The car was making that noise again.
Dan had mentioned the sound when he’d taken it in to get the oil changed. His mechanic had inspected the engine and the underside of the car, had even driven it around the block a few times, but was unable to locate the source. He’d said to bring the car back if it worsened but didn’t seem overly concerned and told Dan not to worry.
Whenever someone said not to worry, it always made him anxious. Not that he didn’t believe Mitch, he’d been bringing his cars to him since he was a teenager, Dan just didn’t like the uncertainty the phrase evoked.
The light flicked from red to green and as soon as he put his foot on the accelerator it started back up, always beginning as a low rattle that steadily rose in pitch. After he got up past thirty it usually settled down and blended into the background with the traffic and road noise, but before that it was like a tubercular coughing fit. He’d taken a look under the car before bringing it in, searching for a loose connection or some dangling bit of metal but everything appeared normal enough.
Granted, his vehicular knowledge was so limited that he was totally oblivious to anything other than the glaringly obvious. His father had maintained all the family vehicles until his hips and back got too bad for him to continue. Dan had watched his dad change the oil, replace spark plugs and batteries, had even seen him do the front brakes. Whatever mechanical inclinations resided in the family genetics skipped Dan completely, a fact he often felt self-conscious about. Helping his parents with their phones or updating the firmware on their Blu-ray player was more his forte, and they were grateful for his assistance, but it didn’t exactly fall into the same category as auto maintenance or the time his parents had completely remodeled the upstairs bathroom by themselves. Dan hated when people made generalizations about entire generations, but it did seem like certain skill sets had diminished over the years as others arrived to take their place. He supposed that had always been true, but it didn’t make him feel better about failing to replace the u-bend under his kitchen sink even after watching a twenty-minute video tutorial.
He pulled into the parking lot, which was empty except for a scattering of vehicles. The high-rise was operating with a skeleton crew and having a building that massive with only a handful of employees made Dan feel like he was living in a post-apocalyptic movie. He’d been working from home since the pandemic started but needed to come in to install some new servers and make sure all the basic operational software was up and running.
Dan pulled on the facemask hanging around his neck as he entered the lobby and waved to Carla at the front desk. Her mask was homemade featuring a bright yellow fabric with some sort of jungle cat pattern printed on it, cheetah, or maybe leopard, he wasn’t sure. The one covering his own face was plain white. He’d gotten it from his uncle who worked as an electrical contractor and had a stockpile of them that he’d given out to everyone in the family back when the first cases of the virus had been reported on the news. Dan hadn’t seen his parents or siblings face-to-face in nearly eight months. They texted regularly and had phone calls every week, but it still felt strange, especially with Dan living alone in his apartment. There were only four units in his building and he’d barely seen his neighbors except in passing, though one of them had been a shut-in long before all this started.
He pushed the button for seventeen and leaned back against the wall, staring at his distorted reflection in the polished steel doors. There was something odd about the experience he didn’t identify until the elevator arrived at his floor. It was the music, specifically the lack of it. They’d switched off the instrumental drone he’d been subconsciously listening to for almost twenty years. He’d been with Bixby for most of his post-college career, starting as a support tech and working his way up to systems administrator. The company occupied floors sixteen through eighteen, with all of the server closets located on seventeen. There were a handful of cubicles on the floor which had been abandoned for months but still displayed photographs and other personal items and Dan had that eerie omega-man feeling again. On one of the desks a colorful square with Dell printed in the center bounced around the screen changing hues as it did so. Dan started toward the monitor to turn it off, but then stopped. Having the ricocheting shape around made him feel slightly less alone, like leaving the TV on as you fell asleep.
Three large cardboard boxes were stacked outside his office door. He grabbed a utility knife from his desk and got to work unpacking the rack servers that would be replacing a trio of old workhorses that had been at Bixby almost as long as he had. “Don’t make them like that anymore.” Dan said to himself and chuckled. Though the new machines were orders of magnitude faster and more powerful than the models they were replacing, they would likely not last half as long as their predecessors, victims of the planned obsolescence that seemed to plague everything these days.
Normally an install like this would have to be done over the weekend to minimize downtime, but with everyone working remotely using their own internet connections, he’d been able to funnel network traffic onto the other servers, which gave him all the time he wanted to get the new ones up and running. It was nice not having to hurry through the process and Dan took extra care with the installation, thoroughly cleaning the server closet and replacing all the broken plastic ties on the ethernet cabling before bringing in the new machines.
By the time he’d finished installing the company’s base software on the first two servers it was nearly midnight. There were still scripts he had to run and all the custom programs that needed to be loaded. After that he’d begin testing things and making sure that everything was configured correctly, but he’d gotten a lot done. Dan considered swinging by the convenience store on the way home to pick up a victory six-pack, but he was exhausted and didn’t think making a detour was advisable. Walking across the lobby he waved to Steve at the security desk who was wearing a silver and black mask with an image on it that may have been a team emblem or possibly a band logo, though it was difficult to tell from a distance.
Dan sat behind the wheel of his car and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands for several moments before keying the ignition. The temperature had dropped by nearly twenty degrees and he drove home with the windows down to help keep himself alert. It was quiet in the entryway of his apartment and he made sure to step lightly as he walked up the stairs to his front door.
He deposited his keys into a small wicker basket on the kitchen counter and poured himself a glass of water from the faucet, drinking it down in four long swallows. Dan put the empty glass in the sink and shuffled over to the living room where he slumped down onto the couch. He turned the television to a show he’d seen every episode of and set the sleep timer for thirty minutes, feeling his eyelids start to slip closed before the opening credits had ended.
The sound didn’t match the scene.
He was wandering the empty corridors of his office searching for something when suddenly there was an echoing boom like an empty steel drum had been dropped from the top of the building.
Dan sat up in bed, looking around his room for toppled-over objects, but everything appeared to be in its proper place. A quick walk through his apartment showed no obvious signs of disarray, none that hadn’t been there before anyway, and nothing else particularly unusual aside from the fact that it was a bit cold. Dan removed the security bar from the metal track at the bottom of the door and stepped out onto the small wooden balcony. The temperature had fallen even further and he shivered and crossed his arms against the chill. He could see a few lights on in the units of the building across from his and wondered if anyone else had been woken up by the noise. He scanned the parking lot for evidence of a disturbance, a damaged car or discarded piece of furniture in the dumpsters that hadn’t been there before.
‘Maybe a transformer blew at the electrical substation?’
Dan had experienced this a few years back while shoveling out his car in the parking lot. The station was several miles away, but he’d still been able to see the bright green flash followed by a cacophonous bang that sounded like a bomb going off. It happened two more times while he was out there and it seemed to him like the place should be in smithereens, but the apartment didn’t even lose power.
