My head loilled back, allowing me a view of the clear night sky. I’m no astronomer, but I had a childhood fascination with stars and constellations. There was the Big Dipper, Ursa Major. Gemini. Orion, and- I did a double take. Right in the centre of Orion was a big, bright star. Again, I don’t know the constellations by heart, but I’m pretty sure there were no stars that bright in that particular area, nor any with the odd hue it radiated.
I let it go for now, too much already on my mind. Inhaling deeply, I looked back down to an empty road, and sighed. My shirt clung to the small of my back, already slick in the muggy, breathless September evening. Natalie should’ve been here ten minutes ago. A reasonable wait, admittedly, but couple that with shot nerves and a dash of heartburn and it’s something unpleasant.
I’m majoring in social sciences, so it’s ironic I’d be this stressed over a party. Comical, almost. I spend so much time studying I find myself atrophied of social skills.
An old childhood friend of mine hit me up a week ago with an open plus-one. It was a Saturday, and being ahead of schedule I decided it couldn’t hurt. Get out of the comfort zone for a bit, you know?
Just before I caved in and went home, two steadily growing beams drew my attention. They seemed out of place somehow. The neighbourhood was quiet. Not even a whisper raked its way through the leaves.
I stepped forward on the sidewalk, and a wave of self-consciousness hit me as I imagined the streetlamps painting my face in their unflattering hues. Still, I paid it no mind, and mopped the shine from my forehead.
The dark sedan whined as it pulled up. I winced a little, and strode over to the rear door. It popped open, and interior lights illuminated a girl with long, glossy hair, black as the vehicle itself.
“Wow, that shirt’s a tad neat for you Jared!” Natalie grinned, scanning me up and down as I climbed in. The seat pushed a sigh out of me as I sat, and I chuckled a very awkward chuckle.
“Hah, really? It’s a bit creased,” I said.
“I mean, it’s a little more formal than I’d expect… we’re not going to a dinner party, you know.”
My heart sagged. I was gonna look like a fool.
“Shit. I knew this was too much effort, I-”
“Oh, shush. I’m kidding. If anything, you’ll impress – uh, stand out.”
That made me feel better, but the uncomfortable idea of drawing eyes lingered.
“R-right, thanks,” I said waveringly, “got any drinks?”
Natalie gave me a wry smirk.
“Is that a no?”
She rolled her eyes and let out a giggle.
“God, do you even know me?”
Inexplicably, she withdrew an orange bottle from a handbag that could’ve fit in my back pocket. Schnapps, by the looks of it. She held it out, but pulled back when I reached for it.
“Woah, pace yourself! Tell you what: since I’m giving you drinks, can you get the Uber?”
I frowned at the suggestion, knowing full well the fee would be far in excess of a few sips of liqueur.
“Pleeeease?” she hummed, eyebrows sloped in mock supplication. I couldn’t stand up to those twin pools of emerald, not when they shone like that.
“Okay fine,” I sighed. Natalie beamed, handing me the bottle and settling with an excited little bounce. Overly peppy perhaps, but cute nonetheless.
I felt liquid courage flush my cheeks, a cloying peach aftertaste clinging to the back of my tongue. A bit sweet for my liking, but I wasn’t drinking for the taste.
My eyes drifted out the window. On any other night I might be concerned at the complete lack of cars, but it didn’t matter then. As much as my mind thrashed against the prospect of socialising, I needed this. Luckily, with the schnapps on a steady course through my veins, dread lessened and I actually caught myself looking forward to the function.
I felt a slap on my arm and snapped back.
“Don’t get woozy, now. I’m not dragging you out of this car when we get there.”
“Jesus, alright! I think I’ll stick to the beer from here on out.”
The silence laid thick as ever even when we pulled up to the warehouse on Ibis street, right on the fringe of town. I’d expected some noise, muffled beats or distant chatter, but no. Whatever weighed on the air was something else.
Then again, I still felt nervous, so it was probably just that. Thoughts and nerves really go hand-in-hand, huh. Like that time Arnold – my dog – shat on a neighbour’s front lawn, and I watched their house out the window because I was too scared to-
“Hey, you with me?”
