Nesteled Within

burning stairs

The sequel to “Remnants”

Cries of joy and accomplishment rang out through the hazy forest filled with blackened tree trunks. Gil Aswegan stepped through ashen leaves towards the middle of the destruction and the remains of what had once been a three-story structure, the building little more than a smoldering foundation of cement.
“I know this place,” Jay Gavette said from behind, and Gil glanced back to see Jay and Randy walking up, both without their masks, fully accustomed to the stench of smoke.
“Housed all the psychos at the turn of the century. Remember we used to talk about coming out here to see it back when I was in school. You know, mark of bravery and all that shit.” He lit up a cigarette, eyes reddened from the smoke as he inhaled more into his lungs.
“Did you ever?” Randy asked him.
Jay snorted, shook his head. “Nah. Hey,” he hit Randy on the arm, “let’s check it out.”
“Might want to get back with the others,” Randy said, a man of protocol less because he liked abiding by the rules, and more out of fear he’d get fired if he didn’t.
“Christ, they can wait,” Jay said, and all three knew this was all Randy had been waiting for. Seventeen years had given Jay both seniority and an ability to get away with a lot of things, and so long as Randy could claim Jay had given the ok, he’d break any rule he wanted. Gil simply didn’t care enough to seek out the other firefighters gathering near the edge of the forest that had so recently been set aflame.
A few pieces of wood still glowed weakly as they stepped into the foundation. Randy discovered the stairs leading down and called the others over. Jay offered no hesitation, flashlight coming out as he approached. They walked single file into the darkness, into the oppressive smog, none of them using their masks even though they knew they should’ve. The haze made the darkness thicker, closer to them, their lights less capable of penetrating it.
They moved down a long hall of closed doors, each charred, the windows on them cracked and covered in soot. “Bet they had a lot of them down here in straightjackets,” Jay whispered. “Oho,” he said, stopping, light fixed on an object up ahead.
They gathered around the remains of a human, the body burned so badly only the skeleton remained covered in a few pieces of ravaged, cooked meat. “Think we found who’s to blame for the fire,” Jay said, but Gil found his gaze moving past the body to a faint flicker of light up ahead.
“Got something,” he whispered, pointed at the metal door pulled slightly open at the end of the hall.
Jay motioned for them to stay back as he pushed open the door to the ancient boiler room. Most of the metal had been rusted over, but aside from that, had been spared from the fires. They huddled around the candle still alit, hot wax running down the side, pooling on the cement.
Randy brought up his head. “You hear something,” he said, and Gil did hear it, had been hearing it, he thought, maybe even before they’d found the corpse.
Jay looked up as well and nodded with a straight face, his good charm oddly missing from his vacant gaze. The three of them walked in unison, tears streaming from badly irritated eyes, the aged bricks, rusted pipes, and softly waving cobwebs seen through a shimmer, until their lights found the hole in the brick wall.
It opened into what appeared to be a dirt ramp leading deeper into the ground. All three shut off their flashlights in unison. They journeyed down the dirt ramp for an indefinite amount of time, but at some point they reached a bottom, and at some point Gil could hear movement, could feel himself kneeling before something, could hear Jay’s startled laughter and Randy’s feverish crying, as well as the feeling of a wet, pulsing substance slipping across his tongue.
From there came the glaring sun and his hand in front of his eyes. Bennie, Gil’s boss, stared down at him, told him something.
Gil glanced around, eyes still weeping from the haze, the remains of the building not far to his left.
“You bite your tongue or something?” Bennie asked him.
Gil frowned, touched the liquid running down the side of his mouth. He stared at the red on his brown gloves. “Don’t know,” he said.
“We’re heading out.”
Gil pulled himself up and saw not far up ahead Jay and Randy walking away from the building without a word. As they trudged through the forest Gil caught sight of Jay looking back at him, and whatever good humor he normally saw in the man’s eyes was absent, replaced with something Gil couldn’t explain, but understood.
