Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
 
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From the Depths

by Sam Best



Paul Edgefield didn't believe in magic.

He didn't subscribe to any theory wilder than that of evolution, nor did he acknowledge the existence of such contrivances as ghosts, angels, demons, and bogeymen. Paul Edgefield believed in what he could see, and what he could see was a door.

It stood before him that morning just as it always had: seven feet high and four wide. Steel. Ancient white paint peeled away to reveal rusted swirls of chipped corrosion. The door always swung easily on its hinges; there weren't many things to keep track of around the old facility, but Paul made sure of that much at least. The cool aluminum handle had been replaced a half a dozen times since the building was constructed in the late '30s, and its shining chrome finish stood in stark contrast to the dilapidated door.

Just like me, Paul thought.

He had turned sixty-seven years old last month; the 20th to be exact. Why the county allowed him to stay on at the water facility was beyond him. He supposed it was probably because Michael Ford, the town's civil engineer, was going to marry his granddaughter.

"We'll have to tear the whole place down eventually," Mike had told him one day last winter. "Bridge County already has their new facility in place and with state funding secured they expect to be operating at 150% before the end of the year."

Paul didn't know about any of that. He knew he had a job, and he knew he was good at it.

It was on a Wednesday morning, mere seconds after Paul Edgefield suffered his first heart attack, that he opened the door which led to the water purification tank for the small county of Cook and saw something he couldn't explain -- something that gave him nightmares for the rest of his life.

####

Paul had been working as the chief technician at the Cook County Municipal Water Facility for twenty-five years. Every morning he would wake up at ten after five, make a pot of coffee, and read yesterday's paper. It didn't bother him getting news a day late; Paul had long ago realized that worrying about the global deterioration of his fine planet was not worth another ulcer.

After two cups of coffee and a lukewarm shower, Paul would dress in khaki slacks and a dark blue button-down shirt (neatly pressed the night before) with a weathered patch on the left sleeve that read "Cook County M.W.F."

He enjoyed his work, although he could understand why some called it boring. After he arrived at the facility each morning, Paul would relieve the night workman, Andre, and begin his rounds. Mostly these consisted of checking the acidic levels in the sole tank which acted as a filter for the public water of northeastern Cook County. Occasionally he would need to scrub graffiti from the exterior stone walls of the building, although those occurrences were few and far between ever since Andre was hired. Paul had once or twice found himself wishing he would find a spray-painted marking or two. At least then he would have something to occupy his time; something to bitch about.

The twelve hour shifts were never an issue for him. His granddaughter brought it up at least once every other week, pleading with him to let her talk Michael into hiring a third person. He didn't mind, he told her, and neither did Andre. They weren't complainers, they were workers.

The truth was they enjoyed the solitude.

Paul had once talked about it to Andre as they passed each other during a shift change. Paul stopped the tall man and asked if it ever got to him; the loneliness, the quiet. Andre had simply shrugged and replied, "Nope." And that was that.

The two men had never really had a meaningful conversation. When Andre first started working at the water facility three years ago (mostly to keep kids from ransacking the place at night), Paul showed him the ropes and walked him through the day-to-day life at the M.W.F. Andre was quiet and attentive, nodding when appropriate and asking short, efficient questions which Paul found himself eager to answer.

He was a large man, easily a foot taller than Paul (who had never been short), and thick. Not heavy, but broad across the shoulders and chest. His dark, curly hair was always cropped short and his keen blue eyes took in everything around him.

Perceptive, Paul remembered thinking during their brief training session.

Paul worked the day shift, from 6am to 6pm; Monday to Friday, closed on weekends unless there was an emergency. There never was. Andre would always show up five minutes before his shift and nod to Paul as they passed each other. Occasionally a "Mornin'" or "Howdy" was exchanged, but more often than not it was only a curt nod.

The water facility was completed in 1937 at the tail-end of Roosevelt's New Deal. A small, neatly-carved stone sat on the path leading up to the building with a small plaque on it which read:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
1934-1937
Chief Engineer M. Halsey
'I shall not fear the encroaching tide,
for Thou art with me always.'

In the years since Paul began his work, the long pathway leading to the front of the water facility had become overgrown with vegetation. Leafy bushes crowded the narrow dirt walkway; trees loomed overhead, darkening all but a few sunbeamed patches along the path.