I looked over to the driver, twisted around in his seat.
“It’s twenty bucks,” he said, snapping his fingers, “I got a busy night. Don’t make me wait.”
“Yeah, yeah, alright. Hang on…”
I fished out a ten dollar bill, then a five, and made up the rest with coins. The driver seemed unnecessarily crass, almost knocking the quarters from my hand as he snatched them up.
“Busy night my ass,” I scoffed, following Natalie into the complex, “haven’t seen a single car out here for fuck’s sake.”
Natalie snorted, swinging lustrous hair as she threw a glance over her shoulder.
“Don’t mind him. He’s always like that.”
We continued walking.
“Wait, always? You know him? Thought the dude was some random Uber driver.”
“Uh, friend of my dad’s. You’re getting worked up, Jared. Loosen up, okay? No one’s out to get you. He was just an ass, nothing special about it.”
Yeah, I was a bit worked up, but it did seem a little out of place. Whatever. On we went, around the left side of the empty complex.
A large, unlit grassy area bordered the concrete walkway. It had no apparent purpose – more likely, the company never got around to building on it. Perhaps it was a break spot for workers, far-removed from the brutalist interior. Dim starlight suggested a hedgerow on the other side. No, actually, it didn’t really look like a hedge. More like individual shrubs had been planted and, while tightly clustered, never grew together. Though even then, they weren’t really plant-shaped.
I squinted, but before my eyes could adjust, Natalie pulled open a fire exit. The door bouncing off steel cladding sounded like mountains collapsing in the heavy, almost gelatinous silence. The latter won over, so stubborn it was, an insatiable maw that swallowed noise whole.
Natalie called for me to follow. Her grin quelled any reluctance I might’ve had, and I sauntered through the door after her.
At this point I was itching to hear something other than our own smothered footsteps. As I had that thought, the fluorescent bars above us flickered. Surprised they were still functional to begin with, I paid it no mind. The more pressing matter at hand was to get some goddamn drink in me.
“How big is this place?” I groaned, turning a corner to see yet another long, drab hallway.
“Hell if I know,” said Natalie, “I’m not going exploring, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
I frowned into the back of her head. Strange assumption to make, Natalie, but okay. It was then I noticed the doors. I paused, wheeling back a few steps to peer back down the way we came.
Yes, metal doors lining both walls in a staggered zig-zag pattern. Why hadn’t I noticed them? They weren’t much to look at, though I did catch the numbering. Odd numbers right, even left. I’d have expected everything in this place to be stained or tarnished but the doors looked… how do I put it? As if they’d been galvanised just yesterday.
“Jared, I swear to god if I have to-”
I think my anxious half likes getting caught up on details. You know, as a distraction.
I trudged on. Another corner, making the first dog-leg turn. A left. A right. A left. Ascending stairs. Descending stairs. Three more corners, and we’d arrived.
It felt as if I stepped through a veil. The unbridled racket of a party came out of nowhere, shocking me. My eyes drifted around the room. A myriad of neon lights, strung up and around steel truss and girders. An unreasonably large speaker system. A few train carriages worth of people dressed in odd, fluorescent colours, all intermingling.
And most importantly, three fold up tables stacked with drinks upon drinks. I went to tell Natalie I’d be back in a minute, but she was gone. One moment she was by my side, the next, vanished. Before I could even shrug it off, I heard footsteps approaching to my left.
“Yo! So great you made it. We’ve missed you, brother.”
Two guys, about my age though noticeably well-built stood facing me. They looked expectant. I’d never met these guys before so, suffice to say, I was flabbergasted.
“Uhhh… yeah, hey gents! How’ve you been?”
Damn, that was poor. Who the hell says gents? They seemed none the wiser, handing me a four-pack of some off-brand pisswater.
“Nah, dude,” the taller man scoffed, “Amy was the last horse girl I ever dated. They’re off-whack, y’know?”
“Hell of a ride though, right Ron?” said the other, elbowing his partner and stifling a laugh.
He looked back at me with a trailing, content sigh.
