Some Hostel Company
Matt sat on the edge of his bunk and peered down below him. Sand covered the entire length of the floor, not what one would expect at the average hostel. Before climbing onto his bed, Matt had knelt down in the sand and used his hands as a makeshift bulldozer to shovel down as far as he could go. He gave up after a few feet of nothing but sand and refilled the hole. This would have come as a shock to Matt if he had not been expecting something like this after his encounter with the receptionist.
Matt had collapsed onto the doorstep of an ancient building down a side street in Munich, exhausted from a day’s worth of traveling on his own. The door had swung shut behind him as if carried by a violent gust of wind. A tiny man, with gigantic eyes much too large for his head, sat at the reception desk. His eyes had rolled up to meet Matt’s as he said: “Guten Tag.”
“Möchten Sie ein Zimmer haben?”
“Oh, you only speak English?”
Matt nodded at this and the tiny man dropped his German altogether.
“Do you want to reserve for one room?”
“I’m by myself, yes.”
After the check-in process had been completed, the tiny man beckoned Matt to follow him. They headed towards a corridor that was completely dark, and neither Matt nor the tiny man had means to illuminate the path. Matt asked about this, but the man only laughed and said:
“Schadenfreude would be able to see us if there was extra light here. We also must not make any noise. If she were to catch us in the hallway—”
The man shook his head in a defeated sort of way and a cackle burst forth from his lips. It surged around Matt like an icy blanket. Matt did not know what the man had meant by “Schadenfreude” and did not want to know, so he said nothing. They traipsed down the corridor and then climbed up a flight of rotting stairs. The two of them had reached another hallway and found their way to a ten-foot-tall door.
“Here is your room.”
Then Matt had been left alone, the tiny man sweeping away saying that if Matt would need any assistance, all he had to do was to shout out his name: Karloff.
That high cackle Karloff used in the lobby continued to float around Matt like fog. He tried to focus upon the lamp hooked to the ceiling instead and soon became entranced by it. The light flickered on and off, on the verge of extinction. Something kept flying behind the light bulb’s enclosure, maybe moths. It was a nice moment; it soothed his brain, made him calm, until he could not wait any longer in this serene room full of sand. He had to find a bathroom. He jumped off the top bunk and sprinted out the door with no more time left to waste on lamps.
Matt turned left, grazing his fingertips against the chipping wallpaper and creaking over the sandless floor. Drafts crept past him as his hands clasped around the first frigid door handle he found. He wrenched it open, resting his other hand upon the warped frame.
“Why, look! We have ourselves a visitor!”
Matt jumped backwards at the response and a laugh just as loud as Karloff’s, but girlish and witch-like, rang throughout the room.
“I’m sorry to intrude, I only wanted—”
“Come in, come in!” the woman waved Matt’s muttered apology away like a gnat. “I always appreciate visitors.”
Matt assumed he was talking to some elderly grandma, all wrinkled and wart-infested. Instead, there sat a voluptuous woman with long red hair, luscious red lips, and a long scarlet dress that sparkled underneath a moth-ridden lamp identical to the one in Matt’s room.
“So, my dear, what brings you to Munich? And into my room?”
“Well. . . I’ve been backpacking and—”
“That’s nice. I live here, of course.”
The words took Matt off guard. He knew some people rented rooms for months on end at these places. But, young though this woman seemed, she did not look like she would be the type of individual who would choose this place over a five-star hotel in the middle of the city.
“Cat got your tongue?”
Matt did a half-shrug.
“I see,” the woman rasped. “Well, at least you have a pretty face. Dark hair, black eyes. Muscular. Quite a young man we have! It’s so nice to see the prime of youth walking around this fair city and even here! I can tell you that this is a rarity sometimes. Not all the time, though.”
Matt once again made no response. The woman grinned and showed dazzling white teeth, almost blinding him. Her gaze focused somewhere behind him and Matt swung around, afraid that there would be further visitors. The red-haired woman seemed to have read his mind.
“Oswald! We have guests!”
“I’m on my way, m’dear,” shouted a booming middle-aged man’s voice from the hallway, sharp and terse.
In crawled a tortoise, wearing a top hat and what looked like a cross between a tutu and a lei. Matt did a double-take and leaned against the wall, wondering if he should run out the door right then and there to see if he had left his sanity lying on the main street in town.
