's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by C. Lonnquist


The world-famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, has a stairway that leads to nowhere. I guess it's there to discourage ghosts. I'm not even really all that sure how that would work considering ghosts float, but hey, I'm not a crazy old lady designing a house-slash-ghost-trap. My point is, people go there, and they look at it, and it's spooky or whatever.

The Wells Fargo Plaza in Bloomington, Minnesota has twenty-four floors, and there are two stairways that go all the way from the basement to the roof. The west is always locked. The east is unlocked on certain floors, depending on business needs. My work has the 24th floor and the 22nd floor, and the east stairway is always unlocked between the two of them. It's not a tourist attraction like the Winchester house, but a lot of us don't use the stairwell.

It's not because of the fact that there's a strange grate about twenty feet above the doorway to the 24th floor. It's not the sounds that burble out of it, the sounds like someone whispering in a swimming pool, the constant, arrhythmic scraping and tapping.

   You might think people avoid it because of the endless, winding drop that instantly sends strange, vertigo-induced sensations up your thigh when you look down between the railings, but you'd be wrong. Sure, it somehow seems to grow darker and darker the further down it goes until the lower floors seemed swallowed by tarry blackness. Once, when no one was looking, I once dropped a black gel-writer pen down that slit. I never heard it land, but I did hear something wet shudder away from the movement. It sounded like someone scraping mud off a boot by rubbing the heel on a curb, and I swear something near the 15th floor moved away from the railing. It was red and serpentine and metallic and wriggly, like filament nightcrawlers. I didn't get a clear look, of course. I could only go down to the 22nd floor.

The reason people avoided it was because the floors didn't go twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two. Between the 24th and 23rd was another floor, and there was something perpetually wrong about that.

People fell back on old superstitions when they passed it. I've seen people hold their breaths or close their eyes and clutch the rust-red handrails as they passed. All conversation would lull around the landing as people either leapt down the next flight to 23 or took the stairs to 24 two steps at a time.

The door on that floor wasn't particularly different. It's not like it was labeled in goat's blood or eldritch runes. It was metal, painted tan, like every other door in the east stairway. It had the normal stainless-steel handle that pulled inward. It had a normal lock.

All the other doors were labeled with numbers. This one was spelled out with the words 'Twenty-Three and One-Half'. The font wasn't strange, either, but the time we had the international investors in the building, they said it was weird that it was the only floor labeled in Hungarian. They also kept asking us how that tall man was stuck, but when we pressed them for what they meant, they only looked confused and changed the subject.

People ran past Twenty-Three and One-Half because of the time the elevators didn't work and Dave took the stairs down and didn't show up for work for the next three days and then came back on the following Monday grinning like an idiot with three less teeth and missing fingernails. He stood in the clean, white lobby on the ground floor, outside the elevators between the stairwells, eyes darting back and forth from west to east. He reached for the elevator button over and over only to laugh and step back and shake his head and rub his bandaged fingertips over his splayed lips and grinding teeth. They had to call an ambulance to take him away after he stood there for two hours and bit a security guard when they tried to get him to move. They were covering his mouth and pushing him onto a stretcher as I walked in for my shift. He kept saying something like, "Urdug, urdug, urdug."

People avoided Twenty-Three and One-Half because of that one time when it was ten-below-zero with the wind chill and Jamie went to use the restrooms that shared a wall with the stairs and heard crying coming from somewhere far above her, even though the ceiling was only eight feet tall. She swore it was coming through the ventilation. People said it was just the wind, but any time they suggested such, an angry look would drop onto her face and she would snarl, "then how did it know my name?"

And me?

It always looked like there were little fingers coming out of the grate above 24. I would stand directly under it and just see a vent yawning upward into some unseen HVAC system, but man, when I started walking again and wasn't looking straight at it, I swear there were fingers.

I'm not a superstitious man, so I kept using the stairs, breathing normally with eyes open as I passed Twenty-Three and One-Half. Maybe that was a dumb idea.

Mid-March and it was finally getting warmer. I was going down to deliver some papers. I was halfway down the stairs to Twenty-Three and One-Half and something clacked off the back of my hand as I slid it along the railing. It skittered to the cement of the stairs and rattled down, tapping one end after another until it rolled to a stop outside the word-covered door.

