“What did you do to me?” I said. My mouth filled up with the kind of quick drying cement sadistic cartoon mice use on their would-be feline tormentors.
“Do you know why sometimes,” her voice bounced around the inside of my skull, “when you watch a movie for the fourth time, you get nervous that the events won’t turn out the way you remember?”
“Have you ever noticed how angry people get when presented with the idea that some of their memories might be fabrications? It’s because they know the truth. Everyone knows the truth. Somewhere inside, where the light of conscious awareness never shines, we all know something terrifying about the universe.”
“I don’t have to listen to this.”
“We know this terrifying truth, and we grasp intuitively that the worst thing we could do to ourselves, to our sanity, would be to understand it.”
“Stop it.” My words were concrete. Unyielding. When I spoke, it was with the kind of calm that can only come when your mind has solidified into a single unit with no moving parts. No care other than to make this terrible thing in front of you stop. I heard it when my father died, and my sister wouldn’t accept it. “Whatever kind of dime-store David Blane bullshit you are pulling, just stop it right now. I don’t have to listen to this excrement you are spewing at me. I’m going to hang up the phone now, and fuck you very much for your time. I hope you get run over by a bus full of children and your mangled corpse is sued for the ensuing emotional distress.”
I was ranting like a maniac, now, but I didn’t care. What passed for the rational side of my mind had gotten on a rocket ship in the slim hope of being the first anthropomorphic manifestation to man the International Space Station.
“That’s not my name!” I didn’t notice when I stood up, but I was standing now. My hands squeezed the edges of my desk like I could make it bleed furniture polish. “That is not my fucking name! Stop calling me that you psychotic bitch!”
“No,” she said. Her voice was tranquility itself. “I mean, listen.”
“I’m not going to fucking…”
That’s when I noticed. I was shouting at this woman. I’d just sworn loudly at a customer in the middle of the production floor. Hell, I wished her an ironic death. So why wasn’t anyone saying anything. Why, in fact, was there no noise around me at all?
A few feet in front of my desk, two bright yellow moons shone through the window. But there were people here. Sometimes the customers complained about how loud it was, as if in the background we were always celebrating the world’s crappiest Mardi Gras. There were always people here. Talking on the phone, gabbing at the water cooler which never had any water in it about the latest episode of Game of Thrones, discussing whether Nutella would be a classier alternative to chocolate body syrup at the upcoming bachelor party. The sounds of work and life and dissatisfaction always filled the hallways of Lucky Travel. Except there didn’t. All around me there was nothing. Nothing but silence.
“You’re doing something to my brain,” I said.
“I’m not the one doing it.”
“You’re sending out a pulse through the phone at the resonant frequency of my neurons and it’s fucking with my cognition,” I grasped. “I saw it on CNN.”
“Modern phones don’t use pulse technology, Dendrite.”
“Then you put steroided-out LSD in my fucking Hot Pocket! I know this is something you are fucking doing!”
“This is your perception,” she said. “I just gave it the smallest of punctures. I did not even do that. I held out the needle. You walked into it.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No, no. No that’s not what’s…no.”
“You have to take the next step. Look around you.”
“I don’t want to. I don’t have to do that. You can’t make me.”
“I cannot make you,” she said. “The choices in front of you are all yours.”
“You can’t make me,” I said again. “I’m going to close my eyes and this is all going to go away.”
“I have as much time as is needed, Dendrite. You are the only one who can stop this.”
I took a deep breath. It wasn’t just the silence. Everything was different. The air smelled different. Like ozone, and chemical burns, and a hint of what I was weirdly confident was loganberry. I didn’t move. I had no idea what it felt like to be hypnotized, but I didn’t feel hypnotized. It should be hazy. Indistinct. But this felt incredibly clear. My brain had been scrubbed with a wire brunch and every nerve was raw, exposed, and firing for the first time. Even the scent seemed more…real, like all the air I had ever smelled had been choked with Lysol. If this woman was messing with me, she was the goddamn Garry Kasparov of mind games.
“How?” I asked. “How do I stop it?”
“The only way out is through. Now take a look.
I turned my head very, very slowly. The office was there, just like it always was. All of my coworkers were there, too. The same ones who had been there before this phone call dragged me into the insane end of the pool and held my head under the water. There was Martin, his headset only half on because when he got frustrated he liked to shove his pen in his ear. And there was D’angelina, her fingers curled in only the blond locks of her hair, never the brown ones. They were all there, right where they were. Only every single one of them stood as still as a Medusa victim, and stared straight at me.