Page 11


I backed away from the door, glanced again at the high windows, wishing that the darkness would give way to the murky light of an overcast sky. This was as effective as wishing for world peace.


To look through those windows into the alleyway, I would have to climb to the top of the trailer, an easy enough feat. But the odor and the chill that had passed through the ornamental gate were fresh in memory, and I was possessed by the—perhaps irrational—fear that a trap in the trailer roof would open under my feet and drop me into a kind of trouble that I had never known before.


In need of a room with a view, I returned to the open stairwell door to listen. The quiet was profound, a stillness as in a vacuum. If anyone waited on the upper floor, he must be dead or Death.


Previously, the wall on the left had been paneled in easy-to-clean yellow fiberboard, and the wall on the right had been brick. Now they were both concrete. On the steps, the glued-on rubber treads were missing. The first time I entered this stairwell, before hastily retreating at the sound of voices, it had been in my world. Now it was in some parallel reality.


Some days I wonder about my sanity. A good cheeseburger usually restores my confidence. If that doesn’t work, I watch an episode of some reality-TV show like The Real Housewives of Wherever, and by comparison with the stars of the program, I feel as solid as a blacksmith’s anvil.


The stairwell seemed unnaturally clean. In the becalmed air and the cold light, no dust motes drifted in suspension. Not one tattered strand of spider silk waited for a draft to flutter. No desiccated flies or shriveled moths or single scrap of lint littered the stairs.


No cracks or water stains marred the surrounding concrete. Stepping across the threshold, onto the bottom landing, I felt that I must be somewhere outside of time, the only living creature in a place to which even the spirits of the lingering dead never ventured.


Warily, I climbed the stairs.


Eleven


HALFWAY TOWARD THE MIDFLOOR LANDING, I WAS overcome once more by the perception that these concrete walls were not concrete at all, but were instead the idea of concrete, a thought that first occurred to me back at Star Truck, when Shower 5 in the real world abruptly became Shower 5 Elsewhere. I didn’t know what I meant by that, but my suspicion was evoked by the continuity of color and texture: an unvarying gray without the smallest stain, without a single line or trace of wood grain from the lumber forms into which the concrete would have been poured, no surface voids or exposed aggregate.


When I slid my left hand along the inner wall, the surface felt at first like concrete, but then like fiberboard with a high-gloss finish, although to my lying eyes it remained curiously perfect concrete. When I put my right hand to the outer wall, my questing fingers slid across bricks and recessed mortar joints that I could not see, although a moment later the texture of a smooth concrete surface returned.


I didn’t know what to make of all this, except that my reality and Elsewhere seemed to occupy the same space at the same time. In Elsewhere, my world floated just below the surface of things; and in my world, Elsewhere was submerged and waiting. Whether this was true everywhere that I might go or only in some locations, I could not know for sure, but I suspected that the two realities intersected only rarely, as in some rooms of Star Truck and in this abandoned industrial building.


Wherever and whatever Elsewhere might be, I didn’t think that it was a world like ours, that it was either peopled by different versions of ourselves or by another race entirely. The cowboy trucker had parked his rig here, leaving the keys in the ignition, because he knew that in Elsewhere it would remain undiscovered and safe, which suggested that Elsewhere was a dead zone of sorts, populated neither by anyone nor anything.


The midfloor landing had no windows. I paused to listen but heard nothing other than my stomach grumbling about not yet having received the cheese meatloaf, steak fries, and coleslaw that I had all but sworn an oath to consume back at the truck stop. I continued upward and, at the top of the second flight, I came to a landing door on my right, with more stairs on my left leading to the third floor.


I didn’t need to seek the highest vantage point. Any second-floor window would satisfy my curiosity about the untimely darkness that seemed to lie beyond these walls.


In my world, this building was perhaps eighty years old, dirty and battered and unoccupied if not even abandoned; it had not in any recent decade been refurbished. Judging by the design and the details of its construction, the metal door on the landing was as old as the building. It should have been scratched and dimpled, as no doubt it was in my reality, though here it appeared to be as unmarked as it was on the day it had been installed.


The immaculate condition of the door seemed not just improbable but impossible. And when I concentrated closely and entirely upon it, searching its smooth surface for a sign of wear, I was more than half persuaded that it was merely the drawn image of a door, like that in a clever trompe l’oeil painting or on the backdrop of a cunningly designed stage setting, convincing not because of elaborate detail but because the artist’s use of perspective and light was masterful.


