by Brett J. Talley
It had been a good dream. When he woke, he had been standing in an open field. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and the breeze was blowing through his hair. A small child, his daughter, was running towards him, while his wife watched from behind, her hands on her hips, grinning. Yes, it was a good dream. But then the dream changed. There was a booming sound, like the sound of a bell tolling, one boom after another, starting in the distance, but growing louder with each strike, until finally, there were no more.
He awoke to bright lights; bright, piercing lights, a light so cold and harsh that he knew it couldn’t be the sun. He shivered. The freezing steel floor beneath him had stolen the heat from his body and the light, though bright, provided no warmth. He was staring up at that light, glowing white orbs set in a flat, silver sky. His mind was confused now. Was he dreaming? He was awake, but he wasn’t quite conscious yet. And then suddenly, it struck him.
He sat up quickly, inhaling deeply as he did. Panic rolled through him now. This was no place he should be, no place he had ever seen. He looked around. Four bodies lie on the floor. They moved slowly, jerkily, as if struggling against sleep that was not at all natural. Four people. A girl, young, a teenager. The other his age or younger, pretty but with the scars of age. A twenty something man, his clothes fashionable, his hair perfectly styled to appear as though it had not been styled at all. And finally an older man, a grandfather probably, the elder of the group.
He looked around quickly, his eyes darting from the metal floor beneath to the metal ceiling high above. Three walls were identical. Solid metal slabs. If there was a door, he didn’t see it. The fourth wall was the same but for a large window. Not a window, a mirror. But if he judged right, not a mirror either, but some combination of both.
Had he been arrested? He didn’t know. It was then he realized that he had no memory of coming here. In fact, he had no recollection of anything that had happened before he awoke. No, that wasn’t quite true. He remembered the day before, or what he guessed was the day before. He remembered waking up, remembered taking a shot of vodka to steel him against the day. He remembered going to work. He remembered the tedious minutia that made up his day. He would be late. Yes, that was it. He was working late. Of course he was late. He had no one to wait on him anyway. And then he was walking through an empty parking deck to his car. But then what? He couldn’t remember. It was if a wall rose and everything behind it was beyond his view.
Did he even reach his car? He couldn’t say he did, but he couldn’t be sure he didn’t either. Had there been an accident? Had the police brought him here? But no, it couldn’t be that either. He had been arrested before, long ago. Brought in by an overzealous cop who didn’t believe he had only drank one beer. And he knew one thing for sure – this was no jail cell. No jail cell he had ever seen at least. Not then, not on television. This was something different. And then he felt fear.
He stood up on shaky legs. He walked over to what he guessed was a two-way mirror.
“Hello?” he called. No answer. He knocked on the glass. Nothing. He banged harder, but still nothing. He turned and looked around again. He walked over to one of the sides of the room, his footsteps echoing above the metal floor. He ran his hand along the wall, all the way along, until he reached a corner. Then he continued to the next corner and then the next. No crack, no seam. None he could tell at least. His mind went back automatically to that old saw about the room with no windows and no doors and a mirror. But that had been a riddle, a joke. This was bizarrely real.
He turned around and looked at the four people behind him. The woman was moaning now, and they were all about to wake. Then in one quick movement she pulled herself upright. She looked at him, but he could tell that there was still nothing conscious behind her eyes. But in an instant they cleared and there was the cold recognition that something wasn’t right. Next there was fear. She gasped, and then she was skittering backwards until her body was flat against the opposite wall.
“It’s OK,” he said, taking a step forward, his right hand extended in the universal symbol that she needed to calm down.
“Who are you? What have you done?” she screeched as she looked around the room and then at the three slowly rousing bodies beside her. There was panic in her eyes now, that raw, raging fear of a caged animal.
“It’s OK,” he repeated, now squatting on the floor at her eye level. “I’m Nathan,” he said, in the most calming voice he could find. “I don’t have any answers for you right now, but I’m sure someone will come soon.”
There was another scream from beside him, the squeaking cry of a youth. The teenage girl was awake now, and she was equally distraught.
“Where the Hell are we?” he turned again to see that the younger man was conscious too. He was also staring at Nathan, his eyes accusing. In fact they were all awake now, though the old man simply sat on the floor looking around at the other four, studying them, but not yet speaking.
“Look, I don’t know,” Nathan said, standing again. “But we are all in the same boat here, and I’ve gotta think somebody is going to come explain all this soon.”
