Paul Miller wasn't very good at believing in things.
He didn't believe in anything he couldn't see or feel or smell.
He didn't believe in global warming. He didn't believe in dinosaurs. He went to church often enough, but he didn't really believe in a god, any god.
And he sure as Hell didn't believe in curses.
(An expression, of course. Paul Miller didn't believe in Hell either).
Ever since he was little kid, Paul had been told that his family was cursed. The curse was said to take hold of every male member of his family at the age of twenty-five - wherein, they would either die or go insane.
And, though Paul could bear witness that he had a few unfortunate uncles on his father's side - one that died in a fire started by him trying to grill cheese in a toaster, and the other who had been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and died in tragic circumstances at an asylum - Paul had never taken such things seriously.
He always said it was all malarkey brought on by moonshine and malice.
Who, in this day and age, believed in curses after all?
How ironic it was that Paul himself started fearing for his life only a week before his twenty-fifth birthday.
There was a stimulus, of course. A real stimulus - not some hocus-pocus Holy Ghost or anything. One that he could see and feel and even smell, at times. The reality of the matter kept him awake at night, distressed at all points in the day and restless to find answers, cures, anything.
He even considered going to his local priest for answers (but then decided against it, naturally - the priest didn't like him very much and Paul thought the old man talked about the Devil with regards to him enough already).
It had driven him to travel to the place he never thought he'd have to go (i.e. the outside world - beyond his computer, his home and the corner shop on his street).
Paul parked his car and looked at the age-old public house. His mouth went dry and his eyes bloodshot as he took in a deep breath - gathering himself for possibly uncomfortable human interaction.
This was stupid, he told himself.
He didn't even know if the place allowed people an over-night stay. He probably should have checked that... Oh, well, he was here now and so got out of the car, his flat shoes crunching on the gravel pavement up to the public house. There was sign hanging on chains that read: 'The Flying Shoe' and a faded image of a Greek sandal with wings on its sides stood above the peeling letters.
Flying Shoe? What a stupid name.
Shoes didn't fly.
Paul put his hands in his pockets and examined the sign for a while, trying to form a logical explanation for such a ridiculous name.
From a distance, you would think that Paul Miller was a normal person.
But you would have to look beyond the black dress-pants, the V-neck sweater and the white shirt he wore underneath; passed the befuddled, bespectacled face and the pudgy stomach he was beginning to form.
Paul Miller was a brilliant man - or so he liked to think - and he hid it well, behind his clothes, behind his reclusive behaviour and behind his complete distaste for human companionship.
“Hello, sir!” said a sweet, cheery voice. Paul looked away from the sign to the now-open door of the Flying Shoe.
Speak of the Devil (No. Not the real Devil).
“Uh, hello,” Paul replied to the portly, old lady by the door - as if she was an alien from outer-space. He was even considered saying: 'I come in peace', but that seemed a bit much. Even for him.
“Would you like to come in, love?” she asked, smiling at him like she'd known him and had seen him after years and years of his absence.
“Er, yes, of course,” Paul said, “I was just looking at your sign... It doesn't make much sense to me.”
“Well, it don't need to, deary!” the woman laughed, “Pubs up and down the place are called all sorts. One called the King's Arms, another called the Sty and, I dare say, one called the Morgue!” she laughed heartily, “I think the Flying Shoe is the best chance you've got, dear!”
“Definitely better than the Morgue...” Paul contemplated. He nodded - having made his decision - went back to his car to get a suitcase of his essentials and stepped into the place.
He didn't waste time in familiarising with the hosts or the other over-night-stayers, with his surroundings or with the food and drink the Flying Shoe had to offer. Paul just quickly asked whether there was a room on the bottom-most floor available, and what he had to pay for the night.
He then went to his assigned room. Put his luggage to one side. Quickly changed his clothes and searched through his bag of toiletries for his toothbrush.
When he found it, Paul went over to the bathroom, pulled the light-switch and began brushing his teeth in front of the sink.
