The Background of Your Memories
There’s never enough time. It always starts the same way, with my parents up front while I ride in back, the distant twinkling lights of an oil refinery slowly passing by to one side. At least I think that’s what it is.
The shape doesn’t stay consistent. Sometimes it looks like a city or an electrical station, black silhouettes dotted with illuminated points...difficult to make out against the passing nightscape. What I assume are mountains loom large in the background, though I can make out no detail.
Then the honking begins as we enter the city proper. I cover my ears and complain, but can’t make my voice heard over the din. Honking, shouting and the screech of tires. A bright light suddenly illuminates the silhouettes of my parents in sharp contrast...just before the crash.
It happens so quickly that if I didn’t have this dream so often, I couldn’t tell you what all followed. But by now, every grisly detail is intimately familiar. The abrupt forward lurch of their bodies on impact. The unbelievably swift, violent crumpling of the entire front of the car towards me, crushing both of them into a pulpy red mess before my eyes.
Then it starts over. On the rare occasion that I realize I’m dreaming, by then it’s too late. There’s never enough time! We’re already in the city, the honking and screeching of tires has begun. Before I can get their attention and beg them to stop the car, we crash.
The front implodes, tangled steel and shards of glass rushing towards me. My parents are mangled beyond recognition in the span of a second. The steering column collapses my father’s chest, the shattered fragments of windshield shred their skin.
It’s all too quick. A smeared, unintelligible blur of rubber on asphalt, of steel crumpling against steel. Of shouting, honking, tires screeching and my own futile cries of terror. I never realize I’m dreaming in time! If only I could warn them before we enter the city.
Honk, screech, crash, death. Honk, screech, crash, death. Like a video clip stuck on repeat that I’m trapped inside of. Honk, screech, crash, death! There’s just never enough time. The screaming! My own, and my mother’s for the split second she’s able to.
The screaming continues after I awaken, and after a moment I realize it’s my own. Drenched in sweat, heart racing, my body still convinced death is imminent. After disentangling myself from the sheets, I look over at the alarm clock.
Four in the morning. No chance of returning to sleep. So, after wiping the crust out of my eyes and firing up the VCR, I return to watching tapes. By now they surround me, stacked up over my head to either side of the television.
They were neatly packed away when I found them in a row of moldy old cardboard boxes, here in the shed. I might’ve just tossed them into the truck and put ’em in storage along with everything else, except that curiosity got the better of me.
Every other tape was just junk they’d recorded off television, much of it before I was born. But a few of them were taken on vacation. God, look at me. I must’ve been no older than three! Running down the beach, squealing in protest as mom tried to put my diaper back on.
Just like that, I was ensnared. I didn’t plan to move a cot into the shed initially, but I couldn’t pry myself away from that screen. I might’ve moved the VCR and television into the house, but I haven’t been able to make myself spend longer than a few minutes in there. The air is too thick with memories.
First the cot and some blankets. Then a portable heater to fight back the chill of late nights and early mornings spent staring at that flickering picture tube. I only go into the house to use the bathroom now, or to fix something to eat.
Pretty soon I was set up well enough in there that I stopped driving to and from my apartment, and just started living full time in the shed. It’s difficult to express why, but although I couldn’t bear to spend any significant length of time inside the house, I still wanted to be close to it.
Like hovering near enough to a flame that you stay warm, but not so near that you burn yourself? Something of that nature. Being confronted by their smiling faces, peering at me from every framed photo on every wall was difficult enough that my first attempt to sleep in the house didn’t even last an hour. I thought the shed would be an improvement until I found the tapes.
Never stood a chance, I suppose. I’ve long since stopped checking my phone. It’s not just the messages from work asking where I’ve disappeared to. Ever since my parents died, all these people I don’t fucking know have come out of the woodwork, all wanting something from me.
Sign these papers. Pay these debts. Move this, sell that, sign more papers. No idea what I’m signing either, but their stern voices make me scared not to. None of them seem aware of what I’m going through. Occasional token words of sympathy, like the contents of a hallmark card, are the only hint of recognition. Even that’s scarce.
I couldn’t have found the tapes at a better time, so sorely did I need the escape. From this mess, this burning wreckage of a life, into the world of comforting illusion. The world where they’re still alive, still laughing...just on the other side of the screen.
How many hours have I spent like this? Face inches from the glass, soaking in every fuzzy, faded little detail I’m able to given the terrible image quality. Still, if I squint, I can believe it’s a window. The most tantalizing but cruel window imaginable, which I can never open, break into or crawl through however desperately I wish.
An absolutely impassable barrier between where I am now, and where I need to be in order to go on. As if it’s someplace I can still escape to? Some part of my mind just can’t grasp it. How can they be gone? They’re right there on the screen! I can almost reach out and touch their faces, they’re so close…
It doesn’t help that all my childhood belongings are stashed in here as well. Action figures, building blocks, old game systems and comic books. Whatever they felt was distracting me from schoolwork at the time, or when they just wanted to clear out some clutter.
Nearly every item has a memory associated with it. Brief, dreamlike flashes each time I pick up some relic of my boyhood, slowly turning it over in my hands. There are healthy ways to cope. I know this isn’t one of them. It hurts, but I can’t stop.
I can get away though, now and then. Cracking open the shed door, I shudder at the sudden influx of frigid autumn air. Still dark out, but the local coffee shop opens at 4 for the sake of the poor souls who start work at 5. People who actually have a legitimate reason to be there so early.
I hardly wanted to be around other people right then, but I also had no intention of going back to sleep. So after pulling on some clothes and making a token effort to straighten my hair, I piled into my dinged up little hatchback and set off.
As I pulled up to the coffee shop, I thought I recognized a familiar SUV tucked away in the far corner of the parking lot. Sure enough, Sarah was waiting for me inside. Why do I always run into my exes when I’m groggy and disheveled?
“Why don’t you check your messages?” I winced, and considered leaving. “I swung by the house” she continued, “your car was there but the lights were out. I would’ve given up except for the calls.” She clarified that my boss called her about my recent string of missed days.
“You’re fired, you know.” I’d be surprised if I wasn’t. I asked how he had her number. “You still have me listed as your emergency contact.” It trickled back to me bit by bit. Fragmented memories from what felt like another lifetime, when the two of us sought to entangle our lives as completely as possible. It only created more work for both of us when we parted ways.
She seemed placated when I told her about the non-stop calls from various suited ghouls pushing me to sell the house, the cars, to complete this or that legal process. “Still, you can’t just cut yourself off from the world like that. There are people who care about you, who will help you deal with this if you let them.”
I can’t? Really? Sounds like a challenge. The only part of this world I still want any part of is that warm, faintly glowing screen in that dark little chamber, tapes piled up all around me. I knew I couldn’t say so without worrying her, so I went in a different direction.
“Remember how after the breakup, I just kind of floated around? Unsure what to do with my life, since I’d planned my future around the assumption that we’d still be together? The wanderings of a lost child.” She looked mildly uncomfortable, but nodded.
“I remember thinking to myself, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Over and over. I’ve never handled change very well. Small ones, sure. Incremental. But when something upsets my life in a big way, it’s a different story. Every time I realized I was spinning my wheels but going nowhere and tried to do something about it, some deep-seated part of me fought every effort to change course.
Like it didn’t get the memo. It had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from the smoldering debris of Plan A, and then only after prying its fingers loose one by one. I read something once about how the brain, like the rest of our bodies, evolved to conserve calories.
So it resists any sudden, drastic restructuring, falling back on what we today recognize as cognitive biases in order to avoid it. The proverbial old dog which can’t learn new tricks. But if it were only that, I don’t think it would’ve been so difficult to put my life back together.”
She shifted in her seat and looked about ready to interject, but I carried on. “Having done that once after the breakup, I thought nothing could catch me so completely off guard ever again. Not to the point where I flat out stop understanding life and my place in it.
I’ve been through a lot of hard times. You were there for some of them, I don’t have to tell you what it was like. But until you left, nothing else was able to fuck me up so badly that I didn’t know how to continue. Just flesh wounds. Dented but not destroyed.
When you go through an emotional apocalypse like that and come out the other side in one piece, a lot of fears leave you. Discovering that you can survive being totally destroyed like that, broken down to the tiniest, most fundamental pieces but still regenerate, inspires a sort of false confidence that nothing can ever hurt you again.
I think like most people, I have a narrative in my head about my life in which I’m the protagonist on some sort of quest. We start thinking about our own lives that way before we’re even old enough to be self aware about it. Humans are storytellers, it’s how we propagated knowledge before writing.
So when bad things happen, part of how we cope is to frame those events as pitfalls on our quest. Setbacks that the hero will overcome and be stronger for it. That usually works too, for small things. Losing your home, spending the night in jail...a breakup…”
I’d meant to stop bringing that up, but it slipped out. Sarah looked away, but kept listening. “But there are some things that doesn’t work for” I stipulated. “Really hard, cold, difficult shit where the narrative breaks down. Rape...miscarriage...the death of a loved one. Life suddenly stops being a story. As if the stage is dismantled, the curtains ripped away to reveal a bare brick wall behind the set. Life as it truly is.
I’m not going to be okay. I know it hasn’t been long enough to say that for sure, but this feels totally different from...you know. I just feel fucked up and broken inside. I feel like glass shards, thorns and poison. I can’t see a way of coming back from this.”
Bless her heart, she said exactly what I would have if our places were reversed. “I know you. When you’re hurt, you turn inward, retreating from the world. Sinking further and further into yourself. It’s fine to find temporary refuge there, but there is no permanent escape in that direction. If you travel down that path far enough, the only thing at the end is death.
If you let this kill you, it will only compound the tragedy. If they knew you survived the crash, don’t you think they’d be relieved? Don’t you think they devoted most of their adult lives to nurturing you, to shaping what sort of person you’d grow into? Now you’re going to throw all of that into a fire?”
I glanced around the room. Mercifully, because it was so early, the place was desolate. The only other customer present huddled over a laptop at the far end of the room with headphones on. If any of this disturbed him, or if he could even hear it, he gave no indication.
When I didn’t say anything for a while, she nudged a small coffee across the table. “I don’t drink coffee, but figured I should buy something if I was going to hang out here for any length of time.” I took it, savoring the warmth radiating into the cold, stiff joints of my hands.
“Yanno, you were always like this. Never wanted to ask for help with anything, even when it was obvious to me that you needed it. If you forget everything else I’ve said, at least remember that much. You shouldn’t try to bear all of this yourself.
I can’t be the only one worried about you. I can’t be the only one who has reached out to you. Take hold of those hands and let them pull you out of the pit you’re in, or else it will become your grave.” Unusually blunt by her standards. I expected her to steer me away from suicidal ideation, not rub my nose in it.
I got her off my case by promising that I’d start checking my messages, and touch base with her later in the week. When I returned to the shed, the lingering caffeine buzz prevented me from just crawling back into the cot and passing out like usual. As intended I suppose, though the run-in with Sarah left me feeling unexpectedly drained.
Weary but unable to sleep, I sat cross-legged on my cot, wrapped the blanket around myself and went back to watching tapes. This one turned out to be from a picnic. I vaguely remembered bits and pieces of it, but have never been sure whether they were genuine memories or something I dreamt.
What a surreal sensation to witness the basis for those faded, distorted memories playing out before me, filling in the gaps. I looked about five, playing in the grass at a local park as my parents poured themselves some wine.
When I looked troubled, Mom asked me what was the matter. I’d pulled up the edge of some tough black fabric commonly used in landscaping as a weed barrier. “The ground shouldn’t be made out of cloth” I muttered. She seemed tickled by it and asked what it should be made out of. “It should be made out of...ground. Shouldn’t it?”
She made some remark to Dad about my curiosity, then asked me what it mattered whether the ground is made of cloth or dirt. I mulled it over, little brow furrowed deeply, before answering. “It makes the difference of...whether anything I do or say matters at all. Whether the world is real, or fake.”
They had a good long laugh over that. To them, the sort of cute, silly thing that often comes out of the mouths of children. But I remembered that part to this day only because of the impact it made on me. It was the moment when I first started to seriously contemplate such questions.
But there was something else. Something in the background of the video that I didn’t remember from that day. Distant enough that I might’ve missed it if I weren’t in the habit of watching the screen close up.
A dark figure, spectating the picnic from within a patch of tall grass. As I watched, it began to approach. Step by step it came, carefully parting the tall grass, then making its way towards the camera. That’s when I realized both Mom and Dad were in frame for the entire video. Who filmed this?
As it drew near I could make out more and more detail. A withered old man dressed in a black velvet uniform, the boots and gloves made of black vinyl and the belt needlessly wide. A small obsidian pin adorned his collar, the buttons fastening the garment shut made from highly polished silver.
The whole time, I wracked my brain for some explanation as to how this could be on an old home video. Did someone else find these tapes before I did? Copy their contents to a computer, edit this weird shit in, then put it back on the tape somehow? But there’d been no identifiable transition from the picnic to whatever was unfolding now. It was perfectly seamless.
