Brian Hartford looked up at the building. It was definitely the right one. It was eerily quiet, like there was a bubble around the building that even sound couldn’t enter. He looked up. There were plenty of birds, crows probably, sitting on telephone poles, but none within fifty feet of the place. One took off and flew to the other side of the building, flying out of its way to stay at least fifty feet away from the it. How had he never noticed this before? He had been around the building plenty of times, it wasn’t exactly remote. How had he missed that not a single animal would go near the place? He had known that no people would go into it, but this freaked him out so much he almost turned and left. Almost.
He had to go in there. He was at the end of his rope, and whatever waited for him in there scared him a hell of a lot less than what waited for him back at home. He started toward the building as the crows stared. He checked his watch, 11:57. He still had two minutes until he could enter. He had been told very specifically to enter at exactly 11:59 and he couldn’t screw up his last chance. He stood by the dilapidated front door and waited.
As soon as his watch clicked over to 11:59 he yanked open the door, pulling off its rusted hinges in his nervousness. He peered inside. It didn’t look too bad, just an abandoned front lobby of an abandoned building, it wasn’t even perfectly dark in there. What did that building used to be for anyway? He placed a hesitant foot over the threshold. This wasn’t going to work, it was obviously just a normal abandoned building. His foot hit the floor inside and…
Nothing. He sighed. What was he doing believing all these magical stories anyway? He was desperate, sure, but he still couldn’t believe his own stupidity. There was nothing special about this building. He stepped fully inside to take a good look at the place he was so afraid of. Like there was even such a thing as “The Wonder Man”. He looked around the room he was in. He saw nothing. It was suddenly much darker than it had been just seconds ago. He wheeled around to the door. It was gone. There was nothing but black, all around him, closing in on him. For a moment, he panicked and almost bolted to where he thought the door was. Then he heard a sound, indistinct and it didn’t seem to come from any direction in particular, and he knew the story was true. He hurried to walk forward. The sounds grew closer and he strained to keep his head forward. They had no power over him if he didn’t look. He felt their breath at his back, tempting him to turn around. He couldn’t, he told himself. If he turned, he was doomed, but still…
He walked the unseen path for hours. He could feel himself turning corners, though he never knew where they were before he took them. With every corner, the things drew nearer. As he began to grow tired, he could see them in the corner of his eye and he knew the story had lied. He continued walking. What else could he do?
His feet were dragging, and the things had him very nearly surrounded. This was where he would certainly die. He couldn’t fight them, even if he hadn’t exhausted himself. As it stood, he could barely put one foot in front of the other. He could practically feel their misshapen claws driving into his back, ripping his flesh and severing his spine. There was a slight thud as he ran face first into a door. He could feel the things sliding away. He looked up, and there stood the door, just like the story said. It was an ancient thing, older than anything else in the building. The splintering wood and the iron arch made it look like he’d been transported to a medieval castle. He almost expected to open it and find a wizard on the other side working on some spell. He reached for the knob. He stopped, and instead put his flat against the wood. It was warm. There was a steady pulse to the warmth, almost like a heartbeat. He tried to look through the pale blue window that seemed to be lit from the other side, but when he did, somehow, he only saw darkness.
He stood there, feeling the door grow warmer with each pulse. He could see them, on the edges of the darkness, waiting for him to come back so they could take him. He wasn’t going to let them, even as the door continued to grow hotter. He could hear the faint sizzle of his hand being seared by the door, but he would not let go. He couldn’t, because no matter what waited for him on the other side of that door, it couldn’t be worse than what waited for him on this side. There was a soft click and suddenly the door was open, his hand held in the air where it once was. He stepped through and into a garden lit by an unseen moon.
There was a path leading through the garden. He closed the door, making sure it clicked solidly in place and stepped onto the path. He was surrounded by flowers the color of the sky. Bathed in moonlight, they almost seemed to glow. It was dark enough the stems looked black, but the petals were as radiant blue as on the clearest day, more so with the darkness all around them. He reached down to pick one, but recoiled in horror as he felt his fingers disintegrate before they could touch it. He held his hand up to his face, no fingers were missing. He resolved to leave the flowers alone and just walk the path. As he walked the moon shifted and the flowers shimmered, enticing him. He found himself veering to one side of the path or the other, getting closer to the deadly flowers without realizing it. He corrected himself and continued moving. After some time, he saw another door, and nearer, just up ahead was a crimson dot. As he approached it, he saw a narrow stone path branching off from his current one. The blue flowers were much closer on this path than his previous one, he’d have to be careful. He walked the path to the crimson flower and he could feel his legs being severed with every step. There was no blood and his feet were still there, so he pushed forward through the excruciating pain. He picked the single rose at the end of the path and smelled it. It had the smell of decay, of animal carcasses left in the sun and of an unidentifiable sludge at the bottom of a sewer. He almost spilled his dinner onto the path, but held on, and held on to the flower. He walked back to the larger path and this time there was no pain. When he reached the door, there was a small table on which a small vase sat, waiting for him. He placed the rose in the vase and pressed on the crumbling, wooden door. It was solid and swung in soundlessly as if on well-oiled hinges.
