The cellar hall is cast in a musty brown light produced by gas lamps hanging low from the ceiling. They flicker and throw dancing shadows across the stone walls. The width of the hallway is no more than two or three paces and it extends some fifty meters long. On both sides are thick steel doors covered in chipped citrine paint and spaced apart at intervals of three meters. Each door has a caged alarm directly above and a small barred window at eye level. All of the doors are closed. I can see to the far end of the hall from my vantage point and there seems to be nothing there but a wall. I turn to inspect the space behind me and find another dead end, the same dusty stone as the rest of the cellar. It seems apparent that I am in a prison, and I am born into this world with the knowledge that this particular prison is deep underground. I need to find a way out.
I take my first steps toward the opposite end of the hall, scanning the walls floor and ceiling for any openings through which I can make my escape. As I pass each barred door a cold chill runs through my bones – the bodily manifestation of fear of the unknown. Anything could be pacing behind the unyielding steel: massochists and cannibals in their natural dungeons of pleasure, black-eyed psychotics devouring innocence with smiles, relentless undead corpses, drooling beasts driven by blind hunger, infestations of flesh-eating scarabs… I avoid touching the doors at all costs and continue walking in a feverish trance. My shoulders tensen and rise, my arms wrap tightly around my sides.
After a short time I reach the end of the hall. It is identical to the other side, there is no way out. I turn and walk back with heightened pace. I return to my starting point, there is no way out. I start running back and forth down the narrow hall, terrified that I will be trapped in this lonesome hell, tortured by my wild thoughts for eternity. Eventually I calm myself and harden my motion to a new resolution. I accept the inevitability of exploring the rooms behind the barred doors. If I can overcome the terrors behind the doors, maybe I will find my escape. I choose one door in the middle of the hall at random and lean up to it, my hands held out cautiously before me. I bring my ear gently over the crack of the hinge and hold myself still. There is a faint mumbling coming from deep within the room, barely audible from behind the cold steel. It sounds like a man, and from the roughness of his voice I conclude that he is old, but I can’t decipher the words from behind the door. I step back and push the door lightly. It swings open.
Every corner of the room steams with golden lamplight. It consists of a small walkway straight ahead and two barred cells to the left of my vision, the second of which is hidden behind a dividing wall. All else is dusty stone. The man’s voice is coming from the far cell, and although he is much clearer now I still can’t understand him. He is speaking a foreign language that I can’t identify, but it has a Germanic sound. I approach cautiously to keep from startling him.
I arrive at the far cell and an ancient man comes into view. He is standing in the center of his cell staring directly at the dividing wall. I’m shocked by his frailty; my earlier speculation on his age was a severe underestimation. Thin wisps of white hair hang from a skull of a sallow, papery complexion. His skin, where it is visible through the holes in his military uniform, is covered in deep wrinkles and riddled with age spots. His face sags thin and gaunt over his forehead and from his rigid shoulders hangs the remnants of a spectacular white and red military suit bedazzled with frills and stars on the shoulder pads. As he speaks to the wall I catch glimpses of a haphazard collection of rotting teeth, and although I do my best to make my presence known, he never acknowledges my existence.
After searching the room for an escape and finding none, I pursue the same task in the other cells. Each one contains a lone military man that stands staring at the wall and mumbling incoherent words in a foreign language. As I leave the rooms their emaciated figures leave my vision but their voices follow me, such that after going into ten cells I have a small crowd of murmuring voices in my head. Exasperated by the failure of my search and disoriented by the haunting voices I decide to go straight to the last cell, desperately hoping something different waits within. This is when I encounter the American.
His youthful figure fills a crisp green uniform. When I approach he turns on his heel to face me and with stiff firm command he says man the gun. He says man the gun. He says man the gun. Thoroughly confused by this request, I return to the hall but his voice stays with me much louder and clearer than the collection of foreign voices, MAN THE GUN. I pace the hall trying to rid myself of the voices but man the gun, man the gun and to my horror I see that I’ve left all the doors open and the soldiers are coming out of their cells and wandering the hall.
