full screen background image
         
  Table of contents Issue Twenty-three SAFE ZONE

by
BRYAN l. HAWKINS
Home  
   

R

eginald had just finished typing and was just about to shut down his laptop when the telephone rang.



Traveling up and down the east coast, this was Reggie’s seventh hotel in the last ten days. And even though the zip codes changed, all of the rooms were more or less the same - same too-white sheets reeking of bleach, same flat screen televisions, same furniture. Some of them even had the same brand of mini soap and shampoo.



But this phone was different and not in a pleasant way. The ringing was intrusive and urgent and droned in his head like the buzzing of a hive of bees.



“Hello,” Reggie said into the phone, not bothering to filter out the exhaustion and annoyance. It was just after 11:00 p.m. and he’d spent the entire day either cramming his six foot, five-inch frame into an airplane seat or sitting in conference rooms discussing the finer points of cloud storage to disinterested executives. He didn’t have the energy to be nice.



“Can you hear me,” a man’s voice said from the other end. Reggie pushed the phone against his ear and sat down on the bed. The sounds of the city from his hotel room were no louder than a dull roar, but the man’s voice was just too soft, like he was whispering a secret into his ear from a few feet away.



“Who is this?” Reginald responded. “I can barely hear you.”



“Can you hear me?” the voice repeated in that same breathy tone.



“Who is this?” Reggie asked, his voice bellowing from his chest. “You are going to need to talk louder because I can barely under-”



There was a click as the line went dead.



Reggie set the phone back down on its cradle and stared at it, waiting for the return call that hopefully wouldn’t come. His drowsiness had vanished and had been replaced by something unpleasant, an expectant type of nervous energy, as if at any moment someone would burst through the door, or a pair of invisible fingers would start crawling up his back. While the call had been bad, the man’s voice had been worse - hollow and utterly empty of any emotions or inflection.



After a full two minutes of waiting, Reggie gave the phone one last hard stare and then stood up from the bed. He was being silly, not to mention ridiculous and dramatic. Someone had dialed the wrong number. Worst case scenario, it had been a prank caller.



He sat back down at the hotel desk and reviewed what he’d written.



Woke up at 5:15 a.m., left the airport, jumped on a plane, and landed. Spent the next eight hours in meetings.



Still not crazy.



His entries had grown shorter and less detailed over the past few years. As his psychiatrist had explained to him, the diary was the equivalent of a mental scale, allowing him to track his thoughts and experiences and be on the lookout for anything odd. In a little over eleven years, there’d been nothing. He was twenty-nine now, on the very edge of thirty - what his psychiatrist had called the “mental health safe zone.” The vast majority of mental illnesses are evident before age thirty. So if he got there still sane, then he could finally consider himself safe.



Reggie clicked the mouse and scrolled up to the top of the more than six-thousand-page document. His very first entry had been over five pages long and had not just been a factual account of his day but a dissertation on his very thoughts, detailing everything from his mood to some of his more prurient thoughts about one of the girls in his class. He’d written it about a month after his sister Lauren had been diagnosed, and he’d finally come to accept that he and all of his siblings had been born with ticking time bombs in their brains. Those first few years he’d felt like a condemned man with a hangman’s noose around his neck waiting for the platform to drop. There’d been five of them in total: Rebecca, Robert, Lauren, Jacob, and himself. Rebecca had been diagnosed with schizophrenia first. Robert had been next, and Lauren had been diagnosed during Reggie’s sophomore year in college. For years it had been he and Jacob - the last two sane members of the Montgomery family.



When the bomb in Jacob’s head had finally detonated Reggie had been the first to know; he’d been a first-hand witness to his brother’s split from reality.



Hey Reggie. Come here for a second. I want to show you something.



Reggie shoved the memory away with both hands and scrolled back down to the present, to a time when his entries were three annoyed sentences long. His long brown fingers hovered over the middle row of the keyboard for a few seconds, and then he quickly added a fourth sentence to the end of the day’s entry - Received a prank call from a weirdo.



Reggie shut down the computer and went to bed.



Like all dreams, this one started in the middle, with him sitting in his current hotel room staring out of the window. The city was dark and stretched out below him like a sheet of metal, the darkness only broken up by the occasional red and white flickering of brake and headlights. Reggie turned away from the window, not wanting to stare into that darkness or those blinking and flashing lights any longer. When he did he saw that someone was in the room with him, lying in bed, the covers pulled up to their head.



They were sick. He didn’t know how he knew that, but he did. Their sickness was coming off of them in waves. He could smell it in the air, and he could hear it in every ragged and fluid-filled breathe they took. Reggie stood up and took a step closer to the bed and saw the back of a man’s head jutting out from underneath the sheets and blankets like a deranged weed. Underneath those covers, the man’s body trembled and shivered violently, like he was either freezing or having a seizure, maybe both.



