The Hilbert Hotel
Type: Original Story
Status: In Progress
"Home is the place where, when you go there,
They have to take you in."
Robert Frost, "The Death of the Hired Man"
My own experience with the unknown, or high strangeness, or whatever you want to call it, destroyed my entire life. I want my blissful ignorance back. At least when I was ignorant, I had a family and a home.
It was in the summer of 2003, back when I was a kid, that the stranger came to our home, and suddenly nothing was safe anymore. The normal world I had known was a lie, and when that veil was lifted, the new world I saw was a horror. That summer, I met monsters. I don't mean that metaphorically; I mean real monsters -- hateful, bloodthirsty things that are neither animal nor human, because they're something entirely different. They're familiar -- every child knows what a monster is -- but oh, so terribly unreal, so alien and so other. These things have no business being here on this earth, or even in this plane of existence. They're cosmic interlopers, unnatural things, unclean things. And they're the only other intelligent life in the universe. I found them, guys! I found our intelligent siblings! And guess what? They hate our guts.
But then there was the lizard man, and the woman that flew. They were good; not perfect and I certainly won't be singing their praises, but they were decent people. I guess they were just trying to do their best. I guess when you know the secrets about the world all around you, things get complicated and "doing the right thing" gets that much harder. It's not just a matter of doing the right thing anymore. Whether you make the right choice or the wrong choice, people still get hurt and damage is still done. Some things, some issues, just weren't made for the human race to deal with.
Before 2003, I never would have thought of any of that at all. Well, I thought of them, but only as myths and stories; I never thought of them as being real, not really real. Then suddenly I had undeniable proof that things I had previously thought of as belonging in crazy stories, in fact existed in my own backyard, and they had operated right under my nose since before I was born. It's like one of those smug books with optical illusions in it, and the line on the left looks for all the world like it's longer, but when you flip to the back to check, the book says it's the line on the right that's longer. Isn't that infuriating? It just doesn't seem to make any sense. I know the book's right, it's just kind of hard to accept. But it's right. The line on the right is longer, and our world is controlled by beings and forces that most of us will never even get to see. It makes me sound like a kook, I know, and believe me, I'm cringing as I write this, but it's the truth.
It didn't start out as terrible, that part came later. In fact, I never even knew what I had lost, because I was a kid. You don't think about things like that when you're a kid, at least not the same way you do when you get older. I thought it was exciting. It was only years later that I realized the significance of that day.
Here's my story. Make of it whatever you will.
--- signed Albert Drake, formerly known as James Hilbert
Chapter One: The Guest
Kentucky, August 2003
This happened back when me -- that's James Hilbert -- and my brother Alex were about twelve, back when we lived at my dad's place. I'd better explain that before I go on.
My dad owed a furniture store, and also a bar and grill. They were in the same building, and they weren't separated either; you could take your drink with you and go relax on one of the sofas scattered around the showroom floor, and my dad would do his level best to get you to walk away with it when you left. No one was really supposed to be doing that, though. All food and drinks should have been confined to the dining area, a step down from the showroom. There was a big, white block containing the kitchen and bar that separated the two areas. The bar faced outward, away from the showroom, and the dining area, which my dad added as an extension to the original building, kind of curled around it on the edge. The original building, the showroom, was much bigger. It was the size of a warehouse. The showroom floor seemed almost infinite for us as kids. The beds, dressers, partitions and fussy bedroom set-ups were all perfect for hide-and-seek. We loved it. We used to make a game out of sneaking around and trying to spook the customers. Good times.
Anyway, we lived up above the showroom floor. There was a big mezzanine up there in a U-shape, with the open part on the front entrance wall. The mezzanine was like a hallway, and on both sides there were rows of rooms. They weren't really made to be bedrooms, but they were good enough. That's where we slept. Back at the back wall on the mezzanine was an open space with some tables and chairs and vending machines. That was our break room. On either side of that, we had bathrooms -- not the kind with just a sink and a toilet, those were on the first floor -- the full-service kind with showers and baths. So we lived pretty well up there. On the first floor, beneath all that on the edges of the showroom, was my dad's office and a row of rooms used for more storage and whatever else.
In the very back of the showroom was a hallway that went straight down for a few yards. There was a door there that said "employees only", and if you went through it, you ran into another hallway there, this one being perpendicular, like a T-shape. This very back hallway, the long one, had access to the staircase up to the mezzanine, and a row of back rooms that we used for storing bulky items like mattresses and big boxes.
It was in those back rooms down there that the hobos slept. Well, that's what we used to call them, anyway. My dad often brought people in -- homeless people, or so I was led to believe -- to sleep there, and with our restaurant and bathrooms, they could live here as long as they wanted, and many of them stayed for several weeks. It was like a regular bed-and-breakfast. We used to call it "the Hilbert Hotel."
- - -
The fateful day was at the tail-end of a beautiful summer, and we'd been playing outside all day. There were some woods behind the "hotel" where we'd go to do the typical kid stuff -- build a fort, cut a few paths through the brush, throw pine cones at each other in battles, and use sticks to sword-fight. It was getting late, around sunset, when we heard leaves and branches crackling nearby, like a big animal was walking around. We'd seen a few deer there before, so naturally that's what we assumed it was. We both crouched down and got real quiet, trying to inch our way towards the noise without being noticed. When we got close to it, the noise stopped. I looked around the trunk of the tree I was hiding behind, and saw the most shocking thing I've ever seen, even to this day.
A few yards in front of us, there was a man in a big trenchcoat and hat, leaning against a tree and panting. The entire front of his coat was a glistening, dark crimson, so dark in the center that it looked completely black. It was the first time I had ever seen gore or blood on that scale before. My stomach dropped, like on a rollercoaster going down, and I felt suddenly queasy and weak. But even more than that, it was his eyes. Beneath the brim of his hat, in his shadow-covered face, Two glowing, yellow eyes stared out at me.