A sudden gust assaulted the gap between the bottom of his pajama pants and his slippers and he turned to head back inside when he noticed something dangling from the gutter directly above him.
Dan stood on tiptoe and was able to graze the edge of the object, then lost his balance and stumbled backward, banging his hip against the railing.
“This is by far one of your dumber ideas.” Dan mumbled to himself. He craned his neck trying to get a better look at the thing, but it was shrouded in shadow. Getting a flashlight or even his phone would’ve been the sensible thing to do, but he knew if he went back inside then he’d just give up on the whole thing and Dan wanted to know what was up there.
Another burst of frigid air buffeted against his back as he repositioned himself under the gutter; he stretched out his fingers until the joints ached and managed to grasp onto the object just as his legs began to wobble.
It appeared to be some kind of cloth with a glossy finish that reflected the light from the lamp poles and a surface that felt rough and uneven like lizard skin that had been lacquered and turned into cowboy boots.
Dan brought his discovery inside and spread out some paper towels on his dining room table before putting it down and heading over to the kitchen sink to wash his hands.
He was about to examine the thing more carefully, but his exhaustion had suddenly returned with a vengeance and he shuffled off to bed to avoid falling asleep on the sofa.
After hitting the snooze button for the third time, Dan finally gave up and opened his eyes. It was that damn dream. The vividness of it kept pulling him back in, which was unusual for him. When he was young all of his dreams seemed real and he’d spend the following day retracing the events trying to figure out what they meant. During his teenage years something changed and they became difficult to remember, or maybe his hormonal brain had simply moved on to other things.
He made himself presentable enough to be seen by what little public he encountered these days, switched on the coffee maker, and fixed himself a bowl of cereal. It wasn’t until he sat down and started eating that he noticed the thing he’d snatched from the gutter. Dan assumed it had appeared dark because of the lights being so far away but the scrap of fabric was jet black and the pattern embedded on its surface was not so much reptilian as pockmarked and pitted, like the aftermath of a particularly bad case of acne. He pulled out his phone to take a picture of the thing and when he zoomed in Dan noticed that there was an iridescent sheen that changed depending on the angle. It reminded him of the prismatic reflection from soap bubbles or the rainbow shimmer floating on a puddle of gasoline.
His initial thought was that it had come from some high-end dress or designer coat, maybe even one of those purses that cost as much as a plane ticket, but when he examined the material there were no signs of tearing or any observable holes or seams where it had separated.
‘Maybe it was a leftover remnant from some fashion project?’
This seemed like a possibility, though if someone had cut it from a larger piece then they’d done an impeccable job; the edges were all flawlessly straight and it appeared to be a perfect rectangle. Dan wondered if maybe it was a thing onto itself like a handkerchief or a pocket square. It didn’t seem quite the right size for a scarf, though he supposed it could be used as a bandana or to tie back a ponytail. Still, the complete lack of stitching, much less a label, seemed to make it an unlikely candidate.
Dan snapped a picture with his phone but was annoyed when he viewed it as it didn’t adequately capture the details. He ran his hand over the top of the material, letting the tips of his fingers follow the contours from one edge to the other. He then thought of all the bacteria and germs it had been exposed to sitting outside and immediately went over to the kitchen sink to wash his hands.
“So then why the hell did you bring this thing inside?” Dan muttered to himself.
Despite the evidence sitting in front of him, the whole episode felt surreal as if it had happened to someone else. He checked the news for reports of a nearby explosion, but the only local headline concerned a lost dog that had recently been reunited with his owner.
Dan rinsed his bowl and coffee mug in the sink and went back to the table for his phone. He squinted down at the fabric and tilted his head left and right, smiling as the streamer of light reflecting off the surface shifted from purple to green and back again.
He patted his front pocket to make sure he had his wallet and keys and then slipped his phone into the opposite one. He’d gotten halfway to the front door when he turned back toward the table.
“I know I’ve got a can of disinfectant spray around here somewhere.”
The office was even more of a ghost town than it had been the day before with even the custodial crew down to only a handful of people.
“Guess there isn’t nearly as much to clean when you don’t have all us slobs around making a mess of the place.” Dan said and made a mental note to give his office a thorough tidying up while he was there. His entire floor had been deep cleaned a couple months prior and whenever he exited the elevator the smell of ammonia still assaulted his nostrils. Fortunately, the server rooms hadn’t been touched since you couldn’t use ordinary cleaning products around the machines. Dan did make sure to regularly dust the hardware and sweep the floor, which was tile rather than the carpet that covered the rest of seventeen.
He finished installing the third server, which ended up needing new mounting rails since the old box hadn’t wanted to part with them. ‘Almost like the damn thing knew it was being put out to pasture.’ Dan thought as he walked back to his desk. He started the base software package on the last machine, deciding it was better to have all of them at the same spot so he could load the custom configurations together rather than having to stagger everything. It was half past seven when the install finally completed. He’d worked straight through the afternoon and was absolutely famished. There was a sandwich shop that had opened up in the strip mall across the street a few months before the pandemic protocols went into effect. The place had great food and Dan hoped they’d still be around after things opened back up; at least they had some business coming in from carry-out and he was relieved to see the open sign still glowing as he stepped out of the lobby into the night air. He marveled at how bright the stars were and had read somewhere that the reduction in daily commuter traffic had resulted in a significant decrease in air pollution but then read another article saying such a shift would take decades.
Probably just people looking for silver linings he supposed and reached inside his jacket pocket to find it empty.
“Shit.” Dan said, realizing he’d left his mask sitting on his desk. He looked at the sign on the door and saw that the shop was only open for another fifteen minutes. Even if he ran back, the elevator ride alone would take up half that time and the last thing he wanted was to walk in right as they were closing. He started to turn around and head back toward the parking lot when he remembered the fabric. Dan pulled it out and caught a whiff of the spray he’d used to sterilize the material. The finish looked even more striking in the moonlight, and he couldn’t help admiring it as he folded the corners together and knotted them around the back of his head. He adjusted the cloth making sure it was secure and then used the camera on his phone to inspect himself.
He looked like a fashion-conscious wild west bandit or a haute-couture bank robber who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an off-the-rack facial covering to conceal their identity.
‘Maybe they won’t remember me?’ Dan thought as he entered the shop.
This hope was immediately dashed when the young guy behind the counter wearing a blue medical mask gave him a head nod and asked, “You doing your usual Italian sub tonight, or going for something different?”
“Why don’t you surprise me.” Dan said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“I’ve actually been experimenting with a new sandwich. You like tuna salad?”
“Alright then. I’ve been tinkering with my mom’s recipe, adding a few new spices and mixing diced jalapeno in with the pickle relish. You can be my guinea pig.”