The dream shifted before Reggie could get any closer to the bed. He was now facing the opposite wall. From the room next door he could hear the sounds of music playing and people yelling and screaming. It was too late for a party, but that’s exactly what it sounded like. Reggie walked over to the wall and pressed his hand against it, the vibrations from the sounds made it feel, as if there were ants stomping around just underneath his skin.



Reggie balled his hand into a fist and pounded against the wall. On the wall was a cheap looking painting of a fruit bowl overflowing with marbles. After the third blow, it partially slipped off its hook so that it hung askew - half of it dipping below the back of the television. “Keep it down in there,” Reggie yelled. “I can hear you.” Reggie raised his fist to pound again, but before he could he heard a familiar voice behind him.



“But they can’t hear you.”



His heart froze in his chest. Behind him, he could hear the mattress’ coiled springs squeaking and whining as whoever had been lying down got up from the bed. Reggie wanted to turn around or sprint out of the room but found he couldn’t; his mind was still reeling from what he’d heard. Even when the steady thumping of the man’s approaching footsteps had all but filled the room, Reggie could only stand there frozen in place, the man’s word’s voice over and over again in his head. It was a voice he recognized, not a friend or family member’s, but his own.



Reggie woke up clutching his chest. He tried to breathe, but the muscles in his diaphragm were clenched shut, and he could only manage a desperate gasping sound. His eyes darted around the hotel room, but there was nothing to see. It was so dark that he couldn’t even make out the vague outlines of shapes in the room. As a child he could remember learning that there were parts of the ocean so deep that light couldn’t touch it, this darkness was like that - completely devoid of any light. And there was someone with him in that darkness. He could almost feel their breath on his face and he knew that if they reached out their hands to touch him that it would be like being touched by a piece of rubbery seaweed.



Reggie leapt from the bed and flipped on the lights.



The room was empty and he was alone.



Reggie took an empty glass from atop the mini-bar and filled it with water from the bathroom sink. It tasted metallic and warm, but with each gulp, he could feel his heartbeat starting to slow from the triple-step it had been when he’d woken up. When was the last time he’d had a nightmare? Not just a bad dream, but a good old-fashioned nightmare. It must have been almost a decade earlier. And it didn’t take a psychologist to figure out the source of this particular dream- it had obviously been that stupid call. He’d realized that it had shaken him but didn’t realize to what extent until now. Pacing around the room from one night stand to the other, he could feel a few red strands of anger beginning to coil and cluster inside of him. He didn’t fight it. Instead, he allowed the anger to come and edge out any remaining traces of fear or panic from his nightmare.



By no means was Reggie a violent man, he’d only been in a single fight in his entire life, and that was when he’d been eight years old, but he wished that whoever had called was in the room with him right now. What he would pay to see the caller’s face when he realized just how imposing a figure Reggie could be.



Gradually the anger began to seep out of his system. The ominous and mysterious caller he wanted to scare was probably just a child or some dumb teenager with too much time on his hands. Reggie put his hands on his hips, already feeling dumb for obsessing (even if only for a few minutes) over some stupid and innocent phone call. What he should do is jump into the shower to calm back down and clean off from the sweat that had collected on his body during all of his pacing and excitement.



And that was when the telephone rang.



Reggie stared at it, unable to move. With each ring, the light on the back of the handset burned bright red. He shouldn’t have answered it the first time and answering it now was out of the question. It was now a little after one in the morning, and everyone he knew had his cell phone number. He sat back down on the bed and waited for the caller to give up. But after six rings it didn’t stop. If anything (and Reggie knew this was impossible), the ringing seemed to grow louder, as if it was mocking him.



By the fifteenth ring Reggie had to stop counting. By then it was impossible to distinguish between the ringing in his ears and the ringing of the phone. It just sounded like one continuous and never-ending ring.



Reggie picked up the phone.



“Who is this?” He yelled, fantasizing that his words could reach out and grab the throat of the caller. “What do you want?”



“Can you hear me?” The man on the other end of the line spoke in the same hushed tone as before. “If you can hear me you need to let me know.”



Reggie squeezed the phone in his hand hard enough to crack the plastic. It’s just some stupid game they’re playing, he told himself. Hang up the phone, do it now. Don’t give them the pleasure. And he was about to hang up the phone, slam it back down onto the cradle hard enough to shatter it into a million tiny shards, but right before he could, the voice on the other end spoke again and, even in whispered tones, his words rang out like a siren.



“Reginald,” the voice said. “Your family is here waiting for you.”



The phone fell from Reggie’s hands and even before it had hit the ground Reggie was already on the other side of the bed. He grabbed his cell phone from the floor, yanking the white charger from the wall outlet. He punched up his home number and waited, his mind already marching through the parade of horribles. With each subsequent ring, he felt himself slipping further and further down the ladder of despair.



On the fourth ring Renee picked up. “What’s going on Reggie?” Renee asked, her voice was hoarse and heavy.



“Is everything ok?” he asked, the words running together. “Are you ok? The kids?”



Reggie could hear the hinges on their bed squeaking as Renee sat up. “We’re fine. Are you ok? You sound worried.”



