Everything is different now.
Everything has changed.
The first time I opened one of those doors of Ostium to another world; I guess it was the second door technically, I talked about how I stood on a metaphorical precipice brimming with uncertainty for what was on the other side. Well, now I can safely say I have crossed that precipice and made it to the other side.
Safely? I don’t think I would say that.
For the better or the worse? I guess that’s still to be decided.
I’ve learned a lot.
I’ve discovered much.
I’ve met someone. Someone I now care greatly for. Deeply for. Jesus . . . I think I might be falling in love with her . . . In a way.
But I’ve also lost. Lost a lot. One might say everything.
But I’m recording this from the other side. The other side of everything. The other side of that precipice. So I’m alive. I have my health, I think. And I have someone.
I’m changed now.
I’m different . . . Now.
If you were born in California and are not under the age of ten, or have lived here at least a decade or more, chances are you’ve experienced an earthquake in some form. When people hear the word earthquake, their mind automatically jumps to the kind that causes extreme devastation: buildings toppling like ninepins; your house breaking in half; everything hanging on the walls and sitting on shelves coming down and pelting you to death. But earthquakes vary greatly by where they occur and it’s all about where the epicenter is located. If it’s pretty far away, people in town may feel the rumbling and some things may fall over. If that epicenter is under a city then watch the fuck out. I went through that. It was the worst moment of my life. Actually, that’s not true. It was the scariest moment of my life. I was at school. They told us to get under our desks. The worst moment was later. When I found out about my parents.
But while my family and I were down in LA – this was a few days before we went Catalina – we also spent a day at Disneyland, because when you’re down there, in the area, you’ve got to go. That night we had a light earthquake. A temblor I think they call it. We were staying at a hotel in Long Beach. It was actually kind of nice. Relaxing in a way. My mom gently woke me to let me know what was going on and that everything was okay. We were on the second floor and the building was just softly moving from side to side. Just a few inches. I think I might’ve fallen asleep before it was even over.
The earthquake happening in Ostium right now is kind of in between the two I’ve personally experienced.
The rumbling comes and stays, then there’s shaking. I jog over to a wall, trying to stay stable on my feet and Monica soon joins me. She’s watching my every move. Her eyes seem a little startled, telling me she isn’t quite used to earthquakes. But then whoever is?
“I wonder if this is the ‘Big One’” I yell at her. She just looks at me, clearly with no clue what I’m talking about. Since the rumbling and shaking is still going on she’s getting more and more agitated, like when you’re on a flight in turbulence and you hate being thirty thousand feet up and you’re just willing and praying for the natural elements to stop shaking this fragile tin can in the sky, and it just keeps getting worse.
Going back to the people who’ve been in California awhile: you know about the San Andreas Fault – that’s the one running pretty much straight down the middle of the state – has been overdue for a considerable earthquake for decades. And I’m starting to think this might just be it.
And with that thought it all starts to lighten up. The shaking lessons until it’s all but gone, and the rumbling steadily subsides until there’s nothing but silence after. You could call it deafening, but I think that’s kind of a stupid saying. However, my ears are ringing.
Monica starts to move and I tell her to give it five minutes, in case of any aftershocks. I proceed to give her a mini-spiel on the “Big One” and the San Andreas Fault, and how that was a much lesser earthquake, but still a decent one. She seems a little shocked by my reference to it being decent, but I just act nonchalant and go with it.
The good news is we’re unscathed. The former residents of Ostium weren’t big on any sort of wall hanging decoration, so there’s nothing that could’ve fallen and hit us. But I know the big question is how does it look outside?
“Follow me,” I tell Monica, aware she’s still getting herself together.
The door creaks a little, but otherwise opens fine. I step outside and my first impression is everything pretty much looks the same. The roads aren’t paved, just a light gravel covering them, and they look fine. All the buildings appear straight and standing that I can see. I make a slow turn, looking for anything out of place. As I face north I see a slowly settling considerable cloud of dirt and dust.