That Wednesday morning -- the morning Paul Edgefield's heart briefly stopped -- he scooted out of his beat-up old town car and slowly closed the door. The roof of the Municipal Water Facility was barely visibly over the dense vegetation. Large plants glistened with dew in the morning sunlight. Paul let out a small sigh and put his hands at the small of his back. Grimacing, he stuck out his chest and arched his back. There were two muffled pops, and Paul relaxed his muscles. He nudged his wireframe glasses up to the bridge of his nose and walked toward the path.

Andre passed him halfway to the building and they exchanged their usual nods of acknowledgment. The night workman was carrying a dull red toolbox in one hand and a thermos in the other. Paul had to walk on the edge of the path to let the bulky man pass, and wet leaves slapped against the back of his shirt, painting it with fresh dew.

Shortly after that, Paul passed the small stone marker hidden back amongst the bushes on the left side of the path. A centipede glided silently across the top of the smooth rock.

The dirt path did not widen until the very end, and then only slightly. The vegetation ran almost up to the building itself. Three cracked steps led up to the large, rusted steel door. A faded yellow rail attempted to offer assistance up the steps, but shook furiously when leaned upon.

The exterior of the building was constructed with stones. Neatly shaped, perfectly rectangular stones (much like smaller versions of the one that held the plaque) stacked upward to meet a sturdy wooden roof. Green mildew crept out of deep cracks in the wet rocks, tracing thin, vein-like paths along the wall.

As Paul approached the steps, he grabbed for the key to the water facility's door. A small metal clip attached to his belt had a long, retractable chain neatly coiled within. The end of the thin chain that hung outside the clip had a small hook, and around this hook Paul kept the facility's master key.

He reached the top step and drew out the keychain. He seated the key in the lock, but before he turned it, pain shot up his right arm and seized his chest. His right hand closed tightly over the door handle and the keychain shot quickly back into his metal clip. He stood there as if the door handle were electrified, shaking and unable to let go. With his left hand he grabbed his chest, just over his heart.

No, he thought, Not now.

He had read about it enough (and had it beaten into his thick skull by his doctor) to know it by name: heart attack.

Paul tried to catch his breath; tried and failed. He gasped for air, making sharp, burning inhalations and found himself unable to release the captured oxygen.

I'll explode, he thought.

He made a fist with his left hand and pounded against his chest. By that time, however, the pain was beginning to subside. His right hand loosened on the handle and he placed his palm flat against the cool metal door. He touched his other hand to his forehead as if he were testing for a fever, closed his eyes, and took several long, deep breaths.

Paul was shaking all over and sweat ran down the back of his neck.

Too many cheeseburgers and not enough salads. Not his voice this time; someone from his past. I told you to take care of yourself.

He chuckled softly when he finally recognized his ex-wife's cigarette-scarred voice. She occasionally drifted into his thoughts uninvited, usually when he was trying to have a little fun; something he often told her they should have tried harder to do.

Paul shook his head and rattled her away. He was less afraid than he thought he would be. If he was to be completely honest with himself, he had expected it a lot sooner. Now that it had passed, however, he found it remarkably tolerable and decided he would make an appointment to see his doctor...but not just yet. He would see if he could go in on Saturday morning so Andre didn't have to stay late to cover for him.

Paul wiped the back of his neck with the blue handkerchief he kept folded neatly in his back pocket. He smiled to himself and thought about how angry his doctor was going to be when he found out Paul had waited to tell him about his heart attack. What the hell were you thinking? the bald practitioner would stammer. Well, doc, Paul imagined himself saying, I just didn't think it was worth the trouble.

With a small chuckle, Paul reinserted his key into the shiny aluminum lock, turned the handle, and pulled open the door. It swung easily and noiselessly on its greased hinges, and Paul stood dumbstruck at what it revealed.

Normally, a well-lit hallway ran for twenty feet or so before terminating into a wall. Just before the wall on the right was supposed to be a plain white door that opened onto a room containing the large water filtration tank.

Paul Edgefield saw no such hallway, nor did he see the white door.

What he saw was a different hallway and a different door. This hall stretched longer than twenty feet; Paul guessed about fifty, at least.

It goes clear back to the end of the building, he thought.

