I froze at the sight of this shadow man turning on my bedside lamp. I blinked twice, and the figure was gone. I felt myself take a deep breath. It let out of me in a panicked delay. Grabbing my cell phone, I called my brother. A few moments later, I was listening to him but barely understood what he was saying.
“Hallucinations and motion sickness are common symptoms.” Tom was telling me on the phone. I was frantically shaking, barely able to breathe. To say I was freaking out was an understatement.
I was barely listening to anything he was saying. It was all too much.
“Tell me you’re okay,” Tom demanded.
I looked at my pale face in the mirror across from my bed where I was sitting. I tried not to believe what I had seen only thirty minutes earlier. Every light was turned on, and luckily for me, Clara was still at my mom’s house.
The figure had burned me with its hand. I was sure of it. I looked at my thigh and could feel the heat pouring off of it. There was a slight redness to it, but it could have been from where I rubbed my leg after the thing vanished.
“I feel okay, but I”m still not sure what I just saw.”
“You will feel like you are hungover for a day or so. You may even have some visions. It is quite normal from what I have experienced.” Tom sounded so scientific. He wasn’t my brother when he spoke like this, all severe and formal.
“It was so real,” I said, still trying to process what I had experienced.
“How do you feel about the experience?” his tone became calm and empathetic.
“Sad that it is over. Even though I feel a bit ill, when can I go back?” I asked, biting my nails still shaking.
“You can’t go back. We haven’t done trials on multiple experiences.”
I was stunned.
“What do you mean?” I was annoyed suddenly.
“We don’t know what the effects will be if you do it more than once. Billy and I have only ever tried it ourselves once. After initial nausea and hallucinations, it has nearly the same effect as a drug.”
“I promised I’d go back,” I said, deflated nearly forgetting it had only been a simulation. A virtual simulation, but a simulation just the same.
“Grace, it wasn’t him. It was what you imagined. It was only the version of him that lives inside your mind.”
“I saw things I cannot explain. I was at the bar before it became an Italian restaurant. I had never been there before it was Chiaro di luna.”
Bryan had named it “Moonlight” in Italian because of his grandfather. There was a little story where his grandfather met his grandmother under the moonlight, and it was so magical. They had been married for 65 years. It was a romantic, sweet story, and Bryan had always loved his grandparents. Both were from Sicily and had moved to the states in the early sixties. It was the sort of romantic sensibility I missed about Bryan.
“That may be the case, but it isn’t him.”
“Can I just go back one last time?” I begged.
Tom sighed. “Christmas is coming up. We can try again then. It is a few months away, and enough space will have passed between sessions.”
“Christmas? I was thinking about next weekend.”
“Christmas.” He said firmly.
“Fine,” I said, annoyed, but I tried to be understanding.
“If you have any other symptoms, let me know, but they usually go away after the first few days.”
I hung up the phone and tried to get back to sleep. All I could think about was seeing Bryan again.
The next few months passed with no more apparent symptoms, and life went on with little to no participation by me. Halloween came and went. I barely recalled dressing my little girl, Clara up, and taking her house to house on our street while she was dressed as a fairy princess. Part of me wished I could leave her and go live in the virtual world forever with Bryan. It wasn’t in my nature, though. I still loved her as much as any mother. I couldn’t even if I wanted to.
Daydreaming had become my favorite past time. All I could think of was the young version of Bryan standing there with his big grin and hazel eyes. I watched the world around me in a daze and crossed off the days on my calendar. Thanksgiving came and went, but if you ask me today what I remember most about those few months until I saw Bryan again, I can tell you nothing. It is all a blur.
By December first, I was growing giddy like a woman in the early stages of a new romance. Everything became much more colorful in the weeks leading up to my next meeting with Bryan. Before, everything seemed so empty and hopeless. Now, I felt like I was living in a Hallmark movie where I was the main character.
When the day finally came for me to make my drive to the labs, I had everything planned precisely. Clara would open her gifts with my family and me on Christmas morning, following Christmas dinner, and then Tom and I would drive to the University, and I would spend the night with Bryan.
