The bus doors hissed open. Eddie hopped off and looked around. She’d never been to this part of the city though she had lived here for two years already and had seen most parts of it. Here, the street was cobblestone and so was the sidewalk. Rows of stones stretched into the distance: mundane gray for the street and cream, coffee, and cookie-brown for the sidewalk. Eddie smiled. She was hungry and she needed a coffee. It had been a long day.
She set off to the right, past a pastry shop she pointedly ignored, a hairdresser’s, an empty café, and a host of other small shops she soon stopped noticing, focused on what lay ahead, more than five hundred yards away. It looked like a square with a reddish building that looked important, looming over the low urban growth around. Eddie walked faster. She’d never liked to just stroll, leisurely, slowly, not caring where she went. Eddie always cared where she went. She always went somewhere.
Someone bumped into her, hitting her shoulder with enough force to cause pain.
“I’m sorry,” the person muttered just as Eddie said “What the hell?” and rubbed her shoulder. A man. Heavyset. Already walking away at speed. Eddie stopped and glared after him for a while. Everyone was in a rush, everywhere, including Eddie. That’s why she had set aside Thursday afternoons for walks in the city. Discovery tours, that’s what she called them. It was a big city with a lot of places and things waiting for her to discover them and the near constant rain could not hold her back. The rain actually helped her focus on her discovery walks. But the air was dry now, unusually so. Eddie still walked with a purpose. This was no stroll in any way. But she did take pleasure in the walk, too, pleasure in the opportunity to satisfy her body’s urge to move after sitting behind a desk all day, as she satisfied her curiosity about the city.
The red building was slowly becoming bigger and coming into focus. The street rolled ahead in a perfectly straight line. Normally, this would bore Eddie but this time the building at the end of the street tickled her curiosity and the street was taking her to the scratching point. What made the walk even nicer than the treasure waiting to be discovered at the end of it was the fact the street was almost empty. Eddie only passed a couple of people hurriedly walking in the opposite direction and after a few minutes she was walking alone. This struck her as a little weird, so she stopped and looked around. No one. Buildings lined the street and they looked like residential ones but nobody came in or out. The shops were empty. And there was not a single living soul to be seen anywhere.
Eddie shivered. She turned around once again, hearing the clack of her shoes on the cobbles clearly as shots. For a second the landscape felt like a dream: one of those dreams where the mind’s camera suddenly cuts from an action scene to a still, inviting observation and hopefully contemplation. Eddie found it hard to unstick her feet from the ground for a second but willpower prevailed. So, everyone was home or still at work. It happened. And she really had to see what that red building in the square was. She moved almost at a run now, determined to reach her target with or without signs of life around.
As the building came nearer its actual size revealed itself. It was massive. It did look a lot larger than the surrounding architecture from the bus stop, which was about half a mile from it, but from two hundred yards its tall and stout outline—no longer just an outline in fact—towered over everything. Eddie continued forward, slowing down a little, taking in the approaching view. Her breathing slowed.
The building was made of red bricks, the same ordinary red bricks that most older buildings in the city seemed to be made of. Eddie didn’t mind red-brick houses but she didn’t have any passion for them, either. She herself had opted for a studio in a newer building with plastered façade. But this building was different. It sucked Eddie’s attention in. It pulled her towards its red bricks, its white-framed windows, three rows of them beginning about 20 feet from the ground, and its double door made from wooden planks, their color a dull dark amber, suggesting a very long life, genuine or fake, it didn’t matter.
The building was wider than it was tall, two wings stretching to the left and right of the double door, curving slightly outwards, like a pair of big, strong arms open for a hug a little hesitantly, as if uncertain the person at the receiving end wanted to be hugged. Eddie stopped when the feel of the cobbles under the thin worn soles of her loafers changed. She had entered the square.
The cobbles here were narrow rectangles, unlike the square stones on the sidewalk that had brought her here. And they were a pale yellow that half an hour earlier would probably have reminded Eddie of camembert but now she simply registered the color. She had forgotten her hunger. The cobbles were laid in a pattern that seemed weird and chaotic, as if someone had tried to make a flower out of the stones and had failed because of their shape, until Eddie’s eyes traveled further, to the building at the center of the square.
The cobbles were arranged in rays running to the center. They were not a flower. They were a sun with overlapping rays. Eddie stepped on them and walked towards the center of the sun. Halfway there she stopped again to look at the building. From this close it looked at least a hundred feet tall, which puzzled Eddie: she had never seen a red-brick building the size of a ten-floor condo, anywhere. Church towers and spires did not count. This building was not a church, it looked more like a school but with a domed roof that had a decidedly non-school-like appearance and it struck the eye as unnatural, as if its design went against the rules. The building actually looked a little offensive. Yet it stood proud and oblivious to the effect it had on the beholder.