His mind reeled with possible explanations. Construction crew? Not enough time. Practical joke? Impossible to pull off, and who would do such a thing? Paul grasped at every reasonable scenario he could fathom, but all of them turned to jelly in his fingers.

The walls were made of concrete blocks, as were most of the walls inside the building. Instead of the standard off-white, these had been painted a deep, dark blue; almost black. A single line of fluorescent lights ran down the center of the ceiling, caged over with a thin metal mesh. The second-to-last light at the end of the hallway buzzed and flickered. The dark walls seemed to swallow up most of the light; only a thin trail of luminescence glimmered on the still surface of small puddles tracing a path down the middle of the hall.

Then there was the door.

Paul gulped as he looked at it. Foreboding wasn't a word he used or thought he even knew, but that's what this door was. A sense of unease --

No, not unease, Paul thought. Evil.

This place was evil. He wasn't sure how he knew it -- hell, he didn't even believe in such things; Paul the Cynic, Paul the Wise -- but he did.

A surge of dark, unseen energy emanated from the distant door and pulsed down the hallway.

Paul panicked. His eyes couldn't see it, but his soul could, clear as day. It was a darkness vast and terrible, reaching out for him and calling his name. It wanted him to open the door; wanted him to walk down the hallway and open the goddamn door.

It was close now. Paul could sense invisible tendrils waving in the air before him, ready to wrap him up and drag him down the hallway, screaming his lungs out as he clawed at the wet concrete floor.

A strong gust of wind pushed past him from outside, breaking his trance. Paul took a step back and nearly fell off the top step. He grabbed for the door handle, pulled the hulking metal slab toward him, and slammed it shut. He could hear the echo bounce down the long, concrete hallway within.

The sense of dread faded instantly. Paul slumped down against the door, letting his legs stick out in front of him and rest on the steps. He stayed there for a long time; eyes closed, trying not to cry.

Paul wasn't equipped to handle such things. He believed in the real.

Maybe that heart attack knocked a few marbles loose, he tried to convince himself. Just another old coot gone batty.

Deep down, however, down where the truth often lies buried under piles of self-rationalization and years of heavy doubt, Paul knew he was just as sane as ever, and that something evil was waiting inside the Cook County Municipal Water Facility.

####

He tried the door again around noon, after spending the morning watching it suspiciously from the end of the path. This time, the door swung inward to reveal a white hallway, twenty feet long, with a door on the right side near the end. Paul let out a deep sigh of relief and laughed nervously.

"Guess I was just a bit rattled," he said aloud, as if he were trying to dispel the last remnants of nagging doubt from his mind.

He walked inside and let the door close behind him. Nothing unusual happened. After several more moments of stillness, Paul said "Bah!" and walked down to the end of the hall. He pounded against the solid concrete wall with his fists.

"Hellooooo!" he cried, his voice echoing in the hall. "Anybody home? Bah." He shook his head, upset with himself for his earlier foolishness, and opened the white door.

Within the room lay familiarity, and Paul soon found himself engrossed in his day's work. Slowly and without protest, the memory of the morning's excitement began to fade. It lingered only as an amusing anecdote, one that he might relay to Andre on the way out; something they could both laugh about.

A large water tank sat in the middle of the spacious room. Its metal-plated sides were grey, with traces of rust running along its bolted seams. A large, plexiglass window was mounted into one side, but all it ever revealed was a swimming darkness. The tank was fifteen feet deep. One large pipe ran into the top of it, occasionally replenishing the tank's supply with fresh spring water from a nearby aquifer. Near the bottom, a smaller tube ran out and across the room to a series of pipes and machinery which constituted the bulk of the filtration process. A large, rectangular enclosure sat at the base of the tank and housed the processing filter; the piece of machinery responsible for taking in spring water and sifting out unwanted debris.

Paul walked to the processing filter and heard it churning loudly as it worked. He glanced through the small tank window but saw nothing but dark water, as always. A small step ladder ran up the side of the tank, and Paul climbed this as agilely as a cat. He leaned over the edge and dipped a small container into the icy water. He covered the container, shook it as he climbed down the ladder, and checked its chemical levels. After a satisfactory nod, Paul dumped the container over a drain in the floor and walked away to check the rest of the equipment.

