Outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana
I spent a lot of time looking at empty highways at night. That’s probably not too surprising to you, but in all honesty, you might be shocked to learn just how much time I stared at dark roads. Parked next to them, looking at them from outside the RV, driving over them. Heck, some nights I dreamed about them. There is no asphalt inch in this country I haven’t seen.
And spending so much time around something like that, you start to wonder. About the way the road is paved. About the foundational stuff underneath. I mean, think about: a road is designed to be ignored. It works best when the drivers forget it’s there. But in order to do that, hours upon hours of work is spent testing materials, planning curves, laying foundation, smoothing, paving, painting, tarring, all so that you can spend fifteen minutes on it getting from point A to point B and only worry about the cars around you.
That’s an easy thought to ignore during the day, when the asphalt is packed and traffic refuses to move. But at night, traveling down an eight-lane highway with absolutely no one in sight, you can’t help but marvel at the amount of effort spent into something so invisible.
When it comes to Creepy America, I can’t say I have all the answers. I don’t. But I have some answers. And one of them is the fact that we are not alone. Something built this universe. Or at the very least, maintains it. And much like the roads we drive on, their presence is designed to be invisible. We are supposed to ignore it, and we do, until we stop and think about the architecture left behind.
Things like the monolith, for instance.
I was sleeping in the passenger seat when Zoey slammed on the brakes so hard my head smashed into the dashboard.
“Son of a fucking bitch,” I swore. “Dammit. Dammitdammitdammit.”
“Oh shit, Liam!” Zoey whirled to face me from the driver’s seat. “I am so, so sorry.”
“What the hell was that about?!”
“I’m sorry, I just…” She pointed up a small grass hill, fifteen feet away from the side of the road.
There, reaching just above a long row of trees, was a gigantic, perfectly smooth, perfectly black pillar of obsidian.
We spent close to fifteen minutes just looking at the thing, leaning against the RV parked on the shoulder of the road and ignoring the blaring horns of pissed off drivers. Zoey had the privilege of watching it with unobstructed eyes. I was forced to continuously shift an ice bag around my face just to see.
Zoey looked at me and grimaced. “I’m really, really sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I replied. It wasn’t, but the less I thought about it, the less likely I was to get pissed.
Zoey returned to staring straight ahead, observing the long monolith in the distance. “What do you think it is?”
“Dunno,” I replied. “I’d be tempted to say it’s a cell tower, or the steeple to a church or something, but…”
“It’s too dark,” Zoey finished.
It was. Black is not the color of pure void, and this was pure void. If you’ve ever looked at a turned off monitor screen, then turned it on and looked at the deep gray caused by the monitor projecting black instead of just being black, you might have some idea of what I’m talking about. The structure had no shine. No light spots. No changes in coloration, at all, despite the fact that it was noon and the sun was right above it. It bordered on being a hole instead of an actual object, and despite the fact that I could move left to right and see the shape change slightly, indicating it was an actual three-dimensional mass, the lack of any features whatsoever made it seem like I was looking at a two-dimensional image.
It was beginning to give me a headache.
I rubbed my eyes and blinked for a bit. “Whatever it is, it’s not right. Actually…” I clenched and unclenched my fist, “it’s giving me the exact same vibes I felt looking at that ‘Worlds of Wonder’ painting.”
“Hmm…” Zoey went back to pondering the pillar as a semi blew past us, blaring its air horn the whole time.
“Up yours!” she shouted after it.
I rubbernecked around, watching all the speeding cars. “Do you think we’re the only ones who see it?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, no one else is stopping. Or even slowing down. They’re acting like it’s not even there.”
Zoey shook her head. “More likely they just don’t notice. Everyone here is trying to get home. They couldn’t care less about what’s beyond the trees, and those that do see it probably just write it off as a trick of the light. I almost did too, until I took a better look at it.”
I pressed the ice bag closer to my face. Despite my ever-burning curiosity, I almost wish she had.
“So what do we do?” I asked.
“Hop in,” Zoey commanded. “We’re going to find a place to park this where some idiot doesn’t side-swipe it, and then we’re investigating.”
Once we had found a space to pull over, we switched our normal responsibilities: Zoey held the big filming camera and I held the tiny little camcorder. The switch was one half because I couldn’t hold a camera and my ice bag at the same time and one half sympathy. Zoey really did feel bad about smashing my face in, and I had to remind myself of that with every meaty throb of my veins under the swollen area.
It wasn’t a long walk. Fifteen minutes at most. Once we had hiked up the small hill and moved past the trees, the tower was right there, sitting in a clearing like it was just a natural part of the scenery. As we got closer, the headache feeling intensified, as well as a sensation of dread.
We got right up next to it and studied it, Zoey moving around it one way and me the other. By itself, the monolith wasn’t anything too spectacular. It was about ten feet on each side and thirty, maybe forty feet tall. The sides ran straight up until the very top, where they closed together at a point, obelisk style. Not ordinary architecture, especially off the highway in the middle of the woods. Certainly head-scratching. But not necessarily paranormal by itself.
