That shaky, terrified feeling was back, in the pit of my stomach. I hadn’t missed it. But just seeing those strangers come into Ostium. In my place . . . No, into our place. We just stood there, staring at the wall, but our minds were linked to Ostium. It was kind of like a digitized security map meets Pacman: the whole town was laid out inside my head and at one end where there was a broken line was an amorphous red blob. I was able to zoom in on the gate.
“Monica! I think I can lock the gate somehow . . . With my mind.”
“No. Don’t do it. We want them to come in.”
“What the hell? Really? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just trust me on this. These are my people. I know how they act. I know what they’re going to do.”
I stared at her, dumbfounded. I might’ve even been shaking my head. Then I focused back on the action.
The gate was now open. No surprise there: that strange padlock was long gone to wherever. I made a mental note to ask Monica if she knew anything about that. The soldiers – I presumed they were soldiers and everything Monica had been telling me so far was right and true – were streaming in now. The amorphous blob had separated into twelve smaller, more distinct blobs.
“Good. It’s just one squad.”
“Why is that good?”
“Because for all I know, they could’ve sent a whole fucking battalion to come charging down our door.”
“Good point. So what do we do?”
“Wait. And do nothing. It’ll work out fine. Trust me.”
We continued watching the squad hold a tight formation and begin their search. You could tell when they tried opening doors. They would stop, then start moving again. Stop at the next door, try it, then move on down. It got pretty repetitive, and if it’d been anyone other than armed military bearing down on us, I probably would’ve got pretty bored. As it was, we just stood there, stock still. Focused.
It took them awhile, but they eventually made it to the clock tower. It was separate from the rows of buildings and looked significantly different, so they were inevitably going to notice it. Plus they had intel on this place, as lacking as it might be. When they started coming in range, I peeked through the window. I was being careful not to be seen. Monica noticed me, but said nothing. So either I was doing it right or there was something else going on I didn’t know about.
They were coming now. Their guns were raised, pointed right at this building. I think they were M-16s. A few years ago a friend of mine – Brandon, the guy who I used to go to Giants games with . . . Man, the idea of going to a sports game right now seems as foreign as . . . facing a squad of soldiers with machine guns pointed right at your head. Anyway, as a birthday present Brandon took me to a shooting range. I’d never fired an actual gun before. It was something that’d never really been high on my bucket list. I got to try out the Sig Sauer. Damned if I remember what specific model it was. It was a gun, and it was deadly. They showed us how to load it. To keep the barrel pointed down at all times until you’re about to fire it at the target. Now, I’d seen cops and mobsters load clips into their handguns hundreds of times on TV and in the movies. Popping in the bullets like they were magnetic; slamming the clip home for dramatic effect. And of course: loading that first round, with sinister intention. Doing it for real is pretty damn hard. The gun is heavy. Noticeably metallic. The first time I tried to force a bullet into the clip, it slipped, and I got a nice gash on my index finger, while the shell tinkled to the floor. I had to have Brandon load it for me.
When I fired the gun it was pretty devastating. So powerfully lethal it made me quiver. It put it all in perspective. That someone or a number of someone’s had invented this weapon, whose sole purpose was to kill, and kill it could. Easily. I couldn’t make it through the whole clip. On the eighth shot, I had to put it down. I was done. And I hadn’t come close hitting to the target.
Woah, sorry about that. Didn’t mean to wax poetic on gun control or lack thereof for so long. Watching these soldiers approaching us with those machine guns. This was the memory that came back to me so suddenly. Real strong.
I looked at her, confused.
“You can look through the window. You don’t have hide.”
I raised my eyebrows. Really confused. And surprised.
“Just. Trust. Me.”
I could see all 12 of them now clearly. In their camo uniforms and all that gear weighing them down. They looked ready for anything. I knew they could never be ready for Ostium.
“They can’t hear us either,” Monica said.
I kept watching them come closer. The fear in me wanting to break free. I was barely holding it together.
