by James Tyler Reichle
Charles knocked on the door of the charming—if carbon copy—house, a split-level ranch with aging yet still intact yellow paint. No response met him, so he knocked a few more times.
"Hmmm," he muttered, once again receiving no reply. He knew this was the right house.
Slipping a free hand into the pocket of his jeans, he retrieved his work-issued phone.
"The address matches, and the house looks exactly like the place in the photos." He opened the work ticket he had been assigned and checked the details again. "Yep. Everything matches." He grunted.
Curling his fist into a ball, he slammed it against the door three more times with slow, intentioned force.
"Hello? South City Heating! You have a service request scheduled for today at this time!" He waited. Nearby, a bird mocked him with a lilting, whimsical reply. He scowled.
Completely consumed of his patience, Charles withdrew from the door and began to circle the house. He searched for anybody that might be outdoors and unable to hear his continued knocking. The unfenced yard allowed him unfettered access to the property, but his search turned up no one. He reached the starting point once more, stomping up the few wooden steps of the porch with his hefty work boots. He was two seconds away from pulling out his phone and calling dispatch to cancel the job when he caught a glimpse of a canary yellow square stuck to the glass storm door.
"What the Hell?" he grumbled under his breath, trailing off into silence as he reached out to snatch the sticky note from the door.
Bringing it near his face for closer inspection, he studied the words in his mind. The handwriting was immaculate English print in black ink.
"Front door unlocked. Come on in. Basement is the first door on the right." After reading it aloud the second time, he crumpled it in his hand and growled.
He was almost certain the note hadn't been there when he knocked a few minutes ago, but maybe his mind was starting to decline. He'd been doing the same job for over a decade with zero variance, save for when new models of hot water heaters hit the market. That was bound to be a recipe for an inevitable mental collapse. Shoving the note down into his pocket, he brought his growl to its completion.
As the note promised, both the glass storm door and the composite wood door swung open without opposition. Charles stepped over the threshold and into the house, slamming his palm on the plaster of the interior wall twice to alert anyone inside.
"Hello? Anybody in here? I'm here for your service call!"
Same as before, he received no reply. He sighed, then stepped forward, scanning the environment around him. The house was clean, if dated, but felt strangely empty. It was warm, the feeling any dwelling emanates when it is filled with life. And yet Charles felt uneasy just being there.
"Hello? I got the note, but is anyone home?" he howled out into the empty house, hoping whoever left the note was deeper inside and awaiting his entry.
With yet another inquiry left answered, Charles was all but certain that nobody was home. He moved closer to the door.
Pausing at the door to the basement, Charles turned around to observe his surroundings once more before descending, hoping he might discover a clue as to the state of the house's emptiness. An older sitting room, complete with piano, lay opposite his current position. Further into the house he could see the dining room. Beyond that, he could not see, but still he could hear nothing, not even the slightest of sounds.
He returned his focus to the door. The brass knob, well-worn from apparent years of use, turned with a healthy heft. The door freed itself from the grasp of the doorframe, and Charles pulled it open. Moisture assaulted his nose. He stepped into the space beyond the door, a small wooden landing crowning the top of a steep staircase. Surprisingly, a dim light illuminated the bottom of the stairs.
"Uhhh... hello?" he called out with hesitation. As he awaited yet another potential answer, the door closed behind him.
He began his descent down the aged, sharp stairs. Each step downward brought thicker and thicker must, and his lungs protested.
"Fuck this moisture!" he growled, coughing into the crook of his elbow. "Why is it so damp, and why does it smell like seaweed?"
He reached the bottom. There was enough space to move, but barely more than that. A stack of molding, warped cardboard boxes lined the wall to his right; various brooms, mops, and other cleaning tools stood guard in a loose stack to his left. He spotted an old, rust-ridden door at the end of the room.
He scratched his left cheek with his calloused fingertips. "What the fuck kind of—is the heater behind that door? Who built this fun house?"
He stepped closer and closer to the iron portal, his boots crunching and grinding against the debris that covered the floor. Without hesitation, he gripped the loose, rusty doorknob, twisting it and yanking the door open in one smooth, frustrated motion. The room beyond was hopelessly black save for a dim orange indicator light in the far left corner, and the smell of must and mildew exploded exponentially as he crossed inside.
