(Don’t forget to read The Holder of Deliverance Prologue in our October issue!)
After two months, not much in my life has changed.
Spending January in New York feels like living in the Ice Age. The space heater barely keeps my studio apartment at livable levels; I have to wear a sweat-suit and three blankets to bed most nights. It’s hardly bearable, but it’s the best I can do.
Despite the freezing weather, though, I still look for theaters putting on shows in the city. An Off-Broadway theater near my apartment is staging a production of Doubt, and I had read the script obsessively for several weeks before my audition. For once, I was confident that I might actually have a shot at the spotlight.
But despite that, I didn’t know the source material nearly as well as my competition. I was up against many career actors and university students that studied theater, and I came to New York only straight out of high school. Many of them were die-hard Shanley fans, and many had acted in other productions of Doubt before.
Naturally, my performance left a lot to be desired. The director never called me back.
And nowadays, it’s getting even harder to take time off to search for smaller productions holding auditions. Employees at the café I work at have been leaving, so I’ve been saddled with their hours, too.
Work is becoming my life, not just my source of income. My nights are haunted with dreams of brewing coffee and making the same sandwich repeatedly for hours. I get no respect or recognition; I’m becoming just a permanent fixture in the city, one of the many cogs that run the lumbering, rusty machine of monotony.
I have to get out! I have to escape this daily madness. The deeper I get into this way of life, the harder it is to get out. Every morning, I wish I could look myself in the mirror.
In what little free time I have, I talk to my few old friends from back home. They’re the last connection I have to something still familiar.
“Are you having any luck with your auditions?”
“I’m not really having auditions anymore. I’m just working most of the time.”
“Why don’t you find another job, man?”
“I can’t, not now. It’s too hard to find another job in this economy, and I need the money badly.”
“You’re not going to get anywhere in life thinking like that!.”
They tell me many stories about my old friends that have moved on to bigger and better things. They’ve gone to college and met new people. They’re having fun classes, are finding internships, and are getting married.
By comparison, my life is dull, but I can still tell them about the white woman. Every time I see someone wearing a white coat, I remember her. Though the months have pacified my curiosity for the woman I saw outside my window months past, they have done nothing to kill it. Every day I wonder what became of her. Every day I wonder if she was ever really there in the first place.
One day, I receive an untitled e-mail from someone I’ve never met. I’m used to getting junk mail, but this is different. He claims to know one of the friends I’ve been talking to, but doesn’t know me personally. He’s heard of my story of the woman in white, and wants to hear more. I don’t hesitate to share the story with him.
His reply is confusing. “You might be interested in this.” He gives me the link to a website. When I try to follow the link, though, my browser tells me that no such website exists.
“The link doesn’t work for me,” I message back. Only a few minutes later, though, I get a message from the postmaster telling me his address isn’t valid.
In frustration, I push the keyboard away. None of my other friends are online, so I head to bed.
A few days later, I’m pushed to my tipping point. After only being able to stand so much more bickering and arguing, I snap. A few broken plates later, and my boss sends me home early amidst awkward stares and silence.
I’m surprised that I wasn’t fired, but a small part of me wishes I had been. I need to pay my bills, of course, but I can hardly stand this life anymore. Losing my job could be just the push I need to take control of my life.
It’s the first Monday I’ve spent at home in a long time, and after I cool off, it feels nice to just wrap up in a blanket and watch the television for a while. I become quite content at finally being able to relax and not worry about work.
Later in the day, I warm up some leftover pizza and sit at the computer again to check my mail. I haven’t gotten anything new back from the stranger that contacted me yesterday, but I check his link again. Maybe the server was just down.
But, still nothing. I refresh the page a couple times, hopeful, but to no avail. It must really have been a wild goose chase to begin with. Leaving the browser, I toss my paper plate in the trash and turn on the television. A show about ghost stories is on, so I let my mind wander as I lean back in my chair.
Half an hour later, out of the corner of my eye, I notice the flickering. My browser window is opening and closing rapidly, over and over. Faster and faster. I grab the mouse, and just as I do, the window suddenly stays open, and a website loads.
It’s a forum.
It’s called “HAVEN,” and the only description of the website is a short header at the very top, in small white text.
“There were 2538 of these Objects, but 2000 were lost. The remaining 538 must never come together. Ever.”
