I’d been a delivery man for years.. then suddenly, I was joined by a dark passenger….
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Applause thundered from the concert hall as Saotomé Golán finished the closing note on his fifth symphony. According to him, it would be his last. Just days before this … Continue reading The Music Box
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Hundreds of people stood in the plaza staring at the bright red blaze in the sky. The scientists and politicians had told them all to prepare for the end. The … Continue reading The End
A soft, bright blue glow hung silently in the window of Johni’s bedroom. Like clockwork for the past several weeks, the light had awakened him from his sleep. It was a pleasant glow, but tonight, he began to realize that it was robbing him of some much-needed rest. Johni was unable to discern just what the glow was, but in his bones, he knew it belonged to something alive.
Every night he would get out of bed and walk toward the window. As he got closer, the light backed away from the window. Tonight was no different. Johni rose from the bed, slipped his feet into his purple bunny slippers his daughter gave him for his birthday last year, and sleepily strolled over the window. As he expected, the light responded in kind and increased its distance. When he was closer enough to place his hand on the window, the glow disappeared, and once again, the room grew dark. Johni rubbed his eyes, yawned loudly, and made his way back to bed.
The light of dawn shined through the window, and Johni rose again for the second time that day. He gathered his work belt and tools and headed for the construction site. He passed by a few of his co-workers, greeted them quickly, and went to check-in by the foreman’s desk.
“Morning, Johni,” Khalil said.
“Morning, foreman,” Johni responded in kind as he placed his finger on the print reader to clock in.
“You’re early today. Everything all right?”
“Yep, everything is A-ok,” Johni said. Wanting to avoid conversation with Khalil as much as possible.
“Good! Because you look like shit. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were on that stuff!” Khalil said with a slight chuckle.
“Very funny, KJ,” Johni responded.
Johni left the trailer and headed to his workspace, and was promptly followed by Khalil, who, presumably had some sort of meeting in mind. They stopped underneath several steel beams that had been placed atop one another. The view from above would have made it look like an asterisk. The team below cared very little what it looked like; they only cared that it got done and got done quickly.
“Alright, guys. We’ve got a few months left to install this “art installation,” Khalil said, making air quotes around the last bit of his sentence. “And my husband is expecting that I come home with a fat check to celebrate the completion of this work. So get it done as fast and as accurately as possible. Any and all questions or concerns with this project can be submitted to the newly cemented workplace suggestion box, that I will empty and discard every morning,” Khalil said with another laugh. “I’m just kidding, guys. But in all seriousness, you see any violations of code, anything that might put this team in danger, or something just not going to plan, let me know, and I’ll review it.” With that, Khalil left the group, and Johni and his co-workers Tommy, Sari, Atticus, and Shamari, got to work.
They worked until a bit after dark when they finally decided that enough was enough. Weeks ago, Khalil had given the entire site free rein of overtime and urged them to work as much as they wanted. The project was something of a priority. It was apparently commissioned by some reclusive billionaire somewhere in the world; Khalil was a bit short on the details.
Johni wished his co-workers well and headed back to his house just a few blocks away. He stepped through the threshold of the blue wooden door that stood out amongst the pale white paint of the rest of his house. He turned and locked the door, careful to pull and twist and ensure the lock held. He went upstairs, removed his clothing, and laid down in the bed. It was times like this that he missed his ex-wife and daughter. He would have loved to come home to a house full of love and laughter, but Cherie, his ex-wife, wouldn’t have it. He loved Cherie, but she was always convinced that he would cheat on her. Being bisexual, it seemed, was a no-go for her, even though she married him knowing that.
So, a thousand miles away, on the coast of Georgia, Cherie and their daughter Thomasina lived with little to no contact with him. Thoughts of them kept him up until the late hours. Midnight turned to 1 AM, then to 2AM. Suddenly, the familiar soft, blue glow appeared. He had spent many a night awake and worried, consumed with his thoughts of his former family, and never before had the blue glow made itself so plainly obvious.