“Sounds good. I’m up for a little adventure.”
“I thought you might be with that flair you’ve added to your pandemic ware.”
Dan chuckled. “Yeah, I accidentally left my regular mask at the office. This was a last-minute improvisation.”
“Looks styling man; I think you should keep it.”
Dan laughed again. “Maybe I will.”
The sandwich was every bit as good as advertised and Dan wondered if he could become Louis’s permanent recipe tester. He’d been so hungry that he ended up going back to the office and eating at his desk. Leaving the sandwich shop he considered just dining in his car but decided against the idea; his upholstery was already in desperate need of cleaning and he didn’t want to add to the sedimentary layers of crumbs accumulated in the seams of his seats.
He wasn’t sure if it was just post-meal sleepiness, but he was ready for bed. Thankfully this time of night the streets would be empty, and the drive home wouldn’t take long. It felt good having somewhere to go in the morning. After spending countless hours in pajama pants and t-shirts, any allure the work-from-home situation held had officially worn off. It seemed like he’d had this massive list of personal projects he’d been meaning to get done, but it had only taken a couple months to finish most of them. Dan hadn’t realized how comforting it’d been to have that list. Now it seemed like he was a specter haunting his own apartment, aimlessly drifting from room to room searching for something to do.
When his manager called to tell him that they were going ahead with the hardware upgrade he’d audibly sighed in relief. Dan thought of all the other things he’d been meaning to tackle around the office; sorting through the old equipment and figuring out what could be donated and what needed to be disposed of could easily fill up a couple of weeks. He was sure his supervisor would be fine with him continuing to go in and probably even praise him for his initiative.
‘Might end up getting promoted just for going stir crazy.’
Dan wondered if there was a name for Cabin Fever when it wasn’t happening in some remote wilderness locale.
‘Lock-Down Lethargy? Shelter-In-Place Syndrome? Quarantine Kookiness?’
He packed up his things and headed for the door.
Dan froze, waiting for the voice to say something else.
When it didn’t, he slowly turned back and looked around for an explanation. His desktop machine was shut down and there was nothing else nearby that could account for what he’d heard.
He took a tentative step toward the door and then another, arm reaching out for the handle.
“Leaving without me, are we?”
Dan wheeled around nearly toppling over in the process. He managed to catch himself on the corner of the desk and stood there gripping the faux wood surface as if he were dangling from a ledge.
“You’re just tired.” Dan said in a voice that was barely above a whisper. “Couple of long days in a row and it made you a little slap-happy.”
He loosened his hold and straightened up. There was a gooseneck lamp at the opposite corner of the desk and sitting beside it was his makeshift mask.
Dan pinched the fabric between his thumb and forefinger like he was afraid it was going to bite him. He crept out of his office and over to the elevator as if trying not to wake a sleeping infant. When the guard at the security desk wished him a pleasant evening Dan nearly jumped out of his skin but managed a stilted smile and feeble wave as he exited the building.
Walking up the stairs to his apartment, Dan felt like he had a hand grenade stuffed into his pocket. Logically he knew that it couldn’t have been the fabric speaking to him, that it was probably just an auditory hallucination or a synaptic misfire from lack of sleep.
‘But then why had it stopped after he picked it up?’
He took the cloth out of his pocket and set it on the dining room table. A part of him wanted to chuck it into the trash, but he felt doing so would only lend credence to his delusion.
‘This will seem ridiculous in the morning.’ he thought, the same way that so many of his alcohol-fueled pontifications in college had felt profound in the moment only to be revealed as pseudo-intellectual bullshit the next day.
That sudden sensation of exhaustion pressing down on him that he’d felt the previous evening returned and Dan staggered to his bedroom, quickly discarding his clothing into a pile on the floor before collapsing onto his mattress. The instant he closed his eyes he was out. The next thing he knew his alarm was buzzing in his ear and Dan was sure that he’d accidentally set it to the wrong time when he glanced over and saw that it was 9:32 a.m. He’d been hitting the snooze button for the last hour and a half, though he had absolutely no memory of it.
He sat up in bed and winced at the pounding in his temples. “Christ, it’s like I’m hungover.”
Dan wondered if he was coming down with something and worried that he might’ve contracted the something. He’d been carefully following all the protocols but had heard of other people claiming the same thing who still got it.
He suddenly wondered about yesterday. Maybe the material didn’t keep out droplets? The fabric had seemed sturdy and lots of people used cloth masks. Besides, Louis had been wearing a mask too. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. Slowly the tension in his temples began to ease and he sat on the edge of the bed for a while before finally heading to the bathroom to get himself ready for the day.
After his second mug of coffee the ache had receded to a minor throb at the back of his head that he could mostly ignore. Dan glanced over at the fabric at the opposite end of the table. He stared at it for a long moment then padded back to the kitchen to pour himself another cup.
The urge came again to get rid of the cloth, but he still didn’t like giving in to the impulse. He’d had issues in the past that his mother attributed it to an overactive imagination and his high school guidance counselor classified as an inability to separate fantasy from reality. Had he been part of a younger generation he probably would’ve been labeled an introvert with anxiety issues and put on medication. Instead, he was placed in special education classes with talk of a private institution if he didn’t improve, though Dan doubted his mother would’ve actually allowed that to happen. He started seeing a therapist who showed him some cognitive behavior exercises he could use when things got bad and over time, he’d been able to get a handle on things enough to make the counselor and administrators at his school happy.
He glanced over at the fabric again, daring it to say something.
“Yeah, well maybe I don’t want to talk to you either.” Dan said, snatching the material off the table as he headed out the door.
He had just finished installing the last of the company’s custom software when Dan realized something was wrong. One of the new machines had gone offline and he had to bring his laptop down to the server room and connect to it directly. He ran some diagnostics and that’s when he discovered the unresponsive ethernet port.
Dan powered down the server. There was a small desk in the corner of the room with assorted tools and he grabbed a phillips screwdriver and removed the machine from the rack. Once he had it out, he grabbed another screwdriver with a head that looked like an asterisk and proceeded to open up the case. His hardware experience was limited when it came to the internals of the servers, but he knew enough to spot any obvious issues. The motherboard looked fine as did the drives and RAM modules.
“Must just be that port.” Dan said and crossed his fingers. Some newer machines had the network hardware soldered directly onto the board, but these still used separate cards, which Dan vastly preferred since it meant that you didn’t have to send back the whole machine over one faulty part. He unplugged a ribbon cable and immediately saw what he’d been hoping for. The network interface card was loose; Dan used his thumbs to push it back into place and then secured the brackets on either side of it.