A pen. The ink was gone. There was something brown like river silt in the thin flute. I picked it up and tried to click it experimentally, but it was gummed up and the little clicky part didn't budge. Something about the plastic skin of it felt off, and as opened my hand with the pen resting in the palm, it seemed to slip and melt, falling out of my hand with the slippery sucking sensation of hair gel.

I dropped it to the floor in a puddle, but the motion made me look downward, staring into the black slit that punched its way through the concentric rectangles of the railings below. I remembered a pen falling from my hand. I looked back up and narrowly caught a glimpse of fingers receding into the grating on the ceiling on the floor above.

The remains of the pen had begun to spread out and trickle down the stairs towards the 23nd floor. I watched them dribble, pooling in the chipped concrete, along the metal bands stretched along the lip of every stair. The brown silt that had replaced the ink seemed to pour and pour, a spring of dirty, pungent water that smelled like old dishwater and older fried chicken. Bits of detritus sputtered from the melted pen. Wood and little chips of bone no bigger than fingernails as well as actual fingernails-thin, waning-moon clippings by the handful-caught up in the flow of the growing stream and tumbled downward. Something far below made happy, lapping noised like a dog but too large to be a dog, grumbling and whistling with pleasure, and as I looked down into the dark slit made even more narrow by the water spilling over its edges, scarlet filaments took root along the handrails.

Of course I ran.

I held my breath and leapt up the stairs two at a time. More things were falling out of the grate now, and the little hands slipped between the crossing metal bands that covered it, fingers narrowed only to splay wide and throw something else downward. Earrings and pencils and used staples and papers and a finger and coffee filters and pennies and teeth.

The grate cracked and buckled under the pressure. I might have yelled as it did, but it was drowned out by giggling, crying noise of half-formed, narrow things that tried to grab for purchase on the flat concrete around them. A number of them plummeted through the black slit between the railings, but more splattered to the stairs, their willowy bodies like starved monkeys with eyes that seemed to suck the flesh of their face inward towards black points that somehow shown with a disturbingly intelligent light.

I was so close to the door-so close!-but as one of the creatures slipped down the wall and caught itself on the door handle, I made the fool's choice of turning the other way and running back down. In my frantic mind I hoped to make it to the 22nd floor.

I passed by the door to Twenty-Three and One-Half, my shoes filling with brown water as the pen's flow had grown from a brook to weak rapids, and the stagnant, decaying smell seemed to cling to even the railing itself, making it slick even as little red threads darted around the metal like roots growing in time-lapse.

I slipped on halfway down the stairs and tumbled end-over-end to where the landing for the 23rd floor should have been. Instead, the stairs had become wooden instead of concrete. They moldered under the constant flow of the water and strange, luminescent mushrooms and plate-like toadstool shelves grew from the cracks. I pressed my hand to the wall only to find that replaced with stone, old stone, covered in wet moss and the strange red strings that had reached up from below.

But the floor... there was no floor. There was no landing. Instead, a wooden frame seemed to rise up from what was now a lake of sullied water, and despite the water being to its edge, none of it spilled into the forbidding black hole within the frame.

I momentarily considered going further down-I could still hear the chittering things on the floors above-but luminous eyes the size of hubcaps opened in the blackness within the frame. Two, four, twelve. Whatever the eyes belonged to jostled each other and made annoyed, gulping noises. More of the red threads scratched along the frame like anteater tongues, slapping and twisting around themselves into Gordion knots.

My fingernails dug into the wooden railings as I pulled myself back up the stairs, stumbling to my knees with every step as the water from above grew torrential, a burble turning into a roar. Some of the things from the grate were scratching their way down the railings, their inverted eyes and sharp little teeth glinting in the glimmer of the fungal lights. One reached for me with one of its too-many arms that terminated in nearly-human hands but I swatted it away. It tumbled downward into the black opening below-was it closer now?-and let out a scream cut short by cracking, breaking noises. It would have been pitiable if it had been human. My mind dimly registered that the worrisome part was that it was.

Twenty-Three and One-Half loomed before me. I leapt past again, clearing the pen remnants that now gushed like a wounded artery. The grate above poured its own stream of screeching monkey-things into the slit. I could hear them hit the water below, but worse was the hollow, metallic thunk and dying screech they made when they hit the railings.

