Warning: The following episode contains depictions of graphic imagery. This is where Ostium turns into a horror story for an episode. It’s not for the faint of heart. The fearful and squeamish should turn back now.
It’s dark. Oh-so-dark. But I can smell. I can hear. Dark, drippy, putrescent. I scrabble for Monica’s hand in the black and find it, holding on tight. The crunching of gravel beneath our feet is both comforting and eerie. You can feel it on the sole of your shoe, but also hear those tiny pebbles grinding together to make grains of sand. But in this dark place of strange sounds and unfamiliar smells, it doesn’t belong. It isn’t comforting. It’s a disembodied sound that you just want to go away.
Then we’re out of the tunnel we didn’t know we were in. For the first time coming through a door, it’s dark out. No bright shiny sun and blue skies. It’s the all-covering blanket of darkness with a billion tiny star-holes in the firmament. The orchestra of crickets are rubbing their legs together, creating their unique song. I take a deep breath and know where we are. Sort of. We’re by the sea. I can smell the tang of brine and kelp, taste the salty vapor in the air. Now we can hear the gentle susurrus of waves on the nearby beach: drawing in its essence and then throwing it back upon the sand. It’s like the opposite of a mirage: you can’t see it, but you can hear it. An auditory mirage.
We walk along the path parallel to the beach; our shoes continuing a syncopated crunching and almost crackling. It’s quite different from the tunnel of the unknown, this is almost . . . Relaxing, restful. The temperature is just right: balmy from the sea, but not too hot or humid; at times there is the faintest tickle of a breeze, just enough to cool you down.
As our eyes become accustomed to the night’s sky, an iridescent glow makes itself known in the direction of those waves crashing into the beach. It’s a greeny-blue blend sparkling in the water, mixing in with the foam. It has a life of its own.
“Phosphorescent algae,” says Monica.
“Yeah. It’s pretty incredible. I saw it for the first time when I stayed up at Fort Bragg with my ex. It was like, a year ago. We rented this house we found on Airbnb that was right on the beach. It was gorgeous. A couple of bedrooms, though we only needed one. Nice sized bathtub, big living room with comfy chairs and an awesome deck where you could sit back, put your feet up, and get lost in a good book.”
[Deadpan] “Or other things? I take it this was the lovely Anne?” she responds
[Humorously] “Or other things. And yes. It was a great place to just forget about the world. And you could walk straight out onto the beach. It wasn’t a private beach, but might as well have been, we had it all to ourselves. And you could go straight up to the water’s . . .”
“I think . . . Holy shit. I think this might be the place.”
“Jake. It’s fucking. Dark.”
“I know. I know. But, I just feel . . . Look, let’s keep walking.”
The path winds and curves for some time and we just enjoy our senses doing what they do best: sampling this world and life. The moon reveals itself with an increasing glow that has us confused and wondering, but once that shimmering thumbnail peeks over the hills, all is made clear. As more of its perfect shape is revealed, we realize it’s going to be full and glorious. It almost seems too big to be the full moon rising in the night’s sky. But then I remember this is when the moon appears largest. It’s a perfect pearl making it’s way across the cosmos of stars that are innumerable and endless. And as the moon continues to rise, it bequeaths its light to us, guiding our way, and granting us the gift of sight in this night of blackness and dark.
In but a short while the house up ahead is shown, like the poignant detail of a book that is made known to the reader with the turning of the page. I study its profile, its topography, the facade I’m able to make out. Yes. It’s the same house. I am reminded of the confrontation with Brandon, during that last time I went back to my former home. How he’d put me on the spot as I tried to tell him the truth he wouldn’t believe. In the end I’d concocted a lie, but the fabrication contained mostly truth as I think on it now. At the time it felt like a fictional idea I’d pulled out of thin air.
And now, here I am, again. Here we are, back in this place I didn’t expect to visit again. But I know Ostium has other plans than relaxation and enjoyment as it was the last time I was here.