My brain starts thinking, and then all the blood, fluid and calm drains from my face and I start to get dizzy.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” I start saying over and over, as I spin around, then off to the side to avoid running smack into Monica. I’m back in the clock tower looking at the map table, at where that new and menacing looking crack is.
If my calculations are correct . . .
I bring up that mental infrared map of Ostium and I see a red line running across Ostium matching what I saw on the map table.
I’m back out the door again and Monica is looking at me like I’ve totally lost my fucking mind.
I might well have. We’ll just have to see.
“Just follow me!” I yell at her and start running towards that cloud that is getting clearer and more transparent.
It doesn’t take me too long to get there. Monica is a few seconds behind. I think on the way over she might’ve cottoned on to what was going through my head. The dust cloud is all but gone by this point.
I’ve stopped not because I’m at the edge of the cloud, but because if I were to take another step I would plunge to my death. Before us is a big crack running through Ostium, just like on the map table. That thing really is literal.
I look to the east and in the hazy distance can see the wall running south, marking the edge of Ostium. The crack goes straight up to it and just seems to stop. There’s no apparent crack or damage to the wall that I can see from here. I look west and discover the same thing.
The yawning crack is about ten feet across. We could probably jump it, but it would be risky. You’d need a good running start. I look down, the dust cloud now gone, and see it goes down far. Twenty feet at least. You could jump it, if you felt like breaking a leg or two wasn’t that big of a deal. I realize we’re going to have to come up with some way to get down there, because somewhere below is our next door with the sideways eight on it. Infinity. Whatever that might mean.
Monica is by my side now, looking just as daunted at the prospect of what we need to do.
I turn to her and feel a smile form on my face.
“Got any rope?”
We’re back at the clock tower, having some chow and making sure our thinking caps are on straight. Getting down to the bottom of that crack is not going to be easy. We need a decent length of rope or something that can be used to let us get to the bottom without cracking our skulls open. It has occurred to me that there was nothing nearby to which said special rope could be attached to, but that’s a big step two. Right now, all our focus is on step one: find a long, thin, strong thing.
I know I’ve looked around inside the clock tower already, and Monica tells me she’s checked it out too, but we’re going to check again, because we can’t really do anything without a safe way of getting down there. We do have a brief discussion going over the possibilities and merits of going through some previous Ostium doors to see if we can locate some rope, and yes we did both go back to Mars without any real problems, but it just doesn’t seem like Ostium would let us do it that way. If you catch my drift. Of course, some time from now when we’re all out of options, this might change. But for now, my gut’s on finding something in here.
I don’t know why. I just do. Sort of.
Life finds a way . . .
Okay, I’m really sorry about that. That was terrible.
There aren’t that many rooms in the clock tower, not many options. So it doesn’t take us long to find the secret door. After going from top to bottom in the kitchen and then the bathroom, as those are the two rooms with cabinets and actual space to hide a useful rope, we start on the bedroom, going through our own personal belongings, then just looking around the small room.
That’s when Monica says: “Holy shit! How did I never think of this before? How did you never think of this before?”
“What?” I say.
She grabs the bed and roughly drags it out of the way. It makes a nice squealing/grating sound. I step back quickly to give her room.
Beneath the bed is a door in the floor. On the door is the infinity symbol.
“No. Fucking. Way. Has that been here all along?”
“How the fuck would I know. I’m pretty sure if Steve had seen a door in the floor he would’ve mentioned it.”
“Yeah, you’re right. So when did it show up?”
“It could’ve been whenever. When Steve was here. When I was here. When you arrived. Who knows?”
“Maybe when the crack appeared on the map table? Maybe when the earthquake happened?”
“Does it really matter?”
“No . . . it doesn’t. So where does it go?”
“When did you vote me the Encyclopedia Britannica of Ostium?”
“That was good.”
I move to the side of the door, reach out for the handle, turn it, and pull the door toward me. It’s a little heavy and for one second I almost lose my balance and fall flat on my face on top of it – I would’ve broke my nose no doubt – but Monica’s strong hand is instantly there, gripping over mine, and giving me the added necessary strength to pull the door open.
That’s fucking teamwork.
I think Monica’s extensive vocabulary might be rubbing off on me.
