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No.

Wait--

Not Yet!

* * * * *

I don’t remember much of the hospital stay.

I remember thinking it was just another part of the Shady Oaks facility, except no, there was an ambulance ride somewhere in the mix, which meant I was out.

Freedom! I remember thinking, and the thought causing me to giggle to myself.

I remember having cold compresses packed all over me, and trying to scream from the pain of it. The cold was biting, gnawing, and while I realize now it was just bringing be back down to normal, I was certain they were killing me.

I remember, for a delirious and triumphant while, thinking the fever was my power returning. I always burned hot when throwing lightning around, so clearly this was a good thing. I tried to tell the hospital staff, the ER Doctors and the ICU staff that. “No, don’t, this is good.” But I don’t remember if I actually said it, or if I only thought about saying it.

And I remember, as soon as my fever broke and I was awake enough, that I tried to make a break for it. I didn’t get far; I fell out of bed and couldn’t pick myself back up, and over the intercom I heard a voice say, “code Falling Star” and I had no idea what it meant. Several hospital staff members hoisted me back on the bed, made sure nothing was broken, then locked me in the cloth wrist restraints again.

“My doctor tried to kill me,” I tried to tell anyone who came near me. “He poisoned me.”

“I'm sure he didn't,” they would say. Or, “don't worry buddy, you're gonna be fine.” Or “if that was true, would you be here?”

Eventually, my rambling protests annoyed someone enough for them to shut me up.

“Patient is agitated and uncooperative,” a doctor said. I was still too fuzzy to tell if they were talking to someone else, themselves, or me. “Prior history of violence and diagnosis of schizophrenia. Chemical restraints have been authorized."

Chemical restraints? I thought, alarm cutting through the fog in my head. Images of being dipped in acid or kept in a tank of colorful fluids flooded my mind, and when they grabbed me, I started screaming and biting anything within reach.

But all they did was give me an injection, and as had happened so often as of late, I sank fitfully into a peaceful sleep.

* * * * *

Proctor immediately had all my meds pulled.

“Unfortunately, NMS is a rare, yet incredibly severe side effect from the typical antipsychotic medications,” Proctor was saying.

I was back in my room. Same old little cell. Same old Basco, checking my temperature. Same old Proctor hanging out in the doorjamb. Same bed, same shadow on the wall, same choir of muffled voices in the other rooms. I was cocooned in a blanket, impersonating a miserable burrito.

“Brandon?” said Proctor. “Did you hear me?”

“I don’t feel good,” I tried to say. It came out slurred and almost unrecognizable as English.

“I’m aware,” he said. “The sedatives should be wearing off soon.”

“I almost died,” I said.

“You had a very severe reaction,” he said diplomatically.

I snorted. Of course he wouldn’t apologize for trying to kill me. Why should he? He was the one in charge. He was one trying to kill me.

“Thorazine is obviously off the table,” he went on.

“Good!” I said. That time, the word came out sounding somewhat human.

“We’re going to be trying a newer medication with you,” he went on. “Paliperidone. This one has a much smaller chance of NMS-- the sickness you experienced-- and should hopefully react a little better with your condition.”


That all sounded well and good, until a few days later, I couldn’t stop drumming my hand. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first, not until it started hurting. When I actually took a moment to look at it, I saw I had bruises forming along the knuckles and side from hitting things.

“That’s not good, is it?” I said to Darren.

No it is not,” he agreed. He spoke to Proctor and my medication was pulled again.

From then on, it was a guessing game. Russian roulette with prescription medication. My doses and brands were altered regularly; like the Abilify made me nauseous at a half dose and faint at a full-- literally faint. I’d be walking to the commons and then find myself waking up on the floor. Prolixin didn’t work at all until we hit the full dose, and when we did, it made it easier to think clearly, but also sent me into mood swings. One second, I'd be manic-- running around the forum, starting painting projects and singing under my breath silly songs from old Disney movies-- then I'd be in my room, curled up in bed in the depths of depression again, but worse, unable to find the motivation to even move. If Darren hadn't made me, I probably would have never gotten up during those times. Proctor wanted to ride it out for a while, see if I adjusted, but after the second week I tried hanging myself with the bed sheets during a low point.

I got myself taken off Prolixin and put on suicide watch while Proctor tried to sort me out.

After that, the rest of the failed prescriptions were uneventful. Either they either didn’t improve my condition, or they fucked me up in some way that wasn’t worth it. Sometimes they started out promising, but then Proctor upped my dosages and they overshot and made me worse.

“Alright,” Proctor said after the latest failure, “We’ll be starting another one tomorrow.”

“Of course we are,” I said, sitting up in bed. We were in my room, where we normally had our post-failure chats. Behind him, taking up most of the wall, was a tall shadow.

The shadow was as annoyed as I was, I could feel it. This was an improvement from the hatred that normally radiated from them, so I wasn't too concerned. Loudly, in case it could hear my thoughts, I thought to it, you and me both, buddy.

Proctor was still talking. “This one is supposed to be helpful for people with schizophrenia that resists other medication. It also reduces suicidal ideation, so hopefully we won't have another incident.”

“Yeah,” I said, not believing a word of it. “Uh-huh. Sure. Hey, if this one’s so good, why didn't we just start with it?”

“Because it can have very serious side effects. For this one, you’ll need regular blood tests to ensure your white cell counts are within a healthy range.”

I didn't remember what white blood cells did or why they were important, so this didn't bother me too much. Blood was red, so the red ones were the important ones, right?

I shrugged. “Cool with me,” I said.

“Excellent. I've already contacted your parents and have gotten their permission as well. Before we give you the medication, though, we’ll need a blood sample to establish a baseline.”

Darren, who had been waiting in the doorway, stepped in, empty syringe in hand.

I sighed. What was the use in fighting? I fell backwards in bed and stuck out my arm.

“Go for it,” I said, throwing my other arm over my eyes dramatically. “Drain me.”

Proctor sighed, but all he said was. “I appreciate your cooperation.”

They took my blood.

“We’ll begin treatment tomorrow,” he said. “Provided nothing is amiss in the blood results. After that, you’ll likely have blood tests every other day to start.”

I rubbed my wrist. The skin there was bruised and dotted with little pinpricks from so many injections.