I couldn't move, or at least I wouldn't. As a kid, I had often thought about what I would do if I saw someone badly injured: how I would hop to it and call for help, run up to the victim and bend over them pushing on their chest or something, or get a handkerchief and tie it around somewhere to slow the blood loss; but this was something else entirely. I was not at all prepared to see something like that, much less to react the right way. My brain just shut down.
I don't know how long we stared at each other, but at some point he slumped and collapsed on the ground. I sat back, still staring.
"James! Let's go! We need to go get somebody!" Alex shook my shoulder and brought me back to the real world for a second. "Come on!" he said.
I got up and ran with him. We left the man in the woods where he was. We didn't know what else to do. I guess it's simple and easy as a kid, when you can just pawn off problems like that to adults; problems too big for you to handle. Then suddenly, one day, you're an adult, and you realize that the adults are no less scared and confused than you were. They just can't afford to show it. Somebody has to do these things. Somebody has to deal with blood and gore and death.
We ran inside and burst into my dad's office. He was there, as usual, seated behind his desk, with his thick-rimmed reading glasses on and a folder in his hands. It was comforting, even in that frantic moment, to come in there and see that everything was as it always was. Dad's office had a smell, a smell of books and paper and filing cabinets; a dull, buzzing, fluorescent light: old and dingy, but comforting in its steadiness. The man behind the desk was always the same, hanging around and fiddling with papers and reading and typing on his computer. I think he liked to be in there, alone and doing busy-work, just as much as we liked the certainty of knowing he would always be there in the absence of customers. It was his retreat.
That comfort lasted only a split second. Alex blurted out as much information as he could: "Dad! We need help out there! There's -- there's a man out there and he's bleeding and he's hurt and he's lying in the woods out there and he might be dead but I don't know I just didn't know what to do --"
In the middle of this, dad bolted to his feet and came around the desk, placing his hand warmly on Alex's head as he strode out of the office, saying "Ok buddy, let's go see."
As we walked out of the store, Dad shouted "Hey Bill! Linda! Come out here! Evan, you stay in here and keep an eye on the place!"
A heavyset, middle-aged woman and a tall, gray-haired man, both wearing white aprons, came out from the dining area and followed us. Linda, Bill, and Evan all worked at the restaurant and helped us out with stocking and shipping things at the showroom. They'd been with us forever and we loved and trusted them like family.
My dad walked quickly and purposefully, but didn't run. There were customers inside the dining room at that point and I know he wanted to keep his composure. When we got outside and started to go around the side of the building, he broke into a jog. As we ran into the woods, he turned his head back and said "Ok, where is he? Lead the way!"
Alex and I sprinted up ahead and pointed in the general direction, probably shouting some nonsense about where the man was. None of them knew the woods as well as we did; they wouldn't have understood.
It wasn't hard to find, though. The man had collapsed very close to the edge of the woods and if he had kept going, he probably could have made it to the store. He was probably trying. I felt suddenly very bad for him and very bad for abandoning him out here. At that point, my brain had largely swept aside the bizarre memory of the man's yellow eyes. I just couldn't bring myself to truly believe it. Now, I just wanted to help.
Well, I thought I did. When I looked again at that brown trenchcoat-covered body crumpled on the ground and soaked in blood, thought, I had second thoughts and any heroism once again took a backseat to fear. It was an odd relief when Dad, kneeling beside the body, waved his hand at us in a "go away" gesture and told Bill to escort us back to the store. Part of me made me feel guilty for not making more of an effort to help, and another part was relieved that the responsibility was now gone. Dad and Linda would take care of it. It would all be okay.
Bill walked with us up to the mezzanine and told us to stay in our rooms. No arguments from me. Alex protested, but I think he was just testing Bill. We both went into our respective rooms.
I sat in silence on the edge of my bed. I had to get to Alex's room so we could discuss this. I couldn't just stay in here; I'd go crazy. So I waited. Then, after a few minutes that seemed so much longer, I heard it: Bill's footsteps walking away. I crept up to my door and gripped the knob, turning it ever so slowly, and then emerging from the door in a crouch, trying to be as stealthy as possible. I shut the door softly and looked around, inching my way towards Alex's door. When my eyes swung around to the break room area at the back of the mezzanine, I stopped cold. Bill was sitting at one of the tables, looking right at me. We made eye contact, and he slowly shook his head, then tilted his head down and pointed past me at my door, then nodded. Turning around, I released a huge breath and opened my door again.
It was literally an hour that I simply sat on my bed and tried to think about other things but failed. I ended up replaying what had happened over and over again in my head. It didn't make anything better. It was just torture. I couldn't just leave it at that. I had to know more. I had to see that man, or that creature, again.
Kids are always surprisingly persistent, and wily. I lay in my bed for hours, lights out, carefully staying awake, lifting my head up every now and then to glance at the glowing, red digits of my alarm clock.
It must have been around midnight that a thin knife-edge slit of light opened, then expanded into a yellow glow around my father's dark silhouette as he crept through the door. He left the door halfway open as he crossed the room to my bed. I had my eyes shut, peacefully, as if asleep. I mimicked the soft, easy breathing of a sleeper. I felt his hand cup my shoulder, gently pat it, and then I heard him walking away and quietly shutting the door. I slowly, cautiously opened my eyes. He was gone. The room was dark. I was alone again. It took resolve, but with a nervous feeling in my gut, I waited it out for another solid hour. I couldn't tell you exactly what I was thinking of at that time -- a lot of things, I guess. Sometimes, just letting my mind wander was enough. Sometimes I counted up and down as far as I could go. Sometimes I counted along with the clock. Like I said, the kind of crazy things I used to do as a kid surprise me.