I dressed up for the event. I wore my favorite red jeans and favorite Christmas sweater, curled my hair, and did my makeup.
Something odd happened once we got to the University, however. When we got there, the power was out across the entire campus.
“There has to be something we can do?” I begged Tom as though he could control all the power on the campus.
“We can wait and see if it comes back on, but the way things are looking, we won’t get a chance. There’s a snow storm coming our way in less than an hour. Reports on the local news say that the power may not return till tomorrow evening.”
“I’ll wait,” I said to him, sitting in the laboratory while I looked out the window at the snow that was now coming down.
“It’s going to be too cold here. We will have to go to my apartment in town until it comes back on.”
As he was speaking, the lights to the laboratory came back on. I heard the large heaters come on above us. I felt a warm breeze blow my hair again.
“It’s a sign. What are we waiting for?” I asked giddily.
Tom seemed a bit concerned, and perhaps I should have taken that as a warning not to go any further. In typical fashion, I did not listen to the signs telling me not to go through with it.
I placed myself on the table lying my head on the pillow Tom had placed there for me to rest comfortably. Tom set the mood by playing some light Christmas music for me. I closed my eyes, and Tom put the goggles on my head.
This time the transition was much faster. I was filled with excitement as I saw myself floating again above the tavern. There was a fog above it lingering around the old tavern building. The mist was delicate and icy as it moved in the night air. Above was a giant full moon. Nice touch, I felt myself saying as I looked up at the enormous wild thing. I felt the snow that was now blowing in my face. It was cold, bitter, just as it always was in the city where Old Tim’s Tavern was. As I approached the door to the old building, I saw a wreath that looked like it had been placed there every year from the day the place had had its first Christmas. It was made of comics with a checkered green and red ribbon tied around it. It added to the strangeness of my situation.
When I walked in, there were green and red lights all over. Above the jukebox in the corner was a small strobe light. I could already see patrons to the establishment who were talking and chatting. It was much more active than it was the previous time. I wasted no time at all, walking in to see him, but I didn’t see Bryan.
I grew alarmed for a moment, thinking that perhaps I had done something wrong, and then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Bryan wearing an elf hat with a massive grin on his face. Something else struck me as odd. I thought he’d look the same as the last time, but there was something about his face that was different. His face was a bit distorted for a second and appeared as though he were melting until I focused my eyes. Bryan slowly came into vision, but still looked like someone pretending to be Bryan. I focused on him a bit longer, hoping it was just my mind playing tricks on me.
“You finally came back! It’s been a while. You never called me either.” He said half-jokingly.
“Oh, I don’t think I know what happened to it. I must have lost it. In the background, Silver Bells was playing on the jukebox. Bryan took my hand and guided me towards the bar.
“See this? It’s our new menu. I was able to plan it because old Tim let me take over the Chef duties. Maybe eventually, I’ll own the place or at least one like it.”
“That is great news!” I said, grinning at him.
“I am glad you came back. Mikey said you probably had a boyfriend, but it’s Christmas, and I don’t see you with anyone.”
“I don’t have anyone right now,” I said, smiling at him.
There was an air of glee that had filled the air. I guessed it must have had something to do with it being Christmas. People were dancing, laughing, and carrying on in the place. I was immersed in our conversation, ignoring the world around me.
The lights in the bar went out suddenly. It was nearly pitch black. They flickered as though the simulation had a glitch. I stood and listened as the air seemed to disappear from the room. There was something off about it. Everything was different from the last time. Again, I attributed it to my anxiety and worrying that I’d never make it back to Bryan. The only thing was it felt purposeful as though something other than my anxious imagination was controlling these little obstacles.
“I’m sure it is just a breaker that went out. I’m going to run down to the cellar, and see about switching it back on. I’ll be right back.”
There was absolute quiet suddenly. All the patrons in the bar seemed to have stopped moving and talking. I couldn’t hear them even breathing. I expected people would be chatting in a scenario such as this. They would be discussing the immediate situation, wondering if everything was okay. Instead, they stood motionless. Only their shadows told me they were still here.
