A searing lance of sunset fire framed the evening sky in slow motion, lending everything the subdued color of flame. I pulled the car into my spot and killed the engine, watching the gap to the back paths. I imagined it was glaring back at me, the shadows beyond wavering strangely in the dim orange twilight.
My neighbor, Mike, carried a large spool of electrical wire close to his rumpled black Megadeth t-shirt. "How come you get the sledgehammer?"
Getting out and pulling the heavy tool from the backseat, I ripped the barcode sticker off and hefted it in both hands. Not wanting to give any of my plans away, I gave him no answer. He followed anyway, probably still uncertain whether I was serious.
"Tie one end around this bush," I said, indicating a plant immediately outside the gap. As he did so, I briefly rested the sledgehammer on the ground and pulled my jacket tighter.
"There's not a cloud in the sky," he said, billowing his t-shirt with one hand and sweating slightly from the heat.
I narrowed my eyes. "You should really wear a jacket."
"Fine man, fine." He turned to walk back to his apartment.
I stood there waiting, unsure if he was going to return. The fire in the sky lost some of its glow with each passing minute, leaving the bit of back path I could see increasingly shrouded in gloom. Finally, he came back, walking up with a windbreaker open and flapping, and his hands in his pockets. His eyes were a little more bloodshot than before.
Shrugging, I hefted the sledgehammer and led the way through the gap.
The canopy overhead and the framing high walls immediately brought heavy silence and orange-cast murkiness.
Mike held the spool, unwinding it as we walked. At random intervals, he laughed quietly to himself.
"Quiet," I whispered harshly. "There's something in here, remember."
He chuckled and blinked heavily. "Looks the same as ever to me, man."
And it did. The brick path stretched away in either direction, following the backsides of the apartment buildings. We came to the first picnic bench, flanked by two large bushes. Looking around, ensuring we were alone, I took out my pocket knife and cut a letter on the unseen bottom side of the table.
Walking further, we came to another gap in the brick wall, finding ourselves at another carport in the development.
"Doesn't seem weird to me," he said apologetically.
Not sure what to do, I led us both back to the picnic table. The letter I'd carved remained underneath. "I've run through here a thousand times," I said, studying the paths. "I wasn't paying attention when it happened. Maybe that's the key."
He made a confused face. "How do we not pay attention when we know we're trying not to pay attention?"
We sat for a moment, at a loss, until I had a thought. "Close our eyes and walk?"
He shrugged, and we moved to the corner, facing down a long straightaway that led deeper into the back paths. Closing my eyes, I stepped forward, slowed only slightly by his hand gripping the tail end of my jacket.
Carefully taking one step at a time, I clutched the sledgehammer close and put one hand out, anticipating a hedge or a tree at any moment. The evening air was unpleasantly warm and humid even under the trees, and I seemed to be reaching into hot, silent emptiness. My anticipation of the oncoming corner rose to a painful height - but, still, nothing met my fingers.
As the sightless creeping wore on, I began counting my steps. Five… ten… fifty… when I reached a hundred, I was certain something was wrong. I finally opened my eyes.
My outstretched hand hung less than an inch from a twisted, rusted blade. Jumping back into Mike, I stared at the blighted, misshapen antique street sign that had nearly sliced my hand in two. The words had been weather-worn beyond readability.
"What the hell?" he asked, opening his eyes.
We both looked around. The sidewalk and lining trees remained, but the visible walls beyond now ran with a strange style of stucco.
"I told you!" I whispered, holding the sledgehammer higher. "First things first - let's follow this wire back, make sure we can get out."
"We might not be able to get out?" he asked, worried.
I winced. "Um, well I did last time, I'm sure we'll be fine."
Except the wire we'd spooled out led right into a brick wall, disappearing into it right where a gap should have been.
"Holy shit," Mike said, dropping the spool.
I regarded the brick, unconcerned. "I thought this might happen." Lifting the sledgehammer back, I brought it forward with all my strength. A large piece of brick fell out, and I hit it again, and then a third time, swinging until the single-layer brick gave way. Smashing out a large gap, we peered through.
