The door was locked, just as Daniel Brown anticipated. He gently rattled the doorknob to show Frank that his suspicion hadn’t been unwarranted after all. The window panes rattled noisily and the white paint, grayed with age, threatened to flake from the splintered wood of the heavy door. Frank simply nudged Daniel aside and sharply elbowed through the pane of glass nearest the bolt lock.
Daniel quickly edged along the back of the house, peering around the corner to see if anyone had heard the splash of broken glass tinkling on the floor inside. He watched the house directly across the road, anticipating a porch light to turn on. Fortunately it seemed as if the neighbors were either asleep or simply had not heard the racket. He rolled his long flannel sleeves over his forearms, suddenly feeling chilly.
“Would you relax?” Frank said, breaking the weighted silence. He spoke to Daniel as if he was a child. “I told you already, the old man died over a week ago and nobody’s been here since. Nobody’s watching the place. There’s no such thing as ghosts. It’ll be an easy job, I promise.”
“Yeah okay, but you make enough noise to wake the dead.” Daniel harshly whispered, taking another glance at the dark house across the road before joining Frank again.
Frank smirked and slid his arm through the dark square vacated by the broken pane and a moment later a metallic sliding sound indicated the door was unlocked. As Frank withdrew his hand he hissed with a sharp intake of breath after his hand raked across a jagged shard of glass remaining in the door. Blood quickly trailed down his hand and dribbled on the porch.
“Are you serious?” Daniel punched Frank’s arm. “You’re leaving evidence all over the place. I hope there’s some bleach in the house.”
“Calm down! This isn’t a murder scene. Nobody is going to swab for DNA to investigate a simple breakin.”
Frank pulled the sweaty bandana off his head and wrapped it around his hand and gestured an after-you to Daniel.
With a new-found extra cautiousness in order to not leave evidence, Daniel used his shirttail and wiped the doorknob clean before giving it a quick twist. The door quietly glided open under its own weight until it rested at about a forty degree angle. Dust motes swirled in the dark abandoned kitchen beyond the entrance.
“Dude, how many doors do you know that can open by themselves like that?” Daniel asked.
Frank sighed and shoved Daniel across the threshold. “This house is at least 150 years old, dude. I’d honestly be shocked if it didn’t sag in the middle. Just watch your step so you don’t fall through the floor or something. Don’t think I won’t just leave you here if you do. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but make sure the curtains are closed before you turn on your flashlight.”
Frank stepped around a small dining table and chair and crossed the kitchen before disappearing into what looked to be the study and pulled a door shut behind him. Watching him, Daniel wished he was as polished and confident as Frank was.
Daniel took his time to explore the kitchen. The floorboard groaned under his weight. Surely Frank was joking about falling through. A silver shaft of light from the full moon dimly lit half the room. The other half was buried in deep shadows where shapes were difficult to discern. A quick inventory of the cabinets revealed they were largely bare, save for a few heavy plates and delicate looking tea cups and bowls. The backsplashes and walls were heavily marked with some sort of chaotic graffiti. Maybe someone else had already broken in before he and Frank and had left their mark. An old stock pot rested atop the gas stove but the room was too dark to see if there was anything in the bottom of it without tilting it. Daniel finally peeled off through the other small hallway that exited the room and entered the living room.
The living room was very large, probably as big as Daniel’s entire downtown studio apartment. Seeing the curtains closed, he turned on his cell phone flashlight. It cast long distorted shadows along the walls that contorted and danced with each movement he made. Portraits of strange looking people adorned the walls. He didn’t linger long on any of the faces but one, he swore, looked almost fishlike, with bulbous eyes and a swollen neck. Another very large painting depicted what looked to be a dog man with red eyes who was eating someone. It was beyond off-putting.
Everything in the room that the shadows peeled away from filled Daniel with dread. The room’s large sooty brick fireplace sat between two massive floor to ceiling shelves that were built into the wall. Two old wingback chairs with elaborately designed red and gold upholstery sat in the middle of the room, angled toward the fireplace. A dark brown wooden table with ornately carved decorative grooves sat between the chairs. A strange idol representing an even stranger winged creature with an octopus head rested on it. The space above the fireplace was bare except for a large crudely painted symbol that appeared strangely like a tree branch with five smaller limbs growing from it. Upon closer examination, Daniel found that the fireplace mantel had stars carved into it with what appeared to be an eye in the center of each star.
A thin film of dust seemed to coat every surface and the room was both cool and clammy, almost as if the house itself was suffering from an illness. Daniel regretted ever setting foot in the place, but recently circumstances had gotten desperate. He had unceremoniously been let go from the factory after testing positive for pot in his system and now rent was well past due. It was shocking how much that tiny studio cost every month. Frank, Daniel’s dealer, had promised that the old eccentric Benjamin Harris would certainly have all kinds of weird stuff to sell to a fencer Frank knew.
