Lost In An Endless Night
By: Patric Quinn

Part I

I walked about half–way down the center hall squinting at elaborate wall carvings, but decided to stop. It must be getting late. I'd better not get too interested right now. I could always come back. I turned back and thought I might take a glance down the other two rooms on my way out.

But I couldn't get out of this ballroom…or whatever it was. I walked back to a solid wall of the dark stone, great solid blocks of it. There was no exit there. I must have taken a wrong turn, more like, missed the way out. I retraced my steps squinting in the mistiness, but could find no other entry or exit. That way was now solid rock, not man–made stone, but natural rugged gray rock

And the ballroom wasn't as long as it had appeared. It was shorter and narrowed down toward the end. In this dimness that would account for the illusion of length. As I got closer I noticed rock on the end wall. Not rock, a giant door. I turned and could see nothing the way I had come. But that was the direction I had come from, I was sure. I walked that way and found a solid wall. No exit. I examined the wall up close, as best I could. It was completely natural rock and seemed closer than when I had come in. Why closer?

I was disturbed at thinking that I could be so wrong and had a bad vibe about the total expanse of giant rock that was now a wall where I thought the entrance was. Where I knew the entry was. More than disturbed, this was strange enough to send a small thrill down my spine. You're a scientist, you fool. No thrills down your spine. There's the door. On the wrong end of the room, but that's obviously your way out.

My best move was to get a grip on myself, calm down. I didn't feel good about this. The day had started out well enough for one that marked a big change in my life. My reflection in the dressing table mirror seemed to say it's time to look back and ahead and to asses. The comb and hair brush were still in my hands as I stared into the glass. Not a bad looking guy, dark hair freshly brushed, a bit of gray at the temples, the somewhat long face with its tennis tan, the serious expression more curious than challenging. Free and forty–five years old. Pretty young. With all my hair, fit condition and that tennis tan. Wealthy now, too, with a challenging tennis match for tomorrow and a 10k run for Sunday. Funny, how my business was so technologically advanced and precise, yet thoughts of my coming free time took me back to antiquity and prehistoric ages.

But standing in the near dark and reminiscing about long ago wasn't going to solve my immediate problem. Archaeology had always been an interest, but reading about how fossils went back hundreds of thousands of years and were found at various depths below today's surface captured my imagination. The layers of the world's succeeding ages lay one atop the other. And the leftovers of those ages, the fossils, were buried in the layers. What were the layers called again? Strata or striations? Something like that. How old could fossils be? Like the ones Leakey discovered in Africa. Older than civilizations like Egypt and China and Sumer. What was there to find from millions of years ago? Fossils were a good place to start.

On the drive home I had been thinking of how I had started and how big, how different this change would be. Had it been twenty years? A little more. I was still in college then and delving into all things high tech, the fever of the time. The app that I dreamed up was logical, useful and simple to use. One of the big companies thought so, too, and bought it for two and a half million dollars. Bought 'up' the competition.

Rather than loaf around I used the money to start my own business. It was small and very successful. Probing into the tech future fascinated me. What would I find or discover? During those years I had a wife I adored and a son I loved. A son I still love. My wife died young and my son grew up and into my business so naturally the work became his as much as mine. He'll take it on into whatever is waiting to be found. The dressing table and the mirrors were hers. I used it infrequently to check my clothing and such, but in time started to use it. Her combs, cosmetics and perfumes were gone and my brushes, my things, and the lukewarm cup of coffee, were there. But the three large mirrors seemed to hold the story of all those years.

Today I was no longer probing into the future, my new direction was digging into the past.

***

I stood outside the sleek, glassed front of our building, Robert Cristal Inc., in the neat industrial park. My son, also Robert, stood with me in the fading sunlight. "Now that my moment is here, Rob, it feels strange." The building was the cutting edge of design about twenty years ago. It was still neat and still served business needs well. The imaginative software and applications I had created had produced a fortune. I smiled thinking about such success. Applications were now a new word, apps. Everybody used apps without knowing what apps meant.

