Gloom paints the faces of two figures in broad strokes of anguish and denial as they hasten to the exit of the tenement building in which they live, have lived most of their lives.
Reluctantly slowing as they near the doors leading to the endless City outside, the foremost figure whirls around to face the other, eyes already asking a question while their hands pat down their own body in a frantic search which they already know is futile. “Fuck!” they reflexively cry out as their hands come up empty from their search. “I left my kit back down there.” Following the last word, their hand extends back the way the two of them came. The cold, revealing lights installed running the length of the ceiling illuminates their hand, almost entirely covered in lines and fragments of writing – even their finger pointing downwards past the face of the other figure, whose own body is marked by myriad smears of dark and colorful paints, isn’t exempt from the piecemeal poetry that has been habitually scrawled upon them and saved with the promises of later days.
The questioning eyes of the Poet drop down to rest upon the dinged and dirty rebreather mask kit hanging by its worn straps on the side of the Artist. “You have your busted-ass one…”
“But that won’t help you much out there,” the Artist completes the other’s thought, their own gaze fixed still on the doors leading to the outside, to the untenable freedom of open caustic air.
A defeated, rattling sigh emanates seemingly from the core of the Poet’s being alone with an exasperated, “No… no, it won’t.”
“Guess that means we’re going back down,” the Artist matches their companion’s sigh with one that carries some degree of exhaustion alongside a growing resolution. “Not like we’d get far out there without a ride, anyway.”
“But… something’s wrong down there!” The Poet feels a certain loss for words that is deeply frustrating for them. “We can’t just… go back! You didn’t see what I saw… it doesn’t want us here!”
“I don’t know what I saw,” the Artist shrugs out in admittance. “But I know we can’t leave without a mask for both of us, and there isn’t much we can do just standing around up here.”
The Poet begins to retort, to argue, but as they turn back around to face the reinforced glass and steel sealed doors that offer an illusory escape to the rooftop vehicular port of the tenement’s entry level, their shoulders slump forward and all they let out is another rattled sigh, reiterating their feelings of defeat. They soon follow up with a small, almost breathless, “Can we at least ask for help? Someone up here might lend us a kit.”
“I mean… we can try,” the Artist offers back. “But I doubt it’ll work.”
“We can try,” the Poet repeats softly, nodding in shallow movements. “I’ll start here,” they add, gesturing to the surrounding apartment doors located near the entrance.
“Sure, I’ll go ask this end,” the Artist motions behind themselves to the doors closer to the back stairs leading downwards to the rest of the building. “Try to ask people we’ve met before – you know…” but the Poet had already begun to walk away toward their first attempt at gathering assistance, leaving the Artist to shrug again and turn around to proceed down the brightly lit but unadorned grey hall.
The Artist heads directly to the door for unit A-6, knowing it to be the residence of an individual their family had known for years while living in the tenement – an employee of some sort of labor-driven, well-respected business that was prominent in the City. The Artist had never been certain what exactly the detailed description of this position or organization was, but they knew enough to have reason to believe that the Laborer inside unit A-6 was capable enough, and possibly would even have the funds to potentially own an extra rebreather kit.
A quick succession of knocks, rat-tat-tat, on the door, and the Artist is left for a moment by themselves, eyes tracing the imperfect swirls and patterns embedded within the old wooden door. They don’t make them like this anymore, the Artist muses, and smiles a bit at this, amused by the mundanity of their thoughts at the moment. Probably not real wood though, I guess. Hasn’t been real wood used for a long time, now… years, even for the bougie fucks in the UC. And it was true that even the more fortunate denizens of the Upper City no longer got to enjoy luxuries such as real wood craftsmanship, although the Artist had little way of knowing this to be a true fact, having lived their entire life so far in one small corner of the sprawling labyrinth that was the Lower City. But, regardless, they felt it to be true, and it was.
The trailing thoughts of the Artist are broken off as the door to A-6 opens inwards, revealing the relatively tall frame that they knew to belong to the Laborer they had been seeking. The Artist’s face lights up as their eyes meet – a smile graces the corners of their mouth, which begins to move before the door is fully finished opening. “Hey! Sorry to bother you – I know you’re probably busy, but I was wondering if there’s any chance you had an extra kit laying around?” the Artist says brightly, most of their anxious demeanor having seemingly melted away in the time it took the door to open. “I just need to borrow one for a little while.”
The Laborer, looking like they had just recently woken up, breathes in long, steady sequences as their eyes fall from the Artist’s to the rebreather hanging at their side. “Yours broken?” they ask simply.