I sneaked out once the hour was up and I was sure I wouldn't be caught. It wasn't hard to creep along the edge of the hallway, or balcony, hallway-balcony I guess, and reach up to grab Alex's doorknob, turning it slowly and edging into his room, looking out at the showroom to make sure no one saw. The place was dark, with faint orange light from the streetlights outside reflecting deep into the interior of the store, looking like light through a bottle of whiskey and ice cubes. It was quiet, dark and sleepy, and cold. And it was safe. It was familiar. I looked upon it with a warm feeling of comfort, like I had many nights before, not knowing that this would be the last night the store ever felt so safe and comfortable.
I disappeared into Alex's room and eased the door shut. I'd done this before, sneaking around, and had become something of a master at opening and closing doors, walking on tiptoe, and avoiding gazes, as silently and stealthily as a ninja warrior. Tonight was no exception. I was at the top of my game, and the thrill of it, of tempting fate, of walking on a wire with the constant threat of being caught below me, had never been better.
I was disappointed in my brother. He was curled up in his blanket like a caterpillar in a cocoon, breathing deeply and slowly, leaving a dark puddle of drool on his pillow. Evidently he didn't have the same excitement or resolve as I had for this mission. Oh well, maybe he hadn't had the same idea as I had.
I grabbed the blankets and yanked them away from him, depositing him slantways on the edge of his mattress. He looked about ready to fall off. I took great enjoyment in that. He moaned and clutched absently for his blanket, eyes still closed, his brow furrowed and voice thick with indignation: "Give it back!" He moaned. "It's not funny, James!"
I snickered. It was funny to me.
"Gosh!" He cursed, lifting himself up on his arms and swinging his legs out of bed. He bent down and picked up a blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders like a shawl and gripping it tightly, as he sat on the edge of his bed.
"What do you want?" He asked. His eyes were still half-closed, looking downward at the floor as he spoke to me. He looked tired and pissed, with his hair tousled and wild, sticking up in odd directions, his face limp and pale. It would have bothered me to treat anybody that way, except for my brother. He was fair game.
"We have to see that guy that they brought in." I began.
"We already did." He said with finality. "I just want to forget about it, okay James? Go back to sleep. What makes you think he's still here anyway? They probably took him to the hospital or something, or else he's. . ."
"But they always take the hobos to one of the back rooms. That one guy had his arms all cut up, and they didn't take him to a hospital. They just bandaged it up and he stayed for a while."
"But this is like, way worse. It's not just a few cuts. They had to have taken him to the hospital."
I paused, then ventured a response that even I didn't really want to say: "I don't think they took him to the hospital."
He sighed. "Why not?"
I shifted uncomfortably. "Did you see . . . out there, when we saw him at first . . . did you see his eyes?" I said.
He looked at me with a furrowed brow, and nodded solemnly. "Yeah."
"I think he's a monster or something. Maybe that's why they made us stay in our rooms."
"Come on James, he's not a monster. Probably just disfigured or something, I don't know."
"Can we just go check the back rooms and see? Please?"
He sighed again. It was another few moments before he spoke. "Will you do my sweeping for a week, even if we don't get to see anything?"
Chapter Two: An Acquaintance is Made
A few minutes later, we were both creeping downstairs together, watching each other's backs and heading for the back rooms. Once we made it to the very back hallway, Alex tapped my shoulder.
"Okay genius, what now?" He whispered. "Where do we look?"
I shrugged. "Any of the rooms. . . I guess."
Alex rolled his eyes and motioned for me to follow him as he crept up to the door closest to us.
He opened the door and we slipped inside. He flipped on the flashlight he had brought along, covering it with his fingers to control the amount of light coming through. He scanned around the room with it -- just boxes, cabinets, and some mattresses wrapped in plastic. We went out and checked the other rooms. Same. Nothing to see. Usually we would have had some hobos in one or several of the rooms, but not that night. I brushed it off as a coincidence at the time, but later on I would wonder about the reasons for it. Thank God my youthful mind was spared from the horror of knowing those reasons.
I was trying to calm my racing heart and the butterflies in my stomach as we reached the last room. The "maybe" was what got me. The man might be in here, and might not be. At least I would know in a second. I tried to convince myself that it wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't, but I was kidding myself. It would be a heavy letdown if all this was for nothing.
Alex swung the door open with a cold swish that chilled me. He turned on his flashlight one last time, and swung its beam around the room, not even bothering to cover the lense this time. The light crossed over a huge, dark figure sitting on a table on the side of the room where we had come in, right next to the door, hunched over and looking down at us with flashing yellow eyes. Alex jumped and dropped the flashlight. It rolled across the floor and settled against the other wall, shining towards the back now. The figure was faintly outlined against the rest of the shadow now. The first thing I noticed was how big it was -- it must have been ten feet tall. Other than the size, the outline was that of a normal human -- a very tall, broad human, like a football player. And its eyes gazed intently at us without blinking, just faintly glowing, golden, cat-slit eyes.
Alex's flashlight flickered a few times, came back to life, then died. We were in pitch black darkness. My heart lept into my throat. We were going to die here.
"Don't be afraid." It said. It spoke with a deep, heavy voice, softly and tenderly, like a hypnotist trying to put us in a trance. The effect was a little calming, but incredibly bizarre, to have this monster be trying to calm us. I felt like I was in a horror movie, or a nightmare and waiting to wake up.
"I will not hurt you." It continued. "Your father is a good man to accept my presence here for a few days. You should be grateful for the safety this place offers. . . "
The voice trailed off, not that I was paying much attention to what it was saying, anyway.
My entire body tingled and felt weak and lifeless, like I was suddenly very sleepy. I wanted to sit down, but I also wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run. I just stood there, scared straight and nearly witless. The creature's words didn't help. It made no difference to me what it said about not hurting us; I was operating on pure instinct at this point and all those instincts were telling me was that this thing was a predator and I should get the hell out of Dodge.
Then the deep voice in the dark said something else, an urgent, firm command: "Hide."