“Swell,” I mumbled. “Just swell.”

* * * * *

It was the Clozapine that did it.

They gave me the first shot, tested some blood, and found it fine.

The muffled talking in the other rooms grew quiet.

A few days later, they upped the dose. Another blood check, and I was fine.

I stopped hearing the spiders.

A week went by, then another, then another. No sudden spaz attacks, no sudden onslaught death by brain-catching-fire. No uncontrollable head or hand banging, no suicidal depression, not even any weight gain.

Slowly but surely, I went painfully sane.

I stopped seeing the grinning shadows, and I stopped seeing the spiders. Eventually, I stopped seeing Dog, too.

It was as though a fog had been lifted. Like a film over my eyes had been removed. I'd been watching the world underwater, and only now had gotten on goggles.

Of course there were no giant talking spiders: not only did spiders not have mouths or vocal chords to speak English, they would have left webs all over the place. The shadows couldn't be stuck in the walls: shadows had no physical body, and therefore couldn't get stuck. If they had, then what? The people who painted the walls just left them in there? Hardly likely.

Bit by bit, my foggy, fear-filled world chipped away by that kind of skewed-yet-logical logic.

Proctor wasn’t trying to kill me, nor was anyone else. Why would they? If too many people died in a hospital, they’d lose their funding and my parents would sue. If he was trying to kill me, why do a series of medications instead of just shooting me? Why bother talking to me at all? Iotech was real, but they were a regular corporate conglomerate, known for making TVs and household appliances. Nobody on their CEO page was named Simon or Brandenburg-- Vincent showed me once on his cellphone. Dogs couldn't walk through walls. Bugs couldn't teleport beneath furniture. There was no such thing as monsters.

The world, once dark and full of terror, was open. Not the best, perhaps, but far less a horrifying place than it had been. Nobody was trying to kill me, nobody wanted to hurt me. The opposite in fact; I was literally surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than to help me, financed by a family who, after years of estrangement, still wanted me to be with them. I had been so afraid that without Dog, without my bugs, stripped of the imaginary friends I had given myself I would be left with nothing, but I wasn't. I wasn't alone.

I could have wept.

My old life came back to me slowly, memories focusing and sharpening by the day. It helped that Vincent kept bringing in photo albums and yearbooks and junk my parents sent in.

My name wasn't Alan, my name was Brandon. I grew up in San Pablo, in a nice house with an in-ground pool. We didn't have dogs growing up, just cats. My parents' names were Lydia and Leonard Fischer. They were both still alive, still married, and still living in the house I grew up in. She was an attorney, and he was a professor of literature at the local university.

Laura showed me them on her phone, once, during a one-on-one. Morgan, my little sister, had a public account, and I saw them without me, smiling at the camera. Candid photos of them at a party. Short videos of their-- our-- cats playing around.

“Brandon?” Laura said. “You’re crying.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

It was true. I was fine. For the first time in a long, long time, I was fine.

* * * * *

I lost track of the days, but I think I was about four months in when things went to shit.

I was stable. I was in Proctor’s office, during our session, sitting across from him.

"Well Brandon,” he said. “We’ve had a few bumps along the way, but you're done well, all things considered." He smiled and sat forward in his chair. "I'm proud of your progress, and I’m proud of you."

It was disgusting how much that praise meant to me. "Thank you," I said.

"I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves, but I'm seriously considering the possibility of outpatient therapy."

I sat up straighter. "They're going to let me out of here?"

"Not yet," he said. "A few more weeks of observation. Perhaps a month. I've contacted your family and they want to come visit you during that time. If they feel that you're ready, then they'll take you home. It would be a conditional release; if you stopped caring for yourself to our satisfaction or to the satisfaction of your local psychiatrist, then you would be either sent back here, or to a facility closer to home."

My heart stopped, I'm sure it did. "And if they don't? If my family doesn’t think I’m ready? If they don’t want me?"

He started cleaning his glasses. "Depending on how you fare, we could consider legal action to get you deemed for to care for yourself, but that's a last resort." He put his glasses back on and smiled. "But I fully believe your family will be as proud of your progress as I am."

Despite the confidence in his voice, I wasn't so sure. While my memories of my family were still foggy around the edges, I seemed to recall leaving on really bad terms.

"I don't know," I said miserably, sinking back into the chair. "I was a piece of shit."

He glowered. "That is a negative thought."

"But it's true."

"Whatever questionable behavior you may have done, whatever terms you and your family departed on are in the past. You may have a lot to make up for, but you're better now."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess."

But I couldn't shake the cold, heavy feeling in my gut.

* * * * *

The day after my session with Proctor, Darren found me with the others at the TV corner.

"He's crazy," Jake the Biter said.

"No, it's magic," said Frank.

"I was a wizard, once," said Michael.

"Don't change the subject," Jake said. "Bill Murry is insane. He belongs in here with us. All of this is in his head. Maybe even the end is, too. Who actually gets the girl at the end? It's too TV."

"But it is TV," I said.

"Brandon," Darren said.

"It's magic," Frank said. "I bet that Ryerson guy is a wizard. He's doing it. Gonna teach Murry a lesson."

Darren touched my shoulder. "Brandon. Visitor."

I looked at him, shocked. "Now?"

He nodded and looked around. "Come on," he said.

I got up and followed him. We went to my room first; I insisted. I wanted to look at least semi-presentable. I put on the only good shirt I had and tried to pick the stray lint off it. No use; my hands were shaking too much and it was taking too much time.

Was it my family? I was too afraid to ask. Proctor said they wouldn't be here for a while, right? But what if they'd come early? What if it was a test, a way to catch me unprepared? Where those thoughts too paranoid? What if that's what they were checking for?

I tried to button up my shirt. It was more difficult than usual.

I wondered if it would be my father. To my faulty memory, he had been a hard man to deal with. My mother had been the soft touch of the two. What if it was my sister? i hoped it was. I'd liked her...

I finished making myself look as nice as I could. My head spun while my body followed Darren to the common room.

The table area was mostly clear, but for a few people nearest the cafeteria-part. There was a man sitting at one of the cafeteria-like tables in the visiting area part, closer to the hallway that led to the exit. His back was to me, and I hoped something about him might trigger a memory, but there was nothing familiar about him at that angle. Just the backside of a gray suit. To my surprise, there was a kid sitting at the same table, across from him, turned towards me, though he was looking the other way.