If you’re offended or incensed, or both, sorry.
“So how do you want to do this? Climb down on our knees like going down a ladder? Sit down and push ourselves off like on a boat?”
She grabs my hand again.
Her hand is soft and warm and I’m certainly enjoying feeling her touch. She weaves her fingers through mine and then takes a step into the blackness, gravity pulling her down and bringing me along for the ride.
If this is the end, at least I’m going out with someone I care about.
I mean, we’re ending it together . . . Thelma & Louise style.
Okay, I’m just going to stop there.
We plunge into darkness and land somewhere that makes kind of a crunching sound, but it’s not too hard. We didn’t fall far and I bend my knees as I land, and assume Monica does the same. After all, she’s trained for blindly jumping into strange and new places. But the problem is we’re still in darkness. I don’t know if we’re surrounded by walls, or doors, or just endless space. We both neglected to bring a flashlight; guess we were too excited about going through this new door. I know Monica is still there, because she’s still holding my hand. Tight. Just what I need. Being alone in a place like this would normally scare the crap out of me, but with a strong person like Monica it makes it a little more manageable. At least my fear is easier to hold at bay.
“So what do we do now?”
My voice has a bit of an echo to it. This answers a few questions right away: we’re in a decent sized room, not an open space, meaning there are walls nearby and hopefully doors.
Monica starts to say something and then a glow begins to form in front of us. It’s small, at eye level and blurry. As it brightens, it becomes more defined and I soon realize it’s another infinity symbol. It sharpens and Monica doesn’t need any more encouragement. Still holding on to me, she steps forward and reaches around – I hear her hand scratching against what sounds like a wooden surface – finds what she’s looking for, turns and pulls. The door with the glowing infinity symbol starts to open. Daylight immediately floods into our little room. She opens it wide and steps through, pulling me behind her. As I step through I look back to see if I can see anything about the room or the door we came through from the ceiling, but there’s just darkness, as if the light doesn’t penetrate that far into the room.
Outside, Monica closes the door and, in doing so, let’s go of my hand.
We both recognize immediately where we are: the rising walls on either side tell us we’re at the bottom of the crack. I can see twenty feet ahead on the right side another door with the infinity symbol. We both automatically start walking to it.
We’re soon staring right at it.
“Guess we forgot to bring any supplies.”
“Like what? Do we usually?”
“Well, I like to bring a sandwich or snack or something. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Do you wanna go back and somehow get through the door in the ceiling and make yourself a PB&J?”
“No. I’m good. Let’s do this.”
“Wait! There’s . . . Something I haven’t told you. Something you need to know.”
I stop and stare right into her eyes. The seriousness of her voice has chilled me.
“When you went back home to pick up the last of your things, the squad came back. I was able to sense them with that mental map thing we’ve got now. I was ready for them. I . . . led them to door number two. To Roanoke. I was ahead and opened the door, hid around the corner and waited. They all went in and I slammed the door behind them.”
I just keep staring at her. I have no clue what to say; my mind’s an empty hole. Then I find some words.
“Why . . . Why didn’t you tell me?”
Now it’s her turn to be silent. We’re both staring at each other a hell of a lot, but my feelings and her looks have gone by the wayside for now.
“I . . . I regret what I did. I know I sent those men in there knowing they’d never make it out. But what they did to Steve . . . it really fucking pissed me off. They treated him like a piece of shit. They didn’t care. I . . . I wanted to get back at them. Perhaps it was petty, but . . .”
Seconds ticked by.
“You didn’t answer the question.”
“No. You’re right. I didn’t tell you cos I didn’t know how you’d take it. And I felt ashamed for what I did. That’s why when I saw Richard I kinda lost my shit for a bit there.”
“They weren’t ever going to go away, were they? When they left the first time?”
“Nope. They were gonna keep coming back until they found someone or got some answers.”
I let out a breath.
“I’m glad you told me. It’s going to take time to process. To comprehend. To understand. For now, let’s move on.”
I get a nod from her.
This time I reach for her hand and she takes it without question.
I throw open the door in a now very familiar way and lead us into darkness.
