The people have shut their houses against the night. The stone pavement, empty and desolate, stretches out in every direction. The winter skies, thick with gloomy clouds, radiate an Arctic
Before long, I hear a creak.
I almost missed the sound, and if I had, my life would have followed a very different path.
The sound follows me, speeding toward me, rounding the corners, drawing me in. I follow the sound to an alleyway.
At first, I stand there, braced.
Then I take a few steps. I am gripped by an unaccountable sense of tiredness, as if something were sapping my energy, leaving me exhausted.
As I walk, the alley seems to close behind me. The buildings lean in and join at their roofs, narrowing the chink of sky, until I seem to be inside a pipe, with the only path being straight ahead.
I know the alley well, but certain twists and turns come as a surprise. I wonder where I went astray. Even the stone faces set in the brickwork--a sight long familiar to my eyes--now seem strangely mobile, charged with expression, almost possessed with life.
Then the fear begins to creep across my soul and I slowly realize that I have made a terrible mistake.
The alley brightens to a silver hue, bringing the stone faces to life, waking them up, as from a slumber of centuries. One face starts into motion, its eyes widening, the sinister lips twisting up toward its pointed ears. The other two faces creep down the side of the building and lose themselves in the swirling phosphorescent mist.
The face stares at me, through me, riveting me to the pavement with such formidable force that I cannot move a single muscle, though my spirit is charged with growing desperation.
There is a sudden movement as the building in front of me surges forward, narrowing the alley. The roofs of the buildings collide with a crunch, and falling chunks of stone punch giant holes in the pavement, filling me with horror and shaking the ground underneath my feet.
The base of the building opens like a great mouth, uprooting its foundation, raising the flagstones, lifting the tarmac into waves, like an ocean.
The building turns, reaches down, takes a manhole cover between its fists, and folds it like a piece of paper. Further down, a gushing water main raises a grey wall of water mixed with cars and stones and the broken fragments of buildings.
The ground shifts and heaves like some living thing, elongating the pavement like skin, twisting familiar shapes into a formless nightmare.
The gas lamp gives a sudden flare, its flame brightening inside the glass; but the alley repels its rays, bathing the whole place in a ghastly half-light.
I look fearfully at the building, half-expecting it to tumble upon me; but I am much surprised by what I see.
The faces, unmoving and serene, have returned to their plinths, their diabolical expressions gone. The flagstones re-align, row upon row, in perfect unison, turning the pavement flat and level, as before. The manhole cover flattens out and clatters into place. The building restores itself with a creak, shifting back its bricks, broadening the alley, as if stretching after a long-held pose.
The spouting water main, the crushed rock and twisted pavement--every former disaster--is erased, as if nothing happened and if someone walked down the alley now, nothing would seem out of place. I get up, brush the stone-flakes off my shoulder and repeat to myself--
This never happened.
The stone faces never crept off their plinths; the building never turned to rubber; the flagstones never leapt off the ground and the pavement never stretched into a living nightmare.
Dawn! The luminous alley stretched time into an expanding wrinkle. At home, she's been worried sick, sweating me out, waiting for hours.
I cover the deserted streets like a nimble greyhound, cutting the corners, speeding along the straights, lungs searing with desperation.
Something is terribly wrong. My steps turn heavy as lead. The very act of moving, of even of lifting a foot, is hopeless.
My limbs stiffen, my body shrinks, my clothes expand, turning long and loose; the wrinkled flesh crumples across my face; filthy gray hair hisses down the sides of my head. My trunk thins, my limbs narrow into sticks, into a corpse, fit only for the coffin.
I think back. My walk. The narrow alley. The warning creak. My stubborn stupidity. Everything twists in a confused spin.
I feel a rising tide of desperation. Why did I not stay home? Sleep. Read. Make love to my wife. Do something. Anything.
Home. Suddenly, my mind is filled with nothing else.
Could I even go home?
What of my friends, my colleagues from work, my children, my wife--my young, beautiful, wife--how could I face her? What would I tell her, now there are fifty years between us.
I imagine bursting into the room, falling at her knees. Her face. Her eyes. That look of horror.
My life has cracked, split into a bottomless chasm. I stand on the distant shore, perched on the beetling precipice.
I stare into the abyss. I have only the remains of Life, the pitiful scraps that litter the table after the banqueters have quitted the hall and closed the doors upon the darkness.
I want to scream, to rage at the unjust world. I open my mouth. Nothing comes out. Only a miserable croak. I feel like a frog, like a tortoise, rocking on its shell, waving its legs in the air.
My heart plunges into a black well. I sink down slowly, swallowed by its cold throat, choked by the thickening gloom. The darkness crowds around me.
The darkness crowds around me.
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