####

Andre showed up ten minutes early, so Paul didn't feel bad about stopping him and relaying the story of his heart attack and its ensuing mind-bending side effects.

The large man watched him the whole time, listening intently and giving a small nod here and there. He was especially interested in Paul's description of what he described as "an evil invisible octopus, reaching out from the pits of hell". Paul laughed and shook his head, expecting Andre to share the humor in his foolish story. The night worker only grunted and looked toward the stone building with his intense blue eyes. Paul grew uncomfortable with the silence and excused himself for the day.

As he walked back to his car, he turned and looked behind him one last time. This time Andre was looking down at the small plaque just off the path. The big man silently moved his lips while he read the words on the plaque, then slowly raised his head to look at the building.

Paul turned a corner and Andre disappeared behind a line of trees and brush.

####

The next morning, Paul had almost completely forgotten about the previous day's woes. He had even called Doc and scheduled an appointment for Saturday at 10 o'clock.

"Normally he doesn't see anyone on the weekends," the receptionist had said between what Paul imagined were the tightest lips in the business. "But this sounds serious, and, well, since you won't come in on a weekday..."

"Thanks a lot," Paul said with a smile, and hung up the phone.

He felt good. He felt damn good. So good that after his two cups of coffee and his room-temperature shower, Paul stopped at a doughnut shop on his way to the water facility and polished off two glazed regulars and a chocolate éclair.

Take that, you bastard, he said to his heart.

He was just finishing wiping chocolate icing from the corners of his mouth when he pulled his car into the space beside Andre's. The large man was sitting in his car, still as a statue and looking down at the floorboard.

Something about it knocked Paul back to yesterday morning. The sense of dread he had so successfully buried came flooding back in one quick moment of terror. His heart skipped a beat and threatened to skip the next fifty. Paul thumped his chest with a fist and caught his breath.

Thup-thup, thup-thup.

His heart kicked back to normal. Paul slowly got out of his car and walked over to Andre's open driver-side window. The man was staring down at his hands, which were laying palm-up in his lap. There were orange and brown streaks of rust on each; his left also had a small cut that was caked with dirt.

"Hey, Andre?" Paul didn't really know what else to say. The two men didn't know each other on a personal level, and Paul had always done the talking. "You all right?"

Andre's head jerked back a little, snapping him from whatever daydream he was trapped within. His quick intake of breath made Paul realize that he hadn't actually been breathing. He looked tired; impossibly fatigued, as if he hadn't slept in a month. Andre cleared his throat and Paul thought he was going to say something. Instead, he turned his key in the ignition and popped the car into drive.

Paul took a step back from the car window as Andre drove slowly out of the small parking lot and onto the street. Paul walked back around to his own car and took the keys from the ignition. He grabbed his brown bag for lunch and his small yellow thermos and walked down the path toward the facility.

He was going over things in his head, trying to figure out what could possibly make Andre act in such a way (and trying his best to ignore the obvious answer), when he stopped dead in his tracks before the small stone plaque. The first three lines were the same as always: U.S Army Corps of Engineers blah blah blah. The last two lines, however -- the quote from an unknown author -- had changed:

'I shall fear the encroaching tide,
for I am alone and forgotten.'

Paul shivered and rubbed his eyes. He opened them wide and looked back at the plaque: 'for I am alone and forgotten.' He walked quickly away, toward the building. If those damn kids were back, this time they'd gone too far. Graffiti was one thing, but to deface -- practically destroy -- what Paul considered to be a national monument meant they had another thing coming. He would go to Michael Ford first thing tomorrow, and if he wouldn't listen, then he would go to the public council. Somebody had to be paying attention out there, somebody had to --

Paul stopped. He was standing in front of the building, and on the right side of the top step was a small pool of blood. It was dark and nearly dried up, but there was no doubt that it was blood. The door handle was smudged with it, and a small streak crossed the door in the middle.

He stood there for a long time looking at the small puddle of red. Paul's mind almost shut down right there, as his heart had done the previous morning (Paul, meet Brick Wall. Brick Wall, this is Paul). It took him the better part of three minutes before he set his jaw, hiked up his belt, and opened the door.

White hall, white door; no shadow, no evil. Paul let out a heavy sigh and walked into the building, letting the door slam shut behind him.