He stepped through into the lavish study. It was a round room with massive shelves lining the walls, filled with old, leather-bound books. There were two large, brown overstuffed leather chairs and a dark wood table with intricate carvings in between. All three sat on a woven tapestry rug that was quite clearly hand made. It was a beautiful room… once. Everything was coated in a thick film of dust, the rug was rotting at the edges, the table was gouged, and one of the chairs had its stuffing spilling out the seams.
One chair; however, looked new. From that chair rose a man, impossibly tall, almost nine feet, and so thin, it was a wonder he could stay upright, The Wonder Man. He locked his unsettling eyes on Brian, one all white, one all black, and asked him to sit. His voice was deep and smooth, with just a little gravel underneath, like he was someone who had smoked for years and it was just now catching up with him. Brian took his seat without a word, too in awe of the pale giant to speak.
The Wonder Man walked over to the door and gently pushed it closed. He took off the bowler hat he had been wearing and hung it on a hook by the door, revealing the tufts of matted black hair underneath. He walked back to his chair and sat without another word. Brian sat there and looked at the books, at the table, at the wine on the table with the two glasses beside it, looked anywhere but at The Wonder Man. He wanted to say something. He wanted to tell The Wonder Man his whole story and get his desire filled, but he knew better. He had to wait because The Wonder Man was a meticulous man. Whenever he did happen to glance at The Wonder Man, he was always in the same position, staring right at him. The white eye bored right through him, to his very soul, laid him bare before The Wonder Man who judged him with no remorse or compassion. Several times, he found himself in the depths of the black eye, looking into a void so deep, no man could escape.
After far too long, the silence was broken by The Wonder Man’s deep, caramel voice. “I apologize,” he said as his voice filled the room. “I have not introduced myself to you yet, Brian. I am The Wonder Man. Would you like a glass of wine?” He leaned over and picked up the bottle and a single glass.
Brian struggled to form words. “Uhh…” he began, but then trailed off. He had to get a hold of himself, bad things happen to people who can’t speak in front of The Wonder Man. “N-no, thank you,” he finally managed.
The Wonder Man shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said, pouring himself a very generous portion. He acted almost normal. If the hands that held the bottle and glass hadn’t been so skeletal, Brian might have forgotten where he was. The Wonder Man took a long draw from his glass, leaving it nearly empty when he sat it back down. “So, what are you here for?” he asked, leaning back and letting the overstuffed leather envelope him slightly. “Tell me your desire.”
Brian took a deep, steadying breath. “I need money,” he said.
The Wonder Man cocked a single eyebrow, coal black against the stark white of his face. “Oh?” he asked. He seemed disappointed. Was Brian not interesting enough for him? He leaned forward. “Tell me more.”
Brian looked into the abyss of The Wonder Man’s black eye, and in turn The Wonder Man bore through him with his white eye. After several uncomfortable seconds, Brian relented. He told The Wonder Man everything that brought him there. He told him about his gambling addiction, about how he thought he had it all under control until he took out a second mortgage on his house. He told him how his wife left him when he couldn’t pay that mortgage, taking their five-year-old daughter with her, and how he turned to less-than-legal means after. He even told him about the multiple criminal organizations he owed money to that were going to collect either the money or his head.
The Wonder Man listened patiently during the whole story, never making a sound. After he finished, he grinned. It was an awful grin, full of broken and rotting teeth. “So, you want me to clear your debt and bring your wife back?” he asked, his voice filling the room better than Brian could have ever managed.
Brian nodded. “Yes. I know if I can get out from under this, I can make it right. I just need a chance.” He bowed his head slightly, letting The Wonder Man know he was sincere.
“I can grant your desire,” boomed The Wonder Man, “but there will be a price.”
Brian jumped out of his chair. “Of course! You name it, I’ll do it!”
The Wonder Man held up his hand. “Sit,” he said. “You cannot agree to a price you haven’t heard yet.”
Brian sat back down. “Of course. Sorry,” he said, staring at his shoes.
The Wonder Man waited for Brian to look up. When he did he said, “every desire has a price. Your price is, your daughter.”
“My daughter?” Brian asked, confused.
The Wonder Man pinned him with his eyes. “Yes, you will have a new life with your wife and you may even have a new daughter, but your daughter now will be forever lost to you. Is this acceptable?”
Brian was taken aback. A new life without his daughter? He couldn’t do it. “No!” he shouted as he stood.
The Wonder Man didn’t even flinch. “Do you refuse the price?” he asked, the mellow tones as steady as a mountain.
“Hell yes I refuse!” Brian screamed. He shoved the table aside with a crash of shattering glasses. He leaned down and stared straight into the soul-searing white eye, too angry now to be uncomfortable. “You will never get my daughter!” he shouted, leaving little flecks of saliva in that disgusting white eye.
The Wonder Man pointed to the door opposite of where he came in. “Then you may leave,” he said, entirely unmoved by Brian’s performance.
“I will,” Brian said as he stomped over to the door. He flung it open and saw the same perfect darkness from before. All the anger he held moments before fled and was replaced with an all-consuming fear. He looked back. The Wonder Man was grinning again.
He felt something touch him from behind, and then an iron grip around his shoulders and ankles. There was a pull and just before he crossed the threshold, he heard The Wonder Man’s voice one last time, smooth and rough at the same time. “Everything has a price, Mr. Hartford,” and then nothing.