Nevertheless, the knob felt solid in my grasp, and it turned without resistance. The knuckles of the barrel hinges revolved soundlessly around the pivot pins, and the door opened as smoothly as one liquid flowing into another, so that I could almost believe that I was adventuring in my sleep.


Beyond lay a hallway. The ceiling, walls, and floor were as uniformly gray and smooth as in the garage and stairwell. Overhead hung the usual crude lamps. When I stared hard at the nearest one, it produced less light, not because the bulb dimmed but because the bulb, the shade, and the chain all seemed to diminish in substance when studied intently, as if sufficient scrutiny might in time cause them to disappear altogether. I didn’t test that hypothesis because I didn’t want to be left whimpering in the dark.


On both sides of the corridor were a few doors like the one through which I had just come. America’s primary institution of learning—the movies—has taught us that when we find ourselves in a strange and eerily quiet place with lots of doors, waiting behind one of them will be either a psychopathic killer or a monster of supernatural or extraterrestrial origin. Of course, if it’s an Adam Sandler comedy, behind the door will lurk a goofy dude waiting to deliver a joke involving poop, pee, or gen**als. I wasn’t in such a comedy, but that was all right, because I preferred a psychopath or a monster.


When I opened the nearest door on the right, nothing bit off my head. A single lamp hung in the center of the unfurnished gray room.


I crossed to the windows and was stunned to see the sprawling suburbs of the valley cast in darkness, not one streetlamp or building light to be seen. Far beyond the Hollywood hills, to the southwest, no faintest glow rose from the flatlands of Los Angeles and environs, though on an ordinary night, the incandescence of civilization would shimmer in the air and paint the bellies of the clouds a burnt-butter yellow. Above the black land, the blacker sky had been swept clean of moon and stars.


In the middle distance, three widely separated lakes of low flames glimmered and twinkled red-orange-blue, like the baleful campfires of savage and malevolent settlements. They burned without illuminating their surroundings, as if the night air had unnatural weight sufficient to prevent the light from rising.


Although the uncanny gloom flooded the land before, between, and beyond the pooling fires, the realm on the farther side of the windows was not blind-dark. I was able to discern that the street in front of this building had vanished, replaced by barren ground. And suddenly I knew that the suburbs and the city they encircled had not merely gone dark in a power outage but had ceased to exist either as intact structures or as ruins. In my reality, this building stood in an industrial neighborhood, but in Elsewhere, it seemed to loom alone above a blackened wasteland.


I had wanted a window with a view. Now I wanted a quiet corner in which I could curl up in a ball and suck my thumb until my fairy godmother came and took me away from this hostile, empty world.


In this blighted kingdom, however, wishes were answered in such a perverse way that they were far better left unwished. Twenty feet below, where the street should have been, something moved, a vertical shadow in the otherwise still and amorphous dark. Squinting, I saw what might have been a man, but he was so little differentiated from the murk around him that I couldn’t make out his face or determine what he wore. One thing about him was certain: He didn’t have fairy wings.


If the weak light in the room around me filtered through the glass, none of it reached as far as the figure below, although it revealed me to him. He halted, I sensed him looking up, but I did not draw back from the window. I had already been seen. He would come to me or he wouldn’t. After a moment, he approached the front of the building, disappearing into the recessed entrance.


Pistol in hand, I returned to the second-floor hall. Moments before, I had climbed the west stairs, which originated at the garage in back. The door at the east end of the hallway suggested another stairwell rising from the front of the building, which was probably the one by which he would come to me.


My keen intuition, which had often been my salvation, was largely a mental faculty, its physical expression limited to an occasional tingle at the nape of the neck, the hairs bristling on the backs of my hands, and—unseemly but true—a certain tightening of the scrotum, although that last reaction was about as erotic as a spinal tap. In this instance, a swift series of chills quivered violently through me, as if I were constructed entirely of taut harpstrings that thrummed with glissandos of foreboding.


At all costs, I needed to avoid a confrontation with that shadowy figure. I didn’t know why I must keep my distance from the man, if man he was, and I had no one to ask, because intuition is a one-way communication from God, who never seems inclined to satisfy our curiosity, perhaps because, given the chance, every one of us would be like a child on a family road trip, endlessly asking Are we there yet? or the equivalent.