Gil had once joked that he thought his father must’ve beaten the ability to feel emotions out of him, and while a lot of the others would nod their understanding, they didn’t know a doctor had once confirmed the permanent damage to his brain.
“You seem even more withdrawn than normal,” Bennie told him. They sat in the break room, a TV on in the far corner ignored by those lost in a game of poker. The constant sound of jokes, of small talk, and regurgitations of the day’s events filled the room, along with the thin haze of cigarette and cigar smoke. Bennie’s aged, thin face leaned in closer, always more sympathetic than the others, looking for and heading off emotional trouble whenever possible.
“Tired,” Gil told him, attempted to smile, but his mind couldn’t even make his face fake emotion, and he couldn’t ignore an odd bubbling in his gut.
Bennie glanced back at the others and the bright glare of the overhead light before leaning in closer. “What’d you guys do today, anyways? I mean, you’re always quiet, sure, but what’s up with Jay? Hasn’t cracked a joke once since we left. Randy seems kind of skittish as well.”
Gil stared past his boss to Randy perched in a chair along the back wall, head jerking at almost every noise, one arm gripped tightly around his stomach. Through an open door along the wall Gill could see Jay, the middle aged man flipping slowly through a magazine while periodically glancing over the top at the others around the poker table, and just briefly, Gil could see that gaze shifting towards him, holding there for a few seconds, before dropping to the magazine.
“Don’t know what to tell you,” he answered. He couldn’t lie, not directly, the mere thought of it making his body flinch, feel the belt his father had whipped him with.
“I’m just trying to look after my men, ok, and today was stressful, but if there’s something else going on here let me know.”
“I know, Ben.”
Bennie held his eyes for five seconds before nodding and retreating to join the others. A few called to Jay, yelled for him to join the game, but Jay only stared back in silence, while from within the bathroom Gil could hear Randy throwing up.
The worst of it was the whispering, the words unfocused, too silent to understand, and as he watched Jay out of the corner of his eye, he could see the man’s head tilt up from time to time.
Randy emerged from the bathroom pale faced, sweating. “Christ, you sick man?” Bennie called to him.
“Think I’ll head on home,” Randy said, forced a weak smile. “Haven’t been feeling too well.”
“Go. Get out of here,” Bennie said.
Gil shifted his eyes to Jay, but the chair was empty. He walked hesitantly through the large, darkened garage, past the parked trucks, by disheveled equipment thrown haphazardly back after the day’s fight, towards the back windows and the parking lot lit by streetlights and a half moon.
He saw Randy get weakly into his car. As soon as the vehicle pulled from the parking lot another set of headlights sprung to life, and Jay’s blue Lumina glided quietly out of its parking spot. Gil saw the man’s face; lit only by the faint glow of his dashboard, eyes empty as they glanced Gil’s way before vanishing from the parking lot into the night.
His apartment contained no posters to mar the whitewashed walls. Uniform furniture purchased from the same magazine populated the place, the colors plain, uninteresting, like a show apartment, not a single hint of true personality found within its walls.
Lit by the hallway light spilling from his open front door and the soft glow of a streetlight filtered through half-closed blinds, Gil surveyed the room, feeling as if something was out of place. He cocked his head to the side; aware of a movement along the walls, almost like the paint was running, but when he drew closer it looked normal.
He shut the door but didn’t turn on the lights, stomach rumbling, and face glistening with light sweat. Somewhere in the past Randy cried in the darkness, and with the thought came the flicker of an image, as if he had turned his flashlight on just once in that dark room, but even when closing his eyes he couldn’t make the memory solidify.
He sat in a recliner and stared at the ceiling, unaware of how he’d gotten there, but it didn’t matter, because he stood in the bathroom with a candle glowing on the counter, flickering odd shadows across his reflection in the mirror. He searched aimlessly through the apartment for the source of the whispers; thinking he should feel afraid, feel something, brain squirming behind his eyes.