Anti-climatically we’re in a stairwell. The stairs go up, but there’s also stairs going down. Behind us the ordinary, plain door closes and above is a sign in green florescent lighting proclaiming OSTIUM. It’s not the first time I’ve been at an impasse in Ostium with two options to choose from. To some this might seem like your ordinary, everywhere stairwell, but to me: I recognize it in less than thirty seconds. I used to take the elevator twice a day, but on Friday’s when I was done at the strike of five, I’d skip the elevator and head straight for the stairs, charging down those eight floors and getting to my car as fast as I could before the rush hour line of traffic began in the extensive parking lot beneath my work. I’ve bolted down these very stairs hundreds of times.
And now a door in Ostium has taken us right here.
“Follow me, I know this place very well.”
I lead the way upstairs.
Monica tries the second and third floor doors as I’m heading up the next flight and finds them locked solid; she doesn’t bother with the rest.
When we reach the eighth floor we’re both breathing heavily; I noticeably more than Monica.
“I worked here for almost three years. Until they fired me last week for attendance issues.”
She just nods. There’s nothing more really to add.
I put my hand on the door to the floor where I work. It definitely feels pretty weird to be going up the stairs and through the door this way.
It’s also really damn weird that I’m my work via Ostium. That one of the doors – albeit not with a number but an enigmatic symbol – has led us here. With where the other doors have led us so far, my heart rate is definitely up, and it’s not just because of all the stairs I just ascended. We haven’t had a chance to see any people really so far, but I’m assuming once we go through this door I’m going to be looking at a big empty cubicle forest and it won’t be because it’s a Saturday or Sunday.
I meant to check up on Catalina once we were back at the clock tower. To look it up on the news and see if anything had happened, if anything were somehow related to what we’d experienced on our trip there. But the whole earthquake thing kind of distracted everything and everyone.
When I get back today or after all of this is over, I’m going to check on that.
Need to be sure.
Monica has been looking at me for a while. Giving me the space and time I need.
“When you’re ready.”
I turn the handle and walk into an office environment I never expected to see again.
We step inside and it feels completely wrong right away. There’s a strange haziness to the air, like it’s sort of a dream. It’s definitely different from any of the other doors we’ve been through before.
But it’s also my work place. The video game company I used to work for occupies the entire floor here, but my specific software division – my domain or former domain, if you will – is the group of cubicles in one of the back corners. I don’t know how it works with other game companies, but while we all get along just fine, since there’s quite a few of us spread across the floor in our many cubicles, we tend to stick to our own kind: the writers, the software guys, the sound guys, the PR people. We all interact plenty during the week, but cliques inevitably form since each division has it owns jargon for how it talks about their aspect of the game making process. And when we have big conference meetings that involve most or all of the staff, it’s pretty funny to watch us all go into the conference room and then split off into our separate groups.
Yep, totally like high school.
Huh, I’m talking a lot about my work. Guess I do miss it. A bit. Hadn’t really thought about it, but I did spend quite some time working in this place and got to know some people pretty well. And I did enjoy the work.
And then came Ostium . . .
I lead the way over to my division of the floor, where my little old cubicle used to be. As soon as we stepped through the door there were desks and work stations in immediate view that revealed more of the expected: not a single person in sight. As we travel across the floor, it’s just more of the same.
I haven’t really talked to Monica at all since we stepped through the last door with the infinity symbol on it, because I’ve been kind of in my own world. But I also know Monica is the sort of person that if she wants to talk about something or needs me to say something, she’ll just call me on it. She’s not exactly someone who holds back. It’s definitely something I like about her. Probably because it’s a personality trait that is very different from me. And as we’re heading towards one side of the floor, she could be asking me questions, making me stop, making me talk about what might be going on here. She isn’t. Because she knows what it is. She knows about me, who I am, what I used to do. She knows where she is right now, and she knows I need the space. The quiet. To get through all this that’s coming at me.
She’s one tough cookie too.
Also I’m pretty sure I’ll never say that to her face.
