The lock turned on the wooden door as the rain began to fade. A dull roar reduced to a whisper. Stepping away, he tried to control his heart’s violent thumping against his ribs, aching with each breath. The door pushed open with horrifying slowness, opened just wide enough for the man’s words to come into the room.
“Maintenance? Maintenance. Sorry for coming so early but… uhhh… the water is out. Still… uh… trying to find the problem” He trailed off awkwardly. “Are you awake, mister?” The door opened a bit wider so that the top of his head could poke in and look at Robert, who had just finished rumpling the bed to make it seem slept in. Like a bed should be when one has paid for a hotel stay.
“Yes, I’m awake now” Robert dourly spat at the handyman. Exhaustion had whittled away at his typically affable demeanor, exposing the irritable asshole that lives within us all. “Hurry with whatever you need to do.” The man paused in the doorway after sliding in, looking around the room sleepily. Robert watched this with vexation and repeated: “Hurry.”
“Fine, fine, jeez. Sorry. I’m still half in bed. I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can, buddy.”
Robert was filled with a subtle fear. However, the bile of irritability was thick in the sea of his emotions and he could not help but think:
I’m not your God-damned “buddy”, guy.
Taking his tool kit along with a new found irritability that Robert gave him, the handyman moved past Robert’s grim face and crossed arms without a glance. Getting into the bathroom, he had a passing thought about how bad moods spread quicker than the common cold. Facing away, Robert looked through a crack in the curtains at sunlight finding its way into a new day. Warmth. A distinct pleasure spread into Robert’s bones. But it did not last. Relief was fleeting, as that familiar tingle of ice wormed into his body. He knew he could not stay here with the man so close by. It was only a matter of time until the shadows grew a horrible cloud in the space around the stranger, an impossible geometry of spiraling ink that spread its tendrils around whomever it needed to use to get to Robert. The word’s of his old friend, who had been consumed by a skillful demon right before his eyes without him even noticing, crept into his thoughts again.
“We are everywhere.”
Robert James felt his stomach writhe hungrily within his gut, searching for food that wasn’t there. He decided to leave without a word to the man who’s face he had already forgotten. Besides, the room seemed like it was growing colder already. Darker, even. Jingling on the end table, the room key barely came to a rest when the door slammed satisfyingly shut behind Robert and he walked out into the breezeway. The ground was slick with a rain that now was being pushed away by the warm eastern zephyr of the rising sun.
He stood for a moment looking at the parking lot, as steam began to twist off of the gray asphalt, curling between a few cars that braved the storm from the night before. One in particular caught his eye, a dark blue sedan with a white top. and white-walled tires. A real looker of a vehicle. Robert gave a long and admiring gaze at that car, as the sun almost made it glow with an aura. One imperfection caught his eye though. A cluster of thin parallel lines ran along the length of the car; a light color against the dark blue. Like scratches in the paint. From claws of onyx.
His stomach groaned again and he turned to the diner, which was surprisingly open at this early hour. Eggs and coffee and bacon wafted into the warming air, and Robert walked in again to see the same bubbly brunette with the shining smile.
“Good mornin’ mister! What can we get for you?”
“Cupocoffee” Robert mumbled, with a weak smile as he looked around him at the counter. Mostly clean, a few big stains that surely had been scrubbed hundreds of times to no avail. The main faded hue was a sad-looking tan. It was a shame, Robert mused, when a business either doesn’t care or can’t afford to keep up appearances. Glancing at the mostly empty restaurant, his eyes found a sight when they came upon an aged man with a shock of white hair on his head and a long white beard; An over-sized, worn and torn brown jacket covered his broad body. Blue eyes staring right at him. Robert sat up with a start as he stared back at the frozen eyes staring ice through him. Into him. A blink and the man had vanished.
Robert whipped his head around at the waitress, who was grabbing creamer from underneath the counter. She obviously didn’t see what happened, and he asked:
“MISS! Who was the man sitting in the corner over there, just a moment ago?!” She stood up quickly in surprise and looked at Robert’s wild eyes and tired face.
“Man? Which man?” She pondered, putting a finger to her chin and looking around the place. “Him?” Robert turned to look at a different man, a much younger one who was clean shaven and was actually Jim from the repair shop, face down gobbling up a plate of eggs and hash browns with a ridiculous amount of ketchup. It was as if he actually added hash browns to a plate of ketchup, instead of the converse. Strange. Robert turned and shook his head, sipping carefully the cupocoffee that the nice young lady gave him. She apologized for her memory and shrugged, going about her duties. He gulped the hot liquid down painfully, a fire brewing in an empty stomach, and he realized he should eat something too.
“Miss, sorry, but could I also have a bagel with cream cheese?” He said sheepishly. Jim had paid and waved as he stood to leave. The waitress went to prepare the modest breakfast and Jim walked over.
“Hey, R.J.! Should have gotten the eggs scrambled with onions and peppers! Real good here. Anyway, that starter of yours should be coming any time now, them boys out west get up earlier than me!” He gave Robert a pat on the back, and they smiled at each other.
“Great! Thanks again for helping me out, Jim. I’ll be around here somewhere, maybe I’ll find a nice spot in the shade to slee — er — sit in… for a while.” Robert’s eyes were still heavier than anything he had ever lifted before. Despite the coffee. It takes a while to kick in, really. A bagel magically appeared before Robert, along with a smiling waitress telling him to enjoy it. It quickly began to vanish as Jim disappeared out the door and into the waiting day. It was going to be a big one for Robert, and one filled with mystery. The darkness waited for him out there, in the hot sunlight.