That was, until you examined the material closely.
The pure voidness of it refused to let up. Shining our phone flashlights on it made no difference; the substance just seemed to swallow up the light itself. And no matter how hard either of us squinted or zoomed in with the camera, no detail of any kind presented itself on the surface.
Feeling the structure was… weird. I really don’t know how else to describe it. You could put your hand right up to it and touch it, and it felt cold but not quite cold. Like sticking a gloved hand in ice water. You could feel the chill emanating from the substance but it didn’t really stick to you, the way your hand might stay frigid after grabbing a frozen piece of metal.
It also felt soft. Like clay. And you could squish your hand down and feel the walls give way, just a tiny bit, and feel your hand sink just slightly. But your hand wouldn’t actually move. According to your eyes, at least. And your body can tell when your senses are not communicating the same thing, even if it’s just by a little bit like that. It was incredibly disorienting and made my head hurt even more.
As I scrunched my fingers up and down, hating the way I couldn’t see them wiggle, I heard an abrupt “woAH!” from the other side of monolith.
“Zoey!” I ran around to the other side of the structure.
Zoey wasn’t there.
I panicked for a second until Zoey stuck her head out of the monolith. Like, outside of. The top half of her torso and her head was visible, but it ended in black space, like her body was just cut in half and glued into the side.
“I think I found a way in,” she said, offering her hand to me. I grabbed it and we slowly walked forward, into the darkness inside.
The space entered into appeared to be a narrow hallway. Appeared to be, because I couldn’t see. It was darker than pitch black in there. But my sense of touch still worked; I could feel the walls on either side of me brush against my arms as I moved. It also seemed to slowly slope downwards, continuing straight on for quite some time. We walked for almost a minute straight until Zoey stopped.
“What is it?” I asked.
“We’ve been walking for quite some time,” she replied.
“The monolith was only ten feet wide.”
I blinked, the action making no difference in the dark. Zoey was right. We were walking a downgrade, but it was a very slight one. According to the normal laws of space, we should have walked right out of the other side by now, or at least bump up against the opposite wall.
I gripped Zoey’s hand slightly tighter. “Do you want to head back?”
“No,” she almost whispered back. “I think I can see something up ahead.” She continued, with me following behind, until a bright white light appeared in front of us, just as abruptly as the darkness had swallowed us. Squinting, we inched forward until our vision cleared.
We were standing on top of a large outcropping of red rock, several hundred feet off the ground. Below us, hard desert stone stretched out until the horizon, and above us was a twilight sky, dark blue with slight purple clouds.
“Where the hell are we?” Zoey wondered.
I took out my phone and opened Maps. “Arizona, apparently.”
“How?” She backtracked the way we had just came. There, in the ground, was a slight ramp set into the rock, leading downward. She started to walk down it, then stopped and held her hand backwards for me to grasp.
I grabbed on, and we moved forward, back down, into the blind hallway. We walked for almost a minute straight, until the white light once again appeared and we stumbled back out into the forest clearing outside the monolith, bright sun and humid Louisiana air surrounding us.
Zoey looked back at me with pure confusion. “Did you feel like you just walked across the country?”
“No,” I confirmed. “Maybe a quarter mile at most.”
“And we went down both times.”
“Hang on, let’s go back for a second.” I grabbed her hand and took the lead this time, continuing on until white light, then Arizona desert.
“I am so lost,” Zoey said, looking down at the rocky floor miles beneath us.
“Non-euclidean geometry,” I marveled.
“Multi-dimensional space. It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since the Hotel California. Areas of the world separated from us through angles we can’t normally access.”
Zoey whistled and moved her hand above her, a gesture she gave me sometimes for over my head.
“Look, like this.” I took my foot and drew a stick person in the dust on the rock. “If this guy was alive, all he could see would be the area of this flat rock. He’d believe that this flat surface was all there was, when in reality, there’s all this area out here.” I gestured wildly with my hands. “This is extra-dimensional space, and this… whatever it is, uses that space as a shortcut.”
Zoey rubbed her temples. “Hang on, so you’re telling me that there’s this… secret area, that’s all around us, and we just can’t see it?”
“And time, too. We only exist in three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, but physicists think that there’s many more dimensions of each out there that we simply can’t comprehend.”
“Plain English, please,” Zoey groaned.
I sighed. “There are secret pockets of space, and there are secret pockets of time. Things like ‘Worlds of Wonder’ and the hallway inside that monolith, they exist in the secret space pockets. Things like the Hotel California and the Alone place, they exist in secret time pockets. At least, that’s my theory.”
“Cool. I’m going to pretend that I understood any of that.”
“Okay, imagine that…”
My new explanation was interrupted by a strange sound, somewhere between the rustle of paper and the hum of an engine. Turning towards the noise, I watched as a small, squat terminal unfolded itself into existence. Literally unfolded itself, like an accordion or an origami piece.