Rumor had it Old Man Harris was a collector of oddities and had several ‘cursed’ artifacts from all over the world. An even darker rumor had it that Old Man Harris may not even be dead at all. Supposedly he had disappeared from his hospital room the same day they had hauled him out of this house on a gurney. He was delirious and terrified and when the nurse making her rounds went to check on him, his third floor room window was broken and he was simply gone. Neither Daniel nor Frank believed any of that weird stuff. But Daniel certainly did believe in getting busted for burglary. Daniel hoped Frank had found something worthwhile because so far for him, the house was far more spooky than profitable.
Frank wasn’t sure where to begin. The circular windowless room was probably twenty feet in diameter and fifteen feet tall. He found and tried a lightswitch and the overhead bulb flickered and lit up. A lucky break, the electricity was still on. He was able to take a full inventory of the room. A lonely desk and chair were surrounded by walls lined with recessed shelves. All the shelves were completely stuffed full with old looking books, wooden boxes, glass containers, and other strange paraphernalia.
He scanned a row of book titles: Collected Notes of Titus Crow, Collected Notes of Professor Laban Shrewsbury, Cultes des Goules… none of the titles meant anything to him. But maybe they would to somebody. Hopefully somebody with more money than sense. Surely there were enough weird rich people in the world who would want this crap.
On a shelf across the room was a rectangular glass box containing an envelope yellowed with age labeled Kaogri Plane. Frank examined the box. He slid his fingers across the edges looking for an access hatch, but it appeared to be perfectly sealed. He slid the box off the shelf and rotated it in his hands. The envelope tumbled within the enclosure but there was no way of extracting it. He threw the case on the floor, sending glittering shards across the hardwood. The envelope rested at his feet no worse for wear.
As he bent to pick it up, Daniel rushed into the room. “What happened?” he shouted as quietly as possible. If his eyes were any wider, they’d risk falling out.
“The case fell. I’m having all sorts of bad luck with glass tonight, it seems.”
“Seriously?” Daniel ran back to the living room to check out the windows, half expecting to see a sea of blue and red flashes in front of the house. Fortunately he only saw his own terrified ghostly reflection. The neighbor’s house was still dark as well.
Frank weighed the envelope in his hand. It was thick and heavy. Hoping weight equaled value, he ran his thumb along the envelope flap. Tiny yellow dust motes leapt from the ripped seam. He pulled the paper from inside. Or maybe it wasn’t paper. It felt considerably thicker than any paper he’d ever handled and had retained a strange elasticity despite its obvious age. He unfolded it and he found it was covered with bizarre symbols he didn’t recognize. They looked as if they were raised like Braille, or as if the ink had dried very thick. He ran his fingers across the strange shapes, leaving a rusty smudge of dried blood across the page. The symbols seemed to warm slightly under his fingers.
The overhead light flickered, buzzed loudly, and eventually came back to life. He heard a whispered breath of sound and a faint breeze that raised the hair on his neck and brought with it the scent he could only describe as ozone and sulphur. He turned to see that, somehow, a perfect circle had formed and was floating in the room behind him. The circle was the darkest example of black Frank had ever seen. It was almost as if it wasn’t actually black, but just a lack of anything, color or otherwise.
Daniel reentered the room, a sheen of sweat covered his forehead. His voice trembled as if he was on the verge of a panic attack. His words tumbled out in rapid succession. “Dude, seriously, you really need to stop breaking things. I mean, you’re killing me, man. Someone is going to call the cops on us soon. We should really just grab some of this stuff and get out of here. Look, here’s a violin. It says Zann on it. I’m sure that’s an expensive brand based on all the other old stuff this guy has. What’s that smell?”
Frank barely noticed Daniel. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the strange black circle in front of him.
Daniel looked at the wall opposite of Frank and saw nothing. “Hey, did you hear me? What are you staring at?” He attempted to trace his line of sight with his own eyes and still couldn’t see anything. “Are you alright, man?”
Frank’s face was still frozen in what appeared to be deep concentration or heavy confusion.
Daniel crossed the room and finally saw it come into his peripheral vision. It was the oddest thing he’d ever seen. It was as if a two-dimensional circle was floating in the center of the room like the type ACME used to make in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. But this one gave off a vibe. A bad vibe. Daniel walked a wide circle around it.
“What is that thing?” Daniel whispered, voice shaking worse than before.
“Would you just shut up for a minute? I don’t know what it is.”
A strange distant sound resonated in the room. But it wasn’t exactly in the room. It had come from somewhere else.