The path makes a new turn, angling away from the beach and the cold Pacific around to the front of the house. Bordering the front yard is a white picket fence. This wasn’t part of the original house. In this ghostly, lunar light it looks like a rampart of bones forming a protective wall around the house. But is this osteo-palisade keeping something out? Or trapping something within?
There is no gate at the bony center, just a hole. Monica’s face is no longer as relaxed as when we first found ourselves at the beach, but then neither is mine. I lead the way past the white face and up a new, narrow path.
“Jake, I need to tell you something. Something that happens . . .”
“Hang on a second, Monica.”
As we’re walking I’m hearing a crunching and crackling. They’re not stones, or shells. Unable to stop myself, I look down and try to identify what we’re walking on in the moonlight.
Insects. Millions and millions of dead insects, of many kinds. Cockroaches, beetles, grasshoppers, praying mantises, centipedes. None are moving, but this doesn’t help my now gravely weakened courage. I look to Monica who knows what I’m doing, forgetting what she was going to say for the moment. The sound our shoes make with each step makes it clear whatever we’re walking on is unnatural. I just shake my head: you don’t want to know. I wish I could un-know. Then I stop. To either side of this strange path of crunching carapaces are a few tombstones of varying sizes and slanting at different angles. Like the unnerving path, these were not part of the original architecture of this abode. I can read the carvings on the stone easily, perhaps because there is more moonlight, or because Ostium is wanting me to know what is inscribed upon these pieces of rock.
Oh, how I wish I could sponge away the writing upon these gray stones.
R.I.P. Catalina says one. In Memory of San Francisco says another. An ancient looking one filled with cracks and looking ready to turn into a pile of pebbles proclaims: May You Never Be Forgotten, Oh Lost Colony of Roanoke. Another, equally ancient, dripping with briny moisture, an anchor carved at its apex, reads: Never Forget the Lost Souls of the Mary Celeste. There’s one final one before we make it to the wide wooden stairs that will lead us to the front door. It’s clean and fresh and polished with three words: Remember Fort Bragg. Something about this last tombstone seems familiar to me, but I’m unable to ascertain what.
We ascend the stairs which bend and grown like living human beings. At the top we stop, happy to have those horrible sounds cease, but it is clear this long, dark night is far from over.
The door seems larger than I remember, and far more menacing. Oil-slick black with a shininess in which I can almost see my face. I grasp the handle, then look to Monica:
She gives me a nod. I take a deep breath, turn the handle and push the door open.
If at any point I had been hoping for a silent entry, it is now rendered futile. The creaking wail of wood that the door screams at me feels equal to a hundred haunted doors in a hundred houses in a hundred haunted realms. Not only are goose-pimples raised all over my body now, but my fingernails, teeth, and hell, it feels like every one of my vertebrae are tingling. As if this wasn’t enough, a long-drawn out ghost moan erupts from within the house. It makes me think of that scene in Ghostbusters II, when Ray, Egon, and Winston were walking along an old abandoned railway line within the bowels of New York City and this horrible voice calls out Winston’s name. It makes me think of how that scene fucking terrified me as kid and on through my teenage years, especially when the ghost train comes out of nowhere and passes right through the ghostbuster.
“Jake, do we really need to . . .”
I know exactly how she feels. I don’t want to either.
“The artifact is in the house. Somewhere. I have to. But, if you want to stay . . .”
“No. No fucking way. I’ve got your back the whole damn way.”
I smile. Raise my fist. She bumps it.
We step inside the house and it feels huge and old and really fucking haunted. It’s like a combination of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, times ten, combined with the Tardis from Doctor Who. You know: bigger on the inside. Much bigger. The outside may have borne a resemblance to the house I once stayed in with my ex-girlfriend in the wonderful town of Fort Bragg, but this place we have entered is 100% Ostium and a million percent other worldly.
