Night 2 / Chapter 4: "Choice and Consequence"
The days in Gregory's world were only a little better than the nights. The sky, no matter how bright, was always filled with a blanket of grey clouds. You got used to it eventually, but those who could remember clear skies always felt something of a longing for it. Henry sat on his bed, back against the wall, looking out of the single window. He still felt weak, and he was sure something was wrong with him. Everything that had happened could not be real, especially the last events. That baby and the two dogs were too horrifying. Catherine was real. Painfully so. He could still see the red puncture mark on his chest. Even though it had healed over for the most part, there was still a scarlet circle where the needle had gone in. He was scared. He was in fear for his life here. Hiding behind every corner was something that wanted to kill him. As he lay there, he heard a sound coming through the wall, a soft meowing. A cat? Henry thought. He remembered seeing the door of the room it was coming from. It was a heavy, metal one with a padlock. The poor thing was trapped inside, and Henry knew it was only right to go investigate…or he would if he could walk more than three steps. He toppled over, catching the doorknob on the wardrobe for support. It swung open to reveal a long, ornately carved walking stick with a handle shaped like a lion's head. It was identical to the one his grandfather used – now there was a man who died happily, surrounded by family, painless and with no regrets. Henry cautiously took hold of the stick and used it to pull himself to his feet. It even made the same pleasant, strong noise as it tapped the floor. It was a sound that always made him feel safe. It never occurred to him to wonder how it happened to be there. He was just thankful for the familiarity. With his new silent companion in hand, Henry opened his door and made his way to the locked one. Leaning down to stare through the keyhole, he was interrupted by a voice.
"Oh, good morning, my friend," Gregory chirped. "What were you doing?"
"I-I heard s-sounds…in there," said Henry.
"Oh, don't you worry about him," Gregory waved it off. "He's one of our more, ah…boisterous guests, we'll say. Come now, breakfast is about to be served. You're as white as a sheet. Some food will do you good."
"Oh, um…" Henry said nothing more. He really did not want to eat, but he had no supplies of his own and due to his medical condition, he had to raise his sugar levels or risk falling into a coma. He followed the old manager to the dining room, where a single long, wooden table surrounded by chairs took up the majority of the available space. Catherine (Henry shuddered), Marilyn, a small mouse with brownish fur and blonde hair and what appeared to be nothing short of a human-sized cactus with a thick black moustache and wavy hair. He wore a poncho and an orange bandanna around his neck. A bandolier was draped over his shoulder and a sombrero rested on the table just to his right. All of them were well into their breakfasts, apart from Marilyn who was simply sipping a cup of coffee. Henry took a seat beside her, wincing when Catherine flicked her long tongue in his direction.
"I'm sure the Chef can whip you up something quick," said Gregory, handing him a menu.
"Oh…toast will be fine," replied Henry, "with a tea…uh, sweetener not sugar, if you have it."
"That's very specific," Gregory tittered. "All right, I'll see what I can do." He took the menu back and walked through the double doors. Marilyn leaned towards him.
"Diabetic?" she asked quietly.
"Mm-hmm," Henry mumbled. He shifted a section of the table-cloth so he could hide his midriff while he readied the insulin pen in his trouser pocket. He never liked doing it in the company of others. Injecting into the flesh of his stomach always hurt, but it was easier to cover than his thighs. There was an almighty roar from the kitchen that shook the table.
"TOAST?!" it bellowed. Henry paled when he recognised it as the other one from his first trip to the nurse's room. The doors flew open as the chef burst out and stormed towards him while swinging a giant cleaver longer than he was tall. He wore a traditional chef's uniform with a red neckerchief, apron and a very long toque that covered most of his face in shadow. A few strands of sandy hair poked out from beneath and two blood red eyes glowed. A flame flickered brightly atop the toque.
"You!" the Chef lowered his blade at Henry's throat. "You are the one who wants toast?!"
"Urk…!" Henry choked.
"As you wish," the Chef growled, "but make no mistake, it will be the greatest toast you have ever tasted!" He waddled back into the kitchen lightning-quick. Henry, shaking like a leaf, turned to look at Marilyn. Everyone else was staring at him. It was incredible that someone had led the Chef to explode with such passion yet did not suffer his wrath.
"He's always like that," the lady mouse shrugged. "Passionate, I guess." She looked at the cactus and spat, "What're you lookin' at, Gunman?"