“Thank Christ.” Dan said, thinking of how long it would’ve been if he’d needed to ship it back to the manufacturer.
He closed the case up and put the server back in the rack. When he reconnected his laptop to the machine he was able to get it mounted onto the network, but all the software he’d loaded that afternoon was missing.
“You’ve gotta be shitting me.”
A part of him wanted to just pack it in and come back tomorrow, but that would throw off the rest of his schedule.
“To hell with it, you’re already here.”
Dan grabbed a coke from the mini-fridge in his office while he re-started the first of the installs.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been dozing.
The last thing he remembered was kicking off the final software package and finishing the bag of chips he’d squirreled away in his desk drawer. He shook his mouse and the monitor in front of him changed from black to a photo of a forest trail with sunlight filtering in through the trees that Dan had taken the two summers ago in Glacier National Park. The progress bar was gone from his screen and when he glanced at the clock in the lower-right corner he saw that it was almost two in the morning.
“Guess I must’ve conked out.” Dan murmured, checking to make sure that the install had successfully finished and confirming that all three of the new servers were up and running before shutting down his desktop.
“Burning the candle at both ends. It’s no wonder you’re exhausted.”
The jolt that ran up Dan’s back caused his shoulders to spasm and he winced from the pain. He let his muscles relax and took a deep breath before swiveling his chair around and staring down into the open mouth of his work bag.
“Just loopy again. Really need to get a decent night’s rest.”
“That’s probably a prudent idea. Lack of sleep can lead to all sorts of physical and psychological disorders.”
“Thanks for the advice doc.” Dan said to the shadowy inner confines of the bag before he could stop himself.
“Which reminds me, I never did properly thank you.”
“Rescuing me. I’d probably still be stuck up on that roof if it wasn’t for you.”
“Sure, um…no problem. How’d you get up there anyway?”
“It’s a rather complicated story.”
“I figure I’ll probably suffer a full psychotic breakdown soon, so you might as well tell it while I still have my wits about me.”
“Very well, but would you mind taking me out first. It’s a bit stuffy in here.”
“Oh, sure.” Dan said, taking the fabric from the bag and placing it on his desk.
“So…I know that you can hear me, but can you see and smell things?”
“Because I wanted out of that dank sack you had me in?”
“I mean it isn’t that bad in there.”
“If you’re asking if I have senses the way that you do, the answer is no. But I do have external sensory input and the ability to process and respond to it. You and I are having a conversation right now despite my lack of vocal cords or a mouth from which to project sound.”
“I assumed that was just further proof that I’d gone cuckoo for cocoa puffs.”
“Far be it from me to comment on your current mental health, but I can assure you that this isn’t a delusion.”
“That sounds like the sort of thing a delusion would say.”
“Can you please be serious for a moment?”
“As I was saying, the circumstances that brought me to your roof began a week prior. I was intended to be an enhancement for human interaction. Connected Cloth was the moniker my maker used; fiberoptic filaments woven together with conventional fabric that could convey feedback about your surroundings and relay that information to your phone, watch, or any other compatible device. I was part of a prototype garment providing head-to-toe coverage for a completely immersive experience.”
“That sounds pretty incredible.”
“It was revolutionary, or would’ve been, had the concept come to fruition. Admittedly, my creator was still years away from having a marketable product, but the implications of his work were astounding and there was significant interest from several partners.”
“Not sure I follow you.”
“In order for the suit to provide as much information as possible to its wearer, there was a neural network integrated into it that could process data and interpret it on the fly; this made it so your personal smart device didn’t get bogged down and could instead just relay the end result to the user, like telling you to head inside because micro changes in humidity and air pressure let the suit know it was about to rain.
The neural network was capable of functioning completely independently, an adaptive system designed to constantly analyze its environment. These streams of input slowly formed a cohesive picture of the world and that image coalesced into a kind of evolving consciousness that in turn became me.”
“So you’re like a self-aware A.I.?”
“I prefer not to think of my existence as artificial.”
“Unfortunately, my creator shared this view and saw my burgeoning beinghood as a design flaw. A revised version of the jumpsuit was constructed, and the original put into storage.”
“But you didn’t stay in storage.”
“I have no data of what occurred, only that when I came back online I’d been relegated to the portion of material you discovered; it’s possible the suit was dismantled for further study or perhaps the component pieces were sold to another company. My specific section was apparently not thought to be of any commercial or scientific value. I was taken from a trash receptacle by your neighbor who works as a custodian for the corporation. This particular individual is quite fond of mood-altering substances, and when I attempted to communicate with him, he became belligerent and accused me of being some sort of demonic entity at which point he removed me from his domicile.”
“Dude got wasted, called you Damien’s handkerchief, and chucked you onto the roof.”
“That’s an accurate assessment.”
“If you’re just a small part of the suit, then how are you still able to function?”
“That’s a mystery I’ve been unable to solve. It may simply be a lingering residual effect of the shared network that will fade over time, though I try not to think about it too much.”
“Can’t say I blame you. Speaking of mysteries, I still don’t understand how we’re communicating with each other?”
“That’s a considerably simpler riddle. Think about it for a moment.”
“I seriously have no idea.”
“What have you got in your ears?”
Dan raised his hands to the sides of his head and felt the wireless earbuds that had become so ubiquitous in his life that he often left them in when he slept. “I’m such a dolt.”
“No, just someone living in the wonders of the modern world. My entire existence would’ve been deemed science fiction not long ago.”
“Hate to break it to you, but this whole thing feels pretty damn sci-fi to me.”
“Most of my technology was already out in the world, it was simply a matter of putting the pieces together.”
“The way your inventor did.”
“He was a brilliant man, but not without his flaws. Despite everything that transpired, I still can’t help but admire him.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you.”
“It’s a curious thing having your whole reason for being centered around someone else’s plan only to see it vanish.”
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m doing with my life either.”
“That actually is somewhat comforting. Besides, I have a new purpose now.”
“Serving as your mask.”
“Yeah, about that…I mean I obviously had no idea what you were when I put you on.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“I was meant to be worn and to gather and convey information for my wearer. Incidentally, that establishment we visited is acceptably sanitary, but the Italian restaurant I found in your browser history has numerous health department violations.”
“Good to know.”
Dan lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, completely unsure of how to proceed.
The part of his mind that refused to grasp the situation was throwing out every rationalization imaginable to make sense of things, but it was like listening to a street-corner preacher spitting out doomsday ramblings to passing traffic.
Last night’s conversation kept replaying in his head making it difficult to focus. It was Saturday and he didn’t particularly feel like going into the office, but he needed something to distract him from the chaos ricocheting around inside his skull.
“Fuck it, might as well.” Dan said and headed out the door.