Johni rose from his bed. He made his way towards the window in his purple bunny slippers, shuffling his feet across the plush carpet. The light didn’t move this time. Instead, it held its ground. Johni inched closer. As he reached the window and placed a hand on the glass, the glow blinked out of existence. Johni thought that strange, but he didn’t spend much time wondering about the strange light that night. Instead, he made his way back to bed for a peaceful, uninterrupted night of sleep.
Dawn arrived, and once again, Johni completed his personal grooming, grabbed his tool belt, and began to make his way to the construction site. When he arrived downstairs, the front door to the house was wide open. Johni had been sure to lock the door, as he had done every night. Despite his meticulousness, the door had been flung to the absolute limits of its hinges, exposing Johni’s house to the neighborhood.
Johni did a quick once-over of the house and didn’t see anything to be missing. He resigned himself to check again once he returned from work, but for now, Johni knew that he had to be at work. He closed the door, verified that it was locked, and left the vicinity of his house. He raced down the block, dedicated to making it on time. He arrived with one minute to spare. Khalil said nothing as he entered the trailer. Johni, placed his finger on the scanner, confirming his identity.
“Shamari hasn’t shown up yet, so, if he doesn’t eventually show, I’m just warning you that you, Atticus, Sari, and Tommy will definitely need to put in some overtime,” Khalil said. Johni could tell that Khalil was none too happy with Shamari’s absence. Shamari’s disdain showed, as he frowned his face and rubbed his thick, black beard while scrolling through his cellphone.
Johni made his way to his team. Sari, Tommy, and Atticus were seemingly waiting for him to arrive before they began. They were huddled like a group of football players discussing their next play.
“Morning, Johni,” Sari said. “We were worried you wouldn’t show up,” she said as she looked at Tommy and Atticus for validation of her statement. They shook their heads in agreement.
“Well, you don’t ever need to worry about that. I’ll make it here come hell or high-water. This place pays me too damn well to even think about taking an unscheduled day off,” Johni said as he rolled his eyes.
The group laughed at the facetiousness of Johni’s statement and began to put themselves to work on various parts of the building. Day turned to night, and Johni started to make his way home. He was exhausted, his muscles hurt, and he was sweating as if he just ran a marathon.
His blue door was still closed, he noticed, as he neared his home. Johni placed the key in the lock and stepped inside. Everything still seemed normal, so he began to prepare himself for bed. He removed his shirt and pants, dropped them near the living room couch, and made his way upstairs.
Then his phone rang. He silently cursed to himself, then almost immediately, he regretted it. Johni knew who was calling, and he was eager to talk to her. It had been a few weeks since he last heard Thomasina’s voice.
He tapped the green icon on the screen and quickly lifted the phone to his ear.
“Dad?” Thomasina said.
“Yeah, honey? How’s is everything there?”
“Thomasina, who are they? What are you talking about?” Johni said. He sat up in the bed, prepared to hop online and purchase the first flight out to Georgia.
“The-,” Thomasina began to speak, and suddenly, Cherie’s breathy voice sounded through the speakers.
“Everything is fine, Johni. She’s been having night terrors lately and doing the strangest things.”
“Are you sure everything is alright? I can fly down there to see her and –“
“Yes, everything is quite alright. I’ll talk to you soon,” Cherie said as she abruptly ended the call.
Johni was suspicious, but despite the issues that he and Cherie had, he believed with all his heart that she was a capable and competent caregiver. He laid back down, covered himself under his bedsheets, and slept.
The glow did not appear that night, and for the first time in weeks, Johni had a full night of uninterrupted sleep. He woke up in the morning completely refreshed and ready to tackle whatever was going to be thrown at him that day, or at least he thought he would be prepared. As he neared the worksite, his phone rang. An unknown number flashed on his phone screen.
“Hey, Johni. It’s Sari. If you’re on your way to the site, don’t bother. Nobody showed up except Khalil and me. I’m sure you know we can’t really run a construction site like that so, Khalil canceled the day. He’s still at the site, but I was wondering if you maybe wanted to meet me at the little breakfast spot near the worksite: Annie Crepes. You know it?”
“Sure, Sari. I’ll be there in a minute. That work?”