“Don’t look so nervous, dear,” the woman said to Matt. “Oswald’s a real nice fellow once you get to know him.”
“Where are your manners, Deirdre?” Oswald roared. “Lend the fellow a chair.”
“All I was doing was looking for the toilet,” Matt mumbled.
Deirdre scoffed and withdrew a long handkerchief from in-between her globular bosoms and dabbed her eyes. She sighed deeply, ready to collapse at the faintest touch.
“Well, well, well. Aren’t we always looking for something?” she moaned.
“I-I guess so,” Matt said, wondering why on earth he felt like shrinking into the floor below him. “But I really, really need to use the bathroom.”
“It’s just down the hall, son,” Oswald barked. “Can’t you see it?”
“It’s a bit dark.”
Deirdre shook her head and turned to the window. “You know what we need, Oswald? Fireworks! Large stupendous loud booming ferocious fireworks!”
“If Karloff would let us have some, I’d set ’em off right here in the building!”
“Not in the hallways though. You know how Karloff gets on about her. . .”
“To hell with Schadenfreude!”
Deirdre gasped at these words and turned back, glaring at the tortoise. “Don’t even say such a thing, especially with the door still open!”
“It’s my opinion. And if that thing hears me, it hears me. I don’t give a damn.”
“So who’s the kid? You haven’t even introduced me to him.”
The two of them gawped at Matt who remained silent, but who still had the urge to melt into his surroundings. When he could not take it any longer, he answered Oswald:
“I’m just a sightseer. Traveling. You know.”
“What an interesting notion, sightseeing,” the tortoise grunted as he finally reached the foot of Deirdre’s bed. “You see quite a few lads and lasses coming through Munich and bunking up, wanting to see what the city’s got to offer. This hostel is more interesting than the city, you know.”
“It is,” Deidre agreed.
“Damn right, it is.”
“I, I should really get going,” Matt said, hoping he would be able to find the bathroom soon, if only to get away from Deirdre and Oswald.
“Oh no, stay, stay!” Deirdre pleaded, her eyelashes batting seductively, not agreeing with her scratchy voice. “You look like the perfect suitemate for us. We’re one person short. Oh, I mean one bed short, ha ha! That means we pay more for our room than we ought. But I refused one of those smaller two-person rooms, too cluttered. The three-persons are a bit more open if you ask me.”
“I’m only staying one night and I already have—”
“Yes, yes, I knew you’d agree with me!” Deirdre smiled widely again.
“You know Deirdre,” Oswald interrupted Matt. “I would not mind a smaller room, closer to the entrance. It takes me ages to get where I need to go.”
“We’ll that’s not my fault, dear.” Deirdre wagged her index finger at Oswald. “You really need to exercise more anyway, strengthens the muscles, builds endurance.”
As Deirdre turned her gaze back to whatever she had been looking at outside and Oswald buried his head within his large olive-colored shell, Matt tiptoed back into the gloomy hallway and quickened his pace. It did not seem as if they noticed his departure that much.
The draft became stronger and Matt began to shiver as he strode on. It didn’t feel like August in there; it felt like March, windy and uncomfortable and lonesome. He wished he had some travelers with him right then, but as his friends remained in Paris unable to accompany him this time around, he would have to make do with whomever he met here. Wandering around the cities always felt better to him, around the bustling people; it didn’t make him feel as alone. Tomorrow morning he would be refreshed and ready to tackle the sights and sounds of Munich.
Minutes passed as Matt continued his bathroom search. The corridor stretched on and on without any desire to end. He felt the odd feeling of curves as he continued to brush his right hand against the wall, now a bare stretch of cement. Suddenly, there came light. It hovered down from above at an approaching intersection. Matt reached that point, looked up, and saw a bluish sphere like a glassy planet. He allowed the glow to shower over him as he stood beneath it. Whichever direction he chose to take would lead him down a seemingly endless route. Matt could not recall this hostel being so large from the outside.
