HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Story: Mike McClelland
Art: Casey McClelland
I should have thrown it away the second I plucked it out of my mailbox. I threw almost all the mail that got shoved into that tiny little cubby away; nearly all of it was for past residents of my apartment, those who had moved to bigger apartments, or to the suburbs, or maybe died.
It was a plain white envelope and if looks had been the only thing under consideration it would have been in the trash. It had no return address and it was addressed to the apartment’s “Current Resident” – never a good sign. But when I touched it, the texture of the envelope was that of something that you don’t throw away. We all know that texture, the kind that’s almost like cloth. It’s what makes the difference between junk mail and personal notes, Christmas cards, wedding invitations.
I opened the envelope. Inside was a notecard so deeply blue that I was surprised it hadn’t been visible through the white envelope. On it, in a deep emerald-green calligraphy, was:
266 West 23rd, Downstairs
It smelled like black licorice and pipe smoke. I shouldn’t have given it a second thought, but the texture of the envelope was stuck to my fingers. And the invitation was so beautiful. I received the invitation on Tuesday and by Friday I was practically vibrating with excitement over the ball. In my mind, it was a grand, ornate speakeasy where people would be dancing in beautiful clothes all night long.
I was worried that it was just a mass mailing, that I would show up and there would be lines and lines of people waiting to get into some new bar or immersive theater experience. But the elements of the invitation – that hand-drawn calligraphy, the texture of the envelope, the deep blue stationery – felt so special that I knew there was at least the chance of something special happening, and that was enough for me.
I got to the address at 10:45. It was a beautiful apartment building, the old Manhattan kind. Honey-coloured stone, a glass door revealing just a peek of an opulent foyer.
I nearly turned away but then I noticed the name of the building. It was called Masquerade. The word Masquerade immediately made me think of a Masquerade Ball and the mystery of the connection was intoxicating enough to push me through the door. The doorman, dressed in a black suit and a numb expression, simply stared at me as I entered the lobby. The floor was polished white stone and my shoes click-clacked on it, and I noticed an almost imperceptible twitch in the doorman’s left eyelid with each click and clack. The walls were painted beautifully in a deep green, and in my mind it was the same green as the writing on the invitation, though I wondered if I was just forming tenuous associations based on imaginary factors.
I was about to ask him if there was an event at the building but he spoke first, saying in a shockingly high voice, “Take the elevator down to B2, then take the staircase down from there.” He didn’t look me in the eye.
I had thought that there would be lots of other people. If this was a secret premier or a soft launch, everyone who had been invited would have already tweeted about it or texted their friends and everyone and their brother would have been in this lobby. Instead, it was just the doorman and me.
It was exciting. I went to the elevator, one of those old, birdcage-door types, and went down to level B2. The elevators on B2 opened into a hallway that was decorated in the same way as the ornate lobby, gleaming white floors and deep green walls.
The weird thing about the B2 hallway was that, upon investigation, it was not actually a hallway. It looked like a normal hallway, but where most hallways would continue on and lead to something, B2’s led to thick walls on both the left and right sides. There was only one door, to the right of the elevators on the opposite wall. The door was deep red, which stood out garishly against the green wall.
I didn’t hesitate. I went to the door, pulled it open, and found a staircase leading down. It was a spiral, or at least the beginning of one. From my position at the top all I could see were white stone stairs and green walls bending to the left. There was a light overhead, a sloppily arranged but still-appealing cluster of small yellow lights that seemed to drip, like rain, from the ceiling.
I decided to keep the game going. I felt like I was watching a movie of myself, that I was a character in a grand, weird plot. As I continued down, the stairs stayed the same and the lights repeated themselves in a sense. They were all assortments of glowing lights, loosely arranged in a variety of patterns. Like Rumpelstiltskin had left a trail of golden straw-clumps along the ceiling. The walls were what changed. As I descended, step after step for what seemed like thousands of steps, the green walls gradually changed to purple. It was so gradual that when I finally noticed the walls were fully purple, I trotted back up a way to see if the color became more green. And it did.
After descending for quite some time I began to hear noise beneath me. It sounded like some kind of party, heaving bass and a briar patch of different voices. I finally reached the bottom and, finally, the stairs led me through a large doorway and into a grand ballroom. The white stone floor remained, but it was now below a soaring ceiling painted in the same beautiful blue as the stationary. The blue of the ceiling gradually bled into the dark, reddish purple that colored the walls, which were far away on every side. There were hundreds of revellers down with me, all dressed in stereotypical masquerade clothing. Stereotypical but beautiful. Fine suits and intricate gowns and faces all covered in masks. What was odd was that rather than joining the revelry, I stopped the revelry.
All of the other people turned and looked at me and the primary emotion I felt radiate from them was anticipation. As if they expected me to perform. I looked around more closely and realized that I was in a kind-of tunnel within this grand ballroom, a hallway of glass, ten feet tall and ten feet wide, stretching from the stairway. It stretched from the stairs to the far wall where it ended in a dark cavern. The partiers were on either side of the glass tunnel. Instead of joining them, I was being observed by them.
It was all very overwhelming, and I struggled to even imagine what exactly was happening. Then the cheering started. It overtook the crowd and, as the roaring took over, no one was looking at me any longer. They were looking to the far end of my glass tunnel, towards the cavern. Except it was no longer a cavern. It was filled, with a large, round thing. A ball. But rather than a ball of clay or rock or dirt, this ball was a living ball. I don’t know how I knew it was living, but something about the ball told me that it was alive and that it was somehow wrong. Not created by the same means that created me and the other people in this room. Alien? Evil? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The cheering around me increased to a roar. Howls and whistles and screams called out as the revellers pressed themselves to the glass for a better look. And, as their volume increased, I turned to see that the doorway I had come through was now concealed by a large stone door. I turned back and saw that the living ball was no longer in its place; it was rolling towards me with awful, undulating purpose.
I couldn’t turn to run. And such was the roar of the crowd, begging or speaking seemed futile as well. So I walked towards the ball. Though the conclusion seemed inevitable, I wanted to play an active role in it. And, in a final unsettling thought, as the alive and horrible ball rolled quickly towards me and the bloodthirsty crowd cheered, I realized that, despite the horror of my situation, I was excited too.
Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, MIKE MCCLELLAND is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He often collaborates on projects with his brother, Casey (an artist). His first book, Gay Zoo Day, will be released this September by Beautiful Dreamer Press. Other work has appeared in several anthologies and in publications such as Queen Mob’s Tea House, Windmill, Permafrost, Heavy Feather Review, and Cactus Heart, among others. Keep up with him at magicmikewrites.com.
CASEY MCCLELLAND is a painter, potter, and assemblist. Originally from Pennsylvania, Casey has studied at Edinboro University but is primarily a student of the school of life. His technique is largely self-taught and experimental, he often collaborates with his brother Mike (a writer). His work has appeared in several galleries and in literary journals like Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Permafrost, Quail Bell Press, and others. He lives in Georgia with his family. Find him on Instagram @artbycasey.