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Mystery Speculative Urban Fantasy

“I can’t sleep.”

“And you think I can?” Two claps to the cheeks, and I’m almost fully awake again. The pounding music shakes the floor under our feet, reminding me why I’m still existing at this hour. “Have you decided which one of us is gonna talk to them?”

“Not me,” my roommate mumbles, sliding back under the sheets. “I just got comfortable.”

“You—” I cut the words before I say them, aware of how harsh I can be on a sleepless night. “Fine. But if you were gonna make me do it, you should’ve told me earlier in the night. I would’ve done it already.” I slip one defenseless toe out from under my sheets, surrendering it to the cold of the morning. Icy fingers scale up my foot, continuing up my ankle and onto my knee, where they happily rest. 

It’s now or never. 

I rise through the icy surface, tossing my blanket aside. It curls back into itself, cuddling up for a long rest while I continue my night alone and bare. I cover my goose-pimpled legs with loose jeans and a heavy sweatshirt that dances just above my knees. 

“Good luck!” my roommate wishes me, sinking further into their bed. They disappear under the covers, happily warm while I trudge out the door with annoyance. It slaps me on the way out, pushing me into the hallway with force. 

It’s empty—dead so.

It’s a quick walk to the stairs, but a long trek down them to the floor beneath us. And the hallway they lead to seems almost deserted. Darkness breaths towards me, scattered across the walls and pulsing with my every heartbeat. Except for one single apartment that’s lit up with neon lights and the bounce of powerful bass. 

That’s where I’m headed.  

The inky blackness shirks away from me as I start down the hallway, fearful of me touching it. It screams in anticipation, frilling with the beat of the music and the beat of my footsteps. But I continue to the door, preparing for a midnight confrontation. 

Knock. Knock.

The music halts at my intrusion, but no matter how long I wait for the door to open, it doesn’t. So I rest my knuckle on the wood and knock a second time. This time, the lights falter, lowering from a color-changing party to a single purple light that illuminates the frame of the door. 

Well, my work here is done. With the sound gone and the party come to a rest, it’s about time I—

The door opens. At first, it feels almost stiff and cold. But the longer the door stays open, the more welcoming it becomes. Inside, that purple light remains but the rest of the apartment looks unoccupied. There’s one plant stand right beside the door and a long carpet on the floor of the hall, but there’s nothing more. 

“Hello?” I lean forward with the word, peering into the apartment with curiosity. If that one lean could’ve told me everything I needed to know about that apartment, it would’ve saved me a lot of trouble. But I don’t see anything, so I take a cautious step forward. My sockless toes brush the entrance of the room, and that’s all it takes for the front door to gobble me inside. 

“I thought we could talk about your noise level,” I announce, swallowing down my discomfort. Our doors have a tendency to do what they want, so I’m not going to hold the door’s antics against the owner of the apartment. That is, as long as they show up at all.

“It’s just… It’s the middle of the night, and—” I begin again, only to shriek as the plant stand stands up and scurries past me. “Sorry, that wasn’t polite.” Who am I apologizing to? Plant stands are inanimate objects and shouldn’t be running past me in the dead of night. 

“Maybe I should just go,” I offer, stepping back against the door. It feels safe and stable for a moment before it launches me forward down the hallway. I stumble a few steps, narrowly avoid the plant stand rushing back through, and wind up in the living room. 

It’s the source of the purple light. There’s a basic plant light set up in the far corner, which seems to illuminate every other part of the room and apartment. But there aren’t any plants resting beneath it, instead, there’s a living, breathing lump of fur. If it’s a dog or a cat, then it’s wildly overgrown—maybe in part due to the plant light—and has unnaturally human-like limbs. 

Behind it, the balcony door stands proud and enticing.

Stepping quietly, I approach the balcony door and peer out into the night. It’s unusually well-lit with street lights, the glow from the moon, and a vast array of stars that are never visible. The view here is better than any view our apartment ever gets. But how? It’s one story beneath us, exactly, which means it faces the same view we have. 

Face to the glass, I consider the buildings, the nightlife, and realize—quite late—that this isn’t our view at all. We see the train station behind our apartment and a small hill that leads up to a grassy plateau. This, this is pure city life, and it’s bustling. 

Behind me, the beast grumbles in its sleep and rolls onto its side. Now, I can see its smashed face, which reminds me of a Japanese oni mask twisted and mixed with the angelic features of a kitten. 

It’s ugly.

Tiptoeing around the massive creature, I start back down the entrance hallway, only to have the carpet launch me into the kitchen. I slide with force, slamming against the refrigerator, or what should be the refrigerator. In its place, there’s a tall lamp lounging against the counter. Its shade seems to turn toward me, analyzing me. When it gazes back up at my face, it gives one simple nod and returns to staring at the wall. 

I guess I’m approved? 

Easing away from the lamp, I scoot along the edge of the counter and end up face-to-face with the sleeping beast again. It's still in a peaceful nap, splayed out on its back with all four legs pointed up into the air with paws to the ceiling. 

Apparently, the apartment doesn’t want me to leave, so what does it want from me? Does it have to do with this beast?