“That little guy hanging a little behind everyone is Sergeant Harris. I don’t recognize anybody else in the squad. That’s intentional. In case they find me. I’d be court martialed. And they don’t want anyone who knows me getting cold feet for what needs to be done. Now. Watch this.”
One of the men in front had broken away and approached the door. He turned the handle.
It was both surreal and petrifying to watch the handle on the inside turn also. I held a breath and what I thought might be the start of a scream.
Then he pushed. The door didn’t move. At all.
He pushed with his whole body. Then threw his shoulder into it. He stepped back and started kicking. Another man joined him and they charged the door. It still didn’t move.
The sergeant walked up to one of the windows. The one I was looking out of. I watched him come up close. Then just as I’d done days ago upon first entering Ostium, he put his hands up to cup his eyes and then leaned against the glass, looking in.
He was looking right at me, and I was looking right back at him.
It was beyond surreal.
I could see right into him. His eyes were green.
“Can’t see a fuckin’ thing!” came a gravely drawl, muffled by the glass.
The sergeant turned to the men at the door.
“Put a few rounds in it.”
The soldier who’d tried the door first received the honor. He pulled something on his M-16, took aim at the door handle, and opened fire.
This time I jumped back, falling over, my hands over my ears. It was loud. I expected there to be smoke and splinters and the door to come swinging open. I slowly opened my eyes. Monica was still standing there. She hadn’t moved.
The door meanwhile was . . . Perfectly fine. Not a scratch on it from the inside. And judging by their reaction, unblemished on the outside too. There was a lot of yelling and cursing. The soldier took aim again, looking to perhaps empty his entire clip into the door.
“That’s enough, private,” said the sergeant. “We’re done here.”
There was no hesitation in any of the other eleven men. They’d been given an order. They were going to follow it without question.
They all turned and started walking back. I watched them until they were gone from view, then switched to the mental Ostium map. Once they were past the gate, the red amorphous blob was back once again and quickly began to grow fainter until it was gone entirely.
That’s when Monica finally relaxed.
I found myself on the floor once again, not really sure how I got there, but happy to have the support of solid wooden boards.
“How did you know?” I asked Monica over some strong tea and hot grub a short while later.
“The windows.” She offered nothing else, drinking her tea. Typical.
Then it fell into place . . . Like a window sliding closed.
Sorry. That simile was terrible, especially given the circumstances.
“The windows were black. Just like all the other buildings?”
“They couldn’t see in. Couldn’t see anything. Of course! I never thought of that. When I first came to the clock tower I was all focused on wishing the door would open for me and didn’t even glance at the windows. You checked them out, right?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I was going on a really strong hunch. All the other buildings had the same windows. This one had too. Like you, I forgot to check.”
“Woah. Well, you told me to trust you. I did. And we’re alive and well now.”
“And drinking tea.”
“Is that it? Will they leave us alone?”
She was quiet for a while. Thinking. Deciding.
“I don’t really know. I wanna say yes, but it’s not certain. They could come back, but it’s unlikely.”
“Well, with our handy dandy Ostium alert system we’ll know when we’re having visitors again.”
I’m driving home, and I’m pretty sure it’s for the last time. No, I know it’s for the last time. I think it’s a necessary separation. The Ostium train has gotten rolling. It’s left the station and it’s gotten up to a good cruising speed. Unless there’s a wreck on the rails, it’s not stopping anytime soon. I think my apartment and my connections with the real world are part of the potential wreck. I need to make sure the rails stay clear as far as the eye can see.
Wow, I’m already into the deep allegorical shit and I haven’t even put on Pink Floyd yet.
