A cold driving rain fell as Adam Thompson’s Uber pulled up to the front of a gothic brick hotel on the outskirts of Nashville. Located well outside of the downtown area, the ten-story building was the only break in the sky for miles around. It seemed out of place here, perhaps a relic held over from an older downtown area that was razed and allowed to return to nature, the hotel the only holdover of a bygone era.
A metal awning over the driveway curved from the front of the Somnium Hotel, a juxtaposed recent addition to the otherwise retro luxury appearance. The car bounced as pavement switched to cobblestones as they pulled to a stop out front.
“This is you,” the driver said.
The wipers flicked back and forth on the windshield in time with the song on the radio. Adam recognized it as the Spanish version of Hotel California. Not Adam’s choice, but when asked his music preference for the thirty-minute ride to his hotel he simply shrugged. It didn’t matter. It was just the first day of the conference, but Adam knew he was blowing it. After a day of going to seminars surrounded by authors, agents, and booksellers, the people he came here to network with, he was never able to work up the courage to say hello or introduce himself to anyone. And here he was in an Uber headed to his hotel after an awkward hour by himself at the conference kickoff party with his blazer pocket still full of business cards. He never handed out a single one.
He pulled one from his pocket. Emblazoned on the front in a shiny impact font was his name: Adam Thompson – Novelist. He even paid an extra ten bucks for a hundred additional cards, all packed tightly away in his suitcase in the trunk of the car.
He let out a heavy sigh as his mind chewed over his underwhelming day like a cold piece of saltwater taffy. “Paid to attend all of the top-level meet and greets. Yet you can’t work up the nerve to even introduce yourself to one person. Not one. Total waste of time and money. You’re not a writer. You’re a thirty-eight-year-old shipping clerk at a trucking company. You know it, they know it. Why you thought you belonged at an event like this is-”
Adam looked down at his wrist to the rubber band, his coping mechanism to pull himself out of a negative spiral and back to the present. A red welt radiated heat under the rubber band on the inside of his wrist. Handwritten in blue ink on the inside of the band was the phrase STFU Anton.
“Sir? This is you,” the driver repeated.
“Oh, thanks,” Adam said, stopping himself short of apologizing. He massaged his thumb over his wrist and slid his sleeve back into place.
A brisk wind blew rain in Adam’s face as he opened the car door. The cobblestones were slick underneath his brown leather Oxfords, his “grown-up shoes” as his wife called them. She bought them for him before the trip. “You can’t go there in your ratty New Balance tennis shoes,” she said. “You’ll embarrass yourself, but more importantly, you’ll embarrass me.” She said it with a laugh and followed it with a kiss, all in good fun. But tonight, he might as well have been wearing clown shoes for as out of place as he felt.
He considered giving the band a flick but decided against it. That wasn’t a negative thought; he did feel out of place.
“Pity about the rain,” the driver said as he popped the trunk and sat Adam’s bag on the cobblestone drive under the awning. “Weather is usually warmer than this.”
“Must’ve brought it with me,” Adam replied, adding a fake laugh kicker.
“You can small talk about the weather with the Uber driver but you can’t pick your head up long enough at a cocktail party full of industry professionals to introduce yourself-”
No more, stop it.
Adam winced after that one. The driver noticed, giving Adam an ‘it’s whatever, dude’ shrug, eager to get back downtown where the fares were triple at this time on a Friday night.
“Later, bro,” the driver said, then rolled up the window and pulled away from the entrance. He cranked up the radio and sang along as Hotel California hit the chorus. Adam could still hear singing as he stepped through the manual revolving door entrance of the hotel.
Adam wasn’t even planning on attending the conference, but after looking over the attendees and discussing it with his wife, she convinced him that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
He registered so late that all of the downtown hotels were fully booked, and the only place he could afford was here at the Somnium Hotel, which oddly had zero ratings or reviews considering its age. But before he could investigate further, a notification popped up that only one reservation remained in his price range so he had to book now. So he did, and here he was.
The lobby was dimly lit by an enormous crystal chandelier that hung in the middle of the entryway. The tiny bulbs flickered like candlelight, but it seemed less intentional than just old bulbs on their last gasp of filament. Floor to ceiling ebony wainscoting on the walls added to the dark foreboding feeling as Adam stepped inside. The lobby felt both massive and claustrophobic at the same time. His grown-up shoes clacked against the black and white checkered tile as he carried his bags to the check-in desk.
