It’s one of those places you only encounter in dreams. The street is coated in a thick layer of fog, that’s the first thing you notice when you step off the trolley. I personally tend to notice the streetlights which flicker on and off, the darkened windows on the second and third stories, and the trolley tracks which meander their way off into invisibility like sinews in one of those old anatomical drawings. The moment you step off the streetcar’s lower platform, it lurches forward and moves away, and you can’t catch it again. It, like everything else outside maybe a ten foot radius, is lost in that all-consuming mist.
The first thing you realize as you stand there, completely alone, not a thing on your person or a sound in the world, is that you are not safe here. This street was not designed for safety, yours or anyone else’s. At all moments you are looking behind yourself, checking behind corners, preoccupied with a gathering sense of dread which permeates the long row of endless edifices.
The store is a few dozen yards in, though you’re likely to pass it if you’re not paying attention. A humble establishment, with a glass door and wood paneling. Of course the door suffers from holes and the wood from rot- inevitable, really, given the perpetually soaked climate. It is warped and distorted in all directions, contorted so as to give the viewer an impression of being a phantom of a place- the lonely and ultimately meaningless reflection of something which once operated at full capacity. Now it only resides in the mass subconscious, the highway of night.
The windows are as dusty as the door, though it is a kind of moist dust, its layers worn down and its signature visited by the fingers and appendages of travelers besides yourself. In one corner, a spectacular discount is advertised in bold print. Needless to say, the discount has long since expired.
You look in and see very little- there is one aperture leading out to some kind of back alley. A row of chairs, their purpose unknown, an unlit and spacious room with no aisles. If this once functioned as a center of commerce, the only commerce in the present goes on between the rats and the wood-lice who barter and trade in its crumbling beams. Electricity is scant on the street, absent in the shop, and adding to the visual confusion is the fine layer of pancaked grit. Still, there is a rectangle of light in the rear, and things strewn around the floor. You lean in further and squint.
These are the memories of the people who visited the store when it was open. A discarded magazine with the cover torn off, a pacifier, a pack of nicotine gum, stepped on by countless shoes. On your left you can just make out the checkout counter, which still stands. It is topped by an enormous register, the analog kind with the purely mechanical operations. Besides these, the store is quiet, and the infinite dawn behind you is quieter still.
And so you stand in this transitional area, this nondescript period of the turning of the clock in the chasm between ideas, and you are struck by how TANGIBLE it all seems, how physically present you are. Normally in sleep you are an incorporeal form, an enlightened skeptic. Tonight your adventure has brought you to a place so textured and distinctive that you doubt your mind’s ability to create all this from nothing. You can smell the age of the place in your nostrils, run your nose against the glass and rub off some water vapor, you can listen to the all-consuming quietude and never once doubt its authenticity.
Your reverie is broken by the emergence of a dark form from the rear entrance. At first it passes your field of vision quietly, and you excuse it as a trick of the mind, but in seconds it reappears and looks anxiously around the edge. Its mass makes the facility even less discernible. Light plays peculiar games here. Your heart skips a beat, but you are unable to run or to move- you’re transfixed by the form, which walks slowly into the building and twitches unnaturally back and forth.
It is comfortable inside the store, you reckon, although its motor functions are those of something temporally separated from yourself. It meanders aimlessly among the rubble, pausing every so often to bend down and inspect a given artifact. It does this grim work silently, the thick glass panels and their technicolor paint shielding you from any of the creature’s utterances.
You press your face closer, and the form comes into clarity- it is a tall figure, androgynous, cloaked in a deep air of confusion, though with arms and limbs that can be discerned if focused on for long enough. Its vague status is in part due to how it shifts- having one characteristic for only a short period of time. It is fluid and continuous, constant and old. It has been in many places similar to this one and comes around regularly. It is, unlike yourself, familiar with its habitat.
After a few moments of this, it finds itself up against the window and you remain steadfast where you are, unable to look away. It tries to show you its face, its true form, but the windows are dusty and the fog is increasing and the street behind you is getting ever more nocturnal. It is only an idea, a fundamental building block to build off. It continues to shift and writhe.
From the mass comes a limb, an old and withered mass of flesh with what could be termed fingers on the end. These press themselves up against the window individually, with intent and direction. The form seems to smile, although you can’t be sure of anything. It is at least a sentient entity, with a consciousness and a brain, and a motive. That’s what bothers you, that it has a plan. That it can make decisions and solve problems, which makes no sense given its current state.
It holds its arm up against the dust and presses firmly, and your shoe slips on the sidewalk but you regain a foothold, all the while held by the presence of this being. You must stand here and you must contemplate everything, use your senses to the best of your ability, because this moment will never repeat itself. Experience of this brief state is mandatory. All other sensations are incidental.
It comes ever closer now, and your vision unfogs and you slowly place your hand up to the glass where your fingerprints leave marks in the thick trenches of soot. It does the same, holds up its ever-shifting lens to meet yours in a mock pantomime, and with its uncertain eyes it looks back at you. They are narrow and beady, yet altogether sentient and conscious. From beneath the folds of its all-consuming cloak you can make out its respiratory function.
It disappears. One second it is there, its fingers next to yours, and then in one fraction of a snap the store remains as it was- untouched and unseen. And your breathing quickens, but the fog continues to settle in condensed droplets on your face and hair and you blink once, then twice, trying to clear out the mist- both the mist on your skin and in your brain.
You look over to the main entrance of the store and pull the handle. It comes unlocked easy, the lock is coated in rust and the door makes way for you on hinges that sound like nails on a chalkboard. You enter this entombed wasteland and see it sharper now- everything as you knew it, yet more defined and less abstract. The floor is strewn scattershot, the register is a behemoth and the shelves are dilapidated and at angles with each other. And the drywall is slowly dissolving into mush.
Your pulse slows and you exhale once, ever so slowly, tiptoeing through the shards of broken dishes and lint. It is then that you notice the door has closed behind you. You go over to reopen it and it fails to give way. You push it, prod it, tap it and cajole it, but to no avail. It remains as steadfast as a vault, and the hinges that moments prior appeared weak and frail are now deadbolted in. The rear entrance which led out into the alley is gone. Only a blank wall back there- and outside, the street becomes enshrouded in a thick and impenetrable layer of blue twilight.
The last thing you see before you open your mouth wide and scream is the trolley, coming from the darkness and snaking its way like a serpentine beast along the same tracks you came in on- and you see that form, that accursed form, sitting on the same side you sat on, and before it rounds the corner it seems to smile back at you.
You spend the rest of eternity in the store, trying to wake up.
You never wake up.