I think they call it a landing. I don’t know. It’s a space right by the front door with stairs that lead to the second floor, and doors showing the way to adjoining rooms. I touch Monica’s elbow to get her attention, not really wanting to make any more noise than necessary in this place, then give her the halt sign. I close my eyes and focus, trying to narrow down the location of the artifact, but . . . It’s different. Different from any door we’ve gone through so far. Different from how I usually do this, especially when I was just starting to feel confident about this part of the Ostium job. I can’t tell where the mental pull is coming from to lead me to the artifact, because it’s coming from multiple directions, and not just two or three, but more like between five and ten. There are lots of cranial attractions going on telling me to come here, check this out, wait, no, no, over here, hey, me first. They’re all equally strong and equally demanding, and since I’m already dealing with holding the blackness at bay – which so far is being quiet and obedient – it’s quite frankly impossible to tell.
Shaking my head in confusion, I direct us to one of the open doorways. If we’re going to have to check every part of this house we might as well get started; we don’t exactly have all the time in the world. And then a small part of my brain reminds me the according to the ongoing door schedule whenever the artifact for this particular door is found and placed, something big in Ostium may happen. The last time it was an earthquake that caused a giant crack through the center of the town to open it up like the gates of hell.
We’re in the other room, and unlike the landing, there’s no light on. I can’t see a thing.
“Jake. Jake, I have to tell you something about the future.”
There’s a strong smell in the room, something metallic. I want to hear what Monica has to tell me, but the smell is overbearing. What the hell is it?
“Okay, Monica, let’s find out about this room first.”
Attempting something new, I reach out to the wall and look for the light switch. I find it covered in something noticeably wet and sticky. Not sure if it’ll work, I flip it. The room is bathed in a sickly yellow light, like those days that are hazy and worn out, as if the sun has some weird filter covering it. Or the zombie rising has begun. But that’s not what wrong with the kitchen that we’re standing it. It also explains that wet, stickiness.
“Fuck!” I yell, while Monica let’s out a drawn-out: “Goddamn.”
Blood. In vast amounts. Blood everywhere. Blood on the walls, the cabinets, the ceiling, the floor. The sink is a full tub of blood. The stove in addition to being covered in the red stuff, is also oozing more out of its gas burners, while the oven door below has more of the dark, viscous fluid running from its edges. I can’t help thinking of that scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s like a fucking dump truck of blood has just got emptied in here. Then the smell hits me: heavy, meaty, coppery, rancid. Of something that was alive, but is no longer. Then I see and hear the flies, big black blobs circling around, landing here and there in the blood, then taking off again. In search of meat, tissue, something solid that isn’t liquid blood. One of the flies comes over to us and lands on Monica’s cheek. I swat it away, making sure not to hit her. There’s a red smear on her cheek and by my look she knows it’s there and begins vigorously rubbing it away.
“Not here. We’re getting the fucking out of here,” I say, grabbing her arm and dragging her out.
Back on the landing it feels like returning to a semblance of normal life, but it isn’t. The light is still on in the kitchen. The crimson landscape is still an eyesore that can’t really be avoided. I give us thirty seconds, then stretch it out to a minute. Then it’s time for the other doorway, which, as it’s opposite, is dark. Forcing myself, I walk into the dark room. Monica follows eventually. I try the same experiment again, wary and simply outright scared. My wandering hand finds this room’s light switch and flicks it on.
It’s a dining room with an unsurprising dining table at its center. Curtained windows frame the dining table on two sides. What is both surprising, unexpected (and very much unwanted), are the occupants seated at the table. There are five of them. Two on either side of the table, with one seated at its head. There’s an empty seat at the opposite end. The men are dressed in military uniform, and I don’t need Monica to tell me these five men are members of the “squad” that paid a visit to Ostium some time in what feels like the Cretaceous period and then blindly went through one of Ostium’s ill-fated doors. What is wrong with these men is that they are all headless. Decapitated. The rough, jagged, skin-flap edges of their necks are as clear as the empty serving dish in the center of the dining table; the wound cauterized and blackened; the sawed-off veins, arteries and severed spinal column easily recognizable. Upon the plates before each of these five men are their severed heads, their faces placed so that they are looking at their headless bodies. Each of the faces bears a look of sheer terror.