Robert smiled at me. "Big changes always feel strange. Think of the changes we've made over the years. The business will be fine. I'll keep it on the leading edge of what's new ahead, while you go back in time and hunt fossils. You're a young enough guy, Dad. You have time for a whole new career."

"The idea of things that go back so many years, eons, is fascinating. Opposite to getting so far out ahead, the way we've done here."

"Not entirely that different, Dad. The Egyptians used technology back then."

"Rudimentary. Almost arithmetic."

"How they managed the pyramids with their passages and vaults and incredible mass is still being argued a few thousand years later." Rob smiled and shrugged. "Like now, still."

"The fossils I've been reading up on go back hundreds of thousands of years. A longer way."

"Well, maybe, and maybe it's time to make your break now, Dad. It's heading toward the late end of the day."

"Yeah. I guess." I held out my hand to complete the transfer of authority to my son. "I'll be talking to you, Rob. And if you need me…"

Rob smiled and nodded.

***

On my way home I was as anxious about my future as I was in that…cave or…whatever it was, and wondering how to get out. The road branched off the highway and curved up through the deep cut in the hill to the high ground that the well–to–do called home.

Left and right of the black two–lane road, across wide weedy strips on either side, I could see the walls of the cut and the layers of ages past exposed like horizontal stripes in the rock. Different colors and textures, one stripe on top of another. Like a wedge of a many layered cake.

I'd driven through this cut for years and hardly noticed the striations. On impulse I slowed and pulled off onto the shoulder. The shoulder was wide and ended at a narrow field which lay between the road and the vertical edge of the cut and its wall of striations. Or strata. Or whatever the layers were called. From the open door the air felt cool on my face and the sun was just sliding behind the high ground. Traffic was still busy and a diner up the road flicked on its lights as I looked that way. The edge was off of full light, but there was clearly enough light to walk over and examine the layers. To see what there was to see close up.

Running shoes and casual Friday khakis were okay for playing around at the wall. My penknife, a fairly sturdy one, should be okay for this minor amateur expedition scratching around the layers there. With the sun falling the wall was in shade, but light enough for a little digging.

I became engrossed with the digging and finding things, and not knowing if the bits were fossils or not. Or how old the stuff in a layer was. A thousand years, a hundred thousand? All the stuff I didn't know. The higher layers were the most recent times, so, I climbed up as high as my sneakers would track and dug at those striations. Time had passed during the digging and light faded toward twilight. It was getting hard to see.

But what's over the top of the hill? Who doesn't entertain that thought? I practically had to chin myself to get a look over the top edge of the wall. And was amazed.

There in the twilight rose a giant building almost the same color as the twilight, almost looking like it wasn't real. Castles and institutions were suggested by the architecture, old ones. Constructed of almost black stone, it rose three or four stories with domes at some points. A large tiled patio spread to three huge doors that looked like an entrance. Heavy wood with steel bracing criss–crossing their expanse. The edges of the building seemed to disappear into the increasing darkness and it's height vanished above. There were no lights in evidence anywhere.

What else was there for a scientist to do? I walked across the tile patio and up to those giant doors…

Part II

What else was there for a scientist to do? I walked across the tile patio and up to those giant doors. I wanted to examine them before complete night closed in. Old and encrusted with weathering though they were, the door I tried swung open easily at my very light touch. No squeak or rasp. After a cautious peek inside I stepped into what was a huge atrium that spread out to my left and right and rose into the gloom. The floor was the same small tiles as the outside patio. At the opposite end of the entry were three entrances to something. Rooms or halls or what? There were no doors on them, so, I was free to investigate.

The looking, the seeing was strange. No lights were visible anywhere, yet, there was a dark kind of illumination. Enough to see, but without clear, bright definition. I walked across the huge foyer and looked down the first entry and then the other two. They were great halls like ballrooms and so long that the far ends disappeared into the strange dimness.