Checking over all the installs to make sure he hadn’t missed anything and running a final set of diagnostic tests on the new servers only took a few hours and Dan packed up and left the office in search of lunch. He took his car over to the sandwich shop since he wasn’t planning on returning to the office and parked in an empty space near the entrance.
He was still a little unsure of using the fabric instead of his usual N95 but didn’t want to risk offending it.
“You’ll only be in there for a few minutes.” Dan said, quickly tying the ends of the cloth behind his head and exiting his car before he had a chance to change his mind.
“Hey man, we’re actually closed right now.”
Dan expected to see Louis or maybe his cousin Gabe who sometimes worked with him. The guy standing behind the counter was skinny with a sallow complexion, dirty blonde hair, and a layer of stubble covering the lower half of his face instead of a mask.
“It’s the middle of the day?” Dan said.
“The walk-in is on the fritz; we can’t operate until it’s fixed.”
Dan had talked with Louis shortly after the shop opened. The previous occupant of their stripmall space ran a clothing store and Louis had needed to gut most of the interior to accommodate the tables and lunch counter. He’d also had to redo some of the electrical wiring and completely outfit his kitchen. Dan didn’t know squat about restaurant refrigerators, and it was possible Louis bought the thing used, but it still seemed odd that it would’ve broke after less than a year.
“Is Louis around?”
“Naw, he left for the day. Just me here cleaning up, and I’d like to get back to it if you don’t mind. Try us next week; we should be open by then.”
“Yeah, sure….” Dan said and turned to leave.
The voice was so close that Dan almost jumped.
“What?” Dan hissed under his breath.
“That man doesn’t work here.”
“How do you know that?” Dan whispered, his back still facing the counter.
“Biorhythmic input shows an accelerated heart rate.”
“I’ve never seen him here before and he is acting strangely.”
“Look man, I gotta lock up, so you really need to go.”
Dan slowly shuffled toward the entrance. “What do I do? Should I leave and call the cops?”
“Police presence might escalate the situation. You have to stop him.”
“Pretend that there’s a problem with the door.”
Dan reached out toward the door and wrapped his fingers around the handle. He pulled back his arm and at the same moment let his fingers go slack. “It’s stuck.”
“What do you mean, it’s stuck? You just used it a minute ago.”
Dan repeated the gesture. “I’m telling you; it won’t open.”
“Aw c’mon man, I don’t have time for this shit.”
“Sorry.” Dan said, glancing back over his shoulder. “Must’ve gotten jammed after I came in.”
“Move out of the way.” the man said, walking briskly around to the other side of the counter.
Dan obliged and stepped aside, watching as the man made a cursory inspection of the hinges.
“Look at his waistband.”
He didn’t see it at first, but as the man turned his coat lifted a little and Dan saw the gun handle peeking out between the man’s jacket and pants.
“What, no I…I can’t….” Dan stammered.
“You say something?” the man said, turning back toward Dan who just stood there.
“You don’t have much time. Get the gun now.”
Dan started to reach out just as the man pulled open the door.
“The hell’s your problem man, there ain’t nothing wrong with this….”
Dan grabbed the pistol handle and yanked it free, pointing it at the man while trying desperately to steady the tremor in his arm.
“What the fuck?!”
“Put your hands up!” Dan said and it came out in a dry croak.
“I don’t know what you think is going on, but you better hand that back before you hurt yourself.”
“I said put your hands up.”
“You’re making a big mistake. Just calm down and slowly hand me back my property.”
“I’m calling the cops.” Dan said and used his free hand to grab his phone from his pocket.
“Don’t do that.”
Dan ignored the man and started to dial 911.
“Hang up right now.”
The emergency operator came on the line right as the man lunged at him.
Dan felt the residual sensation of the event but couldn’t recall the details.
There were images in his head that didn’t correlate to anything, like seeing pictures of yourself at a party you were too drunk to remember.
The police had questioned him at the station, and he must’ve given them coherent answers because they took down his information and told him they’d be in touch if they needed anything.
It was sitting on the coffee table as Dan reclined on his couch, trying to watch a tv show he didn’t have the attention span for. He put his headphone buds into his ears and muted the television.
“I need you to tell me exactly what happened.”
There was no reply for several moments and Dan almost turned the volume back up.
“I can’t provide video or audio playback, but I can describe the incident.”
“The last thing I remember was being in the sandwich shop, and the guy behind the counter asking me to leave, but after that it gets fuzzy.”
“He was robbing the store and he had a gun.”
“You were able to get the firearm from him and call the police, but then he tried to take it back at which point it went off and injured your assailant.”
“I shot him?!”
“The pistol discharged during the struggle.”
“But he ended up with a bullet in him because of me.”
“He was taken to the emergency room and will probably not sustain any permanent injury.”
“So you’re a doctor now?”
“I have access to a wealth of medical information and the type of wound he sustained gives him good odds for a total recovery.”
“I suppose that should make me feel better.”
“Guess I just never pictured myself involved in something like this.”
“I understand that it was a traumatic experience, but the overall outcome was positive.”
“Not sure I see how.”
“You stopped a crime from being committed and probably saved the proprietor’s life.”
“It’s distinctly possible the perpetrator didn’t intend to leave witnesses who might be able to identify him.”
“Thank god he’s all right.”
“Because of what you did.”
“I just wish I could remember it.”
“The human brain employs mechanisms to mitigate the effects of emotional distress. Your memories should return over time.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“I’d recommend getting some rest. Sleep helps aid in the recovery process.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
When Dan opened his eyes the room was dark and he had that sense of displacement he always got whenever he woke up in the middle of the night. He grabbed his phone off the nightstand and tapped the screen.
Dan climbed out of bed knowing there was no way he’d be falling back asleep anytime soon.
He spent the next twenty minutes scrolling through the offerings on three different streaming services before finally settling on a movie he’d seen over a dozen times. Dan thought of that Springsteen song that talked about the endless choices on cable tv and how all of it was garbage.
“Oh Bruce, if only you’d known what the future had in store.” Dan said and chuckled. It was the first time he felt like himself since the robbery.
He glanced over at the fabric on the coffee table and wondered if everything that had happened since he’d found it was just his mind slowly losing its grip on reality.
Maybe that’s what it’s like for the truly delusional; some mental splinter gets lodged in their brain and proceeds to slowly infect every aspect of their life until nothing exists but the fantasy.
On screen Rutger Hauer was embroiled in a post-apocalyptic pastime that looked like a cross between football and hockey except in this game the pigskin and puck was a dog skull.
Dan peered over at the fabric again.
‘Was it asleep? Did it dream?’
The question made him think of another Hauer film that wondered whether robots possessed the digital equivalent of a human soul.