My mouth was dry.

“Do I just--?”

Darren patted my shoulder and gave me a thumbs up.

“Don’t worry, bud,” he said. “You’ve got it. You want me to stand with you?”

I was tempted, but shook my head. “No. Thanks though.” I took a deep breath and started over.

The boy saw me first. When he did, he pointed me out to the seated man, then rose to his feet. Before I had made it across, the boy rushed up to me, all confidence, and said, "are you Brandon?"

"Yes?" I said. Was this a relative I had forgotten? Some little cousin? Couldn't be a nephew-- too old to be Morgan's. And someone would have told me if my parents had adopted--

The boy wrinkled his nose and tilted his head slightly, as though he were inspecting a dog turd.

"You're painfully normal," he said eventually.

"Thanks," I said. I gave him a shrug and a smile. "Better that than the alternative."

The boy made a frustrated noise between a sigh and a groan, then turned on his heel. He trekked back to the table with the seated man and said, "This one's boring."

"What did I tell you about behavior?" said the man.

I frowned. His voice achingly was familiar, but I couldn't place it. Was this an uncle I didn't remember?

The boy straightened his posture. His face went expressionless, and his voice was flat and neutral when he said, "my apologies sir."

I blinked. Though all he'd done was shift his posture and inflection, it was a strange and radical change.

“Noted,” said the man. His voice was driving me nuts, and I kept waiting for him to turn around to see me, but he didn’t. “Sit and be silent,” he told the boy.

The boy obeyed and sat primly at the table, hands folded, back ramrod-straight.

“So, hi,” I said to his back. I moved towards him, thinking maybe he’d stand up and shake my hand or something. “Did my family send--”

The man turned a little, and I saw his face.

For a split second, the world was made of glass. It was a frozen, perfect instant of absolute, gut-wrenching clarity.

“No,” I said.

“Hello, Brandon,” said the man. He gestured to the space at the table across from him.

“Please. Have a seat.”

“No,” I said again, a little louder.

“I just want to talk to you.”

I was a hair away from screaming. From frothing at the mouth and screeching to the heavens, clawing out the eyes of anyone near me. I was so close to turning and running away, howling down the halls and back into the safety of my room, but the boy was suddenly beside me. He latched onto my arm with unexpected strength and said, “Don’t freak, freak.”

He spoke the words quietly. I almost didn’t hear him, and I was right there. “The old man just wants to talk,” he said. “If you have a meltdown right now, they’ll never let you outta here.”

Something about the boy’s words cut through the glassy-eyed panic. I stared at him, and he looked back at me with gray-blue eyes that, for some reason, looked startlingly familiar. I couldn’t explain it, I had no idea why, but something about them set off that monkey-brained fight or flight response.

I squeezed my eyes closed and ground my teeth, trying to squash back the scream building in my throat.

The boy laughed. “That’s the spirit. Come on, now.”

He took my arm and guided me to the empty place at the table. I sat, hating everything, hating myself, hating him for existing-- except he didn’t exist. I was in the commons room, hallucinating. I was delusional. This was all in my head, and Proctor needed to up my dosage right now.

Simon Brandenburg, founder of Iotech Industries, evil pseudo-immortal scientist and my old boss, smiled at me and said, “Hello Alan. You don’t look at all like I remember you.”

“Simon.” I managed, half-choking on the word and the hate behind it.

“And you’re Brandon. Brandon Fischer.” He said the name thoughtfully, as though he were tasting it. “I think I preferred Alan.”

“You can’t be here.” I said.

“I didn’t expect to find myself here, either,” he said, drawing out the sentence like a fine cigar. His smugness. How could I forget how smug he was? The fake-jovial-fatherly tone he used to manipulate people, manipulate me-- but no. No, no. Not me. Alan. I was Brandon.

“No,” I said a little louder, losing control. “You can’t be here!”

“Alan,” he said sternly. “Do not—“

“You don’t exist!” I half-shouted. I slammed my hands onto the table and stood. “You’re not real!”

“Smooth,” said the boy beside me.

I noticed that the security staff was starting to look at me. I sat back down and hissed to Brandenburg, “You’re not real.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because I’m not Alan. Alan isn’t real. My name is Brandon.”

He looked at me levelly. His expression was blank.

“It is!” I said. “I was confused before. I’m not Alan.”

“You’re correct,” Brandenburg said. He shrugged and smiled. “I have no idea where Alan Jacob Campbell is. He’s been missing for the better part of a year. We’ve been looking for him on and off, never losing interest in him entirely, you see, but we started directing our attention. . . inwards, you could say.”

He glanced at the boy, who laughed. I nearly jumped; the kid had a smoker’s cackle, a hoarse, deep laugh belonging to someone with twenty years on him and a pack-a-day habit.

“However,” Simon continued, “There have been new developments. We need Alan."

“He isn’t real!” I hissed, trying to keep my voice low. My world was unravelling and my literal nightmare was trying to act like this was some kind of lunchtime chat.

“He is,” Simon said. “I don’t know how, and frankly I don’t particularly care how, but you’ve managed to peg on to him through some sort of empathic or telepathic link. The boys in the lab will figure it out in time, I’m sure, but for now, we need you to come with us and give us all the information you have regarding Alan’s whereabouts.”

“No,” I said. “This isn’t happening.”

“You know where he’s at,” Simon said.

“No, I don’t.”

“You know where he’s been, then. It’s a start.”

“This is insane. I am insane. I--” I blinked, then grinned. I said cheerfully, “I already knew that, but now I’m really-really insane. But I can fix it! You have to go now. You have to leave. I have to leave.”

I got up.

“Brandon--”

“Nope!” I said, turning away. “Nuh-uh. Not acknowledging you.”

“Well, you kinda are,” said the boy.

“I can’t hear you.” I started walking for my room. Proctor’s office was by the exit gate, and I didn’t want to be there when they left. It would feel too much like they were chasing me, or caging me in the corner.

Which just showed how bonkers I was, because of course they weren’t going to leave through the gate. They were delusions. Delusions didn’t need the gate. But all the same, I made for my room.