The Artist offers an apparently amused chuckle and says, “Yeah, unfortunately it’s not looking like it’s gonna be enough. Also, if you have a ride, we could really use one if we’re gonna go somewhere other than the roof.”
“Hmph,” the Laborer grunts, looking around over the shoulders of the Artist. “Where’s the other one of you? The write-y one?” They move their left hand in the air, miming out the motions of dictating writing with a scrawling pen, the back of their hand covered in interlacing scars that run up the back of their arm and disappear into the turned up sleeves of their worksuit, still adorned from the night before.
“Oh, they’re asking around too,” the Artist responds. “But I figured I’d come to you first.”
“Ah, didja now?” the Laborer’s eyes return to the Artist’s. “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I can’t just lend you my kit. That’s a month’s pay, right there,” they indicate with a downturned nod of the head to the rebreather hanging at the Artist’s side. “And I don’t have the car anymore, either – couldn’t keep up with the maintenance.” The Laborer’s words and following mind drift off to someplace softer but no more comfortable as their eyes wander to rest briefly on the blank grey walls behind the Artist, who turns to look behind them as if expecting to see someone or something else, but, finding no one there, turns back to face the now listless Laborer.
“Yeah, I figured as much,” the Artist says with a sigh that sounds louder than it should in the not-quite-empty hall. So too did the footsteps of the Poet seem to echo unnaturally throughout the ambient space as they walk slowly with begrudging, heavy steps back to the two speaking figures, but upon noticing the Artist looking in their direction, they shake their head from side to side as if to say, No luck – you were right, and fuck you for being right. “Guess we have to go back down and grab the other kit… we’ll figure out the ride and what to do next after we come back up again.”
Seeming to become more nervously agitated once again as the Laborer’s refusal sinks in and the Poet continues their reticent approach, the Artist turns their wavering gaze back to the Laborer’s steady one. “Can you help at all?” They ask, eyes betraying a certain degree of desperation that seems to be communicated palpably through the stale chilled air of the tenement hallway. “Maybe come with?”
The Laborer, now more fully awake, stands up a little straighter. “What’s going on down there that has you so rattled, anyway?” they ask, eyes combing the Artist for any visible indication of harm but finding none apparent.
“It’s a fucking monster…” the Poet begins to say, at first with the strength of belief which rapidly dissolves into an already growing uncertainty and no small amount of self-doubt or disbelief.
“Not sure, to be honest,” the Artist says, indeed speaking the truth as they most accurately believe it to be. “There was… weird stuff happening in our apartment. Shit moving on its own, footsteps where no one was walking…”
“It was banging on the windows and slamming shut the door!” the Poet adds in an unceremonious interruption, uncontained by brevity and uncontaminated by self-awareness.
“Just… weird shit,” the Artist adds as helpfully as they can be in the moment, as both make their efforts to communicate something that they can’t seem to find the right words for. “You sure you didn’t hear anything? It seemed so loud, like it could’ve been heard even up here.”
The Laborer, maintaining their gaze on the Artist, furrows their brow and says, “No… I didn’t hear anything. But it sounds like you’ve got an intruder problem – you sure no one just snuck in to your place, maybe taking shelter from a rotstorm?”
“No… no, our windows are blocked and sealed off – have been for years,” the Artist responds, eyes and mind trailing off a bit to the side before snapping back to attention. “Look, are you going to help or not?”
Holding up their hands, palms facing the Artist, the Laborer lets out a bemused, mildly confused chuckle and says, “Well, whatever’s going on, I know it’s not like you to get this worked up over things that you can control. Besides, I still owe y’all for covering my ass last time the Auths did a sweep of this dump.” Their amusement dissipates as their hands are lowered to their side, mind temporarily distracted by memories of law enforcement raids and injuries inherited from the mistakes of years and relatives past. The face of the Laborer seems to darken under the weight of these half-remembered traumas, which is communicated wordlessly to the others, spreading and igniting the dire memories to darken their faces, already deepening their contortions in retrospective loss.
This shared darkness seeming to bring the three of them closer to one another, the Laborer’s mind returns to the present as they declare, “Hang tight – I’ll be right back.” Without waiting for a response, they duck back into their abode, closing and locking the door with a series of jingling chains and clicking mechanisms. The otherwise quiet moment doesn’t last long enough for conversation, as the door is just as quickly unlatched and reopened once again, revealing the Laborer precisely as they were, but now with a dark and heavy-looking metallic object holstered at their waist. “Alright – nothing’s gonna fuck with us now,” the Laborer grins, betraying a sense of confidence and optimism that seems to primarily exist to drive away the gloom that had been gathering at their threshold. “Let’s go solve this problem of yours, find out what’s been giving you such trouble.” The declaration is met with nods – tentative, short and uncertain from the Poet, while the Artist’s are less reticent, almost eager in their response.
