Lachlan tried to run, but his legs buckled underneath him as he fled through the door, and the carpet burned his hands and face as he hit the floor. He lifted his head just enough to look up in front of him–no sign of Sam.
The creature let out another shrieking roar that rattled his ears and reverberated through the room.
It was a hallucination, he decided. It had to be. He’d been dosed with enough of fuck-knows-what to knock him out for several hours and render his legs all but useless.
Lachlan flipped onto his back to look up at the monster. One of its limbs was wrapped around Sam, holding him several feet off the floor. Sam thrashed and floundered, kicking at nothing as he tried in vain to pry himself free.
The monster began lifting Sam toward its yawning mouth. He screamed, his desperate thrashing becoming faster and more frantic.
I should probably help him, Lachlan thought. Just in case I’m not hallucinating.
Lachlan removed his shoe and hurled it at the monster. It landed in the creature’s mouth, and its jaws clamped shut. It began to make loud retching sounds as its limbs spasmed outward, dropping Sam to the floor.
Sam remained motionless on the floor, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.
“What are you doing?” Lachlan shouted. “Get up! Run!”
Sam pulled himself to his feet and stood still for a moment. Then, as though he had suddenly remembered how to move his legs, he dashed across the room and through the door toward Lachlan. He slammed the door behind him, stepped over Lachlan, and collapsed against the wall onto the floor.
“I get that you’re collapsing in relief,” said Lachlan, “but there’s still a hideous monster separated from us by a single wall.”
Sam stared at the wall across from him, unresponsive. On the other side of the door, the monster was continuing to retch.
“Maybe we should, oh, I don’t know. Get farther away from it or something? Just a thought?”
Sam didn’t move.
“Sam? Yoo-hoo.” Lachlan crawled toward the nearest wall and tried to push himself into a standing position. “My motor control isn’t exactly top-notch right now, so if you wanted to stand up and help me, that would be superb.”
Sam turned his head from the wall to Lachlan, then slowly, almost mechanically, climbed to his feet. He walked over to Lachlan, pulled him to his feet, and helped support his weight as they made their way away from the sound of the creature. The carpet was filthy, Lachlan realized. He could feel bits of dirt and debris sticking to his socked left foot as he walked.
“Okay,” said Lachlan. “So I know you’re thinking the same thing as me here. What the entire motherfuck was that?”
Sam didn’t respond.
“Sam? Sammy?” Lachlan waved a hand in front of Sam’s face. “Samuel? Samantha? Samurai? Sampling distribution?”
“Stop.” Sam used his free hand to swat Lachlan’s hand out of his face.
“Ah! He speaks. I was beginning to think that thing devoured your soul or something.”
“Just…” Sam’s voice was stilted. “Shut… shut…”
The way he was speaking, as though each word was a monumental effort, reminded Lachlan a little of the way he’d felt immediately after waking from his drug-induced unconsciousness.
“Shut what? Shuttlecock? Shutterbug? Shut the front door?”
Lachlan knew it was mean to pester someone who was clearly shaken by a brush with death, but he felt as though he had to fill the silence somehow. He was usually okay with silence, but right now, not talking would mean processing whatever he’d just seen, and he wasn’t quite ready to do that.
“Me annoying? No, me Tarzan. You annoying,” said Lachlan. “You’re welcome for saving your life, by the way.”
Sam was silent for a moment. Then he spoke, sounding a little less mechanical.
“It… wasn’t real. This isn’t… isn’t real.” He paused and let out a heavy exhale. When he spoke again, his voice was normal. “There’s no way a creature like that could exist. It was a rectangle with over 100 arms and a giant mouth. How would something like that even evolve?”
“Yeah, I had that thought too. There’s a very substantial chance that this entire experience is part of my drug-induced fever nightmare,” said Lachlan.
“No,” said Sam. “No, it’s not your dream. It’s mine. You’re not real either.”
“You mean you dream about being heroically rescued by other men? Gay.”
“That’s not…” Sam’s face reddened a bit. “That’s… no. I’m not… I have a girlfriend.”