It is clear that these men died of fright first . . . Before their heads were removed.
Monica may have shown little emotion towards these men and after what had been done to her and Steve, it may have been even somewhat warranted, but seeing them end up like this . . . It takes a toll on both of us. Obviously. But I could tell Monica was being eaten up inside. This was beyond horrific and she had to be blaming herself right now. Neither of us could have ever predicted such a fate for these men, and we don’t know what actions they chose once they passed through the door. They must’ve done something to end up in this world, and to end up like this.
I just stand there, my mouth open, not believing, except the decapitated proof is sitting there in front of me; their heads further concrete evidence of the unfathomable tableau of this room. Monica’s eyes are weeping, twin trails running down the sides of her face, while the eyes stay wide open, as she forces herself to watch. Her hands covering her mouth to stop any sounds coming out.
I’m the first to move, to slowly close my mouth and take a step back, then the rest of the actions come easier. I grab Monica’s arm and simultaneously flick off the light switch. Although the room is flooded with darkness, the unforgettable image is still scored upon our retinas, but it does help . . . A little. Then I drag her out of the nightmare room and back onto the landing where life remains normal and almost serene. There’s a warm light from a decorative chandelier above. A small table against a wall for keys, change, and other everyday, ordinary-life ephemera. I find it . . . Grounding.
“Look, Monica. No keys or cellphone. Guess nobody’s home.”
Monica looks, her eyes staring but perhaps not seeing, like someone who hasn’t slept in three days and is just working on automatic. Then they do focus and it works.
“Were you really expecting someone?”
“Course not. But a guy can hope, right?”
“Time to check what’s waiting for us on the second floor.”
She mumbles something noncommittal; I’m with her there.
We start ascending and each step makes a sound like a body builder bending a two-by-four one way, then the other. I really hope there’s no snapping sound. The stairs are also lit by the chandelier, and we take our time going up together, trying our best to somehow get over what we just saw, or at least compartmentalize it in some way. Push it away to the back of our minds where it will remain hidden and fester but at least be out of the way for now, as we face our next challenge.
The repetitive creaking of the stairs is almost hypnotic, and we absorb whatever catharsis we can from this now-rendered ordinary sound. It’s kind of a good mind clearer, like when you’re trying out different scents and then take a whiff of coffee beans to clean your nasal palate; or in this case, your mental palates.
And then we’re at the top, the second floor, and out of time. Our reluctance is equal, so there’s at least something we can share in this place.
“Any change with the artifact’s location?”
I shake my head. “Still feels like it’s in a bunch of places.”
“Could it be in pieces, like before?”
“I dunno. It . . . It doesn’t feel like that time. This feels different. Almost like it’s a smokescreen. Trying to trick me into thinking where it might be, like . . . Like it wants us to check every door.”
“Which we’re going to do anyway.”
The upstairs hallway is dimly lit by the complete opposite of the beautiful hanging chandelier on the landing: there’s a single twisted wire hanging from the ceiling around the middle of the hallway with a single naked bulb dangling from it. Somehow it’s swinging side to side like it’s on a pendulum or a metronome. The effect is every horror movie director’s wet dream: shadows spinning and morphing and changing into every nightmare imaginable. Was that a misshapen monster coming toward us? A curled human form dragging itself closer? Something oozing along the floor?
I know I’ve got a headache a-brewing from this fucked light show, and the way Monica’s shielding her eyes with her hands to try to help means she’s headed down the same migraine path. We need to speed this up. Get this over with, however bad it’s going to be.
“If you want to wait here, I’ll check the rooms.”
“Not on your fucking life. We’re not splitting up in this place. I thought you were a horror movie buff. What’s the first rule?”