That’s when I find the album I want on my phone and press play. Division Bell. Like the previous album, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, it opens with an instrumental track. I haven’t heard it in a while. The beginning sound slowly builds. It’s a crunching, crackling, wrenching sort of sound. As it builds, the image of popping popcorn pops into my head. I then realize it’s the sound. I pull over to the side of the road. I’m not too far from Ostium and the road is still plenty quiet. I sit there listening. It’s the sound of the blackness coming towards me. Increasing in volume. I heard and saw it on the Mary Celeste. And on Mars. And now it scares the shit out of me. The music is finally starting, but I can still hear that horrible, haunting sound in the background. I skip to the next track. It begins with drums and some light guitar, then David Gilmour explodes with his unique sound. That gets me back on track. I start the car and get back on the road.
My brain is doing that thing it does when I’m driving. Working on automatic. Sifting through the events of the days. Percolating like Mr. Coffee.
The first thing it keeps repeating at me which I’m not going to deny is that Monica is a stunning woman. She’s beautiful. I know it’s been a few days since I’ve been around people, and it’s been . . . Let’s see . . . 11 months and 12 days since the fraught end of my last relationship – not that I’m counting or anything . . . But still. Of all the people to have shown up in Ostium . . . Monica sure is . . . Something.
So let’s take a look at this. Jackpot winning luck aside. How did Monica end up finding Ostium? And then running into me?
Her series of audio recordings explained the steps she took, though I have a feeling there’s more to be told on her part. A lot more. Like any good, complex character – looks aside – I need the back story. The history. I was actually going to kind of confront her about it today and then the goddamn military showed up and threw everything out of whack.
But I’m heading home now, and like I said, it’s for the last time. I’m severing that tie with this world and becoming a permanent resident of Ostium. When I told Monica that this was what I wanted to do, what I needed to do; she wasn’t just understanding but encouraging. The one bed might have something to do with that.
As much as I’d like to share it with her . . .
Okay, I’m sorry. I’m going to stop being a crass asshole.
I’m going to dig out my sleeping bag. Buy myself an inflatable mattress and that’ll solve the sleeping arrangements at the Clock Tower Ritz. I’ll also need blankets and a pillow or two for comfort.
So . . . Getting back to Monica.
I’m not really well versed in military etiquette, other than the conglomeration of inaccurate stuff from movies, so I don’t really know if her story checks out 100%. I don’t know how hard they come after you if you go AWOL. It seems like one of the worst things you could. Desertion. Other than like treason. So you’d think it’d be a lot bigger deal. But she didn’t make it sound like it was. Our country isn’t at war right now with any big mean nation, so maybe that has something to do with it.
The story rings true. And if you take a look from a distance at my discovery of Ostium, it certainly sounds somewhat fantastic, bordering on wizards and dragons craziness. But I know it to be completely true. So why couldn’t Monica’s be? And we found each other in a strange and somewhat scary place, so it’s natural we would want to work together to get through it and try to understand what Ostium is trying to tell us. To join forces. An alliance of comprehension.
But what about the lock?
That weird-looking padlock that was on the gates the first time I came to Ostium. And then was mysteriously gone the next day. I needed to ask Monica about that. See if she had a specific answer for it. Or find out if it was just one of the weirdnesses of Ostium. Or . . . Discover if Monica hesitated before giving me an answer, like she was making something up, or just feeding me something, indicating she was holding back. Keeping secrets from me.
Ostium was still doing its best at keeping most of the secrets from us, or at least from me. The last thing I needed was my one and only ally keeping her own secrets.
No. When I got back we were going to have a heart to heart of sorts. A state of the union. With me moving in full time, we needed to be on the same page about everything. Discuss and link up our hopes and goals.
My favorite song – the last track on the album – was starting. So that’s when I told my brain to shut up, cranked up the volume and enjoyed the music.
About halfway home the pervasive invisible fog that was that weird mental map of Ostium cleared. Was that the extent of its reach? Was it something specific to me as a honorary member of the Ostium club? Currently at a grand two members.