Reggie wiped his eyes with the back his hand. He could feel his heart hammering away in his chest, each thud sending a tremor through his body. “Are you sure you guys are alright?”



“We’re fine. Everyone’s asleep, including me. What’s going on?”



“I’ll tell you but first check the kids and then make sure all of the doors are locked and the alarm is set.”



“They’re already on, and I’m looking at the kids on the monitor right now,” Renee responded. He could hear the sleep falling away from her voice. “You’re kind of freaking me out here Reggie. What’s going on?”



Reggie took a deep breath and told her everything. The only thing he left out was his silly dream.



“And it wasn’t someone you recognized? Maybe someone at work playing a trick on you or something?”



Reggie shook his head. “No one would even think of doing anything like that and like I said, except for you and my assistant, no one has my travel information.”



“I should come back,” Reggie thought out loud, his mind already mapping out the steps. “If I got to the airport now then I could be back home by morning.”



“We are fine here Reggie,” Renee said. She was fully awake now. “Like you said, you wouldn’t get back until morning, and by that point, we’d already be carved up and stuffed into suitcases.”



“That’s not funny Renee,” Reggie responded. “ Even as a joke.”



“You sure? Because I think I can detect just the slightest bit of a smile in your voice.”



She was right.



“I’m exhausted, and your children refuse to sleep, but otherwise yeah, we’re ok.” The bed squeaked once again, and now Reggie could envision Renee sitting up, her back against the headboard. “Listen. The kids and I are fine. We have the alarm system, and Mr. Richardson is sitting on your side of the bed staring at me and wondering why I’m not asleep.”



Mr. Richardson was the second layer of the Montgomery family defense system - an eighty-five-pound German shepherd that had failed out of K-9 academy, which basically meant he was the smartest and bravest dog either Reggie or Renee had ever seen.



With the mention of Mr. Richardson, Reggie allowed himself to exhale. He lifted his feet up onto the bed and massaged his temples with his fingertips. “Alright, but I’m keeping my ringer on. Call me if anything is funny and I mean anything. Also, I’m calling you first thing in the morning. If you don’t answer, I’m calling the police.”



“Deal,” Renee replied.



“I love you and the girls. Talk to you soon.”



Reggie hung up the phone. His family was on the other side of the country, more than five-thousand miles away, but they were alright. For the second time, Reggie felt embarrassment and anger for allowing the caller to get to him. Of course, his family was alright, between the alarm system and Mr. Richardson, no one was getting into the house. And even if someone did, they’d still have to contend with Renee.



Reggie flipped the switch on the side of his cell phone, changing it from silent to ringer, and plugged the phone back into the wall. He stood up and grabbed another drink of metallic tasting water from the bathroom faucet. It wasn’t until he was leaving the bathroom and starting to turn back off the lights that he saw the hotel phone lying on the floor where he’d dropped it.



Moving quickly, Reggie went to the phone and placed it back down in its cradle, not bothering to see if there was still anyone on the other line. But after merely touching that phone, Reggie could feel some of the magic from Renee’s words beginning to decay and fall away from him like dead skin. Yes, Renee had said she was alright, but she’d never left the bed or the bedroom. What if someone was already in the house? Or, if they weren’t, what if they were waiting outside, sitting in a van?



Reggie looked back over towards his cell phone. He could call her back but what then? Even if she answered and told him that everything was fine his fears would just rear back up the moment the call was over. No, he needed to try to get home, even if it took him all night and day to get there at least he would know he was headed in their direction.



His laptop was still warm when he sat down at the desk and turned it back on. Before jumping online, Reggie paused for a moment and studied the picture on his desktop. Renee was sitting on the couch with Sasha and Madeline on either side of her, both wearing pajamas, their faces wide in laughter.



Renee hadn’t wanted to adopt, but Reggie had told her it was the only option. Although he could, he never would have children of his own, not after what he’d experienced. There was a poison running through his genes, and he knew it, had seen it burning through his siblings like wildfire. While the doctors and geneticists had told him that the chances were exceedingly slim and that what had happened to his family was a fluke, on a par with a coin flip turning up heads one-hundred times in a row, he couldn’t take that chance, not after what he’d seen.



Instead of going online to check on flights, Reggie opened back up his diary and reread his final entry again.



Received a prank call from a weirdo.



Reggie closed his eyes and replayed both calls in his head. The man’s voice was crystal clear, as was the sensation of parental fear he’d felt when the man had mentioned his family. It was impossible for the memory to be anything but real.



But still, what if?



Ever since he’d been keeping this diary there’d never been anything - not a single event that led him to believe that his sanity was at risk. Still, the lingering question he had was: What did going crazy feel like? And, if he was going crazy, would he notice?