####

Andre seemed back to his normal self that evening, offering up a small smile as the two men passed each other on the path. Paul nodded politely and drove home to cook up his frozen TV dinner. Mac and cheese was his favorite, but tonight it was meatloaf. Still not bad, but it was no Velveeta dish. He watched fifteen minutes of news (woman hit by car; man embezzles millions; a dog that sings), put on his pajamas, and fell asleep less than a minute after his head hit the pillow.

Paul skipped the doughnuts on the way to work the next day, this time settling for a brown-spotted banana he had at home. He pulled into his parking space and tossed the banana peel into a small trashcan at the end of the path. Andre was walking toward him.

The night worker had his head tilted down, but Paul could see huge, dark circles under his eyes. Andre's normally tame hair was matted and in utter disarray, sticking out in every direction. His eyes were completely bloodshot. Andre had a bloody rag wrapped around his left hand, and he seemed wet. Paul couldn't explain it, but the man's skin looked damp somehow. He wasn't dripping, but even his clothes had that heavy, dark look of someone who had recently climbed out of a pool and was waiting for the sun to dry him off. His wrinkled skin made it look as if he had been soaking in water for hours; it sagged on his face and appeared as if it would slide right off his bones and hit the ground with a wet SHLAP.

Then Paul smelled him. As Andre drew nearer, a dank aroma of dirt and mold smacked Paul in the face. It was an ancient smell, and it flooded his mind with images of caverns deep beneath the earth's crust; wet, dripping places filled only with mirror-pools and darkness.

"Jesus," Paul said as the man walked by. "Jesus, Andre, what's the matter?" Andre stopped and turned to look at him.

Paul saw rage in his eyes. Rage and fear. Andre's right hand was clenching and unclenching rapidly and he looked as if he might chew through his bottom lip. He looked at Paul for a moment, and Paul thought he might actually ask for help. Then, after a moment longer, Andre turned and walked away.

Paul stared after him and was about to follow before he heard the sound of Andre's car start up and peel out of the parking lot. Another car honked its horn and Paul heard it squeal out of Andre's way.

"Jesus," was all Paul could say.

He turned and found himself looking at the stone plaque on the ground. It was changed yet again:

'Fear me, for you are alone.'

####

There was even more blood on the facility door. Dark red streaks crossed in a thick X right in the middle. Paul could see where Andre's fingers had left individual streaks as the big man rubbed his hands across the metal surface. Sitting on the bottom step was Andre's toolbox, and inside was a bloodied flat-head screwdriver. Paul picked it up and looked at in disbelief, then at the door.

What the hell is going on here? he wondered, and for the first time in his life, Paul Edgefield discovered that he actually wanted to know the answer.

It was easy to dismiss things you only heard about, or read about, or saw on the television. What wasn't so difficult, Paul decided, was tossing those things aside when you actually came face to face with them.

He was not adventurous, nor was he especially brave. Despite not being blessed with either of these coveted aspects, Paul dropped Andre's screwdriver back into the toolbox, walked up to the door, pulled out his retractable keychain, and unlocked the handle. As he released his keychain, it caught on the skin between his thumb and forefinger. Two links in the small chain pinched together and twisted a tiny piece of flesh off his hand. Paul yelped and brought his hand up to his mouth instinctively, sucking on the split web of skin.

He opened the door with his other hand as he tasted blood, and saw before him the dark hallway he had tried so hard to forget. He did not wait this time, however, and closed the door quickly. He put his back against it and breathed heavily, feeling his heart beat faster than a marathon runner's in the final moments of a race.

He took his hand out of his mouth to look at the wound. A small bead of blood ballooned up instantly, and it stung like hell --

Pain.

The voice came from nowhere, only this time it was his own. He looked at his hand, then at the door, then back to his hand.

His heart attack; such pain as he had never known. Opening the door right after; the keychain; Andre's screwdriver.

Andre.

The guy had figured it out sooner than Paul. Much sooner; probably the same night Paul told him the story.

He opened the door. White hall; white door. Paul closed it tight. What he did next surprised him. He pulled out the length of his keychain and placed the sharp side of the key between his thumb and forefinger. He settled one of the key's grooves into the small crater of blood and drew it quickly across, sawing down and slicing open his flesh.