If you can believe this, I lingered for a few seconds as I tried to figure out what to do. The word "hide" sounded different coming from a large, reptilian monster. It sounded like maybe it was just messing with us or something. I don't know, I was a stupid kid. Apparently Alex was too; he stayed right where he was.
Then I heard footsteps.
I immediately saw images of Dad or Bert or Linda or Evan on their way in here to check on the creature. They could not see us in here. We would be grounded for the rest of our lives and probably buried in our rooms without dinner. I would rather have died and gone to hell. I was already terrified, but my cold sweat and trembling hands renewed themselves now with twice the vigor. I was far more terrified of being caught in here than I was of the creature in here with us.
Alex turned back to me with wide eyes and hurriedly gestured behind me. I turned to see a mattress leaning against the wall, and dove underneath it, in the tight space between it and the wall, with my head towards the wall with the creature and the door so I could see. Alex landed on top of me like a pile of bricks and shifted uncomfortably until we were both reasonably well situated, at least enough to deal with it. I noted with disgust that he was as nervous as me, as I felt his cold sweat press against my back.
The door swung open and someone stepped in and shut it right away. We were back in pitch dark.
A small circle of orange lit up and flared hotly, then settled into a dull glow shedding smoke as a hand swished the match back out into the dark. Someone had lit a cigarette.
"You can come out now, boys." Said someone. It was recognizably feminine, but a little scratchy and faded, like a really old vinyl album. Linda. It was Linda.
I saw movement in the dark, shadows passing shadows, black against black, the sweep of an arm, as the creature swung its arm up and flipped the light on.
I saw movement in the dark, shadows passing shadows, black against black, the sweep of an arm, as the creature swung its arm up and flipped the light on.
Dusky orange light from a bulb high up in the center of the ceiling fell down into the room, and we saw the creature. It looked like a lizard man. It was covered in dark green scales, with its thick, ridged, crocodilian tail hanging off the edge of the table. With one hand it gripped the edge of the table, with curved, wicked-looking, talon-like claws. Its face was hardly more than a skull covered in a tight armor of hard, metallic, green scales, with those eyes set deep back under shadowy brows, glowing like distant flashlights in the dark. Its nostrils were simply two slits. There were three rows of short spiky protrusions going up from its forehead all the way back behind its head, with one in the center like a mohawk, and two on either side, coming up from the outside edge of the eyebrows (which it didn't have, it was bald, or hairless anyway). Its mouth was a thin line, curving down at the sides and then rising up again to cut into the cheeks and ending somewhere around the edge of the jaw. It wasn't like human lips; it was set into the face, fixed there in a perpetual dark smile. It reminded me a lot of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park.
Its body wasn't a pretty sight. All that was left of the creature's right arm was a stump wrapped in white bandages and stained with scarlet blood, and its entire torso looked like it had been torn away, full of deep gashes and canyons, barely any flesh left, caked and clogged with thick, dark accumulations of dried blood. I could see the white curves of its ribs. It was like seeing roadkill sitting on that table. It seemed unthinkable that this creature was able to sit upright and speak in this condition. It should have been dead.
Linda was slouched against the table, beside the creature, puffing smoke, with her white apron still on, wrapped around her paunchy torso, blond hair wrapped up in a bun. She was a short, solid, stocky woman, a little rough around the edges, but I never knew another friend like her. She could be softer than silk sometimes, but when she knew she needed to be, she was iron, and tonight she was iron.
"You boys know what happens now when you go sneaking around, right? You might find something you didn't want to." She sighed, releasing a cloud of silky grey smoke, and swiped the cigarette out of her mouth. Then she went on in a lower, softer voice: "I'm sorry you had to go through that, boys. But it's better than getting yourselves killed someday because you didn't know. The kind of business we're involved in here could get us all killed."
I didn't like the hardness in her words. I knew that she was being honest, but at the time I winced and shrank from that. It felt like she was punishing us. Looking back on it now, I know she must not have known any other way to say it. It was hard enough to have to explain it to us at all.
"But Levy here (she pronounced it to rhyme with "heavy") wouldn't hurt a fly, right Levy?" She said, turning to the monster and thumping its shoulder.
She turned back to us. I was still under Alex, both us of under the leaning mattress, as she looked directly at us. "Levy here is a good friend of mine and of your father's. He's a good man. You don't dare say anything against him and you don't dare treat him like a freak, okay? He didn't ask to look this way. You just treat him like you would any other adult."
"Levy" continued his unblinking gaze and his stone-cold, neutral expression as he gazed down at us. He was so inhuman. Even after he spoke to us, it was hard to accept him as anything other than a terrifying bogeyman. And I was still scared of a lot of dogs at that age.
"Now since you slipped past me and you've already met Levy, I might as well tell you the rest. I'm going to explain something to you boys. I'm going to lay out the facts for you. What I'm about to tell you is a secret. It's more secret than anything else you've ever known about. If you say anything to anyone about it, outside of the people that work in this building, you'll never get to live a normal life again. At best, you'll be on the run, always looking over your shoulder. At worst, you'll go to hell.
"This place is a sanctuary. It means you can't get hurt by the bad guys as long as you stay in the building. As soon as you step out the door, though, you're on your own.
"You ever wondered why you lived your whole life here? That's why. Because we can't protect you out there. This place is like an umbrella in the rain. We stay here and we keep it clean and keep it running, because the day we lose control of this building, we're out in the rain. We're done. We're up the creek. The day we have to close the store is probably gonna be the day we die.
"We're not ordinary people. Your father and I, Bert, Evan, and Levy here are. . . we know things that normal people aren't supposed to know. Like spies. And that makes us a target. There are a lot of people that want us dead. Some of them work for the government. Some of them aren't even human. You call 'em demons if you want. The important thing is, they hate your guts and they're probably gonna try to kill you. You just make sure you don't say a word about any of this to anyone but us, okay? We're in this together because we have secrets, secrets that could get us all killed if we told them to just anyone. Like him." She hooked a thumb behind her at Levy. "He's one of the secrets.