Over the last decade-plus, he’d conceived up several ways of confirming his sanity, things such as recollecting the names of his former girlfriends or working through his times tables. It was questionable whether these tasks would accomplish anything at all, although he had used them before in the past when he’d had a late-night bathroom trip to make sure that he was actually awake and not having what he often called a “pee-dream.” But he ran through them all now, recalling Ms. Hirch and Mr. Cappeti from St. John’s Middle School and Laura Hansoff, the first girl he’d ever dared to kiss.



Still not satisfied after hitting nine times nine (eighty-one of course), Reggie leaned back in his chair, trying to work his mind around the problem. Why hadn’t the prank call come from his cell phone? At least then he’d be able to check call log and confirm that this entire thing had really happened.



He looked at the oversized television and considered turning it on to distract himself from the idea of losing his mind. Sitting on the ground next to it was the hotel’s minibar. Reggie moved across the room and opened up the small mini-fridge. The entire system was electronic, all of the drinks and snacks inside were sitting inside of their own oval-shaped groove. Reggie knew that if he even moved them a fraction of an inch then when he checked out there’d be a line item on his bill. Between the pay-per-view movies on his television and the minibar, the hotel could track any and all “extras” he might want to partake in.



Reggie closed the mini-fridge, paused for a moment, and looked over at the hotel room phone. Before his new idea had even fully traversed from his subconscious to his conscious, he had already dialed “0.”



Despite the hour, the phone picked up on the first ring.



“Hello Mr. Montgomery,” a too chipper female voice said on the other end of the line. “How can I help you?”



It was common customer service protocol - identifying the caller by their surname when answering. Reggie had experienced it dozens if not hundreds of times before and thought nothing of it but hearing another stranger identify him by name (we are all here waiting for you Reginald) had transformed the courtesy into something strangely off-putting.



“Hi. I’m in room 522 and received a . . . ,” Reggie paused, trying to think of a way to describe the calls he’d received. Creepy? Frightening? The call had been all of those things, but some part of him wouldn’t allow him to characterize them that way as if by verbalizing those thoughts he’d be permanently cementing the idea in his head. “A strange call,” Reggie finally decided on. “The caller didn’t identify himself, and I was wondering if you could provide me with the person’s number.”



Now that he was saying his idea aloud it seemed utterly ridiculous. He was talking to a hotel operator, not some agent at the NSA. Keeping track of dirty movies and small bottles booze was one thing, tracing incoming calls was another thing entirely.



“Of course,” the woman responded quickly. Reggie’s eyes went wide, and his mouth hung open. “It’ll just take a second to check your room records. Can I put you on hold for a moment?”



“Sure,” Reggie responded in disbelief.



There was a click, and soft indistinguishable music began playing through the phone. While he waited, Reggie smiled as he fantasized about what he would do with the information. A return call was guaranteed, the only question was how he would play it. The best would be if the caller were some loser kid - that way Reggie could demand to speak to his parents. And if he wasn’t? Even if it was an adult, Reggie thought that he could find some time in his schedule to visit the gentleman caller. Chances were that he’d be pretty intimidated by a giant black man showing up at his door.



The music stopped and brought Reggie out of his enjoyable fantasy. “Mr. Montgomery? Are you still there?”



“I’m here,” Reggie replied. There was something different about the woman’s voice. She still sounded pleasant enough, but there was now a sprinkle of something else in her voice too that Reggie couldn’t exactly identify.



“We don’t have any records of any calls coming into your room.” The woman said. “Are you sure it was your hotel phone? Maybe it was your cell phone.”



Reggie’s mouth went dry. He opened it to try to speak but nothing came out, he imagined he looked like a fish lying on the beach gasping for water.



“Sir, are you there?” The woman said.



Reggie cleared his throat. The pleasantness had entirely disappeared from the woman’s voice, replaced by that other thing that Reggie had previously been unable to identify. But now it was clear, so clear that Reggie felt like a fool for not sensing it earlier - caution and suspicion.



She was talking to him like he was crazy.



Reggie forced himself to sit up straight in the bed. “Yes, sorry. I’m sure you’re right. Sorry for bothering you.”



The woman responded with something but Reggie didn’t hear. He’d already hung up the phone. His heart was thumping so hard in his chest that it felt as if it was lodged in the back of his throat, like if he opened his mouth and looked into a mirror, he’d be able to see it sitting there, a bright red muscle engorged in blood. His senses seemed supercharged as if he’d just been given a shot of adrenaline. He could hear the gentle hum of electricity coursing through the walls and the sounds of the traffic five floors below.



From where he was sitting, he could see his computer on the desk, the final entry sat on the screen mocking him. Still not crazy. He’d written those words as a joke, nothing more than a bit of trench humor, but now it seemed to exude a certain ironic darkness that made him shiver. He couldn’t remember ever concluding an entry with a joke before, not even back in the days when every stray thought had been perceived as a sign of impending lunacy. Was this how it started? Had Jacob smiled to himself as he’d grabbed the piece of sandpaper from their father’s toolbox?



Renee was sleeping, but he needed to speak to her, needed it the way a drowning man needed air. Walking on legs that seemed barely able to hold his weight, Reggie moved to the other side of his bed and picked up his cell phone. Just as he was about to place the call, he heard music and laughter coming from the room next door.