His bedroom looked larger in the darkness, the far wall and closed closet door stretching at least fifty feet away, and within the closet another fire crackled with life, threatened, something in Gil thought, to burn the apartment down, yet knowing this, he made no motion to move closer. Instead he stood on the third floor balcony overlooking the parking lot.
The moon shined brightly from directly above. He glanced at the time reading one a.m. before answering his cell phone.
“Randy’s dead,” the voice told him.
“I don’t know all the details yet. Just got the call about a half hour ago, but someone heard him shouting and found him with his stomach cut open. They think he did it to himself. Why would he do that? What happened today?”
Gil stood in the living room of Randy’s two-story house, the walls decorated by books, by two movie posters, and by smiling pictures of extended family. In the corner Randy rested his head against the wall, his eyes open and blank, the bloody knife still clutched tightly in dead fingers, his stomach a gaping chasm, nothing but darkness within it. More than darkness, Gil thought, leaning in closer, hearing the words floating from the ravaged flesh and the endless void just on the other side.
Randy no longer had his eyes, the sockets showing Gil the same unfathomable depths, tongue missing from the open mouth, entire body but an empty shell leading towards the black hole he had gouged in himself. The closer Gil leaned the more he saw something else at the heart of it, a light within the darkness, soft like a tiny flame, but it grew brighter, blinding him.
“Too bright?”
“It’s fine,” he said, took his bags from the counter of the convenience store, his stomach shrunken to a pea. Even before reaching his parked car he tore open the jerky and started devouring it. He held the keys in his hand when the revulsion overtook him, spilled stomach acid down his jaw, splashed against the side of his car.
“Randy’s dead,” he whispered, feeling the world snap into focus for the first time. The time told him three, bright numbers crawling from the phone, reaching with tiny red fingers towards him before he snapped the lid shut. He leaned forward, held his hands against his eyes, said, “Randy’s dead,” again. By the time he looked up the feeling had subsided, the world a haze outside his window.
He could recall pulling out of the parking lot, but when he stood in front of Jay’s door and saw the red splashed within the window, he had to look at his phone again, see the hour he’d lost. He reached for the knob but doubled over before he could turn it. The pain tore at his stomach, etched its way slowly into his brain, and made it pulse against his eyes as if trying to tear free.
The door opened for him. He walked knee deep through watery carpet, the ceiling dripping paint into his hair, while along the walls he saw the pictures watching him, Jay and his family in all of them, except when looking closer Gil could see the bloody corpses, their dead eyes fixed blindly through the frame, calling to him, pulling him closer. Gil stopped in front of one of them and stared at the two corpses spread over the thin, brown carpet in the living room. He wouldn’t let his eyes shift away until the frame extended and the image became reality.
Jay’s two daughters lay face up, the knife that had killed them discarded on the floor, while somewhere deeper in the building Gil could hear movement. He ignored the walls beginning to bleed, bit his tongue to erase the image, let him move clear headed into the kitchen where Jay’s wife, Emily, had been butchered.
“I heard about Randy,” Jay said, drew Gil’s attention to the staircase leading down to the basement. The older man stood in the opening, his fingers twitching at his side, clothes stained red.
“What’s going on with us?”
“You really here?”
“I…think so.”
Jay glanced behind him, brow tightening before he nodded, glanced back, motioned for Gil to follow him. They moved down stairs that stretched deep into the earth, but ended on the clean white carpet of the basement. Both men stood before the far wall where the abyss waited, carpet running like a waterfall into the void, the soft roar of it continually draining into nothingness all Gil could hear at first, almost unaware of Jay beside him until the man turned towards him.
“You hear the voice?”
Gil faintly could, but the words remained too soft, nothing but a faint babble. “I can’t understand them.”
“What do you see?” Jay asked, pointed towards the darkness, and towards the glowing flame at the center, clearly there, but just out of Gil’s sight, the image fuzzy. “I saw something similar in Randy, but I don’t know what it is.”