"You say a word about this to anybody, and "trouble" does not even begin to cover what you'll get yourself into. For your own sake, you understand?"
I nodded, dazed.
"Now you can go back to bed if you want to, and I'll consider this over and done with. You keep your nose clean and you don't go snooping around anymore, and you keep your mouth shut about anything that goes on in this place, and as far as I'm concerned this never happened. You're good to go. This was just between us four. You don't need to tell your daddy or Bert or Evan. You don't need to ever even think about this again. Just as long as you know there are some things better off being kept secret."
Of course, I did think about it again. Not a day went by that I didn't think about it every hour. But I did think that I could put it behind me and not have to deal with it ever again. That is, after all, what she had said we could do. Well, it wouldn't be the only time someone I trusted lied to me.
Chapter Three: The Search
We didn't say anything after that. Linda just told us goodnight, and Alex and I crawled out from under the mattress, silently exchanging some looks as we skulked back to our rooms. My whole body felt weak, like it does when you’re starving, and I couldn't control the trembling. My mind was reeling.
I didn't sleep.
The next few days were weird. Normal, on the surface, but still surreal. I felt like I was dreaming. Or maybe like that feeling when you wake up from a dream, but you're annoyed to be ripped from it so suddenly, and you want to go back into it. Even if it was a nightmare. Because it seemed more real and more meaningful than cold, hard reality. Maybe there really is no difference between reality and dreams. Or not one that matters.
But I kept on doing everything normally, kept on acting like nothing had changed. But everything had changed, and I knew it. Monsters were real. There were threats out there that no adult could protect me from. You don't just bury stuff like that. It drove me out of my mind. I barely slept at night -- although I remember that being a whole lot easier as a kid. When you get older, you can't get away with that kind of sleep loss. But anyway, I knew something had to give. I wanted to do something else, find something else, somehow go back into that terrifying and exotic and somehow more real world that "Levy" was a part of. I wanted to be in on the secrets. Not because I liked the idea, but because I had to get some kind of closure, some kind of peace of mind.
The only computer we had back then was the one in Dad's office, and we did not use it for leisure. It was for business. But I knew that I could access a search engine through it, and I had heard a little about search histories and I knew that they had to be deleted. It was a bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea. But it was also an exciting idea.
Linda hadn't said anything about looking online. I used that loophole to ease my conscience as I convinced myself that what I was about to do was okay. Another night-time escapade.
I managed to slip out of my room again when everyone was asleep, and creep down to the office. The computer was off at night, so I pressed the power button and began the nervous five-minute wait while it booted up. The light flickered in the dark, seeming absurdly bright to me as the Windows logo flashed onto the screen and gave its chiming noise.
I quickly grabbed the mouse and clicked on the center of the screen. The password box was a minor inconvenience; I knew my father and I knew his favorite poetry. Frost was the password he used for just about everything. It worked.
I was in. I clicked on the Internet Explorer logo and typed in my search. I started with "lizard man sightings", looked at a few dubious articles, then changed the search to "real lizard man" and ended up going through about half an hour of mind-numbing conspiracy theories. I lapped it up because it was fascinating, but I was far from being satisfied. None of it was conclusive. All of it was obviously fake, sarcastic or entirely theoretical. My next searches cast a broader net, and hopefully one which would get me something close to what I had heard in the back room that night. I searched stuff like "secrets of the world", "hidden secrets", "sanctuary secrets", "Illuminati secrets" and "secret societies". There was nothing. Nothing like what I needed.
I had about had it. Abandoning my search in bitter frustration, almost in tears, I began looking for a place to delete my search history. Couldn't find it. I ended up poking around in the computer's folders for a while and wasting another forty-five minutes. I shut the computer off and tried to make sure the mouse was in the same position I found it in, then got up and crept out again. The entire time I was there must have been around three hours at least. I was in a cold sweat when I climbed back into bed, and more awake than I had been earlier. I barely slept.
All I wanted was to have peace of mind, some kind of assurance that the world made sense. I just wanted to know where I stood. And like I said before, I should have kept my head down. Curiosity killed the cat.
Chapter Four: The Departure
The next day I woke up, spent another hour pressing the snooze button and going back to sleep three or four times, and finally crawled out of bed. I liked the morning light in that room. It was about ten o'clock or so and the window at that time was a golden panel of heavenly, clear, white light. Legs crossed on the floor, still in my pajamas, I was sitting in the bright, warm panel of morning sunlight. I didn’t want to do anything but stay there reading a book, maybe all morning. I hadn’t gotten past more than a few pages when steps approached the door.
These were no ordinary steps. They were short, hard, and loud: angry steps. Furious steps. I had only heard one person make that sort of noise when walking, and that person was my father. I flipped the book shut, threw it aside and hurriedly stood up at attention, facing the door.
The door opened. The solid silhouette of Wolfgang Hilbert stood there, regarding me with his hands on his hips.
"Come downstairs. We have to talk." He growled.
There was nothing like that to drain the blood from one's face and the strength from one's knees on what could have been a perfectly good Saturday morning. It's no exaggeration to say I nearly peed my pants. It took me the entire rest of the day to stop from uncontrollably trembling just from this incident alone. I didn't know how much he knew, but I had to assume it was everything. But I would play it safe. Don't give out any more information than he asks for, play it safe, don't lose your cool, I told myself.
But I had already lost my cool.
We met down in one of the back rooms. As soon as I stepped in, my stomach dropped. It was Levy's room. The same dingy, dark room, small and square, filled with cardboard boxes and plastic-wrapped mattresses and the musty taste of old, stale air. Just being there was enough to bring the memories of the other night rushing back. The ravaged form of the lizard man stared down at me, and Linda and Alex were both there, and, of course, so was my father. Bert came in just behind us.
I shuffled close to Alex.
Dad looked in our direction.
