José picked up one of the puzzles on the coffee table. There was an entire wooden box filled with brain teasers made from bent nails, chains and horse shoes. Each one with its own secret, invisible to the uninitiated. José knew the secrets, but he was searching for more.
“Christine and Aaron should be getting here in about an hour,” Stephani said, coming from the kitchen. “The table is set and dinner’s in the oven.”
Stephani sat on the arm of the recliner José was sitting in. She watched deft fingers move across the bent metal. José, so deeply focused on the puzzle, didn’t even acknowledge his wife sit next to him.
“You could’ve at least helped a little,” Stephani said. “It’s not like they aren’t your friends too.”
“Uh huh,” José responded. His attention never leaving the puzzle.
Stephani let her hands fall to her legs, hard enough to make a smacking sound, and tilted her head. Wasn’t it bad enough that he didn’t help? But now he couldn’t even listen to her. She watched on while he fiddled with the puzzle, no closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and felt heat rushing to her cheeks. The fire burning deep inside was being fanned.
“You know,” she said, “I wish you were as interested in me as you are with those stupid puzzles. I swear, if I walked out here buck naked and laid on the table, you’d be more concerned that I moved your box, than trying to fill mine.”
“Are you planning on doing that?” José asked, up from the puzzle for the first time looking to meet her gaze.
“Well, I don’t need to worry about it then.”
Stephani snarled slightly, trying to find something to say that wouldn’t escalate things, but couldn’t. She ran her hand through her hair and glanced around the room, her teeth clenched. She wanted to tell him how much of a dick he was being. How much she hated when he got into these moods, when all he would care about was the puzzles.
For the most part, he wasn’t like this, sure, he would tinker with things, but after a while he’d grow bored with them. Sometimes, it only took a few minutes, other times, it was a couple hours. But when he was finished, he was back to the man she married.
To satisfy her discontent, she stood briskly and stormed out the room. A knock stopped her midway to her solace in the kitchen. Stephani waited behind the recliner, watching José. It was as if he had become deaf. Even when the knock came again, he didn’t even flinch.
“Why don’t I get the door?” she asked. She glared at him, eyes narrowed to slits sharp enough to cut. Still he didn’t notice her.
Stephani breathed deep to collect her thoughts when she reached the door. Ran her hands over her dress to smooth any wrinkles from sitting, and put on the best fake smile she could, and opened the door.
“Wow,” Stephani said, “didn’t expect you guys early. Didn’t expect you guys on time, either though.”
Aaron smiled at her.
“Yeah, it has to be the first time Christine was ready to go on time,” he said.
“That’s just like you,” José called, walking to the door. “Blaming your old lady for making you late. Even in college you couldn’t make it to class on time.”
Stephani saw him coming. At least he’s going to be part of the group, she thought.
Aaron and José hugged each other, patting each other’s back. Afterwards, José gave Christine a less affectionate hug.
“How’re you?” José asked Christine.
“I’ve been great,” she responded. “I’m working on getting a promotion. More money for less work, that’s my dream.”
“Mine too,” José said. “Only, you’re IT, you don’t have that much to do anyway. I’m still stuck in construction. Good thing I went to college, right?”
“I’m not doing shit with my degree either, man,” Aaron said. “If I’d known I was going to be filing paperwork for a law firm, I wouldn’t have even gone to college.”
“Good thing you did,” Stephani said. “Otherwise, how would you’ve meet Christine? Anyway, dinner is cooking, have a seat and I’ll get you a drink.”
“When’s the show start?” Christine asked.
“Not until eight,” Aaron said, sitting on the couch next to her.
Stephani returned, placed a glass in front of each of them before sitting on the loveseat across from José. Aaron raised his drink to his lips, smiled, and took a big gulp. He grimaced slightly before placing it back on the coffee table.
“I’m excited, it’s goin’…” Stephani started, but something caught her attention.
The smell of her roast and apple cinnamon candles grew fainter, until it vanished completely. It gave way to the smell of atmosphere, like the start of a storm on a hot summer day.
