Jan. 18, 2021

Episode 3: HOLES/THE KING HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

Episode 3: HOLES/THE KING HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

The Dead Letter Office receives a series of emails from a college student with recurring nightmares. Conway takes a trip to investigate a kitschy painting.

(CWs: trypophobia, alcohol, finger damage, depictions of depression)


The Dead Letter Office receives a series of emails from a college student with recurring nightmares. Conway takes a trip to investigate a kitschy painting.

(CWs: trypophobia, alcohol, finger damage, depictions of depression)

TRANSCRIPT:

CONWAY: This is Conway, receiving clerk for the Dead Letter Office of ***** Ohio, processing the national dead mail backlog. The following audio recording will serve as an internal memo strictly for archival purposes and should be considered confidential. Need I remind anyone: public release of this or any confidential material from the DLO is extremely felonious. Some names and places have been censored for the protection of the public. 

Dead letter 13905. A series of emails were sent to the Environmental Protection Agency of Ohio over the course of many months in 2015. There was some concern among the higher-ups at the agency that these emails may be more pertinent to our work at the DLO rather than the EPA. They were intercepted and forwarded to us, and have been subsequently opened and read. The emails read as follows:

KARA, NARRATOR: Dear Rick,

I’m a senior at um **** ***** State University. I’ve been dreaming about holes--dark caves, coves along the shore, deep black as far in as I can see. This may not seem relevant at first, but I promise it'll come up, keep reading. I dream about sinkholes opening in a busy city street; gaps in clusters of coral growing from a sunken boat; a bloody bullet-wound in my leg; a honeycomb. This isn’t the first time I’ve dreamt about holes. There’s something I find revolting and unsettling about their emptiness. Maybe it’s ingrained in our lizard brains that holes are not good. Maybe that’s why aliens in our movies and comics always have those giant, endlessly black eyes.

I dream more dreams about holes. I dream about trying to fill an infinite pool with a small garden hose. I dream about empty pomegranates. Others are deeply upsetting: confused imagery, lotus pod faces, choking revulsion, claustrophobia.

I haven’t been sleeping well, and I can’t seem to focus on my schoolwork at all. My grades are starting to slip and I’m not sure how to proceed. I haven’t told anyone about the dreams yet. Talking about dreams to other people is pointless anyway; either they get it and nod along with you or they don’t get it at all and just nod along out of courtesy. It’s like having to explain why a joke is funny, it kills the whole prospect.

After days of restless nights dreaming about holes, it’s hard to not notice them just...everywhere. Pupils are just holes in your eyes. Don’t look at close-up pictures of eyes. Empty spaces on bookshelves, open windows. Pores on peoples’ faces yawn wide. Cavities burrow into teeth, worms dig through soil.

Anyway, I was doing some much-needed vacuuming on a Sunday morning and had to move the rug in the middle of my room to sweep under it. I pulled at the fabric, then paused. Two of the wooden planks underneath seemed a little farther apart than they should be. I tried to remember what the floor looked like last time I vacuumed. It had been a while, but I don't think they were that far apart. After all of these dreams about empty spaces, I figured I was just imagining things. I put the rug back over the boards and continued cleaning.

Over the next few weeks or so, I didn’t really think about the space under the rug. I carried on with my dull work and repetitive life for a few weeks. That is, until a tube of chapstick fell off my coffee table and rolled strangely toward the center of the rug. Where it stopped, the slight weight of the tube made the rug sink. I hesitantly moved the table and reached out for the edge of the rug. The gap between the floorboards was definitely bigger this time. I started looking for answers online. Wood warping, leaky pipes, sinkholes, fracking quakes, ball lightning coming through electrical sockets; all manner of strange natural incidents can occur in your house, but none of this seemed to quite fit the symptoms.

Anyway, now that the wordy preamble is out of the way, this is why I’m contacting you. I figure ODNR or the Ohio EPA should know something about this. It’s probably fine right? I think it’s just some kind of geological event or seismic oddity. My address and phone number are enclosed in case you think this sounds serious.

Best,

Kara

KARA: Hello again Rick,

Thanks for getting back to me. I don’t hear any water, but it has grown. In fact, one morning I stumbled blearily downstairs and nearly fainted. The hole had widened, and seemingly swallowed my area rug and coffee table. The edges were perfectly smooth, as if something terribly sharp cut through the floorboards and into the earth. I froze in a panic on the stairs and spent what felt like most of the morning paralyzed, numb, staring at the hole from the dark steps. Where did it come from? Where did it lead? Should I call 911?