That is when I heard a scream. It echoed in the direction of the cellar where Bryan was. I walked toward the basement, feeling that rush of terror that slowly creeps up your spine. There was something about the night, the storm, the electricity going out, and the timeline was messy. It felt like the things I knew about Bryan were being sped up in this timeline when it took much longer for them to happen in my reality.
I was growing frightened.
I called out to Bryan. “Bryan, are you okay?”
He didn’t respond, and I walked closer to the cellar door in the back of the bar between the restrooms and the central part of the restaurant. I stood there watching the shadows that emerged from the darkness blacker than the dark. I looked toward the patrons in the bar area who were all turned toward me now. I slowly walked back into the bar-room, and as I did, they followed slowly, turning again in my direction.
I felt dread. It was like being in a haunted house that had no exit signs. There was no green door for my sanity to grab hold of in the dark. My ears felt like they were being taunted with a feather.
I heard it whispering in my ears. Then I felt something reach out from the darkness. It licked my ear, and I felt the wet slimy tinge of something hot. I couldn’t breathe for what seemed hours. I turned toward the barroom where those patrons lingered in the shadows. Their eyes lit up orange and white. I felt a hand on my left arm, and it burned. It was like what happened to me in my bed a few months ago.
“YOU DON’T BELONG HERE.,” a wicked raspy voice chimed in.
Soon the rest began to chant YOU DON’T BELONG HERE. You DON’T BELONG HERE. It was in a high-pitched sing-song tone. I looked toward the red exit sign above the door to the bar, making my way towards it.
I ran as quickly as I could, but before I could get there, I felt my body growing limp. The last thing I recalled before passing out was a hand reaching out to catch me just before my head landed on the hard wooden floor to Old Tim’s Tavern.
I closed my eyes, seeing flying cats with dragon bodies. They floated all around me in psychedelic hues of blue, green, and red. I saw versions of little girls all walking in a formation arm in arm down a pink sidewalk. When they passed me, they began to chant, “You don’t belong here. You don’t belong here!”
There were tall skyscrapers as tall as the eye could see. They were electric purple touching an electrical grid in the sky resembling graph paper. White crows were flying into it, falling from the sky all around me. I could see the water rushing down the sidewalk, and then I saw an older man who looked exactly like Charles Manson melting as it touched him.
“Acid rain gotta find shelter,” he said, clinging to a bottle sipping on it as his skin frayed from underneath his body.
I found myself trying to run, but each time I lifted my feet, I felt them sticking into the concrete. I saw the sidewalk breaking off where the cracks were. Hot lava began to seem up from the cracks. I looked around me, and there were hookers dressed like peacocks standing around flashing passers-by what they had underneath their blue and green fur coats. When I looked closely towards their direction, I realized they were robotic. Some didn’t have eyes, only mechanical parts. They taunted the faceless men who passed them. They all seemed to ignore me as I screamed for help. One of the men with no face began to walk towards me; he had a saw in his hand. Before he cut me in half, I woke up.
The nightmare was over.
A bright light illuminated the room I was in, and I was sitting in the bed of a place that looked like a hospital. Something went wrong in the simulation from what I could guess. I sat up slowly as a nurse came in. She had some pills with her, and a small bottle of water.
“You took everyone for a loop. We were a little worried about you. Here take these for the pain. How are you doing?” she asked, handing me the water and the pills as she took my blood pressure.
I knew I would be in deep shit. Tom had advised me against returning to the simulation a second time.
“Has my brother, Tom, been by? He has to be worried.” I asked her.
“No, but there is a young man who’s been asking about you since you arrived.”
I looked at the nurse, confused.
“Blood pressure is 140 over 90. Still a little elevated.”
As the nurse was talking to me, Bryan walked into my room.
“There you are. You scared the shit out of me! Mikey called an ambulance. You passed out, and we couldn’t revive you. You nearly died in my arms.”
The nurse was still in the room. “Good thing you had him there. If he hadn’t been here, you would surely be dead. You were on death’s door – you weren’t breathing. This young man acted quickly and saved your life!”
I wanted to faint all over again. I had nearly died, and I was still in the simulation.
To be continued…