There He Stood
rating: +16+x

Finding Paradise

I met him at a bar.
There He Stood.

It was pretty late into the morning by the time I started to wake up. Slowly, I sat up and yawned, my body tensing as I stretched in the sunlight. I hadn’t yet remembered why it was so important that I woke up early on this day, but then the realization hit me. I had to meet Sam in The Hub, just as I promised. I had nearly forgotten at the moment that we had to go on the trip to find his girlfriend.

In a frantic hurry, I tumbled out of my bed and began to dress in some proper clothes–or at least–something that would be fitting enough to wear for a few days. Some basic jeans, an undershirt, a button-up to wear over it… stuff that I just randomly plucked from my work wardrobe. Once I had hastily thrown those on, it was a matter of picking up my book bag of supplies before I left.

My bag was knocked over during my little stumble out of bed, though it was thankfully right where I left it. Though it was packed, I felt as if I was missing so much. I put it onto my back regardless, hoping that Sam would’ve packed whatever we would need. I didn’t even bother checking the time of day before I bolted out of my apartment in a hurry, carrying only the supplies in my bag and the clothes on my back.

By now, Level 11 was a bustling and busy place that people treated as their one and only home. Everyone acted as if they had never left the real world, however far away from it The Backrooms might’ve been. People crowded the streets to commute to their jobs and homes, rushing in a wave that I had to push through in my little journey.

* * *

What felt like an hour of trying to find my way around finally took me to the stable exit between Level 11 and The Hub, a kind of highway tunnel that dipped into the ground below. Thankfully they had implemented a set of sidewalks for people to use to get down into the exit. Since people probably had places to be on Level 11 itself, few people were heading in and out of the tunnel aside from me. Holding my breath, I took a few steps down into the tunnel, looking along the tiles and the old amber hue of the lights of the walls. It continued for a hundred feet or so, ending in what seemed like a warbling wall of air.

Starting to feel the weight of the bag on my back, I carefully reached out towards the shimmering reflective surface, giving me glimpses of the curved concrete walls on the other side. There was almost no surface tension to this wall, though I felt as if I were pulling myself through a layer of dense fluid to pull myself through to the other side.

I almost didn’t know what to expect The Hub to be like, since I had only heard about the place. It was my first proper time leaving Level 11 since I had first shown up in The Backrooms almost five years ago. For all I knew, there could be danger around every corner. At least, that’s how everyone around me spoke of other levels.

Before I could properly adjust, I was interrupted by someone patting me on the shoulder from the side. I jumped a bit as I snapped out of my daze, looking up at Sam. He had a pretty happy look on his face, though his eyes seemed to reveal how tired he must’ve been. I couldn’t formulate any words to say to him, looking at him with shock.

“Looks like you’re early,” Sam commented, giving an amused chuckle at my surprise. “You even came with a bag. That’s more than what I have…”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I stuttered. “Y-You didn’t bring a bag? Where are your supplies?…”

He chuckled yet again at me. “You don’t have to bring one? Most places have outposts we can stay at. They should have what we need to get by.”

The fact that I had completely overlooked outposts as a factor made me feel pretty dumb, and I was certain that Sam could tell. He looked me in the eyes with a curious glint, checking down the tunnel lined with doors that made up The Hub. He began to head off, motioning for me to follow along with him. Confused, I scampered along beside him in a slight hurry. I grew to feel like I might’ve ended up being a bit of a burden in his eyes, but those thoughts were interrupted as he spoke to me again.

“How old are ya, Jo?” He questioned me, glancing over as we passed another pair of travelers.

“I’m twenty-three, O-Officer,” I confessed in another stammer, feeling more like I was being interrogated by Sam, given his whole detective’s attire. “I’ve only been around this place for like, six years…”

He nodded in a bit of understanding, putting me just a little at ease. “Don’t sweat it kid. I’ve been here since eighty-six, I’ve got a lot of experience.”

“You’re… old then? You must’ve been young when you first fell into this place?” I said with a bit of shock. Despite being from around the time my parents were born, he couldn’t have been a dozen more years older than me.

“I’m around… sixty-something. Something about this place makes me age slower… Hey, at least I look young?” He shrugged nonchalantly, pausing our walk to look at the nearby doors. It seemed like he was looking for something specific.

Now that my anxiety was starting to wear off, it occurred to me that Sam hadn’t even given me any information on where we were going. Much like us walking to his apartment, I felt a little worried. Before he could reach for a door, I tapped his shoulder, stopping him.

“Where are we going?” I finally asked, causing Sam to facepalm.

“You gotta forgive me, I’m running off no sleep… Lemme give you the plan.” He assured me as he stepped away from the door, speaking to me formally. “This should be the door to Level 0. It’s going to be the starting place for us to go where I think she went…”

“Which would be… where?”