"I know what you did, boys. Just admit it." He sighed.
No one spoke. Dead silence.
"Tell us what you did." He growled.
Dammit dad, why do you have to make it so difficult? You could just tell us not to do it again. It's hard enough as it is!
"We came in at night and saw him." Alex spoke up, flicking his head in Levy's direction. He was a good brother. Always willing to stick up for both of us. Never as ashamed, as cowardly as I was. He knew what he was doing with his life. He was a good man.
"It was my idea-" I began saying, but dad cut me off with a dismissive wave of his hand: "I don't care whose idea it was. You did it. You did something you KNEW you shouldn't have!"
Way to go Dad, I thought we could have a moment there. Some kind of good job for telling the truth, shooting straight, sticking up for your brother. . . but no. This time was different. I had never seen him this angry. Dad hasn't raised his voice to us in at least a year. At this point it began to sink in, just how serious the “secrets” thing was.
Dad bent down to look Alex in the eye. "Do you know what Internet Explorer is, Alexander?"
"And do you know that Internet Explorer tracks your search history and keeps that data? And that that data can be accessed by all sorts of people that you do not want to have access to that data? Because that is what happened. Nothing happens on the internet without people seeing it. Nothing is private. Nothing is safe."
Evan walked in. He stared around the room with wide eyes, then looked down as he stepped next to Bert so that we all formed a rough semicircle around the door.
Dad was pacing back and forth, looking down at the ground as if he were thinking.
"We can't all be back here." He said, glancing up at Bert and Evan. "Somebody needs to be up front."
"Just go!" He shouted, and they both turned awkwardly and walked out.
He didn't look at any of us, just keep looking at the floor as he talked. His tone was barely restrained. It was very cold, and very authoritative, and it was rife with a barely restrained fury.
"I'll tell you what happened. Everybody in this establishment decided to forget everything they had been taught, and failed so spectacularly at every single one of their duties that I am now forced to decide our next course of action, and it will be drastic. It will have to be drastic, because I have no other choice.
Let's start at the beginning. Failure one: my sons discover the reptilian in the back of the storage area. No security measures. No decent hiding spot. No nothing. They just waltz right in and see you. Brilliant.
Failure two: no one gives me any kind of update, not even a clue. I am left completely in the dark about this. Amazing.
Failure three: because I am in the dark, I am unable to do anything. And because I did not do anything, my sons went on the internet to create what is essentially a digital, giant, red target saying: "come investigate us! We know something about the secrets!" And that puts me in a very bad situation.
Failure four: we do not have time for proper evacuation procedures. In fact, we are wasting valuable time right now. So we either make preparations to stand our ground, and probably end up getting killed, or we leave in five minutes and we run for our lives as fast as we can, with no defenses, no plan and no help. And we’ll get caught, and killed. So both options will probably get us killed.
Now, is everything clear? Is it obvious yet how spectacularly screwed we are?"
The lizard man stood up, his crimson sides tensing as he trembled to stand straight. The full height of the scaly monster, his plated tail hanging down and swaying like a chain, even in his injured condition, was still extremely intimidating. He towered at least two feet above my father.
"No, you sit right back the hell down, mister!" Dad growled. "I don’t need to hear from you!"
"LISTEN." I had not previously thought that this level of authority was possible. Levy had somehow managed to shift his voice into something both furious and impassive, something that slammed into your chest like a sledgehammer, while barely raising his voice at all. The tone was violent and calm at the same time, carefully measured, carefully done. I felt the vibrations from that "listen" thrum through our bodies. I'd only ever felt like that at a live concert. Dad made no reply.
"This whole chain of events was inevitable. I was on the verge of death. I had no choice but to accept your hospitality, which you freely gave, full knowing the consequences it could bring. Your sons discovered me because the low security that you curse now has been the only thing keeping you from being suspected -- the only reason you are still alive. The digital search was unfortunate. It leaves us with your two choices: "fight, or flight." But make no mistake, sir. All of this occurred according to a plan, and it will be resolved according to a plan."
"Don't give me your destiny bullshit! It has gotten me nowhere! Everything we did here, we did ourselves!"
"But since I am no longer welcome . . ." the lizard man continued.
"You're damn right!" Dad interjected.
". . . I will release you from the burden of my presence. You stand a better chance on the run without me."
"Yes, I agree." Dad nodded, hands on his hips, watching Levy slowly walk out of the room.
Levy half-turned as he crossed the doorway out. "Godspeed." He said.
"Get out." Dad snapped.
He stood there for a few seconds, eyes closed, licking the inside of his mouth, fuming. Then he went to action.
"Linda, we need clothing and blankets. Tell Bert to take the computer outside and smash it."
Dad walked out, and we followed through the back hallways, heading towards the front of the store.
As we walked into the showroom, he yelled "Evan!"
Evan came trotting up from one of the rooms on the side.
"Get whatever food you can find. Small, portable, easily preserved stuff. Enough for two weeks. Get a container. Pack it in."
Everyone split up and parted ways, going in their different directions. Dad took off for the upstairs. He called over his shoulder: "Boys!" You come with me!"
We followed him, running up the stairs. He walked all the way to one of the rooms upstairs that we had always just used for storage. There were a few crates and boxes inside, nothing special. We rarely went inside.
He went for the far corner of the room and pulled out a case. He dragged it to the center of the floor, selecting a key from his over-encumbered, jangling keyring, and popped open the lock. The case butterflied open on the floor.
Matte black, finely crafted, impeccably clean weaponry met my eyes. There was an arsenal of about a dozen rifles and small arms inside. Two big ones clearly meant for long-range shooting, and four handguns, and the rest were normal rifles. Or looked like "normal" rifles to me -- I didn't know what to look for, who manufactured guns or what the different types of guns even were as a kid. Dad had never been very open about that sort of thing. I didn’t even know he owned more than a handgun (and he had never told us where he kept that).