But that was when my mind cleared or perhaps reconnected with the world and I remembered my previous trip heading out to Ostium and how I’d been wrestling with the fact that Ostium had stolen time from me, in a way. I sucked in a breath and turned on the screen on my phone. I actually gasped when I saw it was a little after two pm, on Sunday. Not the Sunday I thought it was at the start of today, when I’d gotten that email from Robert. Was it really the same day? Apparently not. No, not by a long shot. It was the following Sunday. As in a week later. As in seven whole days. So basically what had been less than the passage of two days to me was a entire week.
They say time flies, but this is ridiculous.
But I need to focus on getting home right now, don’t want to run myself off the road here with outright panic.
But . . . Holy shit.
I arrive at my home a week later than I expected. I’m not happy about this, but there’s nothing I can really do about it now. I select my key from the small selection hanging from my key-chain. It looks foreign to me. Strange. Like it doesn’t belong. As if it’s somebody else’s. I turn the lock and step inside.
I know I’ve got doors on the brain, and that’s to be expected when traveling around in Ostium, but stepping through that door honestly feels like stepping into another world. On an esoteric level, it is. It’s something else now. Not really belonging to me. Legally that’s just not true, but I have no real physical or emotional connection to it. Even though I’ve lived here for over three years. Hell, I’ve had sex here, even if it was way too goddamn long ago. Thanks brain, for reminding me about that.
I close the door behind me. It has a dull, unnatural sound. Not like a door should sound. Not like a door in Ostium.
My apartment smells stale. Old. Disused. Even though it’s only been a day or two . . . Oh wait. No. It hasn’t. It’s been a whole fucking week.
I REALLY don’t like this time dilation thing. I always thought being involved or able to participate in any particular way with time travel would be the most awesomest thing I could ever experience.
I was wrong.
It fucking sucks.
But I need to move on.
I start thinking about what I’m going to take. What’s going to stay. If I should call anyone; let anyone know what’s going on. Or just disappear off the face of the earth. It’s not like anyone has really missed me since I’ve been gone. I guess Robert at work noticed, and my boss once I didn’t show up enough for him to decide to fire me. But otherwise . . . A few emails and posts on Facebook, but nothing really says: Where the hell have you been? Is everything okay?
And that’s when there’s a loud booming on my door. It not just knocking, and it’s a long step beyond hammering. Whoever’s on the other side has made a fist and is slamming it against the door as hard as he or she can, though by this point I’m pretty sure it’s a definitive he.
I’m just a few feet from the door and it scares the crap out of me. I actually jump in the air, and feel that wave of shock and fear wash over me like someone just upended a bucket of icy water. This is an ice bucket challenge I didn’t want to participate in.
But I guess at the end of the day (or is that the end of the week?) someone does apparently care.
I turn around and open the door.
Brandon is on the other side. My baseball buddy. The one guy who I’ve regularly hung out with over the last few years. The one guy out of everyone should at least give a damn about me. He does. That’s why he’s here. Obviously.
He strides in. Pushes me back. Slams the door behind him.
I wince at the sound, reflexively blinking.
“You!” he says, pointing his finger right at me. “Where the fuck have you been?”
He sounds really angry.
I just stare at him, the proverbial deer in the headlights. I can feel the blood draining from my head. I can feel my face turning white, a numbness setting in, as well as a growing light-headedness
He goes into my kitchen and grabs two clinking bottles from the fridge. He comes back with two Wyder’s Pear Ciders.
If I haven’t mentioned it, I’m a cider guy. Not a beer guy. Wyder’s is my favorite, especially the pear. Brandon isn’t really a cider guy; he’s most definitely a beer guy. But he’ll drink a cider occasionally. Especially if it’s all a friend’s fridge has. That’s what friends do.
Now I have a heavy feeling in my stomach. It’s guilt, with a healthy dose of shame.
He comes back and hands me a bottle and sits down opposite me on the long couch, where we’ve watched a number of movies together. Tough guy action flicks and had a great time.
Now I’m really starting to feel bad.