Eddie swallowed and took a few more steps forward. The dome of the roof disappeared from view. The door rose in front of her, two wings, planks the size of Eddie’s thigh, thick iron bars holding them together. The door had an unquestionably mediaeval appearance. The building was more of a 19th century Victorian but the door, unlike the roof, did not look out of place smack in the middle of red-bricked abundance.
Eddie found it harder and harder to walk. She was now inhaling and exhaling no more than a dozen times per minute but she had not noticed yet. She did not feel tired or scared, or anything else too unpleasant but she did feel bewildered. She was in front of the building and she could reach out and touch the bricks, which was exactly what she did. Stepping aside from the doors, Eddie raised her left hand and placed it on a plain red brick. A second later she was flat on her back and her brain was ringing alarm bells across her body. The building had pulsed when Eddie’s hand touched it, like a heart, and the force of this one pulse was so great it had knocked Eddie back.
She sat up first, slowly, then moved to prop her body on her knees and finally straightened up. The pain in her back was already nothing more than a vague memory. The building stood right in front of Eddie and Eddie was going in one way or another. She eyed the door, whose mediaeval style included a pair of mandatory round handles, and sidled along the wall to it. When she faced the handles, she was surprised to find they were low enough for her to easily take hold of them. They had looked higher up from the edge of the square. Eddie braced herself for another shock, pulled the sleeves of her thin sweater down so they covered her palms and reached out.
The iron handle was cold but not as cold as Eddie expected despite the inadequacy of the insulation the sleeves provided. It was also completely immobile. Ignoring the relief that the handle had not zapped her like the wall, Eddie grabbed it more tightly and pulled. It was as effective as trying to pull the building from its place. The handle hung from its base seemingly loose enough to lift and pull but it was not loose. It was fastened to the base so tightly Eddie gave up after the third try. She took a step forward and inspected both handles. Both were immovable and this was infuriating. Eddie suppressed an impulse to kick the door and turned her back on it to avoid looking at the handles. And then it hit her. She swung around, stepped forward again, took hold of the right handle and pushed. The door swung silently on its hinges, opening into darkness.
“Yes!” Eddie whispered to herself and peered into the darkness. It was thick and warm, and also undisturbed by the daylight that should have compromised it with the opening of the door. Eddie ignored this fact and slipped in, leaving the door open. She did not hear how it swung back on its hinges to rejoin its twin. It was pitch black inside but this did not discourage or scare Eddie. For some reason she felt perfectly comfortable with the darkness and certain her navigational skills were still working. She strode forward. Her heart now beat occasionally, once a minute or two, but Eddie had still not noticed.
“Hey!” a coarse voice called from the darkness. Eddie stopped in her tracks. This she had not expected. She looked around more out of habit than any real hope to see anyone.
“Hello?” she called back. “Who’s there?”
“I ask the questions. What the hell are you doing here?” the voice snapped and before Eddie had a chance to respond with “I don’t really know” the voice’s owner made an appearance. He emerged from the darkness like a fish emerging from the depths of the sea and breaking through the surface. The man was tall, black, handsome, and he was glaring at her.
“Um” Eddie said.
“Let me repeat the question, shall I?” the man said and took a step closer to her. Eddie stepped back. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I like to walk around the city and this time I came to this neighborhood, and I saw this building and, well, I like interesting buildings, so…”
The man had raised his slim, long-fingered hand. Eddie squinted at it and then quickly looked down. The force of his glare was too disturbing. What was even more disturbing was how he was completely visible in the dark, in his black suit and black shirt, no less, despite the lack of any sources of light.
“You saw this building?”
“Yes,” Eddie said.
“You saw this building,” the man repeated, more to himself. Then he laughed. “Unbelievable.”
“Um. Why?” Eddie felt a rush of boldness. If he could laugh, things could not be that bad. “It’s quite big.”
“Because it’s not for humans to see, that’s why,” the man said, resuming his snappy tone. “It’s not for you to see and it is most certainly not for you to enter. So.” He paced to the left and then to the right, after which he stopped in front of Eddie. “What should I do with you?”
“Let me go?” Eddie said, a little embarrassed by the pathetic hope dominating her voice.
The man shook his head. The regret that swam up on his face and made camp there looked genuine. So did the determination to follow whatever rules had put him in charge of the building.
“I can’t do that. It’s against protocol and it’s also against my better judgment. If you came here, then you were supposed to come here, I figure. So, the only thing I can do—besides ending you here and now, and I just ate so I’m full—is let you inside. Then it’s up to you.” He spread his arms to emphasize the words.
“Where is inside?” Eddie asked, ignoring the eating remark. She glanced around as if the darkness would suddenly lift and reveal the contents of the building.
“Enthusia,” the man said.
The man sighed. He rubbed his forehead with a thumb and an index finger.