"Perdón, señorita," said the cactus in a thick Spanish accent, "your amigo, I suddenly am feeling like I have seen him before." He turned to Henry. "Oye, hombre flaco, after dees, joo an' me, we play cards, sí?"
"Oh, uh…sí?" Henry smiled nervously.
"TOAST!" the Chef roared as he emerged from the kitchen and slid a plate in front of the frightened man. "The finest toast this side of the Sea of Souls! Enjoy!" He was gone again. Henry stared at what had been served to him. Two slices prepared to a golden colour, buttered evenly and sliced into two triangles. A knife and four round plastic tubs ringed the plate, each containing a different spread. Set down beside this was a cup of steaming, rich brown tea. Pulling the cloth to cover his stomach again as he jabbed the insulin pen into his skin, he gingerly spread marmalade onto the first slice and took a bite. It was pretty good, which was a surprising assessment of toast.
"Nice to see the colour coming back in your cheeks," said Marilyn. "Catherine can get…overzealous." She said the last part loud enough for the pink lizard to hear. Catherine snorted, put down her fork and stalked out of the room, leaving the fringes of her unfinished breakfast.
The Cactus Gunman's room was on the first floor of the hotel, and after introducing the hombre flaco to his little sister, they both sat down for a game of Texas Hold 'em. Henry was happy for the game to go seemingly ordinarily. It was the first moment of normalcy he had been privy to since he arrived at Gregory House, or so it appeared to be. It was his turn, and suddenly he realised there was a card in his hand that had not been there before. He looked up and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
"Eh, amigo," the gunman growled. "I think joor steecky feengers have been helping themselves to my hand, joo know? Een Cactus Land, we don't take kindly to dees, understand?"
"I-I didn't…!" Henry started. The gunman pulled the trigger, but through some miracle, the bullet missed by yards, blowing a hole through the little sister's sombrero. The gunman's eyes widened as he stared at the anger building in the smaller cactus' expression.
"Well I had fun but I'll take my leave now!" Henry said quickly. "Cheerio!" With that, he grabbed his walking stick and made for the door. As he tried to escape down the hallway, a lasso looped itself around his shoulders and dragged him back so he landed painfully on his side. The little sister pushed him onto his stomach and sat down hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him (and propelling his glasses along the carpet).
"There ees no 'cheerio,' amigo," sneered the gunman, with his gun primed again. "Dees time, I do not mees. Adios, muchacho!"
"Brother…you meesed again…!" the little sister groaned. She toppled over with a big hole in her cow-skin waistcoat.
"Seester!" the gunman dashed over to her. "Ay-ay-ay! ¡Hermana! ¿Son usted bien? ¡Hábleme! ¡Dígame eso usted me odia!"
"Is…is she all right?" Henry gasped, edging closer. He realised it was stupid to hang around when these people had tried to shoot him stone dead but his conscience was so heavy already he simply could not ignore them.
"¡Soy un tiro terrible!" the gunman babbled. "Open joor eyes, seester, and I promise to never peeck up a gon again!" Henry's hand met the Mexican man's cheek before he even realised what he was doing.
"Calm down!" he snapped. "Get her into your room and check the damage, if it's really bad then apply a tourniquet."
"A-amigo," stuttered the gunman, "joo must tell Señorita Cathereen."
Henry shook his head. "There's no way we can let that repulsive reptile near her, I'll try and call the hospital. Shift yourself. Go! ¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!"
"S-sí, entiendo," the gunman nodded very quickly, lifting his unconscious sibling and scampering back into the room they shared at the end of the hallway. It was only when they were gone that Henry allowed himself to whine in pain and begin plucking the cactus needles out of his skin. As he walked down the stairs towards the atrium, it occurred to him how odd the gunman's speech patterns became. He had seen it in a million films, characters speaking English with random ethnic phrases chucked in. A certain Mexican cartoon character came to mind. He understood completely if the gunman had reverted to his native tongue when panicking for his sister's safety, so why did it…no, thinking back in it, there was no discernable crack in the speech. It just happened, as if he willed it to. He had, to some degree, worked out that this world did not work on the principles of his own. Maybe willpower did play a role in how it worked?
"Ugh, too much pseudo-science," he murmured. "This isn't Hitchhiker's Guide…"
He reopened his eyes and saw what he had been looking for. A red telephone sat on the desk. Gregory was absent, but so what? The cactus girl could be in trouble. He lifted the phone's receiver and fished around in his pocket until he found a coin, which he slipped into the money slot.