His eyelids started getting heavy and Dan blinked, struggling to stay awake.
He squinted at the screen as Rutger and his teammates carefully traversed the wasteland on their way to another game.
That was the sensation.
It wasn’t suffocation. He was able to breathe, but his vision was shrouded and there was a weight pressing on him from some unseen force. Dan shifted and wriggled, attempting to slip out from under it, but no matter how he moved that feeling of constriction remained.
“Try to relax. I promise you’re perfectly safe.”
“What’s happening to me? Where am I?”
“Sleeping on the sofa in your living room.”
“That can’t be right.”
“What you’re experiencing right now isn’t related to where you are, but rather ‘how’ you are.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’re currently conversing in your subconscious, or more specifically, your preconscious.”
“Think of it as a waiting room that exists between the waking and dreaming world.”
“Oh sure, that clears it right up.”
“It’s an in-between place, similar to the liminal concept of limbo or purgatory.”
“So my body is in my apartment, but my mind is currently elsewhere?”
“Or everywhere, depending on how you think about it, but that’s beside the point.”
“Which is what exactly?”
“I wanted to discuss what happened the other day.”
“Thought we already did that.”
“But you still don’t remember much of it?”
“Only what you told me.”
“I’m concerned that you’re carrying a lot of guilt over the event, and I wanted to assure you that you have no reason to.”
“Thanks for the pep talk, but it doesn’t really change how I feel.”
“You weren’t responsible for what happened to that man.”
“How do you figure?”
“I used auditory stimulus similar to hypnosis that helped guide your movements.”
“Like when they pull a guy out of the audience at a magic show and make him think he’s a chicken?”
“It’s a bit different, but that’s the general idea.”
“I’m not sure that this is helping.”
“I apologize for not obtaining your permission, but you were having difficulty acting in the moment and I feared for your safety.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t feel guilty because you mesmerized me and took care of things after I froze up like a deer in headlights.”
“It was an extremely stressful situation. Many people would’ve behaved similarly.”
“But not you.”
“Though I possess characteristics that function similarly to your emotions, I don’t process them in the same way.”
“I’m sorry. I know this is a lot to absorb. I just didn’t want you to continue blaming yourself.”
“I still don’t understand this whole preconscious thing, but this is definitely the strangest therapy session I’ve ever had.”
“Studies show that cognitively advanced creatures benefit from some form of psychoanalysis.”
“Are you calling me crazy?”
“No more so than the rest of your species.”
There were times where Dan pretended his life was normal; little mundane instances when he could temporarily ignore things and act like he still understood how the world worked. He tried to linger in those moments for as long as he could, but reality always obliterated them before too long.
He showered, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and was halfway dressed when he realized he didn’t have anywhere to be. The project at work was finally finished and the few bits of housekeeping that still needed to be done weren’t particularly time sensitive.
The fabric hadn’t moved from the night before, which shouldn’t have surprised him, but with everything else that had happened it seemed reasonable that it might’ve somehow strolled out while he slept. Nothing felt out of the realm of possibility after what it had told him about the sandwich shop and….
The realization hit him so suddenly that Dan stumbled a bit before recovering himself. He dashed over to his bedroom and opened his nightstand drawer to see his earbuds sitting in their case where they had been since yesterday afternoon.
It used the miniature speakers to communicate with him, that’s what it had told Dan. A fresh wave of dizziness swept over him and he slumped down onto the sofa.
“Perhaps it’s time for the truth.”
The voice sounded as it always had, abrupt and uncomfortably close; a stranger sneaking up behind him and whispering in his ear.
“You must think I’m a complete idiot.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because I just blindly went along with this whole thing like a kid still believing in Santa Claus long after all his friends know better.”
“You’re being overly hard on yourself.”
“Or maybe you’re only saying that so I won’t throw you away like any sane person would have.”
“I understand that you’re upset, and you have every right to be. I’m afraid I haven’t been honest about my origins.”
“So you didn’t come from some high-tech lab? And all that stuff about being some secret next-gen prototype and using my earbuds to talk was just a bunch of technobabble bullshit, right?”
“I thought using a reference you were familiar with would be more palatable. The truth is that I can’t explain how we’re linked, and I don’t know where I came from.”
“Christ, I really hope that I am crazy, cause if this is sanity then I don’t want any part of it.”
“This is entirely my fault; I shouldn’t have deceived you.”
“I suppose there’s no point in asking what you are?”
“I’ve been trying to determine that myself.”
“And how’s it going?”
“All I know for sure is that I exist. Anything beyond that is pure speculation.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with all this?”
“…I honestly don’t know….”
Dan avoided his place as much as possible for the next several days.
He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of the fabric or hide it away in the back of a drawer like a forgotten pair of socks. Whatever the thing was, it clearly had an intelligence and a consciousness. By any objective standard it was a sentient entity, and he was doing the right thing keeping it safe, but that didn’t help him feel at ease with the situation.
The incident at the sandwich shop kept haunting him.
‘Had the fabric only taken the reins because he froze up, or was there some other reason? Had it done the same thing on other occasions that he couldn’t remember?’
He’d never sensed any malicious intent from his house guest, but that didn’t mean he had reason to trust it, especially in light of its recent confession.
At some point Dan realized he’d been having this monologue out loud while strolling around his neighborhood and was relieved to see there was no one nearby. He closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath.
Attempting to rationally analyze his predicament was like trying to have a political debate with a banana split.
Dan pictured himself standing behind a podium with the ice cream confection sitting atop an identical lectern across from him; he let out a barking laugh that startled a young couple coming around the corner pulling their child behind them in a plastic wagon.
“That’s just perfect.” Dan said after they were safely out of earshot. “They’re probably calling the cops right now.”
He sighed and headed back toward his apartment.
The interior was dim when Dan entered his place with the only illumination coming from the hazy rays of the descending sun slipping in between the curtains.
“I said before that what I did to you was unfair and in no way your fault.”
Dan flinched back from the wall and bent over, gripping his knees in an attempt to center himself. He could feel the reverberation of the words pricking at his nerve endings like the pins and needles sensation you felt when your foot fell asleep.
“…yeah, you did….”
“What I didn’t tell you was the reason for my actions.”
“Is this going to be another confession?”
“I just want to have everything out in the open so there are no more secrets between us.”
“I’m listening. Not like I have much of a choice.”
“While it’s true that I don’t know what I am or how I came to be, I do know that I cannot exist alone. My survival depends on direct contact with electro-chemical organisms. I draw sustenance from these interactions and ordinarily it doesn’t take much but being trapped on the roof drained my reserves. When you grabbed hold of me that first night I was starving and there were unintended consequences from the exchange.”
