In time, the dedicated Spelunker will grow to instinctively recognize unreal architecture, senses picking up the minutiae that others miss. Wind coming from impossible directions; shadows cast at awkward angles; a dearth of wildlife; a strange doppler effect to sound, as though distance between source and listener stretched like taffy. Details and nothing more, but the details separate lost wanderers from professionals and the details are where the devils lie.
“Is this the building?” asked Dalvey, who knew the answer before the question left his lips. The subject of conversation was a nondescript, beat-up apartment block like the ones to the left and right, the brightness of the afternoon sun reflecting off windows and rendering the interior occluded.
“Check your map, Andy,” said Benjamin, midday glare reflected on beads of sweat on his forehead, migrating down the furrows of middle age and merging into rivulets that got lost in two days of stubble. Dalvey didn’t have to, the building wouldn’t be there, not on Google, not on print, and perhaps only in the memories of half of the neighbourhood. This was part of the ritual of their meetings. After thirty years, greetings became meaningless signals, part of the syncing algorithm old friends partook of, fresh information parsed and filed and forgotten.
Over the years, the competing gravities of distance and social circles had tugged at their friendship. Dalvey’s multiple stints on production lines being one of many Andy’s hardened his surname around him like a carapace, till there was nothing left but a uniform and a name tag. Benjamin got out, reached escape velocity out of small town backwoods, powered by the rocket of his brain, made enough money before the first crash, enough to retire once, go back into consulting from his home and retire again just around the second crash, coasting the waves of finance like some kind of unsinkable dinghy bobbing to the surface every time.
If not for one common hobby, Dalvey and Benjamin would have drifted apart, perhaps only with Facebook birthday notifications and yearbooks to remind them of shared guilt. They looked up at the abandoned building, knowing that the main door would have the accoutrements of modern architecture; burglar alarms and camera systems, yellowing like teeth under the elements; double doors with streaky glass; gaping mailboxes belching forth fliers and advertisements. And yet, were the two men to have compared what they saw to the details, the discrepancies would have added up. The colour of the doors, for instance, dark blue to one and green to another. Or perhaps the number of floors to the apartment building, or which windows were open or a dozen little things. For these buildings never looked the same to any two people.
“Come on,” said Benjamin, hoisting his gear up onto his shoulder. “We haven’t got all day.”
Unreal buildings are often mislabelled as haunted houses and the like. Their elusive nature makes them difficult to study, for there is no guarantee that the building will be in the same place the next day. Speculation on their existence is confined to forums like ours. While the exterior presents discrepancies to casual observers, interiors are far worse, physics and time seem malleable, with impossible room designs and even time itself becoming untrustworthy.
“Where to?” asked Dalvey. The ground floor was mercifully deserted, the building superintendent’s office empty. The temperature inside was chill; papers blew along the floor, dust swirling in tight spirals. Benjamin gestured to the shut door, the paper streamers on the vents that lay still. No way for the wind to get in. Then he pointed up.
“To the top,” he said, making towards the elevator.
The maintenance certificate in the elevator was blank and yellowing, the buttons arranged in a grid of at least thirty, some of the plastic was cracked, spiderwebbed fractures reminding Dalvey of crushed beetles. What numbers could be seen were not in running order, and if there was a pattern to the randomness, he could not see it.
“How tall was the building?” asked Benjamin.
“I’d give it seven floors.”
“I counted five.” Benjamin cycled back the pictures on his phone. “There, five.” Although the truth was that both of them were probably correct. Benjamin took a picture of the call grid, a keepsake for his blog or a Reddit post. After some searching, Benjamin hit the button for thirty, the highest number on the board. The elevator began its ascent, the keening of cable on pulley echoing in the shaft above.
“Why the top, Ben?”
“Testing a theory of mine.”
Dalvey raised an eyebrow at Benjamin until the other man took the cue. “We need to get to the roof. I’m not even sure we’d be looking down on the same city we came in from. We’ve been at junctions, apartments, offices, even odd places in the woods but haven’t had this opportunity before. To find a whole building . . . ” Benjamin trailed off, his mind switching to a higher gear than his voice could follow.