He took a handgun out, cocked it, checked the chamber, dropped the clip and emptied six bullets. He replaced the clip and checked the chamber again. He flipped the safety down. He held it out straight, with both hands, and aimed it at the outside wall. He pulled the trigger. Click. Not loaded. No danger.
He handed the gun to Alex. "You see what I just did there? You check your clip, you check your chamber, you check your safety, and you don't aim at anything unless you wanna kill it. When you know what is or isn't in your weapon, then you pull the trigger. Go ahead. Pull it."
Alex held the gun nervously, letting it sag a little towards the floor. Dad touched Alex's arm to position it straight, parallel to the floor. "Hold it like that -- straight out in front of you, that's right . . . now, pull."
Alex pulled the trigger back. The gun clicked.
Alex handed the gun to me. I took it, grasping the cool, dry, rubbery grip. It was heavy. I almost let it drop. I understood now why he had let it sag at first. It felt too big for me. I don’t mean physically big -- I mean it felt too old for me to be doing, too mature. It felt like my childhood was violated that day.
Dad went through the same thing with me. And Alex and I both emptied and reloaded the clip. That took a while -- shoving those bullets in there, sheesh. And then he replaced the gun in the case, pulled it shut and locked it again. And we were off again.
Quickest lesson I ever had in anything. The stress of the situation, of that entire day, burned all those experiences into my brain forever. I will never forget how to handle a gun. And I won't forget why I have to, either.
We all met back in the back rooms again, in the hallway. Everyone was gathered around in a circle. We checked everything and checked it again until Dad was satisfied that we had everything we needed -- clothing, food, weapons. And the computer was destroyed. A pang of guilt stabbed me every time they mentioned the computer. But nobody every said anything else about it to my face. Maybe they didn't have time, or maybe they just knew how much pain it was already causing me. Either way, I appreciated it.
We walked out to the big space of the showroom one more time, towards the expanse of glass at the front and the pale, hazy morning outside.
"Wait!" A voice called. I thought I recognized that voice, and a look back over my shoulder confirmed it. The lizard man was hobbling back towards us from the back. But why?
"What the hell!? I thought you left ten minutes ago!" Dad yelled.
"I have to speak with you." Levy pleaded.
Levy came up close before he began speaking. Alex and I were closest to him, and Alex was close enough to touch him. I could see how uncomfortable he was. I stayed still. This wasn't our conversation. But what the hell, we were always in the middle of something that day. I think I would have been surprised if we actually weren't in the way, or were doing something right. Well, I'll speak for myself. Alex did the right thing. He didn't deserve to be blamed along with me. But he was good enough to take it anyway. Wasn't always the best brother, but he was when it counted. I guess that is the best kind of brother to have.
"We should discuss the reasons for your leaving before you go. There might be another option." As he said this, he spread his hands in a pleading gesture. One of them was thus behind Alex's neck. As he brought his hands back, that hand clamped down on my brother's neck and very quickly pulled him close to the lizard man's body. Levy used his other hand to grab Alex's ankle. Before any of us even knew what was happening, Alex was dangling upside down with one taloned hand fastened around his ankle up top, and one hand gripping his neck at the bottom. The beast stepped back several paces.
"We . . . should . . . talk." He said.
As he spoke, the green scales began shifting into something else. His body shivered into a haze, like a fading dream, and came out as something entirely different. This creature stood even taller, broader and almost statuesque. He was red; dark, blood-red, but that was only where the light hit him. Like some shadowy demon, most of his body was black, and only shone dull red where the light hit him strongly. Whereas the form of the lizard man was thick, bulky, this form seemed almost slim. It was the kind of build you might find on some statue of a Greek athlete. Huge bull horns extended from the side of his head and curved up at the tips to sharp points. His face displayed bright, glowing red eyes, but not much of a mouth or nose, or ears. They seemed to disappear in the shadow.
At first, I thought this must be the devil himself, and it didn’t seem entirely unlikely. The events of the past few days had taught me that basically anything was possible.
The first thing that I noticed was that he was whole. Whole, uninjured, and seemingly in his prime. And the way he grabbed Alex convinced me that he was faster than any of us. This was not a creature to mess with.
"About the secrets." It said. "I know you don't write it down. You keep them in your head. So, knock knock. Open up."
Those words twisted into my gut. I felt like I’d swallowed a wire. The way it spoke was different as its appearance. Its voice was higher pitched, more staccato and less deliberate. It sounded like it was actually making this up as it went along. It just felt indescribably wrong, somehow. Unnatural. Was it trying to make a joke?
We all stayed still and silent. I glance at dad, but he gave no signal.
"You think I am bluffing. I am not bluffing.” The creature said. “This boy is not the only hostage in this room. I can kill every one of you until you tell me everything you know. Do you want to know, how many dead loved ones it takes to bring a man to his knees? Nevermind. I kind of do."
"Okay." Dad said. He sounded hoarse.
Chapter Five: Debris
"Okay, what?" The creature asked.
"I will tell you." Dad hissed through gritted teeth.
The creature tilted its head sideways, and held Alex's ankle even higher up in the air to remind us of its hostage. I noticed my brother's eyes widen.
My chest felt weird -- tight, like I was being hugged too hard, and almost itchy inside, and sick. I felt nauseated.
"Don't play with me." The creature said. "Begin with your first item."
Dad took a deep breath. He licked his lips. I had never seen anyone’s face get so white. Standing as rigidly as a soldier in formation, he began: "February twenty-seventh, 1989. That's when we bought the store. It was always intended to be a sanctuary, we had no other use for-"
"Stop it right now or I kill him." The monster said.
The interruption was so sudden that I had no idea what was going on. Dad stopped talking immediately. Everyone stared at the monster in shock. The red eyes were still focused on Dad. Then we heard a voice.
"Okay, I'm not doing anything, just calm down."
The speaker was standing behind the monster. She must have come in from the back.
