I had tried to take a different road when out doing my walks before work, at least within the confines of my local neighborhood. It always helped keep things mixed up, and there was a sense of adventure in the rare occasion I would get lost. A new street this evening; Timberhorst. Where do they get these names? The street started off sloping up just a bit, and rolled much more steeply back down at the other end. Just ahead in the dark of the sleeping neighborhood, at the peak of the crest, was a house, fully lit and teaming with all forms of life. Similar, I imagined, to how the head of a zit might look under a microscope. This was a college town, after all, but I never really cared for house parties–in the same way Indiana Jones doesn’t care much for snakes–so it wasn’t a struggle to simply walk on past. Two guys were out on the porch doing what house party drunks do best.
One appeared to be telling the other a story. I couldn’t make out any of the details, but I know several dead presidents who would confidently posit a likelihood of ignored entitlements as the main slide of his keystone-note speech. He was facing the house, resting most of his weight on his heels and holding a silver can with two fingers, the other two pointing at….maybe a pair of flies i couldn’t see, judging by his swaying. The other one was clearly half as invested in the story as the yellow wood siding he was leaning against, and had only a single cent’s worth of attention to pay to his ranting friend. Seeing me, I can assume it was a welcome diversion from the forthcoming millionth mention of ‘the system’, now spelled with several letters rubbed into each other. “Hey look, some fucker is across the street staring at us.” I wasn’t staring.
This happened sometimes, being a college town, and I had to roll with the punches pretty often. Unless of course they decided it far more appropriate to break the invisible screen through which I imagined I was watching everyone exist, and come point at my face directly. This was shaping up to be one of those times. I stepped up the pace just slightly when I saw them talking about me, but that seemed to only get me to the inevitable faster than if I hadn’t. One of them started shouting to me and staggered down the grass to the street. In most instances it was just two random guys. One far too upset about me not responding to his comments, and the other one stumbling behind him, getting more aggravated with every pointless dig. The latter helplessly bleating for the former to come back to the house and leave me alone, eventually getting his wish.
But tonight was different. Despite the fact that I had never been down this road before and only even moved here 18 months ago, I felt like I recognized this guy; knew him even. If you had described to me earlier in the day a stocky, late-20s dark haired meat head with a skull tattooed on the back of his hand and a penchant for beer I could only assume cost less than a mid-90s gallon of gas, the bell in my steeple of memories would have remained effectively unrung.
But here I was about to have a finger in my face hot enough to evoke cartoonish notions of a sort of reverse E.T.–albeit without the charming glow — from a guy who somehow felt like a stranger I had known my entire life.
I pulled an ear of my headphones out from under my hood in time to catch the last bits of what I think was something about stealing his stereo several years ago.
“Wait..wait, what? What the fuck is this now? I don’t even know you, dude.” My words might as well have been whispered out the door of a space station by a ghost.
“This iiiiisss the guy, dude!” He shouted to his entirely-too-close-for-that-kind-of-volume friend, all the while stabbing at the air in front of me as if he were waiting for an elevator and late for a meeting.
“What makes you think that’s him?? How can this random dude be the guy you’re looking for, suddenly?” I wouldn’t have suspected either of these guys had a voice of reason. Seems I owed myself a dollar.
“Cuzdude, youmember when I saw that guy run…run away from my car?? He’ad my stereo! My fukin girlfriend bought me that stereo.” He staggered. “Yes I remember, but that doesn’t expl–”
“Hhhhhee’ad….” He burped mid-word. “This same torn red hoodie as his….has.”
His friend grabbed his shirt and stopped him from getting any closer to me, now just standing on the sidewalk watching it unfold.
He was drunk. The 3 flies that tried to cross the space in front of his breath could tell you that, were they still alive. It was also dark out. I chose to grab very tightly to these two pieces of information, because pulling against me to a place of serious confusion was the fact that I was wearing a black Columbia jacket with a grey hood.
I decided while they were arguing about it I would take the opportunity to sneak away. Maybe if I got out of there quick enough they would be too drunk to notice. I started forward down the sidewalk, attempting to mentally will myself into invisibility. They were now at my 5. I turned around as I walked to see if they had noticed. I suddenly stopped as if the earth itself fell to a chasm of blackness directly in front of me. Guy number 1 was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, right in front of where I had been, shouting at the air like I had never moved.
“Why sould I believe anything yousay, huh??” tattoo-hand screamed at nothing; an empty space in front of him.
I turned around and walked back over to the pair of guys, quickly at first and slower the closer I got. Stopping directly behind The Voice of Reason, I just stood, watching. It was like a play. I circled around within very clear plain sight of them both, but got no reaction. If I was trying to be invisible I certainly succeeded. I reached out to touch The Voice of Reason and my hand passed right through him.
I waved frantically a few times, in clear up to my wrist in his green north face jacket. “h-hey. HEY.” Almost forgetting I could speak.
No reaction. Tattoo-hand was standing there, hands in his pockets, clearly still trying to be intimidating to somebody, despite the over –abundance of nobody. The Voice of Reason was standing a few body-lengths behind him, watching, likely to make sure nobody ended up arrested. And nobody could even see me. Interact with me. It was like I was dead. Was I dead?? It suddenly became obvious that it’s very difficult to know.
I ran across the street over to the party house they came out of. Up the grassy hill toward the sealed porch where 5 people were split between a cream colored couch of a very certain but imprecise level of filthiness, and an old, deep, purple velvet art deco style chair, cowed with old spill stains. Running half speed, I reached out to catch the handle on the screen door, but fell right through it like a tree through smoke.
The floor of the porch looked like wood but felt like grass. I got up so fast I almost fell back down, especially after trying to brace myself against the couch that wasn’t there. The people in the room; I recognized all of them the same way I did the guy outside, but had no idea who they were at the same time. It was like being in a support group for sufferers of face blindness . Why? How could I know them all but not?