Eventually I got brave enough to leave the stairs and go near it. I strained to see in from a few feet away, but it was no use. I smelled for rotten eggs like you suggested, but I don’t think there’s any gas leaks. I leaned in and listened. Nothing. As I inched closer, the urge to stick my hand in was strong, but my survival instincts proved stronger.

I haven’t told anyone else about this hole, either. Who would I call? My dad? The cops? What would I say? Now that I think about it, maybe I can take care of it myself. I’ve fixed a lock  and caulked a shower before, so maybe it won’t be too hard to replace some floorboards. Or maybe, if it’s some freak geological occurrence, it’ll just go away on its own, just as suddenly as it came. I’ll just be extra careful not to drop anything for the time being, and I’ll cover it up if anyone comes over. I’ll plan around it. No big. Sorry to bother you.

Thanks anyway,

Kara

KARA: At first it was a pain. I was stunned anew every morning that I came down from the bedroom to see chasm in the floor before me. My heart raced as I tip-toed around it, trying not to look down. Soon I’d forget about it for a few minutes when I was busy. I wouldn’t notice it while I was watching entire seasons of show at once, or staring at the dishes that somehow keep piling up. 

But it always nagged at me, gnawing at some part of my brain, conscious or otherwise. I’d go out with friends, and they’d notice me staring into space. They’d ask what’s wrong. Nothing, I’d say. And in a sense, it was true. Holes are just an absence, a lack. When I’d lay on the couch for days without moving, it was an absence, a lacking. It was nothing. I stopped going out with friends. I’d make and break little promises to myself that I would check my email and get back to you, that I’d talk to someone about it if it wasn’t gone tomorrow. Then next week. Then if it was still around next year.

Eventually I got accustomed to its size, its edges, to the point where I could just side-step it by muscle memory. Avoiding it became an unconscious routine like anything else. I didn’t feel worried about it, and in fact didn’t feel much at all anymore. If I drank and slept enough, it was nothing.

I trudged through all this and by some miracle graduated. I got a new job and moved out of town. Yeah, I just left the hole there for the landlord to deal with. It’s not like I was getting my deposit back anyway. The presence of the new city gave me a rush. There were new places to explore, new food to try. I was getting more rest, had more fulfilling work, better hobbies. Better relationships. My new partner moved in.

But new things only stay new for so long, and bodies refuse to stay buried, so to speak. Just a small crack under the bed. Just a sliver at first. Probably shoddy flooring. I covered it with a storage tub and didn’t tell my partner. Why should they get roped into worrying about a tiny crack in the wood? It's ridiculous. My partner later found it, of course, and wanted to call the landlord. I convinced them not to. Said I’d seen something like that before, and that it's fine if we just ignore it.

The crack got bigger. Its presence festered. My partner was shaken from their sleep one morning when the bedframe slipped and fell halfway into the hole. They insisted that we call someone, but I fought back again. My partner got irritated, told me off. Said they were tired of the waiting, the excuses, the growing gulf between us. Then they went quiet, and confided that they had heard something scratching and whispering in the hole when I wasn’t home. They thought it was their imagination running wild, paranoia, or just loneliness. But not anymore. They grabbed a flashlight out of the closet and tentatively peered over the edge of the silent void. They didn’t say a word the rest of the night.

My partner moved out less than a week later.

I like to look into the hole for long stretches. I think about the scratching. I blankly drop in something just to see if it hits any sort of bottom. I want to climb in and see how far it goes. I want to see if I can survive a head-on confrontation with the dark.

When I’m sitting in my living room absently staring at my phone, in the dead drunk grey of winter, I swear I can hear something. Faint whispers from the other room, drawing me in, tempting me to slide inside. Then I hear the chatter, the dragging, and the sound of bone grating on rock. 

I don’t leave the bedroom. I have to keep an eye on the hole to make sure nothing falls in...or comes out. It fills everything with nothing. I can’t move away, I can’t blink. Sometimes I think I can see a hand reach up, not more than a shadow, fingers ragged and bloody. I shakily crawl to the edge on my hands and knees and peek in, my hair dangling just past the edge. I reach in up to my elbow, feeling for something, anything. I hear the scratching again. I hear the whispers and the clawing at the walls and I feel wet, clammy flesh brush up against my arm. I recoil and pull my arm back. I don’t look into the hole for a long time.

I only dream about holes. About voices, calling from inside. Telling me that it’s not really that bad down there. It’s not hot or cold, there’s no noise, no pressure, no light. It’s nothing. There are ways to get down, they assure me. I rely more and more on alchemical liquids and arcane herbs to drown them out, modern witchcraft to forget the nothing. But these also make me slow. Vulnerable.