“Enthusia. My world. Demonland.”
“Humans,” the man said with a sigh and a shake of the head. “You saw this building though you shouldn’t be able to, you even opened the door and now you’re shocked it’s not a museum or whatever. And you’re probably wondering if I’m joking. I’m not and I have more bad news for you.”
“What?” Eddie said in a small voice. She did not think the man was joking. She thought he was deadly serious and she would never see her apartment and her cat again.
“You can’t go back,” the man said, confirming her suspicion. “I think you’re technically dead already. If you try to go back it won’t be just technical. Sorry.”
“So I’m going to Hell,” Eddie said. She tried to keep the tremble out of her voice. Her head was buzzing. She had only gone for a walk in a part of the city she had not visited before and now she was going to another world entirely. Her head felt too small to wrap around this.
“Not Hell,” the man said. A smile crept up his face and lit his eyes. “Enthusia.”
“But you said demons.” The buzz intensified.
“So? Do I look evil to you? Am I torturing you?”
Eddie was tempted to respond with “Yes, you do” and “You said you could eat me,” but thought better of it. He did not, in fact, look evil. He looked like an investment banker or something corporate like that. She could argue that investment bankers invariably looked evil because of their job but she knew that would not be fair. Eventually she settled for “No.”
“Right!” the man said, pointing a finger at her. “See? Enthusia is cool. I’m not sure exactly what you’ll do there but I suppose if you could come in here, you’ll be all right there as well. I’ll have to report you, though.”
“To?” Eddie had begun to relax. The shock was giving way to curiosity. She even had a fleeting thought that all this will turn out to be a dream but it did not stick. It was not a dream.
“Management,” he said, pointing a finger upwards.
“Right. So this place is a, what, a portal?”
“Yeah, the dread portal,” the man snorted. “It’s a station. My folk need safe passage into your world to do their job and then go back.”
The man sighed again.
“Look, I don’t mind chatting, it’s quiet today, but I think you’ll have to go soon. You’re turning green around the edges and that’s not a good sign. You’re still between worlds and I don’t want a death on my hands. So let’s make it quick, all right?”
Eddie could only nod. Her stomach had cartwheeled at the man’s words but now her whole body was going numb.
“Great. You know when people have a brilliant idea or discover something or invent another thing or write a genius book?”
“Yes,” Eddie said.
“That’s our job. We help ideas find their home. We inspire. We soothe. That’s what we do.”
“So demons are actually good?”
“Well.” The man looked away for a moment. Eddie no longer had trouble looking at him and now saw he was embarrassed. “Not invariably, no. We don’t necessarily inspire just good people or good deeds in bad people but we’re not all bad as your religions portray us. We’re mostly like you, good and bad. I really think you need to move on.” There was urgency in his voice now, urgency and concern.
Eddie looked at her hands. They were sickly pale but this could be because of the lack of light. Yet the man’s voice suggested this was not the case. She had noticed she was not breathing a few minutes ago but she wasn’t suffocating either. She realized she was calm when she should be panting with terror.
“Okay. How do I do that?”
“Right through here,” the man said and gestured to her left. “I’ll see you off. That’s my job. Not with humans but, well, whatever.”
Eddie started walking. The man followed and quickly caught up with her.
“So I’m dead?” she asked. She wanted to make sure.
“I’m afraid so. But there has to be a reason you could see the station and come inside. Perhaps you’ll find what it is on the other side. I think you must be some sort of a hybrid, have demon blood in you. Hybrids can come through.”
“Demon blood.” Eddie’s voice was hollow and lifeless. The man took her by the elbow and walked faster pulling her with him.
“Yep” he said.
A couple of minutes later he stopped. The darkness still enveloped them but he reached out and a click followed, like the click of a door opening. A thin sliver of light slashed through the darkness.
“Go on in,” the man said. “And hurry up.”
“Yes,” Eddie said. She could feel something was not right: she did not feel anything, all fear, curiosity, fascination and confusion gone. “What’s your name?”
“Martin” the man said. “Maybe I’ll see you again.”
“Yeah,” Eddie said. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Martin said and opened the door wider.
Eddie stepped into the light without looking back. Martin waited a while by the closed door and then took out a cell phone from the inside pocket of his jacked and hit a speed dial button.
“Hey, it’s me. The station started sucking again. A hybrid came in. Yes. I sent her on but we need to do something about it. This is not right. Yes, I know it’s been a year but that’s too soon if you ask me. What if it starts sucking on a daily basis? Do you realize how many hybrids there are out here? What the hell are we going to do with them all at home? We’ll be overwhelmed.” He listened. “Uh-huh. I hear you but I strongly recommend dealing with this before it becomes an emergency. Yeah, okay, let me know as soon as you decide. Sure. Yes. Bye.” Martin ended the call and started walking back through the darkness.