The Room, A Short Story by Vincent A. '17
This story is somewhat weird and slightly dark. Reader's discretion is advised.
I got the urge to write this short story about 2 days ago. Then, I decided to kind of throw most of my writing rules out the window and have some fun with it.
Writing it was ridiculously fun. Let’s dive in now, shall we?
Teddy Purdue had much reason to be nervous. The confluence of the parents and the girlfriend was often only suitable after a long period of dewy-eyed joy and the calls to the superior ones about the special one, calls that ran the chronological gamut from timid and perfunctory to energetic and adorably unabashed. But by some stroke of luck he was yet to define as fortunate or disastrous, his parents and little sibling had decided to show up to Portshire only two weeks after he’d snagged his first kiss with Melissa.
However, he had taken to trying to predict the turn of events by fiddling with a can of Budweiser and pacing around his small, money-sucking apartment, a pinprick in the vast mix of residences and businesses that graced the choked part of lower Saxony. Outside his window, the sun lowered toward its grave, melancholy clouds of darkness trailing its descent. Whenever his rapid pacing brought him to the edge of the window, he saw the traffic that stretched below him, cars honking and blaring, throngs of passersby navigating the crooked lines that weaved around the vehicles. On the other side of the room, Melissa stood, dressed in her usual dark-leather gear, shaking her head and sighing.
“You have to relax,” she told him, not for the first time.
Ted favored her an unsteady smile. “I know, babe. I am relaxed. Just…I haven’t seen mom in months, but you know how the calls have been going. And dad, well, is still dad, I suppose.”
“But Amy’s coming too,” Melissa replied. “She sounds like the miraculous product of a stick-it mom and stuck-up-the-you-know-what dad.”
Ted managed a smile, his circular pace slowing. Melissa reached for his shoulders, her arms clamping gently onto them. “Have a seat,” she said, leading him gently to the couch facing a television that could have been mistaken for a safe box with a screen. From within it, The Real (“Real?” Ted often said. “With that kind of makeup? Might as well be a bunch of waddling ducks covered in five shades of spray paint) Housewives of Atlanta laughed over something.
Ted took a seat, and dropped his can of Budweiser on an adjacent wooden table, accepting the cup of water Melissa offered him with gratitude. He took two sips and sputtered, “What if…what if they don’t like you?”
Melissa shrugged. “I’ll take my chances.”
“What if you don’t like them?” He drained the glass. “I mean…odds look good, right? You’re a med student and pretty much a walking Ivy League diploma—”
“Gee thanks,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“And well, you’re funny, smart, pretty. And you have a beautiful cat.”
“Nettles isn’t here right now.”
“Well, Melissa, you should have brought Nettles. I told you cats liquefy my mom’s heart.”
“I think it’s the bacon not the cats,” she replied, but his eyes were lost, almost glazed. He wasn’t sure why he was making a huge deal out of this, but he simply was. Perhaps it was the looming fear his parents exuded, especially after spending a long time away from him, on the other side of the hemisphere. Or just how nerve-wracked he was about this relationship, especially at night, when the blankets were pulled chin-level and the swath of darkness became a refuge for his fleeing thoughts—how pretty Melissa was, how powerful she was, how perfect she was, and how lousily unworthy an acne-ridden nerd like him was. It was probably a mix of those two, and the unhelpful but self-known fact that the big things scared him, the funerals and the birthday parties and the clothes to wear for the day and the judgment calls his neighbor, Rose Anderson, often demanded of him—most details of life were simply big, big, and each facet elicited some varied level of fear from him. He was two-legged hypertension, and even though Melissa had been helping him bring his stew of worries under control, they still bubbled to the surface and brimmed over sometimes. Now, the thought of his mom walking out—no, prancing out, she pranced, never walked—after a failed dinner with Melissa filled his head. She would whip her bag and leave. Her dad would remain seated, his usual blank eyes glaring Ted’s way, making a thousand judgments with each passing millisecond. Or maybe it would be Melissa herself. Maybe she would storm out of the room—in rare moments, he saw something of her temper—but give him a good talking-to just before then. “It’s over!” she would say. “Your parents are idiots and you’re the son of idiots, so it’s over Ted!”
“I need a shower,” he said abruptly, rising.
“Are you sure?” she asked, but didn’t get a reply. He planted a quick kiss on her cheek and stumbled his way into the nearby bathroom for his third shower of the day.
He felt instantly better when the water hit his back. Warm water streaming from the showerhead angled above him, running over the surface of his skin, sliding down toward his legs. He closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and exhaled. The seconds seemed drawn-out now, so that every droplet of water that touched him seemed to linger for ages. He applied body wash over his stomach—where hints of an eager pot had begun forming, thanks to a failed New Year resolution—and worked his way up, toward his neck and face.