It hid between molecules within the air, hoping to snare him around the throat and whisk him into itself. Pushing the empty plate away and putting money on the counter, Robert thought of the darkness as a horrible, amorphous mass of squirming serpentine shadows, red eyes appearing and disappearing all over the quivering horror. It grew, and pulsed. The air swirled colder inside the diner, the curls of the young woman’s hair suddenly appeared darker under the fluorescent light that flickered above. She was wiping the counter, and Robert stood to leave with his eyes locked on her as she suddenly froze during her cleaning rhythm. He whirled around to leave, thinking that he saw her eyes flick up at him as he turned. The door was heavy as he pushed his way out, and he turned to his right walking along the side of the restaurant. As he walked past the last booth that was by the window, he turned to look in at a single coffee cup resting on a barren table. The place where that strange man sat, eyes blazing cold fire into Robert’s mind. Some strange sense of… urgency? Staring from the corner of his eye was a new gaze. He looked over his shoulder as he walked away, the waitress stoically stared after him as Robert fled from her sight.
He trotted a fair ways behind the diner, the dirt giving way to taller grass and the trees stretching to the sky. The shade was still a bit wet from the night before, but not as hot as the sunlight.
This will be a good place to wait.
The waitress never emerged from the restaurant. The imagination plays terrible tricks on a tired mind. But the coffee cup… That stood out to Robert. The bubbly young lady said that she did not remember, but how do you forget someone as distinct-looking as he was? And how did he vanish? He thought hard about what he saw, and he rushed back into the restaurant. There was a napkin there, by the mug. Something was written on it. His feet flew over the ground and into the diner again, breathing hard he moved to the booth where the waitress was finishing cleaning up. The napkin was on the tray behind her, resting on a table while she worked. He took it and read it to himself. The short chortle of disbelief came from his mouth, and he crumpled it up and threw it back down.
“Dream to escape.”
Tell me something I don’t know. Waste of — wait.
The man had vanished into thin air like demons had. And had an obvious interest in him. Who was this man? He left something behind – a message – to reach out to Robert James… What could this mean? Why did he stare so coldly, with such ice? Robert shivered as the shade of the trees fell over him once again. He stood with his back to one, and crossing his arms he looked at Jim’s place. This would be a good place to wait. Clouds slowly wafted overhead as the sun continued its march higher into the blue sky, a grand illusion.
It wasn’t long before a truck rumbled into the parking lot of Jim’s. Robert stared as the dust cloud that once trailed behind the hauler now filled the air around it coming to a rest. One man hopped out of the large truck while the other stayed inside with it idling. Jim came out to meet them, a handshake and a smile produced a signature on a clipboard and a wave goodbye. A sequence of actions as old as commerce. Starting slowly, the giant truck lurched forward and gained speed away from this glimpse of a town. Jim was unaware that Robert stared from afar as he rolled his tool box out by Robert’s new truck. The starter is easy enough to replace, since he was done faster than Robert expected. 30 more minutes in the shade alone was almost therapeutic to him; the air idling between trees and leaves was clean tasting and invigorated his spirits. The long walk across the grass made him think of childhood gambits as a knight, cardboard shield poised to defend. His eyes were achingly tired and Robert had to consciously focus on holding them open sometimes, but he now felt a kindling of small fire within his soul. He was this much closer to his wife, and he knew that he had no idea how to protect her, but maybe he could keep her safe somehow. Move her around from town to town, give her a bit of excitement. He stifled a chuckle and began to walk inside of Jim’s cluttered office, greasy footprints lining the concrete floor.
“Hey! Thanks again, Jim.” Robert shook Jim’s hand as he rose to greet him.
“No problem at all, R.J.! Be safe out there!”
“You too!” The door shut behind Robert and he nearly sprinted to the black truck. It was pretty clean on the inside, despite some usual wear and tear. The engine started and he rolled out back onto the road, pulling the motor for all that it was worth. A new exhilaration found its way into his body, forcing a smile of clenched teeth to appear. The highway stretched itself before him again, and he flew down it toward his home, to his great love. He had to get back and he knew he would finally be where he belonged. To the woman who – for whatever strange reason – accepted him. Loved him. Believed in him and supported him for no reason other than love. He could never repay her for all the support she gave. He had once found her platitudes about finding a new job obnoxious and annoying, but he knew she was doing all she could to support him through his overwhelming depression. Love. They say it makes the world go around, and that may be true. But love undoubtedly was the reason for Robert’s life.
Someone once said that we live life in the pursuit of beauty, and all else is just a form of waiting. Robert knew all those years ago, when he fell in love with her, that he did not have to wait ever again. Not as long as she was there by his side. The fire burned strong in his soul again, like it did when he was a younger man under the stars on a beach at night. The truck barreled down the road, passing cars fast and pulling the world underneath it. A billboard stretched out on the right up ahead, and Robert stared with disbelief. Alone, framed by a piercing clean white, were black letters that read:
Robert, go to sleep.
The cycle must continue.
Fury forced the truck faster down the road, and soon he passed another billboard, reading:
We will find you.
His chest was burning with tingles of love that quickly caved to the overwhelming fear. A fear that comes from facing a universe filled with a vile darkness permeating the physical world with its evil will. A darkness that defies logic and reason, a darkness with intelligence. A darkness that has hunted Robert. Stalked him. Anger brewed again. The anger of being toyed with by something beyond your control. Imagine being an ant that is being fried by the magnifying glass of a horned demon-child with the shadowy cheshire smile of madness. A siren came up from behind him along with the red and blue flashes of a police officer. He was being pulled over, and looking in the rear-view mirror he saw red eyes and fangs that stretched over darkness. A blue hat rested on its head. A blink and a glance brought a normal human into frame, motioning to him to pull over. Robert’s hands gripped the wheel and he squeezed them as hard as he could, knuckles growing whiter with each passing moment.