“I’m sure you do, mate.” Lachlan patted Sam’s back.
“I… I do. Her name is Jen. And you didn’t heroically rescue me. You threw a shoe,” said Sam. “I would have escaped on my own if you hadn’t.”
“You’re so ungrateful. I’ll have you know, I’d only just bought these shoes and I really liked them,” said Lachlan. “And escaped on your own? You were in a weird stupor. You couldn’t even speak until a moment ago.”
“I wasn’t in a stupor. A stupor is a state of near-complete unresponsiveness. If I had been in a stupor, I wouldn’t have been able to help you up or process your speech.” Sam smirked. “The term you’re looking for is–“
“See, this? This is why I don’t believe you have a girlfriend.”
“–the term you’re looking for is stuporous catatonia.”
“Which, unfortunately for me, you don’t seem to be experiencing anymore.”
“Shut up. You’re not even real. None of this is,” said Sam.
“Do you want to know what I think?” said Lachlan.
“Absolutely not,” said Sam.
“I think the nature of reality is unknowable.”
Sam squinted at him. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t understand?” Lachlan shook his head. “I thought you were meant to be a genius or something. I mean that for all you know, your entire perception of a world beyond your mind could be a dream or an illusion.”
Sam frowned but didn’t respond, so Lachlan continued.
“For all you know, you’re just a disembodied brain in a jar hooked up to a computer program, and your entire life is a simulation in a mad scientist’s lab.”
Lachlan thought Sam was attempting to roll his eyes, but he wasn’t sure because Sam was squinting so much from his lack of glasses.
“That’s stupid. A computer program that elaborate wouldn’t be feasible to create. Besides, a disembodied brain wouldn’t be able to survive like that.”
“But can you prove it’s not true?”
“I don’t need to. It’s an idiotic theory.”
“Tsk, tsk.” Lachlan shook his head again. “And here, I thought you were a man of science.”
“What do you know about science anyway? Does the scientific method come up a lot at Chaz’s Chicken Shack?”
“It’s Chicken Hut. Not Chicken Shack. And I read a lot of books.”
Sam raised an eyebrow in what Lachlan thought was an attempt at a smug expression, but without his glasses it only made him look squintier.
“Books are an inferior method of learning. They’re very ineffective at conveying information.”
“I’m surprised you’d say that. You struck me as the bookish loser type.”
Sam snorted. “Hardly.”
“Just the regular loser type then?”
“I’m a loser? Three words for you. Chaz’s Chicken Shack.”
“Hut, not Shack. Maybe if you read more books, it would improve your memory.”
“For your information, I have a near-photographic memory.”
As Sam pulled him through a door, something caught his eye on the room floor. Two black high-heeled shoes lay discarded on their sides, as though their wearer had kicked them off in a hurry.
“Wait,” said Lachlan. “Do you see those on the floor?”
Sam squinted. “Two small, black blobs?”
“They’re girls’ shoes.”
“So all these rooms are completely empty, with the exception of the one containing our horrifying quadrilateral friend back there. Then suddenly we find some girl’s shoes? Don’t you think that’s weird?”
Sam shrugged, jostling Lachlan a bit. Lachlan let go of Sam’s shoulders, pushed him away, and leaned against the door frame.
“All dreams are weird. It’s less weird than a man-eating tentacle rectangle.”
“Don’t you get it? These don’t belong. Someone left them here,” said Lachlan.
“Wait a minute,” said Sam. “Are they black? And sort of shiny with a strap thing on them?”
“I was at work, and I heard a girl screaming for help, so I went to go look for her,” said Sam. “I found this girl Chelsea’s key card in a weird lab next to this machine, and then–“
“And then everything got all green and fucky and you ended up here?”
“Not how I would have phrased it, but yes.”
“Let me guess. This Chelsea chick was wearing these shoes?”
Sam nodded. “Which means that if this is real, she has to be somewhere in here too.”
“The real question we have yet to address,” said Lachlan, “is where the fuck ‘here’ actually is.”