She wasn’t alone, the others noticed something was off also. The air thickened. Stephani swallowed hard, trying to clear her throat. The laughter and chatter ceased, the partygoers rubbed at their necks and pulled their collars, in attempts to breathe easier. All eyes were on the center of the room. Not the ceiling or floor, not the walls, but the nothingness between.
A sphere hung in the center of the room. A transparent void four feet, hovered inches above the table. Something that caused the people and items behind it to shimmer and ripple, like watching something underwater. Casting a funhouse mirror effect on José, his head disproportionate to his body, twisted and gnarled.
The cocktail napkins billowed on the table. One floated from the surface, flipped, then drifted down. Once it made contact, it was sucked into the void. The rest of the napkins followed, one by one vanishing into the glimmering thing.
Stephani watched slack-jawed, her awareness stuck in the voids gravitational pull. It was hypnotizing, like a hypnotist’s watch, but remaining static. Stationary with the exception of the slight shimmer it cast upon everything behind it.
The pull grew stronger. A glass shook. Aaron reached for it, but retreated when it slid slightly, only a few centimeters, but enough to make him reconsider. The liquor splashed and bubbled over the rim. Once free from the cup, those drops ascended to the void. The Drops slowly turned into a thin stream, until the cup was empty. That broke the sphere’s spell over Stephani.
She realized everyone was still awestruck by the appearance of the thing. The empty cup started to slide again. When it got to the center of the table, it lifted vanishing into the sphere.
Stephani noticed a rushing sound like a river. Once she was aware of it, she couldn’t stop hearing it. It was the sound that accompanied the cold breeze that ran across her.
“Hey,” she yelled, to José.
No one broke eye-contact with the sphere.
“Hey!” she yelled again, louder.
This time her voice carried over the rushing air and everyone looked at her. José rubbed his eyes.
“What the hell is that?” José asked.
Everyone shook their heads. Christine was saying something, but nobody could hear her over the sucking sound. When Aaron asked what she said, she just shrugged her shoulders.
José stood and was about to walk around the void, but stopped after taking a step to the side of the recliner. Stephani was shaking her head, her mouth was moving, but José couldn’t hear her.
“Don’t go near that thing,” Stephani said again. She reached out towards him, her fingers feeling the gravitational pressure. Instinctively, she pulled her hand back, examining it.
José looked from the void to Stephani and his friends, then back to the void. There was no doubt that this thing was strange, but was he intrigued enough to really start investigating what it was? Stephani hoped not.
Regardless of what she hoped, Stephani knew what he was thinking. The way his brow furrowed, how he bit his tongue, José was studying the sphere the same way he would one of his puzzles. But there was no telling what that thing was, or what it was going to do. She didn’t know if this thing was dangerous, or what it even was. Sure, she might have gotten frustrated with José, but she didn’t want him to get hurt.
With no way of knowing what he was going to do, José walked into the kitchen. Stephani called to him, taking small steps toward him, retreating once the pull got stronger. Too worried to move and too worried he was going to do something stupid to just sit idly by.
“José,” she screamed, “get the hell outta there. Let’s go.”
He didn’t seem to hear her, or didn’t care. With him being the farthest away from the vortex, Stephani moved her attention to her guests. They both seemed to be shaking, but it was hard to tell through the void.
“Let’s get outta here,” she screamed.
In the living room everything was unstable: knickknacks started to rattle on the bookshelves and entertainment center, a pillow was pulled off the couch and dragged across the floor. Christine was screaming at Aaron to get up so they could leave. It was clear anything and everything could become a projectile at any moment.
“Come on,” she yelled. “Why the hell are you just sitting there? Come on.”
She watched José as she waited for her friends. He was in the kitchen, rummaging through the cupboards, the void causing his body ripple.
Christine stood, pulling Aaron’s arm with both of hers. Trying to force him off the sofa and toward the door. Stephani saw Christine’s hair get sucked into the space with each pull. Vanishing for a second then returning to the living room.
“Chill out,” Stephani said to Christine. “If you keep pulling on Aaron’s arm and your grip slips, you’ll fall into that thing.”
Christine stopped instantly. She hadn’t thought of that, and now that the thought was there, she couldn’t shake it.