There are several hundred members listed, but only one subforum with a small number of posts. The posts only go back about a month, even though many of the members have been registered for years.
I explore deeper with bated breath. Most of the posts are completely nonsensical. Some are just random jumbles of letters and numbers, others are using a slew of code words I don’t recognize. It’s as if the members here are speaking in their own unique language. Of what I can understand, I read stories of men suffering fates worse than death, descriptions of worlds beyond human comprehension, and evil creatures seeking to destroy humanity. It’s a sanctuary of horror, paranormal stories, and conspiracy theories.
Then, I get to the thread entitled, “Snow White.” When I click on it, I’m immediately presented with a scanned picture of a rough sketch of a woman. She’s just like I remember her—perfectly straight hair, clean white robe. The picture was drawn very hastily with some kind of coal pen. It’s messy design is unsettling, but I know it’s her. The artist wildly sketched big, hollow circles for eyes.
As I should have guessed, the post that goes with the picture, and the posts following, are complete gibberish: “Ikb suj evos rkyetj ki ljjno, okhjsuagw uvo djjg ikttklagw hj. As uvo djjg fkagw v wkkf qkd ki sbmagw sk fk ok lasukys hj gksaragw. Ukljpjb, A hvgvwjf sk uvpj rkgsvrs lasu as slarj mjosjbfvm. A latt fjorbadj sujoj agrafjgso ag vo hyru fjsvat vo A rvg ebkpafj.”
Frustrated, I make a profile on the forum to ask more about the white woman. But, even after making a profile, the forum won’t let me post for some reason, telling me I haven’t gained enough “experience.”
When I finally look out my apartment window, I’m shocked to find it already dark outside. I thought I had only been online for a few hours, but my clock reads past midnight already. Suddenly, I notice just how tired I am. My whole body feels sluggish from the stress of the day, begging to be put to sleep.
I leave my computer, and sidle over to my bed. My head is spinning with questions about the website, but I’ve finally found a lead about the white woman. I fall asleep not long after my head hits the pillow, though, replacing the nagging questions with silence.
I’m awakened by my phone suddenly ringing. Startled from my peaceful dreams, I turn to shut off my phone’s alarm, sighing in contentment when the sound stops after pressing the button on the side of the phone. Sleep begins to overtake me again when I hear the faint voice.
“Are you going to answer?”
I sit up abruptly, realizing I’ve answered a call. I quickly grab my phone and press it to my ear.
“Hello? Who’s this?”
The window by my bed is still dark. Why would someone call me so early in the morning?
“You’ve been staring at that page for a while. Something on your mind?”
From my pillow, I can see the faint glow of my computer screen from across the room. The “Snow White” topic is still open.
“Who is this?” I ask again. As I begin to fully wake up, my sleepiness turns to confusion.
“That’s not important. I’m just wondering why you’re so interested in that woman.”
“I’m wondering how you got my phone number.”
“Don’t you know your computer saves all of your information in once place? It’s not that hard to find someone’s phone number nowadays.”
In my daze, I can’t be sure whether he’s telling the truth or not.
“You should be a bit more careful about how you put yourself out there,” he goes on to say.
“Who is this?”
After the third time of asking, he heaves a sigh, knowing he can’t avoid the question any longer.
“If you must call me anything, call me Undertow.”
I recognize the username as one of the posters on the forum. A regular, based on the number of posts I saw under his name.
“What do you want, Undertow?”
“I am also very interested in Snow White. I thought we could help each other.”
“Why should I trust you?”
There’s a long silence on the other line. As my mind begins to clear, I become keenly aware of how sleep deprived I am. My entire body begs me to rest. But, I fight it stubbornly, waiting for him to say more.
“This isn’t about trust, is it?” he finally says. “It’s about finding the truth. You’re different from other people. Alienated from others. Everything seems different to you. Like you’re looking into the world from the outside. You feel different. And you are. You were born to Seek.”
A chill runs up my spine, and suddenly I feel more alert, and I sit up straight in my bed. “I don’t understand.”
“You and I are alike,” he tells me. “We both need to know, we need to Seek. I have the answers you’re looking for, and you have the desire to learn them.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t need anyone to tell me that his offer is suspicious, but I’m eager to know more. “And why should I trust you?” I ask again.