A moan escaped my lips as the last bits of the doorway to the 24th floor were swallowed by twitching red strings, decaying wood and moss that shone like a glowering bruise.

One of the crushed monkey-things under my feet spasmed in death, and I fell backwards, crashing down the stairs to the only remaining landing. The door to Twenty-Three and One-Half was the same as it always was, and even the slivery red tongues didn't touch it. The fungus curled and died as it touched the metal frame, and as something large and slick with fingers like a skinned animal wrapped around my leg, I yelled and wrenched the door open, tumbling through.

I hauled myself back on my elbows, watching the door swing shut behind me. I reached up and grabbed the handle, pulling it shut as one of the little, many-armed creatures tried to haul its broken body through. Whatever had reached for me yanked it backwards into the dimness of the stairway. The door clicked shut behind me.

The hallway I found myself in was not a hallway at all, but a series of trees bound tight together. They had grown over the metal wire that wove between them long ago, and only diamond pattern of the rusted wire betrayed it against the webwork of grasping branches. The trees didn't reach above me, forming a perfect canyon under mucus sky of pale yellows and greens and greys streaked with sore pink that seemed to roll against itself like wet, solemn thunderheads.

Somehow, the door was still behind me when I looked. This side said Twenty-Three and One-Half as well. From beyond it, I could hear moaning and screeching and the sound of rushing water.

Without a choice, I trudged further down the treed path. The ground beneath me was soft and seemingly dry. A raking of lime-colored lightning crawled disturbingly slowly across the sky above me, lighting the pathway of brittle, woven hair beneath my feet. I sucked in my breath and pressed to the tree line, trying to step on it as little as possible.

I want to say that I walked for what seemed like forever, but that's untrue. I walked for only a few minutes that dilated into a different sensation entirely, and my body felt heavy and older. The path was straight, and while something shuddered like firelight at the end of it, it didn't seem to grow closer. I walked, I stumbled, I crawled. My fingers yanked on the hair below me, dragging myself forward as an unseen gravity crushed down on my body. I could feel one of my fingernails tear away, lost in a handful of blonde, and something below the path grunted with sullen pain as I pulled away a patch of black strands and skin.

I feared my neck would break as I looked up. The green light was stronger, issuing from the overflowing top of a massive cauldron. The phlegm that made up the sky rose from bowl, and in it, I could see the vaguest shapes of faces.

A hand pushed through the putrid liquid, churning the cauldron, every now and then lifting to reveal long black fingers that smoked like the vents of undersea volcanoes. I made a pitiful sound and the hand stopped. A shadowy face with long, horizontal horns issuing from its temples peered around the column of viscous fluid.

"Oh," it said, its open mouth filled with teeth like steel nails and fire like a bellows.

I tried to drag myself backwards. The pressure around me seemed to lift slightly as the towering creature that owned the face and the hand stepped out from around the cauldron. It looked down at me with eyes that didn't stop vibrating, their color shifting like an oil slick in the sun.

"See," it said, "that's why we lock the west stairwell."

"I came from the east stairwell," I managed to stammer. What else could I have done? The creature crouched down on its long, black legs, which ended in hooves the sized of Volkswagons.

"East stairwell?" It looked back at the cauldron, counted on its fingers for a moment, then looked back at me. "Well, that's just my fault, I guess. You should probably get going." It motioned towards a door to my left that was not there a moment before. The door, of course, said Twenty-Three and One-Half.

My jaw dropped. "I...I can just go?"

The dark being shrugged. "I mean, I could make a bet with you and try to corrupt you or something, but I'm kinda busy with the... y'know, the big bucket over there."

The weight was gone from my shoulders then, and I stood up and reached for the door. I cracked it open expecting to see gigantic eyes and wormy tongues, but all that remained was a nondescript concrete stairwell. Relief flooded me, but then I tensed. "How can I trust you?"

The horned thing was already walking back to the cauldron, and lightning growled across the sky every time its hooves thumped into the hair path. "I wouldn't worry about it. Got work to do and all that."

I stepped through the door, and in a moment of stupidity, I turned and asked, "what's the cauldron for anyways?"

The great dark thing cast me an annoyed stare around the column of slithering faces. "Really?"

Regaining my senses, I slipped through the doorway, but as it latched behind me, I heard the creature speak one last time:

"I mean, where do you think baby souls come from?"