The old man only stopped when he was but ten or so feet from the camera. A light wind whipped his sparse grey hair about. Then he spoke. “They’re from the background of your memories.” He fell silent for a moment after that. As if I was supposed to understand?
“They’re from the background of your memories” he then repeated, gesturing slowly toward the tall grass behind him. As he walked in that direction, whoever was holding the camera dutifully followed. The old man then spread the tall grass.
Through the parted grass, I could see more distant figures milling about on an abandoned playground. Dressed in black robes, some strangely shaped helmet or mask concealing their faces. They seemed to be searching for something.
That’s when I noticed all colors had begun fading away. From bright sunshine, a blue sky and rich green grass to a muted sepia, so slowly that I didn’t realize it was happening until the scene was nearly monochrome.
In fact it was the changing of the seasons, from Summer to Winter. The trees, once lush and replete with leaves, were now bare. Twisted, skeletal branches reached up to the the cloudy winter sky. As I watched the robed figures wander, I noticed everywhere they stepped, the grass withered and turned to dust...leaving only naked soil.
Then one of them abruptly turned to face the camera. The video ended there. I couldn’t believe it, rewinding a ways just to be sure it wasn’t something wrong with the VCR. What the fuck? Has it always been here, waiting for me to watch it?
For that matter, why don’t I remember any of that from when I was little? It still seemed like it had to be a trick of some kind. Had to be, surely? Who was that man, anyway? What did he mean by “They’re from the background of your memories?”
The next tape was of a school play. I was the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Besides the cringe fuel, nothing jumped out at me. I was about to eject it when I noticed the silhouette of a strange figure standing at the back of the stage, where the lights didn’t reach. Nobody in the audience seemed to notice. It wore a long black cloak and some large, bulbous headgear I couldn’t make out the shape of.
Now that I knew what to look for, I spotted another like him in the audience. Off to one side, obscured by the poor picture quality but wearing the same outfit and headgear. Bulbous, bone white and with a long, curved beak...an oversized bird skull.
As if realizing I’d spotted him, the one in the audience turned to look at me. Then, as before, the tape suddenly ended. I tried rewinding again with the same result. As soon as they know they’ve been spotted, it’s over. Whoever filmed these turns the camera off, or they stop the recording somehow.
I struggled to make sense of any of it, and failed. I at least knew it wasn’t simply a prank. Editing them into the audience so perfectly would’ve been a monumental task, and for what benefit? To confound me?
The next tape was of my mother singing in choir. I was there as well sitting next to my Dad, antsy as hell because of how long I’d been there. Two hours is an eternity to a kid. It was almost unsurprising when I spotted the black robed figure standing off to the side, tucked away in the shadows.
Then the choir began to sing a song I have no memory of. “They’re from the backgroooouuunnnnd of your memoriiiiieeeees” they sang, setting the old man’s cryptic words to a melody. “They’re from the backgroooouuunnnnd of your memoriiiiieeeees.”
I began to sweat. Who made this? Why put so much work into something like this only to leave it sitting in a box for however long, assuming I’d find it someday? The old man from before walked into frame, first peering at the robed figure in the shadows, then turning towards the camera with a knowing look. He slowly shook his head.
I grabbed thick handfuls of my own hair and tugged at it. Teeth grinding, anxiety consuming my mind. How? Who did this, and when? For what possible reason? Possibilities occurred to me in rapid fire, rejected just as quickly. None of them could explain what I just saw to my own satisfaction.
As before, the longer I watched, the more the scene changed. The colors were the first to go. Then the walls began to show signs of mold, wear, and water damage. As if the building were rapidly growing old all around those watching the choir, who seemed oblivious to it. The banner hanging over the stage grew bitter and yellow. The text changed along with it...to a now familiar phrase.
Only when the nearest black robed figure noticed the camera did the recording end. Why? To prevent me from seeing something, I assumed. But what? I rocked back and forth in the cot, gripping the edges of the blanket, overwhelmed by what I’d seen.
Sarah. Sarah has to see this! She’ll never believe me if I simply tell her over the phone or in person. So I texted her, something about how I’d mulled over what she said at the coffee shop and decided I really could use someone to talk to.
The text she sent in response sounded relieved. “Tomorrow’s a bit soon, I was thinking more like Friday, but I suppose I can shuffle some things around. I’m glad I got through to you. Don’t think that just because we lead separate lives now that I ever stopped caring.”
When the mania subsided, I began to wonder if I might’ve been wrong to deceive her. But I couldn’t keep this to myself, surely? Someone else had to know, and I couldn’t think of anyone else local that I trusted with something like this.
When the caffeine finally wore off and allowed me to get some sleep, it was unusually fitful. My dreams incorporated scenery from the tapes, including the rapid decay. That old man’s face kept appearing, uttering his cryptic warning.
I awoke just before noon. An impressive feat by my standards, as of late anyway. When I’m cooped up in that shed, if not for the alarm clock and my phone I’d have no idea of what time it is. My sleep pattern was the first casualty of that ignorance.
After taking a badly needed shower in the downstairs bathroom, I continued the slow process of packing everything up in preparation to sell the house. It’s no mystery to me why I’ve been dragging my feet, but that knowledge does nothing to accelerate the process.
I have to touch everything before I put it into one of the boxes. Feel the weight of it. Study it for any details I might’ve overlooked until now. These are all things my parents bought for one reason or another. Trying to work out why has become a sort of sentimental archaeology.
When someone dies, it isn’t just a corpse they leave behind. That’s actually the smallest part of their remains. The nucleus, certainly, but not the whole. Everything they did with their life which left behind some sort of tangible evidence that they existed...the choices they made, what they valued, what they were trying to accomplish spreads out from that nucleus like the spiderweb which remains long after the spider perishes.
Like a fingerprint. Or a puzzle. A baffling, convoluted mess of clues left behind which made perfect sense to the deceased, but which must be painstakingly deciphered by anyone else. Like trying to reconstruct from fossilized remains how the original creature looked, sounded and behaved.
So many papers! Filing cabinets full of them. Drawers, boxes and binders filled to the brim. Enough reading material for the rest of my life, though I’d have to first skim through to discover how much of it was personally written by either of them, and how much was just tax returns or whatever.
I’d just about gathered up enough to bind into a book when Sarah texted. I ignored it for a moment, still taking my time, reading a page full of messily scribbled notes that must’ve been my father’s. It was an itemized list of expenses for repairing a used motor boat he purchased once upon a time, but never did anything with.
When I finally bothered to check the text, she’d sent another two with irritated looking emojis, reminding me that I promised to check my phone more often. I called her and explained what I was in the process of doing when her first text arrived. Her tone softened somewhat.
“Oh, that’s...Well it’s good that you’re packing it up, I think. No good for you to keep it the way it is, haunting that place like a...I mean, that stuff will just constantly remind you of them unless you get rid of it. You don’t need to sell it, necessarily-”
I cut in to clarify that I’d begun renting a storage unit. “I found something in the shed that you’ve got to see though” I gushed. She seemed skeptical that it could be anything that remarkable and frustrated that I wouldn’t simply come out and tell her.
“It’s just something sentimental. It’s important to me, I want to show someone.” She went quiet for a moment...then asked what time she should show up. When her SUV pulled in, I’d just finished rewinding the tapes from last night in preparation.
“Jesus. You’ve been sleeping in here?” She ducked into the musty, darkened shed with visible apprehension. I patted the cot next to me where I meant for her to sit down. She hesitated, but then obliged.
“What are all these tapes?” She seemed to work it out on her own a moment after those words cleared her lips, but I filled her in anyway. “Ohhh. Oh no, this isn’t...You shouldn’t be... Fuck. I see what happened. Like a black hole.”
Accurate, except that I no longer want to escape by this point. She went on about how unhealthy all this is. How it was the worst possible thing that could’ve happened to me, like a recovering gambling addict who wins the lottery.
“This isn’t what you need right now” she urged, trying in vain to pry the remote from my hand. I let her have it, but then simply reached over and turned the TV on manually. “Watch one tape” I insisted. “Just one. You’ll see what I mean.”
She gave me a mournful look, but did not protest further. I popped in the first tape and hit play. After a few seconds of seeking, the picnic in the park appeared on the screen. I glanced over her a few times as she watched, face illuminated by the television’s faint but steady glow.
The old man appeared, approaching the camera. “They’re from the background of your memories” he said. Once more I looked over and studied her face. Eyes wide, jaw hanging slightly agape. “I know, right? What the fuck. But it gets weirder.”
She stared at the screen like that for a while longer. Then at me. “Don’t look away” I said, “you’ll miss it.” So she returned her gaze to the screen and didn’t look away again until we’d gone through all of the tapes I watched last night.
“This?” she finally said. “This is what you asked me to come over for? It is, isn’t it.” I begged her not to be mad. “You wouldn’t have believed me if I told you over the phone. I knew I had to show you in person, and there’s nobody else I can trust.”
Her face slowly contorted as she gaped at me. “...Show me what? There was nothing. The tapes were all blank.” I blinked a few times, then laughed in her face. “Alright, good one Sarah. Look I’m sorry I misled you, but like I said, you were the only one-”
She rewound the tape a ways, then hit play. As I watched, she got her phone out and set it to record the screen. After about ten seconds she stopped recording and played it back for me. A blue screen, exactly as she claimed.
I turned back to the television, still playing the last minute or so of the picnic video. Then looked at Sarah’s phone again, absolutely baffled. She heaved out a sigh. “...I guess I didn’t realize how much it affected you.”
I tried to protest, but she shushed me. “There’s nothing written on the tapes, even.” I took one of the tapes in my hands. The label read “choir practice” followed by the date, in black sharpie. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why can’t she see it? What does it mean?
“Don’t worry” she continued. “I’m not angry about this. I’m relieved to find out, if anything. You need help.” I angrily accused her of fucking with me, then reached for another tape, intent on rewinding it so we could watch it again. She snatched it from my hand.
“They’re blank. There’s nothing written on them and nothing shows up on the screen.” I tearfully begged her to believe me. “I believe...you think you’re seeing something” she said. “But you need to believe me when I say that you’re losing it. That you’ve been affected more deeply than you realized. You need help. I happen to know a therapist who specializes in stuff like this, too.”
I continued to protest as she fired off an email to whatever shrink she meant to foist on me, but all of it fell on deaf ears. She gathered her things and left, calling out over her shoulder that she’d text me the shrink’s contact info “...for when you’re ready.”
I just sat there, hands shaking as I rewound the tapes. Then I played the first one, recording it with my own phone. Same result. While I did that, I noticed the light cast by the screen onto my surroundings never flickered. It was now as it always had been, a steady glow...with a blue tint.
I held one of the tapes in my hands, peering down at the writing on the label. Daring it to vanish I suppose. It didn’t. I rubbed at it with my thumb...to no effect. I covered it, then uncovered it. Looked away, then back, then repeated the process. Nothing I tried would make the writing disappear.
It had every appearance of plain, sober reality. Yet when I took a photo of it with my phone, it was only a blank label. The mania returned. I felt locked in a cognitive loop, confronted with two apparent truths I could find no way to reconcile.
Nothing like this has ever happened to me until now. I’ve never seen any chupacabras or bigfoots. Bigfeet? I’ve always defaulted to the simpler, mundane explanation in response to that sort of thing; insanity. Delusion. Casting down judgement from on high, never imagining I’d be on the receiving end one day.
Could she be right? Even as I continued to study the black markings on the tape which I now knew to be illusory, they refused to fade. What other possible explanation is there? I’ve never given much thought to how difficult it is to seriously doubt your own sanity, as I never expected to be in this position.
This must be what it feels like, surely? Insanity is imperceptible to the afflicted. They never feel insane. The more I thought about it, the more it all lined up. My phone buzzed. “Heironimus P. Travigan, PhD” followed by an address I recognized as someplace on the campus of the local university.
I was supposed to start there about a month ago. My life ground to a halt after the crash, all my plans fell to pieces as I folded up into myself. Nothing stops me from setting up a meeting with admissions and starting classes...except that I’d have to give up the shed.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way” I whispered, running my fingers over the tape’s impossible label. They were supposed to see me graduate. They would’ve looked so proud as I walked up to the stage to receive my diploma. No doubt Dad would’ve filmed it, like he filmed every other milestone in our lives.
It still seemed like the only possible future. How could it not be? Try as I might, I couldn’t picture any future at all where they remained in the ground. Some immovably stubborn fragment of my heart bitterly fought any effort to so much as imagine how my life might proceed without them.
I didn’t even realize I was still crying until I noticed the damp spots forming on the blanket where my tears fell. My every thought was consumed with the matter of the tapes, Sarah, and the psychologist she meant for me to seek out.
If she’s right, shouldn’t I? But then, I’d have to leave the shed for that. No longer than an hour or two, though. I felt shaken enough that reluctance to leave the shed won out for the time being. But as often happens, I felt differently after sleeping on it.
I owe that mainly to having the car dream again. The nightscape, the city. Honk, screech, crash, death. Waking up from it for the hundredth time provoked some reflection. Could I really bear another sixty years of this? Or even ten? Or one, for that matter.