I awake on my stomach with my arms crossed beneath my pillow. I’m in a house like a modern cabin, its deeply colored walls are contrasted by a light hardwood floor. I get out of bed and walk into the night. It’s a Tennessean suburb in late autumn. Most of the trees have already begun hibernation, and the moonlight glows silver through their spindly branches. Feeling light and relieved of my horrid nightmare, I set off down a wide black road glistening with new rainfall. After walking past several dark houses and through the occasional yellow streetlamps I see a victorian mansion off in the distance. Its three stories of warm windows glow with inviting light. I approach the front door through its sprawling yard and without hesitation, I enter. Inside is an eclectic group of a hundred of my old friends and acquantainces having a fantastic celebration in the main room. I’m welcomed heartily and passed several drinks upon entering, and in a vibrant state I settle into the night.
Toward the end of the festivities I stagger off in search of the restroom, and taking a wrong turn at one of the many halls I stumble upon a small group of my friends deep in a secretive ritual. Four hooded figures stand in a semicircle with candles and flagellate whips around a central figure that is entirely naked and strapped to Ixion’s spinning wheel of the ancient greek dungeon, Tartarus. The four alternately drip hot wax and lash the unclothed person raw, and I, standing awestruck in the doorway, watch in horrified silence. The most terrible aspect of it all was the bloodied face of the one being tortured. Through all the debasing pain he held an utterly ecstatic expression, like he was honored to be subect to such treatment. As I stand gaping at the scene before me his face momentarily peeks above the rest when it reaches the apex of a rotation of the wheel. Upon seeing me his expression speeds to betray me, and although I try to dodge behind the wall before the others turn I am not fast enough and they discover that I was watching.
I run back to the main room, but when I enter most of my friends have already left or are leaving somberly. A few stragglers remain behind, but the atmosphere that was so bright and festive a moment ago has diminished to a weak echo. When I turn back toward the hall I see the cult members huddled together. They have changed into their normal clothes and act as if nothing has happened. After a brief moment one of them approaches me resignedly: let’s go, we need to talk. They take me to a second floor balcony where some of the remaining people are continuing the celebration; and still pretending nothing is amiss, we continue drinking and passing the time.
I notice on the far side of the balcony that one of the cult members has pulled out a knife and is playfully pretending to stab some of the others. They joke with him, throwing weak jabs and feigning attempts to disarm him. As if they noticed my wariness and discomfort, they stop their game and turn to me simultaneously. The knife-wielder approaches me in a crouched stance and starts pretending to stab me as well. I laugh nervously, parrying his blows with my forearms, but all the time with my muscles quivering tensely. Laughing, he looks at me: you know, he says from his stance, you know what has to happen. With that he makes a quick lunge, attempting to rip my guts from my belly, but I jump off the balcony just in time and land hard on the ground. When I recover my senses I see the others have leapt down after me, and each one of them brandishes a knife or sword for the pursuit. I run to the rear of the backyard and look frantically for a way past the high fence but to no avail. When I turn back several more groups have come out of the house wielding their weapons and some have started throwing them at me. I try to sprint away but find myself bounding in great orbital leaps with my pursuers rapidly advancing upon me. I manage to escape to the front yard, but not before the initiator reaches me and thrusts his knife at my belly again. I grab the blade with my hand and twist it out of his grasp without harming myself. I continue running to the street.
The knife bears a strange insignia. It’s a red swastika with sharply curved ends like that of a scimitar, and as I run with it in my hand I am reminded of the cult proceeding I witnessed earlier. I gain some separation from the violent crowd and reach the road. A truck’s headlights bob down the street and I jump in front of it, waving my arms and shouting for my rescue. As the truck gets closer I see a strange design on its hood, and when it slows to a stop I can just make out the crimson curves of the satanic crest from behind the glaring headlights. Two men start getting out of the truck, but I don’t wait to see who they are. I run. At this point I have a minor realization; why is my hand not bleeding from where I grabbed the blade of the knife? This leads to a second thought, how is everyone I see a member of this cult? And a third, why are all my friends trying to kill me? This is unbelievably strange and unpleasant, I must be dreaming.