[With a chuckle:] “Don’t split up.”
“Right. And I need to do this. I feel like this door is a test for me, as well as you. Steve might be on the other side of any of these doors.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“But if he’s like any of those other guys . . . I’m gonna lose my shit.”
“Me too. Come on.”
There are four doors, all on the same side of the hallway. I open the first door: it’s dark like the others. It feels like the artifact is in here, just like all the others, including the ones downstairs we already checked out. Nothing’s changed. I find the light switch in the same place as the others. At least something’s standard here. The light turns on and we wait five seconds to take in the scene.
It’s a library. Bookcases on three walls, a window on the last. In the center of the room is a desk with miscellaneous piles and old books and pens and quills and paper. A mishmash of everything escritorial. Behind the desk is a chair. In that chair is a man in camo fatigues slumped over on the desk. His arms are on either side of his head. His face is turned to the side, watching us where we stand just inside the door.
Buried in his skull is a sixteen-inch machete, part of the long knife sticking out with the yellow-white ivory handle; grooves that are brown and dirty with age. The rest of the knife has gone through the man’s head and buried itself in the wooden table to hold him there. There’s a little blood. A dried, dark red trickle running across his forehead and pooling on the table. The blood on the table is a lighter red, still a little wet because there’s more of it there. This tells us it didn’t happen that long ago.
I turn to Monica. Her look has hardened, but her eyes are glassy, wet, holding back the tears.
“It’s not him.”
I turn off the light and we leave, closing the door behind us.
The next room. Light is turned on. We take it in. Then we turn to each other, wanting to look away from what we’re seeing. We put our heads together, holding each other, not wanting to hug, because that will force one of us to rest their head on a shoulder and be facing this.
The room is stark. Bare. No furniture. Just white walls. In the center of the room is an electric table saw. The biggest one I’ve ever seen. On . . .[BREATH] . . . On the floor are two halves of a man. They are spread about four feet apart. The insides of both halves are falling out like an open, tipped over can of chili or spaghetti-Os. No cauterizing here. It’s set up to infer that the man did this horrific act to himself. A suicide to never be forgotten.
I don’t know what Monica’s thinking, but I know this guy didn’t do this to himself. No matter what’s been happening to him on this side of Ostium, he would never choose to end his life this way. Some one or some thing did this to him.
Monica takes one more look at the face and then drags me out of the room.
I go willingly.
Two down. Two to go. It feels like they’ve been getting worse, but other than knowing there’s probably two more dead and disfigured bodies we have to face, there’s no real way to prepare yourself for this.
Monica opens the third door and turns on the light switch slowly. But once that electricity gets sent to the tungsten it goes . . . Well, at the speed of light. Except the room doesn’t light up with white, but red. With blood. Because there’s blood on the light bulb. Blood everywhere. It’s a bedroom, or it was a bedroom. A bed, bedside table. Chest of drawers. But everything is covered in dripping, viscous blood. And also parts. Body parts. Big pieces. Small pieces. Here and there and everywhere. You don’t let your eyes focus on it too much, because then you might be able to identify what body part it originally belonged to. But there are also some . . . [clearing throat] . . . Ropes. Stringy, twisting vines that can only be . . . Intestines. What is all here may once have been a complete human being, likely a man, but it’s very hard to tell. There are also small pieces of burgundy cloth. If these were washed and cleaned they might be camouflage colors.
And then I see it on the floor, a couple yards away from me. It’s the only piece in the room that isn’t covered in blood. It’s . . . [Said with horror] An eyeball. I also know now, more than any room in this house so far, that it’s the artifact. I don’t let Monica know, I just take one careful big step into the blood.
[Disgust] “Jake, what the fuck?”
I reach down and pick up the eyeball like it’s a delicate egg. It hard. Hard like an eyeball isn’t, because this really is the artifact. Now that I have it close I can see where there should be a pupil there’s a black O. For Ostium.
“It’s the artifact.”