“Anyway. Get some in ya and get in your element, man!”
The pair strolled off toward a huddled group of girls.
…what just happened? What’s this about ‘horse girls’? That was in no way a natural progression to the conversation. Oh, did I mention they too were sufferers of lurid fashion sense? They wore varsity jackets and jeans. By itself, that’d be pretty normal. Cliched, even. That was, if they weren’t inverted. Not inside out, but in hue. It actually kind of hurt to look at. Electric blues and greens, accented by a black so dark it seemed to suck in the light around it.
Hyperbole, what a coping mechanism. It helps when I’m at a loss for understanding.
I slithered my way to a relatively quiet corner after that, drinking my beers in excessive gulps. The kind where you swallow too much air, and your throat hurts. Starting to feel outgoing, I emptied the last can and crumpled it in my hand. I’d been eyeing people up for the duration, but had yet to recognise anyone.
Right at the centre of the room was a large steel truss support, with a large group dancing around it. A few of them hung off the side of it like monkeys. Feeling in the mood, I made my way over.
I remember Natalie being there, flinging her hair around while grinding on some blonde girl. Classy. Once she noticed me, she beamed and waved. I tried not to roll my eyes. Another girl hanging from the framing locked eyes with me, and recognition bloomed on her face.
“Is that… Jared!” she piped, “I missed you, been wondering when you were gonna show up.”
I chuckled awkwardly, raising a hand in greeting. Several more faces spun in my direction, all lighting up with some unwarranted rapture at my mere presence. A wave of praise crashed over me. I was very, very confused by this point. I didn’t know these people – and yet, I couldn’t resist the cheer, nor the stupid grin slowly stretching my lips.
My brain raced for something suitable to say. Of course, nothing washed ashore. I was probably gauging my own thoughts more than all these people combined, with nothing to show for it.
Instead, I smiled, and weaved through bustling bodies to the support frame. A girl with some strange mask covering her head slid in front of me, half a bottle of cognac in hand. She was clearly drunk, but the way she pressed her body into mine was quite persuasive.
“Finally. I thought you was- weren’t gonna show,” she whispered into my ear. I could see the glint of her eyes, silvery under a few loose auburn strands. I went along with it, and tried to come up with something on the spot.
“Hah, yeah. I just couldn’t wait to see you.”
Her eyes widened.
“Wait, how- how did you- do you like it? It’s gold, silver, and a lil’ sapphire in there, see,” she said, tugging out a necklace from beneath her croptop, “God, you’re like Clark Kent or something.“
What the hell was with these people? It was like they were talking to someone else. Still, I played along with her quips, but honestly the party itself was my focus. All I really wanted was to let loose. Like the others, I didn’t remember this girl, and I certainly didn’t have the time nor resources to invest into a relationship.
So, my eyes drifted up. Up above us, where three guys hung one-handed off the framing, drinks in their other. Grey-eyes followed my gaze, and laughed, pushing me back.
“Ohh, I see, feeling funky, like, a funky monkey? Let me pour you one… wait, no I’ll pass it up to you, go. Go!”
With a hand on my back, she guided me to the base of the steel frame. I jolted when she slapped my ass, but tried to play it off cool, throwing a laugh back over my shoulder.
Even in the heat of the party, the metal bit into my hands, cold and dry. I remember pulling my hand away and finding it coated in thick dust. There was little to none on the framing.
I think it was around this point a true feeling of unease set in. Nothing outwardly inspired it, but rather a combination of everything that happened tonight. The complex we were in only took up roughly a 400 by 600ft plot – not small per se, but the amount of walking from the entrance to this room seemed more fit for a nature trail. On top of that, I thought this place had been abandoned for a good few years now – and yet, the building didn’t look it. Only the finest layer of dust settled, and any metal seemed untarnished.
And why were all these people acting like they knew me? Not just knew me, but held me in social standing? I’ve never been the gregarious type. I’m not exactly eye-candy either, and there’s this random girl I’d never met before looking at me like I was some studmuffin. And the strangest thing of all-
“Don’t leave me hanging!”
