It’s the morning and Monica and I are partaking in a most interesting and unusual breakfast. I don’t know how, but Monica manages to dig out a loaf of bread way back in what I’m calling the pantry cabinet. It’s the gift that keeps on giving: it seems new delights and delicacies are discovered every day from within its wooden walls; I’m starting to wonder if it might be magically enchanted in some way. Yet another special place in Ostium that seems to bend the rules of physics and reality. Or perhaps Steve did a really great job of stocking up. The bread is the whitest of the white, a blanched cardboard essentially, but it fills a hole . . . sort of. I’m impressed it hasn’t gone moldy yet. That cabinet has to be moisture free and practically airtight. Using a little propane, we also cook up a can of corned beef hash. For some tasty fruit, we enjoy a can of pineapple and one of peaches.
I feel . . . closer to Monica now. My sole intention yesterday in taking her into my arms when she was distraught and tearful was purely consolation. But after everything that happened, when she was pushed over the edge, I was also brought close to it. I felt for the man named Steve who I’ve never met. It was . . . wrenching. So it felt good to be some help to Monica.
After breakfast I clear things away, and then prepare for our next trip to door number 5. Monica gets ready in her own way, getting together a few things, and I realize with a thrill of excitement that it’s our first time going into action together. Indulge me to be a geek for a little bit, but here we are in a secret town that no one else really knows about that leads you to different places in time, and here we are ‘suiting up’ so to speak and getting ready to pass through another one of these special doors.
Okay, done geeking out . . . For now!
Monica has the door open and I’m out in the fresh morning air before she can say Ostium and after about five steps I stop dead in my tracks with an elongated “Errrrrrrrr.” My caped crusader walks by and says “follow me.”
I dutifully follow behind. Someone forgot to check the location of door number five. And that’s why there’s two of us.
And that’s why there’s no “I” in team!
And that’s why I’m really happy to have Monica here with me.
Because . . . she’s a lot smarter than me.
We turn down streets right and left and I get quickly turned around. Was Monica doing it deliberately just to confuse me? To make me feel stupid? Because it’s working. Just as I’m starting to wonder if we’re heading towards the front gate she takes a hard left, goes four doors down and stops.
There’s the door with the five on it.
We stand before it, all ready to go.
I reach out for the handle and Monica stops me. She turns to me and put her hands on my shoulders, looking into my eyes.
I wonder what’s going on, but I’m certainly enjoying the physical contact.
“Before we go in, I want you to acknowledge real quick your connections with the doors we’ve gone through.”
“Connections?” I haven’t forgotten what she told me yesterday. Not by a long shot. But at the same time, I’ve forced myself not to think about it. Because it’s intimidating. And scary.
“Look, it’s okay to be scared.”
Dammit, she’s sees right through me.
“I’m a little scared too. We both are because we don’t understand this. But if we’re going to start understanding it at all, we need to talk about it. You need to admit it.”
“In a college history class I got kind of obsessed with it when I wrote a paper about it.”
“The Mary Celeste?”
“Similar story. It’s another event with a mysterious disappearance of people. I first heard about it researching Roanoke. It was one of those Wiki black hole things.”
“When you’re looking something up on Wikipedia? And then you link to another thing and to another and to another. And then like two hours go by and your fifty Wiki pages down the hole from where you started.”
“Oh, okay. Mars?”
“I’m a scifi geek. Love the literature. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy is my favorite. And I luuurrvve Total Recall.”
“Good. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“No. So why is it all connected to me?”
“Fuck knows. Okay, let’s go.”
She opens the door and walks through and I quickly follow behind.
Stepping through the doorway and across the blackness that could be a quick step across time or a mighty leap across a chasm where one could easily be lost forever, I look out at another clear and beautiful day. Breathtaking blue skies, bright sunshine and at first I see a lot of water and think we’re on a boat again, but the ground is solid and stable. There’s no tilting motion.
We’re . . . At the beach. Sort of. It’s actually a small harbor and we’re on a promenade looking over a body of water.
“Wow, it’s beautiful here. I wonder where and when it is?”
“Yeah,” I say making a slow panoramic pan of the landscape. Halfway through I see a structure. A building. It’s distinct. A big round shape that angles up to a point. It looks like the top half of a cupcake. The rest of the building is cylindrical and sculptured. The general shape is the bottom half of a cupcake but beautifully ornate with a viewing terrace wrapping around it like a layer of frosting.