Something still held me back. Only after protracted introspection could I nail it down. Seeing the shrink would be a step forward. Towards resuming my life, business as usual. A step into a future without them. That small, stubborn part of me violently recoiled from it.
To take even that first step would be tacitly acknowledging what’s happened. That it really occurred, that it’s permanent. That there’s no going back, and no other future I might escape to in which they’re still here with me.
If only I’d crossed that threshold before I realized it’s there. “It’ll only be that much harder now” I thought. In the end, I couldn’t make myself drive there. Just couldn’t do it. I could open the car door and sit in the driver’s seat, buckle myself in and start the engine, but that’s the full extent of it.
My arms wouldn’t move when I tried to take hold of the wheel. My foot wouldn’t budge from the brake. I fought with myself for over an hour before breaking down into a pathetic, blubbering mess. I pounded on the wheel, startling myself with the inadvertent honk. My neighbor, in the process of washing his BMW, shot me a sour look.
I gave up for the day and retreated back into the shed. Feeling defeated, but also enraged. How could such a simple thing be so difficult? I beat on my forehead with both hands. All I had to do was drive to that address. I had a whole fucking day to do it in and I still didn’t manage.
Didn’t have an appointment anyway. Didn’t even think to dress myself properly, bathe, or comb my hair. What a fucking mess. I wrapped myself up in the blankets until fully enveloped, like a chrysalis I hoped never to hatch from.
I wasted the next few days curled up like that, growing steadily more feeble, eyes glued to the screen. I knew it wasn’t real. I knew to anybody else’s eyes, I was holed up watching blank tapes. It didn’t matter to me anymore. Real or imagined, I needed it.
Dreams of the old man and the playground troubled me. All of it with the same grainy, faded quality from the video. “They’re from the background of your memories”. Something about it hooked into a deep seated part of my brain and tugged relentlessly at it.
A splinter in my mind. There’s something to be said for it though, as it finally got me out of bed. After bundling up on account of the frigid early morning air, I made my way out of the suburbs and into Greenborough park. Proximity to this park, and to the local elementary school, was a big factor in my parents’ decision to purchase the house.
I don’t know why, but it never occurred to me in all these years to come back and visit this place until now. I suppose it’s because I was never big on nostalgia until after the crash. A middle aged jogger with a golden lab on a leash shoots me a wary sidelong glance, as if I have no business being here. Do I?
Except for her, the park is desolate. Wispy bands of ethereal white fog still drifting an inch or so above the ground, grass glistening with dew. With winter at the door, the trees are all bare. Thin, convoluted branches snaking this way and that towards the sky.
Soon I am alone, navigating a minefield of memories. I pass a bench I once sat on as my mother applied a band-aid to my knee after I fell off my bicycle, wooden planks now grimy and worn from more than a decade of exposure.
There’s the playground. A sort of unofficial social classroom in which I learned many things about the behavior of other children that we were never taught in school. The slide, dented and rusty, cannot possibly be considered fit for use. The swings haven’t fared much better.
Then I spot it. I’m unsure at first because of how the years have reshaped this place in all manner of subtle ways, but as I get closer, my certainty grows. It’s just like in the tape. The picnic blanket was over there, and…
My gaze comes to rest on the soggy, torn fringe of landscaping fabric, still protruding from the soil. I smile weakly, remembering how powerfully it confused me so long ago. Such a silly thing, to have left such a lasting memory.
The sky is overcast. The underside of the cloud layer resembles a slowly shifting inverted landscape of mountains and valleys, all of it the same dreary shade of grey. A single droplet strikes my lapel, but no more follow. As if the sky cannot yet make up its mind whether to rain.
Staring at the sky like that, I nearly didn’t notice him. But as I turned to leave, my eyes snagged on a distant figure in a grey trenchcoat. As grey as his hair. He stood exactly where he had in the video, before a mess of tall grass with the playground just on the other side.
“Hey!” I called out. He turned to look, but then retreated, wading into the grass as I approached. “Come back! I just want to talk!” But by the time I reached the grass, he seemed to fade into the distance. Not actually escaping, but blending into the drab grey melange as if he’d only ever been a temporarily separated piece of it.
I stood there wide eyed, awash in an unmanageable flood of emotion, unsure what to think. Who is he? What does he know about the tapes? Perhaps Sarah was right, and I’m losing it. He might’ve just been some random old man out for a walk, in which case I can only imagine what he thinks of me now.
I waded a ways into the grass, scanning the playground beyond it. The old man was plainly long gone, so I returned the way I came. Feeling everything and nothing, wondering just what it is I hoped I would find in that park, I retraced my steps until I arrived back at the shed. After disrobing, I crawled back under the covers and put in another tape.
The next time Sarah texted me it was to let me know she’d gone ahead and made me an appointment. Despite everything, I smiled. For someone who dumped me because she didn’t want to play mother to someone much too old for it, she’s sure had a hard time stopping.
She wound up giving me a ride, too. “You didn’t have to do this” I mumbled. “I could’ve taken the bus.” She challenged me to get out my wallet and show her some bus tickets. Of course I didn’t have any. “That’s what I thought. I didn’t go to the trouble of setting you up with Dr. Travigan so you could waste his time, holed up in that miserable little shed.”
I didn’t fight it. Not out of recognition that I needed help, but for lack of willpower. Just a passenger being carried along, in this car as much as in life. When we arrived, I was in for a surprise. It was like no therapist’s office I’ve ever seen, instead resembling an aged but beautifully detailed little Victorian home.
Upon knocking a few times, the door opened a crack, and a feeble voice inquired what business I’d come on. When I identified myself as the subject of Sarah’s email and explained that I had an appointment, the chain was unfastened and the door swung open the rest of the way.
The man who now stood before me could be no more than five feet tall, hunched over with wispy grey hair and distressingly pale skin. He wore a grey v-neck sweater with a curious logo embroidered just above where the left breast pocket would be. He studied me for a moment through some sort of tinted monocle, then spoke.
“Come in, come in! Right this way! Sarah has told me a great deal about you. Nothing too personal, not to worry, but I understand you’ve been having recurring dreams?” I confirmed it. He led me through a breathtakingly intricate, detailed interior, every surface bearing some sort of decorative carving.
The wainscots were particularly ornate, as were the repeating slender pillars resembling the supports of a staircase hand rail...clearly not load bearing. Who polishes all this, I wonder. What little I know of interior decoration of this sort includes that much of it is often made by hand, the work of specialized craftsmen who command handsome pay.
Various unfamiliar contraptions lined the walls of every room we passed through. Some which I could discern the purpose of, like primitive video goggles, but others were more cryptically designed. “Quite the oddity, isn’t it? The brainchild of one Ivan Sutherland, who called it the ultimate display.”
It consisted of a pair of tiny monitors of the old picture tube type, with mirrors and lenses to direct the image from each one into the left and right eyes of whoever wears it. The apparatus was too heavy to sit on the head unsupported, instead suspended from an articulated boom. Oddly there was also something like a neck strap, with a pair of hypodermic syringes mounted to it...
I soon located the small plaque which identified it as a “computer aided transcendence vehicle.” I’ve never heard of such a thing. It did make it easier to identify all of the other gadgets now that I knew to look for the plaques, though.
“Spirit phone with wire recorder”. “Electric vitality belt”. “Vril staff”. “Orgonic concentrator”. It just went on like that, the whole place looking like a cross between an antiques shop and a museum of 18th century technology. The old man mistook my confusion for awe.
“Quite the collection, isn’t it? Haha yes, quite.” His demeanor abruptly changed when I reached out to pick up what looked like an old wood grain television remote from the 70s. It had big punchy black plastic buttons and, for some reason, a speaker grille.
“No, don’t touch that!” He snatched it away. I shrunk back and uttered an apology. “Oh it’s...it’s alright, I suppose. It can’t do much damage outside of the manifold. It’s just that the last time I allowed non-Institute personnel to use one of these, there was...an incident.”
He looked at me as if I should somehow grasp the severity of it. I pretended to, not wanting to be impolite. But more and more, I began to wonder whether this weird little codger could actually be a qualified mental health professional of any kind.
He led me down a narrow corridor with doors in either wall. When I saw smoke billowing out from under one of the doors, it gave me a start. “Don’t mind that” he assured me. “Zachary lives there. He’s...ah...busy at the moment, else I would’ve had him greet you.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by busy until the skunky aroma of the smoke reached my nostrils. “Well now” I muttered, “that would explain a lot of what I’ve seen so far, come to think of it.” Doctor Travigan, though it still felt premature to address him as doctor, led me to a small but cozily furnished room.
After shutting the door behind us, he settled into a plush leather recliner and invited me to lay down on the bed. I hesitated. “We normally use this room for sleep research, but I suppose for the time being it’s alright if you prefer to sit.”
I did so, sinking into the form fitting recess of an Eames chair opposite his. It was missing the ottoman I usually see these things sold with, and I felt put out by it. Why even have one of these without the ottoman? He could put his feet up if he pleased, but I was out of luck.
He must’ve intuited the source of my irritation after I crossed and uncrossed my legs a few times, trying to get comfortable. “That’s because of the helmet. It can be worn either lying down or, if I were to wheel that support mechanism from the other room in here, sitting up. Understand?” I didn’t. Not until he withdrew the musty wooden case from beneath the bed and opened it.
Inside was a football helmet nestled in protective foam. Or it had been at one time, beige with a pair of circular metal chunks embedded in it at opposite points. Stiff wires with multi-colored plastic insulation trailed from these circular protrusions to some sort of control circuit mounted on top.
The part which normally protects your mouth was missing, as were all the bolts and other metal bits, save for the mechanism that had been added to it. “Magnets” the old man explained. “Powerful electromagnets. You don’t have any fillings, do you?” I shook my head.
“Good. I don’t suppose you’ve ever attended the megachurch by the old shopping center?” I hadn’t, but remembered seeing some billboards for it on the way here. “Ah. Well you know it’s not just a church. There are coffee shops, book stores, all manner of businesses inside. Quite like a mall.”
It didn’t surprise me, but nor could I see what the relevance was. I thought I came here for therapy. “You see” he prattled on, “one of those businesses offered a very unique service until recently. Transcranial electromagnetic stimulation. Sometimes referred to as the God helmet.”
He patted the beige football helmet with the gizmos on it and winked at me. I remained deadpan, wondering when the session would start. “When somebody puts this on and current is fed to the two opposing electromagnets, the overlapping fields cause the most astonishing effect.”
I asked what it had to do with my dreams. “Not to worry, I’ll get to that” he assured me. “If someone with definite religious beliefs wears this device while it’s active, they first experience a sense of being watched. A presence, if you will. Then it often escalates into visions of Yahweh, Christ, angels and so forth. If a Hindu wears it, they see Brahma, Vishnu, you get the idea.”
He had my attention now. “What if someone who isn’t religious wears it?” I asked. A wry little smile came over him. Perhaps he was waiting for that question? “Aliens, quite often. Just the mind filling in the blank spaces, trying to attach some appropriate face to the presence it feels. Or some sort of larger, more intelligent being which wears many masks. Showing us whatever it is we want to see, but never its true face.”
I frowned, processing the new information with an appropriate degree of skepticism. I’ve seen bits and pieces in the media about the effect he described, but it sounded as though he attributed it to something more than a neurological quirk.
“Holy Ghost Encounters, it was called. The business model should be obvious enough” he added. “Come into the parlor, pay twenty dollars, get a glimpse of God. Or Heaven, deceased loved ones, whatever your heart desires really, it’s as simple-” I interrupted him here.
“I’m sorry, did you say deceased loved ones?” I leaned forward in my seat, now fully engaged. He fell silent for a bit. Still smiling, but somehow morose. “Yes, I thought that might...interest you. I know enough about your past, through Sarah, to have developed my own ideas about why you suffer the recurring nightmare. Why you cling to those tapes.”
I cringed slightly and felt inclined to leave. But what would I be returning to? A decaying shed full of tapes. Of faded memories. If what he just told me is true, I thought, he’s got something much better. The really pure stuff, straight from the source.
“Hook me up” I demanded. He launched into this long cautionary spiel that I didn’t care to hear any of. I took the helmet from him, slipped it on and fastened the chinstrap. “How do I turn it on? Does it plug into anything? Juice it up already.”
He sighed, but did not try to lecture me any further. Instead he opened a nearby cupboard to reveal that the entire thing was filled with what looked to be electrical equipment of some kind. Then he withdrew a coiled up cable from within, ran it to the helmet I now wore, and connected the two.
“You really ought to lay down for this. Listen to me about that much, I don’t want to have to drag the support frame in here.” I hesitated, but if I were to go limp or something the weight of the helmet would suddenly put a great deal of strain on my neck. “Alright” I muttered. “But this better not be some weird sex shit.”
He chuckled. Then once I was laid out on the bed, he began incrementally turning a large dial within the cupboard. Though it was muffled by the helmet, I could make out a steadily increasing electrical hum, and felt something like the tingle of static electricity on my skin.
“What do I do?” I asked as he fiddled with the controls, flipping various small switches. “Relax m’boy, you’re doing fine. Though sometimes it helps to focus on a memory you would like to explore. What you think about now will determine in large part what you will see, hear and otherwise experience as the effect intensifies.”
