The Escher Institute

By David Michael Newstead.

A short story based on the art of M.C. Escher.

The asylum had no bars, no guards, no gates or locks. But its confines were inescapable – a maze of staircases and corridors that never ended. One dimly lit hallway just led to another and another after that and so on. It was maddening. Damon had spent days climbing up and down the concrete steps, trying to find a way out. Yet whenever he got close to an exit it was like the architecture contorted and he would get lost again. Before long, the basement, the top floor, and everything in-between practically merged into one continuous labyrinth. Had he been going in circles this whole time, he wondered. Which way was up?

Around him, the other inmates were too far gone. They’d become catatonic. Most would wander aimlessly. One man huddled on the floor in a fetal position, tears rolling down his face. Meanwhile, a hospital orderly roamed the halls distributing multi-colored pills in small paper cups.

If only Damon could find a window, he thought, he’d throw the orderly out of it. He’d jettison all that medication and every stupefied prisoner would start thinking clearly again. Then, to break free, everyone would smash through the walls if they had to and leave the building burning behind them! Instead, Damon watched each patient swallow their doses, further turning their brains to mush. He had successfully evaded hospital staff for the time being, but it was impossible to do that forever. He knew he had to escape and soon.

Dealing with the orderlies was one thing, but the giant millipedes that stalked the facility were another problem entirely. They would slither and crawl along the ceilings and floors and walls at night, devouring whoever they found. He was sure of it! Damon had once seen three of the creatures rip a man to pieces, while he hid in a passageway looking on. Their legs would clatter against the tiles as they went by. Their jaws snapped open and closed. And their eyes were fat, glossy orbs that seemed to gaze in every direction at once. Where these eight foot long monsters crept out from, he didn’t know. In the daytime, they disappeared only to resurface again in the dark like cockroaches.

Because of that, he hadn’t slept in days. Paranoid and desperate, Damon raced through the halls, passing the same rooms innumerable times. It was as if he could go down a stairwell forever without reaching the bottom. Then, it dawned on him. The asylum had no entrance and no exit, no fixed layout. And how he got there in the first place became harder to recall.

When Damon finally collapsed, he’d been awake for two weeks straight. He sat with his back against a stone column. By then, he was exhausted and confused. And although he didn’t notice at first, a cup of assorted capsules somehow materialized in the palm of his hand. Their bright colors stood out against the dull gray prison all around him, stood out against his own pale skin. A dozen of the tablets stared up at him for more than an hour. As the minutes dragged on, Damon slipped in and out of consciousness. He didn’t remember taking the medication. He’d just rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair. Then, he realized the pills were slowly dissolving underneath his tongue. Damon panicked, but it was too late. The pharmaceuticals were already taking hold and he could feel his mind start to go numb.

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Ascending and Descending (1960)

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Relativity (1953)

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Convex and Concave (1955)

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House of Stairs (1951)

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Cycle (1938)

Return to the Salvador Dimension

By David Michael Newstead.

A short story based on paintings by Salvador Dali. Read Part One.

Sometimes in my dreams, I still saw that strange place. But all that was left were the fragments of a memory, dark and ghoulish, of a world that was not this one. In quick succession, those pictures flashed through the corridors of my mind as absurd as they were horrifying. Then in a panic, I woke up and I breathed heavy, having had the same nightmare again.

Years had passed and my time in that other dimension seemed so distant to me. Had I imagined it all, I often wondered. Had I hallucinated the whole thing and that old fool who took me there?

No! No, I told myself again and again. That place was real. I knew it had happened, because my mind would never, could never concoct the things I saw there. My fear then wasn’t for my own sanity. Even now, sitting up in bed, I was lucid and aware. Instead, I was afraid just how far this went – how deeply these abnormal truths burrowed into every corner of reality and if the monsters I found in that place would ever pull me back again.

I couldn’t sleep. In the day-to-day world, I felt numb and out of touch. Increasingly detached, I walked around like an automaton, not a person. I felt as if my life was slipping away according to the tyranny of some mundane clock. Or perhaps part of me realized I was always destined to return to that dimension I had left so long ago.