I snaked through the house towards the back yard, mostly out of habit. One I was encouraged to break every time my foot or shoulder went through a chair or another person. Eventually I ended up outside. Or what would’ve been outside if it felt any different than inside or I had just exited a real building. The fire was raging and surrounded by people. Panicked and desperate for anything I ran right into the middle of it, thinking at least if I get burned I’ll know I exist. Nothing. The logs were grass, the fire was wind, and nobody batted an eye. I ran off down the street the way I had come, jacket flapping in the breeze around me, still just barely audible over the sound of the ghost…party….illusion.
I attempted to run all the way back to my apartment. I was hoping I might see another person around and I could test them, but unfortunately there was nobody. Looking dead ahead there was a sudden flash and a complete evacuation of the air from inside my body. I was on the ground. Did somebody hit me? I was in the middle of an empty street. “uugghhhh” I brought my hands up to my face, and i could already feel the warm blood on my lips. “What the fuuuuuuugk??” A knife of pain went through my face when i touched my nose. It was broken. “What happenged?!”
I stood up slowly, it felt like the front of my body had aged 400 years in an instant. Looking around, even through cloudy pain-teared eyes, I could tell there was no one around. I started to slowly walk forward, looking left and right suspiciously as if the houses themselves might get up and change places. My foot thudded to a stop in front of me with a slightly ethereal “domm” sound, like a bird hitting a high rise window.
I was in the middle of the road, on an empty street at night, and in front of me was an invisible wall. I put my hand out and pressed against it like the worlds greatest mime. It felt like glass, and was only just perceptibly cooler than the night air. I pressed my face into it with my hands cupped around my eyes, like an 8 year old trying to watch something cook in a microwave. Nothing changed. Just in front of me was the corner of Timberhorst and 45th, but I couldn’t take another step.
I pounded on the wall. “Hey.” I didn’t even know who i was looking to attract. I pounded harder. “HEY!” “LET ME…out?” It never occurred to me that i might be “in.” Stopping to collect my thoughts, I reflected on the night.
“Didn’t I come this way? I remember being here…don’t I?”
I was talking to myself again. “Wait. I got up…for…work?” It suddenly seemed like a dream. “I definitely remember being right here, but where was I before this?” All of my memories were starting to blend together in a soup of uncertainty.
It looks like hes trying to get out.
Should we open the box?
Not just yet.
“Hey!” I shouted up into the sky. I hadn’t looked at it all night….no stars. Not one. I knew I had heard voices, but from where? They seemed to be all around me, like the air itself was speaking.
I tried to punch the wall even harder, but, not realizing I had moved back, I swung into emptiness. I picked up a rock, about the size of a mandarin orange and pitched it towards the intersection. “CRACK!” It hit the wall and bounced off. A white speck of light appeared where the rock had hit, like a chip.
The speck hovered in the middle of the dark street like a snowflake. I ran over to it, getting my face close enough that I could feel my breath coming back my direction off the wall. “Damn. Can’t see anything.”
I picked up my rock again, as it had only bounced a few feet back from the wall. As I wound up for another throw I stopped short. It was the voices again.
Lets pull him. He’s going to break something!
Okay, okay! Dick, get that switch would ya…
Everything vanished. I felt like my eyes were closed, but it was so dark it was easy to get confused. “Huh?! Wha…!!!”
The room faded into view. I was in a box, about as big as a bedroom. The walls were flat beige, possibly steel, and only the wall directly in front of me had a window. There was a chip in it. “whhhoouaa…” I felt groggy, like I had been drugged. I could barely sit up in my plain wooden chair, which was the only piece of furniture in the room. 3 men walked in from a secret door flush with the wall on my left. Or maybe my right. I shook my head.
“Mr. Richardson, can you hear me?”
“Can you hear me? Dave!” One of the men, dressed in a navy blue suit shook me by the arm.
“It happened again.”
My head cleared up like the sun had just burned fog off a highway.
“What? Who are you people? What happened again?”
“You know who we are, Dave. This is Dick Kostekz,” He motioned to his right. “He’s been your supervisor here at REMMER for almost 3 years now.”
A thin bald man in a green sweater vest and round glasses raised his left hand in a timid but friendly wave.
“And I’m Robert Zantiar, Marketing Manager.”
“Oh…shit! Oh shit that’s right.” I stood up and put my hands on top of my head. “What am I doing in this box? I don’t remember this.”
“We were afraid that might happen. You had agreed to test one of our new dynamic environment pods for us. We call ’em CogBoxes. This is your 4th time in this one. Apparently we can’t seem to get the settings right. Which explains the sudden loss of AR structure and illusion stability you experienced. And unfortunately, the new memory suppression drugs required for the CogBoxes are still in the works as well. You likely won’t remember much of anything for a little while, but based on your previous attempts, you should be fine in an hour or so.” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled.
“Dave, please come with me, if you would be so kind.” Dick motioned for me to follow him out into the hallway.
“We can get you back in your old environment for a while. the CogBoxes need more work before we can worry about testing them again.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant.
“What’s my old environment?”
“I’m not surprised you don’t remember. Sorry about the new drugs. You came to us originally wanting a little more excitement in your life. You said in your interview that you were tired of feeling like a boring pushover, and wanted to be able to do more….visceral things. Exciting things. Like getting in fights, or committing crimes.” A sparked memory caused him to chuckle to himself.
“Do you remember the first thing you did when you arrived in your environment initially?”
I couldn’t even remember what day it was.
“No…I have no idea, to be honest.”
“Haha well, it was about 3 or so years ago, like Rob was saying earlier. We geared you up and the minute you ‘arrived’ you broke into some guy’s car and stole his stereo.”