The orange glow offered visibility to the few recognizable shapes in the cramped space. A breaker panel, yellowed with age and stickers peeling from exposure to moisture, jutted out from the right-hand wall. A collection of thick pipes flanked his left, covered with yet more rust. Ahead of him, standing stout and ominous in the low orange light, was the heater. A thumping sound resounded from inside its aged, metal body. He approached, releasing the door as he fully entered the room. The door retreated to its closed position as he drew near to the heater.
The thumping grew louder. At first, Charles thought nothing more of it than the mundane grumblings of an appliance breaking down, but as he stood next to the heater with his ear turned toward it, the character of the sound changed. It was beating; beating like a heart.
"What in the fuck?" He leaned his ear as close as he could without actually making contact with the antiquated heater.
The thumping grew louder and faster.
"In all my years..." he started, trailing off as his hand slipped up to press against the metal, feeling for its vibrations.
His hand made contact with the heater. He instinctively convulsed backward in shock at the texture of the appliance, which felt more like dry, scabby flesh than metal. His foot pivoted and his shoulder torqued, but his hand had somehow become stuck to the repulsive surface.
"Fuck!" he howled, yanking his hand backward with all of his strength.
His hand refused to be freed from the surface of the heater. Heels pressed hard into the cement, he groaned, gripping his trapped arm with his free arm.
"Come on! What the fuck is this?"
The palm of his immobilized hand grew warm, as did his fingers shortly thereafter. He pulled with his last remaining burst of strength. Gasping for breath, he squinted to discern the horror unfolding in the malicious amber light; his hand had begun sinking into the heater. What seconds ago had been dry, cracked flesh had somehow become gooey and viscous. As his fingers and palm disappeared into the dimly lit horror, he scrambled with his feet to pull backward. No amount of effort reversed his movement forward, and soon his forearm was gone, too.
He no longer spoke words. Instead, Charles screamed and growled and snarled as he yanked and pulled and clawed at his own arm in a pointless effort to free it. Before he could comprehend what was happening, his elbow had sank into the horror with a loud, sloppy slurping sound. The tepid, organic substance flowed with a rough suction around his arm; soon it was near his armpit. He had stopped screaming. He had stopped growling. Moment by moment, too, he had stopped fighting. Whatever greedy, unknown force had taken hold of his body was not letting go.
His armpit was engulfed next, and his lungs seized in anticipation of what he suspected would be smothering suffocation. As his right shoulder entered the gluttonous foreign substance, he squeezed his eyes shut and braced for the inevitable. His mind was overtaken by bottomless fear. His cheek made contact with his inhuman assailant, and a muted scream escaped his lips. Seconds later, he was more than halfway inside, the remaining half of his body limp and unable to take any further action to defend itself. He kept his eyes shut and awaited the darkness.
His entire being had been pulled inside the faux heater. It was dark, but it wasn't empty. It was also warm, and the pulsing of what he had imagined to be a heart reverberated around him. He knew better, but he opened his eyes and mouth to observe his surroundings. His eyes were met with a warm, stinging liquid. That same liquid invaded his mouth and throat, causing him to gag and choke. He coughed, trying to expel the liquid pouring into him, but each expulsion resulted in a more violent and desperate intake. He was drowning in the dark.
He thrashed with furious resistance at first, then less as time dragged on over the next few minutes. As his movement ceased and his consciousness faded, his sense of cardinal direction—and even time itself—seemed to vacate his body. He was nowhere, and he was never.
The void opened. Light, crimson-hued and menacing, pried open his eyelids. He choked up the thick, unidentified liquid, writhing about on his stomach. Coarse and sharp particles scraped his face as he groaned and wriggled, his eyes too sore to accurately scan his surroundings.
He extended his arms forward, trying to find grip somewhere on the alien surface. The gritty ground, which reminded him of sand, scratched and slipped between his fingers. He swiped his arms about, but no matter where he felt all he could find was more and more of the same material. He retracted his arms backward, pulling them under his torso and pushing downward with his palms. His face was freed from the grit, and he allowed his eyelids to part slightly. The oversaturated light and his own lack of orientation made him dizzy, and his brain throbbed in pain.