The younger man stood up now, walking quickly over to the two way mirror and banging sharply against it.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey! I want to talk to somebody. I want to call my lawyer!”
“I already tried that,” Nathan said, now getting frustrated. “If there’s anybody in there, they don’t want to talk to us yet.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” the woman said, her eyes filled with tears. “I went to bed in my home and I wake up here.”
“Is that what happened?” Nathan said, taking a step towards her. “Is that what you remember?”
She looked at Nathan for a moment. “Well,” she said, her eyes looking off to the side as if she was trying to see into the past. “Actually, no, that’s not what happened. I got home late and I was tired. I was going to go straight to sleep. I remember I opened the door. But then…” She looked up at him. She was confused, but somehow everything had become clearer at the same time. “I don’t remember anything after that. The next thing I remember, I was here.”
“Yeah,” Nathan said after a moment, nodding his head. “Yeah, same here. What about you?” he asked, pointing at the girl. Instinctively he knew that talking through it would help them all.
“It’s Ashley,” she said sweetly. “I had just left cheerleading practice,” she continued, a surprise to no one given the WHS sweatshirt and pants she was wearing. “I had just said bye to a couple of my friends. I remember putting my key in the door of my car.” She looked up at Nathan. “And that’s it.”
“And you?” he said, nodding to the man still standing in front of the mirror.
“Jason,” he replied. “I needed cigarettes. I still need cigarettes,” he grunted, banging his hand sharply against the mirror. He stood there for a moment with his hands on his hips and then said, “Anyway. I was walking down the street to the store. I’ve made that walk a thousand times. One minute I am walking to the store and the next I wake up in here. With you fine people,” he said, letting his hand smack against his pants.
“And what about you, sir?” Nathan said to the man who had yet to say a word.
“Jake,” he replied. “And I hope you will all call me that. Something tells me there is no need for formality in a place like this. I had just dropped my granddaughter off at her mom’s house. I was walking back to my car. I guess I never got there.”
“OK,” Nathan said. “OK. I’m Nathan.”
“And I’m Cathy,” the woman sitting against the wall said. Everyone looked at her. She smiled, for the first time. “I just realized that I was the only one who didn’t introduce herself.”
“Cathy, good,” Nathan said. “Well, it goes without saying that something strange is going on here.”
“No shit,” Jason interrupted. “And judging by the looks of this place, it’s some damn government operation gone wrong. Apparently we are all terrorists or some shit,” he spat. “Including that one,” he said, pointing lazily at Ashley.
“Well, we don’t know anything yet,” Nathan said. “So there is probably no point in jumping to conclusions.”
“You got a better explanation?” Jason asked with more than a little bit of sarcasm.
Nathan ignored him. “Well it’s a quarter past midnight. Or Noon,” he said, looking down at his watch. But it wasn’t his watch. In fact, he had never seen it before.
“This is not my watch,” Ashley said, looking down at her left arm.
“Mine neither,” Jason replied. “Me neither,” Cathy added. Jack simply raised his hand. It was then Nathan noticed.
“They are all the same,” he said. The other four looked down at their arms and then over to each other’s. They were indeed the same. Steel gray with a black band. Nathan stood there for a second, thinking over this latest twist. Then a thought began to coalesce in his brain.
“Let me see yours,” he said to Jason.
“Just let me see it,” he repeated.
Jason walked over and held up his arm. Nathan didn’t know exactly how he knew, but he was sure what he would see before he looked. The second hands of the two clocks ticked in perfect time. A quick look at the others confirmed it. Every watch was synchronized.
“Midnight,” Cathy said. Nathan looked at her, and she could see that he was confused. “You said a quarter past midnight, but then you said it might be noon. No, it’s definitely midnight.”
Nathan stood there for a second, and then he merely nodded.
“And I have a feeling it’s no coincidence that we all woke up at the top of the hour,” Jason added. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he said, turning to the mirror, his voice rising. “But when I get out of here somebody’s head is gonna roll!”
Nathan looked around the room again, looked at the four people that were there with him. None of it made any sense. None of it. They had nothing in common, nothing he could imagine at least. A child, an old man, an angry young turk and two thirty year olds. It was all so random. And the room itself. It was like something out of a movie, and a sci-fi one at that. There could be no crazy thoughts at that moment, and he even let himself consider the possibility that they had all been abducted by aliens.