The sounds transported Reggie back to his nightmare and, for one brief moment, Reggie thought that he was still dreaming, that everything since that moment had been a dream. He looked down at his bare arms. The hair there was sticking straight up at attention, each follicle a tiny hard nub of gooseflesh.



Just like in his dream, Reggie stood up from the bed and pounded on the wall with his fist, as if by pounding he could make all of this evening disappear. The same painting that had simply teetered in his dream fell to the ground with a crash. He began yelling and screaming at the guests on the other side of the wall, demanding that they turn down the music. The inside of his mind was a cauldron, burning off ideas and emotions to their basest levels. He felt anger and fear simultaneously; his breath was coming in large whooping gulps. He cranked his fist behind his head, preparing to continue his assault .



The calls were coming from that room.



Reggie froze at the thought. It was startling and striking in its logic, and he didn’t understand why it had taken him so long to realize it. It explained everything. The telephone numbers corresponded to the room numbers. That’s how the people next door had gotten his number. This would also explain why the receptionist downstairs hadn’t seen any incoming calls - she’d only checked for external ones, not internal calls.



The only lingering question was how they knew his name, and even that was explainable. When he’d first arrived, he’d telephoned Renee and the kids and had put them on speakerphone while he’d unpacked. He was sure that someone had said his name during that conversation and hadn’t the first thing he’d noticed when he’d checked in were the hotel’s thin walls?



For the first time in what felt like ages, Reggie smiled. He’d been the victim of some stupid party prank.



With more relief than anger, he stepped outside of his hotel room. Out of all of the rooms he’d been in on this trip, the hallways were by far the worst and least inviting. Harsh fluorescent lighting and bare walls broken up only by hotel room doors, thin and flat carpeting that made it feel as if he was walking on concrete. The only thing in the hallway that gave off even the slightest trace of warmth was the tray of leftover room service sitting on the ground on the other side of the hallway; a half-eaten burger sitting beside a few stray French fries.



Reggie walked to the room next door and stood outside of it listening to the music playing. It was a song that he didn’t recognize, some awful combination of notes and tones that sounded like a child banging away on a keyboard. Underneath that unpleasantness, he could hear the sounds of people laughing and chattering away. But there was something about that laughter that he didn’t like. It was entirely devoid of any joy and contained an edge to it that seemed almost... Reggie didn’t know what word he would use, but the first one that came to mind was cruel.



Reggie knocked on the hotel room door. The music immediately stopped and the door pushed open slightly.



A boulder-sized lump appeared in the back of his throat. Rather than fear, what he felt now was a profound sense of wrongness as if the entire world had suddenly begun to spin in the opposite direction.



“Hello?” Reggie said, knowing even before the words were out of his mouth that there’d be no response.



“I’m next door,” he continued. “Your music has woken us up twice.” Reggie pushed open the door slightly as he spoke. “I’m not sure why the hotel hasn’t said anything but you have to keep it down. We’re trying to sleep.”



Reggie didn’t know why he’d said “us” and “we,” but was sure that it had something to do with the concept of safety in numbers. An “I” could be killed and no one would be the wiser, at least for a bit of time. “We” on the other hand was far more dangerous.



Reggie took a single hesitant step forward and pushed the door all the way open.



He was staring down a ten-feet long corridor, at the end of which was the rest of the room. There was a wall on the right side and a replica of his own flat screen television pushed against it. Assuming the layouts of the rooms were mirror images of each other, the small door to his left led to the bathroom, and the protruding cabinet to his right was the closet. Straight ahead he had a view of the foot of a bed, with a partial view of a desk pushed up against a window. Except for a tiny sliver of space in the far left of the room that Reggie couldn’t see from where he was standing, the room was empty.



Reggie clenched and unclenched his fists and breathed deeply. Seeing the interior of the room had done nothing to decrease the sense of wrongness he’d felt standing outside. Where were the people he’d heard? Not only that, but where had the music come from? He didn’t see any speakers or subwoofers.



“Hey Reggie,” Jacob’s voice said from somewhere in the room. “Come here for a second. I want to show you something.”



Hearing his brother’s voice was like slamming his elbow into a wall but instead of merely pinching his funny bone, he’d pulverized it, numbing his entire body from head to toe. You’re asleep, he told himself. That was the only explanation for what was happening and for what he’d just heard. His brother wasn’t here right now, his brother was on the other side of the country, probably sleeping soundly in his bed from the therapeutic cocktail of drugs he ingested on a daily basis. But it wasn’t just the fact that his brother couldn’t possibly be in this room that cemented the idea that this couldn’t possibly be real, it was the fact that his brother couldn’t possibly be saying the words Reggie had just heard him say.



I want to show you something.



That had been his brother’s favorite saying, and during their time together his brother had shown him amazing things, big brotherly things - how to ride a skateboard, how to shoot a BB-gun, and the dirty mags that he’d “borrowed” from one of his friends. But the last time he had said those exact words to him he’d showed him something much worse than any of those things.