She was tall, with a mane of black hair that was barely held back by a handkerchief to cascade over her shoulders and her back. Her face was bronze, lean and statuesque. Her eyes were black and angry and focused.
She had her arms out in front of her in a gesture almost like when you tell someone to calm down, with her palms vertical, and stood in a wide stance.
My heart skipped when I noticed that the lizard man, Levy, had come in behind her. He was alive, but barely. Missing an entire arm now, the living carnage slouched on the wall against a stain of his own fresh blood.
"Just calm down." The woman said.
Now I wondered whether she meant those words for the beast or for us. Probably both.
The creature unveiled white fangs in a wicked grin. "My dear lady, now you would be quite the catch."
"Good luck with that." She said.
“And you! ‘Brother!’ Outcast!” The creature said, apparently talking to Levy. “Missed me so much you came back to be killed again?”
Levy was silent.
The creature waited for a minute, then shifted its eyes back to my dad. "You may continue." It said.
"Me?" Dad asked.
I think there was a brief collective gasp from all of us -- or maybe I just imagined that part. I know we all tried to prepare ourselves for what might be coming. That moment of the beast and my brother in the middle, and the rest of us scattered around them, standing still in our rigid, tense postures, among the partitions, the beds, the nightstands and lamps, and the armchairs, in a showdown, was seared into my mind forever.
"1989, winter, the uh, . . ." He stammered, trying to find his place again. "Well, we brought in a lot of people to inspect the place. It was a big gathering. The kind of gathering you would have killed for. Michael was there, and--"
"I told you to stop." The creature snarled. "The man's brain is more empty than his genes are, and your incessant prying isn't helping."
“Cielo, do what he says.” Levy told the woman.
“But--” She started to say, then just growled.
“You should keep your mouth shut.” The creature said. “Both of you.”
“You might be better at this if you would allow for a reasonable debate.”
I saw the creature narrow its eyes. Everything that happened next, happened very fast.
My brother’s body flew towards Levy and the woman. At first I thought the creature was throwing him at them, but then it yanked him back and . . . It sounded like when you break a piece of celery. Just one awful crunching sound. Alex’s torso bent in the way that a human back does not bend. The creature tossed him aside. I’ll never forget the way his body fell. It was like throwing a doll onto the floor. I’d never seen a person fall like that.
You don't just see something like that and process it. Seeing a human being die is unnatural. And seeing one get murdered is a thousand times worse. It's not like anything normal. You see it, and your brain just says "nope, that's not how things are supposed to happen", and you kind of . . . you don't accept it. You can’t accept it. Not at first. Then later, it all comes crashing down upon you and you can't get out of bed and you can't get to sleep and you're just trying to figure out how to go back to the way things were. But you can't. Because they're dead. My brother was dead.
I’d be lying if I told you that I found a way to deal with it, even after all these years. I just found ways to stop thinking about it so much.
"No!" The woman screamed. I saw my dad come barreling past me, running straight at the creature. When he got close, it backhanded him across the room. He flew into the air and landed somewhere behind me. I turned back to look, but he was somewhere over one of the bedroom setups, and I couldn’t see. It was probably better that way.
My entire world fell apart within about thirty seconds. My family was dead. The creature that had just killed them was nine feet tall and untouchable. There was no way I could help. There was nothing I could do. I ran.
There were huge thundering bangs and crashes behind me. I kept running out the front, into the bright, blinding white light of the morning.
A barricade of black sedans stopped me. I skidded and then fell onto the hot asphalt. They were all around in a semicircle around the front entrance. At first I thought cops, but these weren’t squad cars. Just sedans. Just gleaming, jet-black sedans.
Men in black suits were out beside their cars, all staring at me, guns drawn.
Two of them ran up and grabbed my arms while I was stunned.
Someone walked up from the center between two of the cars, hopping over a trunk. He was a tall, gangly, black man, clean-shaven and bald. He wore a dark turtleneck. My overwhelming impression of this man was a kind of severe leanness and minimalism.
He sauntered up to me and crouched down, thrusting a hand behind my head to clutch my head and stare into my eyes intensely. His nostrils flared. Then he let me go. He got up and walked away, waving a hand at the men in black suits.
“Let him go.” He said.
They let me go, and I ran. I ran with the lightning of adrenaline in my veins, straight over the top of one of the sedans, straight out of the parking lot, on the side of the highway, towards town. There were crashes, screams, gunshots behind me, but I never looked back.
At some point the details became muddled. It didn’t matter what had happened; it mattered that it was unspeakably horrific. Later that day, I only remembered vague images, and later, when my thoughts turned to the Hilbert Hotel, I would only encounter a thick dread. My mind instinctively turned away from the trauma.
I spent some time in the system. I didn't have ID on me, didn't have records or anything. I guess we were really under the radar at the store, and out there in the real world, I was unknown. So I spent some time hopping around foster homes. They never diagnosed me with anything. Nobody cared enough for that. Pretty sure I had PTSD or whatever. But it's not like it matters now.
I used to just want to “live in peace.” I thought that I could, that I could just somehow find satisfaction. But it doesn’t work that way. Not after you’ve been through what I’ve been through.
They took my satisfaction from me. They robbed it from me. I thought I could find satisfaction by going back to my childhood home, the place I only had dim memories of, and all of them bad. So I went there, I stood in the wreckage of the store on a grey snowy day and I cried my eyes out.
I didn’t find satisfaction. I found more horror than I could have imagined.
They destroyed everything I cared about and left me alive.
So I have one thing left now, and I know it may not be logical and I know it may not be right, but I don’t even care anymore. I want to get revenge.
I’m going to find the people responsible for the death of my family, and I’m going to avenge them. And I want it to be public. I want the world to know what’s hiding under their noses. I want to expose proof of the hidden world. I want to blast their cover wide open.
I’ll probably get killed.
So be it.
See you in hell.