“I will give you time to decide,” Simon said to my back. “But know that we won’t wait long.”

I floated through the hallway, feeling washed out of existence. I half expected all the old delusions to start up then and there, all at once. A swarm of spiders crawling out from beneath the bed, Dog walking past the door, voices telling me to burn things.

But it was just me, alone in my room.

I shut the door behind me and leaned my back against it. Then, without noticing I was doing it, I slid down until I was crouched on the ground.

It was impossible.

Simon wasn’t real. The boy wasn’t real. They couldn’t be real, because if they were, that meant everything was real. Alan, Iotech, the monsters, the bugs, the void. All the horrible nightmare shit I’d spent weeks trying to get out of my head was real, all the fears I’d finally overcome-- it was all true.

I had to tell Proctor.

I don’t remember getting up, I don’t remember making my way through the facility, and I don’t remember going to Proctor’s office. But the next thing I knew, I was standing in his open doorway.

I watched my hand on the door frame and felt like it belonged to someone else

“Dr. Proctor?” I said.

He was seated at his desk, laptop open, several file folders and papers spread across the tabletop. He paused when he heard me.

“Brandon?” he said. Something in my face or voice gave me away; his expression flashed straight through confusion and into concern. “What’s wrong?”

I opened my mouth to tell him.

I didn't want to.

I wanted to pretend it all away. I was ! I was clear! I was going home! Why? Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong to deserve it?

Proctor waited, his brow furrowing slightly.

"Brandon?"

I had to.

The words pried themselves from my jaws.

"I-- I don't want to-- I mean, I know it's not--"

My hands were trembling. Pressure built behind my eyes, and I felt like I would collapse any moment into tears.

“Brandon,” said Proctor. “It’s okay. Take a breath.”

I gulped down air and said, "I saw Simon Brandenburg."

Proctor carefully closed his laptop.

"You . . . saw him," he said slowly.

I nodded.

"The man who visited. Just now? That wasn't my parents' lawyer. It was him. He told me. He told me everything was real. He told me Alan is real, and that means the monsters, and the lab, and the shadows--"

I was weeping. Tears streamed down my face and I couldn’t stop them.

"My medicine is working," I said, voice thick. "I haven't seen anything. I'm clear. But he was still here and he said it was true."

My voice broke, and I couldn't speak anymore.

Proctor sighed and said nothing. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, pinching at the bridge of his nose.

"You don't believe me," I said.

Resignation, the understanding that the exact thing I had feared was coming true, became man enormous and crushing weight in my chest, threatening to suffocate me.

“I believe you're upset,” he said. “I believe you saw something that upset you.”

“You don't believe me.”

“Brandon,” he said. “Who do you think granted him clearance? Mr. Demetradze spoke to me before he was allowed to see you. We talked for over an hour about you and your situation; his credentials were all good.”

"What about the kid?" I said.

Proctor looked at me, frowning. "Kid?"

"A boy. He had a boy with him, ask the guard."

"Can you describe him?"

I wanted to pull out my hair. "Check the security cameras," I said. "Little blond kid. Looked like he was dressed for church-- white shirt, pressed pants. Does that sound like something an attorney would do? Just bring their kid along?”

"Brandon, I’m disappointed."

I froze.

"You've made tremendous progress," he said. "But your paranoia appears to have been triggered."

No. No. No no no no--

"Forget it,” I said. “It's fine. Forget the kid. It was bring your kid to work day or something. It's fine."

"Brandon?"

"It's fine. There's no Simon. He just looked like him."

No no no, I thought. Don't start me over. It's fine. I'm fine.

"I'm fine," I said.

“We’ll stick with the Clozapine,” said Proctor. “Adjust the dose.”

“You've changed your mind,” I said, unable to hide the misery in my voice. “You're not going to let me go home.”

“This isn’t the end, Brandon,” he said, rising from his seat. “This is just another bump in the road.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, and I took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Alright,” I said, nodding. “Okay.”

He escorted me down the hall, back to the commons. Brandenburg-- or was it Demitri-something? Demitrizad? Demetradze?-- and the boy were gone.

* * * * *

I floated through the rest of the day, alternating bouts of jittering panic with fugue-like disinterest. Evening came, then dinner. I barely registered both, though at one point I found myself carrying my empty plate and tray to the stack by the kitchen door, so at some point I must have eaten. After dinner, we all had a couple hours of free time, which I spent the entirely of pacing back and forth around the commons. Nobody batted an eye. Then came room time, and all the patients were herded into our rooms.

Lights out wasn't actually for another hour after room time, but I turned mine out and tried to get some shut-eye anyway.

It didn't work.

I tossed. I turned. I stared at nothing until my eyes adjusted near-perfectly to the darkness, to the point where it almost felt like the lights were still on. On the bedside table, the little radio-clock they gave me told me the time in obnoxiously bright red numbers.

I turned away from it, trying to block out the light that, in reality, was nothing, but at the moment felt insanely strong.

In my head, the conversation with Simon played on repeat, over and over and over. It felt unreal. Like it had happened to someone else, and I’d heard it second hand.

It didn't happen, obviously. Proctor was right. I'd met with my family's lawyer and blown it somehow. Who knew what I’d been doing to the poor man? Ruining my chances at leaving, clearly. Raving at him like a lunatic about Simon when he was probably trying to talk to me about my family.

“Hey,” said a voice that I was pretty sure wasn’t actually there.

I could just imagine it: some random lawyer who maybe bore a passing resemblance to my imaginary nightmare sitting awkwardly while I banged on the table and yelled at him. No doubt he’d called my parents as soon as he could and told them not to bother.

“Hey!” said the voice, a little louder.

This time, something in the quality of it got my attention and made me think it might be real. I sat up.

The room was empty, and the door was closed and locked; all the patient rooms were locked after nine. Sometimes they did a security check, but they normally just peeked through the little windows on the door.

“Hello?” I said watching the door, wondering if the night guy was talking to me from the hall.

There was a blur to the right of me. Deep shadows in the already-dark room shifted and moved, a dark splotch of blackness in the blue-gray dark that swam from the corner into the middle of the room.

I frowned. Was this a delusion, or was this just my eyes playing tricks on me in the normal way?