We arrive at my division. The first cubicle is Robert’s. On the outside wall of his cubicle is this sign he made about a year ago and we were all for it, as he pinned it to the matting wall: WARE THE SOFTWARE GEEKS, THERE’S NOTHING SOFT ABOUT ‘EM.
A smile forms on my lips as the memories behind that sign come back to me. I step over the divisional threshold and am stopped in my tracks.
The corner is laid out with eight cubicles, three of those cubicles are against the window, allowing that trio of cubicle owners the advantage of being able to see the sun and sky out the window, as well as the next high-rise office building a street-width away. Except as I’m looking now I can see three cubicles are missing. There are only five: two against the window, somehow. From where I’m standing, with a little leaning to the left or the right I can see into each of those five cubicles.
What stops me cold is that each of those cubicles is occupied.
And they’re all occupied by Jake Fisher.
I think this is the point when my mind begins to unravel a little bit. The second I realized I was in my office building, my heartbeat started increasing on a logarithmic level. Then I set foot in my office environment, I started to sweat in many areas around my body. I didn’t know what I was going to find here; what Ostium wanted to reveal to me, but I knew it wasn’t going to be good, or understandable, or logical, or make my life in any way better. It was going to be the opposite of all those.
But I never in a million thoughts and imaginings expect anything like this.
They’re all me: sitting in their chairs, staring at their screens; their hands palm down on their thighs. They’re dressed in suits – something I’ve never owned – their hair combed over at the parting in a way my mother always liked, but I’ve never been a fan of. Though I did wear it like that to her and my dad’s funeral. They all look exactly like me: neither older nor younger.
I feel myself slowly sink down to my knees, then Monica is there, helping me, pulling me back up.
This is where I am the ship and she becomes my captain and rudder and sails, pulling me to the first cubicle on the right.
She’s seen something I haven’t, the reason for all this. It’s not until I reach the cubicle and force myself to rip my eyes away from my doppelganger, my clone, that I see what the body double is looking at on the screen.
It’s a news page with today’s date. It’s about the nuclear power plant meltdown in Ukraine. A vague memory from days ago comes to me of checking late at night online and seeing this breaking, devastating news story and how the radioactive cloud was headed southwest into central and southern Europe. Things have gone from terrible to catastrophic: the cloud helped by all the wind has spread further apart, encompassing a larger area. All of Germany is now affected, as is Austria and Switzerland. The radioactivity is now passing into the Netherlands, approaching the eastern border of France, and has crossed the alps into northern Italy.
This is all covered in the first paragraph of the article on the New York Times website.
I know this is a real story. That it actually happened, even though I’m seeing this news page in a world created by Ostium. I whip out my phone and am not surprised to see I have full 6G coverage here and I’m also connected to the wifi where I used to work, even though all the employees here never knew the extremely complicated 50-character password to prevent the employees and anyone in the vicinity from mooching off the superior Internet speed, because if there’s one thing a video game company needs, it’s fucking good Internet service.
I type in New York Times in my search bar, then I start to type the word nuclear and it auto-fills the article title and I’m looking at the same page as what’s on the monitor in front of me . . . In front of both of me. It’s the mobile version but the text is the same and soon I’m reading through the article, Monica reading over my shoulder. I can feel her hair tickling my ear; it’s a little distracting, but then so is the simulacrum sitting just a few feet away from me.
The death toll in Europe is now in the tens . . . Tens of millions. Five teams have attempted to reach the reactor to try to alleviate the radioactive gas issuing from it, but each time the five teams have succumbed to the elements. Fancy language for they all died of radioactive burns and poisoning, their skin melting off their bones.
I can’t read anymore.
I put my phone away and look at Monica. Our faces are very close. My sight becomes blurry as tears fill my eyes. She pulls me into an embrace. I count to ten, heave in a deep breath and reluctantly pull away.
“Can you . . . Look at me.”
She looks into my eyes, “I am looking . . .” And then understands what I mean.
I watch her as she steps past me and in front of one of the other me’s, squatting down to study the features. Her bravery is admirable. She reaches out and touches its arm and pulls back. No movement or reaction. She touches its hand.
“The skin is cold, stiff.”