The Laborer steps out into the hall, and as they turn to lock their door, the Artist says, “Honestly, I’m glad we’re going back – I left a piece down there that I really don’t want to leave just yet. I’ve been working on it for almost a week now, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever made.”
“It’s okay,” the Poet says quietly. “I don’t know why you want to bring it with us so bad though… you can just make another one later.” This statement is met with a cold stare from the Artist that carries little humor – a reaction unlike the Artist so much that the Poet feels the breath flee their lungs in a flurry that they have trouble catching. “Sorry…” they mumble as the Laborer finishes locking up their apartment and turns around once again and motions with their scarred hand towards the end of the hall opposite from the tenement entrance.
“No worries,” the Artist says. “It’s going to be alright.”
The Laborer nods as the three begin walking towards the staircase leading down to the rest of the tenement building. “That’s the spirit,” they say with a grin. “I’m sure your painting is safe – we’ll get it all taken care of. Must be a pretty special piece for you to be this worried about it, though.”
“It really is,” the Artist beams, taking the lead as they make their way through the threshold into the staircase and begin their descent to the floors beneath.
With a hearty laugh that echoes down the staircase, the Laborer says, “That’s good! A little confidence never hurts you creative types. I try to be so proud of anything I do at work, and I’m reprimanded for not being enough of a ‘team-player,’” they scoff and shake their head from side to side. “Fucking bullshit, if you ask me.”
The trio descend down through the stairwell, painted similarly to the entrance level’s mundane grey coloration, only somewhat darker, even as it is brightly illuminated by the same cold, unnatural light that twists and turns to follow the unadorned, unremarkable walls, painted only with large black letters corresponding to each floor. Ignoring the B and C floors, they begin to approach the D floor without much in the way of conversation, instead opting to muse on whatever thoughts were haunting their individual minds.
These thoughts are interrupted suddenly, however, by the door to the D floor swinging open as if it had been pushed from the other side – but the opening door reveals that there is no one behind it. “See!?” the Poet exclaims. “What the fuck!”
“Huh…” the Laborer says, reaching their hand forward past the Artist’s shoulder to catch the shutting door. “Is this your floor?”
“Yup…” the Artist affirms, standing between the others and the door, still looking out into the empty grey hallway behind. “This is the one.”
A moment’s hesitation, the Laborer considering their words but finding none suitable.
“Oh well,” the Artist shrugs. “We’re already here. Let’s just get this over with.” And with that, they step through the threshold to the other side, soon followed by a still silent and increasingly confused Laborer, and an even more drastically increasingly anxious Poet taking up the rear again and proceeding forward with no small amount of visible displeasure.
The three proceed to make their way down the hallway that seems darker than the one upstairs, with some of its lights even beginning to flicker as if they will fail soon. “I can see why you got spooked,” the Laborer says with a grin, but too quietly for optimism. “We’ll have to get those lights fixed…” Their words trail off as their eyes dart to notice frames adorning the dark grey walls of the tenement hallway. “Whoa, you’ve got art hanging down here?” they say to the Artist, who does not respond immediately, instead merely continuing forward. “Did you make these?” A hand on the Artist’s shoulder stops them, and they turn around to face the wall, eyes finding the hanging object as if noticing them for the first time.
“No… I didn’t make these,” the Artist responds, eyeing the paintings inquisitively and with no small amount of confusion. Upon examination, the paintings didn’t appear to be particularly remarkable. Just still life and landscapes of natural scenery reflecting little of the world in its present state, but all in dark, muted shades – nice compared to the otherwise utter lack of decoration in the tenement, and rather unexpected given their life experience inhabiting the building. “I don’t know who put these here. I don’t even think they were here before.”
“I guess your intruder is a lover of the fine arts,” the Laborer says with a chuckle, regaining some of their confidence. “Maybe they’re just a fan looking for an autograph.”
The Artist grins widely at this but merely says, “Yeah, maybe. Let’s keep going.”
The Poet does not follow for a moment, simply stares at the paintings hanging on the walls with wide eyes before finally continuing on down the hall, with eyes still hopping from painting to painting as they slowly pass by.