Zoey and I looked at each other, then approached it.
It was the same pure black as the monolith. The surface looked and felt identical, and it still had that strange pliable-but-not aspect to it. But this time, there were glowing green letters set into the bottom of it, into a space that jutted outwards at an angle. The letters themselves were an English alphabet and arranged in the shape of a computer keyboard, but in the order of ‘a, b, c, d…” instead of the regular “qwerty” configuration. Other than that, it seemed every other key was identical in placement, including things like ‘enter,’ ‘space,’ and all the punctuation marks.
As we stared at the letters, the area above it, the ‘screen,’ began to scroll large, green text across it:
>WONDERLAND ACCESS TERMINAL 17-IV
>PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE
I reached down and hit the enter key. The text cleared, and new words appeared to replace it.
>WELCOME _LENG_ RESIDENT
>PLEASE INPUT ADMIN PASSWORD, OR PRESS ‘ESC’ TO CONTINUE AS GUEST
I stared at the message for a minute, then hit escape.
>CONTINUING IN GUEST MODE…
The screen then wiped itself back to black, with only a ‘>’ and a blinking underscore on the screen.
I glanced at Zoey. Zoey just shrugged and gestured to the screen, as if to say all yours.
I thought for a moment, then inputted ‘/help’
>COMMAND ‘HELP’ NOT RECOGNIZED
I scratched my head, then typed in ‘/commands’
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I muttered. I keyed in ‘/scan’ and waited.
>PARAMETER NOT SPECIFIED FOR COMMAND ‘SCAN’
>PLEASE INPUT A PARAMETER:
>ANOMALOUS IV *CURRENT TERMINAL LOCATION*
>*NOTICE* ALL REALM SCANS ARE RESTRICTED TO ADMIN ACCESS ONLY
“Huh.” I spent some time hunting for keys, unused to the strange configuration of the letters, until I managed to type ‘/scan anomalous iv.’
>ANOMALOUS IV STATUS
>SLAVED STATUS: Y
>SLAVED TO: S3
>STABILITY: +-21 SC
>AGE: 2000015R KM
>PROJECTED FUTURE PATH: HARVESTING IN T-34289R KM
>ACCESS TUNNELS: GUARDED AND CLOSED
“Do you understand any of this?” Zoey asked me.
“Not a word.” I hunt-and-pecked again to spell out ‘/edit.’
>VARIABLE NOT SPECIFIED FOR COMMAND ‘EDIT’
>PLEASE SPECIFY A VARIABLE:
>*NOTICE* ALL OTHER COSMOLOGICAL CONSTANTS RESTRICTED TO ADMIN ACCESS ONLY
Zoey’s eyes widened. “Now those I do understand. You don’t think…”
I scoffed and said “can’t be,” as I typed in ‘/edit time.’
>WARNING: ALL TIME EDITS INPUTTED INTO GUEST MODE WILL BE LOCALIZED TO USER ONLY.
>TO EDIT UNIVERSAL TIME SCALE, PLEASE INPUT ADMIN PASSWORD NOW
>TO CONTINUE IN GUEST MODE, PRESS ‘ESC’
>*NOTICE* TO ACCESS KM TIME ARCHIVES, PLEASE USE ‘ACCESS’ COMMAND
“C’mon, get to the good stuff already,” I muttered as I hit the escape key.
>INPUT NEW TIME FRAME
>PLEASE USE GREENWICH MILITARY TIME IN FOLLOWING FORMAT:
>*CURRENT TIME: 31:1:2020;;0600:27*, the last number slowly counting upwards.
I stopped for a second, then pulled out my phone. “Last Tuesday would be the 21st. And… just midnight, I guess?” I carefully inputted in ‘21:1:2016;;000:00’, then hit enter and stepped back.
Both Zoey and I looked to the sky. Nothing changed. There was no sudden movement of sun and stars, and the heavens stayed at a peaceful twilight.
Just to make sure, I checked my phone. It still read ‘8:05 am.’
I sighed. “Well, that was a…”
Zoey gasped, interrupting me. “Liam, your face!”
I stopped and touched my forehead, then pressed down against it. It wasn’t sore anymore. More than that, it didn’t feel bruised or swollen.
I pulled my phone back out and turned on the front camera; sure enough, the damage done by slamming my face into the dashboard was gone.
I was stunned. “No way…”
“Put in two weeks ago, the 8th, at 9 pm!” Zoey demanded.
I looked up some information on Google and did some mental calculations, before typing in ‘9:1:2016;;1700:00, enter’
I stepped away and immediately vomited.
“Holy crap,” Zoey said, watching me retch. “That’s when you had that really bad food poisoning from that gas station burger, remember?”
“I remember now.” I tried to stagger back to the terminal, then bent over and threw up again. “Fuck, Zoey please turn it back.”