No, this couldn’t be happening. This was a dream, or a nightmare. He had dropped acid once. Just one time. It had been a strange ride, a bizarre multicolored roller coaster of madness. It terrified him, and he swore he would never do it again. He had heard it could come back, that it screwed up your brain and that some people could feel its effect even years down the line. It must be that he thought. This was all some bizarre hallucination from a drug addled mind. He cursed his college roommate. But then, even in that moment, he smiled. What an utterly ridiculous thought. No, this was all too real.
“This can’t be happening,” Cathy said, apparently reaching the same conclusion he had just abandoned. “It can’t be real.”
“Oh it’s real, all right,” Jason said. He would have continued, but Nathan gave him a look that stilled his tongue.
“Let’s just think this through,” Nathan said. “Maybe there was an accident.”
“Or a terrorist attack?” Ashley said, almost hopefully. “Maybe there was an attack and we all got knocked out and they brought us here.” Jason simply rolled his eyes.
“I think it’s best,” Jake interrupted, “if we try and be as reasonable and rational as possible about this. We’ve been taken. I think that is clear to all of us. Who did it, I don’t know. But there was no accident, no terrorist attack. They knocked us out, they drugged us, whatever. Then they brought us here. They put these watches on our arms, for what purpose, I don’t know. And then they left us here, safe in the knowledge that sometime around midnight, we would wake up.”
“But who would do that?” Cathy asked.
“Oh come on people,” Jason said. “You want to be rational? Logical? Well let’s cut the bullshit. Look at this room. You think the local Barney Fife’s threw this together? You think this is the drunk tank in the local jail? Look!” He yelled, pointing all around the chamber. “There’s no damn door! No, this is the feds,” he said, finally calming down.
“But why?” Nathan said. Jason jerked his head and glared at him. “Say it is the feds,” Nathan continued, holding up his palm to Jason before he launched into another nicotine starved rant. “Why would they do this?”
Jason looked at him like he was a fool. “How the Hell should I know?”
“Well you seem to know everything else,” Nathan spat, finally losing his cool.
“Look,” Jason said, trying to calm the situation he had obviously inflamed, “I’m just calling it like I see it. A room like this is either built by the government or the f’ing Martians. Why? I don’t know. Why do they do anything they do? But I know I’m not a terrorist. I’m Catholic. And what about her?” he asked, pointing to Ashley. “Is she hiding a bomb in her pom-poms?”
“I think,” Cathy interrupted, standing up, “that Jason is right.” Nathan simply stared at her, and even Jason looked surprised. “There’s no point in guessing and arguing about it. We are here, why we don’t know. But somebody will come and tell us eventually.”
“What if they don’t?” Ashley asked, voicing a concern that had begun to percolate in the back of even Nathan’s mind. He suddenly shuddered at the thought, the four of them, slowly starving to death, until one, probably Jason, was overcome by hunger, and they went to eating their own. But no, he thought, bizarrely comforted. They would all be dead of thirst by then.
“They will come,” Cathy assured her. “Like Jason said, a place like this doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. And someone brought us here.”
And with that thought, they fell silent. Nathan looked down at his watch. It was a quarter till one. For the next fifteen minutes, they all stood there without speaking a word. Nathan paced about, they all did really, shuffling around the room, unable to stay still, but with nowhere to go either. But then, suddenly and without warning, it was one o’clock.
The silence in the room was suddenly shattered. There was a great, thunderous boom, the sound of a giant bell tolling somewhere above them. They all stood there, dumbfounded, staring up at the steel ceiling and bright, blinding lights above. That sound echoed through the chamber for a moment. But then Nathan heard something else. It was a small noise, the almost imperceptible screech of metal sliding against metal. But nothing moved, nothing he could see at least. And then another sound, like a strong, sudden, short, puff of air. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement.
Ashley had been standing ten feet away, staring up at the ceiling like they all were. But even though he was looking towards an unseeable sky, he still noticed the unnatural jerk of her body, noticed as she swayed to the side, and then, just as he turned his head, saw her body collapse. They all stood there for a second, stupidly, like animals who had no ability to comprehend what had just happened.
Cathy moved first. She ran across the room to where Ashley now lay. Nathan followed. As he reached her, the pool of blood had already begun to grow underneath her body.