A blackout curtain along the inside of the glass partition separated the hotel offices from the hotel lobby. A printed sign hung in between the curtain and the glass, “Back in 8 minutes.” A handwritten sign on the desk said to “ring bell for service.”
A thin wire ran across the counter from the base of the glass window to a small red button. Adam pressed it. Inside the office, a bell rattled like a throat-clearing cough that doesn’t quite get the job done.
“Hello?” a voice answers from the small speaker in the middle of the glass partition, startling Adam.
“Yes, hello, um reservation for Adam Thompson,” Adam replied.
“One moment.” A shrill squeak of feedback echoed from the speaker before clicking off.
On the wall next to the check-in counter in the back of the lobby was a massive silk tapestry of a castle with the same exterior design as the hotel, with a raised drawbridge in place of the metal awning. Rows of archers lined the lower level walls, lobbing flame tipped arrows at an advancing army of knights. Each figure was depicted with amazing detail down to the facial features and expressions, especially the ones impaled on the spiked rows of chevaux de frise at the base of the castle walls. It was here that Adam noticed, upon closer inspection, horned imps and demons cracked whips at the backs of the archers defending the castle. The attacking army, however, was entirely human.
On the wall below the tapestry was a plaque: Final Siege of Castellum Somnium
“First time staying with us?” the voice crackled from the speaker.
Adam turned away from the tapestry and nodded. “Yep, first time here. First time in Nashville too, I’m in town for the-”
“Who’s Anton?” the voice interjected.
Adam did a doubletake at the speaker. “I’m sorry?”
“On your wrist,” the speaker voice said. “Who is Anton?”
Adam looked down at the band, then to the dark curtain inside the glass partition. No light passed through it, as if all of the lights in the office were off as well. He looked around the lobby for a camera, certain they were watching him but unsure how.
He laughed nervously as he slid his sleeve back over his wrist.
“Anton, right. It’s a technique my therapist gave me to help me deal with my anxiety issues. If you give your inner critic a name, you can see it for what it is and prevent it from derailing you. Anxiety, negative thoughts, overthinking, ‘n so forth.”
“And so forth?”
“‘N so forth,” Adam corrected. “ A-N-T-O-N, Anton.”
The speaker crackled with white noise of the line left open. It continued for an extended, awkward moment before the voice spoke again.
“Did it take a long time to come up with that?”
Adam scratched at a spot on his neck, tugging uncomfortably at his collar which all of the sudden felt too tight and itchy.
“Like… three hours or so,” he answered. He gave the band a small snap.
A drawer opened from a slot along the front of the counter, like a gas station pay window. Inside was a key attached to a brass oval fob. The number 420 was engraved in a circle below a relief drawing of the hotel outline.
“You’re in room 420, Mr. Thompson,” the speaker squeaked. “Shall we ring the bellhop for you?”
“That’s okay, I just got the one bag so I’m good,” Adam said as he picked up the key from the slot in the drawer. He jumped back as the drawer slammed shut with a loud metal CaTHUNK!
“The elevator and stairs are at the end of the hall to your left,” the voice crackled. “Do enjoy your stay, Mr. Thompson.”
“Thank you,” Adam trailed off, realizing he was speaking to no one.
The elevator and stairs are at the end of the hall to your left. Why mention both, Adam wondered. Was it a subtle implication that with his admitted anxiety issues he might be afraid of elevators?
A metallic screech vibrated down the elevator shaft as Adam pressed the call button. He made a sideways glance to the door with the pictogram of the stairs on it as the elevator rattled to a stop, the doors opening as the elevator floor dropped the last few inches into place. The car was smaller than expected too, maybe held three or four people tops. Didn’t feel much bigger than a coffin.
His heartbeat quickened as his mind ran through what-if scenarios. What if the elevator gets stuck, what if the power goes out, what if it gets stuck between floors, what if-
His finger slid under the rubber band, but he didn’t snap it.
“Get on,” he told himself under his breath.
It was a bumpy ride up to the 4th floor, but otherwise uneventful. There was that moment as the elevator pulled to a stop where the doors didn’t open as quick as Adam had hoped that almost spurred a panic response but the doors thankfully opened and he stepped out into the hall.