“Seven times eight is fifty-six,” Reggie said to himself as he stepped further into the room. Mr. Borston had been his geometry teacher freshman year in high school, but he couldn’t remember who’d taught algebra. He could see the man’s face, round and covered with a blanket of white hair, but for the life of him he couldn’t recall the name.



He was still trying to recall the man’s name (Mr. Blythe) when he walked past the closet filled with empty metal hangers. With each step forward, the air grew colder, until he was surprised that he didn't see cold wisps of white smoke with every exhalation.



There was a war going on in his head now, with the portion of it that knew his brother couldn’t be here fiercely battling the portion that had heard and recognized his voice. Standing two steps from the edge of the wall, Reggie squeezed his hands as tightly as possible, pleading with himself to wake up. The time for mental tricks of old teachers or math had long passed. He reached down and grabbed the skin on his left forearm and twisted it as hard as he could. The pain was hot and fiery, but the room didn’t dissolve or melt away into nothingness. He was still standing in the same hallway on the threshold of seeing something that was utterly impossible.



He took the final step.



Just like he had almost fifteen years ago, Jacob Montgomery was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt. His back was turned to Reggie, but Reggie could see his hands at work on his face, swiping back and forth. And with each swipe, a red spray of blood shot out to the side.



“Jacob?” Reggie said, all of the power gone from his voice. He sounded like a child. It was the same thing he’d said and the same voice he’d years earlier. He hadn’t wanted to say those words but felt compelled to re-live this experience and, just like that first time, Jacob didn’t respond, only stood perfectly still, except for his hands, they kept swiping back and forth, like the hands of a demented clock.



Reggie took another step forward. At the same time, Jacob turned towards him. The front of his shirt was covered in gore, the top quarter closest to his neck a dark maroon color. Thick tributaries of blood extended from his ruined forehead and down his face. The image of his brother was horrible in its familiarity and just like before, the most horrible part was the occasional flashes of white Reggie would see as his brother sandpapered his forehead down to the bone.



“The critters,” Jacob said. Reggie had become a statute. He was more scared than he could have ever imagined, but he was also sad. He knew what his brother would say next, could recite the words syllable by syllable as they were the same words that had been echoing in his head since the first time he’d heard them.



But instead of reciting the line Reggie had expected (I’m going to get them all this time), Jacob said something different, something terrifying.



“They’re in you this time,” Jacob said, as he began to approach Reggie in slow staggered steps.



Reggie turned around and sprinted back towards the door. Even though it was no more than ten feet away, it felt as if it took him years to cross that distance. With each passing moment, the terror and fear collected in his chest like a balloon filled with freezing water.



The door was closed. Reggie hadn’t closed it himself. He reached for the door handle and slammed it down and pulled. The door opened but only about an inch, just enough for Reggie to see the hallway. It was like staring through the bars of a prison cell.



“They’re in you now little brother,” Jacob said from behind him, his voice bright and happy in a way that it hadn’t been in decades.



The steps were getting closer now, and Reggie continued to jerk on the door, pushing and pulling it as hard as he could, trying to wrench it open, but each time the door would only open a crack. Now Reggie couldn’t just hear his brother behind him; he could smell him as well, an earthy metallic smell that reminded him of inhaling a jar filled with old pennies.



Reggie pulled the door again, his mind a whirlwind. From out of the corners of his eyes, he saw the latch and chain near the top of the door and immediately understood why the door was closed. He unlatched the chain and pulled the door open, barely avoiding slamming it into his face. Less than a second later, Reggie was in the empty hallway sprinting back towards his room. Just before he ran inside, he saw the tray of food from earlier. The bun was now covered with a thick layer of green mold and sat limply atop the burger like a worn out hat. Bloated maggots crawled across the face of the meat, each one looking like a chubby grain of rice.



Reggie jumped into his room and slammed the door behind him. The hotel room phone sat on the nightstand next to his bed. Reggie crossed the room towards it. He would call the front desk and get them to send someone up to his room right away. A part of him knew that when that happened, there’d be nothing for them to see, that even if Jacob were standing right in front of them, they wouldn’t see a thing, but Reggie didn’t care. The only thing he wanted at that moment, and he wanted it more than he could remember wanting anything ever, was not to be alone, to be in the presence of someone real.



Reggie picked up the phone and held it to his ear.



“Everyone here is waiting for you Reginald,” the voice said from the other end of the line. “Renee, Madeline, and Sasha, they are all here waiting for you.”



“Leave me alone!” Reggie screamed into the phone. He slammed the phone back down onto its cradle. But when he picked it back up, the man’s voice was still there.



“Can you hear me Reggie?” The calmness in the man’s voice mocked him. “If you can hear me then do something.”



Reggie slammed the phone down again and again, trying to end the call, but it did no good. The phone wouldn’t hang up, and the man wouldn’t go away.



