This was published on Halloween of 2014 as part of a Flash Fiction series for The Magnificent Nose. For some reason, this is one of those stories I can’t get out of my head, long after writing and publication. I was never sure the ending made sense completely, but I liked the idea of the story ending on a bit of an obsessive note.
You wake up lying on the floor. You’re on your side. Blurred faces gather around you. “He has a hammer!” a woman yelled.
There’s a sharp pain in your thigh. You lean back, shoulders stiff. You slide the tool from your body.
A moment ago, you were in the hardware store. Before that, you were talking to your wife on the new phone.
It was a bright spring day. You spoke with the mailman. Sure steps picked out a new path: up the hill, down the alley, past the machine shop, toward the old church that’d been converted into art studios.
It was on the ground. You picked up the cell phone. No contacts. No texts. No accounts had been set up.
There were pictures, though. A couple in front of a water tower, kissing; a student at the nearby campus, licking the face of a statue; a woman’s naked torso; a grandmother and a baby, cheeks smashed into each other; a gaping man in front of a shiny car.
You brought it to the local carrier. You had it configured to your network.
“Finders, keepers,” as they say.
“There are, like, three lamps that match the description you gave me,” you said to her. “I’ll take some pics and send them. Tell me which one you want.”
Lamp #1 wasn’t it. Neither was Lamp #2. You stood in front of Lamp #3, goofy smile, thumbs up.
You clicked the button.
You were gone.
“Grab the hammer!” you hear a woman say. Shapes shift into forms, lines crisp and colors saturate. First, you see a man with his tongue out.
His face appears frozen in a licking motion, eyes always pointed in one direction.
There’s the woman and her baby, both with faces compressed, also frozen.
There’s the gaping man! There, the kissing couple!
They are all bent over you, a horrifying display of cheerful madness! Their faces, stuck in a moment in time: a moment they chose to preserve.
The naked woman is there; now you’re able to see her face. She’s the only one who can speak, but her body is contorted in the twisted shape she’d photographed herself in.
Struggling to your feet, it seems like there are others, but then you realize they’re reflections. The eight walls are all mirrors.
You catch a glimpse of yourself. A goofy face. Thumbs up. If you are horrified, if you are terrorized, you don’t look it. Your overwhelming dread is only made worse by your inability to recognize the feelings on your face.
You see the licking man in one of the mirrors. He grabs the hammer and runs at you from behind. You duck, but he goes for the mirror.
He slams the hammer over and over. A spiderweb of facets emanate from the impact point.
Glass falls to the floor behind Licking Man. Some of the glass flies into his mouth; a few shards just miss his wide-open eyes.
The hammer plunges through, finally. The mirror shimmers, a sheet of cascading glass. Licking Man is in shock.
The naked woman shuffles her way to the opening, bare feet over cut glass.
“Hello? HELLO!” she yells. She steps out into a hallway that seems to be furnished with carpet from a 1960’s hotel: tan, with brown and gold graphic elements. There are dark wood doors–about 20 of them–and an elevator at the far end.
Slowly, you follow her. The others accompany in silence. Gaping Man turns to look at you, and you can see his fillings.
At the elevator now, Naked Woman presses the button. “Down.”
The doors slide quietly open and you all step in.
There’s one button on the panel. It has a star. You press it. The doors slide closed, and you hear a mechanical noise above you as the elevator descends.
At the bottom, the doors slide open.
Across a wide room you see a reception desk. A woman with severe hair, glasses, and bright red lipstick is writing. She does not look up until you approach the desk.
Annoyed, she grabs a microphone to her left.
“Clean up in the lobby!” she yells in a gravel voice into the mike.
“Please help us! I can’t stay like this!” cries Naked Woman. “Yours is the only voice I’ve heard in a year.”
The Receptionist looks almost sympathetic as she shakes her head. “Oh, honey, I know. It sucks. But I’m not management. I’m just the help.” She glances over her shoulder at a sign that everyone is just now noticing. “Welcome to the Devil’s Sin Engine!” it proclaims.
“Folks like you power some of the worst human traits,” she says matter-of-factly, “If we didn’t have the narcissism you generate, well, the world’d be a much better place. Sorry.”
Just then, a mob of giant ogres arrives. You try to fight. There must be a way out. You can’t just be stuck, you think. Not like the others. You’re not like the others. You’re special. You have to be.
You strike an ogre and grab his bat. Another one swats at your head and misses. You run. There’s a fountain, and a directory. Fifty-four floors of assorted sins. You see a light. You find a door and push the handle. Everything turns white.
You wake in an ambulance. Concussion, they say. From what? you ask. We don’t know, they say. We found you on the floor.
Your home office has the regular things. A desk. A chair. A window. A printer.
Also, a corkboard, covered in pictures: A licking man. A naked woman. A gaping man. A woman and her grandchild. A kissing couple. You’d printed them all out. Across the first one is the word “Missing” and September 6th, four years ago. Your wife is concerned, but you can’t stop looking; you have to find them all.