There was a House too, don’t you remember? thought Dalvey, but he didn’t say it. This wasn’t the time to bring it up, not when they were in the biggest weird building they’d ever discovered. These places got dangerous, they got hungry. Hungry like the House. Dalvey shook his head, hard, as though the intrusive thoughts were a biting fly he could dislodge.
Dalvey was saved from his lack of response by the elevator grinding to a halt. The doors opened halfway and then jammed. It was no easy task for two men, kitted up for a weekend in the wilds, to squeeze through a gap barely a foot and a half wide, and only to find themselves back on the ground floor.
“We definitely went up,” said Dalvey. “You can’t fake the acceleration.”
“Sure you can, run a motor on top of the elevator, go up a floor, down a floor, and the rest is just sound and vibration.”
“You believe that?”
The look on Benjamin’s face was answer enough. They’d never been in real danger, maybe scraps from protruding nails, skinned knees, a couple of falls when gravity didn’t behave, Nothing more than a tetanus jab. Except for that time. The first time. They’d been lucky to get out at all.
“We could try again,” said Benjamin, calling the elevator. When the doors opened, smoothly this time, revealing an elevator cabin of a different hue than before, this time with a full length mirror at the rear wall, such that Dalvey thought that there were two other men in the building with them.
“You think they rigged that?” asked Dalvey.
Benjamin shrugged. “Stairs?” he asked.
“Stairs,” Dalvey replied.
The stairwell was squarish, leading up to level upon level of apartments down corridors left and right, built around a central airwell for natural light. Despite the time of the day, the skylight provided no illumination. Maybe clouds had rolled in. The elevator may not have worked but it was right about one thing. There did appear to be many more than five storeys in this building.
It was only when they were two floors up that Dalvey had the inspiration to peer down the airwell, instead of up, and found the staircases winding down as far as he could see, the bottom lost in darkness. “How many floors up would you put us?” Dalvey asked. Benjamin followed his gaze down and shrugged out of his backpack, pulling out a slim plastic tube which he bent and shook vigorously. It began to give off a luminous green glow. Dalvey wondered what else his friend had stashed in that bag of his. His own bag was mostly snacks, some changes of clothes for the trip here and a Kindle with cracked screen.
“We’re only two or three floors up. Let’s see how far down this goes,” said Benjamin, dropping the glowstick down the airwell. When it stopped falling, it was merely a pinprick of light in the depths, too far away to illuminate anything of value for the two to see. “Didn’t seem like there were ten storeys of basement in a building like this,” said Dalvey. The attempt at humour hung in the air between them, until they both jerked back when the point of light shuddered, shaking from side to side and then shot off out of sight.
“Slope, maybe,” said Benjamin, but he did not seem convinced.
Unreal buildings do not house any life of any kind. No people, certainly. No bats, no rats, no insects, not even plants. Certainly, some wildlife gets in, but by and large, animals avoid these places. It is interesting that almost every animal can sense the danger in an unreal building, other than humans. Sightings of people are frequent in unreal buildings. It should be quite clear that whatever these things are, they are not human.
“How many floors has it been,” asked Dalvey, sprawled on the ground and massaging his thighs. Benjamin consulted a dog-eared notebook. “Twelve,” he said, taking a drink of water. The pair’s best days of sporting achievements were behind them, and neither of them were particularly athletic to start with. Benjamin was gym trim; and Dalvey wore clothes that were always half a size too small, in the hope that a burst of effort would take him back two years in time.
“Maybe this building is too much for us, Ben.” complained Dalvey. In truth. This was the furthest they’d ever ventured into one of these places. Not since the House. Dalvey splashed some of his water against the wall, and watched with some amusement as it trickled upwards in rivulets, dodging cracks in the paint. So tired was he that even this little oddity wasn’t worth discussing with Benjamin.
“No, we got to keep going, man. We have to be at least halfway up by now,” said Benjamin. Dalvey peered up the airwell, the top floor still looked twenty storeys away, as though all progress had been for nought. How much did he owe Ben for that night in the House? That was unkind. They’d been friends for years since then, even as employment and social circles created a gulf that friendships couldn’t naturally survive. They met up for coffee and drinks often enough. When Dalvey’s father passed, Benjamin rolled up his sleeves and took care of the catering, flowers and funeral services; and alternated between topping up Dalvey’s glass and taking it away. But what really kept them together was this. There was still enough of the explorer in them after all this time, regardless of what it had cost them. Or because of it. Was Dalvey just trying to balance a ledger?