I was still trying to decide when out of the dark spot stepped a little boy. His features were hard to make out, even with my night-adjusted eyes, but based on the whiteness of his shirt and lightness of his hair, I guessed it was the same boy who'd been with Brandenburg earlier.

"Oh,” I said, feeling oddly relieved. "Delusion. Got it."

I fell back into bed.

"Hey!" the boy said. "Get up!"

"Nope," I said, resolutely looking at the wall, my back to the kid.

"I broke in here to talk to you!" he said.

"Oh yeah?" I said. "How? Did you break in? You stepped out of the dark just then. My brain is making this up, and now it's trying to explain how it's actually all possible--"

"Augh, forget it!" the boy snapped. "Let's cut to the chase. I know you know where Alan is. I need you to tell me."

"This isn't happening," I said. "None of this is happening. Goodnight, delusion."

I turned away from him and got myself back snugly under the covers.

"Are you kidding me?" the boy said. I felt him tugging at the covers, trying to pull them off. "Get up, you idiot. I'm breaking you out of here. Isn't that what every crazy in this place wants?"

I sat up. "I am not crazy," I said. "Case in point, I know that you aren't real. I know this is all some kind of extended delusion. I know that tomorrow I am going to see my doctor and ask for a higher dose of Clozapine, and then I will never see or hear you again. So one more time, goodnight."

I went back to bed.

"Why would I be in your head?" said the boy. "What, you imagine kids a lot, freak?"

"Hey, shut up!" I sat up again and chucked a pillow at his head.

He dodged it easily. "Then just tell me where Alan is,” he said. “You don’t want the old man getting his hands on him, do you? You know he’d cut him up for parts. Just tell me where he’s at, and I’ll get him first.”

“Why?” I said. “Don’t you work for Iotech, too?”

He glared at me. “None of your business. Just tell me where he’s at, and I won’t rip your head off.”

“What?”

He growled something under his breath and made a short, quick gesture with his hand.

The room began to shake.

My head began to hurt. There was a familiar, painful noise ringing in my ears, drilling its way into my skull, and I looked at the boy in horror.

“You’re not.” I said.

Even as I said it, he began to transform. Unnatural darkness spread from his left eye, covering part of his face. Chunks of his hair where the darkness touched changed into strange, ghostly waves, like pitch-black flame. The darkness spread down his neck, beneath his shirt, and then down his arm. His left arm elongated, broadened, shifted and changed until it was an enormous, crystalline claw. It looked too large to lift, too big to be controlled by a spindly little kid, but he did so easily.

“Now,” he said, raising the claw like he was going to attack me. “Tell me where he’s at.”

“I don’t know!” I shouted. I scrambled backwards on the bed, looking around wildly for any way to escape, or anything to attack him with.

“Liar!" the boy snarled. "You have his memories!”

“I don’t know where he’s at now! I’ve been here! He could be anywhere!” The clock radio was just within reach. I grabbed it and hurled it at the boy’s head. There was no hope of hurting him, but if he was distracted--

Before I could bolt, he shifted slightly to the side, and the clock went sailing past his ear. He never removed his eyes from mine.

“Pathetic,” he said. “I hope the real thing’s not as disappointing as you.”

He made a rolling motion with his head, like he was stretching his neck.

An odd lump was on his back. I didn’t remember seeing it before. As I watched, still wondering how to get past him to the door, the lump swelled visibly, bulging beneath his polo.

There was the sound of tearing cloth, and the lump on his back was visible; like his face and arm, it was that pitch-black color, the same oily, shining black as the void creatures.

It ripped open.

I watched, stunned, as sticks-- sticks?-- sharp looking, jagged spikes pierced through the lump on the boy’s back, sprouting like bamboo. The cluster of sticks drew up taller and taller, nearly bumping into the ceiling, but before they did, they bent at round joints that suddenly swelled into existence. The spikes bent, creeping downward, even as their roots at his back kept growing until I finally understood what I was looking at.

Spider legs.

The boy had jagged, trunk-like spider legs coming from his back, each ending in a blade-like point.

I opened my mouth to scream, and nothing came out.

He looked up and laughed.

"So," he said, his spider limbs stretching around the room, lifting him up into the air slightly, "I'm going to ask you one more time. Where is Alan? if you tell me, then I'll let you live."

I gaped. I stared at him in open-mouthed shock. I think I was trying to scream, but all that came out were strangled squeaks and little gasps.

The boy frowned. He leaned in closer, moving himself to be eye-level with me.

“Talk!” he said.

I tried very hard not to have a heart attack.

This isn’t real, it’s in my head! This isn’t real, it’s in my head! This isn’t real--

The boy tore at his hair with his human hand and dragged his hand down his face. There came a low, rumbling sound from his chest that was powerful enough to shake the metal frame of the bed, and I realized distantly that he was growling like an animal.

“Fine!” he snapped. He kept agitatedly running his human hand over his head, through his human hair and the shadow-fire part. “Fine!”

He looked up at me. “I’ll just take you with me. We can figure it out later.”

Two of his spider legs flew forward towards me.

I screamed and slammed myself back against the wall, desperate to get away from them. The nearest one rammed me in the chest with enough pressure to wind me. I thought for sure that it would go straight through, pin me like a bug on a card, and break into the plaster of the wall.

“Relax,” the boy said. “It won’t hurt. I’m going to carry you out. Hold still--”

The sound of glass breaking interrupted us.

The boy's human eye flicked to the door, and for half a heartbeat, we stood in mutual, silent confusion.

"That's not me," he whispered.

His eyes widened suddenly.

"Wait, no--"

Suddenly, the boy staggered, and his spider leg fell away from me. He clutched his head and glared at the wall to the side.

“Dammit!” he said, panting. “Not now!”

I wanted to ask what he meant, but before I could, his spider arm hit me in the chest again.

"Shh," he hissed.

He made a gesture with his human hand and the spider leg pinning me went wobbly, transforming from hard and blade-like into a void-material tendril. It wrapped around my arm, spiraling unevenly from just below my armpit all the way down to my wrist.

“We need to go. Now,” he said. “If you scream, you’ll die.”

I opened my mouth, saw the look on his face, then closed it.

It’s in my head, it’s in my head, it’s in my head--

The boy, satisfied that I wasn’t going to start howling, backed away from me, his spider legs crouching in the cramped room. Then, without ceremony or even any visible effort, he stepped backwards through the wall behind him.