I awake on my stomach with my arms crossed beneath my pillow. My bed is in a loft of a snowy room. The walls are made of clear blue ice frozen in sparkling waves around me, and drifts of snow rest in the soft corners and curves where the concrete floor below meets the ice walls. There is a ladder leaned up to my loft to allow access and a small chest sits partially hidden under a pile of snow a few paces from the foot of my bed. Otherwise the room is bare. I throw my comforter off and climb lightly down the ladder, glad that I’ve left my horrid nightmare behind. This is when I realize I’ve left my things.
I climb back up the ladder and go to the chest to retrieve my phone and wallet before leaving. Upon brushing the powdery snow off the top of the chest my hand bumps against my phone, and I put it in my pocket. I continue brushing snow away to find my wallet, but instead I feel a hard and cold object, smooth like steel. I pick it up slowly. It’s the knife, the red insignia emblazoned on its hilt. I throw it down in shock and it clatters across the concrete floor near the base of the ladder. I start flinging snow off the chest in massive sweeps, finding bits and pieces from what I was convinced was a dream but seems to have become my reality. The last token I find is a shred of fabric. It seems to have been torn from a suit of some sort, and looking more closely at the shreds of red and white, I see the stitching of the corner of a general’s star. I drop the cloth jump down the ladder and run out –
Into the morbid brown of the underworld prison. I return to the hall to a chaotic scene. All of the steel doors remain flung open and hordes of ghostlike veterans pace and limp and drift around the hallway before me. Instead of ignoring me as they did before, they converge upon me on my appearance. I have to dodge through the crowd of ancient corpses with vile breath of decaying flesh as they babble on louder and louder in nonsensical tongues. They want me to help, I have something they need. All I can do is run from their dead embraces and hope I can avoid sharing their tragic fate.
I see the American. He is the same man but not in the same form I saw before, he has become one of them. The youthful soldier that told me to man the gun has been ripped to shreds by some act of war, his flesh clings to shattered bones by sinews of torn muscle. He runs up to me eyes wild and pleading. Get me out, GET ME OUT. I brush by him and crunch myself as narrowly as possible to avoid the advancing mob, but he stays behind me. Get me out, but all I can do is move myself back and forth trying to stay away because I know there is no escape. When I enter the cells it seems that the dead veterans are spawning at an uncontrollable rate and tides of their limp figures flood the hall. Get me out. There is no escape. GET ME OUT.
I’m back at the end of the hall when I hear a bodiless voice boom from above the mass of decrepit wails. Come with me, it says, and a white light slides through what used to be stone.
My pupils contract from the blinding light and bring a glowing tile stairway into my vision. I walk up the stairs towards a figure in flowing white linens that waits at the top. He leads me into a massive office with the dimensions of a warehouse; row upon row of employees sit hard at work behind countless computer screens. The walls and ceiling are the purest white, and flourescent fixtures high on the ceiling sterilize the room. As I walk behind my rescuer on an unimaginative blue carpet with brown designs I scrutinize the endless lines of workers that extend to the furthest reach of my eyesight. Most of them are human, some are chimps or gorillas, even fewer are man-sized worms and cockroaches sitting upright in front of their monitors. The worms have thin cartoonish faces consisting of two black eyes and a small mouth, and some of them wear green hats similar to Robin Hood’s. However, they have no arms, so they seem to be sitting before their screens and reading or otherwise doing nothing. The cockroaches’ faces are much to small to be discerned, but they use their insectile forelegs relentlessly, methodically tapping away at their keyboards.
I follow my pristine savior through rows of employees feeling calm and relatively at ease in my new environment. Now that I am comfortable I begin to think of myself, and I realize that I am exceedingly hungry. As if on cue, a tin bucket appears before me. It bears a white sign that reads: Snacks, 4 euro. I look longingly at the packages of peanuts chocolate and candies, but it’s such an exorbitant price for so little and I don’t have any money. Immediately another tin pops into existence next to the snacks. This one bears a much simpler sign: Money. I look around to see if anyone is watching. The employees sit busy at their work and the man in white linens walks ahead nonchalantly. I take some money from the bucket, put it beside the snack tin, and take a package of fruit snacks. Still no one acknowledges me. I feel guilty.
I awake on my stomach with my arms crossed beneath my pillow, relieved that I’ve left my nightmare behind.