“Aaron,” she pleaded, “please.”
Aaron stood up. He looked from Christine to the sphere and back again, his face was a mix of emotions: from shock and horror to interest and wonder. His eyes left Christine’s, moved to Stephani, then to the kitchen.
Stephani searched around, not sure what to do, but knew they had to do something. She realized she was close enough to the door that she could get out without a problem. In fact, she thought she found a way everyone could get out safely.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Hey, if you walk on the furniture we can all reach the door. Once we’re there, we can just leave.”
The thin doormat lifted off the ground and flew a few inches before landing again, its tassels spinning and twirling wildly. It slapped the ground, but Stephani stepped on it keeping it from taking off.
Aaron put Christine on the couch and he quickly guided her towards the door, their movements swift and cautious. When they got to the end of the couch, they had to cross over to the loveseat. Once they got past that, they would be close enough to the door to escape.
Aaron started to push Christine to the edge of the couch, but she didn’t want to go first. She dug her feet into the cushion and refused. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she shook her head.
“You have to get to the loveseat,” he yelled. “You can do this.”
Christine shook her head. She said something, but no one heard it. Aaron didn’t even know that she spoke.
“Come on,” he yelled, “we got to move.”
Christine glanced back, praying for Aaron to tell her he was joking. To tell her she didn’t need to go. To tell her anything besides keep moving. But he didn’t. He only motioned with his head for her to go, which she did.
Christine stepped from the arm of the couch to the arm of the loveseat. She used to do it as a child all the time, but with the threat of being sucked into the sphere, it felt like a tightrope strung across the Grand Canyon. Once she had both feet on the love seat, Aaron started to follow.
Christine walked across the cushions, and looked back to see where Aaron was. He had one foot on the arm of the couch the other on the loveseat, when her foot fell between the cushions and she lost her balance. She started to fall towards the center of the room, her hair pulled by the suction of the vortex. Aaron moved quickly, and shoved her with one arm into the bay windows.
Her face hit the glass as she fell. The crank to open the window jabbed into her ribs, forcing her breath from her lungs in a sharp hiss. She moved her hand to her face and it came back sticky from the blood trickling from her nose. She glanced down at the crank that poked into her ribs, and grabbed it.
She cranked the handle frantically. The window inched opened, getting wider and wider in short jerky movements. Her arms burned from the effort, so she used both hands to turn the crank. Drops of blood splattered on the polished oak sill each time her knuckles banged against it, ripping the skin clean off. She was so focused on her task, she didn’t seem to notice her knuckles being rubbed raw.
Stephani watched her for a moment, then focused on the void. It wasn’t nearly as close to the couch as it was a couple minutes ago. In fact, it was far enough away that he thought they could walk on the floor without getting too close. Although, she didn’t plan on testing that theory.
“It’s getting smaller,” she shouted.
Everyone looked at what should have been empty space. It was getting smaller, but they still wanted to get out. There was still the strong ozone smell, and the vortex was still eating. Even though it was getting smaller its appetite had grown, sucking in heavier things. The coffee table started to shake, as the void’s power grew. Stephani felt the tug on her body and had to counter the suction to keep her balance. She wondered how hard it must be on the couch.
Christine couldn’t turn the crank any more, the window was opened as far as it could be. She pulled the screen out and tried to push her way through the slim opening of the window. Stephani knew she would fit. Apparently, so did Aaron; he grabbed her and pushed her towards the door. They jumped off the loveseat and opened the door. Christine ran out the door, and waited for Aaron and Stephani to join her, but they didn’t move. Both of their attention went to the kitchen, watching what José was doing.
Stephani yelled for José to get out of the house, but her voice was devoured by the void. She screamed louder, but he still couldn’t hear her. The others joined in, everyone crying out in unison.
Their pleas seemed to reach him. He turned and walked back to the living room, a cast iron skillet in his hand. With each step the frying pan bounced off his knee. If there was any pain, his face didn’t show it. His expression was of determinism and intrigue.
Everyone kept screaming.
“José, get out of there!”
