted abnormally in its descent, rarely next to the wall, sometimes spiraling, and sometimes turning sharply to one side or another. Chuck stepped hesitantly down the first few steps, the material spongy, feet sinking in slightly only to have the next step be on solid wood or metal. The walls stretched out away from him, left him descending a staircase suspended in the middle of a dark void. A single blink brought back the darkened, stained walls, far closer than they should’ve been.
An updraft carried with it the stench of rotting skin, brought a stink he’d found with the warped remains of Odell. The gun held tightly against his chest still irrationally gave him a sense of protection when he finally saw a floor at the base of the winding staircase.
The door before him took up an entire wall, its handle level with his face. The metal was thick and colored by splashes of dark red. From beneath it something brighter glowed, this one more reddish orange in quality, like a fire burning. Though appearing too thick and heavy for him to possibly move, he found the door grinded open with minimal resistance until he was met with a wall-less room.
A thin, stone walkway gave him the only means of advancing further, one that quickly became another staircase, only now he could see a platform at the bottom. The edges of what appeared to be stone shimmered and blended with the oily darkness around it.
Here the smell grew worse, as if beneath him mountains of corpses rotted. Had Chuck had any food in him he thought he might’ve thrown up then, the burning touch of stomach acid crawling up the back of his throat. The platform allowed him to move past his revulsion, because the closer he drew, the more the images atop it began to take shape as if they hadn’t been there before.
His gun clattered to the ground. Tears streamed through the stubble on his face, body numb and distant. The limitation of his physical senses prevented him from grasping at the true form of whatever he stared at, mind latching instead onto parts that looked partially familiar in some way, and he suspected his mind somehow constructed the image before him more than the creature’s flesh did.
It never held just one shape, body always in movement, limbs forming and melting back into the glistening, sinewy flesh spread across its body. What might’ve been organs throbbed rhythmically through holes in its pulsating form, but they too seemed to take on new shapes, splitting open to reveal jagged teeth, massive eyes, festering legions. Parts of the skin appeared to rot, the twisted shape of bones jutting out until a larger wave of skin would absorb the protrusions back to wherever they had come from.
The creature stood some ten feet tall, size varying only slightly with each continuing change. The overall form looked vaguely human, tall and upright, the swollen shape of a head near the top, though sometimes melding more into the chest. Several mouths, some lined only with reddish gums, others a mess of flat, rotted teeth, and yet others spilling over with jagged points, ripped into existences with a deluge of dark liquid that splashed down the warped flesh.
Words drifted through him, a physical force piercing into his head, his muscles. The sensation enveloped him completely until he fell to his knees, pain arching its way through all of him, and when it finally ended, he understood its message.
It offered him thanks for breaking the original seal, and for providing it with entertainment. The form in front of him seemed to solidify more, misshapen arms gesturing around it, towards the hazy forms on the platform. Chuck recognized Odell and himself, both motionless.
It had captured them, the words said, and found them of interest, just as it had found Odell’s flesh of interest for a time. It had no interest in Chuck’s flesh, already bored with the limitations, but the spirits still offered more to explore.
As a gift, it would let him have one back, there being no need for two. Chuck could pick whichever he wanted, but only one.
The oily darkness seemed to condense around them. “What will you do to the one you keep?” Chuck shouted, but the creature made no reply, or motion of any kind, and he suspected his voice couldn’t even reach it.
He didn’t care what friendship there might’ve been in the past. No hesitation plagued his decision to accept back his own essence rather than free Odell from whatever horrors might be inflicted on him. Chuck banished the image of that repulsive thing he’d shot to death in Odell’s room, and the agony his still living friend had endured to end in that state. Only the smallest prick of guilt affected him as he walked up to his form and reached out to touch it.
Searing heat shot through his veins. His eyes clamped shut, body tumbling to the ground, curling into a ball until it subsided. Reality had returned when his eyes opened to a grungy basement. He got up from the cold cement floor, an old, rusty brown boiler beside him, and a door leading to a laundry room not far away.
No one saw him climb sluggishly up the stairs; weeks of near sleepless nights descended upon him. The bed accepted him, but still his mind refused to allow him the reprieve of unconsciousness.
He sat on the edge of the mattress once again, gaze fixed on his haggard reflection in the TV, its rounded glass making his appearance more grotesque. Closing his eyes brought back memories of the creature he’d witnessed, along with other thoughts born from the side of him that had been its captive. Buried deep inside these memories he understood they contained a greater understanding of what he had really encountered, allowing him to see beyond the constantly mutating flesh. Even the hint of what it offered sent a shock of intense fear through his body, trembling at the very thought of sleep, of letting his subconscious mind free to show him what it had been through.
Instead he watched his reflection with dead eyes, curious how long he’d be able to continue without ever closing them.