Draw yourself in, Ted.
The calm voice was Matthew’s, his therapist’s, in his head.
Draw yourself into those lingering fears, and think—what’s the worst that could happen? It’s terrifying, I know. I wouldn’t expect any less. But think of it—the absolute worst. Imagine it. And I bet you, you can convince yourself you’ll be fine afterward. Humans are fighters, Ted. We’re fighters.
When the soapy lathers that clung to his body began trailing downward and into the shower drain, he felt even better, walking his hands around until his body felt squeaky. Almost absently, he squeezed his left nipple and giggled. Things had never felt finer. There was something about the moisture—it seemed to come with newer air, newer lungs, heck, a newer world. The absurd image raced through his mind for a second—a gigantic hand reaching down to some pixelated version of his apartment while he showered, plucking it out into nothingness, and dropping down a second version, a replica, better than new.
“God, I’m crazy,” he mumbled to himself, grinning. He turned off the shower, and reached for his towel. He never could open his eyes until they felt completely dry, especially not after a ghastly shampoo incident years back, but when he reached to the right, his fingers didn’t curl around any familiar-feeling patch of cotton, but on something solid.
Ted frowned, and really, that frown was simply the physical manifestation of a terror only hushed by rationality. He’d lived in this apartment for years, had taken thousands of showers here. There was a pattern to life that built itself into your subconscious, from the minute and given, like breathing and waking up, to the systemic and habitual, like stopping for a cup of coffee on the way out, or grabbing your card out of your left breast pocket every time one of the city buses finally pulled over. Like reaching for your towel, on the spot it was always placed, atop the thin glass wall that separated the shower from the toilet, and always grasping onto it, always having it there.
Except that it wasn’t.
He frowned, and when his fingers skittered left and right, grasping only to touch solid, the frown became a grimace, and his heart began to thud faster. He wiped at his eyes with his left hand and managed to push them open. When he turned, the sight took a while to make sense to his suddenly overwhelmed brain. It was a wall, simply a solid ceramic wall, not a glass wall that stopped several inches below the ceiling and had a sliding door that led out of the shower, but a solid wall that ran parallel to the first wall on his left, boxing him in.
“What the?” he mumbled, his heart thudding faster now, but even at that moment, his mind clung to the snatch of rationality that surely still governed the world. His mind told him that he was imagining things, that he simply had to look, to stare, but…but there was no illusion. He was boxed in, stuck between two walls in a room that was suddenly too wet and too narrow.
He felt the bit of his mind that clung to a familiar world unroll, unfold.
“Melissa?” he said, pounding on the wall. His voice rose to a shriek untethered from sanity. “Melissa? MELISSA!”
No response. Things were quiet, a silence that would have been absolute except for the slow plop of water from the showerhead and onto the floor.
“MELISSA!” he screamed, and pounded one more time. There was no response, except for the plop. In that moment, just before something of a seizure grabbed him, Ted felt an absolute conviction—the world was gone, vanished. And the only things left were this room and himself.
The panic-induced seizure came a half-hour later. Just before then, Ted kept pounding on the wall and screaming Melissa’s name. When emptiness replied him, he sat against the left wall and began to sob.
“This makes no sense,” he mumbled. “No sense. No sense.”
Maybe it makes sense, dear Teddy, some awfully cheery part of his mind suddenly said, a voice that drove terror into him. Maybe it makes perfect sense, but you just can’t see the big picture. You never were bright, were you, Teddy?
“No sense,” he repeated, closing his eyes. And when he shut them, when darkness replaced this paradox of a world for a moment, an image came into his head—a tunnel, one that stretched infinitely downward. He was bent over it, staring at the face of nothing, or maybe of eternity…
Yup, his cheery mind blared. Stuck here forever, Ted.
The idea—the very idea that this wasn’t just some fluke, but a very permanent thing (and at that moment, the thought that something could be very permanent made absolute sense) struck him. It struck him for the first time, and that was when the seizure came. It lasted a few seconds, but it was one of the most terrible moments of his life.
The thought of forever brought with it a twitch, a spasm. It started with his left knee, as though a very tiny man had applied a shock right there. The little tremble there grew at once. His left leg shook, hard, harder. He moaned. He was shaking all over. There was nothing but darkness, and he trembled. His arms quivered against the wall and snapped to his chest. His legs turned in small angles against a wet floor and pulled themselves toward his navel. He was suddenly a fetal ball, an adult at the beginning of his time, trembling so hard the part of him that still thought was certain he would explode all over the walls.