That was all the encouragement I needed. When I closed my eyes, amorphous, dimly colored blobs were already swirling about. The sort I’ve often seen behind my eyelids as I fall asleep each night, though not usually this vivid.
As I watched, searching intently for some relevant memory, the colorful blobs blended together and began to take on definite shapes. “I’m still here” he said. “If it becomes...difficult, I can talk you through it.”
I didn’t respond. The scenery coming together before me was just barely recognizable. Something dredged up from the murkiest depth of my memories. I’m...an infant? Aren’t I? I looked at my pudgy arms and wee little fingers. Those of a baby, sure enough.
All around me adults stood, shifting their weight now and again but not going anywhere. I must be at a party. A get together with family friends, something of that nature. Being so small and confined to the floor, all I could see of them were their shoes and pant legs. Like those old Charlie Brown cartoons, where adults only exist from the knees down and speak some incomprehensible gibberish.
I could hear them speaking in booming voices but not understand any of it. Before I learned to speak myself, no doubt. “Where are you now?” Travigan’s voice cut through the vision, the only intelligible English I could hear. It seemed to come from everywhere.
“I’m...at a party. I think. Or some other gathering. I’m just a baby crawling on the floor. The only other people I can see are just...shoes and pant legs. They’re standing around me talking to one another, but I don’t understand any of it.” It proved a challenge to string together sentences as I descended further and further into the trance.
“Hm, age regression. I see. Listen carefully. I want you to look up.” I scrunched up my face in confusion. “Wh...what? Why?” He only became more insistent. “You’ll resist it without realizing why. They see to that. But I implore you. Look up, right this instant. Look up!”
So I did. The adults all froze, though now I could see that’s never what they were. Suit pants from the knees down, and shoes to match. But above that…”WHAT ARE THOSE THINGS!?” I shouted, writhing feebly and beginning to sweat. “Those aren’t my parents! Those aren’t even people! What the fuck are they??”
The creatures standing around me began to back away, stepping out of the leggings they wore to deceive me a moment ago. They wore tattered black robes. Their feet were large, their toes crooked with thick, knobbly joints. Their skin was green, on their hands just as it was on their feet. The joints of their crooked fingers had the same distorted, malformed quality as their toes.
They shuffled out of the room as if it was painful to walk, their crooked, elongated fingers twitching subtly as they did so. On their heads they all wore what could only be oversized bird skulls. Bulbous bleached white craniums with huge empty eye sockets and long, narrow, pointed beaks.
“Those are the things from the videos!” I cried. “What are they doing here? How did they get inside? This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen! I was at a party! This isn’t how it’s supposed to be at all!” The room had no ceiling, instead opening up into an empty black expanse overhead.
The same black expanse could be seen through all the windows. They never bothered to cover them because I wasn’t supposed to look up. All of a sudden it all faded away and I found myself on the bed. Sweaty, heart racing, still wearing that damned helmet. I pulled it off and got up.
“Don’t be so hasty my boy!” the old man begged. “I’m sorry to throw you into the deep end right away, as it were, but I needed to be certain of what we’re dealing with.” I spun around and shouted at him. “WHAT WERE THOSE THINGS! You know, don’t you? I recognize you now. You’re that man I saw in the field by the playground, aren’t you?”
He looked away and pursed his lips. “How did they get into my memories?” I demanded. “How are they in my head? You know, don’t you? You know what they are. They were really in those tapes too, right? I’m not crazy. I’m not!” He exhaled.
“...No, you’re not crazy. How I wish that you were.” I told him he should tell Sarah that. He bridged his fingers. “...I would be all too willing. But only if you’ll press on with the experiment.” Experiment? He meant therapy, surely. Just who is this guy?
“Besides” he concluded, “your business there is unfinished, isn’t it? Wherever you were just now. They’re still in there, waiting for you. Do you really mean to leave before you’ve seen them?” It occurred to me that this might’ve been his plan all along. That my parents are just a hook to him, with which to draw me into this scheme.
Still, I badly wanted vindication. I couldn’t bear it if Sarah were to go on believing that I’m insane, and this man is the only other person so far who believes me. Whatever it is that’s been happening to me, he seems to know a lot more about it than I do.
“...Alright. But if I tell you to turn it off…” He swore up and down that he’d withdraw me immediately should I give any indication of distress. I eyeballed him warily, but he seemed sincere. That, plus the need to convince Sarah that I really saw something on those tapes, compelled me to once again don the helmet and lie down on the bed.
The comeup was slower this time, I assume because the old man was increasing the power more gradually. I watched formless colored blobs swirl about for what felt like an eternity before they coalesced into something recognizable.
I found myself in an office. Unusual only in that everything from the technology to the decor was archaic, I placed it sometime between the nineteen thirties and forties. The other oddity was that it all appeared to be monochrome.
Like an old black and white film. Only I wasn’t watching it through a television screen or in a theater, it was a real, tangible space I inhabited. When I reached out to touch the glossy black typewriter on the desk, I gasped. My hands were monochrome as well.
A banker’s lamp sat unused on the corner of the great mahogany desk. In the far corner of the room, by the door, there stood a coat rack with a grey hat and an umbrella hung from two of its hooks. Out the only window, I saw more office buildings.
When I craned my neck to the left or right, I could only see more office buildings in either direction, silhouettes moving about in the windows that were still lit up. Looking as far up or down as I could manage only revealed the same thing. More building. More windows. No street visible below me, and no sky above.
Where am I? I don’t remember this place. Did Dad take me to work once when I was small? But then, why is it all in black and white? My confusion only increased when I noticed the recessed rail in the ceiling. Like the tracks I’ve seen clothing move along at the dry cleaners.
It looped around the ceiling, then out the closed door through a narrow gap at the top. It piqued my curiosity, but I meant to finish searching the room before leaving it. The only other furniture was a pair of black filing cabinets...both locked.
Dejected, I turned towards the door. But as I did so, I took notice of a sheet of paper sticking out of the typewriter. I walked over, took hold of the knob I knew would advance the paper, and turned it until I could pull the sheet free from the ungainly machine. “Everything is normal” it read. Beneath that, “Don’t look at them, except in reflections. Don’t talk about them to anyone. Don’t say or do anything which gives away that you’re aware of their presence. Only writing is safe, they cannot read it.”
I turned the sheet over, but that really was everything written on it. Whoever wrote this didn’t even sign their name, and there was nothing in the way of a nameplate or business cards to give any indication of who worked here before I arrived. Who still works here, possibly?
With no more answers to be found in the musty little office, I took the hat off the rack and donned it before heading out into the hallway. The overhead metal rail continued here, as if some tiny monorail or gondola were meant to travel along, suspended from it.
As I stood there studying it, something whipped by behind me. So fast that I wouldn’t have realized if not for the sound, and the subtle gust of air. I turned this way and that looking for whatever it was, but the hallway was as empty as I’d found it moments earlier.
What the hell was that? I figured if I followed the rail far enough I might find out, so I began walking. The corridor stretched out before me to the point that however I squinted, I couldn’t make out the end. Just how big can this building be?
When I saw a distant figure approaching, at first I thought I must be seeing things. But he looked real enough close up, wearing the exact same outfit as mine. “A hat indoors? Why, who’s ever heard of such a thing? That’s hardly normal if you ask me” the stranger chuckled, snatching my hat off my head before handing it to me.
“Where am I? What is any of this?” I asked. He looked stunned. Then increasingly nervous. “What do you mean? This is where we all work. What else would it be?” I described how I got here from the point that I fell asleep with the helmet on.
He was now visibly sweating. “Listen fella that’s...I’ve never heard such a...no more of that, alright? None of that.” He brushed at my suit as if to clean away dust while furtively glancing around, though for what I could not yet say. “Looking sharp! You’ve got your tie on just right, that’s what I like to see. Exactly how it should be.”
I shrugged off the compliment and told him in no uncertain terms that something felt off about this place. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s wrong here, isn’t it.” He backed away. “No! Nothing’s wrong! Nothing! Everything’s as normal as can be! Always has been!”
Before I could press him for more, he turned tail and hurried off the way he came. The baffling encounter only increased my curiosity. Further down the hallway, I came upon a bathroom. Inside was more or less what I expected, a series of stalls and a large mirror taking up most of the near wall with a row of sinks under it.
I studied myself in the mirror. Neatly ironed grey suit, grey pants, white button down shirt and a black tie. Though really, they could be wildly clashing colors for all I knew. Then I saw it. Gliding slowly along the overhead rail, which intruded even here.
It looked something like a cluster of metal instruments. A security camera, a light, a microphone, various small sensors...and the barrel of what I assumed to be a gun. All of it mounted to a pivoting base which hung from the rail by a pair of rubberized wheels.
It made a quiet grinding, trundling sound as it slid along the rail, slowly circling the bathroom. I continued watching it...but only through the mirror. The warning in my office sprang to mind, that I was never to look at them directly.
Suddenly it stopped, then turned to examine me. I made a show of washing my face, fixing my hair and so on. Seemingly satisfied by the ruse, it then slid out the way it came, door opening automatically for it by some motorized mechanism as it left.
Holy hell. What the fuck was that? I thought about hunting down the fellow from the hallway and asking him, but concluded he’d probably be tight lipped as before. What is this place? Why build those rails? Why isn’t there any color?
I whispered, quietly as I could, that I wanted the helmet turned off. When nothing happened, I whispered a bit louder, but with the same result. Finally, my voice now trembling, I demanded that the helmet be removed as loudly as I dared.
Still nothing. Did he leave the room? Slowly, another possibility dawned on me. Could I have...fallen asleep? I’ve never had such a vivid dream though. I tried all of the cliche methods for waking up, like pinching myself and holding my breath.
If it’s a dream, it’s stubbornly persistent. I could try looking at the moon, except that every window I tried simply looked out onto more office buildings, packed together so tightly that nothing else was visible. Not the sky, not the ground below, just endless concrete and windows.
I gave up on it for the time being and resumed exploring the place. Every door looked the same, and the few that I opened revealed offices identical to mine. “Oh, sorry” I said when the office I’d barged into was unexpectedly occupied.
“Not at all, friend. But what are you doing here, rather than in your office? Are you on break?” I shook my head, unaware until then that anybody took breaks around here. He frowned. “Well that’s hardly normal then, is it? Off you go.”
There was a strained cheer to his voice and demeanor that unnerved me. Like the subtly twitching grin of a man held hostage by an offscreen gunman, assuring his family through a video camera that everything is fine.
I now had at least the beginnings of an understanding. Some sense of why anybody would remain here, why they would pretend nothing is out of the ordinary. But I also didn’t care to learn any more than I had to in order to escape.
Is escape even possible, I wonder. Wouldn’t there just be more office buildings? Then more beyond that? What if it’s one huge contiguous structure? The hallway certainly seemed to extend into infinity, from what I could see of it.
When I found the break room, the air was thick with smoke. A cigarette hung from the lips of absolutely everyone present. About a dozen of them, all dressed identically. All men with black hair, pale skin and samey looking faces, smoking like a couple of chimneys.
“Say fella, aren’t you gonna smoke?” one of them asked as I stood there taking it all in. I politely declined. He seemed disturbed by it. “What do you mean, no? Everybody smokes because it’s normal. You want to be normal don’t you? Of course you do.”
He handed me a cigarette. I gave up and placed it between my lips, holding it steady while he ignited the tip using a stainless steel lighter. I puffed a few times to satisfy him, after which he resumed mingling with the others.
“So...what exactly do you all do here?” They stared back in confusion. One tipped his hat and scratched his head. “Well, er...we work. This is “work”. As in “going to work”. Why do I have to tell you? You new or something?” He shared a chuckle with the others.
I told him that in fact I am new, but that he didn’t answer my question. “What sort of work gets done here?” A short silence followed. One of them volunteered that sometimes he sits at his desk and types on his typewriter. Another nodded, looking relieved. “See? There you go.”
But I wasn’t satisfied. “What exactly do you write?” He looked at once irritated and anxious. “Look buddy, you’re new. You obviously don’t understand how things work around here. That’s why I stopped by your office earlier and wrote you a little something to help you get started.”
He stared intently at me. I thought back to the contents of the note. As I did so, the other men suddenly shifted subtly. Tensing up, their eyes wide. I heard a quiet, raspy metallic sound behind me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
It’s right there, isn’t it. Right now. Behind me. I dare not look, I dare not say anything. Everything in me wanted to turn and face it, fighting that urge required a degree of discipline I did not realize was in my possession until now.
The others looked this way and that, staring off into space. Not at anything in particular, just straining as I was not to look at the dangling cluster of machinery just behind me. “S-say fella” one of them nervously stammered, “why don’t I show you the ropes? Come to my office and I’ll show you a thing or two about how to fit in here.”
I eagerly nodded, still fighting the urge to turn around and look at the presence I felt just behind me. The suited man got up from his seat and headed for the hallway, gesturing for me to follow. As I did so, I heard the familiar raspy grinding of the thing following us.
