Threshold Anxiety

Contributor: James Tressel

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She stands on the sidewalk and cranes her neck to see the third floor window where light flashes and stutters across begrimed glass. Shadows pulse to a dull beat there, but the people throwing them seem stilled.

She walks toward the front door through a colonnade of inky cypress. Tree to tree, a low shuddering darkness passes, and the trees shrink to shrubs. When she reaches the front door, she finds it much too small for her body. She retreats and begins to circle the building. Her eyes flicker over the graffiti gouged into its sandstone: names and accusations, the names of lovers crowding into each other.

Rounding a corner of the building, she catches an artist in the act: a little girl, braids like lengths of old rope, jaw wired shut. The girl drops her nail file to the pavement and runs. Our heroine examines what the girl had been writing. It’s another language – Letters like smashed bugs. She picks up the metal nail file. The warmth of the girl’s hand transfers to hers and, along with it, a sort of high-pitched vibration that filters through her hand like a flux of meal worms.

On her second approach to the door, our heroine finds herself crowded out: Footsteps coming closer, warm bodies approaching, low laughter, whispers. Many footsteps – warm bodies parting around her an unceasing flow of bodies parting around her as they amass on the front steps. They push her backward until she has to step down one two three steps she is no longer near the door. A pale hand reaches up and presses the buzzer.

A metallic hello comes from the speaker near the pressed button. A whispered response from the button-pusher. She faces a wall of hair – the backs of heads rise above woolen collars, long coats – those assembled on the front steps. Long lapse before the buzz. Long lapse before the click. Long lapse for her to face every one of those head backs. Noses and mouths grow from the hair. Eye caverns regard her. The smell of curling irons and alcohol and lavender. The door clicks. They pull it open and begin to flow through it. She presses towards it, but they press back crowding her out as more and more arrive, an endless stream with no place for her in it. As this progresses, the thump – thump – thump-y music billows out and buffets her ears.

She retreats again, finds a bar a few blocks away. It’s empty. Light from flaming sconces wavers on vaulted ceilings. The light is warm, but the air is cold. She draws into her coat, tries to gather nerve. No bartender to be seen at the bar, so she waits patiently, blowing on her hands. Strange place: no windows, oblong, hexagonal tables made of mahogany set in recesses around the room. All is quiet, or is it? A dim rustle of voices, whispers maybe. While she waits, she takes out the nail file and begins to gouge shapes into the pristine surface of the bar, shapes like smashed bugs. Presently, she hears footsteps approaching.

The little vandal with the wired-shut jaw appears. She’s carrying a pewter tray full of goblets of opaque, verdigris-colored liquid. She steps into one of the recesses and fumbles with the edge of the table. The top hinges up. The rattle of bones and the rip of cloth. She places a goblet into skeletal grasping fingers. Our heroine shivers and notices, for the first time, a phonograph set on the surface of the bar. Its needle bumbles about the slick space between the last track and the label at the center, a label emblazoned with a chitinous alphabet.

She runs back to the building and looks up at the window. Same oddly pulsating light, same motionless figures. Darkness smokes her approach, but she swims through it, finds the door, bores in on the button.

“Hello?” Snaps of thumping through the static. She says her name, but the door is already buzzing, breaking open. She is IN! The warmth of the hallway. Tasteful dim lighting. Heart-patterned wallpaper (crimson on gold). She walks up staircase to the second floor landing, and sees her shadow pulse as the thumping grows louder. She grips the nail file until her knuckles glow white. She is walking up the stairway to the third floor, toward the thump – thump – thump, cutting the space before her, laying a groove.

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James Tressel is the author of FURNACE (Turtleneck Press, 2011). He lives in Philadelphia and is an aficionado of weird fiction.
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