And just then, the floor opened up where Matt stood and he fell. A chute swirling in circles and winding around like a hollow serpent sent Matt cascading down until he crashed in a heap, picking up a cloud of dust and sand. He hoisted himself up, looking around for some sense of direction. The slide must have brought him at least five stories below where he had been standing. But the place where Matt now stood was not a hallway. It looked like a forgotten chamber with a high ceiling almost invisible where he was.
Matt began to walk; this proved to be more difficult than he expected, as if he was being pushed back. He decided to kick with his feet to gain some distance and started to float. It was then that Matt realized that the air seemed to have become water as he had tumbled down the chute. He clutched at his throat on instinct and then, when no water entered into his lungs, he knew this had to have been no ordinary underwater location. But nothing seemed ordinary to him anymore…
“It’s been a long time since someone new has dropped in,” shouted a man from a fair distance away. “There’s almost no one left!”
Matt peered straight ahead, attempting to locate the source of the voice.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Look up, and you’ll see,” a different voice than the man’s instructed.
Without second-guessing this command, Matt did as he was told. A figure sank down, a silhouette barely noticeable in the murky gloom. Matt did a double take and realized that there were two heads on top of the same person.
“He’s noticed our. . .abnormality,” said the head on the left.
“You’re just paranoid,” said the one on the right. “He’s looking at us because we just talked to him.”
“That’s what you think,” replied the head on the left. “I’m sure that he’s itching to crack a joke, or to comment on how bizarre we look!”
Matt gaped at the man with two heads, a wet suit covering his entire body and scuba gear attached to his back. The masks and mouthpieces were draped around his necks, useless. Neon pink flippers were attached to each foot and a boxing glove fit around each hand.
“It’s almost dinner,” said the head on the left.
“I really don’t think he’s what we’re looking for,” said the head on the right.
“I’m sorry,” Matt finally spoke up, his voice as clear as it would have sounded on dry land. “But what do you mean when you say ‘he’?”
“Forget about it,” said the head on the right. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Kurt, and that is Bert.”
“Why do you always have to go introducing me?” Bert protested. He waved his boxing-gloved hand about in a threatening manner. “I can talk about myself quite easily.”
“Just doing the formalities, you know,” Kurt said.
“Although we share a body, we don’t share brains,” Bert reminded him. “And I really would like to speak for myself, if that’s all right with you.”
“I’m not going to waste my breath on this issue,” Kurt laughed. “All I’m saying is that we need to find some meat, and that stupid übelfisch has gotten away from us again!”
“I really think the Germans should call it something else. I can never pronounce that word!”
“It’s not tough,” Kurt retorted. “Just because you’ve never took the time out to practice your German!”
“Well, that ubbofish has probably gone far away by now,” Bert grumbled.
“Not that far. We’ve been through these enchanted waters. All over them. He’ll come back. But right now, we have something to capture here!”
Kurt jerked his head in Matt’s direction. Bert glanced that way and leapt back in the water, bringing Kurt’s head along for the ride.
“Where’d he go?”
Matt had crept past them while Kurt and Brent were in conversation. He had turned left down a thin passageway and hid inside a seaweed-strewn armoire, reeking of misuse.
“After him,” Kurt commanded from what felt like miles away, to Matt at least.
“Why are you giving me that order, you idiot!”
Matt chanced a peek out of the doors and noticed the two-headed man flippering past and disappearing from sight. Silent as a ghost, Matt left the armoire and breast-stroked in the opposite direction from which he had come.
He made a few more turns, each corridor the same as the last, long and devoid of anything besides splintered chairs, shipwrecks, and long skeletons of what Matt assumed to be übelfisch. Flashing ivory in the dim light, these bones rose and curved and flooded Matt’s mind with museum dinosaur exhibits. He swam around these displays in awe as miniscule particles floated about in the almost stagnant water.
“Who goes there?”
This particular voice echoed around the room, inflections of severity clinging to each syllable. Matt stopped his swimming and looked about for any signs of movement.
“State your name,” it shouted again.
He felt it best to tell the loud voice the truth.
“State your age.”
“State where you are from.”
“M-Milwaukee, but I’m currently stationed, uh, studying in Paris.”
“State the reason you are here.”
“I wanted to use the bathroom.”
There was a pause and Matt continued to glance around so he could locate the voice, but no one came into view.
“You wanted to use the bathroom,” it recited Matt’s words.