Like the lobby, the hall was lined with ebony paneling with flickering candle wall sconces on the spaces between each door. The hall felt more claustrophobic than the elevator as if the walls were lined with soundproofing foam, dampening any noise from traveling far even though lights under the doorways showed the movement of the other guests.
The laminated placard with the room number was missing from the door of room 420. In its place, a small unpainted circle on the wooden door with rings to show all the different colors the door had been painted over the years. Around the edge of the circle, pry marks of keys and knives showed the handiwork of the thieves who repeatedly stole the door marker for its slang connotation. One could only guess that the hotel grew tired of replacing it, so the number 420 was scratched into the wood with a ballpoint pen.
Mint green low pile carpet greeted him as he stepped inside. Two pyramid wall sconces lit up the strawberry red walls of the queen bed suite. A small dresser, a desk with a high wooden back chair, and a nightstand were the only furniture besides the bed, which was under a slightly less garish floral comforter. It looked like the sixties threw up in here, and they tried to scrub it out with some of the seventies.
Adam sat at the end of the bed and removed his shoes. His feet ached after a long day, arriving on an early flight this morning and heading straight to the conference. On the bright side, the conference went on for three more days, so he had more opportunities to reverse his fortune.
A painting of four galleon style ships tossed in heavy seas hung on the wall across from the bed. Like the tapestry in the lobby below, the detail was far greater than Adam expected from hotel art. The foam on the crests of the waves and the pulsing veins in the forearms of the helmsman as he braced the ship’s wheel to keep the vessel on course, the detail and depth of the painting could nearly be mistaken for a photograph if not for the texture of brush strokes.
He hung his dress shirts and pants in the small wardrobe closet and dumped his toiletries in the bathroom. Then, he turned on the water for a hot shower to rinse the day’s failure away. Let tomorrow be a fresh clean start.
His phone vibrated on the bed as he exited the bathroom in a towel. His wife’s smiling photo lit up his phone screen.
“Hey babe,” he said and then smiled for the first time since before his flight that morning. “Just got to the hotel.”
“How was the conference today?” she asked. He could hear the excitement in her voice and prepared his own to match. “Did you meet anybody famous? Did you talk about your book?”
“No, no one famous, although I went to a panel with a guy who optioned his book to Sony last year,” Adam answered. “I’m going to another one tomorrow afternoon with Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son.”
“Look at you rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite!” she giggled. If only she knew that he hadn’t talked to any of those people. Hadn’t talked to anyone at all, really.
“They’re mostly all writers like me, just trying to get their book out in front of people,” he corrected.
His eyes were drawn back to the painting on the wall, new details seem to pop every time he looked at it. Sailors on one of the galleons hoisted harpoons and hurled them towards a swirling maelstrom at the center of the painting.
“Oh hush, let me brag about my husband! I know how difficult it was for you to go on this trip, and I’m proud of you for putting yourself out there,” she said.
Adam stifled a sigh.
“Let her have this. Let her believe she didn’t marry a total failure. Let her believe you didn’t just waste all of your savings on a trip where you didn’t open your mouth once to-”
“Adam? Did I lose you?”
“I’m here,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s been a long day and I’m beat with the time difference and the kickoff party tonight. I think I’m gonna get some sleep.”
He laid back on the bed in his towel, resting his head against the pillow.
“Good idea, get some rest so you can get an agent for your book tomorrow, okay?”
“An agent, right.”
SNAP! Shut the fuck up, Anton.
“Sure thing, sweetie. I’ll keep you posted if anything develops. Love you.”
“Love you, babe!”
Adam hung up and rolled onto his side, closing his eyes as he took a deep meditative breath, letting himself relax and sink into the bed.
“You can’t change what happened today,” he told himself. “All you can do is make tomorrow better.”
The voice in his head chuckled. “Fuck you too, buddy.”
He opened his eyes, staring into the side of the nightstand next to the bed. The black veneer along the side had been peeled away, revealing the particle board underneath. There appeared to be something written on the side. Adam reached over and turned on the lamp on the nightstand. As he moved in for a closer inspection he saw five words written on the wood:
There are only three ships
It was lightly written, perhaps in pencil, although it could’ve been ink that had faded over time. Adam ran his thumb over the words as he read them.
“Weird,” he said, then turned towards the painting on the wall across from his bed. In the painting, the sailors held fast against the raging sea that swelled around the ships.
