Story-A-Day May #2: Where People Once Were

Back again for Day 2 of the Story-A-Day May challenge!

Today’s prompt is to use a setting you’ve never written about before, real or imagined. In my story, a group of friends break into a location that’s not so unusual… at first glance.

(Note: this is a horror story, containing some violence and profanity.)

***

Where People Once Were

Eddie groaned from the sofa where he sprawled. “Can’t we just eat our brownies and chill out?”

“Just listen, you never let me talk.” All Nick ever did was talk while his friends struggled to get a word in edgewise. But he always made them brownies, with his homegrown ingredients, so they couldn’t get too worked up about it. “There are these things called ‘liminal spaces’.”

Face lit by his laptop, Gary raised an eyebrow. “Liminal from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning threshold. A transitional space, like a corridor or train station.”

“Yeah, except it’s cool, and you make it sound all nerdy.”

Eddie protested, maybe a little too defensively, “I’d rather learn something from him than have your bullshit rot my brain.”

“Thank you,” said Gary with a wry smile. Eddie looked away, hoping his red cheeks weren’t obvious in the dim glow of lava lamps.

“No, no, I know about this,” said Lora, lying on the floor with her legs on a chair. “It’s a whole aesthetic. Eerie, dreamlike — even nostalgic. A place you’re used to seeing people, except they’re gone. Like an empty shopping mall, or a deserted playground.”

Nick clapped. “Exactly! At least one of you has taste. But all those examples are totally cliche by now. I’ve got an even better idea. Afterhours, we sneak into…” He provided his own drumroll. “…a dentist’s office!”

“Whaaat?” Lora wheezed with laughter.

“That’s the stupidest-” Eddie began.

“I’m in,” said Gary.

“-Yeah, me too.”

“Are you guys serious?” asked Lora. “How are we even going to break in? I don’t want to get arrested because of you. Again.”

“It’s all worked out,” said Nick. “I know the security guard at the Greenhill Office Complex, and he doesn’t give a shit. All he wants is a few brownies, and he’ll let us in himself.”

It sounded simple enough. Eddie wondered how Nick would manage to screw everything up this time.

***

The security guard was even more disinterested than promised once he got his brownies. He tossed them a universal access card and went back to watching funny cat videos on his phone.

The four friends took an elevator, and it chimed open at the sixth floor. Moonlight spilled through the atrium’s glass exterior, casting long shadows over empty walkways. Their footsteps on the carpet sounded unusually loud. Nick led the search for the dentist’s office — only getting lost twice — and swiped them inside.

It took several minutes of tripping over furniture, and running into one another in the dark, before Gary found a switch. However, only a few fluorescent bulbs hummed to life, and those remained oddly dim and flickered.

“This can’t be right,” said Eddie, searching the walls of the waiting room. “There must be another switch.”

Gary frowned. “That would be a strange electrical design.”

“Forget it, this is better anyway,” said Nick. “More atmospheric. Stop fussing like an old man and soak it in, Eddie.”

Nora’s phone made a shutter noise as she took a picture. “Right on.”

Desperate not to seem uncool, or nervous, Eddie took a deep breath. He didn’t know about any “liminal” nonsense, but there was something slightly unsettling about the quiet waiting room. Potted plants, empty chairs, the vacant reception desk. Ancient issues of National Geographic in the magazine racks. The faint odor of carpet cleaner. It was all completely familiar to him, and yet wrong. Why did the absence of activity give it such a dramatically different energy?

Of course, Nick’s restless mouth hampered the same atmosphere he claimed to want. “Oh yeah, this is what I’m talking about. It’s so creepy, right?”

“It’s okay,” Eddie admitted.

“But it’s missing something…” Gary hopped behind the reception desk and investigated the shelves. A moment later, aggressively bland, smooth jazz softly piped from overhead speakers.

“Hell yes, elevator music!” Lora cheered, threw up the horns, and started headbanging.

Nick groaned. “The music works, but you’re killing my vibe.”

Meanwhile Eddie mused, “Is it still ‘elevator’ music, if you’re not in an elevator?”

“That’s an excellent question of semantics,” said Gary, tapping his chin.

Nick stomped his foot. “No it’s not, shut up, we’re not talking trivia or goofing off, tonight. This is a spiritual journey. We’re sensing, divining, intuiting.”

“Bo-ring,” said Lora, peeking through a door. “I’m over the waiting room already, let’s check out the dentist-y stuff.”

“Definitely,” said Eddie, just to stick it to Nick.

But as they walked back to the operating area, and saw the row of empty dental chairs beside a long window looking out upon the night, Eddie hated to admit it, but Nick’s babbling finally clicked with him. All those cold, still metal instruments. The unoccupied chairs, the lamps overhead dark. There was something both haunting and nostalgic about them. Even though they’d all visited dentists many times before, and sat in these chairs — a brownie habit risked cavities, after all — it felt strangely forbidden now.

Except this odd impression wasn’t entirely inexplicable, Eddie realized. “Hey, why are there still trays of instruments beside the chairs? Shouldn’t they have cleaned those up?”

The friends fell silent and stepped closer to one of the chairs. The tooth-scraper, forceps, tiny mirror, and other unpleasant-looking tools Eddie couldn’t name were all covered in a wet mixture of blood and saliva.

Lora covered her mouth. “Ew.”

“This is weird,” said Gary. “Let’s get out of here.”

“You read my mind,” said Eddie.

Gary smiled. “You make it kind of easy.”

“…All the time? Or just-”

A drill whirred beside Eddie’s ear. He yelled and jumped and tripped over the chair. By the time his heart had restarted, he had to extract himself from an awkward embrace with Gary.