“Ashley!” Cathy cried as she fell down beside her. Nathan, Jason, and Jake were close behind.
“What the hell happened?” Jason screamed.
Nathan looked down at Ashley. Her eyes were still open, but he knew immediately that there was no life there anymore, and as he watched, her pupils slowly dilated. It was then he noticed the tiny hole, the impossibly small entrance wound of a bullet squarely in the center of her right temple. It couldn’t be denied. She had been shot.
“Oh my God she’s been shot,” Jake said, falling backwards.
“I don’t know what to do,” Cathy said, now rocking back and forth. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” She repeated, looking up at Nathan with half-crazed eyes. “I do this every day, but I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s OK,” Nathan said. But it wasn’t OK. It would never be OK again.
Nathan reached down and closed Ashley’s open eyes. Cathy simply sat there, crying a little, but remarkably composed as she removed her jacket and spread it over the young girl’s body.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” she almost whispered to no one in particular. Nathan looked at her, and as he did, he saw something snap. Cathy leapt to her feet and ran over to the mirror. She smashed her body against it and then began to beat maniacally against the glass with her fists. He didn’t know what came over him, what urged him to act, but soon he was at her side, screaming madly, pounding away at his own glowering image. Soon they all were. They didn’t stop until exhaustion overcame them, until the blood was running from Cathy’s still clenched fists.
In the end it was no use. The glass remained—hard, implacable, uncaring. Whatever was behind it obviously didn’t care either.
“Sons-of-bitches!” Jason screamed. “What do you want from us! Why would you do this!”
There was no response. No answer. Nothing. Everything in Nathan’s soul called out for the anger to continue, for his rage to take physical form. But his body was tired, exhausted really. He looked down at his, no,the watch. He knew now why he had no energy. An almost solid hour had passed. An hour of hatred and rage. It was almost two. Almost two.
He looked up with a start at Cathy. She was looking at her watch too. She glanced up at him, and in her eyes he saw the same cold realization. And then the hour struck. Above there was the same tolling of the bell, the same loud boom. And then all three of them—Cathy, Jake, and Nathan—all three of them looked at Jason. Somehow they knew.
“What?” he said, as the second boom sounded. And then his eyes said he knew too. They never said anything else.
Nathan heard the soft puff of air and a split second later watched as Jason crumpled down to the ground. From beside him there came an awful sound. It started small, deep within Cathy. But then it grew, like an air raid siren begins as a whine and ends as a screech. She howled, an ungodly, animalistic howl of pain and abject terror. He watched her as she fell backwards, away from Jason’s lifeless body—though her eyes never left it—until her back slammed against the wall, unable to go any farther. And then she merely slid down, her legs collapsing beneath her.
Nathan walked towards her and joined her on the floor, putting his arm around her neck and pulling her sobbing face into his chest. As he did, Jake faced the mirror.
“Please,” he said, whimpering, crying. “I have a granddaughter. Just let me see her again. One last time. You can have me then. You can take me then.”
There was no response.
“I have money. A car,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a set of keys. “It’s a nice car. I could sell it and give you the money,” he added with that nervous laugh that belies the utter terror beneath it. “My house! I can sell my house!”
“Jake,” Nathan said calmly. “Jake, I don’t think you have anything they want.”
“There must be something!” he said, turning to him. “This can’t be for nothing. They can’t be doing all this for no purpose.”
“I think this is their purpose,” Cathy said, not raising her head from Nathan’s chest, but not crying anymore either. “It’s a game. All a game. They just want to see what we will do.”
For a moment Jake said nothing, staring at Cathy like she had lost her mind. “What?” he finally replied, though without any expectation of reply. “No, no that can’t be it. They want something,” he continued, walking over to the mirror. “They want something and as soon as they say what it is, I’ll give it to them.”
Nothing else was said. Jake continued to stand there, staring into the mirror, as if looking into his own eyes would reveal the secret bargain that needed to be struck for their freedom. Nathan and Cathy sat next to each other, she having pulled herself up now. His arm was still around her neck, but he no longer felt as though she needed his strength to hold herself up. The room was still and quiet. The only sound was the synchronized tick…tick…tick… of five watches marching in time. It seemed like forever, and yet it seemed like an instant, but the third hour was at hand.
Once again, high above, came a boom. Nathan and Cathy looked at Jake, who spun on his heels to face them.