“You don’t have to. You just have to have faith that I have what you want.”
A gnawing feeling is rising in my gut. My skepticism clashes with my curiosity so violently, it feels like I’m going to boil from the inside out. There’s no way I can trust him for sure, but I know that he has the best chance out of anyone to tell me more about the white woman.
“I live here in New York,” Undertow continues before I can say anymore. “If you’re willing to meet me, I can tell you everything you want to know. I can tell you what I know about Snow White.”
How convenient that he lives nearby. Every single aspect of this conversation is suspicious, but I’m far past that realization. My desire to get answers from him is tearing me apart. Is it worth risking my life over? How much do I really want to put on the line for my answers?
“You know it’s a risk,” Undertow goes on. “But, this is your only chance to get your answers. You can turn down my offer. You can put safety first and stay home, but you’ll never know the truth.”
After a short pause, I say, “How much would I be missing out on?”
He chuckles softly. “More than you can possibly imagine.”
I grip the phone with white knuckles. I think back to earlier today, when I got so fed up with my work, and what’s become my normal life now. Then, I think about the mysteries that lay ahead and how they might change my life.
“Where do you want to meet?”
I expect a satisfied laugh, but get only a flat—albeit satisfied—answer. “Glad you came around.”
By the time I arrive at Riverside, the sky is beginning to turn a very faint purple. It’s almost seven in the morning, far earlier than I’m used to getting up. I’ve gotten little sleep, and the cold air is particularly biting. Frost cakes every surface, and the trees around me are like ice sculptures.
The park is beautiful in the summer, but now, it’s desolate and frozen. A few strangers are wandering the park, even at these hours, but it’s mostly deserted. On a bench before me is the man I’m looking for: an older man with a worn leather jacket and winter cap. He’s got a cigarette in his mouth; I can barely make out its glow from this distance.
When I reach him, he doesn’t even seem to notice me. He’s staring off to one side, lost in thought. Even when I clear my throat and shuffle awkwardly, he doesn’t flinch.
“Undertow?” I ask hesitantly.
“Quiet,” he growls, without turning his eyes toward me. His voice is completely different from the one I heard on the phone. Earlier, his voice was clear and patient, but now I only hear a gruff, tired tone. And, I come to realize, he doesn’t look as if he’s thinking deeply, but as if he’s listening closely for something.
I try to listen too, but I hear nothing but the cracking of the frozen branches in the January wind. I shiver and draw my hands inside my heavy winter coat.
Undertow finally looks up. “You actually came. I’m surprised.”
“I had to.”
“Remarkable show of trust for a Seeker. Anyone with a halfway decent amount of sense in them would have stayed home.”
I’m struck by a sudden surge of anger at the blatant insult. “I thought it wasn’t about trust!”
“Of course it is,” he laughs. “You have to have trust to risk your neck for something like this. Otherwise, your life doesn’t mean much to you. Seekers should always look after themselves.”
“That word again,” I shoot back impatiently. “When are you going to tell me what it means?”
He removes his cigarette from his mouth and glares at me intently, setting off my already frayed nerves. He leans forward slightly and whispers, “How many Objects do you have?”
“Objects?” I answer, impatiently. “I remember reading about them, but I don’t know what they are either.”
He narrows his eyes skeptically as he looks me over, but soon after throws his cigarette to the ground and stomps on it. “You’re not even a Seeker, damn it! After I came out all this way!”
“What are you talking about?” I try to ask, but Undertow inexplicably explodes.
He rises from his seat, throwing his hands in the air and shouting into the darkness. “Of course, why would an experienced Seeker throw his caution to the wind to meet a stranger? Only an ignorant, naïve little kid would do something so stupid!”
“I don’t understand,” I whisper, backing away from him. I’m now shaking both from the cold and from fear. I knew it was a bad idea to come out here.
Undertow hears my whisper, though, and advances on me. “I figured you’d have to be a Seeker if you found our website, but no, perhaps that was naïve of me. One look at your lack of a proxy or even a decent firewall should have been obvious.”
A lump rises in my throat. “That’s how you got my phone number, isn’t it?”
“I told you that you had to be careful.”
He starts to walk away, shaking his head in disappointment and leaving me alone in the cold. I hesitate for just a moment, and begin to feel angry. He promised me answers, and despite his temper tantrum, I still wanted them. I had grown weary of hearing the word “Seeker,” but no other explanation.
