Those towering office buildings leaned over the streets below, blocking out the sunshine, blue sky and burgeoning cumulonimbus clouds. Lights burned in the upper floors, giving the appearance of supernatural eyes glowing, glowering down on the fragile pedestrians scampering to and fro along the littered sidewalks. One such pedestrian, Leon, gathered his overcoat’s collar in his liver-spotted fist, and eyed the gargantuan buildings surrounding him with deep-seated mistrust. Watching, the mirrored glass eyes were always watching him, his every movement in this crowded, concrete-smothered city. To temporarily escape surveillance, he limped up a set of broad steps and ducked inside the smoked-glass confines of a revolving door.
That door twirled and spat Leon out into the lobby of a mega-bank’s headquarters. In another life, this impressive interior space would have been a grand cathedral: Polished marble floors; gilded and satiny hardwood trim; reverential silence blanketing the preternaturally cold air; massive, expensive original artworks on the walls. Workers, men and women, dressed in the monkish uniform of dark suits, stylish but practical footwear, and conservative hair styles. Leon stood out in his baggy gray pants, stained red t-shirt, worn-out moccasin house-shoes, and his too-large, wrinkled khaki overcoat.
He squinted up at the sparkling modern chandeliers hanging high above the lobby. What type of person comes here to pray? Leon asked himself. No, not pray—prey! He shook his head sagely, satisfied that he, and he alone, had discovered a great, unspoken truth about the state of contemporary business, as evidenced in this modern interior design.
“ ’Scuse me, sir,” a deep voice said softly behind him. “Can I help you? Are you lost?”
Leon turned on his heel and said louder than was necessary, “Not all who wander are lost!”
The security guard was familiar with this bumper-sticker slogan; as a teenager, he’d seen it on a rusted-out hippy van abandoned on his parent’s quaint residential street in Austin. “Yes, sir, but is there a business or a person or a service you are looking for—?” The security guard, Orlando his name-tag read, motioned to a black granite obelisk in the middle of the lobby. It hosted a glowing flat screen monitor: The building’s directory.
Leon snorted with contempt. “What I am looking for is the very heart of this ogreish edifice! What I am looking for is any trace of soul in this obviously soulless building!” Leon straightened his back and raised his grizzled chin defiantly. “And what I find is just what I expected—nothing!” Before Orlando could reply, Leon scuttled back to the revolving door, and stumbled out onto the darkening street.
* * *
Five o’clock and the mammoth buildings heaved and vomited forth their inhabitants. Like a battered sun-cracked boulder, Leon stood still in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing the human stream to part and flow around him. He raised his arthritic fist and shook it at the buildings huddling over him. “I know what you’re up to! You’ll never take me alive!”
A thirty-something, be-suited woman rolled her thickly-mascaraed eyes as she walked past Leon; her companion stage-whispered to her, “Old man yells at clouds! Read all about it!” Together they giggled at the reference as much as at the ranting slouch in their way. Leon fumed; how could these people not see—not feel—the overt hostility of these enormous buildings? Look at them, he wanted to scream. Look at the cold carved arches above the doorways of the older buildings—those mouths of eldritch, amoral gods. Look at the machine-driven doors of the newer structures, silently sliding open to devour the souls of innocent workers—mechanized Molochs! Did these towering, oppressive structures not make one think of the Colosseum in ancient Rome? The blindly Brutalist-style buildings infesting college campuses? The blocky, death-trap Grenfell Tower in London? The Zeppelin Stadium in Nuremberg? He frantically clutched the lapels of his coat in distress.
He feared it was too late for all these busy, distracted people moving around and away from him. Leon was sure the pillars of these monstrous buildings, with their hideously cunning architectural curves and harsh unforgiving angles, had already been driven deep into the muddy souls of each and every person he saw; he was sure of it. Everybody was tethered to these gargantuan steel and concrete slave-masters; everybody but him. At the thought, he closed his eyes in agony and moaned.
When he opened them again, he was alone on the sidewalk. The streetlights hummed and flicked on. Leon hated that hum; though just barely audible, it was insistent, and annoyingly out of tune. What little slice of bruise-colored sky he could see overhead told him it was just past sunset.
Leon walked quickly to the nearest bus stop; surely there was another bus due, a bus to take him out of this evil urban core and out into the safety of—where? He didn’t care, as long as it was away from here. He shoved his hands in his pants pockets feeling for change. No coins, but there was a rather large hole in one pocket. Perhaps his money had fallen out, and been gobbled up like crumbs by one of the hungry buildings around him. He searched the pockets of his over-coat. Again, nothing.
Movement across the street caught his eye. Was that narrow shadow-land between the buildings undulating? Leon backed away from the curb, and stumbled into an alternative-newspaper stand, knocking it over. The wire stand crashed to the ground with an unnerving clang, and the free newspapers scattered. Leon turned and squinted at the dark space between the buildings behind him. He’d always assumed buildings such as these stood shoulder to shoulder, like wicked giants plotting against their tiny helpless victims; he hadn’t realized there was a shadowy no-man’s land between them. Leon had no desire to explore that silent, Stygian terrain.
He arched his shoulders—thinking this small act would imbue him with courage—and decided he would walk home, though he wasn’t sure which direction he should take. The claustrophobic landscape created by these tremendous buildings muddled his brain; he was disoriented. Which way was west? Or east? The sun had long set, so he had no way of telling. Were the streets in this part of downtown laid out in a cold, efficient grid, on a north-south axis? Or were they a hodge-podge? Added on higglty-pigglty as the city grew? In the throes of his ponderings, he didn’t notice the cool, foggy—what? Hands? Tentacles? Gently running themselves up and down his arms, stroking his sweat-grimed neck. The action was soothing, and his aching back relaxed. His entire being relaxed for the first time in years, in decades. He sighed with gratitude. Peace and complacency seeped like cool, sweet water through cracks of granite, through the channels of his limbs into his core. Was this what being massaged by a cloud felt like? Was this—no!
Leon’s rheumy eyes popped open. The buildings! These abominable buildings were sending out writhing shady creepers, doing their best to possess him, to entangle and consume him. He struggled to move, to break free of the shadow-tentacles swaddling him, but he couldn’t; he was too old, too tired. His resolve was being consumed by the buildings with each thought that sprang up in his mind, like frogs being gigged in a sweltering swamp. Leon was quickly ensconced in a musty embrace, and gently reeled in to the dead space between the buildings.
* * *
The storm broke around midnight, washing all the accumulated dirt and dust off the glass and granite facades of the downtown office buildings. In the early morning light, the mirrored windows glistened with enthusiasm. Workers poured in, commenting to one another how wonderful every building looked, inside and out—how clean and well-tended. Many buildings now sported entrances with colorful flowers blooming in large glazed pots or sculpted hedges sprouting tiny bright green spears of new growth. Even the sidewalks appeared fresh. Overhead, the sky between the buildings was a crisply laundered baby-blue sheet, gently rippling in the breeze, if any one cared to notice.
Hillary Lyon is founder and senior editor for Subsynchronous Press. Her stories have appeared in 365tomorrows, Eternal Haunted Summer, Sirens Call, Night to Dawn,and Theme of Absence, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Fright Mare, Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big Easy, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She’s also an illustrator for horror & pulp fiction magazines. Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.