An indistinct snicker floated over to Matt, who desired more than anything to be back in his room, alone, without any form of living breathing contact anywhere. He did not like the voice; he did not like where he was; he did not like anything about the hostel really. Why he sauntered through the front doors of this hostel, he did not know. He really wanted to be heading through them again, out this time, far away from this place.
“How did you manage to make it all the way down here?” the voice asked.
“I just. . .found my way here,” Matt replied.
“You must have been swimming for a long time!”
“I’ve swum in high school and college. Been doing it forever. It doesn’t bother me.”
“And all you wanted to do was use the bathroom,” the voice repeated condescendingly.
Matt did not know how what else to say but yes.
“You could have done it at any time while you’ve been here, in this subterranean lair. Now even. No one would have been any the wiser.”
After these words were uttered, Matt felt the slight inclination to obey, but he held it in. Another laugh broke the silence and it spoke again.
“Shouldn’t you be heading back to your room, now?”
“Who are you?”
The words spilled out of Matt before he could stop himself. He could hear a faint rustling of something in the shadows ahead of him. A snout edged forward from the shadows. The rest of the body followed it: a long, slender, scaly, green body. It did not match the size of the skeleton Matt floated next to; it was much smaller, like a normal fish, except that its tail flashed gray and green. Its mouth moved like loose flapping flesh.
“My name is Hal. I’m one of the few übelfisch who remain in this habitat. You have trespassed on our grounds.”
“If you are an übelfisch, then what is this?” Matt pointed to the skeleton.
“That was the past ruler of this lair. A mutated species we called Gil. We took over this lair when Gil’s totalitarian regime got out of hand, when his unsavory and unorthodox way of running things became too much for us, and for him, to handle. We had no rights; we did not enjoy our lives. With him now gone, and some incompetent human running the hostel above ground, we’re free to move about in peace and do whatever we want. Without anyone being any the wiser. Except…”
Hal paused here, his bulbous eyes swiveling left and right as if afraid something would be waiting in the darkness for the best moment to attack.
“There is a man – another mutant like Gil – who found his way here through that same chute. Two heads on one body. Let’s say this thing, for lack of a better word, found its way here and hasn’t left. It’s been trying to hunt us for the past few weeks and it won’t step back!”
“Maybe they like to eat fish,” Matt suggested.
“We are not mere fish!” Hal narrowed his eyes and edged even closer to Matt. “We are übelfisch, a vastly superior type of aquatic creature, and we do not take kindly to being someone else’s prey or being thought of as such. We’ve fought back, but have been unable to eradicate the two-headed fiend. We’re making progress, though, on a device that will surely defeat it. The drawback is that right now, it’s been quite difficult to not cause ourselves harm in the process.”
“What are you making?” Matt asked. But he mind was on other things. He focused upon how he might be able to return to his sand-filled room, which seemed an almost normal place compared to this one. He would be alone in there. And that wouldn’t be bad at all! Away from Deirdre, from Kurt and Burt. Away from Hal and his weapon. Away from everyone.
“What are you making?” Matt repeated when no one answered him.
“I will not divulge this information to you!” Hal shouted at once. “It is top secret and no one will find out about this special weapon, especially not you!”
Hal twisted around again as he said this and another fish identical to him appeared.
“It’s only me, Hal,” it assured him. “The reactor is ready. Countdown will begin soon.”
“Reactor? Countdown?” Matt shouted before he could stop himself.
Alone, I just want to be alone, away from these fish, away from everything, just someplace normal, someplace normal, NORMAL. . .
“Shut up!” Hal screeched at the other übelfisch’s slip. “Idiot! He now knows! We will have to get rid of this human now that he knows about our nuclear reactor.”
“What? Human?” the other übelfisch exclaimed in fear. “Do you know who it is?”
“It’s someone who will be dead in less then ten seconds.”
“And look who will be ours for dinner,” a familiar voice surged around them all.
“It’s the two-headed fiend!”
“Look! That human along with two übelfisch,” Kurt said to Bert, who rolled his eyes at the words. “I think we should tackle them both. Think we can do it?”