She touches its cheek.
“Same. Too cold. Definitely not alive. Feels like I’m touching a fucking corpse. Or a robotic clone.”
This brings on a shiver that starts at the top of my head and runs all the way down my spine and legs to my heels. I almost fall to the floor.
“Okay. That’s enough.”
She gets up and we walk over to another me, this one sitting in a cubicle by the window. I can’t help looking out. I look down at the street and sidewalks below. There’s no one down there. No cars either. Something that’s never been seen on a San Francisco street during daylight hours. It’s beyond eerie and terrifying combined.
On the screen is another news page. This one from the Huffington Post. In the Democratic Republic of Congo a new strain of Ebola has broken out; the most virulent one yet. People are dying in the thousands on a daily basis. Meanwhile rebel groups and warlords are preventing doctors and health officials from entering the country to try to help. While it has yet to be confirmed, doctors are pretty certain the Ebola strain has already spread to the neighboring countries of Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and South Sudan.
This time I just bring it up on my phone to make sure it’s legitimate. It, of course, is. I give Monica a nod and don’t bother reading any more of it.
The feeling in my heart, in my goddamn soul, is getting heavier by the second.
Terrible things are happening out there in the big wide world. Meanwhile, we’re just having fun and playing games here in Ostium.
What are we doing here?
What is Ostium doing for us?
I know I’ve asked myself these questions before and I still don’t feel I have any real answers.
We move on to the next cubicle.
I manage to section off the part of my mind that started losing it with all these copies of myself, pushing it down and away and just focusing on the here and now, while trying to ignore each of the things sitting in the seats.
Monica has been my rock here. Without her I would have devolved into a helpless puddle on the floor long ago.
On the next screen is yet another breaking news story, this time from Reuters: there’s been two devastating earthquakes back to back in Asia. One with an epicenter in the Henan province of China, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale. It’s estimated that close to a hundred thousand people have died, though at the moment this is just an early estimate. The second earthquake, which took place just six hours later, before the aftershocks of the previous earthquake were done with, has an epicenter in the Pacific near Guam, measuring a terrifying 9.5. While the area the earthquake hit is just water, the tidal wave that developed has swept along Japan’s eastern seaboard, as well as China’s and Taiwan’s. The number of dead at this point is impossible to predict, though numbers are being thrown around in the vicinity of a quarter of a million people.
I think I let out a sort of moan, while Monica lets out her own guttural sound beside me.
I make my way slowly over to the penultimate cubicle, the last one with a window view. I start taking some deep breaths, trying to keep control. I look out the window, this time focusing on the neighboring building.
Rows of empty windows. Then I think I see movement. I react, focusing on the specific window.
“Did you see that?”
Monica is immediately next to me. She wasn’t there, so she obviously didn’t see.
“I thought I saw something move, same floor as this one, five windows in from the left.”
We stare at that window and the surrounding ones for a full minute. There’s no sign of further movement. And I’m definitely doubting myself as to whether I saw anything to begin with.
I will freely admit I’m very fragile right now.
This headline from The Guardian isn’t as bad as the previous three, but it’s still nowhere in the neighborhood of good news. An oil tanker has run aground along the south coast of England near Brighton. It was carrying a full load and because the severity of the damage almost 90% of its crude oil is now floating on the Atlantic and swiftly being carried into the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay. England’s southern coast is already awash in the toxic spill. It’s expected to reach the west coast of France in a day; the north coast of Spain in two. The name of the tanker is the Mary Celeste.
I don’t know how, but I’m down on the ground again. I’ve fallen over. I’ve fainted. I’ve collapsed. I don’t know. My head kind of hurts but the solid ground is . . . Reassuring. Monica is beside me, her legs folded under her. She picks up my head and gently cradles me in her lap.
“Why the fuck would they name a ship that.”
She’s just shaking her head at me. There are tears in her eyes as well now. One drops on my cheek, still warm.
I dig out my phone and hand it to her.
“Can you just check to be sure.”
She does and just hands the phone back to me. Her eyes confirm the validity of it all.
“One more to go. Your cubicle.”