Down the corridor, a flash as a figure darted from one door to another. The slam of the door raised dust, which glittered in the half light of the shadowy passageway. There was something there that inspired Benjamin to a burst of speed despite his apparent exhaustion. By the time Dalvey got to his feet, Benjamin was already nearly at the door where the figure had disappeared. Perhaps Dalvey would have made it, had his legs not seized up with cramps and sent him face first into the faded and torn carpet. He heard Dalvey yell something and enter an apartment. By the time he got to the end of the corridor, he found nothing but a cracked plaster wall.
The human mind, when faced with a reality it cannot agree with, will first disbelieve its own senses. So Dalvey took a minute to pound at the wall, hoping that it would reveal some secret to him, a difference in the timbre that indicated how a grown man could pass through a solid wall and leave it behind unscathed. If Dalvey had brought anything more substantial in his bag, a crowbar or some other tool, he may have spent more time attacking the wall, but Benjamin was the planner between the both of them.
He tried the next door and found himself in a mildewed living room, wallpaper spalling off like the walls themselves were afflicted with psoriasis, bubbling in patches and flaking to the floor. The apartment bore signs of occupation, a dining table with placemats, a mantlepiece with bric-a-brac, even some photographs in frames. Dalvey examined the walls that must have abutted the neighbouring apartment, the one Benjamin disappeared into, but there was no evidence that there was any apartment adjacent to the one Dalvey was in. For all intents and purposes, there was an inaccessible rectangle of real estate where Benjamin had vanished.
Dalvey took a closer look at the apartment, but there was nothing within it that could date it, despite his earlier assessment that it was inhabited. That was a mistake. It was as lived in as a movie set, or an Ikea display. A hollow place, just like the whole building. Dalvey picked up the photo frame. Three people were in the photograph, their faces scratched out, two men and a boy. He didn’t need faces to recognize himself and Benjamin. Or the boy. Benjamin’s brother, Alex. The photograph was as real as the building he was in. There but also not there. Alex. Alex and the House that they explored thirty years ago. Before this obsession with hunting down unreal places, before Benjamin’s obsession and Dalvey’s complicity. Of course the picture couldn’t have been real. Alex died in that House.
It is a matter of conjecture what these places are made of. If these places were composed of the same atoms and molecules that the rest of the world is made out of. We’ve seen rooms that shift, places that disappear and even houses that aren’t in the same place twice. A corollary question to this is what happens to those who try to take parts of the places with them? What of food, of water, of air?
Dalvey returned to the landing and picked up his backpack. Think, think. Benjamin was the thinker. Dalvey hung around because Benjamin paid his way for these excursions. That and the House, but how long would he keep paying for that. Head out, come back with something heavy duty from a hardware store, and go after his friend. Phones were no good in these buildings. He glanced over the parapet and down the stairwell and wished he hadn’t. Twelve floors up, Benjamin had said. The creeping darkness below seemed only six floors below. It was gaining on him. He thought of the glowstick, shaking and dancing off into the inky depths and suppressed a shudder. Perhaps the only way out was up.
What did he know of these places? Benjamin was the one who thought about them, maintained a blog to create distance from his professional life. He speculated that the places weren’t quite in the same set of dimensions as the rest of the world. That explained the shifting nature of the buildings, each observer could be witnessing different facets of a larger whole. And now the building had taken Benjamin. Just like the House had taken Alex. Dalvey racked his brain, cursing himself for maintaining only superficial knowledge of Benjamin’s rantings. Not only did unreal places shift for the observers, but for those within as well. Like the elevator. Like the room that ate Benjamin. But he’d seen that particular trick before. If the elevator could pull that stunt, maybe there was another way to the ground floor.
He was so deep in thought that he did not even see the thing that rushed down the corridor and slammed into him. A blow to his midsection left him gasping for breath, each shuddering inhalation stopping short of supplying him with air. Another lucky blow found his head, and his vision flashed white before returning through a sheen of tears. Dalvey’s own grasping hands found cloth, tried to push away at the hirsute, spittle flecked visage in front of him. His attacker closed fingers around Dalvey’s neck and a vise snapped shut around his airpipe.