I carefully step back, my foot peeling off the floor like it’s attached to fly-paper. I ground the sole of my shoe into the carpeted floor to clean off what blood I can. Then I close the door and we’re done with this fucking place.
“Okay. Let’s go. The blackness is on its way, but we’ve still got plenty of time.”
“What about the last door?”
“What about it? We have the artifact. We’ve got what we need. Time to go back to Ostium.”
“This is Ostium. And we need to know who or what’s behind that last door.”
“Because . . . Steve.”
I don’t need to say anything. I give a small nod and follow her down the hall. I don’t want to point out that that wreck in the last room that looks like something Pinhead from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser got at could’ve also been Steve. Maybe she would’ve known. Somehow.
At the fourth door I keep back, letting Monica open it. My work here is pretty much done, I’m just here to watch now, I guess.
I step into the room beside her. Hear her take a breath. Then she turns on the light.
It’s another empty room. But there’s a man. He started at the far end of the room, beneath the window. There’s a massive blood stain on the wall below the window. Maybe a gunshot, or multiple gunshots. Then he dragged himself along the floor. The blood trail makes that abundantly clear. He’s only a couple feet from us now, face down on the ground. He looks pretty dead.
And then I see the words.
I step further into the room, getting close to the man, so I can read what it says. The look on Monica’s face says she’s already done that.
In the man’s own blood, with his finger, he has written two lines on the linoleum floor.
The top line says: IT’S YOUR FAULT.
The bottom: ONLY YOU CAN STOP IT, MONICA.
My eyes widen, making it feel like my eyeballs may just fall right out of my skull. The blood writing looks very fresh. I kneel down and check the man for a pulse. No. He’s gone. I look at Monica.
“What the fuck does this mean?”
Her faced is confused, then angry, then undecided. What the hell is going on here?
[Angry] “I said: what the fuck does this mean?”
She closes her eyes and takes a breath again.
“Do we have time? Before the blackness,” she quietly says.
Damnnit. I close my eyes and concentrate.
I get up and storm out of the bedroom. I don’t know if Monica’s following, and right now I don’t give a shit. I thunder down the stairs and out the front door. The blackness is definitely getting closer. I hear Monica close behind me now. I start jogging. She keeps pace. I go faster. She keeps pace. I start running as fast as I can. She keeps pace. This just pisses me off more.
We reach the door and I step through, again not caring if she comes with me. I half want to slam the thing in her face, but I don’t.
Then we’re back at the clock tower, we’re going to have words.
I go straight to the map table, noticing that number 201 is gold. Monica did take care of this yesterday. Guess she can be trusted about that. The anger is seething through me. I don’t think I’ve ever been this mad before. Definitely not at Monica. I don’t really understand or comprehend it. It’s like it’s been building and building, but I didn’t know about it. Didn’t feel it. Weighty baggage. It’s like I’ve forgotten . . . No, I have forgotten. I can’t remember stuff. And it’s because of her. It’s gotta be. It’s what I’ve thought, but never had the proof. And now a man has sacrificed his life to give me that proof.
I look up from the map table, the eyeball artifact hovering over the number, ready to be placed and complete the process. I look at Monica with fury.
[Afraid] “Jake. I . . . I can explain.”
[Furious] “Can you?”
[Pleadingly.] “Yes.” She’s reaching into her pockets and drawing out . . . gloves? Silvery gloves? They look like Michael Jackson’s sequined single glove. What the hell? But seeing them has made something happen in my brain. A spark. A thought. An idea. A . . . Memory. Of those gloves. Coming to me. Doing something to me.
Monica is coming towards me now, with the gloves on. She’s saying something, but I can’t hear. The blood is rushing in my ears, to my brain.
And then I remember.
And drop the artifact.
It lands near today’s number, stays there for a moment, then rolls on to it. Blood-red ruby light explodes up from the number, engulfing the eyeball, and pulling it into the map table.
The number turns to gold.
And everything turns to night.