I pivoted, seeing the grey-eyes holding out a cup, which I gladly snatched up and thanked her for. Small scrap of wisdom: don’t climb steel pillars, drunk and/or one-handed.
I hadn’t stopped to look down, and when I did I nearly let go. I’d climbed a good ten or fifteen feet. It didn’t feel like I was climbing that long. Luckily, my wits were still with me, and I clung fast. An energy surged through my body then. I don’t really know how else to describe it except ‘good vibes’. With my major, the part of my brain responsible for it had atrophied, so it was an unfamiliar and longed-for feeling.
“Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!”
The crowd roared around me. It was only a cup of cognac, but hey, anything can be chugged, right?
“Cheers!” I yelled out. I lifted the drink to my lips and tipped my head back.
Then, it happened.
My closed eyes faced skyward when the air itself seemed to gasp, inhaling everything and leaving a vacuum of nothing. My ears popped and I felt the temperature drop. Liquid warmth crawling down my throat, I lowered my eyes to look down at the party.
And, I saw there was no party.
I had to be in the same room. I felt the steel under my fingers, now cold enough to make my bones ache. It was dark. Stygian blackness pressing in from all sides, punctuated by dull moonlight barely leaking through grimy skylights.
I didn’t- couldn’t understand what had happened. The instantaneous silence pounded in my ears. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. My free hand went loose in fear, dropping the cup into the abyss beneath me. When it hit the floor, a hollow clatter rang out, and then silence.
Figuring I had to at least get down to ground level, I fished out my phone to activate the flashlight. My finger hovered tentatively over the torch icon. I don’t know why, but something in me said this is no place for light. This is no place for a beacon, so easily seen.
In hindsight, it was stupid to climb down blind. Some buried instinct told me whatever might happen if I revealed myself was worse than falling ten feet onto solid concrete. By some miracle, I made it down without a hitch.
Now there was a real issue. Climbing down a pole in pitch blackness is plausible, but navigating this place? That’d be a shot in the dark. Literally.
Waves of something sinister throbbed in my veins. Every step echoed through the room. I stopped often, because what if the sound of my footsteps were being used to cover another noise? I reached blindly in front of me, hoping to meet the handrail running up the side of the ramp we entered – I entered from.
I stopped dead in my tracks as a new level of terror coursed throughout my entire body. But not only that. Another sensation, lingering just below the surface, and I got the distinct impression it was behind-
I couldn’t take it anymore. I bolted. My fear-shrouded mind relinquished control to my limbs, which propelled me forward. I made it a good few strides before –
– my forehead met cold steel. I let out a yelp and buckled to the side of whatever I’d hit as dull pain rattled inside my skull.
I think I forgot where I was for a moment. Dark and quiet, my first assumption was that I was in my bedroom and I’d had a fall. Then, the sensation of cold concrete below my palms brought me rushing back. No… it wasn’t that. Another feeling returned first.
I’m not superstitious, never have been. I don’t know if there’s some additional sense in our bodies, some obscure nerve pattern that fires when observed, but I can say with absolute certainty that I had an observer.
I had to move. I had to get out of this awful place, and the only way I could was by turning on my phone torch. Head still spinning, I fumbled with the screen. It glared and stung my eyes, but I managed to tap the right icon. Cold light spilled from my hand, illuminating the handrail about six feet to my left.
The exact moment I turned it on, the shuffling started up. Frantic, hurried steps, closing in around me. Whatever moved just out of sight wasn’t shy like before. It was bold, and didn’t care if I heard it.
I sprung to my feet and barrelled toward the railing, not bothering to skirt around the ramp and instead diving between the bars. I steadied myself with one hand and dragged my body up the ramp, still reeling from the pain in my head.
I don’t know why I did it, but when I reached the top, I paused. With a deep sense of dread I shifted my gaze to the expansive room behind me, and when I did, I made eye contact. It was then I realised, I had not one pursuer, but an entire audience. Hundreds, thousands of eyes I couldn’t see but were surely there. As if to prove that sentiment, the shuffling began. Uncountable lumbering steps all started in unison. I was positively surrounded.
