You arrive at the designated meeting place at the designated time, as usual. However, things are not actually “as usual”. The once familiar meeting place has changed, somehow, and you struggle to put your finger on it. You can see no tangible difference in the room. The couch looks like the designated meeting couch. The ugly striped curtains you’ve never really liked but were too polite to mention look like the same ugly striped curtains that have never been discussed. There is a very familiar cat licking the plastic covering the aged window, as it has done in the past during your previously designated meetings. It is the same scene.
And yet, it’s not.
You glance down at your watch to check the time, and notice that, too, feels wrong. The hands hover silently in the expected position. It appears you arrived two minutes early, as you do for every designated meeting. The watch confirms you are where you should be when you should be. And yet, the darkness that looms just beyond the aged barrier of the window doesn’t feel like the darkness of the morning. It doesn’t feel like it’s just about to release its grip and let the sun bathe the world in its cleansing light for another day. It feels…darker. Heavier. Older.
You tell yourself you’re being ridiculous as you take a seat on the edge of the worn sofa cushion. You feel yourself tilt slightly to the side as you perch on a thin section of padding that really should have been replaced ages ago. The cat stops licking the window long enough to shoot you a defiant look, just as she has done many mornings past. The whole scene is so very familiar that you laugh at yourself, positive that you’re in the right place at the right time.
Then, why isn’t she here yet?
Nervously, you stare at the empty seat across from you. Another quick check of your watch tells you that your designated meeting partner should be there with you by now. She should be sitting at the computer, her fingers furiously flying over the keys of her communication medium while you laugh and sigh and shake your head through your morning coffee.
You glance down at the small, marble topped table in front of you. There should already be coffee waiting. Every designated meeting starts with coffee, hot and fresh, if not a bit too strong for your particular liking. There should be coffee, sending its curls of aromatic ambrosia up into the air. There should be coffee, but there’s not.
You swallow, then obsessively glance at your watch again, as if yet another confirmation of the time could possibly change an increasingly worrying situation. The cat resumes her licking, and you have a brief flash of calm. Surely if there were anything truly wrong the cat couldn’t be so blase. You’re being silly. Your designated meeting partner is just a bit late and there’s nothing to worry about.
The cat meows.
You’ve been coming to these meetings for ages now, and you’ve never once heard the cat make a sound. Your heart picks up the pace as you force yourself to raise your eyes to the beast. She sits silent, stoic for a brief moment, unblinking and unflinching and unrelenting in her assessment before she meows again, a mighty roar in the silent, tense room. The sound sends an icy trickle of fear down your spine and you jump when the cat suddenly moves from her usual perch. She pauses briefly to look at you, whether in sympathy or disgust you can’t decide, before she saunters out of the open door you’ve never used.
It is not the door you enter for your designated meetings. It is a door that sits in the wall across from your usual sitting space. No one ever enters through it, no one ever leaves by way of that particular exit. It’s a door that on any other day stands slightly ajar in an inoffensive manner, a part of the fabric of the scenery and nothing more. Have you ever wondered what lay beyond that door? Has it ever occurred to you to have a look?
For some reason, the idea makes your palms start to sweat. You rub them briskly on the taught fabric over your knees and tell yourself to stop being so damn silly. Of course the house would have doors. Of course those doors would lead somewhere else. There is nothing unusual about doors, ajar or otherwise, and it really isn’t your business to worry about that one. It leads somewhere to another room that holds something, and neither detail is really any concern of yours. It’s not your house. They aren’t your things. They belong to your host.
Wherever she is.
You tap your finger on your knee, the dull thudding seeming to fill the small room. Your host should be here. It’s getting very late, and…well frankly, it’s starting to be rude. There. You said it. She’s being impolite and you’re starting to become offended. You have other places you could be. You have other times you could be in. You didn’t have to come here and waste a perfectly good morning. You chose to, and she doesn’t even have the decency to honor the designated meeting time when…
A sudden, shrill scream rips through the house. The terrifying sound calls back through time to ancient instincts of survival and you jump up and run to the door before you are even conscious of doing so. Your hand clutches the cold metal of the knob and the sensation jolts you back to your senses. Something is wrong. Something has happened. Was it her? Was it she, your friend, who screamed?