Three ships. Not four, as Adam originally counted.
“That’s not,” he began, bolting up from his bed for another look. “No. There were four.”
He stood in front of the painting, his head tilted as he studied it again. He hovered his finger over the ships, counting out loud.
“One. Two. Three.”
He chewed his lip as he searched the upper left part of the canvas where swore was a smaller black galleon with orange sails. He was sure of it because the color of the sails caught his attention. But there was nothing there, only the swirling black water of the sea.
Maybe it was a testament to the detail in the painting, drawing the viewer in to see more than was actually there. Looking at it again, it looked incomplete without a fourth ship in that area of the canvas. The image was off balance. Or perhaps it was one of those optical illusions where the picture changes when you view it from a different angle?
Adam moved slowly from one side of the painting to the other, looking for a shift in the image depicted there. Nothing. Three ships circling a swirling maelstrom at the center of the painting with black tentacles just below the surface tension of the water-
Wait- was that there before? He looked closer, and yes, there were tentacles under the water, green and black with a pattern of white puckered suction cups and sharp hooks for dragging sailors down into the dark waters. A chill ran up his spine, standing the hair of his neck on end.
“You’re tired, it’s been a long day,” Adam said, then looked down. “And you’re naked.”
He turned away from the painting (after a quick turn back, as if he would catch the fourth ship there by surprise, but nothing) and headed to the bathroom to finish getting ready for bed.
He put on his boxers, brushed his teeth and washed his face, finishing with a splash of cold water as he stared at his reflection in the mirror. HIs eyes were weary with defeat.
“You earned this,” he told himself. “You want this. Tomorrow you’re going to be confident, charismatic, and wow the socks off those people.”
“Do these pep talks actually work? Listen to yourself, you sound ridiculous.”
“Stop,” he said, gripping the bathroom counter until his arms shook. “Just, stop, please.”
Adam looked down at his wrist but before he could flick the band, his eyes were drawn to a flap of the wallpaper that had curled back from the corner of the wall, revealing the letter ‘T’ underneath. He let go of the band and pulled at the loose strip of paper.
The handwriting was similar, if not identical, to the writing on the side of the nightstand. He kept pulling, revealing an entire sentence underneath. The chill on the back of his neck and moved to his ears as he read it:
There must never be more than three ships
Adam looked up to the bathroom mirror, seeing the reflection of the painting on the wall of his hotel room. The fourth ship had returned.
He stared unblinking into the mirror, eyes locked on the image. Four ships. Four goddamn ships. The sails weren’t orange as he had originally thought. They were on fire.
“The fuck is going on?”
Adam ran back into the bedroom to the painting where he expected the fourth ship would be gone, replaced again by the dark swirling water. But it was still there, looming larger than before. A tentacle from the leviathan under the maelstrom lofted an unlucky sailor high above the waves, the hooks digging deep into his flesh as his face twisted in agony.
There are only three ships
There must never be more than three ships
“How is this happening? Is someone fucking with me?”
He picked up the phone on the nightstand to call the front desk. In the cradle of the handset, he found another message written on the plastic.
They can’t help you
In the painting, the fourth ship with flaming sails was on a ramming course with a ship wrapped in the tentacles of the leviathan. A fork-tailed demon stood at the helm, a crooked bicorn hat comically wedged between its horns. The deck swarmed with imps and hellhounds as it bore down on the doomed vessel.
He buried the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I can’t be seeing this. It’s not there. It’s not there. This is not real!”
His heart nearly left his chest when the phone rang on the nightstand. It rattled with the same sickly rasp of the bell in the hotel lobby.
Adam backed away from the painting, not wanting to look away lest it change on him again. He fumbled behind him on the nightstand, retrieving the receiver.
He swallowed to clear his throat before speaking. “Hello?”
“Mr. Thompson, we just wanted to check that everything was to your liking in the room?”
He glanced at the message on the phone’s cradle.
They can’t help you
“Mr. Thompson?” the front desk clerk repeated. “Did we lose you?”
“No, I’m here,” Adam answered.
“Do you require anything additional to make your stay more comfortable? Perhaps another pillow, or additional towels?”
He returned his gaze to the painting to find it had returned to its original form. There were three ships again.
There must never be more than three ships
“I, um, is there anything special I need to know about this room?” Adam asked, his eyes once again looking at the warning on the phone receiver.