Jay fixed his gaze back on the void, his skin pale, shaking, sweat beading on his forehead. “I can see it clearly,” he whispered, “and I know what the voice is telling me. Randy heard it too, heard it better than me, and he almost didn’t even walk out of that place. Didn’t get far. All of us have been tainted, you know, even you.”
He pulled the gun from his waistband as he turned towards Gil with a faint, frightened smile plucking at his lips. “Wanted to kill you to make it easier. Just being closer to me tainted Emily and the girls, but you, you’re as damned as I am, maybe worse, but it won’t let me.” He brought up the gun to his forehead instead, eyes glancing towards the void. Gil could see the blood running through Jay’s lips, down his chin, and he looked towards the hazy image in the darkness, tried as hard as he could to discern the whispers, eyes closed to let them consume him.
The gunshot snapped his eyes open, made him bring up his hands to block out the light in the distance. Sunlight snuck through the dense, soot-covered trees, the air still wavering with recent smoke, burning Gil’s eyes and nose. His legs throbbed but continued to carry him across dark leaves towards the structure he’d left some fifteen hours earlier.
He had no flashlight this time as he descended down the blackened steps into a much deeper darkness. Low hanging lights creaked softly on rusted chains. He saw the abyss within Randy’s ravaged stomach and felt it inside himself, felt the distorted image at the center. It continued trying to speak to him, pulsed inside his damaged brain, emotions trying to rise to the surface of his thoughts.
Even in the darkness he could see the faint glow of the extinguished candle in front of the boiler. He moved past it, unable to see anything, yet still stopping as he approached the broken brick wall to kneel through it. He felt the dampness of the earth as he moved down the ramp. A kind of light began to glow up ahead, one similar to the epicenter of the darkness inside his stomach.
He fell to his knees before it and pressed his forehead against cool dirt. His adjusting vision allowed him to see only the faint outline of the massive creature nestled against the wall.
Hot liquid gushed from his mouth, down his chin, and he groped frantically at his shirt, pulling it open with a rip of fabric. He clawed at his stomach, saw the raw, bloody flesh left on Randy, but there was no pain when Gil’s fingers sunk into his skin as if it were water.
Out of focus images grabbed his thoughts, none of them clear enough to understand, only the hint of creatures, of violence, a timelessness to it that dwarfed his ability to comprehend, and through it all the garbled words grew louder. He felt as if his head burned, eyes being sucked into his skull, tongue a blackened, shriveled strip of skin.
From far away he heard himself scream when his fingers tore from his body and took with them all distortions. An awareness of breath returned first, lungs contracting rapidly. Hot air across his lips and the grainy dirt pressed against his sweaty face came next. Shaking fingers ran across the smooth skin of his exposed stomach. Deeper in the darkness he heard movement, chose not to let his eyes drift towards it as he pulled himself to his feet.
Right before he trudged up the dirt ramp he felt the whispered voice slip through his mind. It contained no words, but he felt within it a sense of gratitude for the child he had given it, one only his damaged brain had allowed him to birth, all those before him succumbing to the madness before it could come to existence.
He ran through the dark basement. Somewhere behind him lay a creature he’d help create, and he couldn’t say whether it had been malevolent or not, nor did he allow his mind to consider it, because if he tried the splintered remains of his memory began to repair themselves. Fear unfelt since the day his father had pinned him to the ground and beaten him unconscious came to him then, drove him faster, until he stood beneath the morning sun and inhaled the smoggy air.
He fell to his knees, shivering violently at the overwhelming emotions his newly repaired brain offered him, already wanting to return this horrible gift, and be embraced once more by the comfort his previous numbness had offered.

By Philip Roberts

One response to “Nesteled Within

  1. Pingback: New Stories for January/February 2013 - The Writing of Philip M. Roberts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s