“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.”
Stay Tuned for Part 13!