I begin to follow him. “I thought you were going to give me answers.”
“No, I wasn’t.” He walks faster to try and outpace me.
“So, it was all just a lie?”
“I didn’t say that. I just thought you were someone else.”
“Why did you want me to be a ‘Seeker’ so bad, Undertow?”
He spins suddenly and grabs my arm tightly. I flinch and try to wrestle away, but he holds on too tightly. He holds on so tightly, I’m afraid he might break a bone.
“So I could have beaten you and made you show me your Objects!” he hisses. A foul odor washes over me with the fog of his breath, and I recoil. This was a huge mistake. How could I have believed such a raving lunatic? I was so obsessed with one mystery that I let myself get tricked by a madman. It wasn’t too late, though. If I could just get away…
But, I don’t have to try and escape. Undertow lets me go. “You’re not a Seeker,” he says quietly, his anger receding. “None of this concerns you.”
He reaches into his pocket for another cigarette as he steps away and lights it quickly. He seems lucid now, and he watches me calmly and patiently, as if waiting for me to say something.
I have another moment of doubt. I know that I saw Snow White, and I know that others saw her too. For better or worse, Undertow knows about her. I can’t leave yet.
“When you told me I was different,” I start warily, my voice still shaking from fear, “I was so sure that you were right. I’ve had this gut feeling for years, that there’s something mystical about this world I don’t understand. I notice things that other people don’t. You said I was a born Seeker. What does that mean?”
He gives me a bored look and blows smoke through the air. “Like I said, I thought you were. How do you know you’re not just being paranoid?”
“I’ve seen her,” I reply quickly.
Undertow lets his cigarette slip out his mouth, and it fizzles in the snow under his feet. His boots crunch in the snow as he steps over to me.
“You’re a liar!”
He stands much too close to me as he sizes me up. He scans my face carefully, looking for a tell. His breath washes over me again, and I feel sick to my stomach. It’s not the smell of smoke. It reminds me of the stench of garbage, or more accurately, of rotting flesh. My face pales, but even with his nose just inches from mine, I refuse to back away.
“You want to know, right?” I finally ask him, fighting my nausea.
“I could beat it out of you,” he answers, but I stand my ground, trying to keep my hands from trembling.
“It would be easier just to talk.”
Undertow glances to each side, as if checking for eavesdroppers. Still, there is no one near us, but the park is being lit more and more by the minute. Early morning joggers are out now, and we are clearly visible from any angle. Seeming to take it as a sign, he backs away just a little bit.
“I wasn’t lying,” he whispers grudgingly. “Our world holds secrets impossible to imagine without experiencing them for yourself. But they are dark. And disturbing. You shouldn’t Seek out of boredom. We do it because we have to. You’re just a naïve kid, standing at the water’s edge and wondering what’s down in the depths. But there’s nothing but terror down there. And there’s no turning back.”
“I already know that,” I say impatiently. “The most well-kept secrets are never that simple, or that pretty. But, I know there’s something there, and that irresistible feeling to find it will always be there. I want to believe.”
He reaches into his pocket and withdraws his third cigarette. He doesn’t light it, but keeps it cupped in his hand, protecting it from the cold.
“But you don’t. Not yet.”
I’m so close to the answers I can taste them, and I’m starting to feel warm. The shivers have subsided, and I almost feel like I’m cooking in my winter coat.
“I’m not going to warn you again,” Undertow says with barely a breath.
He twirls his cigarette in his fingers and gives me a sad look, pausing for several seconds.
He finally lets out a long sigh. “Seekers are a very specific kind of person. Normal people get thrills collecting things that have some sort of value, like baseball cards or jewelry or what have you. Sentimental or expensive, they’re just mundane things. But, Seekers collect Objects.
“You can’t tell something’s an Object just by looking at them. They can be anything. A sword, a letter, a thumbtack. Some of them aren’t even material things that can be touched. We gather them, but they must never come together. The Objects are all parts of a set. Five-hundred and thirty-eight parts. Even we’re not sure what exactly they are, but they don’t belong. They are a part of this world, and as old as it, but they are something else. They belong to something much greater.”
“Do they do anything?” I ask breathlessly.
