The Black Door

by John Fleming


Lovecraft Idea #23
The man who would not sleep—dares not sleep—takes drugs to keep himself awake. Finally falls asleep—and something happens. Motto from Baudelaire p. 214.

The casual observer would have thought him already dead. His eyes, once a brilliant green, were now dull and glossy. Maxwell Cook’s skin had become pale and, in the right light, waxy. Either five minutes or several hours ago he had caught a glimpse of his own reflection and saw himself as an exhibit in a wax museum surrounded by celebrity doppelgangers. When the visitors weren’t looking the statues would come alive and mingle with one another, just as he had suspected since his first visit to a wax museum as a child. Currently John Wayne was getting into a screaming argument with Bob Dylan while young Elvis looked at old Elvis with a dawning existential horror. Maxwell, taking advantage of this confusion, was attempting to woo Marilyn Monroe away from JFK.

An alarm on his watch sounded and brought with it 7 AM. Maxwell snapped out of his latest delusion and turned it off. He was sitting in a chair in the living room of his modest apartment staring at a television turned to static. It was time for medication that had been keeping him alive for the past two weeks. The first four days had been easy enough. Maxwell was able to avoid sleep due to a combination of terror and willpower. After that it became impossible to stay awake without the use of a carefully concocted combination of pills, vitamin supplements, and steroids. Ever-expanding gaps in his memory turned his life into a series of confusing and meaningless events. He wandered through the days and nights with no purpose or goals save the constant drive to never again face what awaited him in sleep.

The next thing he knew he was on the back of a bus and unsure of where he was going or why. Someone named Gene (a friend?) was seated next to him and showing him pictures of his new baby. Though he could not say why, Maxwell’s eyes stung with tears. The bus hit a speed bump and every passenger save Maxwell were suspended a half-centimeter off of the floor for the remainder of the trip. His eyes felt heavy and he realized that his medication hadn’t kicked in. Reluctantly his eyes slid shut.

A thin stream of light and the smell of flowers greeted him as he found himself in a strange bed. Cotton sheets draped over a pillow-top mattress. A black door made of rotting wood appeared at the foot of the bed. The golden knob began to turn. From behind the door they were coming for him with their smiles like knives and mocking laughter.

The medication took hold and Maxwell awoke with a gasp, sweat pouring down his face. Work. He stared dumbly at the walls of his office. They were not interesting enough to ascribe hallucinatory attributes. The nametag on his desk, however, seemed to be sneering at him. The owner of the company was in the room with him and had been speaking unnoticed for almost a half an hour.

“And I know that you’re still pretty new to this position Max but we need you to fire Gene, Edgerton, and Daniels. Daniels will throw a shit-fit so be prepared for that. Kill him if you have to, that’s what I had to do to Thompson. Yup, hit him over the head with a tire iron. Shoved his body in my trunk and drove the car into the river. God damn I loved that car! Great gas mileage, even with Thompson weighing down the trunk. Once the police give up looking for the body maybe I’ll drag it out of the river.”

“It’d probably cost a lot to fix all that water damage. Even more to clean out the corpse.”

“What the hell are you talking about Max?”

“What, uh, what were you talking about?”

“I said that you need to get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning. Oh, and fire Gene before the end of the day.”

The boss was gone and someone else was in the room with him. The bearded man wore a black suit in which Maxwell could see stars when the light hit it at the right angle. When the man smiled, which he seemed to do at every opportunity, his face resembled a wolf.

“Maxy I don’t know what you’re on lately but it sounds like some good shit. Bring it with you to The Red Room tonight. How’s life treating you?”

“I can’t really remember.”

“Fantastic! See you tonight buddy!”

The man slammed the door behind him and left Maxwell to his thoughts. The idea of slipping back to sleep consumed him. The creatures from the dream loomed around every corner and hid under every desk and chair. They were waiting for him, ready to remind him of the all-encompassing truth that acted as the foundation for his very life. The medication had started to lose effectiveness and soon his body would either fall asleep or die. He preferred the latter.