We just kept walking until the sound faded. Did it lose interest? Is it capable of that? It’s a machine isn’t it? Just how intelligent can it be? I still didn’t feel safe enough to peer over my shoulder. Even when he led me into his office, I didn’t let my guard down.
He held his index finger to his lips. Then plucked a pencil from the mug on his desk and scribbled something on a sheet of paper. “Carry on some sort of banal conversation with me. It can hear us everywhere and is attracted to any behavior that is out of the ordinary. While you do that, help me move the file cabinet.”
I read over it again, confused until he actually began to wheel the file cabinet away from the wall. “Oh, ah...ahem...work is going very well lately, wouldn’t you say?” I’ve never been much of an actor. But then, I’ve also never had any need to act convincingly until now.
“Indeed” he replied as he finished sliding the cabinet across the room, revealing a hole he must have knocked through the wall some time ago. “I estimate productivity is as high as it’s ever been. Everything’s exactly as normal as it should be.” He frantically waved me towards the hole.
I ducked through. He followed, pulling the cabinet behind him to once again conceal the hole. I began to speak but he shushed me, gesturing once more for me to follow him. I couldn’t understand the space we now occupied. There shouldn’t be this much space between the walls, surely?
It looked utilitarian. A rusting steel framework propping up the paper thin walls, steel pipe snaking this way and that, both along the walls and overhead. What little light there was to see by intruded into this space through the slots in ventilation grates.
“Alright. We’re out of range now, you can speak” he muttered. I didn’t know where to begin, thousands of possible questions fighting to escape my lips at the same time. “Where are we?” I begged. “What is this place? What are those things?”
He leaned back against the cold concrete wall of the utility corridor, wooden walkway creaking beneath him as he shifted his weight. “It’s...something like the backstage of your dreams. You’re sleeping right now, aren’t you?”
I answered that I didn’t really know, but that I began to suspect it early on. He sighed. “Well that’s how I got here anyway, I assume it’s the same for the others. Can’t say for sure why I’ve been here so long. Just a coma, I hope? Or perhaps time just passes differently here.”
I pressed him for details about the contraptions which slide along the overhead rails. “I wish I knew. That’s how most of the newbies die. Those things are so lightning quick, they’re behind you the instant you give it away. The very microsecond you reveal that you know about them. Then there’s a dart in your neck, and it’s lights out for you.”
I put my hand over my mouth. “Yeah, I seen it so many times. The others only made it because I got to them in time, left them a note or brought them here and told them how to survive. I never even seen what it does with the bodies, I can’t watch of course. They’re just gone the next time I look.”
I asked what he meant about the “backstage of my dreams.” He looked at me funny. Then continued crawling down the corridor, instructing me to follow. The corridor emptied out into what could only be a hollow, unfinished portion of the building.
But it made no sense. There weren’t even floors here. Like most of it was just a hollow shell, only put together enough to fool the people who never leave “work”. The cavernous, darkened rectilinear expanse was punctuated here and there by the glowing rims of what I initially took for spotlights, protruding through the outer walls.
The stranger noticed my interest and pried one of them loose. It was in fact a television monitor, the old picture tube style, playing a looping animation of a human silhouette moving behind curtains. It then dawned on me that this is what I saw earlier through the “windows” of the other buildings. Just so many out-facing monitors, creating the illusion of a fully inhabited structure.
“Why? Why fake all this? For what possible reason?” He shrugged. “Well then, why don’t you leave?” I pried. It seemed to me, based on what he’d so far shown me, that there was no good reason to remain here and all the reasons in the world to attempt escape.
“Well, for one thing” he explained, “the people who show up here are sitting ducks without me. Know-nothings who will inevitably attract those...mechanical...whatever they are. They’ll look right at ’em or ask about them, not realizing what will happen. I’m the only reason anybody makes it.”
A philanthropist. Or at least someone in a position to do some good. What little good it is possible to achieve in such a maddening, incomprehensible place. “Besides” he stipulated, “I’ve been outside. Trust me, it’s much worse. There is at least rhyme and reason in here. There is order, and it’s possible to live a...normal...life.”
I rejected the notion. How could anything be worse than that place? Than those uncompromising machines who do not even threaten or explain what is expected from you, but simply execute those who don’t work it out for themselves?
“My...my parents are out there!” I blurted out, wondering whether I could really be certain of it. The man who told me that also seems to have stranded me here deliberately, after all. It may well have simply been the bait that he knew would most effectively overcome my apprehensions about him, about the helmet and so on.
The stranger’s demeanor changed. “Is that so. Well, that does change the equation, doesn’t it.” He rubbed his immaculately shaven chin. “I suppose the others know well enough how to hack it in there. I’ve instructed them to do the same thing for newbies that I did for them. They’ll probably be alright without me for a while. If you’re right, and someone you love is out there, I can’t begin to quantify the danger they’re in. That’s something I cannot ignore.”
Tears began to run down my cheeks as I thanked him, seizing his hand and shaking it violently. He shrugged it off. “You won’t be thanking me once you see what’s out there. What you’ve gotten yourself into. But I suppose I can’t talk you out of finding out for yourself, can I?”
I shook my head. “...I was the same way once” he confessed. “Back when I thought there was a way out. Before I resigned myself to salvaging the few that I could, seeking out some tiny island of relative normalcy among the confusion, brutality and chaos outside these walls.”
I insisted again that it was a wonderful thing he was doing. He just gestured for me to follow him. Down, down, down we went, the wooden walkway spiraling downward along the outer wall of the hollow concrete tower.
Quite like the scaffoldings you sometimes see on the outside of buildings being painted or otherwise renovated, just internal. “Who built this?” I mused aloud. “I mean, if we’re not meant to leave...work...then who is this walkway for? Did you make this?”
He denied it. “No, it’s for something you haven’t seen yet. There’s a lot about this place you don’t understand. Which you should never desire to, in fact. Have you yet realized what a strange thing it is that there should be a backstage area in a dream? That there’s anything at all outside of it?”
I answered that in fact it did occur to me a moment ago that none of this should exist. He seemed pleased by it. “Smart kid. Whenever you dream, or recall a memory, your brain simulates a small chunk of reality. Just the immediate environment relevant to the memory, or whatever the dream is about. Or so it seems.”
He trailed off there as if it was self explanatory. I badgered him for more, and he obliged. “If ever you have seen distant mountains, cities or other backdrops in your dreams, I’m willing to wager you never tried to go there. That you just passively accepted it as background scenery irrelevant to the immediate, foreground experience of the dream, memory or whatever.”
I’d never given any thought to the concept, but found that he was right to the best of my recollection. “There’s a reason for that” he continued. “You’re not meant to leave the immediate area prepared for you. Everybody subconsciously assumes there’s nothing outside of it anyway. That it’s just a dream, that it’s all coming from you, so there can’t be anything beyond what your mind has generated.”
That seemed self evidently true to me and I couldn’t imagine what he could mean by contesting it. When I said as much, he smiled. “You’ll see. Once we get outside, everything will become clear. There’s no use telling you now, you won’t believe me. It’s something everybody needs to directly witness in order to accept. Even I struggled with it the first time.”
Infuriating. However I leaned on him to expound on what little he’d revealed so far, he refused, reaffirming that I would have to see it for myself to truly understand. “Before that” he cautioned, “we’ll have to get through the parking garage.”
Indeed, the hollow space came to an end. What looked like a concrete floor beneath us, in fact the ceiling of the top level of a parking garage if the stranger could be believed. I saw no elevator shaft connecting it to the handful of real floors now far above us, and could imagine no valid purpose for it. But then, it was far from the strangest thing I’d seen today.
We dropped down into the parking garage through a ceiling panel the stranger slid to one side. After we were through, he boosted me up and had me replace it so there would be no trace of where we came in through.
“Well that was-” he immediately shushed me. What? More of those rail machines? I cautiously scanned the ceiling, but there were no rails here. What could he be worried about? He whispered an explanation to me, almost too quiet to make out.
“We’re not alone down here. Don’t think we’ll get outside that easily. This place is the domain of the scroggs...and the Grycler.” When I whispered back, asking what either of those things is, he just shushed me again and beckoned for me to follow.
Every car looked identical to every other. I’m not a car guy, no idea what make and model. Black and shiny, streamlined, almost like a hearse. They at least looked period appropriate given what I saw back in the offices.
While the two of us crept along, I took in our surroundings. Like any concrete parking structure I’ve ever been in. Damp patches of asphalt reflected light from bare bulbs dangling overhead, wiring trailing along the ceiling from one to the next. Load bearing concrete columns interrupted the vast horizontal expanse every hundred feet or so.
A distant sound startled both of us into ducking behind a nearby car. As it drew near, it resolved into the sound of scraping, dragging and the sputter of an internal combustion engine. The scraping sound was concrete and metal against asphalt it turned out. The creature which eventually entered view was made entirely of them.
A human underneath it. At least it was at one time, perhaps what the rail mechanisms do with their victims. Only an upper torso, arms and a head, either made out of or armored with a convoluted mess of rusty mechanisms.
Automobile parts I think. Mufflers, oil stained rubber hose, metal pipe and exhaust vents. Integrated into the torso, possibly by surgery, was an entire car engine. The pistons oscillated, the main shaft spun imperceptibly fast and the exhaust pipes belched thick black smoke as the impossible monster dragged itself along.
It could be my imagination, but I could swear I heard it whimper over the sound of the engine, and of concrete and metal scraping against the asphalt beneath it. Like it’s in pain or something. Its arms, twisted trunks of flesh woven inextricably together with metal car parts and greasy black tubing, terminated in chunks of concrete where hands should be.
Are the hands...embedded in the concrete? Just like the shoulders by the looks of it. The head was also encased, but in an oil stained metal drum. Where the mouth should be, instead there was a slotted exhaust vent which emitted puffs of black smoke as the creature exhaled, struggling to drag itself across the rough asphalt.
“Is...that thing...a Scrogg?” I whispered. He reached over and clasped his hand firmly over my mouth, but far too late. The clamoring pile of flesh and rusty metal machine parts abruptly turned towards us, and began frantically scrambling in our direction.
“God damnit. Now you’ve fucking done it!” he shouted, seizing me by the arm. He yanked me to my feet, then took off between the rows of shiny black cars with me in tow. I didn’t have much of a say in it, but following him got me this far. I saw no reason to part ways just yet.
I didn’t see what was so threatening about the whimpering, crippled thing until more of them emerged. From between cars, from behind support columns and from every shadowed crevice, they came. Clamoring, dragging themselves, thick black exhaust billowing out of their mouth vents as they screeched.
One of them on its own is a piteous sight which provokes empathy, not fear. But hundreds of them is a different matter altogether. However we ran, there seemed to be more of them at every turn. Dragging their mangled, corrupted bodies along the damp asphalt, belching black smoke.
Level by level we descended, but on every floor there were more scroggs waiting for us. Screeching as we hurried past, lashing out in a feeble bid to grab us by the ankles or clothing. The screeches were human, but also metallic, like the sound of metal dragged across metal.
“Where are we going!?” I shouted over the din. He first admonished me for not shutting up when I was told to. “From now on, do as I fucking tell you or you’ll get us both killed!” assuming that’s even possible in this place. Nevertheless, I apologized and agreed to heed him more closely.
“We’ve got to find the Grycler” he explained. I balked at the idea. “Isn’t that worse? It has to be. That’s worse than these things, isn’t it?” He affirmed it, but with a caveat. “There’s a pecking order down here. An ecosystem. The scroggs eat anybody who tries to escape from the upper levels. But the Grycler eats the scroggs.”
Each thing that came out of his mouth was only crazier than the last, but he got me this far. It was clear to me that he’d been here quite some time, knew much that I didn’t, and that I’d have to stick with him if I meant to make it out of here.
“There!” I didn’t understand at first. He pointed to one of the countless identical cars. As we approached, he fished a set of keys out of his pocket. Couldn’t be. Could it? “In all my searching, this is the only one I ever found keys in.”
I didn’t like the idea of committing to it. If we stopped in one place we’d only be swarmed by the scroggs. But if that thing still has gas in the tank...The two of us yanked the doors open, slammed them shut, then locked them just in time.
Scroggs massed around us on all sides, clawing noisily at the exterior. That painful, ear splitting sound of concrete scraping on metal magnified by the twenty or so scroggs closest to us. The rest milled about just behind them, anxiously awaiting their turn.
That’s when it appeared. The scroggs were horrid enough, but I could stand the sight of them. They didn’t affect me the way you might expect your first face to face encounter with a monster to. The Grycler was on another level though.
Even now, I am at a loss to properly describe it. It’s something that has to be seen in motion. A set of jaws dominated its form, though not jaws like those of an animal. More like a densely compressed spring turned sideways, with a section cut out of it so that it forms an extruded C shape.
The pointy ends of the wire comprising the coil are the upper and lower sets of teeth, rhythmically opening and closing as it moves. But that’s the least of it. There were lengths of tangled barbed wire mixed in, as well as rusty chains. Much of it red hot, as the whole damned mass of chomping, crawling metal was on fire.