He paid them no mind, and kept walking toward the sphere. His shirt was being billowed from his chest. His hair ruffled in the gravitational pull the thing created. For the first time since he left for the kitchen, he made eye contact with Stephani. His loving demeanor lasted only a moment before the sphere devoured his full attention once more.
José shoved the skillet into the shimmering sphere, the handle still far enough from the edge of the sphere for him to feel safe. It wasn’t long, only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. His breathing was labored from excitement, from fear, and trying to breathe while the air was being sucked from his lungs.
José removed the pan and felt, his fingers caressing the rough metal. It looked just as it had before he stuck it into the void. He shoved the skillet in once more, and this time he let go. Slowly, it sank towards the table below it, each second it sank, the handle was pulled deeper and deeper into the sphere. Stephani wondered if it would be pulled fully into the vortex. It wasn’t until it was about to break free, that the handle was sucked in, lost forever.
The nothingness had shrunk. The suction, however, seemed to be growing stronger. Despite all the signs that this thing was growing unstable, José shoved his hand into the sphere. Stephani screamed and tried to run to him, but was held back by Aaron and Christine.
It was strange to see his arm and hand vanish. His once whole arm was now severed just before the elbow. He kept it in the void for only a few moments before he pulled it back into the living room. All his fingers were still intact, all moving, his arm seemed fine, maybe a little withered, but fine all the same.
Stephani saw José look at her. His eyes glimmered and he gave her a smirk. Stephani, still held back by Aaron, tried to run to him again. She wanted to smack some sense into him. She knew Aaron was watching José and hoped that his grip would be looser, but it wasn’t. All three friends watched José shoved his head into the void.
“What the hell is he doing?” Stephani screamed.
She tried to run to her husband but Aaron’s hold tightened. This time it took a lot more effort to hold her back. She thrashed her arms and kicked her legs as Aaron lifted her off the ground and put her behind him. Christine shoved her into the wall, but Stephani punched her hard in the jaw. Christine loosened her grip, allowing Stephani to get another punch, this time in her nose.
Aaron shoved her back hard. Stephani’s head crashed into the metal door which caused searing white light to flash before her eyes. When the light faded, her vision was blurry and her head throbbed so strongly she couldn’t stand.
Aaron glanced around the room, looking at the people around him. Christine cupped her hands over her shattered nose, sobbing as the blood ran through her fingers. Stephani tried to stand again, but lost her balance and fell back against the door. José still stood with his head stuck in the void, which grew smaller and smaller at an alarming rate.
The sphere that once filled half the room was now only about a foot and a half. A book flew free from the book shelf, pulled at a high speed into the vortex. Another followed it, then another. The table shook violently, its legs danced across the floor, tapping a sickening beat.
Aaron ran to José and pulled hard against the void. His friend’s body didn’t budge. The sphere continued shrinking. If he didn’t get José out soon, well, he didn’t want to think about that.
He yanked and heaved. His arms began to glisten with a sheen of sweat. A book smashed into his back, but still he pulled. More and more of José head was coming free of the void. Aaron pulled again, as hard as he could and José came fully out of the vortex, falling on top of him.
Another book went flying into the sphere, and Aaron watched as the sphere winked out of existence. The book was cut in half when the void vanished and fell to the floor. A heavy silence had filled the room, but was broken by Christine’s screams.
Stephani’s vision was still blurred, but she staggered over to the recliner where José sat. If she hadn’t been able to see his body the entire time he was looking into the sphere, she wouldn’t have been able to identify him. She wasn’t sure if it was because her vision was distorted or if she was really seeing what she thought. Both hands rubbed her eyes, but José's new image hadn’t changed.
He opened his mouth to talk but no sound came out. He needed water. His lips were cracked and white, rough enough make an audible scratch each time they touched. Nevertheless, he tried to speak again, but only a rattling croak slipped out. So he made a motion of drinking from a glass. The first few times no one noticed, which caused him to do the motion in a more animated fashion. It was Christine who finally got the message, and left to get what he wanted.
She handed it to him with trembling hands, her eyes locked on his. Spilling it on the wood floor, as José snatched it from her hand. He gulped it down. Mouthfuls at a time, choking slightly with each swallow. But he drank too fast, and vomited what little made it to his stomach.