“Oh shit!” She ran to the terminal. “What do I put in?”
“29, colon, one, colon, 20… HUGH!, 2016, semicolon… hang on, they’re H-HUGH! Eight hours ahead… sixteen five colon zero zero.”
With painfully slow button presses, she inputted the numbers and hit enter, then turned around to face me. “Better?”
I opened my mouth to say something, then yelled in pain. “OW! Fuckfuckfuck!”
She ran over to me. “Liam!”
“The terminal!” I growled.
“Right!” She moved back to the screen, then typed another string of numbers.
The burning, agonizing pain stopped, replaced by a sensation of dull thudding.
Zoey gave me a sheepish smile. “Put in fifteen instead of sixteen. An hour ago. Which was…”
“...when you slammed my head into the fucking dashboard.” I shoved her aside, somewhat violently, and inputted ‘21:1:2016;;000:00’ once again, then typed ‘/back.’
I took a few seconds to enjoy the feeling of an undamaged, un-puking face, then stared daggers at Zoey. “Let’s not touch it anymore, okay?”
“A-alright.” We stared at the object in silence for a while.
“So that thing works regardless of what’s actually happening, huh?” Zoey finally spoke.
“Who do you think built it?”
I pondered the welcoming message for a bit. “Wonderland access terminal,” I muttered under my breath. “Wonderland. Wonderland. Worlds of…”
Something clicked in my head. “Hey Zoey, you don’t think…”
All of sudden, the rock plateau we were standing on began to violently shake back and forth.
“E-earthq-quake?” Zoey stammered.
I stumbled over to the terminal. The screen was flashing on and off, rapidly scrolling a new message:
>WARNING: UNAUTHORIZED USER _FADED_ DETECTED
>LOCKING TERMINAL IN 0...
>SENDING ALL DETECTED USERS TO HOME REALMS:
“Something’s gone wrong with the terminal!” I shouted. The plateau snapped in half between us with a mighty “CRACK!” and began to fall apart. I tried to run forward to the other side and grab Zoey’s outstretched hand, but the sides were already moving apart. My stomach sank as I flew backwards and fell down, down, down, until a soft blue light overtook me.
Gradually, I could feel my consciousness return. I struggled, and, after a moment, succeeded in opening my eyes.
I was lying face up in a jungle of some kind. I could see tall blue-green ferns wave over me, and above them, silver and indigo palm trees sway in the wind. I smelled salt water, and felt silky sand underneath me. I took a few moments to lay in the soft ground, watching a large, blue planet slowly move through the night sky.
My eyes shot wide as I realized where I was. “Oh no.”
“I think I heard it over here!” a voice shouted. I scrambled to my feet and turned to face the direction it came from as a thin, gaunt man in a tattered three-piece suit crashed through the brush and came into view.
Greg Thornstein reeled back in surprise, then glared at me. “You…”
“Greg, listen to me. I escaped from ‘Worlds of Wonder.’ I can help…”
“WE HAD TO EAT ANNE BECAUSE OF YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” Greg whipped out a long, sharpened branch at me and jabbed it straight for my face. I lunged back just in time to keep it from impaling me, then turned and ran deeper into the jungle.
“IT’S LIAM!” the furious voice of Greg screamed.
Loud, surprised Spanish responded.
“YES, THAT LIAM!”
I kept running, leaping over fallen palms and boulders, until my foot snagged on a log and I fell on my face. Hearing running footsteps behind me, I scrambled under the log and held my breath inside of my burning lungs, not daring to move or make a sound.
Four sets of feet landed in front of my face, then stopped.
“Where is he?” a female voice asked.
“Somewhere,” Greg said.
“Thought he’d escaped this place,” another man said.
“He tricked us,” Greg fumed. “He’s been here this whole time. And he wasn’t skinny.”
He thunked his improvised spear so hard into the ground I almost shouted in surprise, revealing my hiding place. “Find him! Alive! First we make him tell us where he hid his food, then we put him on the bonfire!”
The feet split away into different directions. I stayed under the tree, cowering, until a soft red light slowly covered my vision.
The sound of howling wind hit my ears before my sight returned. Once it did, I staggered back.
I was on the edge of a large cliff, close to fifty feet tall. Laid out in front of me was a burning, red landscape, with roaring infernos the size of houses dotting the planes and gigantic, broken siege weaponry scattered about: catapults the size of buildings, battering rams built like buses, and even more strange and brutal pieces with functions I could only guess at. As for how far it continued for, I couldn’t tell. The color of both the sky and the ground were the exact same shade of crimson, making it impossible to determine when one began and another ended.
As I backpedaled, my foot hit something and I fell onto my back, face upturned to the sky. But instead of the deep red I had seen earlier, this section was a beautiful purple and pink sunset, with long, feathery clouds painted along it. I got up and looked around to the scene set upon this elevated space: a large Spanish mission house, with an empty parking lot set in front of it, and a marvelous blue neon sign raised above carefully tended palm trees.