A voice popped up in his head, no longer a whisper in the corner of his brain. “I read the message too, dipshit,” it said. “They can’t help you.”
Adam snapped the rubber band on his wrist.
Maybe they can’t help me, but if they can educate me about the room perhaps-
“I’m sorry, Mr. Thompson, we don’t quite follow. Is there a problem with your room? We realize the number 420 is popular with vandals, but the maid service-”
“The only problem is he can’t fucking count ships,” the voice in his head replied. It was much louder in his mind, drowning out the front desk caller. “There it is, plain as day. One, two, three, ships. THREE SHIPS! THREE SHIPS! THREE!”
Adam snapped the rubber band over and over.
“The room’s fine. I’m fine. Thank you.” He hung up the phone.
His stomach rolled and gurgled, all the sudden overcome with the urge to throw up. The room was unsettling. The red walls seemed darker now, less strawberry, more blood. His forehead dripped with sweat as his heart pounded in his chest.
“I’m stressed. I’m anxious about the trip. And I’m imagining things. I just need to get some sleep.
“Hey dipshit,” the voice said, but it was his voice. “How many ships do you see?”
“Shut up!” Adam yelled.
“Oh, so you do hear me,” the voice, Anton, said. “You gonna slap your wrist with a rubber band again? Fucking do it, I dare you. Do it and see what happens.”
Adam slid his thumb under the band.
“Do it! I want you to.”
He pulled back the elastic, further than before.
He released the band. SNAP!
Adam let out a yelp from the sting. In his mind, Anton laughed.
“That doesn’t hurt me, idiot. It just hurts you.”
“It shuts you up,” Adam said. “Reminds me not to listen to you.”
“You better start listening to me, because it’s coming. Look.”
Adam turned to the painting, the fourth ship was back. The bow slammed into the side of one of the other galleons as the hellhounds and imps swarmed the deck, ripping chunks of flesh from the terrified sailors. Blood poured over the bow into the water, giving it a red tinge. At the top of the painting a fifth ship appeared, a man-o-war, all of its sails blazing with fire. Its long guns fired cannonballs into the broadside of second of the other galleons. The leviathan had fully surfaced, wrapping it’s tentacles around the third ship, crushing the wooden planks of the hull in its mighty grip as a row of circular teeth bit a sailor in half.
“You’ll find out.”
Adam sat on the side of the bed, closing his eyes and taking a deep calming breath, focusing on his breathing. Inhale. Exhale. This isn’t real. Inhale. Exhale. This isn’t real. Inhale. Exhale.
“Look at the painting.”
Breathe in. Breathe out. This isn’t real. Relax. Calm.
“You need to look at the painting. Look!”
Adam opened his eyes after one last slow exhale, feeling centered and calm. When he turned his head towards the wall, the tentacles of the leviathan were no longer contained by the painting. They reached out of the picture, curling over the edge as the hooks dug into the grain of the wooden frame. He could still see the brushstrokes on the now three-dimensional tentacles. The churning water surged against the edge of the frame, splashing out onto the dresser.
Adam screamed and ran for the door, giving the painting a wide berth. He grasped the knob on the door and tried turning it. Nothing. He yanked it hard but it wouldn’t budge. He pounded his fist against the door, screaming for help.
“Help me! Anyone, please help!”
Behind him, a wave of water crashed through the painting, dousing the carpet. The smell of sea spray and salt filled the room.
“No one is coming to help. Go to the mirror.”
Adam rattled the doorknob, putting his foot on the wall and pulling with all of his might. Nothing. He pounded the door, shouting for help. “Please God help me! I’m trapped in here!”
A low chittering sound emitted from the wall behind him as more tentacles prodded the opening.
Adam gave up on the doorknob and ran into the bathroom, throwing the door shut behind him. He leaned back against the door, catching his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Looking back at him, his reflection was himself, but also not himself. There was a coldness in the eyes, a sneer on his lips. Anton.
“We need to work together,” the voice that both was and wasn’t Adam’s said.
“What’s happening here?” Adam asked his reflection.
“Well for one, you made a huge mistake booking us here.”
“It was last minute, there weren’t any other rooms I could affor-”
Anton reached through the mirror and smacked Adam across the face. “Fucking Christ in a Corndog, if I hear you whine one more time I will bash your skull against this mirror until it’s wet and floppy.”