Time passed. Then one day, it happened. I was standing on a train platform checking my watch when suddenly it began to melt from my wrist. In an instant, stainless steel seemed to turn into liquid mercury that rolled off my skin like drops of rain. When I looked up, the rest of the world was falling away too, dissolving right in front of me. Then, something else came into view.

I stumbled forward at first. It was difficult to see, but once I could I wished I was blind to the horror. My eyes watered as smoke filled my nostrils. Then, I heard shots ring out in every direction. Just ahead, there were lines of riflemen and nameless legions, stretching into the distance leveling chaotic volleys of gunfire at each other. Dying men whaled in agony and I tried to run back, but our normal world had disappeared behind me. In its place, soldiers’ bodies littered the ground. Overhead, something shrieked and flew by me. Then, an explosion followed and knocked me down face first. Deafening and bright, flames erupted over the battlefield and, in shock, I covered my ears.

When I raised my head again, creatures not-quite-human were wandering by, wounded and disoriented from the blast. They made noises I can’t begin to describe. Then, the earth underneath my feet started to rumble with the sound of approaching cavalry. The victors had arrived it seemed, already finishing off the last of their opponents in a war without rhyme or reason. On my left flank, the first wave of them descended onto anything in their path, while another group encircled the few of us who survived. Desperate to escape the slaughter, I ran and crawled across the ground looking for cover, but there was nothing. Nothing, but pathetic twigs and pebbles that jutted out from the dirt and wouldn’t protect a man from so much as a sunburn. And when that galloping monstrosity appeared in front of me, I cringed and thought this must be the end!

A moment passed without death and I looked up, awestruck. After all, if the old man hadn’t intervened when he did I surely would have been trampled into oblivion. I was cowering in the middle of a field, dusty and helpless, when he strode out to protect me. Confident and possibly insane, he was disheveled and nude, driven mad by this dimension of oddities. The only thing more crazed and unruly than his eyes, I thought, was his facial hair. But it didn’t seem to matter. He projected all the authority of a thousand generals, screaming at the top of his lungs.

“Stay back!” The old man yelled to the horses and pack animals. “Back I say!”

And for reasons I won’t ever understand, they listened to him, rearing up with fright only inches away from crushing the both of us. Around me, the orgy of violence was fast subsiding. And this crazy old fool had stalled them for just long enough.

I was still trembling on the ground when the real world started to come back into view. While those beasts hesitated to charge forward, their dimension had gradually dissipated into a fog and then the fantasy as I laid there on that same train platform like a lunatic.

“No… No.” I muttered, now waving my hands at nothing. Back in our own dimension, other commuters ignored me the way you disregard anyone talking to themselves on public transit. But if they could only see! Stretched out there on the concrete, I watched the last shadows of that other place recede away forever, stranding me here and leaving that old man where he rightfully belonged.

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Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)

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The Face of War (1950)

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Girl at the Window (1925)

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Melting Watch (1954)

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Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid (1963)

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The Burning Giraffe (1937)

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The Invention of the Monsters (1937)

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The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)

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The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936)

A Film Noir Evening

By David Michael Newstead.

A story in Film Noir speak.

It felt cold as hell outside. I was at the end of a long day of nine-to-five, but there was a frigid wasteland in-between work and home. I grimaced just at the thought of it – another winter. Standing there, the wind bit into my face and I hid behind a coat and a scarf, desperately trying to stay warm. All of a sudden that gym bag I was holding onto seemed about as likely as ten cents worth of pulp fiction. That’s when I realized maybe fate had other plans for me.

A subway ride later, I pulled up a seat at the local diner. On a night like this? I was content to just waste away with everyone else who staggered in from the cold. Then after that first drink and the restaurant’s soup of the day, I began to notice the woman to the right of me and the dame on my left. Outside, it was still dark and bleak and inhospitable to human life. In here though, there were a hundred different faces, loud and animated from too much alcohol.

It wasn’t long ‘til a certain femme fatale turned to me, started telling me all about her divorce. And I’ll admit, it had all the twists and turns of a great detective novel. The trouble was, there weren’t any heroes in her story. Just people being loud and animated.

I finished my drink, said my goodbyes. Then, I paid my check and left.