Johni strolled down the street. On the one hand, he was delighted to have a surprise day off; on the other hand, he was worried about what was going on. Was there some strike he wasn’t made aware of? Were his co-workers okay? He didn’t have the answers, and if they didn’t come back, he wasn’t sure he’d get them.
Before Johni could step inside the restaurant, Sari came rushing out. She grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him into the alley nearby.
“Something seriously messed up is going on, and I don’t know what. There was this glow last night at my window. It seemed like the same glow that Tommy and Atticus told me about a few days ago, so I got up and left my house. I spent the night in a hotel room last night.”
“A glow? Are you sure?” Johni said.
Sari looked at him incredulously, as if she couldn’t believe he was questioning her senses in a time like this.
“I’m absolutely positive, man.”
“Sari, I’ve been seeing that weird glow for weeks.”
“Sari’s already large eyes seemed to grow bigger. We need to figure out what’s going on.”
“No, we don’t. Whatever is going on, I want no part of it. I just want to go down to Georgia and make sure my daughter is okay.”
Sari began to speak, but seemingly, the sound would not escape her lips. Tiny blue lights began to float down from the sky as Sari was lifted in the air. Johni saw her struggling in the air, grasping at the blue lights around her, to no avail. In moments, she was gone. Seemingly just teleported away. Finally, Johni gathered his senses and ran. He didn’t know where to run, or what exactly he was running from, but he figured that standing there was not a good idea.
He made it halfway down the street before the blue lights revealed themselves to him. He befell the same fate as Sari. He was lifted into the air, as the muscles he had attained over years of construction work were rendered useless against his luminous foes.
In seconds, he found himself blinded. Not because his vision didn’t work, but because his surroundings were so dark that his eyes could not register where he was. He realized he was no longer in the clutches of the light, and that he was standing on solid ground and so he tried to feel his way around. He walked in the darkness until his hands felt dry, dusty concrete. Then, a bright blue light began to shine brightly in front of him. This time, the glow that, for weeks had kept its distance, got closer and closer to him.
“What do you want with me?” Johni yelled at it. The light floated around him like a dragonfly. It darted quickly and stopped, only to dart to another location in his vicinity.
“You hear me? Answer me! What do you want with me!”
“We want nothing with you,” a high pitched mechanical voice responded. “We simply want you.”
Bright fluorescent lights began to turn on one by one, illuminating the bodies of his co-workers on black gurneys. They had been sliced open and were seemingly left with empty caverns where their organs once were.
“No,” was Johni’s last words as his vision faded to black.
That old building on the corner had seen a lot. It served for over 50 years as a beacon of hope and refuge to some of Azuretown’s most hopeless residents. Sure, it was run down, and more than a little dilapidated, but, when someone was down on their luck for some reason or another, The Azzuro hotel always found a place for them.
Toya Spelmon was in a bad spot now. For years, she was the queen of Azuretown. She was widely known as a woman who could get things. Need to renew a license to sell alcohol, but not everything is up to standard? Call Toya. Need a false address so your kid could go to a better school? Call Toya. All you needed to do was promise her a favor down the line and you were in the clear.
Toya’s favors, however, had finally run out, and she found herself inside the Azzuro, hoping for a miracle. As she had helped the residents of Azuretown get what they need, they stopped needing her services and she had to use more and more of her favors, until last month, she used the last one to make sure her rent got paid. Luckily, the mysterious owner of the Azzuro agreed to let her stay there for free.
She’d never met the man who called himself Dale. No one had. Stories floated around about him for decades. Some said he was some tech billionaire who had started his own company years ago after being fired from his job decades ago. Others just said he was a kind man with a kind heart whose rich parents had died, and he felt like giving back. Perhaps none of it was true. Perhaps all of it was. Toya didn’t care that much, but she was grateful that the man had stepped in to help her.
Toya sat in the lightly decorated and uncomfortable room. The bed was too firm, and the stale air around her stank of age. The room contained none of the comforts she grew used to in her own home. There was no internet, there was no place for her to really relax, and stepping out onto the main grounds of the hotel for a smoke made her uneasy. The Azzuro, for all the help it has offered Azuretown’s residents over the years, did not seem the safest of places. It didn’t take long to find the gang members roaming around the place looking for an easy mark. Toya found it astonishing how just five miles down the road, a wealthy suburb popped housed some of Azuretown’s most influential and wealthy residents…not to say that they weren’t guilty of their own crimes. Toya had been there often enough to tell plenty of stories of how the rich and influential live.