“Our special place. I can ask around to see if anyone at the outposts saw her.”

“I’m guessing that ‘special place’ is somewhere private?…”

Sam shrugged a little, contemplating what to tell me. “Not exactly private, just sentimental… Guess I’ll show you when we find it. Now, are you ready to go? This is just the start…”

Samuel gestured at the door after he spoke, seeming a bit eager to watch me open it. I hadn’t been to Level 0 since I had first gotten to The Backrooms all those years ago, so seeing it again would be a trip down memory lane. With Sam’s encouragement, I reached for the handle of the odd door, turning the handle to open it, revealing a seamless transition to the drab manilla of the countless senseless transitions. Gulping, I took my first steps through the doorway and onto the slightly damp carpet of the place just about everyone first ends up in when entering The Backrooms.

The air stank of a gross musk, and unlike when I had first shown up, there was a prevalence of litter and occasional markings of graffiti, especially in the room that housed the door I came through. Much to my surprise, there weren’t any people around immediately aside from myself and Sam.

“Wow… this place looks like a dump now…” I remarked, looking back to Sam who was shaking his head.

“Yep, a lot more people have been trying to get here. Word got out to the world that this place exists, so curious idiots end up down here. That includes vandals and folks that just trash the place. Luckily some of ‘em don’t last long.” Sam said, choosing to take the lead.

Given the reputation of Level 0 for being an ever-changing monotonous mess, I tried my hardest to stick close to Sam. He seemed pretty unbothered, almost like he knew exactly where we were going. The repeating wallpaper, the manilla-yellow which wrapped around each wall for miles and miles was all the same for me, though I had only been here once; that initial time I noclipped in. I could only imagine how often Sam came through here if he was navigating ahead like a pro hiker.

As I followed Sam through the level, I gradually grew more and more paranoid. I couldn’t even recall how long we had been walking for. It didn’t feel like we were there for very long, though most levels had a tendency to mess with people’s perception of time. Deep down I began to feel as if something were very wrong, even if I couldn’t tell what exactly that was. As soon as I realized how paranoid I was becoming, I stopped walking entirely, taking my bag off my shoulder to rummage through it. I deemed that it would probably be a good chance to have a drink of some almond water.

I felt frozen in place, my hand shaking as I held the bottle and tried to undo the cap. Around this time Sam finally noticed I wasn’t with him. He glanced back at me, suddenly turning to come over and help. During my fumble with the cap, he gently took it from my weak and trembling grasp, twisting the cap off without any difficulty.

“Hey man, relax. Nothing is here that would hurt you. Just drink up.” Sam reassured, bringing the bottle to my lips cautiously. Despite that, I reached to hold it with both my hands, taking a few long gulps.

After drinking a good portion of the bottle, I began to feel a lot less anxious. My worries slowly left my head as I finally came to. “Thanks Samuel…” I said between my gasps of breath, having nearly choked on the almond water from how quickly I had been downing it.

“Not a problem kid. You’ll get unusually nervous if you’re not familiar with this place. Just take a drink of this juice every once and a while until you get used to things.” He directed, screwing the cap onto the bottle of almond water before handing it back.

“I’m glad it wasn’t just a me thing, then…” I sighed with relief during the time I put the bottle into my bag.

“Not at all Jo. I know people probably don’t talk ‘bout it much in that little bubble they’ve got on Level 11, but if you aren’t used to being in strange places like this it starts playing tricks on your mind.” He informed me, still waiting for me to collect myself before beginning to lead on.

I checked my surroundings, realizing that things felt a lot less foreboding and unnatural now. I knowingly packed almond water knowing that it could help with weird bouts of paranoia like this, though I didn’t realize I would experience it for myself. Out of slight fear of it happening again, I took the half-empty bottle from my bag again, holding it as I walked. This time around I would be prepared.

* * *

We continued to travel in a pair, growing further and further away from the well-traveled and explored sections if the lack of graffiti was anything to go off of. The only remaining guides we had were sparsely placed arrows spray painted onto the manilla wallpaper. Even then, it didn’t seem like Sam was using them to find his way ahead. Occasionally there would also be some writing alongside the arrows acting as some kind of signage. It advertised, “The Silver Springs Trading Post” which was advertised to be a couple hundred meters from wherever the arrows were leading.

Sam and I continued to twist and turn through the monotonous corridors and rooms, continuing to loosely follow the arrows before we began to come to a stop. Judging by the signage, we were just a few meters away from it, but Sam paused and spoke to me.

“I know this place well. If they’re nice enough, we could trade to get some food and a spot to rest. They don’t use proper money like the folks in your fancy city.” Sam informed me.

“I mean, people on Level 11 trade too, just uh- I’ll stay out of your hair.” I insisted, not knowing what else to do in something that felt out of my field of expertise.