He bit back a cry of pain and squeezed his eyes shut. Before the hurt subsided, he grabbed the handle, pushed in the door, and stepped inside.

####

Paul opened his eyes.

All but two of the fluorescent lights were out. The one closest to Paul still burned strong against the darkness, and the flickering light at the end of the hall continued flashing in its epileptic throes. The space between the two lights was black as pitch.

He took a step forward.

If the other presence had been there -- if he had felt anything like what he had experienced the first time he opened the door -- Paul would have tucked tail and run. The place felt empty somehow, almost like it had already found what it wanted and was sleeping peacefully.

He crept along as quietly as he could. His shoes made little splashing noises in the shallow puddles on the floor. He walked out of the first light and into shadow. His breathing was getting heavier and the hallway was growing colder. As Paul stepped into the flickering light near the end of the hallway, he could see his breath fogging briefly in the chilled air.

The door at the end of the hall was swirling with a blackness that suggested infinity, and it terrified Paul to his core. He wanted to simultaneously reach out to touch it and run screaming back the way he had come. As he was about to make up his mind, the polished handle clicked and the door swung open on its own. Beyond was another dark hallway, much colder than the first.

Within, wrought iron stairs curved to the right and up at a steep angle.

He looked behind him, down the impossibly long hallway to the door at the other end. The door was --

It was gone!

Paul started back in horror, his mind reeling from panic. He got a few steps down the hall before something wrapped around his waist and dragged him into the second room. His feet scraped along the rough concrete floor. He looked down at the pressure around his waist but could see no assailant; when he grasped at the invisible tentacle he felt nothing but air. Paul let out a shrill scream and tried to call for someone -- anyone -- but all he could manage was a series of piercing yelps.

The door slammed shut, leaving him alone in the darkness.

####

As the echo from the door faded, Paul's eyes slowly grew accustomed to the shadow. He was standing in a short hallway, no longer than five feet. Dark iron stairs led up and quickly to the right. He turned around to try the door he had just walked through but found that it had disappeared, just like the one in the first hallway. He kicked the blank wall and cursed, more at himself than anything else.

Stupidity often landed people in dangerous situations, and Paul Edgefield had won himself a first-place, landslide-victory, blue-ribbon idiocy award. Now on top of everything else, he had a sore foot.

Well, there's nothin' else for it, he thought, and walked to the stairs.

The railing was too cold to touch and felt as if it might take a bit of his palm with it if he held on too long. Instead, he ascended the stairs one at a time, slowly and surely. They climbed at a steep angle and always to the right. After a while, the angle flattened out and the stairs turned into a long iron walkway. The floor was latticed so that Paul could look down through it, but he could see nothing save for a swirling, fog-like blackness. The edges of the walkway were driven straight into the walls, and Paul had a brief bout with vertigo before closing his eyes and forcing himself forward.

The walkway ended against a blank wall. Paul turned to see a small door on his right.

Any more damned doors and I'll shoot myself, he thought.

This one had a loop of iron as its handle, and was made of wood instead of metal. Thick bands of painted iron kept the heavy planks -- Paul guessed it was oak -- in place. He grasped the iron loop and pushed the door open.

Instead of another hallway, this door led out onto a small iron platform suspended thirty feet above the floor of the building's main room and directly over the water filtration tank. Paul walked toward the railing and heard a click behind him. He was not surprised to be staring at a blank wall exactly where the small door used to be.

Several things were trying to work themselves out in Paul's mind, the greatest of which was how in the hell he worked at the facility for twenty-five years without noticing this platform. The irrational part of his mind -- the one that had been growing louder as the day wore on -- told him that it was simply because the platform wasn't there; had never been there, in fact, until today.

Paul looked down into the tank.

It was deep; much too deep. Usually Paul could glimpse the bottom even as he stood on the small ladder next to the tank. Now, however, it seemed to drop straight down into the earth. The water at the surface was as still as a lake at midnight, and a soft green glow faded down into blackness. Again Paul found his mind transported to those deep places of the earth; places of rock, crystal, and emptiness.

He wanted to jump.

Paul wanted to dangle his legs over the railing of the platform and jump. The desire was strong, but this time it seemed to be coming from deep within himself. There was no unseen force trying to grab for him; no "octopus from hell" to wrap its invisible tentacles around his waist and drag him into the depths of the earth.