As she lamented her lot in life, her phone vibrated in her purse. Her cell had been like a desert in the past month… that is to say, the jobs had dried up. So it was a welcome surprise for her to hear something from it. She reached into her black leather purse with gold trimmings and read the message on the screen.
Need Help. Meet outside Azzuro?
The number was blocked and gave no further details about when. She responded asking the question of when this person wanted to meet. She was met with a quick reply stating that the text could not be sent. Toya mulled it over and it didn’t seem like the best idea, but what could she possibly have to lose, after all, her life was pretty much over. She placed her phone back inside her purse and gathered up her locs into a loose bun. She exited the door and made her way back towards the front door of the Azzuro where the tired-looking front desk attendant sat quietly reading a large book, barely acknowledging her as she left the building.
Through the glass sliding doors, she saw a tall man, dressed in clothing that he seemed to drown in. A long white t-shirt and jeans that swallowed his skinny frame. He looked around nervously and Toya guessed that this was the guy that sent the cryptic message. Instinctively, she grabbed her mace, cleverly designed to look like lipstick and gripped it tightly in her hands as she strolled over to him.
“You looking for Toya?” She asked him loudly from several feet away.
He quietly shushed her and pointed to an alley not far from the front door of the hotel.
“No, tell me what you want first, then we can take this thing to a more private area.”
The man rolled his eyes and sauntered over to her with the grace of a dancer, despite his body being drowned in the clothing that she was quickly becoming to suspect was not his.
He leaned in close to her. “look, I’m looking for something. It’s an object. This is going to sound crazy, but the things I’ve heard about it are amazing. I even met someone who said they used it,” the man said in a
“Well, what exactly is it?” Toya replied, sure that this was a joke.
“I can tell you, but not here. I’m not sure who has been following me.”
Toya nodded her head. She was intrigued. “Follow me.” She led the man back into the hotel. As they began to pass the attendant, he lifted his head from his book and began to speak.
“Hold up, Hold up. All guests, have to be registered to enter into the hotel,” he said.
“He’s with me,” Toya replied firmly.
“I can see that. Doesn’t change the fact that I need to know who he is.”
The man looked around nervously and eventually began to talk to the attendant. “My name is Oscar Acevedo. I’m visiting my friend here to discuss some family business…now is it okay if I go in with her?”
The attendant looked skeptical, but grabbed a clipboard with several lines dedicated to listing some of the personal information of the guests in the Azzuro. ‘Oscar’ grabbed the clipboard, scribbled in his information, and handed it back to the attendant.
“There you go, now we’ll be on our way,” Oscar said.
“Enjoy your time at the Azzuro!” the attendant said gleefully with a wink. Toya rolled her eyes in disgust and began to walk back to the room. Toya took her seat on the bed and Oscar sat on the crumbling chair in the corner of the room.
“Alright, spill it, Oscar.”
“Okay. Well, about 15 years ago I heard a rumor about a pair of brass knuckles that let you ‘skip on life’ for a bit. It’s said that they’ll give you a double who’ll make your life better.”
“And you actually believe it?”
Oscar shook his head, affirming Toya’s accusation.
“Look, I’ve done most of the legwork myself, but I’ve been feeling a little shifty since I got here. Someone gave me your name, and I decided it might be best if I let a professional handle it from here on out. I’ve been able to trace the knuckles last known location to here.”
“And who was this person who you met that has used them?” Toya said, still skeptical that any of this was real.
“My cousin, who lives in Guadalajara, told me he left them here about fifteen years ago, after he bought them from some guy named Dale. I believe him. Before he said he had those things, he was in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and well on his way to losing custody of his children to his abusive ex-wife. He said he put them on, woke up and it was three years later, and everything had been resolved.”
The rest of the story, Toya wasn’t sure she believed, but the name dale sparked her interest. The same name of the man who owns Azzuro.