On the other side sat a parking lot full of cars.
An almost manic smile crept across my face.
Our return assured, Mike picked up the spool again and reluctantly followed me further into the back paths. Down several long straightaways and through three four-way junctions, we found another picnic table, this one near a darkly shimmering pool of black water. I checked under the table, finding the symbol I'd carved - though what that meant, I wasn't yet sure. Studying the little pool, little ripples told us of the light rain beginning overhead before either of us felt it first-hand.
"Told you we'd need jackets," I said, listening to the patter begin on the leaves overhead as the shade grew darker. The orange tint was gone, slowly replaced by the fuzzy inky blue found only at the edge of true night. Peering down the paths as we walked, straining to see, we both jumped at shifting, malformed shadows that repeatedly turned out to be tricks of the eye.
A crack of thunder resounded overhead, and the rain began dripping from the leaves overhead in earnest.
Mike shivered and raised his hood. "This sucks man, maybe we should go back."
Before I had a chance to reply, we rounded a corner and came across a horrific sight. A mangled mass of flesh and black gore lay splattered across the sidewalk, a long trail of fleshy bits and smeared filth leading away in the direction we'd intended to go. The entire terrible display seemed to subtly shift and change in the eye-defying darkness. I even imagined I saw some of the creature's severed fingers still moving about in their puddle, but I chalked it up to the splattering rain.
"That's the thing I saw," I whispered, frozen in place.
"That's the thing?" he whispered back. "Then what did that to it?"
I shook my head. "I think we need to risk one shout."
"What?" he hissed, wiping rain water from his face. "Are you crazy right now?"
"The little girl responded last time I shouted. And we can't wander around in here forever."
He seemed terrified, but relented. Cautiously moving the opposite direction from the ravaged corpse, I gave one quick, hoarse yell. "Hello?"
The sound seemed to echo for nearly twenty seconds.
We stood, silent, hearts pounding.
A small cry came from a path to our right.
Running quickly and quietly that direction, we stopped at a four-way intersection, not sure where to turn. A tapping sounded below our feet, and we both jumped back in fright. It took a moment for us to realize that a pair of small eyes was watching us from below a sewer grate. It took another moment for us to grip the grate through inch-deep rivulets of pouring rain and throw it to the side.
Mike pulled her out from down below. It was the little girl he'd described, albeit covered in dirt and soaked to the bone. Screwing up her face in fear, she pointed behind us.
We didn't waste any time looking. Mike scooped her up, and we took off running along the lain wire, splashing through ankle deep water and trying not to lose the trail. I realized we would never be able to keep following the wire if the water grew any deeper.
"Wait!" I hissed, stopping at a space of brick wall. "We don't have to go all the way back to ours!"
Hefting the sledgehammer, I bashed the wall repeatedly, breaking pieces off with agonizing slowness. Heart pounding, I slammed again and again, trying to get through before -
I sensed Mike and the girl tense. I turned.
I blinked against the rain running down my face, peering into the shifting darkness along the path behind us. Lightning flashed, searing the scene in bright detail - but I saw nothing. Thunder rolled, and I turned away, hammering at the wall again.
"There!" the little girl screamed.
I turned back again, wearily lifting the hammer in case of attack. Eyes wide to soak in the barest of light still reaching us through the storm, I scanned the path. And still… nothing!
One more swing sent a large section of the wall crumbling back, the knee-high water flowing through eagerly. Mike pushed the little girl through, and then clambered through after her. Watching him squeeze through, I waited, senses on fire with adrenaline. Every raindrop and splash seemed to sear my ears, and every second seemed to stretch on eternally as I waited for Mike to finish getting through…
I leapt around as I heard a different kind of splash behind me.
Staring around in terror, waiting for a flash of lightning to light up the path, I still saw nothing… getting a sudden notion that there was a very obvious place for something to hide, I dropped the sledgehammer and leapt out of the thigh-high surging rainwater.