“Whoever this is I’m going to find you,” Reggie said breathlessly. “This is your last warning.”



The voice on the other end of the phone was silent. But it wasn’t just that, everything had gone silent - the cars and people on the street below him, the hum of the mini-fridge, even his heartbeat. It seemed as if the entire world and everyone on it was holding their breath and waiting for a response.



“Reggie,” the voice on the other end of the line finally said. His voice was unchanged. “Do you want to talk to Madeline?”



Reggie picked up the entire unit, yanking the phone cord from the wall, and threw it as hard and as far as he could. It was a blur as it flew through the air and, when it struck the edge of the doorframe leading into the bathroom, it exploded into dozens of little pieces that littered the ground like confetti.



He stared at the detritus on the floor, his chest heaving and his heart pounding. With every breathe, the room seemed to swell in size.



This was nothing but someone’s idea of a game. Everything that had happened, from the phone calls to whatever it was that had happened in the room next door, was rigged somehow. He had no idea how any of it had been done or the reasons why, but Reggie clung to this idea like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver.



Reggie grabbed his clothes from around the room and stuffed them back into his suitcase. When that was done, he put back on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going. It was just after three in the morning. He wouldn’t go to an empty airport. No, he’d go to a bar first or a restaurant; anyplace would do so long as it was filled with real, alive people.



His cell phone was sitting on the floor. Reggie grabbed it and stuffed it into his pocket. He stepped over the remains of the hotel room phone scattered across the floor. Standing in front of the hotel room door, he thought of Jacob. Reggie didn’t know if he was still next door or if he was simply standing in the hallway on the other side of the door waiting for Reggie. It didn’t matter. He was going to see Renee and the girls. If it meant facing Jacob then so be it. Taking one final deep breathe, Reggie opened his door.



For a second he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Instead of looking out into the hotel’s white and tan corridor or even staring at his brother’s ruined face, he saw the dark red color of rust. He was looking at a brick wall.



The impossibility of what he was seeing numbed him like a shot of Novocain. His suitcase fell out of his hands and to the floor with an impotent thump. He squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten, hoping to make the wall disappear, but when he opened them the wall was still standing there, inches away from his face. He pressed his hand against it. It felt rough and firm against his skin. He leaned all of his two-hundred and forty pounds into it, hoping that it would give, even just a little, but there was nothing.



A mixture of panic and terror filled him. He swiveled around on his heels and went to the window. For the entire night he’d been hearing the sounds of the traffic below him, but now the city was silent. He gripped the thick blinds in his hands and ripped them open.



Another wall. This time it wasn’t brick but black steel that almost seemed to glimmer as if illuminated by some invisible spotlight.



Reggie stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. The impact sending a shot of pain through his backside, but when he sat back up both walls were still there, shutting him in. In desperation, Reggie grabbed the small wooden desk chair and threw it against the steel wall. The chair hit flush but bounced harmlessly off of it and fell to the ground.



“This is impossible,” he said to himself as he moved back and forth between the two walls trapping him inside. He tried to force himself to be calm but he couldn’t. His brain seemed to be moving at one-hundred times its normal speed, his thoughts swerving around it like racetrack.



Reggie collapsed onto the ground, jerked his knees to his chest, and began rocking himself back and forth. He thought of Renee, Madeline, and Sasha and cried. He cried quiet tears for the fact that he didn’t think he would ever see or hear them again, that he would never feel the warmth of their cheeks in the morning pressing up against his, or the softness of their touch. He cried not for the fact that the walls kept him in but because they kept his family out.



The hotel phone rang. Reggie turned around. Rather than sitting on the ground shattered where he’d left it, it was sitting on the nightstand in perfect condition.



Reggie crawled on the floor towards it.



“Dad,” Sasha’s voice said from the other line, “can you hear me?”



Reggie’s heart skipped a beat in his chest. It wasn’t an impostor or a fraud. It was his daughter. He could tell it in her voice, the inflection, the tone, the way she said heaaaaah instead of hear, it was all the same. It was his little girl on the other end of the line.



“We love you,” she continued. “Come back home.”



There was the sound of the phone shifting hands and now another voice came on the line. “Daddy,“ his other daughter Madeline said. “Come home.”



Reggie put his hand to his mouth as if he could somehow block the grief from slipping inside. “Come home,” she repeated.



The phone shifted hands again and after a second or two he heard Renee’s voice coming through the other line. “Reggie. I’m not sure if you can hear me but we all love and miss you baby. It’s all right to come home now.”



The noises of the city had returned but Reggie barely noticed. The only things he heard were his family. They were all there, all of them telling him the same thing, repeating it to him like a mantra.



They were all telling him to come home.



Reggie squeezed the headset in his hand and when he finally spoke each word radiated with anguish and pain.



“I love you.”



endmark





“Did you hear that?”