He just wanted to jump, that's all. And he would.

Paul grabbed the railing and swung over one leg, then the other. He turned himself around so that his back was to the platform. He grabbed onto the railing with each hand and fully extended his arms behind him so that he hung out over the tank.

Something in depths moved.

A dark shape swirled in the darkness far below. Paul thought he caught a glimpse of a glowing yellow eye before the shape vanished back into the murk.

A shiver ran through him, one that wracked his body and forced him back to reality. Paul looked down at the tank, then at his own hands in shock. What the hell am I doing? He quickly scrambled back over the railing and started looking for a way out.

There was a service ladder running up the length of the wall to the roof, but it was at least five feet away from the edge of Paul's platform. The door through which he had come was of course still missing, and the concrete floor was thirty feet below.

Nothin' else for it.

Paul once again climbed over the edge of the railing, reached out for the service ladder, and jumped.

####

He sat in his car, windows down, engine off.

He wasn't exactly sure what he was going to tell Andre, but he knew he had to tell him something. Paul himself was done, that much was certain. He had already used his cell phone to call Michael and briefly but politely tell him that he would be seeking employment elsewhere, probably after a nice long vacation; someplace warm and sunny, he said.

Paul leaned forward and gingerly touched a deep gash above his right knee. He had landed against the service ladder quite cruelly, and the bounce from his initial impact almost sent him tumbling head over heels to the ground. His knee smacked against the ladder and his hands found purchase. Paul hung there for several long moments, expecting the ladder to disappear from under him.

It never did, and after he climbed down he was happy to find that the door on the side of the tank room led out to the white hallway and then on to the outside world. He didn't stop at the stone plaque on his way down the path, but looked at it long enough in passing to see that it was now completely blank; just a small brown square set into a neatly-cut stone.

So he sat in his car, bloodied knee, confused as hell, and waited for Andre.

The other worker pulled into the parking lot at 5:58pm, and Paul struggled out of his own car as Andre parked. His face was hidden in the shadow of the setting sun, but Paul could tell he was worse.

When Andre stepped out of his car, Paul realized how true this was. The large man's skin was sagging more than before, and he seemed to be leaking water from his eyes, mouth, ears, and nose. His shoes sloshed with clear liquid as he trudged to the path and toward the building. He had a knife in his hand and his eyes were dead-set on the stone building before him.

"Don't!" Paul cried at last. He ran over to Andre. "Andre, don't go back in there! Something's in the tank, something awful." He searched the man's face for any sign of recognition but found none.

Andre continued his march.

"You've already been in there, haven't you? What's down there, Andre, what did you see?" Paul found himself in a frenzy, talking much too quickly and pulling at Andre's shirt as he begged the man to reveal the secret of the tank.

The large man stopped and slowly turned to look at Paul. His eyes swam in pools of dark water, and the ground at his feet was quickly turning to a sandy pool.

Andre tried to speak -- tried and failed. He opened his mouth and water poured out as if from a pitcher. It fell out onto the ground and splashed across Paul's slacks. It reeked of gritty stone and cold algae. Andre looked at Paul one last time, his murky eyes somehow alive with fear and wonder, then turned and walked toward the building.

"Andre, no! No!" Paul cried, but the man wasn't listening. Andre reached the front steps and had to use his hands to lift his soggy legs up onto each one. When he was at the top, he sliced open the underside of his left forearm and threw the knife aside. Water shot out of the wound in a thick stream and Andre tried to scream. Instead he gurgled; a choking, gasping sound, and let the water from his wound coat the door. It darkened the white paint and diluted the dried blood. The stream of water from his arm slowed to a trickle, and Andre pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the door. Before Paul could yell at him to stop, Andre stepped into the dark hallway and the door closed behind him with a soft click.

The End


© 2012 Sam Best

Bio: Sam grew up in Merritt Island, FL, one mile from the gates of the Kennedy Space Center. The proximity to such a massive nexus of imagination helped fuel his creative fires and was one of a thousand influences on his becoming a novelist. (See the website link below for more about his work.) He currently lives near San Diego with his wife.

E-mail: Sam Best

Website: Sam Best - Speculative Fiction Author

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