“The Hotel California?” I asked in awe.
Squealing sounded from my left, and I dove behind a nicely trimmed bush nearby, then peered out over it. The huge and wiry figure of the Captain had one of the large, bleeding, and struggling boars slung across his back with ropes, carrying it to a metal-plated tank of a vehicle with wicked spikes of iron and a bladed front end. As he did, Mr. Barrows, the graying black receptionist, was talking to another man I didn’t recognize, a thin person with curly blond hair and blue eyes wearing a black suit with a red tie.
“I apologize about the condition of this one, Mr. Faust,” Barrows almost babbled. “The guests have been rather combative as of late.”
“So these aren’t the result of attempted murder?” the other man asked. “Perhaps a misguided shot at a mercy killing?”
Barrows gulped. “O-of course not. I would never even attempt something l-like that.”
“And I should also ignore the rumors that you’ve been rather lenient with your check-out times?”
“Sir, you… you know me better than that.”
Without warning, the man took his slender cane and knocked out the legs of Barrows, falling him over to the ground face-up. He then pressed the end of the cane right into the small of his neck and gently leaned on it.
“I brought you here to collect, not entertain,” the man said. “Start telling some of these ‘guests,’ as you call them, that they’ve worn out their welcome. Or I’ll take out the deficit on you.”
I turned to my right. Zoey was pressed against a glass window pane, eyes wide with panic.
I ran up to the window. “Zoey! Zoey, are you okay?”
“Liam, we’re in the Hotel California!” she yelled, voice muffled.
“Where else have you been?”
Zoey frowned. “Where else?”
A loud BAM! sounded from behind her. She turned around and gasped, then looked back at me and yelled “come find me inside!” and dashed out of view.
Behind her, the lumbering, greasy form of the Night Man hurried after her.
I tried to follow, but I slipped and fell, my vision going gray.
This time, it was the sensation of clammy, cold air that hit my senses first.
I saw a forest. A large, foggy forest. It was so thick that I could only see about fifteen feet in front of me before the trees disappeared. And the trees themselves were strange, less trees and more long black sticks bereft of branches with white lines slashed across the trunks, stretching so high they disappeared and melding into black dirt tangled with long, spindly roots.
I walked forward, trying to find some kind of bearing. Around me, I could hear sounds: chittering, clicking, crying, laughing. Some sounded far off. Others appeared so close to me that I would jump away in terror, scrambling away from the source before I learned what it was. And each time I did, I lost my position in the fog.
Eventually, I found a two-lane, crumbling asphalt road, and on the other side, a large plastic shelter with a bench: a bus station. Large colored rectangles hung from the walls of the structure and as I stepped inside, I realized that they were posters, each advertising a different attraction:
“Come see the Museum of Modern Living, off of exit 178, the world’s largest collection of carefully curated and preserved suicides, exhibited for your viewing pleasure.”
“WANTED: New tenant for A Town Called Hate. Rent 5,000 a month. Attendance with live lynchings, Sunday mass required. No pets.”
“JAKE-JAKE’S CIRCUS OF HORROR, NEXT LEFT. FAN-TABULOUS SHOWS, HAIR-RAISING RIDES, LIVE EXECUTIONS!”
“Fetch Manor, now open to the public. Come for the company, stay to be dinner!”
And one that simply said: “L A UGH. you KNOW you want to.”
I sat on the bench, shivering, whimpering, trying to figure out where the hell I was or what was going on. But no answers came. So instead I just sat there, trying to keep myself warm and letting shock settle in.
A blackness began to overtake my eyes.
“Oh no.” I jumped off the bench. “Oh no no no. You can’t. I can’t go another level deeper.”
I sat there and willed the darkness back. For a second, it worked. The tunneling of my vision stayed at the edges of my eyes. But then it began to inch ahead, slowly closing over the world. I tried and tried, but the dark just kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing and soon, I couldn’t see at all.
It was black.
I tried opening my eyes. They were open. I reached out my hands. Nothing. They swished through empty air. My ears rang with empty silence. My skin bristled with an absolute lack of temperature difference.
The only sensation I felt was the solidness of something under my feet, so I clung to that. I stepped on it. I put my weight on one foot, and then the other. I kicked at it with the flat of my heel. There wasn’t much to be gained from it; it felt solid, and that was it. It didn’t even make a sound. But it was the only thing that existed, so I kept on doing it, taking small steps in random directions.
Something red flickered into existence about a hundred feet ahead of me. I shouted with excitement and ran to it, then stopped as the object got close enough for me to see their shape:
The unmistakable outline of two Red Eyes.
I stopped, but they kept getting bigger. It was moving towards me. I backpedaled away, needing to run but afraid to turn around and lose the only reference point I had. It picked up speed, and I screamed.
The thunderous roar of an unseen beast answered back.