Nick cackled evilly. “Oh man, you guys are too easy to scare.”

Lora crossed her arms. “Did you set all this up beforehand?”

“…Of course I did. That’s not real blood, it’s ketchup. Just relax. Get mellow.” He dangled a ziplock bag. “I brought extra brownies.”

The tense mood immediately lightened. “Oh, well, in that case,” said Lora.

Gary gave Eddie an amused look as he reached past for his brownie.

Even Eddie begrudgingly accepted, thinking Nick owed him after that unfunny prank.

By the time they were down to crumbs, Lora had wandered off to another door at the far end of the operating area. “Guys, over here!”

They gathered to look over her shoulder. It was another long room, with another whole row of dental chairs.

“How is this office so huge? You really know how to pick ‘em, Nick.”

They crept through the new room, which seemed darker than the last. Each of these chairs had a tray of instruments, too. But they were slightly more unconventional. A blood — or ketchup — stained circular saw. A dagger with a hooked tip. A bottle marked with skull and crossbones.

Eddie shook his head. “You went to a lot of trouble with these props, Nick.” No answer. “Nick?”

The flickering lights snapped off completely and someone — definitely not Eddie — let out a short scream. “Nick, this isn’t funny, turn them back on! We could get tetanus from all these medieval torture devices.”

A comically high-pitched voice squeaked, “It wasn’t me this time, must be a power outage. But I found the laughing gas.”

Eddie couldn’t manage to be angry, not with that chipmunk voice. The others giggled in the dark.

“Okay, whose tongue was that?” Nick squeaked. “It better have been Lora’s.”

“Keep dreaming,” said Lora from the opposite direction, as they all laughed.

“This isn’t funny. I’m being serious.”

The harder he insisted in that ridiculous voice, the more they laughed.

“Where are you guys? How come I can’t reach you?” His voice echoed all around.

It was probably just another prank, but Eddie felt a nervous pit in his stomach. He stretched out his arm and walked in what he thought was the right direction. But ran into a wall. “Nick? Hold up your phone, so I can find you.” He pulled out his own, but its light didn’t pierce far through the gloom.

Nick’s voice sounded farther away. “I lied about the blood. I didn’t set that up, I just didn’t want you guys to leave, and spoil my great idea.”

“Nick?!” Gary and Lora joined in the increasingly worried chorus, using their own phones as flashlights.

In the ominous light, the dental chairs seemed more like twisted thrones, stark and alone.

“He’s messing with us,” said Eddie without any confidence. “Let’s just get back to the entrance.”

“This way,” said Lora, leading them back through the door. Straight into an x-ray room. “What the hell?”

“That was definitely the door we entered through,” said Gary.

They immediately reversed course, now with Eddie in front, and entered another x-ray room. Old-fashioned x-ray slides hung on the walls, glowing in the light of their phones. He looked closer. Jaws were split apart by savage-looking metal devices. Teeth were pulverized or sharpened into points. One image seemed to depict the hilt of a knife crammed between broken teeth, its blade disappearing upward.

“This is so fucked up,” said Eddie.

The muffled whine of a drill reverberated through the walls, and someone — Nick? — started screaming. Gary grabbed Eddie’s hand, and he instinctively squeezed back.

It felt like barely a few seconds passed before they turned around and discovered they were alone. Gary’s voice cracked. “Lora?”

Together, they passed through the door again and faced another row of chairs. They unsteadily paced the room, their phones barely illuminating one seat at a time. Elevator music began to leak through from unseen speakers.

A faint voice mumbled, “…now, gold completes the ritual… he becomes one of us…”

The speakers crackled and mystical chanting began to the rhythm of soft jazz.

“…the girl hasn’t been flossing… just look at all this blood…”

Somewhere far away, a chainsaw roared to life.

Eddie’s hand grasped nothing but the air. Frantically, he spun his phone around, seeking Gary. But it was a lone lighthouse upon dark waters.

He began to run, through door after door. The rooms changed sometimes, and most of all the oppressive sense of isolation grew.

Faintly, he heard the whirring motor of reclining chairs, the hiss of nitrous, a dentist making smalltalk while a patient with a mouth full of metal struggled to reply.

Eddie shouted for his friends, and beat his fists against the walls. He paused to catch his breath, then ran some more, and never found an exit.

Once, exhausted, he curled up for a nap before resuming his mad rush. It seemed this could go on forever.

At last, defeated, he abandoned his desire to escape. Even his desire to find his friends.

He sat and waited. And found himself, for the first time, back in the waiting room. Immediately, he searched every corner, his shouts unanswered. He tried the door out of the office, into the atrium, and found himself in another waiting room. Again and again.

Eventually, when he had used up everything inside himself, he sat and waited.

***

Eddie blinked at the colorful lava lamps, soaked with sweat, lying on the sofa back at Nick’s house. He looked around in a daze, finding his friends just as disoriented, staring back at him.

Lora groaned from the floor, in the same spot she occupied earlier in the night. “Nick… what did you put in those brownies?”

“Nothing but the usual, I swear. C’mon, you guys dosed them, and you’re messing with me, right? That’s fucked up…. Though that was some nuclear-grade shit, you’ve gotta get more of it.”

Gary spoke even as he hammered his laptop’s keyboard, probably doing some emergency googling of their situation. “Even if we were drugged, why would we all see the same thing? …We did, right?”

“A dentist’s office?” said Eddie.

Lora gave a shaky thumbs up.

“Yeah, sure, I might remember a little of that.” As a nervous smile peeled back Nick’s lips, one of his teeth glinted gold.

The End

***

Thanks for reading, more stories to come every day this month!

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