Dalvey flailed. Eyes, throat, groin, none of these targets were available to him and his blows against the body of his opponent were rapidly losing force. Just before the light left him, his opponent was struck by something, and lifted bodily off Dalvey and sent crashing into the parapet. Benjamin? His saviour’s advantage was quickly eroded when Dalvey’s assailant started fighting back. Adrenaline wrote a cheque on energy reserves that Dalvey didn’t possess, and he launched himself at the attacker, without technique or finesse, he resorted to the simple tactic of hoisting one of his attacker’s legs up and once Benjamin contributed, the wild thing went over the edge and into the darkness below, leaving Dalvey only with a fistful of cloth.
The pair of them sat again, like they had a few hours ago, at a landing between floors, coated with sweat and breathing hard. “Where’d you go?” asked Dalvey.
“I saw him, Andy. Alex.”
So that was why his friend had run. Partially recovered, Dalvey observed that the intervening hours had changed Benjamin. The other man’s cheeks were partially sunken in, and covered with a light beard. “Alex is gone, Ben. Where were you?”
“Rooms, and rooms. The more doors I opened, the less features the rooms had, until they were nothing but bare walls. I went on and on. I should have reached the edge of the building but I didn’t. I opened a door and there you were.”
“What time is it on your watch?”
Dalvey held up his own phone. “It’s Wednesday. Day we came in.”
Benjamin did not seem confused by this, a grin creasing the corners of his eyes.
“It’s true then. Time in these buildings doesn’t flow like it normally does.”
“Ben, we aren’t getting out through the front door. The dark in the basement is catching up with us. What else is there about these buildings that you haven’t told me?”
“I’ll do better. I’ll show you.”
Benjamin unfolded a pocket knife and tapped the blade on the steel railing that ran around the perimeter of the stairwell. It produced a metallic ring. With a grunt, he pressed the edge of the blade into the railing with the palm of his other hand and began prying at something Dalvey couldn’t see. Benjamin tossed it into Dalvey’s lap, turning to reveal the gouged wound in the railing. The loose piece had a skin of metal, but the substrate underneath that had a texture more akin to wood. On closer examination, the texture of the loose piece seemed keratinous, not wooden but something organic nonetheless. More akin to a beetle shell or an animal’s claw. Dalvey dropped it and unconsciously wiped his hands on his trousers.
“You know we’ve speculated that there are gaps in our reality, where something else is pushing through. Places where the rules don’t apply, Time. Space. Our sole concept of life and intelligence is as it exists here. Cells, bodies. Distinct.” Benjamin reversed the pocket knife in his hand and slammed the blade into the tiles of the wall. The wound it created started to seep a clear, golden liquid. Viscous and syrup thick. Dalvey fought the urge to dip a finger in it and taste it.
“Ben, just how much time have you spent in these places without me?” asked Dalvey. His best friend wouldn’t lie to him, but he studied Benjamin’s face assiduously. Years of casual bets and gambling had made them fluent in the language of tells, and pauses, and gazes not met.
Before they were best friends were explorers. All children are, until the world steals the strangeness, and locks it down into numbers and certificates, and the shared lie of society. So they were exploring, and there were the woods taking on long shadows or the school after dark, where they shared made up stories to scare each other. Then there was the House, with its own thousand backstories, some bloody, some tragic. Against the graffiti emblazoned signs to keep out, and lit only by dollar store torches, the three of them entered. Only two left.
“Enough. Whatever’s bleeding through to our world, it’s alive. All of it. So now you know when I said I was chasing Alex just now? I’ve—no, we’ve been chasing him for thirty years. We can make it right, we just have to get to the top.”
We turn finally to what the places want. Previous speculation suggests that the buildings themselves harbor some modicum of will. We don’t know how many people these places have taken. Perhaps in their vastness of scale and intelligence, they think of us as nothing more than pests, biting flies. Some in these forums have tried communicating with the places, probably with no more success than fruit flies would have trying to talk to us through semaphores. Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before we understand them more.
The rooftop was bare, plain concrete and a water tower. It looked out onto a vast plain, and Dalvey could recognize the topography of the county even when there was nothing there but bare soil. No trees, no plants, no grass. They could have been in a desert. Or on another planet. But there were other buildings, he noticed. Small ones, individual houses, even another couple of apartment buildings that he could see. He knew he was looking at the other buildings like the one he was in.