“I know where we are.”
“We’re on Catalina.”
“It’s an island off the coast of Los Angeles . . .”
“I know what Catalina is. How do you know?”
“That,” I say, pointing at the distinctive building, “is the casino building. We’re in the town of Avalon. I know this because when I was five I came here with my parents for a vacation trip. We spent three days here and I loved every second of it. The following week I to school and the Loma Prieta earthquake happened. They couldn’t find the bodies, either of them. I thought it was . . . Fucking stupid, but we had a funeral and buried two empty coffins.”
“That . . . Really fucking sucks. I’m really sorry, Jake.”
“Thanks, Monica. It’s been a long time and I’ve managed to get over it to the best of my ability.”
“My folks are dead too.”
“It’s okay. Same deal. Long time ago. Just a sad memory now. So what are we standing on?”
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s solid. This is the Avalon Pier. A nice promenading spot for tourists. Over there,” I say, pointing east. “Is the ferry terminal which goes to and from Long Beach.”
“I notice it is visibly absent of ferries.”
“Yeah. Noted. Downtown is along there.” I make a sweeping gesture along the south to the south west. “And that is the Catalina casino building, though it has a movie theater in it now. Built in 1929. Though I’ll wait until we get inside before I give you the full history lesson.”
“Did you take a sociology class on Catalina or something?”
“Avalon, Catalina and the casino building is technically another one of my obsessions. While I was here I learned everything I could. I was a sponge for information and history.”
“Because I was five and I didn’t realize it was an obsession at the time. I figured I was more obsessed with . . . Normal five-year-old boy obsessions. Also over the years I’ve kept up on my research.”
“Well, it sure fits the Ostium modus operandi.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. I find it . . . Unsettling.”
“You and me both. Now, this being a tourist town, do you happen to see any tourists?”
I feel it pretty redundant, but I make a scan of every part of Avalon I can see. There’s a light breeze. The lapping water sounds right. I think that was a seagull. But there’s absolutely no sign of movement.
“Nope. No hide nor hair.”
“I guess that’s one way of putting it. Okay, so we’ve got a place you know well, a historical building you’re obsessed with, no sign of people. Just running down the old Ostium checklist here. Which leads us to the blackness.”
I turn and look out to sea, finding Monica doing the same thing.
A silence passes between us.
“Okay. I don’t see no blackness. It’s clear open sea out here.”
“I think that’s because . . . I’ve been . . . Concentrating. As soon as I stepped through I made part of my mind focus on the blackness. Focus on keeping it at bay. Away from here. And I think it’s working. Somehow.”
“You are just full of surprises, aren’t ya?”
“Yeah,” I say with an impressed smile on my face. “I don’t know long it’s going to work or hold or whatever. But we’ve got some time. More than usual.”
“Okay. Good. So where do we go from here? Do we partake of some sightseeing?”
“In a way. We’re going to head down through town just to be sure we’re all alone, and then we’re going to the casino building.”
“Because you haven’t seen it since you were a kid and you wanna get your kicks?”
“No,” I say, sounding a little peeved. “Because I can feel that’s where the artifact is.”
We make the quarter-mile walk along the promenade, following the curve of the bay. On the right is an inviting beach and cool blue waters, on the left store fronts, restaurants and streets. It’s downright eerie with not a single person around. That’s when my brain starts cogitating. Analyzing the situation. What’s different here? We’ve established my connection to this place. It was glaringly obvious, really. And there’s no people, no one in sight anywhere. Still following the pattern. The blackness hasn’t started yet, but I can feel it. Like the build-up of an oncoming storm. As it gets stronger, I dedicate more of my focus, my concentration to it. I know it’s going to hit a breaking point, not too long from now, and then will start doing its thing. I’m quite amazed I’m able to do it. It really isn’t that hard to necessarily do, but the pressure’s building and it’ll start coming for me soon.
And yet . . . Something’s not right. I can’t quite put my mental finger on it. The fact that my brain is churning over what I’m seeing, what things look like, tells me something’s amiss. Off kilter. But what the hell is it? And then my brain reaches its thinking destination and I get it.
I stop in my tracks. Monica keeps going for a few steps – she’s been focused on the beautiful casino building – and then realizes I’m not with her, stops and looks, and comes back.
“Something’s really wrong with this place.”
“Other than the usual? No people? Eerily quiet? What else?”