I turned away from the east end of the corridor and hurried to the west stairs, by which I had come up from the garage. Going down again seemed foolhardy, in part because leaving the building wasn’t an option. If I ventured outside into unknown conditions, I might find it difficult if not impossible to get back inside. I assumed that I would have to be within the envelope of the building to be able to return to my reality when the shift occurred again, which might be hours or mere minutes from now.


After bolting up two flights to the top of the stairs, I pulled on the door, which swung open as silently as those before it, as if its lever handle, latch, and hinges operated with zero friction. For a long moment, I stood on the landing, listening.


When the stairwell door opened on the second floor, I didn’t hear a sound. No sudden draft alerted me. I knew the visitor from the wasteland had entered the stairs only when his shadow preceded him, flowing onto the midfloor landing below in such a sinuous fashion as to suggest that the man yet unseen would prove to be in part a serpent.


I slipped into the hallway and eased the door shut, although left to gravity, it would most likely have closed without a click.


The third floor seemed identical to the second. I doubted that I had time to race all the way to the east stairs before my pursuer would arrive and see me.


Besides, switching stairwells for hours on end was not a strategy, hardly even worthy of the word tactic. That gambit was certain to result, sooner or later, in the two of us coming face-to-face in a doorway, which might not end well for me even though I had a pistol.


In my experience, sometimes the guy on the other side of the door possessed something more formidable than a handgun, such as a submachine gun or an automatic shotgun, or an enraged ferret that he threw in my face. Or he was clothed head to foot in body armor and held a surface-to-air missile that, if fired horizontally, could reduce you to a pile of flaming entrails. Or he was wearing a nine-sheath spring-loaded antique-Chinese automatic-knife breastplate, which in a split second could skewer you with enough stilettos to kill you and, should you have one, your cat as well.


Trusting to luck, such as it was, I hurried halfway along the corridor and chose a door to my left. Beyond, a dimly lighted flight of stairs led up to another door. I was pretty sure the building featured no more than three stories. Maybe these stairs went to an attic.


I don’t like attics any more than I like cellars.


Most people have never found anything in an attic more off-putting than silverfish, dry rot, and faded high-school photographs that remind them of how much promise they once had and of how little it has been fulfilled.


In my case, however, I tend to find things like a collection of shrunken heads hanging by their hair from the rafters or a fighting falcon trained to swoop down and pluck out an intruder’s eyes, or a tripwire-activated capture net that drops over any unwanted visitor and cinches ever tighter around him until he’s immobilized.


In spite of my experiences of attics, looking back the way I had come, when I saw the door begin to open at the west end of the hallway, I stepped across the threshold onto the landing. I drew the door shut behind me.


Once I was on the roof, I would be outside of the building’s envelope, with nowhere to run and with more than a forty-foot drop to the ground below. Nevertheless, I hastily climbed this last flight of stairs because, for one thing, when confronted with the Unknown, of which this man from the wasteland was an embodiment, it was never wise to be confrontational, and because rational optimism is required of anyone who hopes to be a survivor, and finally because there was nowhere else to go.


Twelve


THE DOOR AT THE HEAD OF THE STAIRS OPENED NOT into an attic but instead into a ten-foot-square room as featureless and somehow artificial as all those before it, which soon proved to be a kind of shed on the roof. Directly opposite the entrance door waited an exit, through which I stepped onto the flat and parapeted top of the building, closing that last door behind me.


Without a window between me and this absolute-black sky, the effect of such undetailed heavens was profound, frightening not just because of the uncanny darkness but also for a reason that eluded me. Or perhaps the reason was not elusive. Maybe I dreaded acknowledging and considering it, for fear that contemplation would soon sweep me out of the main currents of sanity, into a tributary of madness.


Indeed, the roof was a lunatic place, disorienting under a moonless and starless vault that seemed at first to be an eternal void, but the next moment might have been the low ceiling of a cavern deep in Earth’s crust, and then again a void. In spite of the distant lakes of fire, if they were truly fire, the land around this isolated structure lay nearly as dark as the sky above, providing so little ambient light that I could not see as far as any edge of the roof, which in my reality had been guarded by an Art Deco parapet. Even in the remote reaches of the Mojave, even on a night when two thousand feet of dense ecliptical clouds separated the desert from the glowing wonders of the universe, the land gave off at least a dim light, the product of natural radiation, of minerals in the soil, and of certain vaguely luminous plants. Not here. This outer darkness, so complete, seemed to be capable of a kind of osmosis, gradually penetrating me to blacken my thoughts and eventually extinguish my hope.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***