And just like that, the fit stopped, not a rocking motion that got less and less intense, but one that went from trying to push him into his center of mass at the speed of helicopter blades to absolutely nothing at all.
One of the first things to go was time. It lingered around for a while. He didn’t think about it too much, not at first, not really.
He rose from the fetal position and to his knees and opened his eyes, his heart thumping, his mind harboring some hope that this had just been some temporary madness, some trick of the light, and that the wall had become a sliding glass door again.
The wall still stood there, and it was still there when he pounded again and again and screamed Melissa’s name. “Melissa” and then “Help!” and then “Melissa” and in a much quieter voice, “No sense. No sense.”
After that, he sat against the right wall, then the left wall. He lay on the ground and sat on his knees. Tears slipped out of his eyes every few minutes. When they came, he arched his head toward the ceiling, as though the answer to this conundrum was etched on it.
It was a whisper of something—not quite a question, not quite a statement.
And after a while, while the whiles could still be distinguished, he realized that there was still only one sound that existed, beyond his voice, beyond the drum of his heart banging against his throat. The plop. It still hadn’t stopped.
He turned to the showerhead. An idea came to mind. It came with something else, some beast that was probably too ugly to contemplate. He focused on the idea and tried to file away whatever terror it had come with. He rose to full height and stared up at the showerhead. His hands reached for the metal pipe that ran upward from the taps, grabbed it mere inches below the showerhead, and tried hard to pry the head from the wall.
A weird certainty had come to mind—if he struck metal against the wall, it would vanish. He had no idea why that made sense, but it did. It just did.
He pulled hard. The pipe wouldn’t budge.
He pulled harder, his arms straining themselves, his fingers gripping so hard he was certain the metal would dig beyond flesh and draw blood. Then the head did come off, somehow, spouting a small jet of water that sprouted at his face. The sudden freedom of metal came at a price. His legs slipped beneath him. For one moment, he was suspended. Then he crashed hard on the floor, pain dulling his head.
“Oh God,” he moaned, reposed on the floor, and began to cry again. He cried for several minutes, while the dull pain in his head grew to a raging thump that threatened to push out his eyeballs. When he got a hold of himself, his tears giving way to empty, heaving sobs, he staggered to his knees and stared at the metal showerhead.
It had come undone.
Logic dictated that it shouldn’t have, but it somehow had.
Strike the wall.
His coherent thoughts had more or less flat-lined, but when those three words came to mind, they seemed to roar, to shriek.
Strike the wall, you idiot. Strike it now.
His heart thumped faster. He grabbed the bit of metal, drowned in water from the still-pouring headless pipe, and struck the wall. He struck twice, a third time.
Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. But he had expected it anyway—the beast of incredulity, the bit of still-working logic he had tried to file away—had said it wouldn’t work.
That cheerful voice came up again, turning his intestines to sickening slime.
Ted, Ted, you idiot. Ha! Got you, didn’t I? Did you really expect that to work?
“No,” he mumbled, and tried to fling the showerhead at the wall. But when his arm swung backward, readying to pitch itself forward, the crooked metal at the end of the unhinged head cut into the bit of flesh beneath his right eye, drawing out blood. He screamed and dropped the head, reaching instinctively for the pipe from which water spouted. But the water had stopped spouting.
The plop sounds were back again, striking faster.
This was the last bit of memory that registered in Ted’s mind before time vanished.
In some place with a clock, hours piling up to days might have been measured, but in this room—in the room that was now also the universe—there was no “hour” or “minute” or “second”. But there was a concept of length. Things had been this way for very long, hadn’t they? And what was long but a feeling in the mind?
Ted did things, but each action seemed pulled into a blackness that left no trace of the activity behind. He stopped crying and stopped pounding, but he still mumbled Melissa’s name and still spoke to himself. Even the merry voice in his head had faded away, as if it had slowly and finally caught on to the new situation and was now too sickened to speak any further.
The room was the same—had to be. There was blood on the floor now, dried patches of it against tiled white, but nothing else changed, or seemed to. The amount of light in here was still the same—or maybe each time it changed, the luminosity became absolute, what always was, and what had always been, in a world that could be cognizant of such things. The plop sounds never faded.
But Ted felt himself change. After infinity—or nothing or something or here, all the same thing really, had to be—he realized that he needed to drink something. His lips felt dry, even though the floor was still wet, and it hurt to swallow. The pain in his head had subsided—or perhaps transferred was a better word, because his stomach hurt so much now, a pain that seemed etched on every level of his body, on skin, flesh, skeleton, spirit. The pain was physical, but ran several layers deep, and it only seemed to grow. But right now, things only seemed to be things, didn’t they? The growing pain, his dry throat, the plop sounds. They didn’t change, did they? Could they?