“What day is it? No, what year is it?”
“You mean in Ostium or here?”
“No fucking clue. You tell me?”
“Okay, that’s warranted. How about: what year does it feel like it is here?”
“I dunno. When was the casino building built?”
“It opened its doors on May 29, 1929.”
“So . . . nope. It’s definitely not 1929.”
“Right. The buildings. The few cars we can see. By the way, FYI, cars are very limited on the island. Golf carts are way more common. Like there and there,” I say, pointing. “So what year is it here?”
She stares at me. Then she crosses the road – no traffic to worry about – and stops in front of a store window. I soon join her. It’s a clothing boutique called Seashore Angels. There are mannequins in the window: one in a vibrant green dress, the other an elegant maroon gown. Behind are racks of different types of clothes: tops, shirts, pants, skirts, dresses. In the back corner I can see a section dedicated to shoes.
I nod. “Yep. Contemporary. I’d even go so far to say it’s the current year here. I could imagine anyone wearing just about any of those clothes and not feeling out of style or old fashioned.”
“Or looking like they’re in Back to the Future II.”
That brings a smile to my face. She makes great references. It’s definitely something I really like about Monica.
“Though they’d need some serious moola or deep credit cards to afford most of this shit.”
“Indeed. So if it’s this year, why is there a door leading to it from Ostium? We’ve only gone deep into the past or the future so far.”
“Doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”
I nod, take my time, parsing her words.
“True, but the places we’ve visited so far. The ones in the past. They actually happened. There’s historical evidence and sources. The one on Mars obviously is a different can of fish.”
“I think you mean a different spot on the map.” She winks at me when she says this.
I don’t miss that it was on Mars she’d given me that same saucy wink before she went through the door back to Ostium.
Is she flirting with me?
Okay, focus Jake.
“Yeah,” I say, smirking back. “So if this is Avalon, Catalina, in the current year of our lord, has this actually happened? Have the people of Avalon, the people of Catalina disappeared?”
She stares at me. Eyes widening.
She’s looking into the boutique again and takes a deep breath.
“Why couldn’t you have just said that to begin with? Instead of asking me the year and all that shit?”
“That’s not really the way I work.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
Then she turns around and starts walking back to the promenade.
“Come on, Hitchcock.”
I follow, with a smile on my face.
Fifteen minutes later we reach the foot of the casino building. I’m sweating heavily. It’s relatively hot here, but not too toasty, so I shouldn’t be perspiring this much. That’s because my defenses against the blackness were dropped a couple minutes ago. For the last ten minutes we’ve been walking in silence as I focus all my energy and will power on keeping whatever the hell that onyx doom actually is at bay. And then I can’t hold it back any more. It feels like an overflowing vessel of water and I just let it go and it all came tumbling out like a burst damn.
Monica stops just as I did. I can tell she feels it and looks out to sea. I see the distant line of blackness now. It’s growing, just like it usually does.
We walk faster after that.
For a millisecond I wonder what we’re going to do if all the doors are locked, but it pulls open easily enough. As we step inside I turn on my tour guide voice, even though I’ve never had an aspiration to be one.
“The Catalina Casino opened its doors for the first time on May 29, 1929. Designed by Sumner A. Spaulding and Walter Weber, it was built under the direction of William Wrigley, Jr. with a price tag amounting to two million dollars. It was one of the first completely circular buildings of its kind. The styles are a combined Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival. The building is 12 stories high. On the lower level is a museum. On the main floor, where we are now, is a movie theater that still has a working organ, back from when music was a big part of going to the movies, or the pictures. I came here with my parents. Can’t remember what movie, but I do remember the organist totally rocking the Phantom of the Opera theme. On the upper floor is a promenade and twenty thousand square-foot ballroom that can accommodate fifteen hundred dancers and is the largest ballroom in the world without supporting pillars.”
“You remember all that bullshit from when you were a kid?”
Sort of,” I answer nervously.
“You are such a nerd.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say proudly.
She laughs. “No worries, nerd bro, I’m one too.”
We’re now in the concessions area of the movie theater. There’s a stale smell of popcorn and greasy butter in the air. I believe it’s an odor that will never leave this place, much like its mystique and history.
“You still tracking that artifact?”
“Yep,” you say, leading the way into the main theater.
