I wrote this for the Random Flickr Flash Fiction Challenge I found on terribleminds. After finishing the entire piece in one go, I went back to look for the photo on Flickr to post here, but it was gone. That will teach me to save things first. These things are elusive. No matter how hard I tried I could not find that photo but I do remember the title which is also the name of this story.
*Edit: After seeing Deepika’s doodles I asked her to draw one for this story. I’m very pleased with how well it reflects the image I had in my mind. Thank you, Deepika.
The Great Hall
That is the strangest thing, Jack thought as he made his way through the undulating sea of people heading for the subway. In his hand he had a crumpled piece of paper he’d picked up from the street, maybe even right outside his favorite coffee shop which sold his favorite coffee, black with the tiniest bit of sugar, which he desperately needed on this, the least favorite day of working mankind, Monday. He could actually feel the hot liquid making its way though his benumbed veins, and grateful, took another sip. He had managed to peel the paper from his left shoe with an embarrassed grin, realizing the annoying swishing sound he’d heard behind him did not belong to anybody but himself. Well, at least it wasn’t toilet paper. In fact, the picture intrigued him.
He threw the empty paper cup into the nearest bin and descended into the open mouth of the subway station.
He found a not-so-crowded corner in one of the cars and after waiting for his fogged glasses to clear, proceeded to study the piece of paper carefully.
My God, he almost said out loud as he scanned the image with the shocked expression of someone who’s seen the exact same picture but couldn’t quite remember when or where. He looked closer, trying to see as much detail as possible, swaying with each jolt of the subway train making its way into the belly of the city. In a way, he felt he was descending into the very bowels of the earth and into that mysterious room that he was sure he’d seen somewhere but couldn’t quite remember where. The stark white of the black and white tiled floor, the arched doorways, the ascending stairs, three doors, one open just a tiny bit – at this stage he brought the paper closer, trying to see if there was someone holding open the door. There wasn’t. The high ceiling supported by white beams, the small chandelier , the long table pushed into the far right corner, all this made Jack feel as if he was watching one of those hypnotic images that looked like something but were actually something else.
By the time he raised his eyes from the paper, he realized his stop was behind him and he was going to be late for work. He got off the train and went and sat down in one of the red plastic chairs on the platform. He felt a sudden craving for another cup of coffee to shake him out of the lethargy. But the coffee only made him remember the coffee shop and then the paper which he was now gripping into a tight fist. He looked around at the people walking, standing, sitting, talking on their phones, but he could not focus on them too long. With a shudder he realized where he’d seen the image.
But it’s not possible. He shook his head, dashing a furtive look to his right where an elderly gentleman was reading the paper. He had an unlit pipe in a corner of his mouth and gave Jack a quick look before returning to his reading.
Jack felt himself sweating despite the cold draft of air that signaled the approach of the subway train. He shivered and looked at the paper again. This time the floor was dirty and looking closer Jack thought he could see black footsteps leading to the barely open door. He raised a hand to his forehead, pushing his slippery glasses all the way back to the base of his nose. The footsteps were actually coming from the door towards him and with a shudder Jack remembered where he’d seen the image. The whole thing looked like a scene from The Shining, and it could have very well been from the damn book, he thought. He was sure now that he’d never seen this image in real life, that it had been just how he had imagined one of the rooms in The Overlook Hotel to be when he’d read the novel, years ago. A mad thought flickered somewhere inside his brain and Jack was almost afraid the mad man with an axe in his hand – or maybe a fire hose (remember the fire hose, Jack?) had come out of that door and was well on his way to murdering him, this Jack, the other Jack in this world who wanted nothing than to drown his horror in the black comforting abyss of a big cup of coffee, sugar be damned.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a few minutes, when he’d called his boss explaining why he couldn’t come to work – Mr Holloway seemed to be perfectly reasonable and sympathetic to hearing his feeble excuse of catching a cold, yet another anomaly to add to the day – Jack decided to head back home and go straight to bed.
He had no memory of the way back. He must have crossed to the other platform, got on the train and by some miracle this time got off at the right station. He must have walked back, past the coffee shop, never mind the thoughts of coffee, and straight to his condo. Somehow he made it to the door of his apartment on the twelfth floor, turned the key in the lock and got in. Before his eyes stretched the impossibly shiny black and white tiled floor, and the doors, three of them, just like in the picture, were all halfway open. He searched frantically for the crumpled paper in his pockets, even on the back of his shoes, as if that could ward off the evil he felt rising from the magnificent solitude of the room, but it was gone.