A blur zipped past the edge of my phone’s reach, immediately setting me into action. I wheeled around and flew down the hallway, once bathed in dull fluorescence, now only lit by my phone’s meagre flashlight. But this place, it was a maze. A vague sense of direction swam in my mind, but it was no help by itself. I had the sudden idea that, if I could follow the door numbering, I’d trace a path to the exit. Sweeping my light to the side, I read the first number I saw.
4 000 000 000 003 451
I was dumbstruck. I was itching with panic. What the hell kind of place has a door numbered past four quadrillion?! Still, the numbers appeared to descend gradually, and with no other options I chose to follow them.
Where was everyone? Had they played some kind of cruel joke, and if so, how? It couldn’t be possible. And anyway, why do that? I’m a nobody. Why make me the centre of some prank? The more I thought about it, the more wrong the whole situation felt.
My mind went on autopilot at some point. If nothing else, I remember the numbers. Oh yes.
3 500 000 000 132 090
1 000 000 027 330 596
59 004 000 993
13 920 003
After rounding the eighth corner too many, I saw a door at the end of this winding labyrinth.
I slammed my shoulder into the rusted and decayed door, which slammed open on its frail hinges, allowing cool night air to rush past my ears. The star blanketed sky above would’ve been beautiful on any other night, but now it did nothing to quell my unease.
My frozen state of shock was only broken when a phlegmy cough startled me to awareness. I cocked my head to the side. A haggard man with a messy, greying beard sat huddled against the warehouse cladding. He seemed familiar, somehow.
“You, boy,” he muttered, pausing again to let out a pained cough, “what the hell you doin’ out here? Go on, git.”
Whatever response I had was lost because, as I squinted my eyes from the cold, I recognised him. It wasn’t possible. For a moment, tears blurred my vision, and I saw him without a beard. Without a threadbare beanie. I’d seen that face just this night. The taxi driver.
He looked back up at me, incredulous I was still here.
“Damn it, asshole. Can’t you feel it? All around you? It’s gettin’ impatient. It can’t wait much longer. Ya gotta go. NOW!”
I recoiled at his outburst, and the world came crashing down around me. I could still hear a tumult of shuffling footsteps from inside. I could feel their gaze. In a panic, I spun to my right and darted out across the grassy area, glancing behind me. There was nothing. The door bounced lazily in the wind. If I could just get to that hedgerow I saw earlier, it’d be okay. I’d have cover, I could…
…there was no hedge. In fact, there was no row of anything. Just an open field. I swear, there was something there before, but whatever sat cloaked in darkness out there was gone. Like they’d moved. A cold shiver shot up my spine, spurring me on toward the treeline. Legs burning, head swimming, I covered the hundred-odd feet in a blink.
When I reached the treeline, I stopped. Only silence and the blood rushing through my ears could be heard. The feeling ceased. The feeling of eyes all around me evaporated entirely. Hesitantly, I turned back to the building. Nothing, although the door was closed now. The man was gone, too.
As my mind pieced itself back together I had the thought to try ringing Natalie. I pulled out my phone, found her contact and called.
“You have dialled an incorrect number.”
Confused, I tried again, and was met with the same detached reminder. I navigated to her contact to double check the number. I’m pretty sure I know what phone numbers are meant to look like, and whatever was listed as Natalie’s most certainly didn’t look like one. A gibberish string of unicode characters – there were a few digits in there, mostly 1’s and 0’s, but in no way would this ever be a working phone number.
Trapped in this delirious state, something caught my eye. Far in the upper reaches of my peripheral. A glint of light. I snapped my neck back to look at whatever it was. A pylon, cresting the canopy before me. It stood, monolithic and watchful, but with no signs of movement.
There. A flash of light. It looked pink, violet… no, green? It actually looked more blue than anything, just… without actually being blue. The colour’s not important though. It seemed familiar. I couldn’t tell if the light was a simple reflection of some other nightborne glow. A plane, or nightclub, but no it… was it a reflection? It looked more like something behind the pylon, behind and above it. From somewhere far, far above.