It’s a grand, sweeping auditorium with a surprising number of seats. The floor is angled downward, giving each row full view of the stage and the screen. On the walls are breathtaking frescoes bursting with color, detail and life. The ceiling is painted white. There’s an ornate, curving arch around the stage with golden decoration. At the apex is a golden woman with red hair standing on a shell. The movie screen is currently retracted and behind it is another beautiful piece of art: a man surfing on blue waves with a golden background.
I can tell Monica is taken aback by this place. It has that effect on you.
Then I feel that magnetic pull start to focus. We’re getting close now. I lead the way down the main aisle, passing the rows of red velvet seating. Well, probably not velvet, but definitely red. Blood red. Fresh blood red. Given the circumstances, I feel a twitching down my back. The red seems too bright for the lighting. Also there’s lighting?
“The lights are on.”
“Yeah, I noticed that as soon as we walked in. Like they had it all going and then everyone just up and left.”
“That’s . . . Creepy.”
We reach the front row, the wide stage before us. The man surfing the wave without a surfboard looking like a mighty Hawaiian god. I make myself look to the right, even though I’ve been feeling the ethereal tug from the left side. But I just caught a glimpse of something before I looked in the opposite direction and I’m telling myself it isn’t in any conceivable way what I think it is.
I take a breath, staring at the empty row, then look to the left.
It’s exactly that.
In the tenth seat of the front row is a body.
A dead body.
I take a few steps towards the body and stop. This is the first person we’ve seen in one of the worlds Ostium has sent us to. Now, I’m not certain that the man is dead, but there is no indication of life or movement. That’s when Monica starts running to the man.
“No. Oh no! No. No. No. No. No.”
A heavy stone drops in my chest, pulling me down.
I think it’s Steve. The guy she had some sort of thing for and the main reason she came to Ostium in the first place.
I slowly walk to her, giving her the time she needs. When I reach her she’s kneeling, her hand over her mouth staring at him.
Before I can say anything she gets up and puts a pair of fingers to the pulse on his neck, waiting twenty seconds. Then she leans in and puts her ear close to his mouth, waiting for a breath. After another twenty seconds she goes lower and leans her head against his chest, searching for any sort of quivering heartbeat.
She gets back up. Her body language tells me everything I need to know.
“Is it Steve?”
She looks at me. Complete confusion. Then it clears, but there’s still a deep sadness in her eyes.
“No. It’s not Steve. His name’s Richard. Richard Kahling. Another private from . . . My former base.”
“Really? Was he in that group that walked into Ostium yesterday?”
She stares at me and it feels like her eyes are piercing into my very soul. That sadness in her eyes goes away, hardens into something, though I don’t know what.
She gives me a small nod in admission. I don’t think she thought of this when she saw his body in the chair.
It changes a lot of things. It poses a whole new set of questions.
How the hell did the guy from Monica’s secret base who came to Ostium yesterday and then left through the front gate end up on a chair at the Catalina Casino movie theater . . . dead?
What happened to the rest of the team?
Are they lost too to Ostium?
Are they all dead?
And how did Richard die?
Monica’s looking at him again. I’m guessing she’s got similar questions running through her head. We’ll have to discuss it, but that’s a conversation best left on our return to Ostium.
“Where’s the artifact?”
I stare at the back of her head.
There’s an uncomfortably pregnant moment of silence that stretches out like a long dark highway.
I see her shoulders rise as she takes a breath and finally she turns to look at me. I’m just staring back at her, still not saying anything.
“Fuck no. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
I slowly shake my head. “I can pinpoint it right to here.”
“Fuck.” Then gets up and heads to the entrance door to the theater.
I stare at the body, not envying my task in the slightest.
There’s no clear or apparent cause of death. No bullet wounds. No body parts at strange angles. No marks on his neck. I touch the top of his hand. It’s gravestone cold. Sorry, poor choice of words. He’s been dead for a long time.
In my head I have a blurry image of the artifact, like a vague dream. There’s enough definition that I’m able to hesitate a guess at what it is. I start going through the guy’s pockets. It doesn’t take me long to find the movie ticket stub. That’s it. When I hold it in my hand, it feels warm. The magnetic pull in my head disappears and it calms me.
The movie listed on the stub is Armageddon. That crappy action flick with Bruce Willis from the late nineties. But it can’t be that old? Then I see the date on the stub: it’s today’s.
I got what I needed, so I quickly walk back to the front of theater and find Monica waiting there for me.