Adam nodded, massaging his face. “Sorry.”
“This place has a history to it,” Anton said. “Strange things happen here. Dark things. Evil things. This place has more suicides and people spontaneously dying of natural causes than any other building in the world. That tapestry downstairs? That wasn’t a depiction of the hotel. That was the hotel. It exists across time. It has always existed as a portal between our world and a darker dimension.”
Adam couldn’t believe the words he heard coming out of his mouth from his own voice. “This is crazy, this doesn’t happen,” he replied. “Things like this don’t happen outside of movies or books.”
“It’s happening,” Anton said. “If you don’t believe me, check the painting again.”
Adam unlocked the bathroom door and stole a quick glance at the painting. An armada of fire-sailed warships flooded in from the top of the painting. The three original ships were reduced to debris as the leviathan shoved bodies of dead sailors into its maw.
“The messages are a warning: There are only three ships/There must never be more than three ships. If you can see them, then you are giving them power to exist. You give them power to cross over. They know you can see them, Adam, and they are coming for you.”
A loud THUD landed against the wall of Adam’s hotel wall behind the painting as if someone had thrown a bowling ball against it. Another loud THUD followed by the clang of something heavy dropping from the dresser onto the carpet.
He opened the door, watching through the mirror. Not a bowling ball. A cannonball.
Anton watched along with Adam through the mirror.
“They’re breaking through.” Anton said. “Let me help you.”
“How?” Adam asked.
“Do I need to spell it out for you?” Anton looked Adam in the eyes. “You’re weak. Your mind is weak. Fuck, man, you can’t shut me up and I’m your inner demon. How do you think you’re going to fare against an actual legion of devil-horned fire breathing motherfuckers?”
Adam opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. Anton continued.
“So you can wait for them to breakthrough and see if that stupid rubber band has any effect on them, or you can give me control.”
“Give you control?”
“Yes. So I can protect you, protect us. Which has always been my only purpose.”
“You don’t protect me,” Adam said. “You attack me, tell me everything I do wrong.”
“So you can be better, so we can be better! That’s why I’m here!”
A loud crash from the bedroom jolted Adam from his staredown with Anton. He looked out and saw a harpoon sticking into the wall over his bed. A rope tied to the end led down into the painting to the Man-o-war. A rubbery tentacle of the leviathan curled over the edge of the dresser inching its way down the front towards the bathroom door.
Adam slammed the bathroom door, locking it and hunkering down on the bathroom floor as fear overtook him. Tears poured down his face as he sobbed, crying, pleading for it to stop.
“Why is this happening to me? I didn’t ask for any of this!”
Outside the door, the dresser splintered and cracked as something far too heavy for the wood to support stepped on top. The chittering grew louder, as did the low whispers and growls of the hellhounds.
“Adam, there isn’t time,” Anton said. “They are only here because you’re too weak to stop them. They know this. I know this. And you know this. Don’t you?”
Adam nodded his head between sobs.
“Say you’re weak.”
Adam wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I’m weak.”
“I can protect you. I can protect both of us,” Anton stroked the side of Adam’s face. “That’s all I ever wanted. Just give me control, and this will all go away.”
Adam sniffed loudly and wiped tears from his eyes. “What do I need to do?”
“Close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice,” Anton whispered. “Think of it as a guided meditation exercise, you like those. I want you to visualize yourself in a car.”
Adam did as instructed, thinking of himself in a car. His mind went to his first car, a 1993 Ford Taurus. Anton continued.
“You’re in the driver’s seat. The car is running. Now visualize yourself turning off the ignition key.”
In his mind, Adam reached out and grasped the key, turning it to the left. His mind’s car shut off, sputtering much like his Ford Taurus used to.
“Now look to your right, in the passenger seat. I’m sitting there. I want you to hand me the keys and say, ‘it’s your turn to drive.’”
Adam pictured himself doing as instructed, handing the keys to Anton beside him. Anton gripped his fingers over the keys as Adam said, “It’s your turn to drive,” repeating it with each exhale.
“Keep breathing like that, and repeating those words. Focus on your breath.”
Adam focused on his breath, feeling the cool rush of air as it entered and exited his nostrils. He repeated the phrase like a mantra with each exhale as he felt a wave of euphoria wash over him, almost like he was floating, neutrally buoyant in a vast empty space. The crash of the bed being ripped from the floor outside disappeared in a chorus of white noise. The cold sensation of the bathroom tile under his legs was gone.