I stared. The wall was empty except for the single black tendril sticking out of it, the one latched onto my arm.

The tendril gave a little tug, pulling me off the bed, to my feet, and the boy's head popped back through the wall.

"Come on!" he said. "It’ll notice us."

"What will?" I whispered.

"Come on," he said, phasing back out through the wall.

The tendril dragged me to the wall, then into the wall. I stumbled forward and found myself in the hall, the boy there waiting for me.

"What the hell?" I hissed.

"What?" The boy said, peering ahead. "Don't tell me Campbell hasn't figured out how to do that yet. Even the dog knows how."

Before I could actually answer, he turned away, yanking on my arm and pulling me after him down the hall. His spider legs lifted and tucked together, away from the walls and floor, and it reminded me of ladies lifting their skirts before walking through puddles.

"It doesn't know where we are yet," he whispered. We crossed into the empty common room. "If we can just--"

The pain hit us at the same time. Blaring, brain-splitting, worst-headache-in-your-life pain that I had come to associate with only one thing.

Void creatures.

We both staggered. I braced against the wall for support, and the boy dropped to one knee where he was. It was only for a second-- we both seemed to adjust almost immediately, and were already picking ourselves back up, but before he could say or do anything, a black blur of motion swept him off his feet. The spider boy went tumbling awkwardly to the floor, spider legs sprawling in ways I thought would cause them to snap in half.

The creature that hit him didn’t look strong. It was smaller than any void creature I’d seen-- the size of a grade schooler, an early grade schooler. It was humanoid in that it was upright and had two legs, but that's where the resemblance ended. It was unnaturally thin and covered in overlapping armor-like plates of chitin. Its head was large, flat, and roughly shaped like a shovel spade, which split open flat-wise to reveal an inordinate number of teeth that really shouldn't have been able to fit. It had no hands or claw, just two enormous, scyth-like blades at the ends of small arms, and behind it were two enormous dragonfly-like wings.

It opened and closed its mouth, making small shrieking noises, and its slobber fell to the ground, leaving bubbling pool of melted linoleum where it landed.

The boy, back on his feet now, screamed-- not out of fear, but out of anger. He charged the creature, black fire in his monster-claw, and the creature went to meet him. The two became a dark tangle of limbs and blades and claws, diving over and under one another, bouncing off the walls, each trying to hurt the other while avoiding getting hurt themselves.

I reached for my own power on instinct and found absolutely nothing. Not only was there nothing to reach, but I had the sinking suspicion that even if there had been some secret well of power inside me, I wasn't doing the actual reaching part properly. I'd lost the knack for it-- if I'd ever had it to begin with.

So I stood there stupidly while the two of them fought like ferrets across the common room.

At one point, the spider boy managed to hurl the void creature off him, just for a moment, but that was all it took. He held up his massive monster claw and it caught fire, lighting like a torch. Except it wasn’t on fire, I realized. He was holding fire. Strange, black fire that appeared dark, but lit the area around them, casting deep, yet oddly-muted shadows across the room.

While the creature was getting back onto its feet, preparing to charge, the boy made a swift gesture. He threw the black fire the way I-- the way Alan-- threw electricity, with more bombastic results.

The monster shrieked and fell, a huge chunk of its chest missing. Just gone-- vaporized.

He stood over the smoldering corpse of the void creature, a monstrous, many-legged silhouette in the pale light from the windows, and smiled.

"I'm not crazy," I said, my voice faint to my ears. There was no relief in it, no joy. If I was sane, then that meant every horrible thing I'd encountered was really real. That the world was just as dark and frightening as I'd thought it was.

"Nope," he said, stepping off the corpse. "You're completely bugnuts. But when it comes to the Iotech stuff, you're right."

He peered over the monster’s body, then kicked it for good measure.

“I hate these things,” he said. “If there’s one around, there’s a dozen. They hate me more than they hate Campbell.”

He strode towards me, and for a confused second, I wondered how we had come to be the same height, but then he was offering me his hand-- his human hand-- and helping me off the ground. I hadn’t even noticed my legs buckling beneath me. When I stood, they felt weak and jelly-like, and the air in the room felt thick with heat.

“Hey, wait,” the boy said. “Don’t freak out on me, okay? Or freak out later. Come on. I can't phase you out of the whole building, so you'll have to walk."

I nodded like that made sense and let him lead me along. What was the point in fighting? I'd been right. Monsters were real, Iotech was evil, and spider boys existed, even on Clozapine, and there was nothing I could do about it.

We were just starting to make our way across the commons when another void creature sprang from the empty nurse's station.

It looked like some gigantic animal -- a bear, maybe-- had been swimming in oil and was now dripping it everywhere, except the drops never actually left it, just hung from its not-skin until being absorbed again. It stood in front of us, barring the way to the exit.

"Aw, shoot," said the boy. With a small motion, he conjured more fire into his monster fist and charged the creature.

Do I do that? I thought, watching the two of them fight and not really seeing it. I never noticed making and kind of movement with my hand when I summoned lightning, but maybe I did and just didn't notice. Maybe he didn't notice when he did it. Or maybe I didn't notice because I wasn't actually Alan--

The two went barreling past me, and one of the boy's spider legs shoved me to the side, just in time to avoid being run over.

"Are you crazy?" he snarled. He and the creature were locked together, and he was punching its soft, slimey head with his monster-arm. It didn’t appear to be doing any good. "Don't stand there! Get out of the way!"

It struck me then that I was just standing there in the middle of a commons like an idiot.

I ran towards the exit, the one near Proctor’s office, and before I got there, a dark form blurred out of the hall, hitting me in the chest and knocking me on my ass.

Another void creature. Oily black, its carapace shining in the weak light. It looked like a giant, tape-wormy bug, but its back shell was spiny and spiked, putting me in the mind of a stegosaurus. In front, it had enormous mandibles and mole-like nostrils, and no eyes to speak of.

I scrambled backwards across the floor,trying to get away from the creature. It lifted its head, its nostrils flaring, and it lifted itself up, like a snake about to strike, and for a moment, I was certain I was about to die.

Then the void creature did something no void creature had ever done to me before.

It turned away.