“Alright, say I believe you. What are you going to do for me?”
“I’ve heard how you like to be paid. When I come back, I’ll owe you two favors of your own choosing. Just please find these for me.”
Toya extended her hand towards Oscar. “How about we shake on it? I’m one of the best at what I do, so, just know that I will find these for you, and you will owe me TWO favors,” Toya emphasized.
Oscar extended his hands and firmly shook hers.
“Any more detail on where they might be in here?” Toya asked.
“No. I just know he said he left them here.”
Toya shook her head and dismissed Oscar from the room. She set off on looking for the knuckles. She entered the red-carpeted hallway and looked down each side. She noticed that there were several unmarked rooms and decided that that should be her first stop. She walked through the hallway and stopped at the first. She twisted the handle and was surprised to find that it was unlocked. She entered the room and the smell of bleach burned her nose. She had walked right into the cleaning closet.
Toya quickly exited the room and made her way to the next door and found the linen closet. That is when she noticed the stairs. They headed down and Toya was all too eager to get down there and see what secrets the Azzuro held. As she descended the stairs she began to notice how different the building had become. The red carpet had faded into a strange shade of maroon and the wooden walls became a brick façade. It reminded her of a gothic castle. Her nerves began to weaken. She questioned whether she needed this job that badly. Nevertheless, she persisted.
At the foot of the stairs, she found herself staring at a darkly lit room with more unmarked rooms on either side. At the end of the hall, there was an ornately decorated door with a lion’s head atop it. It seemed too obvious to her that the knuckles would be there, and so she headed to the first unmarked door on her left. When she entered it, it seemed as if she had entered an entirely new hotel. Everything seemed new, from the carpet to the walls to the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and few feet. Toya admired the view down here and wondered why this same care wasn’t given to the living spaces above. She felt a push at the small of her back and tumbled into the hallway as the door slammed behind her. She turned and attempted to open the door only to find that it was locked.
“Hello!” she yelled. “Let me out!” she continued. She was met with silence and resigned herself to making her way out of this place as soon as she could. Something about this felt off, and she planned on cancelling the job with Oscar. It wasn’t worth being this afraid.
Toya stepped silently across the carpet towards the end of the hall. The sound of footsteps filled the hall, and yet, she could see no one that could have been making them. The air around her was cold, and an unfeasible wind seemed to blow her loose top and pants around her. As she walked, the hallway itself seemed to twist and turn, causing her to forget the way back to the door, not that she would be able to make it through it anyway.
As she continued to walk, she began to see a ghostly form take shape. It looked just like her. It had the same chestnut skin, the same hazel eyes and the same jet-black locs hanging from its head. Toya’s eyes widened as two other figures appeared. A small child and her mother. Her doppelganger was speaking to them. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she knew this moment from her own life.
It was the time she desperately needed a favor taken care of. The child was crying. The mother had tears welling up in her eyes. Toya’s ghostly self was speaking sternly with them. Soon, she could see the mother handing over a wad of cash.
The figures disappeared and two others took their place as the hallway seemed to flip and tumble. The ghost of Toya was handing a stack of falsified adoption papers to a couple who desperately wanted to adopt the child they had been caring for and soon the image shifted to that very same child, all grown up being beaten and yelled, it shifted once more to that child, all grown up and taking his own life.
Dozens of moments from Toya’s life flashed before her eyes, shown with ghostly figures of her and people she had interacted with throughout her life. They showed the consequences of her actions and after what seemed like days, the playthrough of Toya’s life stopped and a solid black door appeared in front of her, with a pair of brass knuckles at its base. Toya ran at them, grabbed them from the floor and ran through the door. She was back in the darkly lit room with three doors.
She thought she understood. These knuckles weren’t for her. They weren’t for Oscar. They belonged to someone who needed them, and she guessed that they lived behind that door with the lion’s head. She opened the metal door and tossed the knuckles inside. Toya made her way back up the stairs and to her room. She resigned herself to leaving Azuretown. She silently thanked Dale for his kindness to help, and cursed herself for her actions over the years. She stepped past the threshold of the hotel and set off towards new dreams, hoping she would never run into Oscar again.