Sam seemed to give me some endearing look, sensing how naive I was. “You can help Jo,” they said with some insistence. “You brought some stuff in your bag. We could easily trade what you’ve got in there?”

“Like… the canned food? I mean, you said there’d be outposts and stuff for us to get food anyway? Guess it’ll just be trading canned stuff for a fresh meal?”

“Now that’s good thinking! Don’t sell all of it, of course. We could still use some for if we gotta camp out.” He assured, reaching into one of his own jacket pockets to take out a few random items he had. It seemed to be some pens, a few bits of loose change, and batteries. All sorts of junk.

“That’s what you’re going to be using? Looks a little useless to me…” I remarked, looking at him with confusion as we carried on walking again.

Surprisingly, Sam only scoffed in amusement. “You’d be surprised at how valuable some random junk can be to certain people.” He claimed as we proceeded onwards, eventually reaching a far larger space.

Contrary to the graffiti and disorganization of some of the trashed spaces of Level 0 we passed, this was a far more organized place. It had makeshift homes made out of patched-together plaster, odd little fenced-in areas with racks of carpet growing fungus of some kind, and one large spot towards the back with a few tables in a row. Also surprising to me was the large gathering of people that seemed to live there.

Everyone began to look over as we entered, shooting us slightly suspicious looks. It didn’t take me too long to feel like I didn’t exactly belong here. At least, that’s what it felt like. After all, I stuck out like a sore thumb compared to Sam, who didn’t have a stuffed backpack with them. The people around actively avoided us as we grew closer to the tables. They seemed to make up some kind of barrier or makeshift counter between us and some shelves of random items behind whoever manned the “shop”.

On the table, there appeared to be a lot of random merchandise laid out. Handmade patches, some random pins based on how it looked. Tons of little knickknacks about the level itself. They even had cheesy hand-painted, “I Survived Level 0” t-shirts. It was like a crappy tourist trap centered around all the random people showing up on Level 0.

“Officer Delorcas… what’s got you showing your face around here again?” The older woman running the stall questioned, giving a blank look across him and me.

“This young man and I are here asking around for Madeline. Have you seen her in the past week? She would’ve definitely come through here.” Sam responded, leaning against the table.

The old woman shook her head a bit. “Ask the manager of the hostel, maybe. The only people I’ve seen are the yuppies.” They said with a bit of dismissal, waving their hand at us in a pretty lazy, effortless way, still giving a strange dead stare.

Sam didn’t seem to buy it, though he also looked a little confused by the shopkeeper’s weirdly absent personality as if they were acting out of character for what he expected. He cleared his throat, looking back at the rest of the town behind us, then back at her.

“Bobbi, listen… you don’t gotta play this game with us. I’ll trade you some stuff even… I just need to know if Madeline has been here…” Sam bargained, leaning towards the shopkeep to speak in a quieter voice to her.

The shopkeep’s eye twitched a bit, thinking about the offer. “Trade…” they repeated in an odd trance of sorts. “Do you have fresh food to trade? Anything with meat?”

With the question, Sam looked at me, unexpectedly putting all the attention on me. I suddenly stuttered as the dead gaze of the shopkeep suddenly focused on my face, shifting to an unexpectedly intense glare. I took a quick sip from my bottle of almond water to try and calm down, opening my bag to check the canned foods that I had. Thankfully, I had a can of beef stew, something that was common to find in some of Level 11’s shops. It seemed to be just enough for the shopkeep, though.

As soon as I had taken it out, the shopkeeper suddenly snatched the can from my hands, pulling the tab with a strong snap as they tore it off. I stepped back in shock, much like Samuel, surprisingly. He stuttered and tried to think of what to say, watching as the lady ate the meat straight with her hand. Her dead stare focused right on me, piercing my very soul as I stammered.

“This… isn’t like you. Can you tell me if Madeline was here, or not?” Sam finally spoke up, all but confirming my suspicions that something was off.

Unfortunately, our only reply was a crooked finger which pointed to some kind of large shack. Sam seemed keen on taking me out of there, grabbing my wrist to drag me away carefully. The whole time, the shopkeeper stared me down, eating the cold stew straight from the can I gave them.

We walked just a few feet away, passing the other pale residents of the outpost who gave us equally dead glares as they watched. Sam slowed our walking, giving me a chance to whisper to him.

“Why is everyone staring at us like this? You know these people, don’t you?…”

“I have no clue what’s gotten into them. Maybe it’s all the tourists driving them mad, but they’re… off. When we get to the inn, be careful.” Sam murmured back to me, sticking close.

I looked ahead at the strange shack, wondering if that was what he was referring to. “That’s the inn? I guess people use whatever they can out here.”