“Okay man, tell me what’s going on.”
I’m just staring at him. Trying to think of words. Any words. I drink some cider. It’s delicious, as always.
“You’ve been gone for a long time. I Facebook messaged you’ve. I texted. I called a bunch of times. I’ve even fucking Tweeted your ass. I called your work. Found out you’ve not been there for over a week. And got fired. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” Even though I’ve been imbibing a liquid, my voice is dry and croaky.
“I was getting really worried . . . I am really worried. I’ve been coming to your house for the last three days. Then I just camped out yesterday and waited and waited and waited. And then today I see you pull in. Go up the stairs, unlock your door and go inside like no biggie. Like everything’s okay.”
He takes a breath. I keep staring, speechless.
“Well, it’s not okay. I . . . I just want to know what’s going on. And . . . if you need any help.”
It’s that last part that hits home. That cuts deep. This guy really does care. And now I have a raw, weeping wound in my emotional nerve. I’m going to have to say something. I don’t know what.
So I just open my mouth and start talking.
“I found something. Well, more of a somewhere. It’s a place not on any map. It’s a secret. A . . . Hidden town.”
Brandon stares at me. A frown forming a grooved-V in his forehead.
“And . . .”
“It . . .” I put down my bottle and rub my face with my hands “It’s a place that didn’t want to be discovered. Only I found it. And inside are all these buildings and doors with numbers on them.”
“Okay . . . Okay, I get it. You found a cool old ruin of a town. Like those ghost towns they have all over California from the old west.”
“Sort of. But not really.”
“Then explain it to me. Put it in plain fucking English. Please.”
“The doors are numbered. It’s part of a code. You have to open each door in order. And these doors . . .” I unavoidably pause again. It’s getting hard to spit out the words. To make my vocal chords comply.
Is that me? Or is that the reaching, controlling fingers of Ostium . . . Clasping around my throat?
“Doors. Numbers. Sure. Why does that mean you have to drop off the face of the earth for a week?”
“Because . . . Because the doors lead to other places. Other places in time. Other dimensions. Other . . . Worlds.”
The disbelief is as clear on his face as a black and white newspaper with a half-page-sized headline.
“It’s . . . Real.”
“I don’t fucking believe you, man. That just sounds . . . Ehhh, fucking insane! Doors to other times? Like the past? The future? Seriously!”
“Yes. Both actually. I’ve been . . .”
I know at this point I’ve lost him. I’m also pretty sure whatever friendship we had has been irrevocably severed. This made-up story is just too much, even for a friend. I would’ve done better saying I’d won the lottery or met someone on the other side of the country.
I just keep going, because at this point I can’t stop. I may not be convincing Brandon, but I’m definitely helping to convince myself that this home, this friendship, this life, this world is over.
Now there’s only Ostium.
“I’ve been to Roanoke in the sixteenth century, and an old ship in the nineteenth century. I’ve also been to Mars, and it was incredible.”
That’s when he just looks at me with fury.
“Fuck you, man. Fuck you and fuck your stupid made-up town. Jeez, I thought there was more to you. But you’re nothing but a sack o’ shit.”
“It’s fucking real!” I yell right back at him.
He gets up to leave. The half-drunk bottle of cider long ignored.
“There’s also someone else there. In the town. Working with me. A woman.”
This stops him. He sits back down.
“So all this is about a chick?”
“No . . .”
And that’s when I decide to just give in. The friendship is over, no matter what. Let’s just try send Brandon on his way without completely hating my guts.
He’s looking at me now with raised eyebrows. I choose the path less taken and begin my lie.
“Well, yes. I met her last Friday. On the street on my way to work. We kind of ran into each other. But I picked up her things and I was real nice about it. I wanted to avoid being the asshole guy who just wants to connect with anyone of the opposite sex. She was reading the new Song of Ice and Fire book.”
“The Game of Thrones books?”