Gripping branches, I climbed up into the closest tree, watching as another burst of lightning illuminated some grotesque series of shadows in the water below. The following thunder nearly shook me out of the tree… but I climbed higher, resolving to go right over the brick wall.
Laughing loudly, I refused to fall from the slick branches, clawing my way upwards. I could see it, lit intermittently by eyeball-searing lightning - the top of the brick wall, just out of reach. Clambering up another branch, then a second, and a third, I reached out a hand -
...and suddenly I was slipping, falling in a panic, though not the way I would have expected. My body seemed to tumble, my orientation shifting, as I desperately grabbed at thick tree branches and came to a painful stop as one met my chest. Groaning, I dug my fingers into the nearby branches and tried to comprehend what I was seeing below. The lightning was now flashing intermittently under me… in the water? No - I was upside down!
I clutched the tree harder as I realized it was the only thing between me and the infinite void of sky below. The stormclouds pulsed menacingly, blinking with bursts of lightning, shaking the tree against me with riotous thunder, and shooting waves of rain up at me. Confused and horrified, I looked up, seeing a ceiling of water still bubbling madly in a constrained path, that impossible shape still moving underneath, waiting for me…
The chilly, rain-soaked minutes passed as I tried to think of a way out. I could climb up and get torn apart by that lurking horror, or I could let go and fall forever… I'd never felt quite that way before, feeling the certainty of death circling in on all sides. Clinging to those branches, I thought about my life and everything I'd done, everything I wanted to do. Would it all end here in this otherworldly nightmare?
Shivering, feeling my strength fading, I studied the wall next to me. It came down from above, stopping just out of reach, a crowning upside down light fixture mocking my need for light with its broken bulb. Judging the distance by flashes of lightning, I guessed that I had only one way out. Doing my best to summon all my courage, I managed to make the wild split-second decision.
Bracing my feet and edging as far forward as I dared, I leapt out toward the wall.
Soaring through what I knew was endless void, my grasping hands found that light fixture, and I grappled desperately with it, curling and writhing in the air. With only a few seconds of grip on the rain-slicked metal, I let myself swing further forward, and I let go. I swung impossibly in the air, circling too fast to comprehend, my orientation lost.
A large, flat surface smacked into me bodily, knocking the wind from my lungs and bashing my face without compassion.
"Holy crap man, how'd you do that?" Mike shouted, running over to me. He waved his hand up at the wall that was now properly above us, indicating what had probably been an insane and impossible acrobatic sight.
Wiping dirt from my face, I sat up slowly, looking back in shock at the now-normal gap to the back paths. The carport's lamps cast a slight illumination beyond, showing nothing but normal sidewalk.
Gripping my head with one hand, I stumbled to my feet. "I'm… I'm going home…" I mumbled, glancing at the little girl, who clung to Mike's leg. "Take her home, will you. Don't tell anyone about this…"
He stared at me. "Like I was going to?"
Staggering toward my apartment, my soaked clothes slopping around me uncomfortably as I walked, I resolved to sleep for the next two days straight. Had anything I'd seen been real? What the hell was that place? I had the strangest feeling that the back paths and I had played a game, that it had been learning and adapting as we played… and that I'd made it furious by escaping twice. It would react brutally if I entered a third time, I knew - but no matter, I was never going near those paths ever again.
I reached my apartment with no small relief. Turning the key in the door, I opened it slightly, and then paused. A white card had been nailed to my door, with large red letters emblazoned across it - GLORWOC. Confused, I looked to my left and right, noticing the same card on each visible door.
It was then I noticed the smell wafting from inside my apartment.
A male yell of sheer terror rang out from across the carport, a shout of warning meant for me. Mike ran out between the cars holding the little girl, shouting something at the top of his lungs.
I closed the door to my apartment softly, remaining outside. My tired gaze fell on my scraped up hands and legs. I laughed softly. Of course… of course… and it'd been my idea to try a different gap to escape. How foolish to assume all the gaps in that mind-bending nightmare exited to the same place… we weren't home, not at all.
We had to go back in…