To my right, there’s a doorway that leads to a room so dark, I can almost see my own reflection in it. To my left, there’s a thin hallway with one little orange light racing around on the ceiling. That must be my destination. So I slip past the beast and follow the orange light into the thin hallway, then through an open doorway that sucks me in with a distinct pop

Inside, the orange light guides me to where the plant stand is hiding inside a massive, walk-in closet. It cowers at my presence, sinking into the floor until it looks like a zaisu instead of a table. Part of me’s screaming to run, but my sleep deprivation blocks it with indifference. That leaves the only other side of me that exists—broken curiosity. 

“Hey there,” I greet the table, reaching out a careful palm. “Can you help me figure out why I’m here?”

Startled by my friendliness, the table bolts upright, standing at full height. It seems to nod, scuddling out of the closet and out of the room without a moment's notice. But before I’m too disappointed, it returns for me. 

It’s leading me somewhere. So I follow. 

We explore the remainder of the hallway, the little orange light guiding our vision, until we reach the end of it. There, a small doorway houses an even smaller door that slumbers with the snoring grumble of a hip-hop beat. It pulses against its hinges, rumbling with noise, both vibrantly energetic and vastly empty. It feels like dual emotions dueling for a dominant place in the door’s inner ear. 

My daily struggle. 

“Do I open it?” I ask the plant stand, tapping a nervous finger against the door knob. It barks in response, disappearing into the wood with splintered haste. “Not that easy, huh? That’s why you need my help then? We need to find a key.”

There’s only one other light in this place. It’s me or the beast. And right now, I’m overconfident enough to claim it should be me. So I stride down that hallway with a nauseating pace and approach the slumbering loaf with two hands in my sweatshirt pockets and a slight jaunt in my trudging step. 

“What do I—” I begin, but I’m quickly interrupted.

“—I challenge you to a duel!” The plant stand mimics me perfectly, standing proudly beside me with its undercarriage puffed up and visible. Its voice is loud enough to rumble the room; however, it’s too quiet to wake the beast. 

Walking over to the fluffball, I give it a prodding poke in the ribs. Even that intrusion isn’t enough to wake it, so I take my opportunity. Flopping down on hands and knees, I dig through the fur of the monstrosity and discover what should be a key but isn’t. 

Instead, I find one cube of perfectly preserved black cat licorice gum. 

I’m fully confused, but the plant stand and the little orange light are both overwhelmed by my discovery. They circle me, curious to see the prize I pulled free. And then, as if drawn back towards the odd door, they scurry down the hallway. So I carry the gum there, too. 

I stare the door down. And, in every way possible for a door to do, it stares back. We’re in a stand-off. Should I deliver this cube of gum to the handle? Or is it best to try stuffing it where a mouth should be? Does the door even want a cube of gum? Maybe it’s for later? Maybe I’m not holding the key at all. 

I hold out the gum in offering.

And, to my utter disbelief, the door stands up on two legs, inspects the gum with full consideration, and then snatches it away from me with the very handle that had barked. Then, as though pleased by my gift, it simply leaves. It shrinks down to a size smaller than the plant stand and sprints across the carpet toward the dark room on the other side of the apartment. 

“Well,” I utter aloud, still in disbelief. 

But I don’t have time to consider the situation because the plant stand immediately urges me into the painfully loud, now open room. Inside, there’s a four-poster bed with galaxy sheets, pillows that glitter with any light that touches them, and an axe that’s planted firmly in the wall just above the bed.

The little orange light crawls across the ceiling before circling the axe a few times. It gets as close to the weapon as it can before skirting back in fear. The plant stand remains in the doorway of the room, nervous about the presence that the axe carries. 

And now I know my final destination. 

Crossing the room, I climb up on the mattress of the bed, which is beyond inviting, and stare at the axe. It’s intricate. It has a red wood handle carved with the imagery of two bucks traversing a forest and a black steel head that almost smiles with sharpness. Hanging from the handle with a little steel ring is a small piece of parchment paper painted with Japanese characters. 

I’m just awake enough to know what that means, but not awake enough to realize it’s probably for the best it stays that way. The room is sealed, which means the whole apartment houses a dangerous being that’s sealed there for good reason. No, maybe it’s not the exhaustion at all. I just don’t want to be sealed in here with it. 

Driven by self-preservation, I clap two hands down on the axe handle and weasel it free from the wall. It releases surprisingly well, smoothly falling into my hands with the weight of a boulder. It drops me through the bed into the floor. Then, further. I fall and fall and continue falling until I land on my hands and knees inside an empty bedroom. 

Alarmed, I rush up from the wooden floorboards and down the thin hall back towards the front door. The entire apartment is empty, almost starved for life, and I don’t want to be the last living being it occupies. 

I slam through the door into the darkness, except it's not dark anymore. The hideous carpet is back beneath my free toes, and the usual hall lights that glow from beside each front door are lit and flickering. But that’s almost worse.

My legs carry me up the stairs with the adrenaline I should’ve had before and launch me through my own apartment door. As soon as it slams behind me, I expect my roommate to come out to greet me with wide eyes or with grateful sputtering. 

But they don’t. 

Pushing into our bedroom, I see them tucked under their sheets, sleeping soundly. So it was just me. 

I was the only one who couldn’t sleep. 

November 17, 2023 17:31

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