It skittered past me on hundreds and hundreds of centipede legs that propelled it across the floor and up the wall, then farther up until it was crawling upside down on the ceiling. It darted lighting fast to where the boy and the other monster were battling, and it appeared to watch them attentively. The moment the two disengaged, it leapt down onto the boy's back and sunk its fangs into his shadow-side shoulder. He swore and raked its face with his monster claw, convincing it to let go.

“Another?” I shouted.

"They really don't like me," he said.

The boy lashed out his arms, and black fire flew from him in a crescent barrier, knocking back one void creature and burning the other to a crisp. Instead of appearing injured, the boy laughed and ran to the other two again, streams of fire slithering up his monster-arm like a serpent. He launched himself at the remaining monster, flying across the room on spider legs, while his human legs kicked the creature's head.

He didn’t stop or slow down, and the void creature was too stubborn or stupid to think to run. The boy crashed into it, then kept on going, straight into the wall partitioning the commons from the cafeteria. They burst through the wall of the cafeteria like it was made of crate paper and rolled onto the ground, a tangled mess of spider legs and bird talons. A shrieking alarm went off. I don't know if their tussle and the boy’s fire had triggered the fire alarm, or if it had triggered some until-then silent burglar alarm, but the shrill sound of sirens filled the air, mingling with the growls, grunts, roars, and curses.

But the exit was clear. The security gate was smashed open, and the wall beside it was torn open, revealing electronic innards. The exposed wires buzzed and sparked occasionally, and I made sure to give them wide berth on my way out.

I almost felt bad leaving the boy behind, but he'd seemed like he was capable of taking care of himself-- besides, what could I have done? I had no powers, no bugs, no Dog. It rankled me to think it, but I was the useless one in the equation. The grade schooler had a better chance of getting out of there in one piece than I did.

My heart did a strange little skip when I crossed the threshold of the exit hall. I’d been waiting for this moment for months, but this wasn’t at all how I’d been expecting to go.

I hadn't seen much of the other side of the exit in my stay at Shady Oaks. The hallway with the gate was actually a bottleneck entrance: just past it, the room opened into a proper lobby lit by strong moonlight, with a reception desk and sofas along the wall for people waiting their turn. The windows there were as big as the ones in the commons, but without bars, and outside I could see a pathway to the nearly-empty parking lot. The rest of the facility was so modern, all neutral colors and clean edges that the lobby doors were different enough to be noticeable. My mind stuck on the difference, focusing on the rounded tops, the dark wood grain, the heaviness of the metal handle when I tried to open it.

They were locked, of course. Because why wouldn't they be? Hardly anything could be easy. I turned to look for something to open it with-- probably nobody left the key lying around, but maybe something to break the door knob.

So preoccupied was I that I almost tripped over the next void creature.

I felt my foot hit something hard, and I stumbled, almost falling over the hissing lump. Like the others, this one was small-- about cat-sized, but instead of being speedy, it lumbered along like a fat raccoon. Honestly, I thought to myself that if need be, I might actually be able to take it on. But it didn't come to that. The creature lifted its armored, mousey nose, wiggled at me, then turned its attention to the gate.

I wondered briefly if I should try to stop it, then decided against it. The kid could wipe the floor with it, and besides, who knew if it had something tricky up its sleeve, like acid spit or something?

I toyed with the idea of waiting there until the police arrived. Just sitting there in one of the sofas until the SWAT team blew down the doors and stormed in. Maybe if I was lucky, they'd arrest me and send me to a nice safe cell.

Then, the already dim room darkened. I glanced up at the lights on instinct, but then remembered they weren’t actually lighting the room and looked at the window. Outside, a huge void creature-- the kind I was used to dealing with-- was sliding up the windows, blocking out the moonlight. All I saw was its black, serpent-like silhouette as is slid upwards and out of sight, somewhere on the roof.

In the next room over, I heard the sound of breaking furniture. Somewhere outside, police or fire truck sirens were screeching.

I ran back through the broken gate.

“Hey, kid?” I hollered, standing halfway in the commons.

“Little busy!” he called back. Strewn around the room were several more dead void creatures in varying size and shape, most I hadn’t seen before, like they’d snuck in when I was gone. At his feet was a bigger, tentacled one that, as I watched, he punched into the carpet with his monster fist, driving his fist through it until his knuckles were touching the floor.

“What?” he snarled, whirling on me. The ink-like blackness covering his face shone sickly in the weak light.

“Big one on the roof,” I said.

“Ugh.” He sounded annoyed. “I’ll take care of it. Get out of here before the cops show up.”

“Where is everyone?” said my mouth before my brain could stop it.

The boy glowered at me. “How should I know? Stop wasting time.”

Then he went to the closest wall and stepped through it. In the place where he passed was a dark, shadowy splotch roughly his size. Then, with viper-swiftness, the splotch travelled upwards, then vanished into the seam where ceiling met wall.

“Great,” I said. “Leave me here.”

There was a loud crash from the lobby.

I ran back, some small, more intelligent part of my brain asking me why the hell I was doing that and why I wasn’t running opposite the danger, and saw yet another monster.

The creature, rhino-like and scaled, but skittering around of insect legs, shook its one-eyed head, clearly irritated. To the side, the double doors to the outside had been knocked inward. The creature scratched angrily at the splintered remains of the doors, then, without paying me any notice, it turned around and ran back out through the open doorway.

Through the windows, I saw as it leapt from the steps leading to the facility and, in mid air, lost its shape. It melted, becoming liquid-like and small, and it hit the sidewalk with a loud splat and sank like a draining puddle into the cracks in the concrete.

Of course, I found myself thinking. I started breathing irregularly through my nose-- not quite laughing yet-- and stopped myself.

No. No time for that. I had to get out of there first.

I strode to the door with the confidence of a madman and went down the steps, past where the void creature had splattered and vanished. I chose a direction at random, and walked.

I gained speed as I went, starting at a brisk walk, then job, then a flat run. I ran and ran, pounding the pavement, nearly running into people, dashing across at crosswalks when it looked like traffic was clear, not even waiting for the lights.

At every step, I expected something to happen. Kept waiting for the feeling of claws raking across my back, for teeth at my throat, for the warning spike of pain telling me void creatures were near.