During my explorations I had discovered the rock wall...the barrier...where the entry, I was sure, had been. And through the dimness, a different door. The whole day had flashed through my mind and I was still standing in the same place. The anxiety rushed in and hit me like a punch.

The door at the end of the room was not clearly visible in that strange illumination, but it was a door, a shorter, narrower version of the building's doors. As I walked toward it, the whole ballroom seemed to shrink around me and the rock wall followed closer. All this change in absolute silence, not a tick or a scratch, not a rodent scurrying. The air was on that indecisive edge between warm enough and putting on a sweater. The inability to focus through the dimness upset me. I kept squinting to no effect. The whole situation upset me. Really was scaring me....except for this door to get out and away. The handle turned down easily and the door swung back.

This room was even smaller. I turned to go back, but the door had closed and was fading into the rock wall. What the hell was happening here? Whether the chill that trembled through me was the air or fear didn't matter. I was trapped in a yet smaller space. I had to get out...somehow. The door had vanished into the rock wall. I stood stock still. The only motion was my chest rising as I breathed. Nothing moved, there was no sound or odor, not the faintest breeze. I felt like I was locked inside a mountain, trapped. But there was another door. This one had a key. It was smaller than the last. The wall close behind was rough with sharp projections where it had broken away.

There had to be a way. The space was as big as my den at home and I walked back and forth, thinking, talking out loud to myself in the gloom. But I didn't get any braver. I had to turn the key in door.

The next room was smaller with a smaller door and a key. I stooped a little because my head was brushing the ceiling and everything was closer. I couldn't figure out how that strange dimness illuminated this tight space. There were no utilities from room to room. I could touch the side. The room and door I had come from was gone into the rock wall. That almost chill was in the air, but I was soaked with sweat in my polo shirt and sneakers....and increasing panic. I don't know what I was shouting, but my screaming didn't penetrate the embracing grip of this......whatever it was. There was only the door. I twisted the key and it opened.

Each space was smaller and tighter until I had only one choice. Before I settled down to die. The opening reminded me of a rolled up rug. A locked in position with no more moves. I could squeeze in with my arms at my sides or with them stretched out in front. Either choice was a final move, there was no place to go after that. The rock wall was closing in behind me. I chose to creep into the tight tunnel hands first. I pushed with my toes and scratched with my fingers. And was finally as far as I could go. The rock wall was pressing at my feet, the tunnel wrapped me in cold stone, only my hands and fingers could move.

And here I was going to die. Alone, sealed in rock. Alone, no one to hear or find me. Alone, unable to move, rolled up in a rug of rock. Alone, no sounds or smells or.......what was that? I felt something. A very mild touch of air? I squeezed my head up to peer into that damned dark light. Gradually I saw the little door with its little key. Too far. But anything, anything to escape this fear and horror, this rocky tomb. This dying alone. The air again coming lightly through the door. Good air, fresh smelling air. From the door? I pushed with my toes and stretched my fingers as far as they would go. I had to reach the door...and the key. Was that my way out? I could move my hands from the wrist and my toes dug for a push. I felt the damned rock closing against my feet. Closing now as it had from the ballroom on down to this. But I couldn't move, I could hardly even breathe, the stone encased me so tightly. I tried to stretch but nothing and I moaned...to no one. Then I screamed and screamed....to no one, but the impenetrable rock, this building, this mountain. I cried.

I don't know how long until I awoke. Was I asleep? I squinted through the shadow and there an inch away from my fingertips was the door and the key. And the light, light flow of fresh air. Fresh, fresh. Outside air...outside. I started scratching wildly with my toes and digging with my fingers against the rock. My fingertips were slippery. Bloody? Nothing. I was going to scream again, but stretched instead, or thought I stretched. Was that something I touched? I wiggled my fingertips and felt them touch something. Had I actually moved? I wiggled the fingertips and they touched something. Touched again. I could hardly believe it, but my thumb and forefinger wrapped around....something. The key! I didn't budge and didn't move my fingers. Fear....fear that this was imagination. In spite of feeling the key my body was still gripped in my rock cocoon.