My fear overtook me and I shut my eyes tight.
I felt a small, warm breeze on my skin, so I cautiously opened my eyes.
Sunshine, green trees, grass, blue sky: I was back on earth. More specifically, I was back to the clearing where the monolith was. I could see it, right in front of me: all thirty feet of that damnable blackness. But I turned away from it to run down the hill, back to the highway and back to our RV lying just past the treeline…
I stopped cold.
The cars were still. Stuck in place and not moving. Nobody was in sight.
I was Alone, and that only meant one thing…
I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath. There was a flap of wings beside me, a sigh, and a blow right to my temples, forcing my eyes open and causing me to fall backwards, face up and see the hoodie-cloaked figure of Sam standing over me, tiny white eyes and glowing smile visible behind the dark void of his hood.
THAT’S NOT GONNA WORK, LIAM MY BOY, it spoke in it’s strange, echo-y voice. YOU’VE BEEN BAPTIZED. YOUR IMAGE IS NOW MINE.
AM I HERE? ARE YOU BACK? DOES THE WORLD TURN? It’s impossible large grin twisted just a bit wider. MR. WONDERLAND’S ACCESS TUNNELS AREN’T AS GUARDED AS HE THINKS THEY ARE. HE HAS YET TO REALIZE THAT A RAT CAN GO ANYWHERE IT WANTS.
“What’s going on?!” I demanded, feeling my anger rise. “What did you do?!”
It slapped me. I could feel razor-like claws trailing from his fingers slash my check with shallow, stinging cuts.
OH I DO SO LOVE IT WHEN THEY HAVE SOME FIGHT TO THEM! It leaned down next to my face, then stopped and shaked his head, grin fading into a confused expression.
Then it smiled again.
THIS ISN’T ME. BLAME THE WONDER-MAN. HIS MAGIC MACHINE TRIED TO SEND ALL THE LITTLE PIGGIES HOME. BUT MY SLUTTY LITTLE LIAM HAS BEEN KISSED BY TOO MANY SAILORS TO REMEMBER WHERE HOME IS, SO IT SENT YOU A-BACKPEDDLIN’.
It reached down and caressed my hair with its fingers. I tried to squirm away from his touch, but at this point he was on top of me, trapping me on the ground. WHEN I SAW MY POOR, HELPLESS DISCIPLE STUCK SPINNING THROUGH THE REALMS, I CAME TO RESCUE HIM, BECAUSE I PROMISED TO ALWAYS BE THERE FOR HIM. AND I CAN RESCUE HIM TOO, AS LONG AS HE ACCEPTS MY PENTECOST...
“Get away from me, you freak!”
It reeled back, grin transforming into a scowl and eyes down turning into an angry glare. FINE. LET’S SEE IF YOU’RE A LITTLE MORE AGREEABLE ON THE NEXT GO-AROUND. It pushed me, and somehow I dropped backwards, through the dirt ground beneath me, falling endlessly until a blue light fogged over my sight.
I landed with a THUD into a pile of ferns, groaning. I struggled to my feet, gripping a silver palm for support, before I took a look at the night sky filled with blue planet and tried to figure out where to go next.
“There you is.” A whoosh sounded next to me and I instinctively ducked under another homemade spear, moving backwards with the movement to face my attacker. It was Tom, the skinny man in camo, holding the sharpened branch at me.
I held out my hands in a gesture of surrender. “Please, just listen to me…”
“We done listen’ to you,” he said, jabbing the stick backwards. “You took our advice, you stocked up on food, you pulled some magician shit, and you been livin’ out here like a king ever since.”
“No Tom, I escaped. I know how to get out, and I can get you out too if you just let me.”
“Then why haven’t you?!” His demeanor intensified and the jabs became more forceful and violent. It was easy to side-step each swipe from the starved and feeble man, and a dim part of my head realized that I was getting better at being attacked.
“Over here!” another voice shouted from deeper in the jungle, and followed by shout in Spanish. Realizing I couldn’t outfight the whole group, no matter how weak they were, I turned and ran, breaking through the treeline and sprinting across the white-sand beach and into the ice-cold water. Once I was hip-deep, I glanced behind my shoulder to see how close behind they were.
They were all standing at the edge of the water, watching me with a mixture of fear and excitement.
Cold, hard teeth clamped around my leg and pulled me under. I forced my eyes to open in the stinging salt water and saw one of the dolphins grabbed onto my ankle. It let go and issued a strange click-tocking sound, then swam forward, mouth-open, lunging for my face.
I grabbed both ends of the creatures’ jaws, forcing them open even as the sharp metal teeth set inside sliced into my hands. It jerked in a strange, non-organic way, and the water around my ears filled with a gggrrrriiiinnnddddggggrrrriiiinnnndddding.
There was a sudden jab at my hip. Through the bubbles caused by our struggle, I saw another dolphin poking me with his nose on my left, and another one swimming towards me on my right. I panicked, until a soft red appeared at the edge of my eyes.