Benjamin was preoccupied with something else, a small figure at the edge of the roof, looking out over the same panorama. Dalvey hastened over to join his friend.
“You finally found me.” Alex’s voice hadn’t changed over the years, but a tiredness had crept in that had no place in a child’s speech. There was no mistaking it, the lines of his face still a nascent sketch of the man Benjamin had become. Was he in the same clothes from before? They couldn’t have lasted this long, yet he was wearing the same sweater, same sneakers, same jeans. Not beaten up in a way that weathering and wash implied, but leached of colour and vitality somehow, as though their very essence had evaporated into this space.
Benjamin’s only response was to sweep his brother up in his arms and very nearly squeeze the life out of him. Or to convince himself that the boy was real, and not another illusion thrown up by this place. Behind them, the door they’d emerged from began to shudder. The dark had caught up with them after all.
“Fire escape. This building still has one on the outside,” said Dalvey, eyeing the door. It was beginning to bulge and ripple, as though it were a membrane or caul instead of wood.
“No,” said Alex, pulling back against Benjamin’s grasp. The boy was surprisingly strong, and the other man was stopped in his tracks. “You know why you found me here?”
“We can talk about it when we’re out.”
“We can’t. You found me here because it’s the same house you lost me in.”
There was something else in the House, something after them. The floorboards groaned and shifted. There was a staircase where nothing but flat ground had been a moment before, and the three of them went down.
Dalvey grabbed at Alex, determined not to repeat the mistake. The boy began to struggle. Behind them, the door began to distend, to stretch, and the bulges resolved themselves into shapes that could have been claws or tentacles or hands, although in truth there were no descriptors for the things that were pushing through from the dark. Alex’s elbow caught Dalvey under the nose, and the moment’s distraction was enough for him to squirm from both men.
“It’s been growing all this time. The house. This place. I’ve been holding it back.”
Benjamin stopped. “How?” he asked.
“This stuff leaks through, it always does. You know what holds it back? Us. Regular old boring us. Believing that everything is normal, believing that everything has rules.”
Dalvey thought of Benjamin’s little corner of the internet, spreading these urban legends, prying the cracks open a little further. There was a sound, almost like cloth tearing and the door gave way, a little at first, spurting out like pus from a lanced boil. Whatever came out hit the floor and sizzled, burning off into nothing. There was a choice to be made.
Alex and Benjamin were stunned on the ground. They had to get out of the House, something was after them. He hooked his hands under the arms of his friend and began to drag Andy out. He’d come back, there was time.
Neither of them knew, of course. But there was no right choice then, there was one now.
“You don’t have to go on. We’ll figure something out.” Benjamin was blubbering now, prepared for any eventuality but the one he wanted the most.
“We’re out of time,” said Alex, starting to pull back, but Benjamin had a grip on him now and Alex no longer had the benefit of surprise.
“He’s right,” said Dalvey. “You deserve to leave.” He met Alex’s eyes and the boy understood. And that was what the building needed, to be rid of Alex one way or the other. If he wouldn’t leave, then all three of them would die before they reached the ground. Dalvey used the term ‘die’ generously, he was certain that whatever this place had in store for them would make death seem like a mercy. The choice was the same as before, two could leave, or three could die.
The three of them made their way to the fire escape. Benjamin first, and then Alex. Before the boy scampered down the ladder, Dalvey pressed something into the boy’s hand, something he’d been keeping in his pocket since he’d been attacked by the apparition halfway up. A scrap of cloth matching the sweater he was now wearing. He’d probably come to regret this choice, in time. Already he felt the force on the door receding as he took up Alex’s vigil on the rooftop. More than anything, this place understood and reacted to willpower. Dalvey imagined the vista of all the other places where reality ran ragged, where something was bleeding through. The best he could do for himself, and for Benjamin, was to hold things together, if only for a little while longer.
Maybe this could finally balance that ledger.
This blog will continue to be updated as we grow in our understanding of these places. It is impossible to tell if there are more of these places, or if the existing ones are mobile and individual places are unique. So little can be discerned about things that nobody else will acknowledge. This much we know, that we must continue to explore, and those that are lost may yet be found again.
—The Spelunker’s Guide To Unreal Urban Architecture: Benjamin and Alex Harvey.