“Some of them do, most of them don’t. Most of them couldn’t be told apart from everyday objects no matter what you did with them. But you can feel them. You can feel them pull at you, as if they’re trying to get your attention, as if letting you know that they don’t fit in with everything else. And, you can’t destroy them. You can tear them up, you can burn them, you can throw them into the ocean, and you’ll still wake up with them on your desk the next morning. And, you think that maybe you just imagined destroying them.”
For some reason, the stench is all around me now. I can almost picture a rotting corpse lying under my feet from how strong it is.
“So, why Seek them?” I choke out.
“The same reason people explore abandoned houses and search for ghosts. The same reason you came out here to talk to me this morning. The pull. The longing to know. The desire to be a part of something much bigger than—and yet a little part of—yourself.”
“What happens when they come together, then?” I ask. “Is it the end of the world?”
“It’s probably not that simple. It’s something you have to ask the End.”
“Who is that?”
The man grunts in frustration, and the overpowering smell abruptly disappears. “I can’t answer all of your questions. You just won’t understand unless you’re a Seeker. Now, I held up my end of the deal. I told you what Seekers and Objects are. You’re going to tell me about Snow White, right?”
I nod. I’m honestly skeptical about the answers he gave me, but a deal is a deal.
“I saw Snow White about two months ago, here in New York. She was standing on the street outside my apartment for weeks. Then, when she finally disappeared, I saw a message on the wall where she had been standing. It said, ‘Why does the pendulum swing?’ Along with a number. 232.”
He scratches his chin. “I see. Anything else?”
“I tried to talk to her once, but she never said a word.”
With everything he had told me, I expect him to be angry over the small amount of information I have. But, quite the contrary, he seems pleased with what I’ve given him. He smiles and says vaguely, “Very interesting.”
“What can you tell me about her?” I dare to ask.
“I don’t actually know that much about Snow White. That part was a lie.”
Crestfallen, I hang my head, and he eyes me with interest.
“Are you in love?” he remarks. When I shoot him a wary glance, he just laughs at me. “I’m not making fun of you. A lot of Seekers sound that way.”
“I thought I wasn’t a Seeker,” I retort.
He just gives me that smile. I’m almost sure he’s taunting me at this point. “We are all looking for the truth, Seeker or no. To figure out what’s real and what’s not. But the more we Seek, the looser our grip becomes on what’s part of our world and what’s part of Theirs.”
“…Theirs?” I ask hesitantly.
He rummages in his pocket for a piece of paper. “You don’t just find the Objects laying around,” he explains. “You saw some the stories when you visited the website. They’ve been gathered from various sources, and are questionable at best. When a new story appears, it might lead to an Object. Or, it might not. We just have to keep trying until we get it right.” He extends the paper to me roughly. “Take it.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been looking for this Object for some time. After sifting through the bullshit, I’ve gathered enough clues to give it a decent shot.”
I push the paper away with one hand. “I’m not after an Object. I just want to know about Snow White.”
Unexpectedly, he grabs me by the front of my coat and lifts me off the ground, and I have no chance to defend myself. I claw at his arm, but he’s much stronger than me. I can do nothing to resist.
“Only a real Seeker can understand!” he shouts in my face. “If you must seek the truth, you have to take it all the way! You have to get dirty! Or else you’ll wind up dead.”
He drops me and shoves the paper into my hand before I can argue.
“Take it. And don’t trust anyone.”
I call after Undertow as he walks away, but he stops responding to me. This time, I let him go. He disappears around some trees, and then I am alone in Riverside Park, his paper in my hand. The sun winks over the trees to the east, and I suddenly cringe. The day has finally begun.
I have to go to work soon. Another day of monotony. But, at the same time, I know nothing is going to be the same. I have every reason to doubt what Undertow told me this morning, but the gnawing feeling in my stomach is driving me forward to seek more answers. I feel as though this was something I’ve been meant to do from the beginning. I have to seek the truth.
There’s another world out there waiting for me.
I look down at the page in my hand. Some of the notes are handwritten, and other notes are printed words that have been clipped out. I start to walk back to my apartment, slowly and deliberately, giving myself time to read the notes along the way.
It begins, “Go to any mental institution or halfway house you can find. When you reach the front desk, ask to visit someone called ‘The Holder of Change.’