“Hey, you aren’t blending in very well with those stars.”
I’ve no idea what compelled me to say that, because as the last word slipped from my lips, its implication sent a pang of dread through my already shot nerves.
And, to my horror, I got a response. No words, nothing like that. I know I’ve reiterated the feeling of being watched multiple times, but there’s really no other way I can describe it. The difference this time was that whatever looked down at me was absolutely gargantuan. I don’t know how I knew, much like the rest of that god awful night, it just came to me. The glare upon me now was to my previous pursuers as humans are to ants… no, to microbes.
I took a step back.
It felt so expansive, so huge, that wherever I went it would always be able to see me. No matter where I hid or to what extent I secluded myself, it could always watch me.
I took another two steps back.
The idea alone scared me enough to jump right back into action. That gaze, it drew nearer. It’d squeezed through the confines of our world with one sole focus in mind. Me. That focus, an intent, I could feel it coming in the light that now seemed beaming. Powerful. My shadow cast itself ahead of me, a silhouette bounded by a pool of impossible colours. The shadow stretched out, distending until it met untouched darkness.
The light brought heat, too. Tingling hotspots danced on my back, but only for a moment. Maybe it was never hot to start with, because where the light laid its fingers on me became numb. Sort of like pins-and-needles cranked up to eleven. My gait turned clumsy as I could no longer feel my calves.
Right when the vestiges of my energy were drained, something changed. I heard this really loud sound… how do I even describe it? Similar to the hum of an exposed wire, but coherent. Although not in words, it sounded angry, or disappointed. The light flickered back and forth between me and some other point of interest, before a static blast tore through the trees and the grass and made my hair stand on end.
And then I was alone.
I’m not sure how long I wandered aimlessly. I had no clear destination since I hadn’t paid attention to the taxi’s route. The streets were no less empty than they had been. It could’ve just been a quiet night, but not even one late night cruiser? That was just absurd.
After an ungodly long meander through the town, I recognised a street sign, and it was relatively smooth sailing from there. In fifteen minutes I was ambling down my student village, and nearly fell face-first over the short brick wall outside my house. Somehow I’d kept a hold of my keys during the whole ordeal, and I quickly opened the door and locked it behind me.
And that’s about where my memories of last night cut short.
Next I know, I’m waking up this morning, and when my senses returned I reeled at everything that had happened. I’m still recovering.
I’m glad to be past it, at least. Glad to have woken up in my bed. Initially I thought it might’ve been a nightmare and nothing more, but the swollen bruise on my forehead begs to differ. I cursed my lack of foresight for not taking a picture or a video. I’m even upset about going to sleep, since it complicates things further – ah, I can’t beat myself down. I’m alive. That should be all that matters, and yet there’s another issue. Several, actually.
Now, I’d like to say I’m sane. I don’t have a history of mental illness. Perhaps the isolation, the constant studying, broke something in me. Sent me into psychosis. Still, that doesn’t explain everything. I checked my email, not even looking for clues or evidence, and the very first thing I saw was an Uber receipt from last night. What made that even stranger was that I’d paid the driver in cash, not by card. Come to think of it, Uber drivers don’t even take cash, do they?
Natalie’s contact is still there. Still a jumbled mess of characters looking more like hexadecimal than anything. I still remember her. How I met her in elementary, squabbling over coloured pencils. I have all these memories and I can find nothing about this person ever existing. No Facebook profiles, no archived text chains, nothing. If I dreamt this person up, who put the contact in my phone? Did I do it, then forgot?
The same goes for the others at that party. The masked girl with grey eyes? Yeah, her name was Eloise. Though I didn’t at the time, I remember that now. She doesn’t exist either, and her number’s just a string of 9s. I’m trying not to think about it, but if these people never were, then… how can I be sure anyone I know exists at all?
I’m really struggling here. If anyone has any thoughts, send them my way. I don’t know what to think. I don’t even know if I’ll trust anyone’s messages now. Until then, there’s only one solution. Just one way to bring clarity.
I think it’s best if I pay one last visit to the warehouse on Ibis street.
Credit: A. K. Kullerden
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