“Yeah. The new one just came out. I finished it the day I got it. So we started talking about it. She was almost done with it. And then that led to blowing off our respective employers and having coffee and really connecting. We went out that night.”
“Damn, nice job, man! It’s been a while since . . . Kristin wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. We hung out all day Saturday. And that night we slept together and it was amazing.”
“I bet it was. Fucking kinky Game of Thrones sex. Am I right?”
“Yeah. And we just wanted to spend all of our time together. We got our stuff and went driving around Mendocino county for most of the week. Went all the way up to Eureka. Hung out in Fort Bragg. And just enjoyed each other.”
“Yeah,” he said with a disturbing emphatic wink. “In every way possible I bet. You randy. Mother. Fucker. So what was all that shit about doors and hidden towns and traveling through time?”
I was starting to remember pretty clearly now why I didn’t hang out with Brandon all the time.
“It was a sort of LARP thing we were doing.”
He just stares at me, dumbfounded.
“Live action role-playing. We were acting out a fantasy together.”
Kinky. Mother. Fucker.”
“So anyways, I literally just got back. Still got all my shit in the car. I just dropped Monica off at her place.”
“Wow. That’s awesome. Monica huh? Sounds sexy. She white?”
“No, she’s black.”
“Hot damn! Crossing over the . . .”
“Please! Anything you’re about to say, just don’t. I really don’t want to hear it.”
He mimes zipping his lips.
“And now I’m really fucking wiped and was just about to crash for like twenty hours.”
He knew his cue and stood up again. I joined him.
“I hear you man. You’re must be fucking wiped. In every way possible. Six fucking ways from fucking Sunday. Am I right? Am I right?”
“Yeah.” I practically moaned in abhorrence, trying not to cringe.
“Alright. I’ll get out of your hair then.”
“Thanks, I’d appreciate it.”
“Oh, but what about your job?”
“Oh . . . That. Well, I was pretty sick of it anyway. I’ve been looking around for something else. Even sent out a couple resumes a few weeks ago.”
The lies were just pouring out, but I knew the end was near.
“Good on ya. Well, when you’re ready to rejoin the world drop me a line. I’d like to meet this . . . Lovely Monica.”
“Yeah, sounds good, man. See ya around.”
He opens the door and walks himself out.
I close it behind him and deadbolt it.
I lean my back against the door and let out a long shaky breath.
I feel sick.
I drag out my suitcases and duffel bags and fill them with everything I think I’ll ever need, and anything I deem important. I don’t worry about taking too much. There’s plenty of room in Ostium for all my stuff. I’m leaving a lot of books behind and that’s tough. I do grab my rare first edition hardcover of Game of Thrones. Yes, the first one in the series, AND it’s in mint condition. I also grab my leather-bound Lord of the Rings and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I also grab my Kindle and Kobo ereader. On each of those devices are about ten thousand books. Have I mentioned I’m kind of insane about books and collecting them? Ebooks make it a lot more reasonable of an addiction, and feasible too.
My laptop goes in the bag, along with a couple of chargers.
When I decide I’m ready, I check outside to make sure Brandon’s still not spying on me. He’s long gone. I fill up my car with everything and get on the road. I hit an ATM and take out as much cash as I can. I’ll have to work out how to get the rest of my money from my account later. Today’s Sunday and of course, no banks are open. And I’m sure once my rent becomes long overdue my landlord’s going to be looking for me.
I get on the road with plenty of drinks and snacks. The sun is making its swift way down to the Pacific and the light is starting to fade. By the time I make it to Ostium it’ll be pitch black. Should be fun.
And as I’m heading up the familiar highway I have this warm, swelling feeling inside of me. It’s not food or drink related. I wonder what it is for a few seconds and realize it’s elation.
I’m really damn excited to be heading back to Ostium.
My new home.
I’m also really looking forward to seeing Monica again.
And seeing what’s in our future with regards to Ostium and its many mysterious doors.
[End Credit Music]