The hallway of my apartment building was deathly quiet except for the keychain rattling between my fingers. Inside, a few lines of moonlight filtered in through the blinds. I took a deep breath and pulled off my jacket. Suddenly, the room lit up with the dim glow of a laptop. Online, every movie ever made was staring back at me – tonight’s entertainment options. But no matter which classic I picked, I was preoccupied. Part of me kept wishing that winter would finally end.

A Day in the Salvador Dimension

By David Michael Newstead.

A short story based on paintings by Salvador Dali. Read Part Two.

salvador-dali2The device was conceived of by a mad man whose long and peculiar moustache only hinted at his insanity. If I knew then what was ahead of me, I’m certain I would have run in the opposite direction. But at the time, I was curious and naive. His work was intriguing and his demeanor was as charming as it was unusual. So when he spoke dramatically about needing a volunteer, when he described crossing the boundaries of time and space with a pioneering new technology, I admit I was taken in by this eccentric.

I agreed to be his test subject.

“Excellent!” he exclaimed, flaring his eyes and twirling the end of his moustache hairs with one hand.

“Come with me at once!” he said.

Following close behind, I realized that his laboratory was filled with elaborate sketches. He’d even built full-scale models of unimaginable oddities: monsters, the surreal, the utterly frightening. It was as if he’d been painting and sculpting his whole life, designing something that a normal person could hardly guess at. In fact, it was my own inquisitive nature that compelled me to continue until it was too late to turn back.

We climbed one staircase, then walked through narrow hallways like a maze.

As we got closer, the man handed me a pocket watch and attempted to explain the science behind what he’d built. To be honest, I didn’t understand the specifics, but I suspect neither did he. It was clear that creating the device had made him both a lunatic and a visionary, having twisted his mind to its furthest potential.

The Doorway, as he called it, was the manifestation of that genius. The device sat in the middle of a large, empty room and emitted hypnotic light in every direction. The man still tried talking to me, but I wasn’t paying attention anymore. I walked passed him, mesmerized. I was staring into the Doorway and the bizarre destination that lay on the other side. I clutched the pocket watch in my hands as I stepped forward, feeling myself leave one reality and enter another.

In the here and now of our rational world, it’s difficult for me to describe what happened next. But if I was able to escape the confines of conventional time and space, then I must have also shattered several additional layers in the fabric of our universe. Rhyme. Reason. Order. The very laws of nature. These feelings were so intense that they are burned into my mind forever. There was light, energy, gravity, memory – the sensation of every atom in my body flying apart and, then in an instant, being reassembled.

I was re-formed as a person, still holding the same pocket watch, but disoriented from my ordeal. The dizziness passed. My eyes adjusted to the light of another dimension and what I found there was startling. It was daybreak and quiet on a barren landmass. The watch ticked diligently in my left hand, while in the distance, creatures strode across the terrain.

I saw a herd of elephants with legs like giraffes, the height of a skyscraper.

Beneath them, the desert was home to freakish rock formations that shocked every fiber of my being.

I ran. A few dead tree branches clawed at the horizon around me. My heart was beating furiously. Everything about this place was the inverse of what should be possible, what should exist. And I was desperate to find the Doorway back.

I stumbled around a rock formation and that’s when I first saw it – the Sphinx. I discovered that a predator stalked this nonsensical habitat and there it was right in front of me, peeling flesh from the bones of its most recent kill. It was huge and brutal in appearance, somehow wise and murderous at the same time. I stared at it and, worse, it stared back at me. It had knowing eyes. One look and I thought it must have possessed an intelligence that reached back eons across time. Yet, the creature’s mythic stature belied the fact that blood dripped from its teeth, while I stood there.

At first, I didn’t move or make a sound. And the Sphinx appeared calm. It seemed content to eat its meal in peace. We exchanged eye contact and nothing more. There was only the soft, rhythmic tick of the pocket watch in my hand. But when the alarm on the watch rang out, the creature’s expression changed in an instant. I panicked and tried to turn off the alarm, but I could see I’d already angered the beast. Its face contorted with a primal hatred I’d never seen before. The high pitched roar that followed was deafening. And I ran away as fast as I could.