You turn around, trying to will your racing heart to quiet down, the rush of the blood in your ears too loud to let you think. You should call out. You should beckon to your friend. Perhaps she burnt her finger on the hot coffee? Yes. Yes, that is surely it, you tell yourself as your mind desperately tries to believe the placating lie. You open your mouth to call, to ask if she is all right, but fear has rendered you mute.
You’re being ridiculous! Stop this. Stop it right now. You are a full grown adult, and you’ve let yourself be swept along some childish fantasy of boogeymen and hobgoblins. This is stupid. Just open your mouth and call out to your friend.
“Hello?” you manage on a squeak. Your own voice is the only reply you get as it somehow echoes far longer than it should have. “Hello?” you say again, this time determined to gain an answer other than your own.
The cat bursts into the room, her hair on end and a look of terror on her face that you know matches your own. She darts behind you– you, who she normally ignores– and you can feel her shaking, the horror of whatever she’d been unfortunate enough to witness rippling off her in waves. Your trepidation is now a taste, a metallic presence that squeezes your throat and burns a warning through your body as you stare at the looming, semi-open door across the room.
You are torn, and you shouldn’t be. Your friend is clearly in peril, and your path should be clear. You should move your feet towards that door, away from this one. And yet, of its own accord, your hand flattens on the wood behind you and slowly inches up, groping for the knob that will grant you freedom.
The scream races through the house again, louder, clearer, closer. The cat presses herself into the backs of your legs, and all thoughts of your friend are forgotten as your fumbly fingers find the knob. You desperately grip the knob and turn.
You try to turn.
The knob will not budge. The cat hisses. She knows. Somehow, she knows what your mind will not accept. You spin around, turning your back to whatever horror lies behind the slightly ajar door as you grasp and struggle in desperation. Maybe if you squeeze it tighter. Maybe if you turn the other way. Maybe it’s one of those oddball knobs from the 70’s that need to be pushed in before…
The scream soundss again.
It howls with a blood-curdling determination that wrenches a sob from deep within your being. This wasn’t supposed to happen. You were supposed to sit and drink your strong coffee on the worn couch while you tried to ignore the ugly curtains in the familiar room. You were supposed to have laughs. Or, if not laughs, at least shared thoughts. You were supposed to usher in the day.
A cackle knifes through the room. Its harsh brittleness ices your veins and you try one last time to turn the unrelenting knob.
Mornin’, all, says the familiar voice in an unfamiliar tone.
You squeeze your eyes shut.
Sorry I’m late. I was, uh, preparing. Won’t you sit down and have a chat?
No. No! your mind screams. You know. Somehow you just know. If you turn, if you look, if you sit and listen, there will be no going back. There will be no returning to normal. Something has happened to your friend. You can hear it in her voice. Something has taken over and if you don’t…
The knob suddenly releases, as if you’ve actually had the ability to escape all along. You push and feel the rush of cold, dank air pull you to freedom.
Hey. Where are you going? the voice rings out.
But you are already gone, your feet pounding down the fog-slicked road as you make your escape.
You will reach your house. You will lock your door behind you. You will sit in the room under a blanket with all the lights on, waiting for the sun to finally break through the darkness. You will tell yourself it was all a bad dream. In the light of day, you will laugh at your folly. You’ll even write your friend a quick note, some paltry excuse to cover the embarrassment of your hasty retreat. You will dress for work and go about your day ignoring the memories that still tremble in fear. And as the time lengthens, the edge of the experience will dull. The bitter taste of terror will be forgotten with a lunch of tacos. By the time you punch out for the day, you’ll make plans with some friends, promise Gena you’ll bring potato salad to the party this weekend. You will be comfortable and secure in the knowledge that whatever happened that morning, you escaped.
And as soon as you close your eyes to go to sleep, you will know that you didn’t.
Thus concludes a spoooooooky Musing for Halloween Friday, October 31, 2014. I’m going to be participating in NaNoWriMo, so I really don’t know how often I’ll be blogging in November. I’m fairly sure I’ll need a different kind of writing once in awhile, and maybe even a palate-cleansing Headline Roundup. If it doesn’t play out like that, I’ll most definitely check in for Thanksgiving. Everyone have a safe and enjoyable Halloween, and I’ll talk to you soon!