Eventually, after what feels like could have been months of walking on tired legs, the three find themselves in front of a nondescript grey door with “D-9” embellished in bold, black lettering on its front. Without hesitation, the Artist goes to reach for the doorknob to open it even as the Poet begins to posit their immediate departure once again. However, when they go to reach out their hand, the Artist notices that the door is slightly ajar.
Seeing this, the Laborer says, “Did you forget to lock it when you left? No wonder you’ve got someone hiding out and fucking with you when you’re not looking. I would’ve thought your parents’d teach you better than that.”
But neither the Poet nor the Artist respond to this leading statement. The question of if the door was locked when they left resounded in both of their minds, pulsating with an uncertainty that betrayed any hint of experience or knowledge. They simply didn’t know, couldn’t remember. But here they were, still in this moment that seemed to stretch on halfway to forever.
In response to their hesitation and general lack of a reaction, the Laborer gently pushes the Artist aside, saying, “Let me take a look – you can wait out here, I’ll make sure it’s safe.” Their statement met with no reproach, they swing open the door to the inside of the apartment and step through the threshold to the other side.
A moment passes, then another, finding both the Artist and the Poet standing silently, with the Artist looking to the nearest painting hanging on the closest wall, and the Poet simply staring forward, following with tired eyes the short path the Laborer took to reach their destination inside. As they wait in that moment, the Artist could swear that the grass in the landscape painting was swaying as if in a gentle breeze, so unlike the world outside the tenement walls.
And then, a scream.
No shots were fired, but the fear was palpable in the air which now not only felt stale, but oppressive as the Artist shoots out of their daze and into their home beyond the threshold, the Poet following with an unreadable expression that settles on their face in a grim pallor.
“Aaaah! What the fuck?!” the Laborer screams as they fall out of the small doorway which was the entrance to the apartment’s bathroom. They try to catch themselves but fail, instead sprawling out on the floor in front of the Artist before immediately struggling to their feet, which now felt to the Laborer as if they were simultaneously made of concrete and gelatin.
Nearly falling again after staggering up to their feet, the Laborer stumbles towards the Artist and briefly rests their hands upon the smaller frame’s shoulders. Eyes wide and manic, the Laborer manages to gasp out, “Don’t go in there! I’ll be back – I… I know someone who can h-help.” Before nearly throwing themselves through the open doorframe and stumbling into the hallway beyond, which was now flickering intensely with failing lights, seeming to give leniency and acquiescence to the encroaching darkness which only made the Laborer’s growing panic multiply rapidly as they made their desperate attempt at reaching the staircase once again – to go up, to go home, to get out and away.
However, upon hearing the heavy door to the staircase being flung open by the fleeing Laborer, those still in apartment D-9 could hear a bloodcurdling scream emanating from the direction of the stairwell followed by a quick succession of three shots being fired, which reverberated down the hallway and into the room before suddenly breaking off into an uneasy and indefinite silence.
Left alone in the impatient silence, the two figures of the Artist and the Poet stand, one in front of the other, neither wanting to be the first to walk past the seemingly innocuous threshold to see whatever had caused such fear and panic to overtake the otherwise stoic and capable Laborer. Neither, however, were they surprised or taken aback by this reaction, seeming to understand already why it had happened. Already knowing what was haunting, what was infecting the room, the apartment, the tenement as a whole. Already understanding why it was too late to leave.
“I’m sorry,” the Artist says in a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” the Poet responds with a measure of calm that they didn’t possess in the upper floors. “It’s not anyone’s fault. These things just happen sometimes.”
Nodding slightly, the Artist begins to turn around to face the Poet but is stopped by a firm hand resting and then squeezing on their shoulder. “Go on. We’re already here – let’s get this over with,” the Poet speaks with a resolution that makes the hair on the back of the Artist’s neck stand up.
A barely perceptible nod, a half step forward, then dizziness overtakes the mind of the Artist and they find themselves struggling. Except… the wavering of the room, the inconsistencies in the air, the strangeness of the walls and floor… none of it’s in their head. They know it’s real, it’s really happening, and it’s all around them already. The Artist breathes shakily, then steps forward again, feeling the stability of the ground beneath them being called into question as they move their body through the frigid room, growing colder ever as they draw nearer.
Once they’re within sight, they don’t want to look.
“LOOK,” the voice of the Poet sounds from immediately behind the Artist’s head, causing them to jerk their head up reflexively and allowing their eyes to meet the sight beyond the threshold.