He didn't look in the mirror. He didn't want to. He knew what he would see and he was terrified of it.
Paul sighed and slipped his glasses off and folded them up, putting one of the arms in the collar of his T-shirt so that they hung there, and washed his face with cold water slowly. He sighed and looked up, staring into the mirror and gulped.
For a moment, the mirror showed nothing but the reflection of everything that was behind him. Paul Miller didn't exist in the mirror. Then a figure flitted across it and made Paul jump. Always did. He swallowed thickly as the image shifted - the bathroom changing and shifting back to a time long gone. A smell filled his nostrils - a putrid rank stench that made his eyes water. He didn't know how he knew, but Paul knew it was the Thames.
There was a face in the mirror now and, though his vision was slightly blurred, Paul knew it wasn't his own.
Where should have been blue eyes and short ginger hair cropped to the scalp, were intense grey eyes and shoulder-length black hair pulled back in a ponytail. The different face in mirror was about his age but could have passed for much older - the lines in his brows and forehead deep and prominent, ingrained with the kind of dirt that never came out. And untrustworthy. The face was one you wouldn't trust as far as you could throw it.
They wore the same clothes, however, and the face made all the expressions Paul did.
“You heeded my warning,” a cold, deep voice in Paul's head rasped, the reflection's lips unmoving, “Good. Very good.” The voice was an oxymoron to the reflection in the mirror - silky smooth (even in a torn whisper), with a pleasant lilt that could make you listen to it all day, all night. Forever.
But not Paul. He wanted it to stop - never to hear it again.
“W-why won't you leave me alone?” Paul yelped, frozen in place, unable to move away from the image, unable to glance passed the clear sign of his broken sanity. He watched with horror and fascination as the reflection mirrored its lips with his words and his fear reflected it its eyes.
“I will - as soon as you do as I ask,” the voice whispered gently and then instructed, “The room you are in - there is a tunnel that will lead you to an adjacent dwelling. Find it. It's there you'll get some answers, I promise you.”
The image of the other man remained, but the voice said no more. Paul tore his gaze from the mirror, his whole body shaking with fright as he did, and looked around the bathroom.
I'm being ridiculous, he told himself.
But then he looked back at the mirror, the different face copying him as he did so, and continued to look for the voice's tunnel. At first, Paul was looking for a trap-door and so tested the white and black tiles to see if they were loose.
Perhaps the tunnel had been sealed? No. He refused to believed it.
He looked above and saw a small hatch in the wall next to him, placed just below the ceiling. It had to be it. Paul got a chair from the bedroom and clambered on top of it and opened the hatch. He looked inside, finding it dark and lined with cobwebs, the smell of rotting wood and damp overwhelming him and making him gag. And small.
God, the tunnel was small.
Paul took his glasses and slipped them securely into a buttoned pocket and mumbled, “Think happy thoughts, just think happy thoughts,” to himself.
He sucked in his stomach and climbed into the hatched carefully, dragging himself along the tight space with his arms - the wooden frames holding the tunnel up soft to his touch as he went. He took short breaths - hoping against all hope that he wasn't breathing in any spores - and tried to disperse the thought of getting stuck and dying in the tunnel. He could see no light or opening at the end.
“Just keep going, Paul,” he sang awkwardly to himself, “Just keep going. Just keep going, going, going. What do we do? We- Argh!” he screamed as something scuttled along his arm. He panicked and banged his head on the roof.
“Ow,” he moaned, unable to rub his throbbing head.
Something climbed into his face and he closed his eyes and whimpered. He crawled even faster through the space - keeping his head down so that any cobwebs got caught in his hair rather than on his face - with the intent of climbing out the other side as quickly as possible.
He didn't feel the space widen a bit, nor did he see an exit.
He mumbled something in the dark. He waited for a guiding voice, something to encourage him, to help him move along. But none came. He was sure the spider or whatever insect was crawling on him had gone beneath his clothes by now.
But he was determined not to die in the tunnel and so kept going and going and going.
If only it wasn't so very, very dark...