For once, I tried to force it along, letting the color fill my vision and surrendering to the sensation.
The red cleared as my head hit a soft surface. I blinked away the pain and sat up.
I was in a hotel room: two beds, a writing desk, a chair, gold and black carpet with white walls and a window revealing a beautiful sunset. I struggled to sit up and as I did, cold salt water ran off of my body and soaked the floor beneath me.
I felt my foot kicked something. Looking down, I saw my camcorder.
“How did you…” I wondered out loud. I opened it up, watching the screen indicate that the device was fine even as water droplets clung to the surface. “Of course. Does Zoey buy anything that isn’t waterproof?”
I heard the door to my room SLAM shut. I whirled to the source and saw Zoey, panting, out of breath, braced up against the room door with her back to it.
“Liam!” She started to move towards me, but a sudden BANGBANGBANG forced her to lean against the door harder.
I got up and moved over to her instead. “Zoey! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, what about you?” She looked me up and down. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Worlds of Wonder. I went back there. And here. And two more places I don’t recognize.”
Her eyes widened. “Same here. I’ve been here and… somewhere, that was really dark.”
“I went there too.”
Something that sounded like the roar of a shotgun blast rang out in the hallway beyond, followed by pained squealing and running footsteps.
“What do we do, Liam?” Zoey asked, the panicked adrenaline in her voice replaced with a hushed fear.
“I… we’ll figure out something, right?” I tried to assure her. “We always do.”
“How? With what?”
I started to say something, then stopped. “I might have a plan...”
“...but I don’t like it.”
Something slammed into the door hard enough to cause it to buckle, and Zoey threw her weight on it again. “I don’t think we’re in the position to choose here.”
I felt my stomach drop a bit. “Are you sure?”
“Whatever it is, do it!” The terror in her eyes was undeniable.
I sighed, closed my eyes, and yelled, “ALRIGHT SAM, I’M READY!”
And immediately, his voice was in my ear: READY FOR A PENTECOST?
I winced and slowly opened my eyes. I was back on Earth, in America, in Louisiana, in the middle of a four lane highway, abandoned cars spread across its length.
“Yeah Sam.” My voice was trembling. “Ready for a Pentecost.”
That sickly green hoodie came into view again and the black empty that was his face came right next to mine, eyes large and bright and grin twisting ever higher. He reached a hand forward…
He withdrew as if he had been slapped.
“I… I have one condition. You have to bring Zoey here.”
Its smile returned. SO MY DISCIPLE HAS FOUND A PLAYTHING OF HIS OWN. DELICIOUS… Two large, shadowy wings unfolded from behind him and enveloped his body entirely. After a moment, the whole black mass dispersed away, like a cloud of smoke, leaving me alone.
I fumbled out my phone and pulled up Zoey on Messenger, writing out a text:
“When I say run, run for the monolith.”
Then I put it away and prayed to whoever was listening that the assumptions I was making about this place were accurate.
A moment later, the sound of flapping wings sounded from behind me. I turned and saw Zoey, Sam standing behind her. CONDITION MET.
I backed away slowly, eyes locked on Zoey. “Wait, just… just one more…”
NO MORE WAITING. He took one large, menacing step forward. IT IS TIME TO BE FILLED WITH THE UNHOLY SPIRIT LIAM…
Zoey’s eyes flashed downwards to her pocket. She pulled her phone out, stared at it, then looked at me and nodded.
I stopped moving. “Alright Sam, but… can I just say one thing first?”
He stopped and cocked his head sideways.
“RUN!” I bolted backwards, towards the woods and up the hill. I heard Zoey’s footsteps behind me.
And behind that, an inhuman scream of rage.
“What… are we…” Zoey wheezed.
“Inside the monolith,” I said. “Back to the terminal. And we need to slow him down.”
I gritted my teeth. “Don’t know. It’s why I hate this plan.”
HOW DARE YOU REJECT YOUR SAVIOR! Sam’s voice shouted from above us. I heard another leathery flap before the wind began to whistle, emulating the sound of a kamikaze bomber.
Zoey grabbed a nearby branch and swung it behind her, at Sam. “Get the hell out of here!”
The branch hit the bulk of his body, bouncing away harmlessly. But he landed on the ground and stood still, putting his arms out in a posture of surrender. BE NICE, HONEY. LISTEN. Once he said that, he crouched and began to beat on his head with the meat of his palms. NO, NOT CONNIE. THE PIPER OF TUCSON WAS PAID. THIS IS ZOEY. LIAM. SHUT UP!
Zoey and I watched him until he disappeared behind the tree line we were running past.
“What the hell was that?” Zoey asked me.
“Don’t know, don’t care.” I grabbed Zoey’s hand and dived into the side of the monolith.