Frank stepped closer to the circle, straining his eyes while looking into the circle, to see through the darkness, hoping to steal a glance of anything. He was sure there was something other than just blackness. He could almost feel it. Maybe that was the way cavemen felt when they approached a dark cave looking for shelter. The closer he got, the more the circle somehow seemed to him as if it was a hole instead of a flat circle, but there was no way of proving that theory outside of reaching through it. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that experiment just yet.
He heard the strange sound again. It was familiar. It reminded him of a sound he had heard from a recording in the school library years back. Impossibly, it sounded like a whale song. Yet as impossible as it was, he heard it yet again, but louder and closer.
He was nearly up against the circle now, peering through like a lost sailor searching for land while stranded at sea. But the dark was limitless and the sense of foreboding seemed to spill into the room.
That was until he saw something stirring in the darkness. But it was just on the periphery of the light source. It was almost as if whatever was beyond the circle was completely dark and the only illumination provided was the light from the room Frank was standing in. Somehow the strange paper he had investigated, what seemed like several minutes ago, had somehow punched a hole between two worlds. This strange, stygian existence now had a pinprick glimpse of a world with light and Frank was standing at the threshold between the two.
Frank stepped aside as if to allow more light to penetrate the inky blackness and caught another glimpse of something moving. It was massive, much larger than himself. And it appeared to glide through the water, air, or whatever it was in, much like a squid would in a tank in the aquarium up north near Cincinnati. In one smooth movement, the beast slid in and out of view, bellowing that sorrowful sound as it passed. The floorboards vibrated this time.
Frank felt his eyes well up. A feeling of vast inadequacy he couldn’t quite describe washed over him. Whatever he was witnessing was so much bigger than him. Not only bigger in size, but grander in the cosmic sense. There were no books he’d ever read that even came close to describing what he was witnessing or to prepare him for such an existential gutpunch. In all likelihood it was because nobody but himself and maybe Old Man Harris has ever seen it.
Daniel edged closer. “Are you alright?”
Frank wiped his eyes with the clean portion of his bandana. “Yeah, I’m great. Start loading up some of those books. Grab your violin if you want. I mean, we’ve found the Fort Knox of weird stuff.”
“I’m not so sure about this anymore, man.” Daniel gestured toward the circle, “I mean, look at this thing. What if something comes out of there?”
Frank turned back to the circle. The creature swam past again, this time seemingly right next to the portal, close enough to touch. He reached out without thinking. He stopped just short of the circle, hesitating momentarily before slowly advancing his hand further. The splotchy pink, milky flesh of the creature slid past like a perpetual train car.
“For the love of God, please tell me you’re not going to touch that thing, Frank.”
“Look at it, Daniel. There is no god.”
Frank reached through the hole and his fingertips grazed the flesh of the creature for a brief moment. It cried out and darted away impossibly fast somewhere into the darkness. Frank retracted his hand and noticed a strange film covering his fingers. It reminded him of the one time his old man had taken him fishing. Frank was five at the time and had managed to catch a sunfish. He was proud of himself for hooking and reeling it without any help. He was insistent that he could take it off the hook by himself too. He did his best to grip it as it swung in circles around his upturned pole, but its fin stood on end and stabbed into his palm. He dropped the pole into the water and spilled his old man’s beer. After the old man slapped him in the face, he remembered the sensation of swirling his thumb over his fingers, allowing that slimy feeling to distract him from the throbbing caused by both the fin and the slap.
“Grab some books, Daniel!” Frank barked, suddenly self-conscious from the memory.
Before Daniel could turn, something darted out from the hole and impaled Frank through his chest. It was sharp but bulbous like the tip of a scorpion’s tail. But after it had burst through his chest, it frayed into dozens of tiny tendrils that wrapped around him. The whole event was in the space of a couple seconds. Frank was unconsciously rubbing his thumb over his fingers and gargling before being fully wrapped in a pink and white fleshy cocoon and dragged through the hole. His body was too big to fit, but that didn’t stop the creature from taking him. Bones cracking in rapid succession and the shower of blood that ran between the tendrils was the final and most vivid memory of Frank that Daniel would ever have.
Once Frank was gone the hole belched blue steam, and with an inverted pop that instantly sent a stabbing pain through Daniel’s ears, the hole was gone.
Daniel took a moment to get his bearings. He couldn’t hear anything other than ringing. Blood trickled from both ears. When the hole disappeared, it must have taken the lightbulb with it. The room was completely dark. Daniel furiously fished his phone from his pocket and turned on its flashlight. He was dizzy and sick but he clamored to his feet and rushed through the door and nearly tumbled over the kitchen chair before bolting out the backdoor straight into a police officer’s arms.