"This phone does not accept small change!" an impatient voice snapped. Henry growled and took out a five pound note. There was a light whirr as it was pulled through the slot, then the next thing Henry knew, the receiver walloped him across the side of the head and the phone was running away across the atrium. That did it. Henry released an indignant roar and pursued the phone. The bruise rising on his temple was already throbbing, but that just seemed to fuel him. He was bigger and with a much greater stride than the phone and in no time at all he was upon it.
"Look up," he snarled and swung his walking stick down. The phone screamed as it shattered into fragments. Wires and bits of plastic flew in all directions and its receiver was split perfectly down the middle. Henry reached into the mess and retrieved his money. He was breathing heavily. Damn, that felt really, really good. He was venting his frustration and it was such a rush that he wanted more. He spun on his heels, cane raised, and shouted, "Who else wants some?!"
There was no answer. The hotel seemed dead now, silent save for the crackle of the burning torches on the walls and the tick-tock of a clock somewhere. He fell against the wall and closed his eyes. Even the thrice-damned phone was alive. Was he alone? Well and truly alone, with nothing to help him save himself? No hero, no shortcut, no plot device. Just him. He squeezed the cane tightly in both hands and stayed like that, letting the cold sweat roll down his face. He gazed back up the hallway, pleading for an escape, but it was impossibly long now, the throat of some great and terrible beast. Then he heard it. Grinding, like a hook along a metal pole…or a…rail? It was distant and silent at first, then it steadily grew louder, sliding towards him, and there was another noise. Singing. It was a haunting, repetitive tune that bored into his brain, from a voice that oozed with honey and poison.
"Do you know who I am?
They call me Judgement Boy!"
It continued as such, again and again, and the grinding became louder. Henry looked up, and indeed he saw a complicated system of rails criss-crossing in the black ceiling. The song was now echoing off the walls in every direction, as if it were coming from the structure of the hotel itself. Henry turned until he nearly fell over. From the inky depths of the throat emerged the culprit. Its head was like that of a small boy with a pink nose and blonde hair under a stripy pointed cap (it was this cap that it used to travel). Its body was a pyramid emblazoned with the words 'THE JUDGEMENT DAY,' in jet black text. Two ball-shaped five-ton weights hung on a chain beneath the pyramid. It arms were perfectly straight and from each one there hung a metal birdcage on thinner chains. The cage on Henry's right carried a nugget of glistening gold while the one on his left contained a glowing pink love-heart.
"Juuudgement!" the scale-creature hollered as it came to a stop in front of him, revealing two rows of teeth sharp like knives. "You are a film-maker. Your producer wants you to write and direct a new project but you have writer's block. Your wife, whom you love, is working on a new book, one that suits your criteria…what will you do?"
"What…what are you implying?!" Henry shouted at it. "Who do you think you are?! I…I would never…I…!" He was unable to finish the sentence.
"Are you saying that you would tell your producer you have nothing for her?" the thing asked slyly. "Well, I say we should consult the balance of truth." The scales began to bob up and down and the pyramid tilted back and forth in time with them. "If you try to weigh your money against your love, there is no doubt your heart will start to sway. If you try to weigh your love against your money, your heart will start to break. Judgement…!"
The scales began to spin. Faster and faster they went until they were just a blur of strobe lights. They jarred to a halt with a cry of, "Now!" The bottom of one of the cages popped open and the heart fell to the floor where it shattered like glass. Henry felt the air leaving his lungs and his nerves burning as the creature's words echoed in his head, dragging up memories he had been fighting back for over a year.
"You are so desperate you steal your wife's work and show it to your producer!" it said. "She is disgraced by your betrayal. It was your choice. You get to live with it." At this last part, its voice became deeper and stern. The now lopsided thing turned and began to roll away down the rails, singing its merry ditty once more before fading into the shadows. Henry dropped to his knees and buried his face in his hands. For what felt like hours he knelt there, sobbing and wailing. It was true! What a disgusting, vile little beast he was!
"I'm sorry," he choked, "I'm so, so sorry…"
Henry looked up. Standing in front of him was the saddest child he had ever seen. She wore a green dress covered in mismatched patches and stitches that reminded him of Cinderella, and her auburn hair was tied in two drooping pigtails. Her eyes were puffy from crying and she was holding out both her stubby hands in wanting. She hiccoughed and wiped tears from her cheeks though they were soon replaced by fresh ones.
"Have you seen my dolly?"