But there was nothing. Just the cold night air hitting my own heat from running. The feel of my lungs and throat burning-- when was the last time I’d run? Exercised at all? Before Shady Oaks. No wonder this was difficult.

I was a few blocks away when I fell apart. Not physically, though I almost wished it had been. Everything that had happened hit me at once, this time without that numbness from earlier. My heart raced. My hands, my arms, all of me that should shook with adrenaline and what felt like the sheer force of my blood pumping through them.

It was then that I stopped running, afraid suddenly of falling. I slowed to a jog, then walk, feeling awkward, as though I were being watched, as though I’d forgotten how to swing my arms or move my legs. Where was Iotech? Where was the kid? The monsters? Were they tearing into unsuspecting police and firemen right then, or had they all left, following the boy?

I tried to wrap my mind around the consequences of it all, and couldn’t. Every time I latched onto an idea, it slipped away. Had I forgotten my meds? Or was this normal post-traumatic-monster-attack thinking? It was easier to turn my mind to thinking about thinking and small worries than it was to think about the actual monster problem. The Iotech problem. The everything-is-bad problem.

Meds. I needed them. I didn’t want to be too crazy. Crazier than reality already was. Where would I even get my meds now? The kid said he wasn’t with Iotech. Iotech had meds up the whazoo, but they probably wouldn’t share if this was some kind of inner-department covert ops--

And this was the hamster wheel of thought I was running on when the truck hit me.

There wasn’t pain, at first. Just surprize. I was suddenly in the air, then I was upside down, and then the sky was above me.

Then the pain hit.

Not a lot of it. I tried to move my head and couldn’t. And it was hard to see; each of my eyes seemed to be trying to focus independently on different things, which wasn’t translating well. There probably should have been more pain. I remember wondering about that, then figuring the adrenaline was holding it off for me.

Above me, a guy was suddenly there, looking down at me. Then he went away, though I heard him talking to someone. Probably on a cellphone, but what did I know?

Somewhere in my head, there was room to be indignant.

I'd made it through all that, all the monsters and monster-boys, the conspiracies, the fucking Thorazine, and this was how I died? Hit by a car? By someone who, based on the concern in his voice didn't even want to kill me? Not even a proper assassination!

It was frustrating. Absolutely humiliating. So I was glad I lost consciousness when I did so I wouldn't have to deal with the situation anymore.

* * * * * *

I’m not really one for churches.

My mom liked to go when I was little, but it was a big megachurch whose pastor was arrested for some kind of tax evasion or something. It was big and modern and didn’t have anything churchy about it because it was rented out by a school the church owned, which due to some kind of weird loophole was still a nonreligious public school. The point is, even the one church I went to didn’t look churchy, just like a big community center.

So when I woke up, standing in the Temple, I didn’t know what to make of it.

I was in a garden. A small, flower-filled garden. Not just little ground growing flowers, but big flower bushes as well, mostly blue and pink hydrangeas as tall as I was. There was a tiny creek paved in white bricks that ran through it, and a little bridge that went over it. I looked up, expecting sunlight, but saw a huge stained-glass ceiling, angled in such a way that I knew there was a tower above me. Steeple. Whatever-- and that the room I was in was round.

I followed the white brick path over the bridge and wound through more tall flower bushes, red and pink ones I had no name for, and eventually to a doorway.

I was about to walk through when, upon crossing the threshold, I realized what I was seeing.
I stopped to gape.

The room was enormous and long and massively tall, like an old school cathedral. High, vaulted ceilings, elegantly sculpted pillars, and ornately patterned stained glass windows on both sides of the walls. But that wasn’t what had me staring.

Light poured into the room.

Literally.

Streams of softly illuminating, liquid-like light chugged fluidly through the windows, transparent-yet-visible, colored by the pieces of glass. The light fell to the floor, but it didn’t; it pooled into the gently wafting waves of orange, yellow, and red light already there. The few blues and greens were quickly blended in with the rest of the colored light, and the whole room glowed with the warm colors. The entire room was flooded by at least two feet of liquid light. Even as I stood in the doorway between the garden and the light-room, the clean, daylight-looking white light from the garden room poured into the light-room like a wave of clear-white water.

I didn’t feel it. I was standing right in the rush of it, the mini water-fall that started around hip deep and poured down to meet the rest of the light-water, and I felt nothing, not even the rush of air.

When I stepped back into the garden room, it all stopped. There was no liquid light, just the normal sort you don’t really notice. From in the garden room, the next room just looked like a normal room. It was only when I entered again that I could see the flood of light.

After a long while, I bent down and touched it.

There was nothing to feel.

I waved my hand back and forth, noticing dimly that my arm and clothes were stained with blood from the accident.

“Are you going to be playing in the light for the entirety of your stay?” said someone ahead. “If so, we may be in more trouble than I had imagined.”

The voice was male. Deep, clear. There was something commanding and articulate about it, though it hadn’t spoken much.

The voice immediately set me on edge. It sent every hair standing on the back of my neck. I tore my eyes away from the light and towards the source of the voice.

At the far end of the room, there was a stepped platform and lectern, the sort an orator might address the rest of the room from. Behind the podium was a massive rack of candles.

A hooded figure stood on the platform, its back to me.

With no other choice presenting myself, I waded through the light towards him.

As I grew closer to the figure and the candles, I started catching glimpses of shadows out of the corner of my eyes. When I turned my head to see them, they were gone.

“You’ll only strain your neck,” the figure said, still facing away from me. “Your sight is clearer than most of your kind, but that will not serve you when those you would see wish to remain hidden.”

I stopped swiveling my head, and I stopped walking several feet from the dais.

“What is this place?” I said.

The figure turned to me. Solid shadow in the form of a pitch-black mannequin-- no face, no features, no hair. It wore equally black clothing-- some kind of open robe, the sort that almost touch the floor-- and it was so dark that I had trouble discerning where the cloth began and the person ended. If it did end.

Maybe it's just like that, I thought, a little nauseated. It wasn't wearing clothes, its body was just shaped that way.

"At last," it said, relief and frustration mingling in its booming voice. "Finally."

It smoothly glided down the steps towards me, as though it were hovering instead of walking.

A little ways before me, just as I was starting to get the urge to back away, it stopped.

"Now we can talk," it said.

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