As she helps me to my feet – again – I wonder for a second how she knows it’s my cubicle. But then I remember she’s very clever and of course I’d leave my workspace last. Whether consciously or subconsciously, it was serendipity.
As we walk over I see all the bits and bobs pinned to the inside walls of my cubicle. My ephemera. They’re all familiar except for one photo. I grab it and rip it off the wall, shoving it in my pocket before Monica can see it. I only saw it for a second, but I don’t know how it could be. How it could exist.
She looks at me questioning; I just give her a little shake. Not now. Maybe later.
We read what’s on the monitor over the copy of me together. It’s from the Los Angeles Times.
CATALINA FOUND EMPTY. ABANDONED? Screams the headline.
In shocking news today, it was learned that the entire population of the island of Catalina is missing. All forms of rescue and law enforcement have been brought in to investigate. There are teams going over the island in search of evidence, while other groups investigate up and down the California coast for some sign of what happened to these 4,105 souls. A disappearance on a scale such as this has never been seen before. There is only one recorded instance of a similar nature, and that is the lost colony of Roanoke.
The next paragraph is cut off by the edge of the screen.
And there it is. The news that I was hoping in some way would come to not be true, but I always knew on some level was.
I put my hands in front of my face and start sobbing.
Monica enfolds me in her arms again and I feel like a weak, pathetic thing that should be stronger than this, that should be able to hold it together better.
But I can’t.
Because this is all about me. Ostium is me and I am it. I’m tied to it through some invisible umbilical, and it scares the living shit out of me, because I have no fucking idea why.
Why are you doing this to me? I want to yell at the windows and walls; at Ostium. But I don’t want to risk losing Monica. I can’t. And I also know I’m not going to get a response.
“Jake. We need to go.”
It skillfully breaks the spell. I wipe my snot and saliva on my sleeve, take a few dry sobbing breaths, and stand up with her.
She’s gripping my hand again, holding on tight, and drags me toward the door and away from all this. I take one last look back at my five doppelgangers and want to start crying again. I bite my lip hard, drawing blood. I can taste it. It’s salty and bitter. It helps.
We go through the door and down the stairs. It seems to take eons and we finally reach the bottom, to the door with the lit fluorescent OSTIUM sign above it. This place also feels like something from eons ago. I find my legs stuck, my feet not moving.
I start shaking my head, not knowing what I really want.
Monica pulls on my arm, throwing open the door.
There’s just blackness on the other side.
“I . . . Don’t want this anymore. I just want this to end.”
“Shut-up. Ostium is telling you something with this door and this place. You don’t know what it is yet, and I don’t either. But it’s something. Ostium exists for a reason. You’re tied to Ostium for a reason. And now we need to know why. And we’ll do it together. Okay?”
I just stare at her, slowly taking in her words.
Then she takes my face in her hands and kisses me. Hard. Her lips are full and warm and I’m suddenly lost in a special place I never want to leave.
She breaks it after . . . An eternity . . . After a few seconds, looking at me.
I should be smiling or laughing. Inside I am, but outside I’m deadly serious.
I pull the crumpled photo from my pocket and hand it to her.
She opens it between us, so we can both see.
It’s a color photo of two people kissing. Of Monica and me kissing. Exactly as she just kissed me. I didn’t recognize it when I first saw it, but as I look it now I can see the walls match where we’re standing. There’s also a green glow in one corner of the photo, a glow from a light proclaiming Ostium is on the other side of the door.
She looks up at me and there’s fear in her eyes now.
Join the club.
“There’s something else.”
“There’s been no creepy crackling or blackness coming at us while we’ve been here. And we’ve been here a long time. If it was coming it would’ve got us by now. Have you been holding it back?”
I shake my head. Right now is the first time I’ve thought about the blackness since we came through.
We both turn to the open doorway.
“It’s going to be different on the other side, back in Ostium.”
We’re holding hands again.
“How do you know?”
I look at her and force a small smile.
“Let’s just say Ostium and I go way back.”
Before she can smack me upside the head, I drag her through the door and back to Ostium.
[End Credit Music]