Persisting through the pain, he summoned all his strength and managed to bring himself up to his knees. He sat, his eyes growing accustomed to wherever he now found himself. At last, they opened completely, and he was able to survey the world around him. Mouth agape, he gasped.
In the most hushed tone he had ever uttered, Charles swore as his head swiveled from left to right, then back. "What the actual fuck—where am I?" Head still swiveling, he rose from his knees, dusting the debris from his pants in a distracted manner. "Am I dreaming... or dead?"
One by one, awareness returned to his senses. His ears detected the sound of waves lapping against the unnatural shore. Slowly, like an ocean of room temperature jelly, the thick alien ocean rolled onto the not-sand. Charles turned his head, dumbstruck at the sights and sounds. The sun was stuck in an eternal repose, teasing the horizon with its potential setting, but never following through. He turned his rapt attention from the strange ocean to the terrain that lay ahead. He was no less speechless as he observed the bewildering landscape.
The beach rose upward to meet an ashen tree line. The crest of the incline was dotted with dead trees, stretching as far as he could make out to both the right and the left. He checked his panorama one more time to confirm his surroundings. He had no idea where to go now. He was flanked to his right and left by an endless beach. Behind him lie the ocean from which he'd been spewed forth onto the sand. Before him lie the dead tree line. He blinked. Then, as if responding to his mental distress, a new, intriguing structure materialized from nothing.
Had it been there the whole time, and he had somehow missed it, or had it truly appeared out of thin air before his eyes? Whatever the case, Charles stood straight and still as he observed the small brick staircase, flanked by two columnal brass braziers, not fifteen feet ahead. He led his eyes up the steps, one by one, until he reached the rectangular landing at the top. The brick platform was the foundation for a larger, vertical rectangle made of a stone he had never seen in his life. Mounted inside the frame was a set of double, dark wood doors. The doors remained closed, and the braziers sat unlit. Yet here, on this unthinkable beach, stood a stairway to somewhere. Could it be the door back home? He pondered, letting his muscles relax for the first time since he opened his eyes in this terrifying new place.
His nose caught the scent of the ocean, which he had either missed or blocked out of his mind. Now, with stark clarity, he was fully aware of its qualities. Rather than the hope-filled, salty mist of the sea, rotten, decaying odors of moldy seaweed and dead aquatic lifeforms hung on the stale air. Recoiling backward, the crunch of the shore beneath his work boots struck his ears and vied for his attention. Glancing down, he mulled over the sound the sand made, and he realized that it truly wasn't sand. Shale, shells, and bones of things forever dead littered the coast.
An enveloping sense of dread overwhelmed him. He couldn't move anywhere. He was stuck, the dead ocean behind him and the door just ahead. His eyes welled with tears, both from the acrid stench that permeated everything and the retching of his soul's realization of things to come. He turned his head once again and stared at the door, possibly the only path forward from the corpse-like border of solid and liquid repose in which he was trapped. Doors had always haunted him. People tended to walk out of them and never come back, and he had been one of them.
A corner of his mind that he had boarded up and locked away was rattling, taking pains to free itself from the prison in which he had placed it. Regrets of family abandoned in the name of self-serving pursuits, regrets of giving up on a second chance. A lifetime full of regrets. Panic fed upon regret, and resurged. Was his only path forward through the door? Retreating backwards into the bleak waters was impossible; at best that fate would end with a drowning undeath whose ultimate conclusion would be oneness with the ocean unable to die. The shore and, more broadly, the island were enveloped entirely by its lulling, weeping rhythm. Escape to his flanks would lead only to infinite morbid shoreline, yet to stand still would guarantee only an eternity of that one unbearable moment. The uncanny door seemed to be his only possible hope.
The teakwood door, splintered and chipped with a doorknob so loose it threatened to fall off at the slightest agitation, lay ahead of him. He took a deep breath and stepped forward. The wind growled and roared, and in the distance red lightning struck a dead tree as he drew near. His feet mounted the first step, then the next, then the next. Before his mind could come to terms with what his body was doing, he had reached the landing. He stood inches away from the cosmic door, it's energy humming into and penetrating his skeleton. The ill-fated knob sang.
