IT’S THE WAITING GAME THAT HAUNTS ME. Half-past midnight under a lone street lamp and, nothing. Empty streets and sleeping buildings. So unlike the roaring noise of day, with cars honking and engines starting, people yakking in voices louder than they need be on their phones. All headache inducing. It’s why I’ve escaped into the night, a personal pain reliever, and in my hand an invitation.
The invitation appeared earlier today, beside my coffee in a diner. A slick piece of film with golden letters that came and went as they please. And I just knew it was for me. I didn’t even think that perhaps someone had left it behind.
It said to wait at this specific spot, and I don’t know what to expect. I should be in bed; I have work tomorrow. Oh yes, work. Whatever love I once had for it has vanished under piles of paper, my patience consumed by dragged out board meetings. Now I stare at figures on a computer screen, wondering when my eyes will fall out.
Since I’ve obtained this invitation I haven’t released it, my fingers gently stroking it like a lover, hoping it will provide me a clue, a little hint of its origins. I need to sate this curiosity of mine, to understand why I have been summoned — and by whom.
If I don’t, I might just go mad.
Dry words ride on a chilled wind, wrapping itself around me tighter than my own jacket. The words tell me of a spire-topped building in the middle of the city.
My steps are swift, yet soundless. The wind trails behind me like an eager familiar, occasionally nipping at my heels. It isn’t long before I arrive at the great ebony tower, so massive it appears to stir the clouds; its surface reflects back the moon’s glow, as though undesiring to be showered in silvery light. In my mind’s eye I can see it as an obelisk rising up from Egyptian sands — and it’s no wonder it wants to hide; return to the deserts from which it commanded. I wonder what could be housed in such magnificence.
I take a moment, breathing deeply. The cold sinks to the bottom of my lungs, and each fresh intake of air becomes a pain in my side, sapping at my courage. What lies beyond those dark doors?
As though answering me with reassurance, the wind ruffles my hair, then slides the doors back. A light sparks to life, revealing the main desk and chairs lined up against the wall, like any other office building. But the shadows shift with the fluidness of an amoeba, clinging to any surface or object where the light cannot reach.
I hesitate, but it is so cold; it has gotten into my muscles and erupted into shivers. The wind beckons, pulls me, now warm and rich. And I follow, regaining my composure and that desire to know.
The elevators refuse to work; but I’m pointed toward the stairs. So I climb. I climb and climb, feeling weary but never stopping. For whenever I look back, some tenebrous thing has eaten up the steps — and growing closer.
Faster, faster. Before that tenebrous thing catches up.
The railing disappears. I tumble, and where I imagine I should have hit the steps, I go right through and wind up in a room far darker than night. A spotlight illuminates a chessboard and a lone chair right in front of it. But wasn’t there supposed to be someone else? I was certain there would be, for the invitation had to come from someone. Maybe I am to wait, and the host will arrive soon.
I take my seat at the chessboard. The board has been set, pieces arranged with inhuman precision into two straight lines on each side of the board. The pieces have been carved from some strange stone: the white pieces radiate under the light, while the black ones absorb it. I don’t touch them; I don’t even dare breathe on them.
A hand appears.
The hand seems to float, detached and boundless like driftwood in nebulous waters. Its withered fingers pick up a white pawn, and move it two squares. The hand then repeats the maneuver on the black side of the chessboard.
I gasp, nearly tumble from my seat, but I manage to keep calm; after all, I assume this is my host. Not what I was expecting, but then again, I don’t know what I was to expect in the first place.
The hand moves a white knight, then gestures at the black side, which I can only guess it wants me to join in the game. Yet when I touch a black pawn, my fingers phase right through it.
I look at my hand, it seems solid enough. But I still cannot pick up the piece. Now that I come to think of it, I can’t feel my heartbeat, either. Have I — have I died? When I fell, did I actually meet my end?
I don’t hear the voice in my ears, but rather in my bones as it rises up from the nether both below and around me. A throbbing starts in the back of my skull, as though my brain would rather reject the words said by force than to logically account for it. And I squeeze my eyes shut as tears spread down my face.
The pain subsides enough for me to open my eyes. The hand reaches into the darkness, and I watch with wide eyes as it pulls back this dimension as though it were no more than a curtain, revealing pure white that burns if stared at for too long. It’s a doorway. But to where, I would like to know.
I receive no answer — and instead I’m yanked upon, like there’s an invisible string attached to my chest and someone is tugging on the other end. I cling to the chair. It disappears along with the chessboard. The doorway looms ever closer, its harsh rays stretching over me. The light scalds like boiling water, penetrates my flesh and worms its way to my bones. My body moves on its own accord toward the doorway despite all my mental resistance. I can’t even work my mouth to scream.
White; it’s all I can see, all I can feel.
My vision clears, and I find myself walking into an office room with chairs around a large steel table, the blinds shut against approaching dawn. It seems I’ve flipped the light switch when I entered. Yes, I know this room. The cold glare reflecting off the table; the feeling that you’re slipping away while seated in a stiff chair. We have a meeting here every three months, and I give my Powerpoint on how the company is doing financially and suggestions to cut costs. How odd I couldn’t recognize the building at night.
Then again, I don’t suppose I was myself.
There’s a chessboard at one end of the table, perhaps left behind by another meeting. A funny coincidence. I sit down in front of the board, bringing back the memory of that moment with the hand, and feel around in my pocket for the invitation. Instead I find a piece of paper napkin. My brows furrow. Maybe I just wanted to believe and had deluded myself in the process. Wanted to escape.
I look around the room with a sigh. There’s only one reality for me.
I grab one of the chess pieces — my fingers phase right through it.
Story illustration by Leslie Herzfeld.
Siobhan Gallagher is a recent graduate from ASU and wannabe zombie slayer. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Eschatology, Flush Fiction anthology, and Abyss & Apex. Occasionally, she does this weird thing called ‘blogging’ at: defconcanwrite.blogspot.com
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