When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the bathroom.
Adam was in a white room, but it wasn’t really a room. It was a void of infinite whiteness all around him, stretching for eternity in every direction. Directly in front of him was what looked like a small window. Through the window, he saw his hotel room bathroom, just as he had left it before closing his eyes.
He was looking through his eyes, but they weren’t his eyes anymore. The image through the window shifted as it got up off the floor and looked in the mirror. Anton smiled back, smirking.
“How’s the view from the backseat?” Anton said.
Adam tried to scream, but nothing came out.
“I didn’t know how to speak when I first showed up in there either,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I’m giving you any tips.”
Anton opened the bathroom door. Instead of the scene of carnage Adam expected, he saw his hotel room, undisturbed. No shattered dresser, no mattress shredded by the claws of demons and hellhounds. No harpoon.
And in the painting? Three ships.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to plant suggestion in our brain, make you see things that weren’t there,” Anton said as he walked to the painting, running his fingers over it. “I told you I’d only see three ships.”
Inside his brain, Adam wordlessly screamed and pounded his fists against the window. Memories flooded back, memories that had been blocked from his part of the mind. When he closed his eyes on the bed after his phone call with his wife, he saw himself getting up and writing messages on the side of the nightstand, on the phone cradle, even peeling off the wallpaper to write the message there.
He had done all of it. Not Adam, but Anton.
“Only took about five minutes. Longest I’ve held control when you weren’t fully asleep. It took a lot of focus to hide that from your side of our brain. Luckily what I said about this hotel is true. It’s a fucked up place. It’s a special type of fucked up that I can feed on, grow stronger. That’s probably why it was so easy to trick you into booking here.”
Another memory flashed back of the travel website. Adam saw himself scrolling through rows of vacant hotels downtown, all well within his price range. He kept scrolling until his cursor landed on the Somnium Hotel. No pop-up warning announcing only one room remaining. Anton had orchestrated it all.
“So as much as I’d like to, I can’t take all the credit,” Anton said. He opened the wardrobe and pulled out a fresh shirt and slacks.
Adam slammed his fists over and over on the window, screaming but unable to make a sound. His fists against the window didn’t even register. He was surrounded by infinite nothingness. He heard infinite nothingness. What part of his consciousness he still controlled spiraled into madness, unable to grasp the unbounded reality he found himself in.
Anton finished getting dressed and sat down on the bed to put on his shoes.
“You call these grown-up shoes? Jesus man, you’re fucking pathetic,” Anton said. He stood up and slid into his blazer, giving his reflection finger guns before exiting the room.
He checked the time on his phone, it wasn’t even eleven yet. The opening night kickoff party that Adam bailed on lasted until 2 am, but Anton was pretty certain he could charm his way into an after-party event. He tapped for an Uber as he walked down the hall, passing the elevator.
“Oh, you were right about that deathtrap, Adam. Fuck that elevator. Fuck it straight in the ass. No way am I riding in that thing again.”
Locked away inside his own mind, Adam curled into a ball, screaming over and over, but making no sound.
Anton exited the stairwell, giving the front desk window a nod as he pushed through the revolving door, going around a second time just for fun.
His phone dinged, announcing that his driver Luciana was five minutes away. Anton clicked on her photo, making it bigger on his phone. She was an attractive young Hispanic girl, maybe early twenties. She looked like a tiny thing but she probably had an ass like Shakira that she could shake faster than the paint mixing machine at Lowes.
“I bet with a little sweet talking I could-”
It was just one word, but it rang out loud and clear. From his corner of their shared mind, Adam steeled his gaze at Anton’s reflection on the glass of his phone.
“You’re a quick learner,” Anton said, smiling as he turned his collar up to the rain. “Don’t worry, the only thing I’m sticking our dick in tonight is this party.”
The car pulled up under the awning and Anton held out his phone as he waved at the driver. She smiled, brushing her long brown hair from her eyes. Damn, she was cute. The Shakira caliber ass, however, was still in question.
“Hola senorita!” Anton said as he hopped in.
He pulled the door closed and they sped off towards the city.
Locked away inside his own mind, Adam watched the Somnium Hotel disappearing behind them in the fog and rain. He screamed, but no one heard him. Not even himself.