The fire raged on without ever harming the Grycler. An integral part of it if anything, heating much of the metallic coil that made up its jaws to a dull red glow. Once near enough, it bellowed angrily, then shot out several lengths of chain.
Like the extended tongue of a frog snatching dragonflies from mid air, the chains wrapped around the scroggs nearest to it, then began pulling them into its gaping maw.
Oh how they screeched. In fear this time, clawing desperately at the asphalt in search of something to hold onto. But to no avail. One by one they were drawn into the ravenous jaws, which closed upon their twisted bodies, only mangling them further.
The rest scattered, screeching and whimpering, presumably back to their darkened hiding spots. “HA!” the stranger cried as the engine roared to life. “I knew it! We’re in business now kid, hold on!” I buckled in and gripped the arm rest as he backed out of the parking space, then peeled out.
The Grycler immediately took notice, shooting out a chain which wrapped around the rear bumper. “It’s got us! There’s a-” He waved me off. “I see it kid. Don’t give up just yet.” He floored it. The tires squealed in protest as they sent up foul smelling clouds of vaporized rubber.
The Grycler started sliding towards us. Unable to hold its position, dragged by the might of our roaring engine...but that only brought it closer. Closer and closer, and closer…Finally with a resounding metallic twang, the chain broke.
We rocketed forth, only barely slowing down in time to avoid slamming into a concrete column. “This is it!” he yelled, tearing around the corner. Once more we descended, level by level, but now with the benefit of motorized transport. The few scroggs which emerged from their hiding spots as we passed quickly retreated back into them when they spotted the Grycler in hot pursuit.
“There’s no end to it!” I wailed. He ignored me, yanking the wheel left and right, narrowly avoiding collision with parked cars as he drifted around corners like a madman. The Grycler burned brightly in the rear view mirror, closer and closer every time I checked. Internal fires seething with blinding radiance, sharpened metal points gnashing against one another.
At last, the exit came into view. We smashed right through the striped wooden boom gates, swerving onto the street at ground level. The Grycler cast out two chains this time, again seizing us by the bumper. “Just fucking give up” the stranger growled under his breath.
Of course it didn’t. Once again he floored it, but the Grycler sent out yet another chain which snagged on our bumper, before it began slowly reeling us in. I briefly contemplated getting out. But there was no guarantee it wouldn’t just send another chain out and seize me with it.
I didn’t have to decide. The chains didn’t give way this time, but the bumper did. My stomach churned as the car lurched abruptly forward, the Grycler howling in frustration behind us. I continued to watch in the rear view mirror as it finished reeling in its unexpectedly meager prize.
I laughed and wiped the sweat from my face. He looked at me as if I were crazy. “You think that’s it? The Grycler is small potatoes kid. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” I brushed it off, still recovering from the abject terror we just narrowly escaped. The notion that we could encounter anything meaningfully worse than that seemed ludicrous...at the time.
“Where to now?” He initially didn’t answer, scanning the road with intense vigilance. As if expecting something in particular? Once satisfied we were relatively safe, cruising through the darkened cityscape with no other cars in sight, he spoke.
“We’re headed for the city limits. Just a vast, barren wasteland beyond that. But if there’s an edge to this place, something we can ram our way through, that’s where we’ll find it.” Seemed as good a plan as any, until I remembered why I came here in the first place.
“What about my parents?” He sighed, eyes still firmly on the road. “You may not like this, but...if they came through here and stayed in the city…” He trailed off, the following silence saying everything he didn’t.
“The only realistic chance they woulda had is to get out of the city, like we’re doing. If they’re still alive, they’re out there somewhere. If they’re smart they’ll make a fire or something so we can spot ’em.” It wasn’t much, but it was something. A slim hope to latch onto.
“There’s...some sort of connection, isn’t there” I wondered aloud. “Between dreams and death, I mean.” For the first time since the parking garage, he looked away from the road briefly. His expression registered surprise, so I expounded. “If it’s them...if it’s really them...the only way they could be here is if this place is some sort of…”
I didn’t know what to call it. The idea seemed so clear in my mind but I knew of no word in the English language to express it with. A grey area between unconscious and deceased. A liminal realm on the border between the two, which our minds connect to only while sleeping.
Then again, it could all just be an unusually vivid dream. A vision of the sort that the so called God helmet is famous for producing. The uncertainty quickly became maddening. I needed to know if any of this is actually real! If it actually matters… If I should care about it or not.
Nothing I saw out the window gave any indication one way or the other. Just endless bland grey concrete office towers, windows lit up here and there by what I now knew to be picture tubes. How many of these even have people in them I wonder. Quite possibly just the one that I escaped from.
For what purpose? Why build all of this to give the appearance of a city? All just background scenery for the few floors that are actually inhabited, furnished and otherwise fleshed out. Try as I might, I couldn’t make sense of it.
As we approached the edge of the city, it only grew stranger. The buildings here were even less finished than the one we escaped from, gaping holes in the exterior revealing the shoddy patchwork mess of girders, pipes and wiring within.
In places, two or more buildings blended together. Whoever built them seemingly forgot what they were supposed to be. It still gave the impression of a city, but an increasingly abstract one. The picture tube windows thinned out as well, replaced by hollow openings, then simply by shallow carvings which don’t even penetrate the concrete.
I wasn’t sure at first, but my certainty grew by the minute. I recognized this. “Turn around.” He scoffed. “What are you, nuts? We’re nearly out of the-” But of course it was too late. The glare of oncoming headlights blinded us. A honking horn, screeching tires...then the impact.
The drive out of the city center proved mercifully uneventful. Buildings, or hollow facades masquerading as them, whipped by to either side as we made our way towards the wasteland. I noticed on the way that they were becoming less complete.
Some were missing substantial portions of their outer shell, permitting an unobstructed view of their haphazard interiors. Yet as I peered out the passenger side window at the bizarre imitation cityscape, something about it seemed suspiciously familiar to me.
I brushed it off. Every building naturally looks the same as every other, save for their varying degrees of incompleteness and increasingly…”LOOK OUT!” I shouted, upon noticing the other car bearing down on us. He slammed on the brakes, but much too late.
The other car honked its horn, then also attempted to halt its advance. There was just a split second of searing pain, then I blacked out. My last desperate wish was that I’d been faster. I’m never fast enough.
On our way out of the city, I began noticing aberrations in the design of the buildings. Like whoever constructed them grew lazier and less concerned with consistency as they built further and further from the city center.
I could see inside of more than a few. Whole sections of the concrete shell were missing, such that the framework of rusty girders and plumbing within were exposed to the elements. Does it rain here?
Just then I felt struck by inexplicable panic. Like there’s somewhere I’m supposed to be. Something I’m supposed to do? Or remember? I scanned the horizon. “There’s another car!” I cried. He swerved onto the shoulder of the road, just barely missing an identical streamlined black automobile that was headed in the other direction.
Something changed. Impossible to nail down, but I could feel it in my spine and in every little nerve ending. Like we just crossed some sort of invisible threshold. “Thanks kid, that thing came outta fuckin’ nowhere.”
I still couldn’t shake the feeling that some monumental shift had just occurred. The cityscape receded in the rearview mirror, the sky at last visible above us. Not a single cloud, nor any stars. Just a uniform, pitch black void.
“Strangest thing” I muttered. The other fellow asked me to speak up. “Oh no, it’s just...I got a brief glimpse of the people in the other car. For a split second I...I don’t know. I could have sworn it was my parents.”
He brought the car to an abrupt stop, reversed gear and did a three point turn. “Don’t do anything rash because of me” I urged, “I don’t really know what I saw.” He countered that it was entirely possible that I’d really seen them just now and that we had no better lead.
We sighted the car a few minutes later, just a black speck on the horizon. When it took a turnoff before reaching the city, we followed suit and wound up going around the city rather than back through it. The shapes of the buildings against the black, starless sky shifted this way and that as we passed. Almost like parallax, but the perspective looks all wrong.
Definite enough to identify as a city, but abstract enough that you couldn’t mistake it for one if you gave it more than a passing glance. No matter how fast we drove, it never seemed to narrow the distance between us and the car we were tailing.
I worried that it was just some sort of mirage, like the subtle shape shifting qualities of the city now once again behind us. I struggled to remember what I saw in the harrowing moments before we swerved out of the way. It was their faces, surely? A man and a woman, both wide eyed, the woman screaming.
Not that it made much difference. Like he said, we set off with no clear idea of where to go except away from the city. Even if my eyes were simply playing cruel tricks on me, we might at least meet others who managed to escape the city. Perhaps they’ll know the way out of all this?
“I never got your name.” He plucked a business card from the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket. “John Johnson” it read. “Same as all the other fellas in the office building” he confessed. “But it’s fine if you call me that. I’ve been here so long I don’t remember my real name. That’s the first thing this place takes from you.”
I wondered how long I could be stuck here and if, in time, my identity might also begin to erode. “Wait, what’s that?” I pointed to a structure fast approaching in the distance. It resembled a colosseum until we got close enough that I could see it was made from wood.
Just a huge, circular wooden wall, propped up from the outside by haphazard supports consisting of wooden planks nailed together. He slowed the car and parked alongside it. “What is it? Is this where you were taking us? The wasteland?”
He gestured in a wide arc. “We’ve been in the wasteland for hours already. Look around.” I did so. The ground was not soil or sand, but concrete. Cold, damp in places and glistening, though there was no light source it could be reflecting.
About twenty feet away there was a patch of road. Not attached to the main one we arrived on, just an isolated patch of asphalt with the correct painted traffic markings, sitting incomplete like an island among all the dull, grey concrete.
As we approached the wooden structure, I spotted more abortive beginnings of road work. Here and there, rusty pipe sprouted up from the ground, ran along it this way and that, splitting in places like a tangled mass of roots before plunging back down into the concrete.
It seemed as if none of it was built, but grown. We passed a stop sign not adjacent to any street, just sticking up out of the concrete ground with short lengths of metal pole diverging from the main one like branches.
The same vague feeling that something’s terribly wrong which gnawed at me back in the office building only intensified out here. I’m in no immediate danger that I can tell, nothing is overtly menacing, but the structure of this world exudes perversity.
It didn’t come from me, anyway. I don’t pretend to know myself as well as I ought to by my age, but there is no recess of my mind any of this could have been hiding in without my knowledge. It seems instead to be the work of something which is familiar with the appearance of roads, of sidewalk and buildings, but not with their purpose.
Everything so far has the visual theme, the trappings and “feel” of an urban environment, but has been arranged in a way which betrays the ignorance of the designer as to what any of it is used for. What a sign actually is, where it ought to be located, that the entirety of a building interior is inhabitable rather than just a few floors, and so on.
When we arrived at the outer edge of the circular wooden structure, there was no obvious means of entry. No door, no hatch or other portal to the interior. So the two of us got to work breaking down one of the angled wooden supports we assumed held the walls up.
In fact that was their purpose, and once the support had been pried apart, a modest section of the wall began to topple over. It was a harrowing scramble to get out from under it before it fell, something one or both of us ought to have accounted for in the first place, but neither of us was hurt.
Ears still ringing from the impact, I climbed onto the fallen wooden wall and examined it. While the outer surface had been plain, the inner surface was painted with what looked like a nature mural. Rolling green hills, trees, flowers and a blue sky.
The interior of the wooden enclosure only proved more baffling than the exterior. The floor consisted of astroturf or some other grass substitute. The inner surface of all the other walls were also painted with one huge contiguous mural depicting a beautiful outdoor environment.
There, in the center of it all, was a cozy looking house. Like any other I’ve seen in the suburbs, strange only in that it shouldn’t be here. “What is this? Have you been here before?” I asked. John hesitated before answering.
“...Remember when I said there were things outside the office building that you’d have to see for yourself? To truly understand what this place is, what it’s for? There’s no more point in telling you now than there was back then. Just go look in the house, then you’ll see.”
It’s just a house, surely? If anything it looks a great deal more inviting than anything else I’ve seen since my arrival. The way he said it worried me though, and I slowed my approach. If there were any reason to believe we’re in danger I’m sure he’d say so, but the growing lump in my gut couldn’t be argued with.
“...I don’t want to” I mumbled. He looked exasperated. “We came this far kid, you may as well. You’re not gonna be able to make sense of anything after this if you don’t go in there and see it with your own eyes. I was scared when I did it the first time, but I don’t regret it.”
The more he talked about it, the more gravity it seemed to accumulate, and the less I wanted to go through with it. But as I drew near to the front door of the pleasant little home, I found I couldn’t make myself reverse course. I had to know.
The neatly painted white door creaked mildly as I swung it open. Nothing in the way of a lock, and when I glanced at the spot in the door frame where the bolt should go into, it wasn’t there. Nothing looked amiss about the interior, and when I reached the dining room, there was a birthday cake on the table.
A boy who couldn’t have been older than ten busied himself blowing out all the candles on the cake. Everybody around him, who I’m sure he mistook for adults, was one of those fucking things. Dressed normally from the neck down but still wearing great, bulbous bird skulls on their heads. Unless that’s just what their actual heads looks like.