The grotesque monstrosity that meets their gaze is unlike anything that they have ever seen before, though it will not be the last. A mashed and squelching abomination of flesh, sinew, bone, muscle, bile, and everything else truly human lays strewn in an interconnected mass across the small bathroom – over the sink, counter, and crossing between the tomb-like walls, is the still-living, somehow breathing, undulating remnants that the Artist knows a priori for a fact to be all that is left of the Poet’s mortal shell.
They had not seen the completed transformation of their friend into what now struggles and sighs in wet meaty chunks before them – and yet, they intuitively know it to be true that this is indeed the Poet, and they are right. The sight and the knowledge, the complete and sudden awareness of everything they had seen and known sees the Artist crumple to their knees in front of the threshold. They want to raise their hands to cover their face, but they can not.
“SEE – ALL WE ARE / IS ALL WE’VE DONE” the preeminent voices of the Poet – the ghostly apparition of a friend – seeming to surround the Artist on all sides, until they turn their head away from the sight before them to find themselves face-to-face with the Poet as they were and as they had been during their descent back into this hellscape. Infernal writing covers the entirety of their face and visible body in moving patterns that never settle long enough in one place for the Artist to be able to read them, even if they had been in a state to read at all. The luminescent, pupil-less eyes of the phantom stare through the Artists’, deep into the depths of their being, seeing them as they truly were and as they always had been.
“What do I do?” the Artist asks plaintively, subdued and already broken down, made unquestionably desperate by their travels, and emotionally drained to the point of complete and utter mental exhaustion.
“GO – BE WITH YOUR MASTERPIECE,” a thousand voices respond within the mind of the Artist, screaming within themselves and seeming to tear them apart in innumerable invisible ways.
“Where?” the Artist says in little more than a whisper.
“DOWN,” is the only response they receive, still in a thousand impossible voices in a thousand impossible places.
A hot, foul-smelling wind blows in the face of the Artist and urges them to their feet, turns them around from the grotesque incarnation of their friend and back into the hall, now only dimly lit as if the sun had forever set on their world. The fully black door slams closed behind the Artist, all the surrounding walls seeming to swim and merge around them in impossible ways, trading places with the ceiling and the floor as the Artist attempts to make their stumbling way back to the stairwell, their mind echoing with the voices of the fallen Poet even as they step further away from what monstrosity their body had become.
The black hallway, now crowdedly adorned with dozens of grim paintings depicting hellscapes and broken objects, shattered lives and despondent screams, simultaneously assailing the wavering senses of the Artist with horrors seen only in their periphery but felt in their entirety; this transgression of the self was matched by the unnaturally abundant screams and wails coming from behind each and every other door, throughout every floor, of the tenement building, only now making themselves apparent to the failing senses so overwhelmed by sound, by sight, by memory and by lack, by loss and by a dire understanding even in the depths of an unknowable confusion.
Somehow, after a period that could have been seconds or could have been years, the Artist finds themselves approaching the door to the stairwell, which swings open violently to receive them, tearing off its hinges as it does so and falling, broken but pulsing with an unhallowed life, against the deeply shadowed corners of the hallway, seeming to be absorbed and incorporated into the mass of shadows that had become the skeleton and very structure of the tenement building.
Stepping obediently and silently into the stairwell, eyes wide and searching for something unable to be found, the Artist at first turns their head up to see an emerging, evolving grotesquerie that had recently been the Laborer but was now being held, transformed, suspended and entangled within an amalgamation of their own flesh and the rest of the tenement building. Still alive, still breathing, still bleeding and still speaking, the Laborer repeats “I… I know someone… who can help…” over and over and over again as the tendrils of flesh, metal, and darkness encircle them and entomb them within a prison created in part with their own body become monstrous.
As if expecting this horror, the Artist merely registers this and turns the other way, no interest in climbing up what they now innately believed and knew to be an impossible distance upward to reach a rooftop that was equally impossible to access. There was no way out for them up there, never had been. Instead, their gaze turns down, down the stairwell and into the living darkness below.
“GO,” the voice of the Poet urges them on, resounding and echoing innumerable times within their mind. “BE WITH YOUR MASTER/PIECE.” They begin to step forward in the heavy, abiding footfalls of someone walking to the judgement of their eternal soul.
As they do so, the stairwell seems to contort and shift before them, extending down an unimaginable distance into a seething darkness that reached its creeping frigid fingers up through the very being of Artist, the Laborer, and beyond, likely enveloping the entirety of the tenement building in short order.
Accepting this as only one who has no choice can, the Artist allows their feet to be enveloped by the encroaching darkness as they make their way down the now hundreds, if not thousands, tens of thousands, of steps that they know will take them to their masterpiece.