“What should we do about . . . Richard?”
Monica looks over to where the body is and just shakes her head.
“Leave him there. We don’t have time to do the honorable or correct thing.”
Then we’re out the door and into the lobby. The loud crackling is instantly noticeable. Outside the windows the afternoon is coming to a close and twilight is fast approaching. We make it out of the door we came through. It looks like the end of the world and it’s all being swallowed up by a giant black hole. As stuff is consumed by the blackness, it doesn’t make a sound, just goes into the maw and is gone. Though the now deafening crackling sure makes up for it.
The reality is painfully obvious: we don’t have enough time to make it back to the pier and the door we came through to take us back to Ostium.
We’re out of time.
We’re out of leeway.
We’re royally up shit creek, and the paddle drifted downstream a long time ago.
I’m thinking. I’m listening to my thoughts. My feelings. Getting in touch with myself.
And then I start running away from the casino building, headed for the group of moored boats in front of us. I clatter down this tiny quay that starts wobbling as soon as I land on it. It’s on pontoons and none too stable. The water is all choppy and alive as the blackness guzzles its incredible volume. I reach the penultimate boat on the left, take a look back and see Monica just a few steps behind.
I leap onto the boat and head for the cockpit. Monica is on board in seconds, fully trusting me. It feels good to know she trusts me as much as I trust her now. We’re in this together. All the way. In the cockpit is a hatchway leading into the boat. There’s a padlock hanging from the latch. It’s unlocked. I also notice its hexagonal. Then I’m ripping it off and throwing open the hatchway.
Beneath it is darkness. Much like the darkness getting very close to us now. The boats have started pulling tight on their mooring lines, as the sea and everything within and upon it is drawn into the blackness.
I reach for and grab Monica’s hand. I look into her eyes. She is with me and her life is now in my hands. I turn and dive into the hole, pulling her in behind me.
We crash land onto the street in Ostium. The door closes by itself behind us, sealing the darkness behind the fifth door forever. We gingerly get up, check to make sure we’re each okay, then make our way back to the clock tower.
Back inside I’m standing by the map table. I’m looking at Monica and she comes up beside me. I know she wants to rest. To chill out. To make a real strong cup of tea and probably have something to eat. But I want to get this out of the way first.
Because I think something is going to happen.
I scrutinize the map for thirty seconds and feel Monica become impatient with me. I look up at her.
“There’s no number six.”
She stares at me, not getting it at first, then her eyes widen.
She makes a more thorough search, only needing to skip past the few golden numbers, the rest she checks over individually.
“You’re fucking right. What the hell?”
I shrug. “Ready?”
The nod is all I need.
I pull the ticket stub from my pocket and place it on the number five.
The light instantly appears, enshrouds the stub and sucks it in like a hungry carnivorous plant. Then there’s a pristine looking gold five sitting there.
Seconds click by. I start to think maybe that’s it and we can have a snack and some tea after all.
Then a low rumbling begins and builds. It seems to be coming from beneath the map table, welling upwards like a volcanic eruption. Then we watch as the table itself starts vibrating, swaying a little from side to side. I hadn’t checked before, but I was pretty sure the table was solidly bolted to the floor. It makes me think of the movie Jumanji. The crescendo builds, coming up and up and then reaches the table.
Before our very eyes, we watch the five golden numbers light up with a more brilliant golden color, then a white line . . . A jagged crack forms between the numbers linking the five together across a significant portion of the map. The white crack widens, emitting more light, forcing us to squint at it. First a half inch, then a full inch, then two inches, and finally stops at three. The light weakens, dims, then disappears. The golden numbers return to their normal, unbrilliant selves.
The chasm that has opened up on the map table is clear and abrupt, almost vicious looking. An angry, wooden scar. At the bisecting point of that crack is a small number. I lean in.
“It’s a six. No, an eight. Wait, I think it’s an infinity symbol.”
Monica doesn’t care what’s on the door.
“And how the hell are we supposed to get to it? Dig our fucking way into the ground?”
That makes me snort with laugher as I contemplate this next mystery.
That’s when I both hear and feel another rumbling. Similar but at the same time different to the one on the map table. This one’s much stronger and bigger.
Monica looks at me, the smile diminishing from her face like someone who’s forgotten how to smile.
That’s when the ground starts to shake.
I reach out to Monica, wanting to pull her close . . .
[End Credit Music]