They all abruptly turned towards me, apparently not expecting the intrusion. The boy continued struggling to blow out the candles, oblivious to it. Something took hold of me right then. I couldn’t say why, but I felt as if I could do nothing else besides what followed.
“LOOK UP!” I shouted. The boy, suddenly startled to wakefulness, looked up at the figures surrounding him. People I now felt certain he assumed up until now were his parents, relatives and family friends.
They all began backing slowly away. The boy’s eyes widened, and his jaw hung open. Then he started screaming. The bird skull creatures all frantically fled the room, ripping out of the paper thin clothing as they did so, all of them wearing the familiar tattered black robes underneath.
The boy only continued screaming in abject terror, tears now pouring from his eyes. Before I could comfort him, he shimmered, faded, then vanished altogether. The experience left me standing there stupefied, struggling to comprehend any of what I just saw.
“He woke up.” John stated, matter of factly. As if that’s all I needed and everything should become clear now that he said it. “What the fuck was that? What the fuck?” I stammered, my legs gently shaking. “Oh come on” he lectured me, “don’t tell me you still haven’t worked it out for yourself.”
When I didn’t answer, he laid it all out. “There is no such thing as a dream. Not as you understand the concept. Your mind doesn’t actually make up stories when you’re unconscious, that’s all real. You come here, to this place, every time you sleep. Everybody does. But they don’t want you to know that. They construct these...sets. This stagecraft, based on images from your memory.”
For what possible purpose, I demanded. He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like you can go and ask ’em. But I have seen things. It isn’t just the unconscious who come here. Much as I’d like to believe I will wake up someday, that I’m just in a coma or something…”
I gaped. He nodded somberly, confirming it. “I don’t like to dwell on it, but it’s possible. I’ve seen people come through here in all kinds of clothes, from old timey getups to styles I’ve never seen before. Best I can figure is that they’re dead. That to sleep is to visit this place, but to die is to immigrate irreversibly. Perpetual dreamers.”
Nausea set in. My mind raced, struggling to process the notion. “But then...why did I wake up in the office building? That’s not like any dream I’ve had. Shouldn’t it have been somewhere familiar?” He asked me if I did anything different. If I just fell asleep normally, or if I took drugs of some sort.
I told him about Dr. Travigan. About the little house surrounded by maple trees at the edge of the campus, and about the God helmet. He whistled. “Shit. That’s got to be it. A magnetic helmet? I’ve never heard of such a thing. I’ve met a couple of guys who were only here for a few minutes, frying their brains on some kinda dope they called DMT, but you’re the first person I’ve met who did it with a gadget. What year was it when you went in for this treatment?”
I told him, and registered undisguised shock on his face. “Well that explains it. Jesus. Why just you though? I shoulda been overrun by other people using the same machine by now.” I explained that the business based on the technology shut down some time ago and the only surviving helmet was in private hands.
“I see. And you say that a fellow by the name of Travigan owns it?” I nodded. “Well. That’s really something.” I asked why he wanted to know, and whether it would make any difference in how we proceed.
“Oh, it’s just...don’t trouble yourself kid. I was curious, is all.” We retreated back the way we came, once again clambering over the fallen wall with a section of the mural painted on it. The circular, inward facing facade, the house, all of it turned out to be just one of many similar constructs built out here in the wastes.
After piling back into the car and getting underway, we passed more and more of the queer little microcosms. Each one consisting of only what’s necessary to fool the dreamer inside. Props, scenery, banks of floodlights and sprinklers to supply rain.
“Shouldn’t we help them?” I asked. He shook his head, not taking his eyes off the road. “Think about how many there are. Just the two of us working nonstop wouldn’t be able to make a dent in the total number of dreamers, even if we kept at it until we’re old and grey.”
Assuming we age here, I thought. There was no longer any question in my mind why the nightscape passing by outside the car window looked so familiar. One in the same with the backdrop I remember from that damnable recurring dream.
“I never thought I’d be here” I murmured. His ears perked up but he said nothing. “I mean, it never occurred to me that this was an actual place I might wind up. Like how ancient man thought celestial bodies were just lights in the sky, before we knew they were other worlds.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. After a while the dream theatres thinned out, appearing less frequently until there were simply no more of them. Just a vast, seemingly endless expanse of wasteland all around.
I started to wonder if maybe there truly is no end to it. If, in leaving that little oasis of coherence, I’ve consigned myself to an eternity of driving through this abhorrent concrete expanse. Moist patches of it glisten as if in the moonlight, though there is no moon in the sky.
Naturally. When you’re dreaming, if you look at the Moon, you will realize it and usually wake up soon afterward. That would be too easy, wouldn’t it? It used to bother me that dreams have universally consistent rules, though lately it makes more and more sense by the minute.
The car slowed. “What? What is it?” He pointed to a fast approaching forest of some sort. I knew not to expect trees but was still surprised when it consisted instead of rusty pipes. Just a vast, tangled mess of interconnected pipes, emitting occasional puffs of steam from leaky junctures.
“We’ll have to continue on foot” he grumbled. “There’s no way around this, believe me I’ve tried.” I was loathe to leave the relative comfort and safety of the car, but could see no gaps between the pipes large enough to drive between.
Laboriously stepping over and edging around the convoluted nest of piping only further slowed our progress. More than once, I only narrowly avoided a scalding blast of steam.
It proved difficult to grip the pipes for stability, when climbing over and around them, without cutting myself on the rust. Chilled condensation made them slippery as well, and humidity steadily increased as we pushed further in until our clothes were sopping wet.
The vapor soon hung so thick in the air that I struggled to breathe. Where it came fresh out of the pipe, it was unbearably hot. But in the gaps between those sweltering clouds, my drenched clothing rapidly cooled down in the night air and my teeth chattered.
So when the first opening appeared, I wasted no time dashing through it, even as John shouted after me. I emerged into the crisp, cold blackness of the concrete plains to find a structure in the distance. One unlike anything we’ve so far encountered.
Industrial by the looks of it. Rectilinear concrete, decrepit steel framework and a pair of crumbling smoke stacks jutting up from the roof. “Stop!” John cried, arriving next to me out of breathe. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t go in there.”
I could see nothing obviously amiss. There was no circular mural surrounding it as with the dream theaters, but it didn’t look overtly menacing. A curved bay window separated into tall, thin facets looked out over the wasteland, though I don’t imagine anyone inside could see out through it.
Their view would be blocked by banks of glowing orange bulbs suspended in front of every window, perhaps to give the impression of sunlight to anyone dwelling within. “That’s the foundry” John huffed, still winded from running after me. “I’ve seen countless people wander in there out of curiosity. None ever came out.”
I wondered aloud whether that might be because it’s an exit. John released an irritated sigh. “Look, I got you this far didn’t I? Just trust me. You want nothing to do with that place.” Reluctantly, I followed him back into the muggy confines of the pipe forest, now and then looking over my shoulder...wondering if he really knows best.
When we next emerged, panting from heat exhaustion, clothes dripping, it was to a sight grander than any before it. I must have fooled myself into believing I had a handle on what sort of things I could find in this place, because I felt wholly unprepared for the wall.
The wall’s concrete, of course. At least a hundred feet tall! So long that it extended from one horizon to the other, neither end visible from our position. Thin, wispy blankets of fog crept along the ground between the wall and the edge of the pipe forest that we’d just escaped.
“This is where my parents are? On the other side?” He didn’t answer the question but hardly needed to, as he wore a wide grin that implied it plainly enough. “I told you I’d get you there didn’t I? I told you I would, now here we are.” I took off my shirt while he congratulated himself, wrung it out, then put it back on.
As we covered the distance between the edge of the pipe forest and the base of the wall, I began to shiver again. The concrete seemed to chill my feet straight through the shoes. Not bitterly cold, just enough that I couldn’t get comfortable.
Now and again I could swear I saw the pipes which sprout from the ground and run along it subtly shifting position. Like the tendrils of some plant, or subterranean beast, which move only when I’m not looking. So absorbed was I that more than once I tripped over some piping, or a crevice in the ground.
Once close enough I began to make out features in the wall which weren’t visible from afar. Narrow walkways, windows, doorways and other signs that the structure’s inhabited. Faint black figures shuffled from doorway to doorway, retreating inside as they spotted us approaching.
The ascent was slow and arduous. Most of all making our way along exterior walkways, which were cracked and crumbling in places. Every time we ducked back into the structure through one of the countless doorways I felt relief, but also anxiety. We’re not alone here.
I didn’t get a good look at the figures which fled upon sighting us earlier, but I’ve got my suspicions. The fact that they behave as if afraid of us is no comfort, as I don’t know the reason. This place hides many secrets, none of them pleasant.
It will all be worth it once we’re over this damnable wall. If there was ever a way to turn back, I can no longer avail myself of it. All I can do is trudge onwards through this cavalcade of confusion and fear. The only way out is through.
John slapped my back. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I looked up at him in shock. “We’re really at the top? Really?” He gestured to a doorway in the far side of the room. “See for yourself kiddo.” So I did. Expecting it to be over, or at least that we’re now in the home stretch.
Instead, a maze stretched out before me. This entire time we’d only been scaling its outer wall. I cried out in frustration, fell to my knees and wept. John knelt beside me. “What did you expect? You didn’t think this was it, did you? Oh dear, you did. You sweet, sweet Summer child. Pull yourself together, will you? If they came this way, and we both saw them do it, they would’ve entered the maze. And all entrances to this maze eventually lead to the center.”
I did feel somewhat heartened to hear that. “But then, why a maze? Isn’t the point of a maze to keep you lost, so you don’t make it to the end?” He shrugged. “Doesn’t make a lick of difference to us, since we’re not gonna wander through it like a couple of rubes. Why do that when you can walk along the top?”
Just as he said, there was a pathway with railings along the top of the walls comprising the maze, bridges spanning the gaps at modest intervals so you could cross from one wall to the next as needed. I peered over the railing, realizing in the process of surveying the walls around us that this maze is also some sort of city.
The same doorways, windows, walkways and stairs I first saw on the outer wall could be found here as well. As I watched, black figures milled about far below, going about their business...whatever that may be.
So much concrete. Such hard, uncompromising forms. It evoked disgust for some reason, but also some nameless attraction. I was so absorbed in it that I only noticed a nearby wall moving because of the vibration felt through my feet.
A grinding sound accompanied the wall’s movement. A long low pitched sound of concrete scraping against concrete. Presumably, as John said, to bamboozle intruders. But aren’t we intruders?
You’d think there would be defenses along the tops of the walls as well, unless John is somehow the first person ever to discover the way to get up here. Who would build something like this, I wondered. Who would choose to live here?
As if in answer, a long procession of the black figures emerged from a doorway in another nearby wall. From this distance I could at last see the truth. They were the black robed, bird skull creatures from the tapes.
They moved along rhythmically, doing a strange sort of shimmy shake dance. Perfectly synchronized, though I couldn’t imagine they rehearsed. Their movements grew hypnotic, hips swaying, knobbly jointed hands swinging two and fro.
“Servants of Croctaw” John whispered. I turned and stared. “Did you say Croctaw?” He seemed surprised that the name meant anything to me, and asked if I’ve heard it before. “It’s probably nothing, but...I mean, it’s just...when I was really little, I used to get so scared when it was time to sleep. I hated lying in bed in my darkened room.
There was this triangular patch of shadow in the furthest corner of the ceiling which I could swear moved sometimes. When I could make myself look at it for a minute or two, details would appear. I imagined I could make out an ever-shifting...corner crow. That’s what I called it.
A shadow crow, who dwells in corners. Who takes the shape of the shadow which collects there like a fluid. His wings form two of the points of the triangle, his beak forms the third. It’s never the same points from moment to moment, though! Ever-shifting, morphing from one position to the next.”
John whistled. “That’s him alright. Sounds like he’s had his eye on you for a long time. If I were a betting man, I’d say he’s using your parents to lure you in.” My heartbeat quickened. “For what purpose?”
He recounted our narrow escape from the parking garage. The impossible cyclical mass of sharpened metal wire, and those rusty, whimpering scroggs. “Same thing they all want. More followers. The Grycler is the master of the city. Has it on lockdown, probably always has.
The foundry is the domain of something else. Something I’ve never seen and never want to. However savage the Grycler is, some still manage to escape from it. There is no escape from the foundry. At least not that I’ve ever witnessed.
This...maze city...is the domain of Croctaw. Those skull wearing fellows in the black robes are his followers. All three vie for control of this realm, for control of all dreams. Each like a feudal lord, defended by its own army of serfs.”
The more I understand, the less I want to. I’m not even supposed to be here. That piece of shit doctor was supposed to turn the helmet off when I asked him to. I at least feel relieved that I brought a guide, though it would be more accurate to say that the guide brought me.
Looking down into the maze at desperate stragglers, hopelessly lost, makes me glad to be up here. At least I’m not one of them, wandering endlessly through these cold concrete passages. That’s something.