I darted behind a rock and tried to get to safety, far from the hungry Sphinx. But what I didn’t realize was how slowly I was actually moving. Before that, I noticed the pocket watch was turning to liquid in my hand. I dropped it, momentarily confused. And I saw the time piece melt against the searing landscape of the desert. How could I have grasped that the same thing was happening to me? I took a step back. I felt my entire body teeter on a melting pair of legs and when I tried to brace myself against a tree trunk, it was no use. I had all the physical attributes of an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. I could see the enormous Sphinx approaching me, but I wouldn’t last much longer regardless. My vision was blurred, my limbs folded up, and the puddle of me that remained quickly evaporated from that surreal dimension.

Before the creature could get to me, I was gone.

When I opened my eyes again, I was back in the laboratory. The Doorway had collapsed in on itself and the man who built it had disappeared.

Had he gone in after me, I thought. I suppose I’ll never know.

At the time, I stood up and wandered outside, never to return, but always left to wonder about my day in another dimension. And the mad man who took me there.

1Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea (1976)

2La Gare de Perpignan (1965)

3Galatea of the Spheres (1952)

4The Elephants (1948)

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Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936)

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Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time (1939)

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The Persistence of Memory (1931)

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Spider of the Evening (1940)

Hopper – A Short Story

By David Michael Newstead.

Based on select paintings by Edward Hopper.

Alicia woke up from her nap in the late afternoon. By then, the sun was casting long, angular shadows across the carpet of her hotel. She had fallen asleep soon after arriving that day. And now, hours later, Alicia’s bags and shoes and coat told the story of an exhausted traveler who had just thrown these things to one side and slept.

Lying in bed, her heart was beating in slow, calm repetition. She was so tired. Her eyes aimlessly opened and closed, while sunlight baked her shoulders and legs. If not for the afternoon heat, she probably would have stayed in that position longer – content to pass the time away. But after a few minutes, she sat up, surveying her tiny hotel room and took a deep breath.

At first, she tried to read a dime-store paperback she had picked up in Silbers Pharmacy. It was no use. That serene feeling from her nap had evaporated. She quickly discarded the book and ran a hand through her hair. The room was hot, she was thirsty as hell, and she hadn’t eaten since leaving the train station. Out her window, Alicia could see the sun going down. The elongated silhouettes of buildings were being stretched over the city’s streets and sidewalks until it was finally dark outside. That’s when her empty stomach compelled her to get dressed.

The doorman in the lobby had recommended a nearby automat to her. It was inexpensive, he said, and right down the street from the hotel. Behind columns of shiny glass casing, there were individual compartments filled with stale sandwiches and pies that looked like plastic and seemed to sweat. Alicia disliked the place almost immediately. There was only one other customer there, a police officer, sitting with his back to the door, while an attendant could be heard noisily refilling the machines. After glancing over the selection again, she dropped a few nickels into the slot, opened the miniature glass door, and bought herself a large danish and a cup of coffee. Then, she sat down to eat.

Two rows of fat, overhead bulbs illuminated the automat for her: its greasy tables, the grime clinging to the back of the cop’s neck. As far as she knew, the person working there was no more than a mysterious pair of hands that shuffled dirty dishes back and forth all day. Just the same, she was famished. She’d quickly devoured the pastry, but the coffee stared back at her for longer until she drank the last of it. A moment passed in thought and Alicia felt a dull pain hanging over her. She stood up and walked out – only leaving the lipstick stain on her coffee cup as evidence she’d ever been there.

She didn’t know how long she’d walked for. Time moved differently these days. Her thoughts turned inward and an entire city block disappeared behind her. Then, another and another after that. She found herself thinking about Jack again and what kind of man he’d been. She pictured their house and days spent together when there was all the time in the world. Now, it felt like she was on the outside looking in on her whole life and everything was just out of reach.

It must have been midnight when she sat down at Phillies. The diner was like a lighthouse on an otherwise dark boulevard. While the rest of the world slept, Alicia pulled up a seat at the cherry wood counter and ordered more coffee. She took off her hat and her coat, sitting in quiet contemplation. The kid behind the counter would dutifully refill her drink every now and then. And the other customer was an older man with a blank expression. He stared down at his cup and his bowl of soup, never even registering her presence.

She was left to her own thoughts like that for some time until Alicia suddenly realized someone was talking to her.

“I said nice night, isn’t it?” the man next to her repeated.

“What?” she replied, half dazed.