“I touched my granddaughter once,” he cried as the second boom sounded. “I didn’t mean too. I swear I didn’t! It was an accident! Oh please God I’m sorry!” Then the third boom, the whooshing puff of air, and Jake’s body crumpled to the ground.
For a moment they both looked at him, but then, almost as if on cue, they let there heads fall back against the wall. Cathy began to sob quietly, but not the panic sobs of before. No, this was of pure, hopeless, sadness. Nathan could deal with panic. But for this, there was no comfort.
“I don’t want to die Nathan,” she said pitifully. “Not yet at least.”
“I know,” he said, rubbing her shoulder.
“I mean everybody has to die right? So it’s not that big a deal? But I haven’t done anything. No one will miss me. No one. My boss maybe, if he even cares.”
“What about your family?” he asked, trying to comfort her.
“I don’t have one,” she said matter-of-factly. “My parents died when I was nineteen. I’m it. No brothers or sisters. I always meant to get married one day, have kids. You know, the American dream. But that was supposed to happen later. And now it won’t happen at all.”
He let her cry then. There was nothing more that could be done. She cried until he guessed she couldn’t cry anymore. They sat there like that until she spoke.
“What about you? What are you leaving behind?”
“The same, I guess,” he replied. “I had a family, once. But my wife and my little girl were killed in a car wreck about two years ago. I’ve got nothing left, so I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then she grabbed him by the shirt collar and pulled him to her. She kissed him then, a deep and desperate kiss.
“If we get out of here,” she said, still holding him close, “you’re taking me to dinner, alright?”
“It’s a deal,” he said, looking into her eyes. It was a lie of course. He knew it, and she knew it. But they let it go nonetheless.
He held her then, held her close until the time had ticked away, until one of them would have to leave the other.
“It’s time,” Cathy said.
Nathan looked down at his watch. Indeed, it was less than five minutes till the tolling of the hour. She looked at him, and he at her. She smiled brightly and took his hand in hers. She nodded, and he nodded back. They both leaned against the wall and closed their eyes. Then it began. Boom…Boom…Boom…he felt her hand tighten around his…Boom. Nathan heard the puff of air. For a moment nothing happened. But then Cathy’s grip on his hand slackened, and he heard and felt her body slide across the wall to the ground. He opened his eyes then, but he didn’t look at her. Instead he cried.
It was the first time he had cried in a long time, the first time since his wife and baby girl had been taken from him. He cried now for them. He cried for Cathy and for Jake. For Ashley, even for Jason. He also cried a little for himself. He didn’t know how long he cried, but at some point, he simply didn’t want to cry any more. He stood up then, stood up and walked to the center of the room. He pulled the gold chain from around his neck, the one with the cross that his mother had given him on his fifteenth birthday, the one that for the last two years he had worn only out of habit. He held the cross in his hand and took a knee.
“Dear Lord,” he said. But then he paused. It had been so long, he wasn’t sure he even remembered how. “Dear Lord,” he repeated, “it’s been a while. I know you probably don’t take too kindly to that, only showing up when things go bad and all. Well,” he said with a coughing laugh, “things are bad now.” He paused and took a breath. “I don’t understand why things happen the way they do,” he said, glancing briefly around at the room. “But right now I’m not really in a position to complain. I guess what I am trying to say is, there was a time when I was faithful. But my faith wasn’t strong enough to face it Lord. I just couldn’t see why it happened. But now,” he said with another deep breath, “I’m walking in the valley. I know they are with you now Lord. I know it. And if you can find the mercy, I hope you will forgive me for the failings of my past. I’m leaving this earth now, and I want see them again. I have to see them again.” He knelt there silently for a second, but there was nothing left to say. He nodded once and said, “Amen.”
He stood then, with his eyes closed and his hands to his sides. He stood as the first bell tolled. Didn’t move for the second. Then on the third, he felt a calm feeling fall over him. On the fourth toll he smiled, and as the fifth bell boomed, he started to laugh. As his laugh filled the room, as it echoed from the walls and the floors, as it reached even the men who sat behind the mirror, he felt the darkness take him.
He awoke standing in a field. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky, and the breeze was blowing through his hair. A small child, his daughter, was running towards him, while his wife watched from behind, her hands on her hips, grinning. He smiled. This was no dream.
Originally published May 2010 in the Absent Willow Review