“Something wrong?” John looked mildly concerned. “Oh nothing, it’s just...I’m not supposed to be here. This isn’t my life, you know? I should be at home now, with Mom and Dad. None of this was supposed to happen, I just can’t…”
I tried, but failed, to find the words I wanted. John crossed his arms and sighed. “Is that all? Kid, nothing is “supposed” to happen. It doesn’t work that way. We all build a story in our heads to make sense of life, but life isn’t actually a story. It doesn’t play out the way stories do, where everything that happens has some later importance, and it all ties together satisfyingly in the end. Life is just stuff happening to you.”
He doesn’t understand. There was never any chance he would, he hasn’t been through what I have. We walked for hours in silence after that, as I didn’t particularly want to hear any more of his pronouncements about my life, or how I should feel.
Along the way, I noticed more of those robed, bird skull creatures. As before, they marched along doing their bizarre rhythmic dance. More and more of them the further we walked. I started to wonder if perhaps we were headed to the same destination.
I still wasn’t in a talkative mood, but my curiosity got the better of me. “Where are they going?” John confirmed my suspicions. “Same place we are.” He pointed to a tiny sliver, just now visible on the horizon. “That’s where I’ve seen them take people. Your parents are being held there, I’m sure of it.”
I didn’t relish the thought of arriving there only to wind up face to face with thousands of those things. So far they fled whenever spotted, as if fearful. Would they become bolder with the odds more strongly tilted in their favor?
The hours wore on, though with no sun or moon there’s no way to keep time, so I cannot say for sure how long we’ve been walking. The tower looms larger and larger, slowly resolving itself as a massive, tapered cylindrical column of concrete.
We pass another isolated traffic sign. Then awhile later, an entire traffic light, the sort with the dangling signal with red, yellow and green lights. I stopped briefly to press the crosswalk button, but evidently it’s not hooked up to anything.
“We have to keep moving” John urged. “Why did you stop?” I gestured to the button. “These don’t do anything in the real world either.” If he was amused, I couldn’t tell. I left it alone, and we resumed our mind numbing trek towards that distant tower.
Peering down once more into the labyrinth, I saw teams of the robed figures hauling loads of lumber. Where they get it from, I cannot say. I haven’t seen a single tree so far. The reason for their toil soon becomes clear when, at the bottom of another passage, I see them painting a colorful outdoor mural onto a wooden wall panel as it’s assembled from individual planks.
Suddenly, one of them unfurled its cloak and flew from ground level to a nearby walkway. Wings! All this time I assumed they wore black cloaks, when instead it was only a pair of black wings which they keep folded around their bodies.
Another joined him, flitting to the same walkway from a stairwell on the opposite side of the passage. They seemed to converse. What could they possibly talk about? What does small talk between monsters sound like?
“You know, it’s funny” I muttered, mostly to myself. “When I was little, I was afraid of monsters. Zombies, ghosts. Shadow crows. That’s what really terrified me. When I grew up a little more, I feared what I thought were more realistic threats. Terrorists, burglars, gang bangers.”
John nodded thoughtfully but said nothing, so I continued. “But really, those are still fairly fantastical threats. It never even occurred to me to fear losing my parents. Wasn’t even on my radar. There wasn’t any time to come to terms with losing them, either. A car horn honked, I heard a tire screech, then...then they were gone. Just like that. How can it happen that way?”
We walked in silence for a while. I didn’t mean to dump all this on a stranger, I just had to get it out. It struck me as strange that we’ve been walking all this time, yet I didn’t feel tired, but only briefly. Made me wonder again if I can even die here.
At last the tower loomed large before us. The winged throngs packed the passage below from one wall to the other. Milling to and fro, sometimes flapping their wings as if impatient. Some nameless fear bubbled up within me as a pair of immense gates slowly swung open, permitting the anxious mob to pour through into a vast circular courtyard around the base of the tower.
Little by little they joined hands to form a huge circle. A series of torches sprung to life, their flame a deep, rich red rather than the color fire ought to be. A line formed, comprised of figures wearing the cloak but not the skull.
Even from this distance I could tell, by the differently colored hair, that they were human. The line advanced slightly, depositing the fellow at the front into the circle. Six of the creatures wheeled out a huge egg. As I watched, it hatched and a squirming baby crow emerged.
They pounced on it, producing jagged knives with which they methodically beheaded the pitiful little thing, then scraped away all of the skin. Finally they cut a hole in the bottom and scooped out the brains. The freshly cleaned, emptied skull was then gingerly placed on the head of the new recruit.
“This...this doesn’t feel right” I whispered. “We shouldn’t be here. Something’s about to happen, isn’t it? That’s what they all came for. We have to get out of here.” When I turned around, I couldn’t understand what I saw.
John faded and split. Warping, deforming as something emerged from within his body. Casting it off as a butterfly does with its chrysalis, the empty skin fell to pieces as Croctaw hatched. I toppled backwards, choking on a scream. Then I scrambled to my feet and ran for it.
The pieces finally came together in my head as I ran, though far too late. Why he would go to such lengths to help me escape the city, why he led me here. Nausea forced me to slow down somewhat, but I could not stop because of what I knew for certain was not far behind.
A thundering caw split the air, shaking my very bones. I covered my ears in agony, though it did nothing. At the first chance, I ducked down a stairwell and into the interior of the wall. Outside, a vicious wind picked up and a tremendous shadow passed overhead.
When it passed, I waited for the wind to settle down just to be sure. Then I curled up in one corner and wept. It’s just too much. How did I get here? What is any of this? Even after the old man betrayed me, I was so foolish as to trust John. What a foolish thing it is to trust anybody.
Just then, I heard someone call out my name. Couldn’t be, I thought. Couldn’t be. I ignored it and retreated ever further into misery. But it came again. From the shadowy corridor at the far end of the room, two figures emerged.
I winced. This is it, surely? They know my name. They’ve come for me. But I did not run. No more energy for that. All I cared to do was lay there and wait to be taken. Only...once clear of the shadows, the two figures weren’t wearing skulls, such that I could see their faces.
Mom and Dad. I blinked and sputtered, unbelieving. Then crept towards them bit by bit, fearful that this cruel mirage would vanish before I could reach it. Up close I could see they wore no clothing, but were covered everywhere except their hands, feet and head by glossy black crow feathers.
I reached out and plucked one of the feathers. “Ouch!” I recoiled in shock. Dad laughed. “It’s me alright.” I started blubbering. The two knelt to either side of me, gently rubbing my back as the tears refused to stop coming.
“But if he’s here” Mom whispered to him, “doesn’t that mean…? Oh dear. Oh, what have you done.” Through the tears I recounted as best I could the story of how I met Doctor Travigan. “So...it’s just some sort of device? You’re not…?”
I shook my head. “J-just sleeping. He...he was supposed to wake me up by now.” The two puzzled over that for a moment. Then Dad spoke. “So...you’ve just been wasting away in the shed? Watching my old tapes?”
I nodded, wiping tears from my puffy red eyes. “That’s not...I mean, I used to think about how hard it would be on you when your mother and I passed. I just expected it would be of old age, so there would be time to prepare you for it. I never wanted it to destroy you, surely you realize that.”
While I pondered that, he wrapped his wings around me. Mom followed suit, wrapping her own wings around myself and Dad. “You can’t go on like that. That isn’t the life we wanted for you.” I ached inside, even having found them at last.
“I just...I can’t do it” I murmured. “I don’t want that life.” He suddenly scolded me. “There isn’t any other! You must never think that way. Everything we did as parents was to prepare you to survive without us. Not just materially but emotionally. We weren’t going to live forever, even if not for the car crash.”
He seized me by the shoulders and lifted me to my feet. “I’m not about to let you wallow in this desolate, forgotten place. Our time is over, but yours is just beginning.” Bewildered, I asked why they didn’t avail themselves of the exit, if indeed they know where it is.
They looked at each other. Then at me, mournfully. “You know why, don’t you?” Mom softly inquired, stroking my cheek. “You’re alive. You can still return to the waking world. The world of color, wind, sunshine and life.”
The tears started up again. “I’m not leaving you here!” She held me close as I sobbed. “You have to. We are of this place now. There is no return for us, it doesn’t work that way. But for you, there is hope. You can still pass through...and you must! If not for your own sake, then for ours. We can only endure this knowing that you’re out there, maturing into a wonderful young man. Laughing, loving...living.”
I could no more bear the thought of going on without them now than I could before I came here. But nor could I deny her plea. “It’s just...it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to find you two, then...I don’t know. Get you out? Somehow? So we could be a family again.”
Mom shook her head slowly. “You were always like this, you know. I remember one Christmas when you were ten. You threw a fit because we packed up the presents into the car and drove to your aunt’s house to open them.”
She gestured to Dad. “He was so furious! He thought you were upset because you wanted to open the presents right away. But it wasn’t about that, was it? It was about Christmas not unfolding the way it always did until then. You’ve always had this fixation on events occurring in a familiar, logical order, according to your own notion of how it ought to be.”
I still couldn’t see anything wrong with it. Her wings now hung at her sides but I dare not let go of her, lest she still somehow prove to be an illusion. “You need to let go of your plan for how you expect your life to be, so that your real life can happen. So you can move into and embrace it instead of fighting it, or hiding from it.”
Her words percolated in my brain, slowly unraveling the bonds formed by grief since the crash. Dad affirmed it, adding that they also had their own hopes for what my life could be like which would never be realized if I refused to go on.
Maybe I just needed to hear it from them in person. Whatever it was, I felt the poisonous cloud which enveloped me after the crash, which had in fact been slowly choking me to death until now, rapidly evaporate.
“I’ll do it. It makes sense now. It still hurts, but...I can’t let it kill me. That isn’t what you planned. I have to live out my life! I have to try my best to find happiness, because that’s how you wanted it to happen, so it’s got to be that way.”
Dad sighed. “That’s not what I...no, you know what? Fine. If that works for you.” Mom laughed. Just then a great shadow once again passed over us outside, accompanied by another ear splitting caw. We all huddled against the far wall in the hopes of escaping notice.
“Now we've just gotta get you to the top of the tower” Dad whispered. The tower? “What’s up there?” He shushed me, only replying once the last of the wind outside died down. “Other than waking up, it’s the only way out.”
The problem was how to approach the tower without being spotted by Croctaw. As we navigated the countless darkened corridors carved within the concrete walls of the maze, again and again Croctaw soared overhead, stirring up powerful winds.
Looking for me. I knew the minute I showed my face atop the walls of the maze, I would be plucked from it like a crow snatches a worm from the soil. I turned when I heard a scuffle. Dad dragged another one of the creatures in through a doorway, then cut its throat.
I gasped. “LOOK AWAY!” he shouted as he went about his grisly work. So I did. Perhaps thirty minutes later he told me I could look again. There was no body in sight. Just the bird skull, and a black, feathery cloak which I discovered upon donning it was the creature’s skin.
I didn’t have wings, but it’s rare that they reveal them anyway. I fought back distressing questions about who that creature may have been, distracting myself best I could from the dried blood on my father’s hands and face.
“He’ll only reappear somewhere else. That’s how it is here.” Reassuring to hear him say that, but it did very little to subdue my nausea. Worse still was the feeling of bloody, freshly removed skin wrapped around me.
It did the trick though. After making our way back to the center of the maze, we did not so much as attract an errant glance. I shuffled along in my best imitation of the way that I’ve seen them walk, and soon enough we reached a doorway at the base of the tower.
The long, tedious climb was made worse by the windowless darkness of the spiral staircase. When we arrived at the top, there was a great concrete throne with a nest tucked into it. In the nest were several eggs, identical to the one I saw earlier.
But that wasn’t the strangest thing. The sky, which I assumed until now was an empty black void, came close enough here that I could see it for what it truly is. A black fabric canopy, like a great dome over this land. Never a real sky in the first place, just more stagecraft.
There were criss crossing scratches in it directly overhead, light faintly showing through. “Croctaw has been trying to break through for eons” Mom whispered. “But of course he can’t do it, for the same reason your father and I can’t.” Dad handed me a jagged knife, still dripping with blood. “But you can.”
Another deafening caw shook the ground beneath our feet. In the distance, Croctaw approached. Wings beating furiously, trailed by a vast black cloud which I realized must be an imposingly large flock of his followers flying just behind him.
“NOW!” Dad yelled. “Do it now, there’s no time!” He and Mom took me by the hands, then began flapping their wings. The wind generated by it tossed my hair this way and that as slowly, I was lifted from the top of the concrete tower towards the underside of the fabric membrane.
Another caw. Closer and closer they came as I awkwardly flailed the knife, struggling to stay upright as Mom and Dad held me aloft. When I looked down, Mom was crying. Dad just looked fiercely resolute.
“I’ll remember what you said! I’m sorry I fell so far that you had to do this. I love you so much” I called down to them, unsure if they would hear me over the steadily increasing sound of flapping wings and Croctaw’s infuriated cries. “We love you too!” they answered. “Now go! Go, and live!”
I slashed at the fabric, this time splitting it open just wide enough that I could slip my hand through and grab the edge. With Mom and Dad below, boosting me by the legs, I crawled up through the opening. Through the ripped black fabric, through a thin layer of soil on top of it...tumbling confused, bloodied and tearful onto the dew-speckled grass of Greenborough park.