He placed his hand on the unstable, weather-bruised knob. Turning it, his breath seized. Once opened, he knew the door would offer passage through the threshold between this world of suffering and the next. The only promise offered was a different form of suffering. He paused and pondered silently, hand shaky and oscillating between touching and releasing the knob. What was the real risk here? After enough exposure to various horrors, do they not all blend together to become the same? Would not any new form of pain be as tolerable as his current state? Uniqueness oft-repeated loses the quality of uniqueness. One ceases to look for contrast in the numerous manifestations of pain conjured by chaos. Instead, they compare. All the creativity of misery blends into a single class of suffering whose primary attribute is unendingness.
And yet there was no question; he had to step through the door, if for no other reason than to escape the miserable shoreline of never-ending decay. With that twisted mockery of hope in his mind, he gripped tightly the ominous knob and pushed forward on the long-aged door. It creaked open wider and wider, approaching its apex with the zeal of an ancient engine that has no interest in firing. The hinges protested. As it opened, his nerves shivered and his flesh quivered, knowing he'd hate what's on the other side but wishing to see it nevertheless.
He stepped through the mirage-like distortion of the door's threshold. Its liquid appearance betrayed its utter lack of tactile presence, yet he sucked in as much air as he possibly could before crossing over. As he reached the other side, he exhaled his halted breath. The fear and terror which had choked his entire being on that crimson, lifeless beach subsided over the following seconds. He took a breath deep enough that it touched the furthest corners of his lungs, then exhaled it in relief. His relief, however, was not meant to last.
As the anxiety of that dreadful in-between world subsided, he began to realize where he had ended up. Charles had always hated walking through doors; there was always the possibility that each time you crossed a threshold, it would be your last.
One time, when he was much younger and—he thought—much more of an idiot, he had walked out of door in a fit of pride and rage. That was the last time he ever walked out of that door, and it was a decision he regretted the rest of his life. Today, his regret would injure him anew.
In the distance, the clear waters of the Pacific crashed against a pier. Families, lovers, and friends wandered up and down the pier, taking pictures, laughing, and losing themselves in the vast beauty of the water. Where the pier and boardwalk met, a man sold gelato from a cart.
Despite his sense of time having been skewed by his brief visit to the lifeless beach, Charles knew exactly what time it was: 2:14PM. He even knew the exact date: June 23rd, 2003. Charles had stepped through the door on the shore of the dead sands and ended up in his own past. Any second now, his wife would cross the busy street and make her way down to one of the benches... where he should be sitting. For reasons unknown, he began walking of his own accord. He had to get to the bench before his wife did. He had to be sitting there, waiting for her.
His legs carried him across the loose, sandy beach, the sounds of laughter, waves, and bicycles far away from his ears. The bench drew nearer, but he could feel her presence already; she was crossing the road.
"I... need to hurry," he muttered in a tone devoid of all vitality.
His pace quickened. He wanted to glance back toward where he knew she would be, but something inside him indicated that would be a mistake. He locked his sight on the bench and marched through the sand, trying not to stumble or slow down.
"Just a few more feet..." he wheezed.
The sand snared his sprint, and he lost his footing as he stumbled out of control toward the back of the bench. His shaky hands reached out, praying for purchase on the dull green wood. They found it, and instead of crashing full-speed into the bench his knees fell to the grains.
He couldn't waste time. She was almost there. He pulled himself up, his knees buckling in attempted protest, and dragged himself around the corner of the bench with a quick, rough pivot. He sat down, inhaling pain and exhaling exhaustion, before sliding down to the opposite end.
A single wave rolled in from the ocean and crashed softly onto the shore before his wife sat down beside him. She didn't say a word or look at him, just reached her hand toward him, placed a small object on the bench, and stood to leave.
"Hey," he said, "I'm sorry."
She left him.
He watched one more wave roll in, then looked to the box. The dark purple ring box sat solidly on the bench, a harbinger of lonelier times ahead. He picked it up, choosing not to open it, and continued his apology.
"I'm sorry I walked out on you. I'm sorry I opened that door."
The waves continued to roll in. He turned the box in his hand. He would never see his wife again, nor his children. He'd move towns and states away, start a new career and a new life. He stepped through that door and into a new world. And now, here he was.
He was on a beach.