After a night of particularly heavy alchemy, I wake up stranded on the kitchen floor, unable to move or speak. I feel something pulling me by my ankle, and I can’t turn my head to see it. It is pulling me toward the bedroom. My body lurches across the smooth linoleum with each tug. I feel the hardwood floor below me, then it vanishes, and the hand lets go. I feel myself falling for a long, long time.

I come to in the abyss. I’m looking up at the ceiling of my bedroom from the bottom of a well. As if chained in the dark to the back of a sea cave straining to smell the ocean, it’s so distant. I remember what it was like before, and I think I want to get back there. I reach out into the void and my hands find purchase on rough stone. I grip and claw my way up, drawing closer to the light even as my hands bleed and nails break. I approach the light and see someone, the silhouette of a woman my age haloed by humming incandescent light. Her hair hangs over the opening, her arm thrust into the black. This is my chance. I reach my hand out for hers, gasping for her to pull me get out. My chilly damp skin brushes her hand and she reels her arm back. Her silhouette disappears. I don't think I can get out alone.

My phone is dying, but I’m ready to ask. I’m ready to accept it. Can you help me?

CONWAY: Per the policies of the DLO, we have looked into the whereabouts of the sender. Emails were sent to her university address, but we received no responses. We contacted the school to see if they had any updates on their alumna, but they knew nothing of consequence. The aforementioned Rick, formerly with the EPA, declined to comment on the case.

Thus the Dead Letter Office has verified that these emails, collectively called DL-13905, are undeliverable. A flash drive containing these emails will be stored in our vault, and our guys in IT are working to clear the caches or cookies or something out of the related devices.

*brief music over the radio*

CONWAY ON TAPE: All right, this entry’s gonna be a little different. For some god-forsaken reason, they got me heading out to a warehouse up in ******** to check out some package they’ve got there may need archived. Now the government's not known for its...spending habits and this is no different. Instead of my usual setup or a lav mic, they've got me with an old cassette recorder and a used tape, so I apologize for the quality of this missive. Anyway, back to that package.

Seems to be some kind of painting they found, the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis himself. The package handlers there found it torn open with no address and no return address, so they took the painting out and hung it up in their break room. Since then, a few of the handlers there swear they can hear his songs playing early in the morning, even if none of em turned on the radio. They only started hearing this after they hung up this Elvis painting. Some of the other employees have complained about the morning crew acting weird, getting defensive about it and saying odd things.

Don’t know why the hell they picked me, I’m not much of a Presley-head myself.

*click* CONWAY ON TAPE: All right we're on 71 north, should be there before too long. Looks like we are about right on time to arrive at this warehouse.

*click*

Okay, we're here in the break room. The thing's about 4 feet high, 3 wide. Painted on black velvet, maybe with some kind of acrylic, not sure. Looks pretty new, must have been made recently or else stored well. I suppose it looks enough like the king. He's all in white, microphone clasped between his hands in front of his chest. Hair's dark, hanging a little bit wilted under the crown. Not his usual pompadour. Does have the sideburns, all right. He's looking up and into a light. There's a tear rolling down his cheek.

Now below this painting, there's a small table. Seems like uh some kind of light--maybe plywood--covered in veneer. Situated on top of the table are a few candles. Looks almost like a votive. Small rug situated in front. Looks like...almost looks like a uh...well nevermind what it looks like, let's check the back of the frame here.

All right, there is some text here, written in the same paint used to paint the Elvis. It reads as follows:

“THE KING ISN’T DEAD, HE’S IN THIS PAINTING. HE WAS TIRED OF THE FAME AND WANTED OUT, SO HE FAKED HIS DEATH AND USED THE ELECTRICITY ON THE AIRWAVES TO TRANSFER HIS ENERGY INTO THE VELVET." 

Yeah, all right then. No names, no addresses. Well, suppose the only other thing to do here is listen and see if we hear any Elvis.

*Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton plays faintly in the background*

CONWAY: Well I don't hear much of anything. Hey, Benny, was it? Yeah, do you hear it now? Any of y'all back there hear it?

All right, well somebody hears something, but I'm not hearing any rock and or roll, so uh. Jeez...I don’t know. I guess we'll take it to the DLO, have some people also give this painting a listen and review the tape later At least if I take it, we’ll stop getting complaints from this particular office's management. Well, for this parcel, this is Conway, for the moment, signing off.

*Distorted music on the radio*

CONWAY: The tape has been reviewed, and we have assigned this parcel the code DO-06206. We have determined, given the lack of information and the findings on the tape, that this package is indeed undeliverable. It will be stored safely, and quietly, in our break room.

For the Dead Letter Office of ******* Ohio, this is Conway, signing off.