“Why the long face?” he asked, offering her a cigarette.

“No. No, thank you,” Alicia said.

“Suit yourself,” and he lit his own, while the waiter poured him some coffee.

The man took a long drag off his cigarette, then exhaled a cloud.

“You listen to the baseball game tonight, Joey?” he said to the waiter.

The two of them exchanged a few friendly words, then the man turned back to Alicia.

“You like baseball, sweetheart?” he asked.

“Once, I guess,” she replied and drank her coffee.

“Come on. Penny for your thoughts, darling,” the man said. “Next cup is on me. What brings you to town? You’re not one of the regular night owls around here.”

Alicia didn’t look at him, she just started speaking. “I’m just here for a day or two. I need to put some affairs in order. With the bank and the insurance office. Things like that. My husband, Jack, he uhh… died recently. Several months ago now.”

And Alicia didn’t say anything for a while, but the look in the man’s eyes changed.

“I’m sorry to hear that, darling,” he replied. “Do you mind if I ask how he passed?”

“I…” she started, then paused, “You know, I’d rather not say,” her lips pursing together from emotion.

“He was a good man though. A very good man,” and she lingered on the memory.

“What do you do?” Alicia eventually asked.

The man pointed his cigarette out in front of him. “Just a job. Same as everybody else. Used to be married myself.”

“Yeah?” Alicia said as she reached for her coat.

“Her and my kids live in Cleveland now, I think…” the man stated this with an absent kind of dissatisfaction that hung in the air like tobacco.

He had a thousand yard stare that practically bore a hole in the wall and convinced Alicia just how honest he was being.

“Joey!” he called to the waiter as Alicia was slipping on her coat and hat. “Lemme pick up her tab.”

“You don’t have to do that…” she said, but he dismissed the notion with a casual wave of his hand and a smirk.

“Just a few cups of coffee among friends,” he replied. “You take care of yourself.”

And she nodded in acknowledgement. As she left, Alicia saw that the men sitting there were stone faced caricatures – the portrait of an all-night diner and the lost souls that populate it.

Back in her hotel room, she went about unpacking her clothes and the paperwork for the next day’s activities. Alicia knew there was a series of bureaucratic motions left to go through and it made her numb. Exhausted, she could already imagine the train ride home, the road ahead, and the things that were behind her now.

Then, she switched off the light.

hopper3

Hotel Room (1931)

hopper2auto

Automat (1927)

Use this one

Nighthawks (1942)

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Compartment C, Car 193 (1938)

Short Story – Bridge Up Ahead

By David Michael Newstead.

The train had put thirty minutes between me and Union Station. The city was behind me now and I sighed. My watch read 3:40 p.m. in lifeless digital script that made me tired to look at it. I folded my sleeve over my wrist, obscuring the time. I was restless and besides it didn’t matter. The trip had really just started and there was a long way to go, I thought.

I leaned back and tried to relax. I spent awhile just staring out the window, absently watching rays of light fighting to break through the gray winter sky. Scenery decorated the passage of time; all the trees reaching up in desperation, worn out industrial buildings and aged murals of graffiti that followed these tracks presumably along the entire Eastern Seaboard. Inside, the train felt stale with five or six conversations blurred together into a single backdrop of noise.

For no apparent reason, I found myself watching the back of the seat in front of me. It was like I was trying to trick my mind into ignoring the distance I had left to travel. Like I could just arrive at my destination! Because of that, I stared at the plastic tray table and cloth upholstery in earnest. Finally, I blinked and rubbed my eyes. That’s when I turned to look at the other passengers. I shifted around the arm rest and surveyed the interior of the train car.

There were laptops and smart phones and books, newspapers and coffee cups. I looked a few seats behind me and I saw a man in his early twenties, our faces mirroring each other’s. Then down the aisle far in front of me, there was a much older man, perhaps seventy years of age. I stared intently at him like I had the back of that seat cushion. I saw his narrow shoulders, his neck, and the skin around his scalp surrounded by thin, white hairs. And when he ran his hand across the back of his head, I reached for the back of my own.

I looked behind my seat again at the twenty year old and realized that that was my past. I looked forward again and I realized that was my future. The train had been sailing down the railway for a while now and it suddenly occurred to me: I had lost track of the time.