shall we play a new game
you wake up to a pungent stench of mold. you roll to your side and the spring mattress lets out rusty groans. bemused and half-awake at best, you realize this is not your bed. indeed, not your home. a wide, curtained window towers over you, and outside the sun goes high. you squint in the morning light, then close your eyes again, giving the other senses half a minute to catch up with your nose. eventually, you become more aware of your surroundings: a poorly furnished bedroom, with only this bed and one nightstand, both ancient-looking. the floor is wooden-tiled, no carpet. across the room stands a solid door made of dark, engraved wood. the wallpaper is faded and torn by old age, the walls are completely bare. the ceiling is high, with patches of peeling white paint and a huge, elliptic dark stain smack in the middle of it. you pull away the linen and, strangely, find yourself fully clothed. you have no memory of how you came to this place.
* you sit up and look at the nightstand.
an old brass lamp sits on top of it, but it currently holds no oil, and you have got nothing to light it with. you reach for the drawer, and give it a pull. it is not locked, but the piece is much heavier than you anticipated. it slides out slowly, smoothly, without a noise. oddly, a puff of smoke escapes from within. waving the smoke away, you turn to the drawer's contents, only to find there's nothing but a thick, smoldering piece of paper. written on it, the message goes - 'we are in this together. find me. close the drawer and leave the room quietly, do as i say. leave this room, and do not look under the bed'.
* seized by a sense of urgency, you stride towards the door and try the knob.
good, it's unlocked. you give it a tentative pull, and the door creaks open, just a little. through the slit you see part of a corridor, but little else. you look back, and wonder if you are missing something. there's the window, same as before, and the large old bed; who knows what forbidden knowledge someone stashed beneath it. who knows if you do well to heed the words on that burning page. well, we all need to make choices, and live with them. as you prepare to leave, you realize the shape of that weird stain in the ceiling does not seem quite the same, from this angle.
* you let go of the knob and turn back to get a better look at the stain.
it looks a bit less two-dimensional, now, like a shadow cast on an irregular surface. the sunshine through the window carves a diagonal brightness which intensifies the contrast between the sunlit floor and the somber space overhead. you tilt your head left and right, testing new perspectives, but the stain does to its shape what iridescence does to color. you think you saw it stir. did it? yes, like a dreamer trapped in the agony of his nightmare. you're reminded of slumbering kittens with their little fits and spasms. so... the stain is a curled up thing sleeping in the ceiling, and the creaking of the door must have disturbed it, though apparently not enough to wake it up.
* unable to look away, you take a step back and feel the wall against your back.
your peripheral vision catches the door, half-open to your left. you grope for the knob, and manage a good enough grip of it. then, in a semi-fluid motion (which, to you, feels daring), you pull the door while sliding through the opening and then immediately throw your weight to invert the door's momentum and close the passage. the process is not altogether noiseless, so you stand there for a whole terrifying minute, gripping the doorknob so hard your knuckles turn white, expecting it to be pulled from the inside at any moment... but nothing happens. you breathe, and release the knob, becoming aware of the muffled silence that fills the corridor as if the air here were made of something heavier. 'must be the carpets', you consider; your mind plays the highlights of a memory in which an old acquaintance goes on about the acoustic properties of rough surfaces. also, this must be the longest corridor you've ever seen: left and right, a number of doors and old-fashioned wall sconces reach into far, dimly lit spaces. you have a simple choice to make - left or right.
* you need to move on. something in this corridor unnerves you, so you decide that right and onward is the sensible way to go; you walk a long time under the occasionally flickering light of the sconces. as it turns out, the passageway is as irregular as it is long, bending at subtle angles left and right, up and down. it widens and narrows, punctuated with dark nooks which could themselves lead somewhere else - but you think it's best to stay in the light (dim though it may be). you start trying the doors, but they are all locked or barred. behind some of them, unseen things stir as you tug at the knob, and your ear catches the subsequent rustling, sobbing, or less identifiable sounds. you press on, hoping to find stairs, but so far you’ve been hoping in vain.
the floor is creaky wood covered in one long threadbare carpet. you eventually realize the wooden boards are squeaking too much for only one pair of feet, and stop to check for stalkers. at once, a disembodied voice mutters next to your ear - its tone grave and benign, like that of a priest in a confessional booth. 'greetings fellow spirit, cursed to haunt this place with no end; i do implore you, have you found the stairway?’. you turn around fiercely, smashing your shoulder against the wall in the instinctive effort to face whoever addressed you, yet there's nothing but air where the voice came from. ‘ah, you are still flesh. forgive me, for i forget. perhaps we will meet again soon, then you’ll help me search. you should know never to walk downstairs, in the meantime - there are terrible things, and the worst of them end up there. do not linger here either, friend, not if you can help it. there are terrible, terrible things…’. the last sentence dissolves into a whisper as the unseen stranger wanders away, causing the floor to squeak under his invisible weight.