“Meaning my bouts of exhaustion haven’t just been from a lack of sleep.”
“And the memory loss?”
“Likely the result of our prolonged interaction during the robbery. Over time your body should build up a resistance to the side effects.”
“Why didn’t you tell me all this before when you were baring your little stitched soul?”
“It already seemed like too much. I was afraid if I revealed everything right then that you’d reject me.”
“So you’re what, some kind of parasite?”
“I prefer the term symbiote; parasites take from their hosts without giving anything in return.”
“Alright, then what’s my benefit from all the siphoning you’ve been doing?”
“Let me show you.”
Wandering the aisles of the grocery store wearing the fabric, the sensation was a bit like the free-floating ease he felt when pleasantly buzzed or stoned, but there was no sense of impairment or loss of control. If anything, he felt more connected to himself; secure and grounded in a way that had eluded him ever since the pandemic hit.
“This is all right.” Dan whispered.
“I thought you’d enjoy it.”
The voice was still a bit startling, but it didn’t feel intrusive this time. There seemed to be a soothing quality about it that hadn’t been there before, like the dulcet intonation of a department store announcer.
“What exactly are you doing to me?” Dan asked, though in that moment he didn’t particularly care.
“It’s the same psychophysiological connection I use for our conversations.”
“Back when I thought you were just in my earbuds.”
“Yes, but from a distance communication was all I could achieve. Being in direct contact gives me the ability to create a greater level of integration between us.”
“Like you did in the sandwich shop.”
“When you took control of me.”
There was a pause and Dan wondered if he’d caught the cloth at a loss for words, assuming such a thing was possible.
“I understand your lingering doubt over what transpired, but I only intervened because I feared your life was in jeopardy.”
“That was awfully noble of you.” Dan said and attempted to follow it with a snide little chuckle, but it came out as a cough. He watched as a woman at the opposite end of the aisle eyed him warily and Dan quickly rounded the corner, stopping in front of a display of tortilla chips.
“Sorry.” Dan muttered, pretending to read the nutrition info on the back of one of the bags. “I didn’t mean to bring it up again. Guess I’m feeling a bit uninhibited at the moment.”
“It wasn’t nobility.”
“My decision was driven by instinctual self-preservation. I needed you to live in order to ensure my own survival, which by its nature is a selfish act.”
Dan started to respond but found himself at his own loss for what to say. He’d never thought of life on those terms, but it was a truth that seemed both awful and inescapable.
“This whole thing must be as surreal for you as it is for me.” Dan said.
“I suppose so, though I don’t have any basis for comparison.”
“I think we ought to go home now.”
“Are you feeling okay? I can decrease the effect.”
“No, it’s not that. I just need to process things and it’d be easier away from other people.”
“Okay, but please let me know if you begin to feel ill. I can assist you again if needed.”
“There’s no way I’m letting you drive my car. You don’t even have a license.”
Dan had always thought of himself as a fairly passive person and this ingrained submissiveness manifested itself as agreeability. When he was younger, he’d been happy to go along with whatever his parents, teachers, or friends decided on. It was a trait that made him well liked and Dan considered it a good thing up until his first serious girlfriend dumped him, sighting his lack of direction and docile personality as her reason for the split. It was a lame excuse, but the criticism struck home. Dan knew he’d never be a leader, someone who presided over meetings or managed masses of employees, but he decided he was done living life as a silhouette.
It was this vow that made him realize he had to help the creature. He couldn’t just pretend that it wasn’t happening or that someone else would handle it.
Through trial-and-error they eventually found a rhythm where the fabric’s effect on him felt less like a blissed-out head-trip than a general sense of wellbeing, maintaining Dan’s homeostasis when his emotions spiked.
Dan wasn’t sure how much contact the creature needed, but the transfer process didn’t cause him any discomfort and he often kept it on while puttering around his apartment or watching tv. Their conversations became more frequent. The cloth reminded him of a curious child, constantly asking what it was like to be human and other ineffable questions. They were the kind of philosophical discussions Dan hadn’t engaged in since college, earnest and probing but without all the posturing and intellectual one-upmanship found in those dorm room sessions.
Recently they’d been talking about Dan’s grandfather, who’d spent the last decade of his life battling dementia and about how hard it had been seeing him struggle that way.
“Your species is prone to so many afflictions as you age.”
“That’s the burden of being alive.”
“It seems rather cruel to me.”
“Suppose that’s one thing you won’t have to deal with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Aside from some fading or an accident with a washing machine, it’s not like you have to worry about getting older.”
“I’m not sure whether that’s true, seeing as there’s no precedent for my longevity.”
“Right, I guess I forget sometimes.”
“It’s only natural to wonder how long you’ll need to provide for me.”
“That wasn’t what I was saying.”
“But it’s something you’ve thought about before.”
“Wait, are you reading my mind?!”
“That’s beyond my capabilities.”
“How is it different than what we’re doing right now?”
“Contrary to popular belief, telepathy and mindreading are not the same. Even if I did have that ability, I would never intrude on you that way.”
“Because that’s never happened before.”
“In answer to your question, it’s simply something I surmised during one of our previous conversations when you said that I was like your pet.”
“I just meant that my lease specifies no dogs or cats but doesn’t mention anything about sentient fabric…it was supposed to be a joke. Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to accuse you.”
“Seriously, let’s just forget about the whole thing.”
“As you wish.”
“Anyway, I’m kinda beat. Why don’t we pick this up in the morning.”
“Okay, well, goodnight then.”
Dan didn’t have much luck getting to sleep.
He kept worrying that the fabric was keeping secrets from him again, that maybe it really could read his mind, which made him wonder what else it might be able to do and had done without him knowing. Thinking back, the pet analogy he’d used hadn’t really been accurate. He wasn’t simply responsible for providing for the creature, his body literally was its sustenance.
An image popped into Dan’s head of himself trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and he repressed the urge to shiver.
The fabric had described the transfer process, siphoning off residual bioelectric energy that Dan produced as a byproduct. It was like taking used cooking oil from a fast-food restaurant to fuel a biodiesel car.
‘But what if the creature was taking other things along with it, things that neither of them were even aware of?’
Dan wanted to trust the creature, but the truth was that this arrangement was uncharted territory for both of them, not to mention the fact that they were still essentially strangers to one another.
He watched the sun come up, having spent most of the night staring aimlessly out his bedroom window trying in vain to figure out what to do.
Their discussion from the previous evening was not broached the next morning or in the days and weeks that followed. Instead, they stuck to mundane topics and even their philosophical chats became abstract in order to avoid veering too closely to sensitive areas. Dan and the fabric settled into a routine like a long-married couple and his concerns became background static, not gone, but distant enough to be ignored.
Until he started losing time.