Kurt and Bert charged with boxing gloves poised, ready to punch. Both übelfisch lunged at Matt, who was ready for whatever quick movement there might have been. He cleaved through the water as fast as he could in the other direction. He knew that, even though his strength in swimming could help him here, the two übelfisch would catch up almost instantly. But two whacks pierced through the water like a knife. Matt looked back and saw both übelfisch motionless on the floor.
“Dinner is served!” Bert bellowed with delight.
“What about him?” Kurt pointed a boxing glove at Matt.
“Let him be.”
“No! I want to nab him also. Look at him! He’s just here, all alone, no one to talk to and no one to miss him! He’s just begging to be sautéed!”
Either Bert did not need telling twice, or Kurt had taken over the lower extremities. The two-headed man pushed off and began to freestyle in Matt’s direction. Matt resumed his hurried strokes as well and cut down corridors, attempting to find his way out of the murky labyrinth underneath the hostel. A cramp began to sear in his side, but Matt gritted his teeth and pressed on. He knew endurance; he knew not to stop even for a little pain. He swam and swam and swam, the frenzied shouts (mainly by Kurt) snapping around his ears like mousetraps.
One final turn and Matt found the chute. He aimed directly at the entrance like a torpedo and began a very troublesome upwards lurch. Matt wondered if Kurt and Bert could fit through the chute with all their scuba gear, or even without it. Without him realizing when it had happened, Matt found himself breaking the water’s surface and climbing up the chute, his hands wet, slipping on the sides. He went up, up, up until he found his way back to where the floor had dropped out from under him earlier that evening.
“My dear, what has happened to you?”
That old scratchy voice. Deirdre. She ran towards him, breasts swinging about like pendulums and her hair flying behind her almost as if on fire. And she continued to run with her arms outstretched talking the entire time.
“We wondered if you had fallen into the toilet or had gotten lost! Oswald didn’t dare rush out of the room. Too much exertion could do him in. But, oh dear me, it looks like you did fall into the toilet! The toilets here are abnormally large. I tend to fall in them from time to tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii
Despite her curvy frame, Deirdre was still thin enough to fall through the opening. And she did. Down that chute into that odd water-logged lair below where Kurt and Bert remained.
Alone again. No noise. No shouts. Nothing. Matt grinned in the faint light and sat down next to the hole in the ground. He began to hum to himself. He wondered if there were other people at the hostel tonight, where they were, what they were. He wondered if they had come in alone or with people. Deirdre had arrived ages ago with a large tortoise as a companion; Kurt and Bert stayed for a bit and found the same trap floor Matt had.
Matt hummed a bit louder.
Karloff might still be at the front desk, waiting for new guests. Or he might be in bed, thinking to himself how brilliant he was, and still is, to run a place that people can spend the night without suspecting that the corridors are actually rampant with strange guests and other oddities one would never find anywhere else.
The humming began to echo around the hall and Matt noticed how loud he was being.
A woman materialized out of thin air, a skinny transparent woman in rags. She hovered over Matt, who stopped his humming at once.
“You’ve ruined my concentration,” she said in a vacant ethereal voice.
“I’m sorry?” Matt did not know what else to say.
“I was trying to hear the woman’s screams of help, of pain, of misfortune. After you had escaped, there was nothing for me to experience down there, except for the two-headed man’s fury at losing you. Now that woman’s down there. She began to scream and you broke… my… concentration…”
Matt did not understand what she was talking about.
“You destroyed my train of thought! I must always concentrate, and there must be complete silence around me, in these hallways, for me to do so! There must be a way for me to focus, no light to blind me, to distract me. Didn’t the puny Karloff warn you? Didn’t he do as he was asked by me?”
The woman’s face got brighter and brighter, her eyes redder and redder, as anger pulsed with every second. Karloff did warn Matt about bothering Schadenfreude; he remembered it now, loud and clear as if it was a blue sunny day in his memory.
“You shall have to make me concentrate again,” she ordered. “You must make me concentrate. You cannot escape it. It shall be your punishment. And I shall receive my pleasure from your punishment. And everything will be set right.”
Matt could not disobey. What else could he do, but listen to this woman?
So he leapt back into the hole, coiled down through the chute and waited.
The water comes swelling around him again, and Kurt and Bert will be waiting nearby with Deirdre, and a nice cozy reunion will begin when Matt reaches the bottom.