Dr. Monroe Giltspry leaned forward in his chair. It was difficult to hear anything over the droning of traffic outside of the hospital. St. Agnes Memorial Hospital - The Agg to the locals - sat at the corner of 5th and Harrison Street in downtown Baltimore, and even during non-peak business hours there seemed always to be a parade idling on the street outside. It was this fact (and not the hundred or so patients he saw every day) that made his trip home at the end of the day the most demanding and stressful part of the day.



Before he spoke, Dr. Giltspry pretended to check Reggie’s chart when he was in actuality checking his watch. He’d hoped to get out of the hospital early, by four at the latest, and Mr. Montgomery had been his last round of the day, but what the floor nurse hadn’t warned him about before coming in was that the man’s family was inside, so what should have taken less than five minutes was now rounding the half an hour mark. If he waited any longer, then the freeway would be a parking lot.



“Mrs. Montgomery,” Dr. Giltspry said, stifling a yawn, “I didn’t hear anything.”



Mr. Montgomery had been found naked wandering the hallways of The Gateway Hotel over five weeks ago. He’d been banging on every hotel room door he’d passed. Luckily the hotel - like most businesses in the Baltimore area - was struggling and hadn’t been anywhere close to full occupancy. Out of the thirty or so doors he’d knocked on, he’d only come across a single one that had been occupied. There’d been a party going on, and they’d left the room open, and he’d walked right in. According to the guests, he’d simply stood there, staring at something in the corner of the room for a few moments, and then began talking to himself. After that, and according to everyone, he’d screamed and run out of the room as if being chased by the devil himself.



“Right after I told him I love you,” Renee said, her eyes blinking quickly in excitement, “his lips moved, and there was a sound.”



Dr. Giltspry nodded his head politely. It was now 4:40. Even if he left immediately he wouldn’t get home until six at the earliest, maybe later.



“Mrs. Montgomery, I’m sorry, but I’m simply not seeing any signs of recognition.” More for show than anything, Dr. Giltspry removed the small penlight from the inner pocket of his coat and swiped the light quickly across Mr. Montgomery’s eyes. The iris contracted in response to the light but, other than that, there was nothing.



Mrs. Montgomery shook her head and turned back towards her husband. “Reggie,” she said, her voice loud and clear, “we all love you here and miss you. Come back to us, baby.”



The doctor waited, his eyes focused not only on his patient but on the two small children standing beside Mrs. Montgomery. The oldest couldn’t have been more than four years old, and her sister was right about that same age, maybe ten or so months younger. They were obviously close, standing against each other like two small pillars, their fingers interlocked as they stared at their parents. It was those stares that made comatose patients the worst, not the looks themselves precisely, but the lack of understanding in them. They didn’t and couldn’t know what was happening or what had happened to their father. Eventually, they would grow to understand, but for too long they would think that he was playing a game with them. And when they realized he wasn’t, they would think that he was ignoring them or that he didn’t love or care about them anymore. Dr. Giltspry saw those months or years of misunderstanding stretched out before the Montgomery girls and made a decision.



“Mrs. Montgomery,” Dr. Giltspry said after a few moments of waiting, “I think we should speak privately. Just the two of us. I can get one of the nurses here to watch the children.”



Dr. Giltspry stood up and was just turning around towards the door when he heard a shhhing sound, like a teacher trying to quiet a classroom full of rowdy students. When he looked up he saw Mr. Montgomery, his eyes were still blank and far away but now his lips were pursed together like he was preparing to give someone the world’s biggest kiss.



“You saw that right?” Mrs. Montgomery asked.



“I did,” Monroe replied as he shone the penlight around the man’s face, the traffic and his now two-hour commute home long forgotten.



Five minutes later, Dr. Giltspry clicked off his light with his thumb, turned back towards Mrs. Montgomery and her children, and shook his head. There’d been nothing, no sign of any form of neurological action, no response to visual or physical stimuli. Despite what he’d thought he’d seen, Mr. Montgomery’s condition was unchanged.



“You and your children can stay as long as you like,” Dr. Giltspry said as he headed towards the door, feeling both guilty and stupid for falling into the same trap that he’d just been about to warn Mrs. Montgomery about.



Pushing open the door and stepping outside, Dr. Giltspry took one last look behind him. Mrs. Montgomery and the children were all huddled next to their patriarch, begging him to come home. The doctor had seen the same thing hundreds if not thousands of times before and had always thought it a pointless gesture, more for the family than for the patient. For the first time, however, he began to wonder what it would be like if the patient could actually hear his family’s pleas. Rather than being comforting or soothing, Dr. Giltspry thought those unanswerable pleas might be the most terrible thing in the world.



With the Montgomery family’s voices still in his head, Dr. Giltspry allowed the door to close and walked away.



   
   

 

endmark



Bryan L. Hawkins works and lives in the Sacramento, California area with his wife and children. He is an avid outdoorsmen and can't go through a single day without catching at least one fish.



The authors published at HelloHorror retain all rights to their work. For permission to quote from a particular piece, or to reprint, contact the editors who will forward the request. All content on the web site is protected under copyright law.