We were plunged back into that dark, narrow hallway. I picked up speed and forced Zoey along with me, tripping once or twice on the downgrade. A few moments later, the sight of a tiny white dot on the horizon suddenly zoomed forward and surrounded us, then disappeared to give way to the Arizona open sky and raised rock platform.
I ran over to the terminal as it WHIIIIRR-unfolded itself into existence again. “Stall him if you can!”
“O-okay.” Zoey planted her feet in front of the slope placed into the rock.
I moved back to the screen and typed in “/edit time.”
>WARNING: ALL TIME EDITS INPUTTED INTO GUEST MODE WILL BE LOCALIZED TO USER ONLY.
>TO EDIT UNIVERSAL TIME SCA…
“I know, I know,” I muttered, hitting ‘esc’ before the message could be fully displayed.
COME BACK HERE. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the white circles of Sam’s eyes peering out from the darkness of the hallway.
“Why are you doing this?!” Zoey yelled at him.
BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN IT IS MORE FUN THAN KILLING WILD GAME IN THE NONONONONONONONO! FOCUS! The large dots grimaced in anger and backed up a tiny bit.
“Questions,” Zoey mumbled. “Alright then.”
I turned back to the terminal:
>INPUT NEW TIME FRAME
>PLEASE USE GREENWICH MILITARY TIME IN FOLLOWING FORMAT:
>*CURRENT TIME: 31:1:2020;;0601:32*
>NOTICE: TIME SCALE IS CURRENTLY PAUSED. TO UNPAUSE TIME SCALE, USE COMMAND ‘PLAY-(DESIRED TIME FRAME)’
“I knew it!” I hissed. I ran my fingers over the keys, inputting ‘/play-31:1:2020;;0601:32’, then stepping next to Zoey. “Go to the terminal, hit enter.”
“I’ll be right behind you. Go!”
She ran back and smacked the keyboard. Once she had, her body faded away into the air.
LIAM, I’M VERY CROSS WITH YOU… Sam yelled from the hallway, close enough now to see his snarling teeth in the darkness.
“What’s going to happen now?” I asked him.
WELL YOU SEE, THE TRICK IS TO HAVE THE KE...STOP IT! HERE, NOW, LISTEN TO ME!
I ran back to the terminal, but now the message it displayed sent a chill down my spine.
>WARNING: UNAUTHORIZED USER _FADED_ DETECTED
>LOCKING TERMINAL IN 15… 14… 13…
“No, no, no, no!” My hands flew over the keyboard, typing faster than I ever had or probably ever will.
>WARNING: ALL T…
I WILL MAKE YOU BURN FOR THIS!
An icy hand gripped my shoulder. YOU WILL KNOW REPENTANCE!
And then, everything stopped.
Once I had calmed down, I finally looked behind me.
Zoey was there. As was the dusk sky and the rocky platform. The slope set in the rock was still there, and I could still see the terminal in front of me.
But Sam was gone. The screen was no longer flashing. And there was no color at the edge of my vision.
“It’s over,” I sighed with relief. “It’s all finally over.”
“Liam,” Zoey spoke, “your face…”
I put a hand on my forehead. It felt bruised and swollen again.
I glanced back at the terminal, then turned around in disgust. “C’mon, let’s just get back to the RV.”
Zoey didn’t talk to me until later that evening. The de-stress time we spent alone after something traumatizing like that was becoming a habit. One I wasn’t happy was happening often enough to become a habit, but a habit all the same.
But around eleven that night, she slid into the passenger seat next to me as I was driving, staring into the night road.
“Liam,” she asked quietly, “what was that about?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I think that the terminal might have thought we were somebody we weren’t because of…”
“Cut the bullshit.”
I faced her. “You want to know about Sam, don’t you?”
Her angry stare answered the question for me.
“Sam came back that night, the night I came back from the Alone place.” I couldn’t meet her eyes, so I just stared into the windshield. “He told me that I hadn’t escaped. Not on my own, anyway. He told me that he had given me a dark baptism, whatever that was, and he had let me go so that he could give me a dark Pentecost later.”
“And what’s the dark Pentecost?”
“I don’t know. But he named other people he had given it to. Gacy. Berkowitz.” I gripped the wheel tighter. “Serial killers.”
“And why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want to scare you.”
She groaned. “Fuck Liam. How can you be so smart and so stupid at the same time?”
“I know. I just need to…”
“Stop this ‘I’ shit!” She stood up and slapped the side of my head, not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to feel. “This is you and me, together. We made the decision to get stuck in this RV, together, and that means dealing with problems, together! So while I appreciate your dumbass chivalry, stop it.”
Zoey sat back down in the passenger seat. “From now on, no more secrets. We’re a team. And we’ll beat this… dark Pentecost whatever, together.” Her tone softened a bit. “You’re not going this alone, Liam. I promise I won’t let you.”
“Alright,” I looked back to the dark road in front of me, spirits lightened. “A team.”
Zoey, how I wish you could have kept your promise. I wish it more than anything else.