“Oh trust me… being hired as an independent investigator to work in places like this has shown me ingenuity…” They agreed back. He shuddered a little after, though I didn’t quite catch on to why yet. Despite that, Sam continued and said, “I know this guy well too, so here's hoping they have a lead.”

Putting my trust in them, I went with Sam up to the salvaged door into the inn, entering a tiny lobby lit by homemade candles. The shopkeep was at some kind of bar nailed together from planks, giving a grin past someone who was already speaking with them to get a room. I overheard a bit of the conversation that was going on between the innkeeper and the woman waiting at the counter.

“-for the better sir, please. I’m sure you could grant me a room for the night. I’ve been trying my hardest to help improve the health of the outpost.” Begged the woman, though her plea seemed to fall on deaf ears.

The innkeeper grinned at Sam in particular, giving a slow nod of his head to them. “I’m about to sell my only two remaining rooms for the night. No vacancy, lass.”

“After all I’ve done? Ah for goodness sake!” The woman grumbled, taking a few steps aside after looking back at Sam and me.

Both Sam and I gave the fairly young woman some confused glances. She wore some armor padding on her shoulders and along one arm, carrying a messenger bag. Her whole attire made her appear like an adventurer from a time long gone.

While Sam was busy speaking with the shopkeep for a little, I glanced around the makeshift interior. The candles illuminated the tattered wallpaper salvaged to line the inside of the place, though the floor was the same carpet as the outside. It smelled much worse in the more confined area, probably not helped by the fact that the candle’s wicks were all made of the same carpet. The smell almost gave me a headache if it weren’t for me choosing to breathe strictly through my mouth.

Just before I felt as though I were about to get distracted by the awful smell, I felt a nudge on my shoulder from Sam. I glanced over, seeing his confident smile.

“I talked my way into getting a cheap room for you and me respectively. We can rest for the night… giving my old friend some business is the only way he’ll tell me where Madeline went.”

I gave a confident nod to them, having a feeling that we might be getting onto something now that Sam was going to get some proper information on his lost lover. It didn’t give me much longer to process before he went down a tight hallway nearby, following the owner of the inn. I would’ve almost been on my own if it weren’t for the other lady who also seemed to be waiting around. Our eyes met, though she didn’t seem as keen about having a conversation. I brushed some of my hair behind my ear out of a little awkward anxiety, minding my own business.

Soon enough for me, the innkeeper returned from down the hall, motioning for me to follow them down. I nodded and adjusted my bag to follow, putting on a face of relief. Whilst it was a bit of a tight fit to get down the hall, it didn’t stop the innkeeper from giving a low and jolly hum, opening a door to one of the small rooms. It had just a matt on the floor and a pillow, containing barely enough room for me to put my arms out. It wasn’t a five-star hotel obviously, but it was only for a night.

“This is my room then? Thanks a bunch!” I thanked, entering as I looked back at the innkeeper, giving me an oddly familiar vacant stare with their smile.

Soon it hit me, right as he spoke. “I heard you have some meat with you… Canned meat? That’s your payment.” The innkeeper demanded.

“Did Sam not pay you yet? I mean, fair? Let me get it-”

I removed my backpack and moved it to my front so I could look down as I unzipped and sorted through it. I felt myself become more sick as I inhaled through my nose to fight the anxiety, looking back up to see that the man had stepped closer. His dead gaze and toothy smile fixed on me, suddenly grabbing my arm with their ice-cold squeeze.

“Forget the canned stuff- I have it fresh here! Fresh food for us all!” They said in an exclamation, making some odd and buglike chitters as their skin morphed and bubbled.

I tried pulling my hand out from their grip, watching as the very skin of their body began to peel, their mouth distorting as their whole head began to split, revealing a grotesque, pale, and insectoid underneath. It spoke in a gross gurgle, barely comprehensible as something sentient. The odd and small suckers of their skin released the skin around them, allowing them to slide the skin of their hand off to reach for my face.

Just as I worried that this would be the end, the creature gave a sudden distorted squeal, choking up an odd clear liquid as a short blade sliced into its side. The creature released me and collapsed against the doorframe, receiving another slash directly at its face as it turned.

“Foul skin-thief!” The woman from the lobby shouted, having essentially slaughtered the creature that was once the innkeeper. “ You- I don’t know who you are, but you best grab that older friend of yours and go- This town might be full of them!”

Still shocked by the near-death experience, I looked at the woman, checking at the confusing tight space, then down at the pale, lifeless creature before me. Sam stormed over in no time, shouting an expletive as he too saw the grotesque sight. However, We didn’t have very long to process. A loud set of thumps and other shrill squeals echoed from down the hall towards the lobby of the inn.

We had probably angered the whole town… each one of the people–creatures–whatever they were…

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