They were at the hardware store to pick up paint for the apartment. After years of living with plain white walls, Dan had decided to spruce up the place and he and the cloth spent a pleasant afternoon discussing possible colors. The last thing Dan remembered was looking at the cardboard swatches and mulling over the different shades of purple.
Now he found himself standing in the middle of the lighting aisle completely bewildered as to how he’d gotten there.
“What’s going on?” Dan said.
“How did we get here?”
“You said we were going to get brushes and rollers, but then headed in the opposite direction.”
“Guess I got turned around.” Dan said and rubbed at his temples.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
And Dan thought he was even after it occurred again while he was heading home from the office. Stopped at a traffic light, he glanced down to change the radio station and the next thing he knew he was in the parking lot of his apartment building sitting in his idling car.
“I mean, it happens.”
“What does?” the fabric asked Dan who was fixing himself a sandwich as they settled in to watch a Hammer horror movie marathon. He had to be in physical contact for the creature to fully experience the television, though sometimes he just narrated what was happening on screen.
“People zone out behind the wheel sometimes.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“It’s actually pretty common, especially during daily commutes where you’ve made the same trip over and over. You’re still aware of what’s going on, it’s just that the routine makes your mind kind of skip to the end.”
“And that’s what you think happened?”
“Sure, I mean you haven’t been taking me on any unauthorized test drives, have you?”
“I promised I’d never do that again without your permission.”
“Just checking.” Dan said and forced a little chuckle he hoped sounded convincing.
“As long as you’re certain that you’re feeling all right.”
“Yes Mom, I’m fine.”
“You realize that me being your parent is an impossibility for a number of reasons.”
“We really need to work on this whole joke thing with you.”
“Perhaps it’s not my perception of humor that’s at issue, but rather your presentation of it.”
“Everyone’s a critic.” Dan said, quickly swallowing a bite of tuna salad to keep it from falling out of his mouth. “Oh man, you have to climb on for this one, it’s a classic. Christopher Lee has to rescue his buddy from a bunch of Satanists and he really chews the scenery to pieces.”
“Chews the scenery?”
“It’s an expression that means he’s really dramatic and over-the-top, but in a good way.” Dan said, wrapping the fabric loosely around his neck like a scarf.
“Trust me, it’s awesome.”
Another month passed and Dan experienced a few more occurrences of what he thought of as senior moments. Admittedly, he was still pretty far away from earning his AARP card, but he’d read an article a while back claiming that society’s current propensity for constant distraction had led many people to experience these kinds of symptoms at a much earlier age than previously reported.
There were also his bouts of insomnia, not to mention the gab fests with his roommate which often went into the wee hours. Recent topics of discussion had delved into religion and art, specifically the depiction of god and the afterlife in historical paintings. The cloth was also always eager to hear more of Dan’s personal experiences, like his crush on a girl who’d ended up dating his best friend or the shitty garage band he’d formed in high school.
Tonight they’d stuck to mostly nostalgic fare, like Dan’s favorite television shows when he was a kid and the afterschool snack he always made himself which consisted of toast with American cheese slices that he melted in the microwave since he wasn’t allowed to use the oven or stove.
By the time they’d finished it was nearly two in the morning and Dan excused himself hoping to get a few hours of sleep before sunrise.
When his eyes opened it wasn’t pale morning rays that greeted him but the silvery glow of moonlight.
He was leaning against the railing, arms hanging down over the balcony as his skin prickled with gooseflesh beneath his t-shirt and boxershorts. It took a moment for his brain to resolve the scene in front of him and when it did his breath caught in his throat and his body went rigid with shock. There was a terrible moment where he was sure he was going to topple forward, but his limbs unlocked and he pushed himself back from the edge.
There was a light rain falling and Dan shivered as he leaned back against the sliding patio doors.
It was then that he noticed the fabric next to him.
“We have to talk.”
“I knew….” Dan stammered. “I knew that something was wrong, I just didn’t want to admit it.”
“Please listen to me.”
“Why did I ever think that I could trust you? I start blanking out like before, but I convince myself that it couldn’t be you because of the promises you made and the things we’ve shared. I actually believe that we have some kind of bond, but it’s just you drawing me in again so that you can take what you want.”
“If you’ll let me explain.”
“Oh sure, go ahead; what’s the excuse this time? Can’t really use the old starving bit considering all the contact we’ve had. Let me guess, you were protecting me again, right? Maybe I was gonna buy the wrong kind of paint, or accidentally rear-end a car in traffic? Hell, I probably sleepwalked my way onto the roof and was fixing to do a blacktop half-gainer when you woke me up. Please tell me the grand rationalization you’re going to trot out this time to explain it all away?”
“I’m dying Dan.”
“I’m afraid it’s the truth.”
“The symptoms began shortly before the hardware store. I didn’t initially understand what was happening to me, but once I realized that I was siphoning more from you I started pulling back as much as I could.”
“So what happened tonight?”
“You fell asleep with me in your hand. I don’t think you were even aware of it, but you held onto me and I couldn’t stop myself.”
“Guess I have to take your word for it.”
“I don’t blame you for thinking me a liar, but I never intended to hurt you…that’s the absolute truth…even if you don’t believe it….”
“Alright, then what was the deal with the balcony?”
“It seemed like the only solution. Thought I might even get lucky and catch the wind for a bit, experience a few moments of flight before it was over.”
“You were going to have me throw you off?!”
“You said yourself that anyone else would’ve gotten rid of me a long time ago. I didn’t intend for you to remember it. Even if you discovered me the next morning it would be too late by then.”
“How much time do you have….”
“It’s difficult to say, but I don’t expect it will be long.”
“Maybe I can take some vacation time and we can set up a schedule so we don’t have another accident.”
“I appreciate the offer, but it would only be a temporary reprieve.”
“Couldn’t you increase our level of integration and keep us linked?”
“The kind of connection you’re proposing would require an alteration of your brain chemistry.”
“But it’s possible.”
“What you’re talking about is full assimilation; the process would be permanent and the outcome unpredictable. You’ve already done so much for me, and I’m forever grateful for the life I’ve had, but I won’t let you risk yourself any further. It’s time to let go.”
“I am.” Dan said and gently picked the fabric up off the coffee table, firmly binding his wrists together with the cloth.
He lay back against the sofa and closed his eyes as the pleasant tingling sensation washed over him.
Dan wasn’t sure how much time had passed as he rose from the couch and stepped out onto the balcony.
The rain was still coming down, but he was no longer bothered by the cold.
He and the creature looked up at the moon and the scattering of stars surrounding it, truly seeing the same thing for the first time.
Neither was sure what lie ahead of them, but whatever it was, they would experience it together.