Don't panic, I told myself. Turn the key. Carefully, but do it. The little door opened easily onto darkness and fresh cool air poured against my face. And I sucked it in. Free? Was I free? I dug and pulled as best I could with my fingers and pushed and scraped hard with my toes. Was that a movement? A small one? It was and I dug ferociously with my fingers and pushed with my toes. I lost track of the time and any movement in my desperate willing of myself out of the grip of the rock, or the building or whatever the hell this fiendish stone monster was. Finally, my fingers gripped the edge of the opening. And then my hands were free and pulling and pushing, trying everything and anything to pull me out. I didn't believe it when my elbows got loose and I felt control of my movements coming back. I tried pulling my forearms back over my head and dragged my body further out and my face was looking out into the black night and feeling the cool breeze, a cool wind blowing.

I turned the rusty feeling old key in the door and slid it out. I wanted the key to my freedom, the key out of a cold, horrifying hell. I gripped it tightly and worked myself free of my grave. My position was precarious on a vestige of a footing as I lifted into a standing position on the narrow ledge and lay back spread–eagled against stone. The night was black, no moon or stars, no illumination, jet black. And only the cool wind turning cold. And even the narrow ledge seemed to be slipping away. It was and was gone. My spread–eagle grip slipped. I plunged into the black night.

When I opened my eyes there was light, not bright, but natural. I didn't move. My face was against ground and dirt and pebbles pressed into my cheek. Mentally, I thought through my body feeling for pain or breakage or anything wrong. No messages. I moved my fingers. Okay. The hand. Okay. I brought the wrist in front of my face and looked at the luminous dial of my watch. 4 A.M. I moved my head and, then, the other parts of my body. I ached terribly, but nothing seemed broken. My fingers looked black in the low light and looked like torn gloves. I rolled on my side, sat up and looked around. I was sitting next to my Lincoln SUV. After this bad dream it looked like home to me. It hurt to move, but I pulled myself up to a standing position. 4 A.M. Dawn soon. What the hell had happened? I was in the cut by the side of the road. Farther up at the top was the all–night diner, its neon sign shining out over the valley. There, I need company. I don't know what happened, but I need company. The engine started smoothly and I turned onto the empty road and headed up to the diner. I still felt the panic of being trapped immovable, frozen in stone. I shuddered and stepped on the gas.

No cars were parked in front of the diner. Just one at the far end of the lot. A worker or the owner. My hand was trembling as I tried to remove the keys from the ignition. When I pushed through the door my arms were trembling, I was trembling. The big man behind the counter turned and raided his eyebrows when he looked at me. He looked like I would imagine a top sergeant.

"Coffee.....yes, coffee,....." I couldn't even talk well. His voice was soft for a rough looking guy.

"You okay, Mac?" He brought a cup and the pot and poured.

"Yes.....I think so." I reached for the cup and saw my hands were badly cut and torn and bloody.

"What happened to your hands?" As he asked another customer came in and sat a few stools down the counter. He nodded to me and looked at the owner.

"Hi, Jimmy." Jimmy nodded at him and put the pot back on the coffeemaker. He turned back to me.

"So, what happened?"

"I don't know. I stopped down the road, in the cut, and was looking....around. And I saw that old building on the edge of the cliff. And....and...." Jimmy waited and the new customer looked at him strangely. "And I had a bad experience. That's all, a bad experience."

The customer screwed up his face. "What building?"

"That old one on top of the cut. Whatever it was. A hospital, a jail....big and old."

"The asylum."

I shuddered at the thought of being in an asylum. "I don't know. Maybe, you do."

