It opened itself, as if in anticipation, and the tongue extended towards me. Probing blindly, gently pulsating. I gagged, and backed away. In doing so I bumped into one of the upper body mannequins. The shawl draped over it fell to the floor.
I could now see, for the first time, the rib cage and living organs inside of it. The arms raised, rusty metal joints emitting a grinding sound, hands now outstretched as if to grab me. The rest did the same, reaching clumsily for me, trying to snag the edges of my clothing.
I stumbled for the stairs, still dumbfounded and disbelieving. At every turn, there was some drawer, closet or cabinet which burst open to reveal a gaping maw and pulsating tongue. I put my back against the grandfather clock…only to soon realize I could feel it breathing.
A heartbeat as well, which I at first mistook for the pendulum and gears. I whipped around, shining my phone’s light on it. Through the glass at the top, behind the translucent clock face, I could see eyeballs squinting in reaction to the light. Behind the glass where the pendulum was, I saw a rib cage and organs.
A tongue slithered out of the heating vent in the floor nearby, wrapping itself around my ankle. I cried out and fell, struggling to free myself. It only tightened like a boa constrictor. I grasped clumsily until I had hold of my phone, the screen now spiderwebbed with cracks, and slipped my shoe off.
With the shoe removed, and with the aid of the saliva acting as lubricant, I was able to yank my foot free of the muscular fleshy appendage. The cabinets all flapped open and shut like hungry jaws in frustration that their prey was escaping.
What a fool I’d been. There is no shelter here. Nowhere safe and comfortable in this linear hell. I turned over an oil lamp on my way out, spilling the flaming concoction all over the floor. Even then I knew it was a futile gesture. Walking far enough down the road would only reveal the same house as before, but unburnt.
I hoofed it perhaps a mile down the road, with the growing conflagration at my back. Great billowing plumes of black smoke rose from the house as the flames consumed it, no longer any of my concern. Soon enough the stench of smoke faded away, and I spotted something familiar in the distance.
The manor, of course. Sitting there serenely, no plumes of smoke, no flickering flames behind the windows. As if nothing happened. As if I didn’t know it was waiting for me to enter. Waiting for another chance to gobble me up.
What did I ever find so attractive about home ownership? What is it anyway, but a pit lined with teeth that you jump into willingly the moment you sign a mortgage? What escape is there afterward, from a commitment that substantial? I never actually wanted to. I never felt comfortable finalizing the decision that the next several decades of my life would be spent toiling to pay off my shelter. I wanted it because I felt I had no choice.
Who would ever choose me if I didn’t own a house? I already didn’t see any convincing reason why anybody would pick me, next to better looking and higher earning apartment dwellers. Much less while living with my parents, getting back on my feet. Who would choose me when I wouldn’t even choose myself?
I felt as if I’d stumbled onto something important. But just as soon as I grabbed hold of the idea, it evaporated. I checked my phone, cursing my clumsiness earlier. The screen was at least not so badly cracked that I couldn’t make out the time…six in the morning.
There was a faint but unmistakable sensation of moving into a new space. I felt it on my skin. A difference in…pressure? Humidity? Every hair on my body stood on end, coupled with a mild but irritating prickly sensation running down my spine.
I’d felt it twice before, at the gas station and the mansion. Easily mistaken then for goosebumps. Fear, the cold night air or both. I had a hunch it was something else though. A hunch soon vindicated when the next structure to emerge from the hazy black of night as I approached was not the mansion…but a dentist’s office.
I laughed. A little at first, but the more I looked at the squat, humble building the funnier I found it. After the living mansion, I supposed I expected…more. Escalation, I guess. A haunted dentist’s office? Really? I threw my arms out to my side as though inviting whatever sinister forces trapped me here to explain themselves.
As before, only the gentle silence of the night came in reply. Wind rustling the trees to either side of the road. The croaking of frogs, the chirping of crickets. All of them calling out into the night, advertising their loneliness…trying to find a lover and ally so they might face the cold, dark night together.
I probed the perimeter of the building, searching for anything obviously amiss. After the mansion, I was taking no chances. All the while I listened to woodland creatures serenading one another. Like satellites in the black void of space blasting out a distress signal, hoping their orbits will intersect.
Should I expect any better? Life for the rest of the animal kingdom remains as brutal today as it has been for the past two billion years. Fighting every day for survival, facing the very real possibility that today will be the day that they’re eaten alive. Searching, often in vain, for a rare opportunity at happiness. Once in a lifetime. To find fulfillment, to raise a family before something bigger and stronger tears them to shreds.
Surely that moment of happiness and fulfillment is slim comfort when you’re eaten alive either way. But that’s the best outcome any wild animal can aspire to. Then there’s me, whinging because I’m cold, missing a shoe, and I cracked the screen on my phone. Feeling foolish, I turned my attention back to the building in order to distract myself.
Crates of dental supplies were stacked up against one exterior wall. Tire tracks, as though a car had been here, trailed off into the woods rather than connecting to the road. I scratched my head and continued scrutinizing the exterior until satisfied that it posed no immediate threat.
My sock was by this point soaked through and muddy. It tipped the scales in favor of entering the building, against my better judgement, so that I might find a replacement shoe. Towels or something, at the very least. I nudged the front door, relieved to discover it was unlocked.
The air inside smelled musty, yet sterile. Like grandpa, come to think of it. A mixture of moth balls and varnish. Something faintly sweet as well. There was nobody at the reception desk. I rang the little silver bell for service, not sincerely expecting any. Just to test this place, I suppose. To see how real it is.
The bell worked. The computer bore no identifiable branding however. Unlike the gas station where I couldn’t turn my head fifteen degrees without seeing another logo, in this place I soon discovered there weren’t any. Not on the toilets in the bathroom, where I might’ve expected to see “Sloan” or “Kohler”. Not on the breaker box, not even on the little complimentary plastic boxes of floss.
Is that…normal? I’d not been into a dentist’s office since…I couldn’t remember. Since I was very young, for sure. I wouldn’t have been brand conscious then, in the way that I am now. Everything just kind of existed of it’s own accord, so far as I knew. The only way it ever had been, or could possibly ever be.
The seats in the waiting room were all oak frame with orange cushions. Same ugly shade of orange as the shag carpet. One of those toys found in every doctor and dentist’s office for occupying children sat in the corner. The one with the looping, differently colored wires and the wooden beads you slide along them.
Above it all, suspended by fishing line, was a huge plush molar with cartoon character eyes, gloved hands holding a toothbrush and floss…as well as a mouth lined with shiny plastic teeth. Something about it troubled me. Were the smaller teeth also alive? Did each of them also have eyes, hands, and mouths lined with yet-smaller teeth?
I doubled back towards the front desk, still contemplating whether those little teeth had even smaller teeth of their own. On my way I passed the hallway leading to the radiology room, and two rooms opposite it where the actual dentistry was done.
Stay Tuned for Part 10!