* in spite of the ghost's apparent good nature, the encounter leaves you more than just frightened. you’re seized by a hysterical urge to take action, gain an insight, make any progress, no matter how little. you stride to the nearest door and unleash a series of desperate kicks to the knob. wood cracks, metal bends, and in less than a minute one of your strikes causes the door to swing away with a crash, splinters sprinkling the floor - and since subtlety is off the table, might as well dispense with caution: so you stomp into the room, ready to beat an answer out of whoever happens to be there!
what you encounter, however, steals the violence from your pulse. in this bedroom not so unlike the one where you started, the pale guest rests motionless on an old wing-chair facing the window. he is covered in wounds, and parts of his anatomy are missing - most noticeably, the entirety of his left leg, which seems to have been torn apart by… well, you can’t really imagine what could have provoked such extensive damage here, given the lack of train tracks and a speeding locomotive. the limb’s void is replaced with a profuse flow of crimson, which is joined by tributaries stemming from various gashes and lacerations. the man’s head tilts weakly to the side, and one bloodshot eye finds you.
‘ah, you're here. good…’, he croaks, ‘excuse me if i do not stand. my leg, you see...’, and he nods toward the stump, casually, directing your attention as if you might have not noticed the absent limb. the man groans in pain, ‘i may be dying’. you inch closer, thinking it’s a (cruel) miracle that this mutilated wreck is still conscious.
‘it is… fine’, he mutters, ‘i want this. deserve it. look… i know you’re not here to talk, but... will you wait next to me, though? i did not want to die alone… and it won't be long... won’t be long, now.’
* you crouch in front of him, unable to think of anything meaningful to impart. nonetheless, you feel as though you need to say something, so you let a chain of well-meaning, trivial utterances roll off your lips until the man's breath becomes quiet and his eyes turn to glass. true to his word, he did not take long to die. his skin starts to turn grey, and the slight curl of the mouth gives his countenance an unhappy, sort of disappointed look.
* you sit on the bed and sink into thought. everything is quiet again, and thus, in the presence of death, you are reminded of what life is: noise, movement, truly the exception in the vacuum of the universe. above all else, life is fleeting, and time - if time does exist - is the treacherous sea beneath which Nothing lies in wait; so life conscripts us all to sail, until, inevitably, we're thrust back into this ocean of secrets, out of time and into non-time, leaving (maybe) a trail of bubbles, but even this faint vestige must fail and vanish before long, as we trail off the world and out of memory. but at least then the suffering is ended, right? perhaps it's best to be dead.
even as you ponder these thoughts, you realize they should not be there. they just... seep into your mind as you sit on the edge of the bed, as though your contemplation of the scene has invited them. you rub your face, attempting to shake off these toxic musings, but it's like they're made of oil; greedy, insidious things. 'this is awful', you complain to your dead companion. met with resistance, the ideas now slither threateningly about, whispering promises of agony. they could take everything from you, leaving nothing but blindness and a flat understanding of the loss they've inflicted. yet, they don't, and their moment of hesitation grants you a fortuitous respite.
you tell yourself these thoughts are not yours, but only impertinent trespassers. so the waves of dread do subside, beating a resentful retreat, while muffled laughter echoes from somewhere else, not far, in the house - at which point you realize the mangled corpse has disappeared from the chair. it is now replaced with two sealed envelopes. each of the white envelopes has one word, and only one, written in an elaborate hand: on the first, there's 'up'. on the second, 'down'.
* 'this is it', you exclaim rhetorically, as you snatch the envelope with the word 'up' and hold it with both hands for a closer examination. it feels warm; the paper is thick and coarse to the touch. the non-literal stairway. so, confident that major strides have been made, you pry the envelope open...
...and no sooner is it done than a thin trail of smoke rises from within. you yank out the note, on which words have been burnt in a familiar fashion. 'if that is what you want', it goes, and nothing else. you read it again. 'if that is what you want'. sounds ominous. you take a moment to recall the ghost's exact words back in the corridor... 'never walk downstairs', he warned, 'terrible things', etc. right? perhaps you should backtrack and see if you can find him again, and anyway he did request that you help him find the stairway.
however, the paper suddenly bursts into flames, and the room begins to fill up with smoke. you consider running, but then you see that the door is closed and somehow know it's too late to try and leave. the room disappears, replaced by a deep, flowing mist that glows with a reassuring light. there is a presence in it too, but it's muffled and diffuse and not entirely there. it says you did well and your choices were sensible.
in the end, the house must not be traversed safely. it's a whirlpool of whimsical unrealities, dragging all that step into the current through a chain of allegorical answers towards the base at the center; outward is the world of vigil and solid matter, where industrious people go about their serious business. the course of your actions delivers you there. on the one hand, you are safe. on the other hand, this journey came to an untimely conclusion. you blink twice and rub your eyes. you are reading words on a screen.