“More,” he was able to force out. The voice was rough, like a man who had smoked for the past fifty years.
Christine ran to refill the glass, not watching her step and slipping in the vomit. José wiped his mouth with the back of his hand once Christine had taken the glass.
“What happened?” Aaron asked.
José held up his hand, and looked over his shoulder towards the kitchen. His eyes fixed on Christine, who was coming back with another glass of water. Stephani still couldn’t take her eyes from José, but she still couldn’t speak either. She just watched wide-eyed and solemn.
When Christine came back, José took the glass gently this time. Sipping the water, so he wouldn’t vomit again. When he finished half of it, he placed it on the floor, and coughed to clear his throat.
“Why did you leave me there for so long?” José asked.
“Your head was only in there for a minute or two,” Aaron said.
José’s eyes met Aaron’s, his lip trembling. Aaron couldn’t take it and aimed his gaze toward floor.
“R-really? No, no I was there for years. You’re, you’re not Aaron. It’s just a trick.”
Christine placed her hand on his shoulder. He jerked away, his eyes cold as he stared at her.
“Get away from me. I know I’ve been gone longer. I’ve seen cities built and fall, the seasons come and go, and felt the entire time, day by agonizing day.”
“You look like it,” Stephani said. Her voice was quiet, soft. She was unsure she had spoken.
“What?” José snapped. Stephani saw a cold hatred in his eyes.
Stephani looked at him, then at the others. Aaron nodded to her and she walked into the bathroom. A few moments later she came back with a mirror and handed it to José. He peered into it for a while. The face he saw wasn’t one he was used to.
It was an old man’s face. His body was still young, his right hand was smooth, he hadn’t gained or lost any weight, his body looked the same it had before he put his head into the void, but his face and neck were withered. Deep wrinkles crossed his face, his eyes were dull and what was left his hair was thin and white. The mirror slipped from his shaking hand to the floor, cracking on impact.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Aaron said. He was kneeling next to the chair José was sitting in. One of his large hands rested on José knee. “Why don’t you tell us what you remember?”
José took another sip of water, spilling some down his chest. Christine gingerly took the glass from his shaking hand. Sweat sprang from his brow and his eyes grew wild.
“It was horrible,” he said. “For a while, I was just looking at a field under a pink sky, kind of like a sunset. But then I saw these monsters. Huge snake like creatures, longer than a bus and just as tall. At first I thought they saw me, but if they did they didn’t act on it. So, I just watched. They were fighting other things; writhing masses of tentacles, coming from something that looked like a tumor buried deep underneath. Instead of suckers, they had sharp talons attached to their appendages.
"Their battle was bloody, the snakes would attack, ripping parts of the squirming creatures away. But the lone tendrils would burst through the snake's body, and reform an entirely new monstrosity."
José leaned his head on the back of the recliner and closed his eyes. The group waited for him to keep talking, but they didn’t want to push him. So they sat there, watching him closely, until they were sure he had fallen asleep. Aaron shook his knee and José woke screaming.
Stephani sobbed as she stared at her husband. She couldn’t take seeing the man she just married, still young and energetic, become an old man in the span of a few minutes. However, she wasn’t able to look away. There was an urge deep within her to know, to learn, the secrets he’d unlocked. Her hands fiddled with her pants, her sleeves, her lower lip. She rubbed the floor, her hand slipping under the table, where it hit a piece of metal. When she pulled it out, it was one of José bent nail puzzles. Too keep her hands occupied, she start solve it. Her eyes were too blurry from the tears that streaked her mascara, so she wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing. Not that she would anyway, she couldn’t take her eyes from José.
“What else happened?” Christine asked.
José looked at her for a moment, his brow furrowed in his confusion. Then, everything came back to him and he remembered he was telling them what he saw.
“Those monsters were fighting for so long, it seemed like years. There was some kind of war. A war for the portal. Then they seemed to lose interest. The war was over, and I was left watching as those things raced from me to a hill not too far off. All because another portal opened, and they were racing to go through it.”