"It was an asylum, but it was closed down."

"Well, they should lock it up."

The guy gave a sour grin. "It's gone, mister. Tore it down nearly a hundred years ago. Too much bad stuff happening. Suicides, deaths of strange kinds. Got so weird they closed it. Never could explain what was wrong with that building. Evil place."

I couldn't believe it. I stared at my bloody fingers shaking. "But last night I......"

"There's nothing there, mister. It was torn down and the stone used in other stuff."

"But...what?....oh, my god." I reached for my coffee, but Jimmy pulled it back.

"You better go clean up a little, Pop. Look at your hands. Look, I'll make you some breakfast, too. You'll feel better."

That was annoying. "Who are you calling Pop?"

Jimmy shrugged. "Go on, get cleaned up. The bathroom is down the end."

The customer spoke as I went. "Coffee, Jimmy. The old guy's having a hard time keeping it together. He looks a mess."

"Screw him." I mumbled at him and pushed through the restroom door, stared into the mirror and screamed. I staggered out along the counter and headed for the door. I waved wildly when Jimmy called after me.

"Hey, old man, I have breakfast for you. Wait a minute." I stopped and stared at him. He reached out his hand. "Here, at least, take your stuff." He reached across for my hand, slapped something into my palm. "There, now sit down and eat something."

I turned away and headed unsteadily for the door.

***

I staggered through the house, bumping into furniture, aching in every bone.... from fatigue? .....the guys at the diner had said 'old man'.....from age? I didn't remember driving or how I got in. I blundered into the broad sweep of bedroom, stopped and swayed on the edge of falling. In the dressing table mirrors across the room, an apparition seemed to sway, too, and stare back at me. What was I seeing? I stumbled to the mirrors. What is this horror?

Dirty white hair spiking out of the skull, the hunched shoulders and gray skin taut over the face, the bloody chin and torn clothes. The filthy wretched whatever–it–was, dark hollows in the face with the sunken wild eyes staring at me.....the eyes...those eyes....oh, god... my eyes. My eyes. I lifted my clenched hands and opened them. What was held in one palm clunked on the tabletop as I unwound the bloody fingers stripped to the white cracked bone from clawing. I remembered the desperate clawing to escape. I remembered. I remembered it all, the terror.

I glanced down and the old fashioned, rusty key lay there. This had all happened, the key was real, the key proved it. But where was I? I peered into the mirror, squinted to change the image. but the horror stayed. Those bulging, staring eyes. Where was I? Me? That wealthy, nice looking forty–year–old? That lucky guy with the tennis tan and a whole new life to live?

All the years between that guy and the thing in the mirror. The time gone, the years. The empty loss draining my life away. My life just gone, vanished.....and only this.....thing in the mirror.

I clenched my bloody–boned hands and smashed at the thief, that thing in the mirror. The reflection shattered into a hundred pieces and a hundred pair of those terrible eyes were drilling at me from the table top, the floor, all around me......and I screamed.......and screamed.....and..

And that's my story.

I tell it to my son, when he visits. We talk quietly, I talk quietly. He doesn't come as often anymore. Maybe he gets tired of hearing my story every time. Sometimes I think he may think it's not true.

The attendant listens patiently. I tell him the story easy and soft every supper time while he waits to take my plates and checks that I'm okay for the night. I tell him that I'm a sane guy and, please, pass my story on to his superiors. Or the doctors. He says he will, but never does. Then he closes the slide in the door and I'm alone. The day showing through the window high in the wall starts fading then and, as the room gets darker, the walls seem closer. The room is comfortable enough with soft walls and floor. But, as the darkness goes to black, the walls seem to get tighter and squeeze my life and the terror returns for another night.....like the past nights.....and all the nights to come. The night tortures me more because I know I'm sane and I know this will be happening forever and no one will ever believe me......and I scream....and scream...

And I scream into the darkness…

The End

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