In spite of the name, not a single wall of The Red Room was red. It was in fact a deep blue that greeted Maxwell as he entered the exclusive night club with the wolf man and several other indistinguishable men in suits. On the walls were murals of apocalyptic imagery. Ten-headed beasts and red serpents flew over burning cities while human-faced locusts congregated on the ceiling from which hung a black chandelier made to look like a wheel within a wheel covered in lights fashioned after large eyes. Maxwell and the wolf man sat at a table underneath a full-wall mural of a rider on a pale horse ushering screaming souls into a lake of fire. A waitress dressed in purple and scarlet served them some apple martinis.

The wolf man bent over the table and little white snakes leapt into his right nostril. He offered some to Maxwell, who gave no response.

“Jesus Max what’s with you? What are you on and where can I get some?”

“No drugs. No sleep. Medicine”

“I hear you man! Who has time to sleep anymore? Way too much fun out here man! What’s it been, two days?”

“Two weeks.”

“Jesus! Maybe you should get some rest.”

Maxwell grabbed him by the collar and started to yell, “Do you want to kill me? Are you insane? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Hey calm down man I get it. Baudelaire once said: ‘Apropos of sleep, that sinister adventure of all our nights, we may say that men go to bed daily with an audacity that would be incomprehensible if we did not know that it is the result of ignorance of the danger.’”

Maxwell let go of him and began to relax. He asked, “Wh-what did you just say?”

“I told you to take a chill pill man. No use worrying about this shit. Some old guy once said that in the end we’re all dead and let me tell you he was on the money. So why bother stressing about it am I right?”

The room tilted ninety degrees and Maxwell realized that the medication was losing effectiveness. The chandelier began to spin increasingly faster until it caught fire and broke free from the chain connecting it to the ceiling. As the wheel within a wheel screamed and rolled towards him, Maxwell scrambled out of his seat and headed for the door. A rider on a black horse tore itself away from the wall and galloped after him, screaming something about wages. Maxwell could hear the wolf man laughing somewhere in the distance.

He stumbled outside and onto the street, gasping for breath. Sleep lingered in the corners of his eyes. He tripped and reached out to grab something to steady himself. He caught a handful of what felt like velvet. Before him hung a gargantuan curtain onto which was sewn a pattern which he had earlier mistaken for the rest of the street corner. With both hands he tore it down. Behind the curtain was an endless void of swirling colors. Reds, greens, blues, and yellows spun around in an infinite space. Maxwell tried to step into the vortex but couldn’t find the courage. Out of the void came the voice of some great and terrible beast. It asked for him to fire Gene by the end of the day. Maxwell screamed and did not stop until a second curtain fell from the sky and was drawn shut by some unseen force.

He sat shaking on a bench underneath a pale yellow light. Tears streamed down his face, though once again he could not say why. He could not remember where he was or how he had gotten there. Reality’s total lack of cohesion had finally begun to take its toll. His head began to nod and for one brief moment he forgot about his fear and drifted off to sleep.

A thin stream of light and the smell of flowers greeted him as he found himself in a strange bed. Cotton sheets draped over a pillow-top mattress. A black door made of rotting wood appeared at the foot of the bed. The golden knob began to turn. Two children, a boy and a girl, ran into the room laughing. A woman, his wife, rolled over next to him and draped an arm across his chest. She smiled at him and tears welled in his eyes and at that moment he felt happier than he ever had in his entire life. He lived in a two story house on top of a green hill. The day was spent on the porch and in the back yard under the blue sky, enjoying the company of his family. The sun set on the best day that Maxwell had ever experienced. He sat in his family room and looked at everything that could have been. All that was left for him to face was the absolute and total horror of waking.

John Fleming is from Rockford, Illinois. He is a recent graduate of Bradley University

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