There was something left in his mind, aware enough to realize that it seemed to be fading, vanishing into a whirlpool of nothingness.
It’s the tunnel, ain’t it?
He thought it, or maybe said it.
It’s the tunnel. Was staring and now I’m falling. It’s that messed up tunnel. Never ends. Never begins. Just dark, always dark.
It was now too painful to swallow, and the pain in his stomach was so strong he was certain he was about to split open, his intestines bursting out and piling onto the cold floor. His tongue inched outward, leaving the frame of his mouth and onto the floor, where water existed, waiting patiently. He licked, but there was nothing but cold, solid, dryness.
He could still hear the plop sounds.
But the floor was cold and dry.
Something about that was amusing to the part of his fading mind (fading? Did it exist? Or was existence framed in nothingness, so that when things disappear—they actually appear in this emptiness, so that emptiness was actually fullness, so that nothing was actually everything!)
The voice came again, rising from the broken shreds of a broken mind that might or might not exist.
It’s dry, Ted. Dry! Ha! Ain’t that a…wha-da-ya-call-it…
conundrum! Ain’t that a conundrum!
And that was it. That simply did it.
“Are you kidding me?” Ted mumbled. He was suddenly on his knees. The world was unhinging. The first universe, somewhere, in some plane, some dimension, had unhinged. Long ago, there had been a wall and a glass-door-wall. But the glass-door-wall had vanished, because the room was…rising? Replacing?
Not a big bang, but a small bang, not the universe expanding outward, but crushing inward, into the room. And in the beginning and the end, there was the room and something God might or might not have said.
But the room had come with a plop. And plop meant wet! But there was no wet…only dry…and that just did it, because the room was unhinging, falling apart, and that just did it.
“No sense!” screamed Ted. He rose to full height, held the wall that had once been—or never been or only been or partly was—glass. “No sense! NO SENSE!”
That did it! That just did it!
He swung forward, crashing onto the wall. Pain swept his head, and the pain seemed to rejuvenate him, seemed to shake some ancient, slumbering beast awake.
But it didn’t matter—not at all—because he was done.
“No sense!” His voice was a croak, but seemed to shatter his eardrums. He smashed his head against the wall. Again and again and again…
The voice was shrieking now, shrieking in delight, drunk with merry at its knowledge—It’s a conundrum, Ted, a conundrum, and we can throw a party, you hear me? A party, because it’s a CONUNDRUM!
“No sense!” screamed Ted. “No sense! No sense!”
He struck his head against the wall. His head twisted around. His neck creaked, its bones dislocating. Blood gushed out of his forehead. Blood spewed out of his throat. But it didn’t matter because he was done.
“No sense! No sense! No sense!”
It’s a conundrum, I tell you. C-O-N-U-N-D-R-U-M! Oh Teddy, sweet, sweet, Teddy, what does that spell? You get the cigar—conundrum!
Humans are fighters, Ted. We’re fighters.
Tiny fighters. Only fighters. Conundrum fighters!
His face met the wall, fast, faster. Each time, there was a low thump sound, the sound meat might make when dropped on the floor. His nose crunched, shattered. His left eye turned bright crimson, caked in a blood rivulet. He staggered backward.
Blood filled the floor and seemed to rise. The Room, The Universe, seemed to shudder. A sound burst forth from the wall he was trying to break—another bang, a big bang. Something flew at him. He couldn’t tell what it was. A rock? A stone? The Room itself?
He was on the floor, shaking again, his throat open, and the room was falling, but that did it, and as it fell, he realized it was upon him, chewing on his fingers, and it tasted so good, so red and so good and—
Conundrum…that’s how you say it, Teddy—
Two words. And those were the final words that stayed with Ted when the big bang came again, in red and screaming words and cheerful voices that existed nowhere and therefore everywhere.
And the new world came, dark and empty and unmoving and beautiful.
She pushed the sliding glass door open, and stared at the body reposed against the left wall. As expected, the period from ingestion to expiration had taken less than twenty minutes, but she imagined that it would have felt more, much, much more, to him. There was no sign of blood anywhere, and if she didn’t know better, she would have thought he had simply taken a shower and fallen asleep afterward.
She slid the glass door shut and withdrew into the stuffy interior of Ted’s living room. The bottle of water was still on the table, and she had to fight down the swoop of excitement the mere liquid dug up within her—soon, it would be everywhere, in pipes and city tanks and water pumps.
But for now, she simply had to focus on where it needed to be. Carefully, she laid out three glass cups and filled them to the brim.
The idea for this story came to me 2 days ago after a shower. I knew where I’d placed my towel. I reached for it. But it wasn’t there.