In a word, Andy felt detached.
In the beginning it was a blessing. Working the night shift eliminated his need to interact with friends and family. His mother stopped calling to tell him about his abuela’s perpetually deteriorating condition. Her descriptions were often graphic and always ended with heavy, stuttering sobs. As far as Andy was concerned, his abuela had been a cruel and vile woman when in good health and he found it difficult to generate any sympathy for her withering body.
His friends stopped inviting him out to parties. One less place to feel awkward. Social obligations eroded until none were left. The solitude was a gift, allowing time for introspection and quiet contemplation. The job, however, was supposed to be temporary. Months piled on top of each other until they became a year, then two. By the third year Andy was detached.
Solitude dissolved into isolation.
He returned from work and sat in his living room, stirring the cool, soggy chunks of mystery meat within his TV dinner. He’d stare at the television, the wall, or nothing in particular with dewy, red-rimmed eyes. Food didn’t even taste like food. It tasted like a color.
There was nothing to distinguish a given day from the one that preceded it. Andy was a walking husk, an animated ghost. The apartment, his haunt, was undecorated and featureless.
Andy belonged to the other world, the one of insomniac automatons that kept the gears grinding while most everyone else slept. It was the moth that changed everything. His nocturnal brother, who’d become lost on his way to the beacon of the bedside lamp, and slipped.
Andy navigated his room, shuffling items here and there as he prepared to sleep. He paid little attention to the previous night’s edition of The Colbert Report on the television. The sound of muted laughter was enough to elicit some acknowledgement, arched eyebrows or a pregnant stare. Yet nothing registered. Had Mr. Colbert placed a gun to his temple and painted his studio with gore and gray matter Andy would not have responded any differently.
He brushed his teeth in the dark and avoided his reflection. Andy had unintentionally grown a beard over the course of the few months leading up to that night. He found his appearance gaunt though the scale claimed his weight had not fluctuated more than a few pounds since receiving his driver’s license at sixteen. More than gaunt he looked drained, not necessarily of fat or muscle but of vitality. Appraising his sunken visage for the two minutes necessary to shave became too laborious, too disappointing.
Andy glanced at the television to find Stephen Colbert frozen in mid-air. It appeared Stephen had been prancing toward his guest in the interview segment of the show when the broadcast faltered. Wearing only flannel pajama bottoms, Andy stalked around his bedroom in search of the remote. He was not wholly concerned with Mr. Colbert or his guest but abhorred not knowing where the remote control was. It was a strange fixation that had carried over from his childhood.
Had the moth not been flying at eye-level Andy might not have noticed it.
The frayed edge of one shale-colored wing grazed Andy’s cheek as he walked past. His heart very nearly lodged in his throat and the excited yelps he emitted did not resemble any modern language but seemed a collection of unrelated syllables. His fingertips sought the tingling flesh of his cheek while he searched for the source of the surprise.
He saw the moth, paused in mid-flight a few feet shy of the lamp. Its wings were blurred along their edges as if it was a photograph of a moth instead of the actual insect. He examined it from inches away, looking for a string or thread to explain its defiance of gravity.
“What…?” he whispered, and even in that softly spoken word his voice managed to crack.
He glanced at the television, the two-dimensional form of Stephen Colbert replicating the moth’s violation of a particular law of physics.
There was no circulation of air within the room. It was the stillness of the pharaoh’s tombs, the quiet of forgotten cemeteries.
Ideas blossomed and expired in an instant within Andy’s mind and none took root. He raised a quivering hand and brought it near the insect, licking his lips and surveying the room as if afraid of being watched. His trembling index finger touched a wing and recoiled at once.
Something passed between him and the moth, a jolt not unlike the shock of discharged static electricity.
Stephen Colbert landed to raucous applause, though nearly inaudible, and the moth fluttered the remaining feet to the lampshade. Its shadowed form loomed large on the ceiling.
The supermarket sacrificed quality and customer satisfaction to eliminate three positions within its bakery, choosing frozen dough over its popular handmade bread. The crew of overnight bakers was whittled from four down to just one, Andy, who tended the donut fryer. The bakery manager attempted to switch to frozen donuts, which would have eliminated Andy’s position, but the customer uproar over the first pitiful batch led to a raise for Andy as well as guaranteed hours.
He worked alone and clocked out as the day shift arrived. He generally left early to avoid encountering a fellow employee on his way into work.
Andy went days without speaking to anyone and was often shocked at the sound of his own voice on the occasions a casual conversation could not be avoided. His voice had the timid quality of an immigrant attempting to communicate in his non-native tongue.
He was detached, existing on the fringes of society, exhausted and alone.
Andy encountered little traffic on the drive from the supermarket to his apartment. On the particularly humid August morning following the night of the moth, Andy drove the familiar route beneath the milky orange glow of street lamps. The radio was low, tuned to a crackling AM station that played songs Andy’s grandmother would appreciate. Andy was quite sure people of her generation didn’t even use the word songs, preferring the word tunes.
Andy’s aching umber eyes squinted and sweat traced the crest of his brow as he privately lamented the malfunctioning air conditioning.
A homeless man attempted his best impression of a statue behind a half-filled shopping cart ahead. Andy slowed his car and merged into the far left lane.
“Sir,” he said, the first word he’d spoken to another soul in two days.
“Sir?” as a question.
Andy held out money yet his audience of one remained unimpressed. The man was trapped in a swath of darkness, between the circular borders of light cast by the lamppost overhead. He was anonymous in everything but gender, that being revealed by impressive tufts of white hair between the first and second knuckles.
Andy released the currency and it fell, soundlessly, to the sidewalk.
“Oh well,” he whispered and turned his gaze to the road.
The car did not respond to his initial demand to accelerate. As he became aware of that unusual circumstance, the pedal eventually being pressed to the floorboard with no response, he also recognized a hum from within the vehicle. The hum was musical and did not waiver in pitch, volume, or consistency. It came from the speakers, a solitary trumpet note calling into the stillness of the approaching dawn.
Andy vacated the vehicle, at once recalling the moth suspended in flight. The light above revealed a collection of moths similarly afflicted, within perpetual reach of their ultimate goal of light yet growing no closer. The world around was a snapshot, a perfect, unwavering offering of a sliver of time.
“Hey!” he shouted.
The word expired as it passed his lips and sounded as though it was screamed into a pillow.
His attention returned to the man in the shadows. This was not an ode to statues but a living one. Possibly living.
Andy examined him from all sides but the darkness was thorough. He brought his face to within an inch of the man and detected no odor and saw not a flutter, not even a hint of movement. Proximity did not affect the darkness, as only the suggestion of contours was tenable.
Had the incident with the moth lasted as long?
Andy backed away, feeling as if he was breathing the last of the oxygen left in the frozen world. His hand searched his throat and lingered near his sternum. His heart responded to the surge of adrenaline, a chorus of monkey-fisted hailstones threatening to shatter the skeletal bonds from within.
What if there was no return?
Movement from the opposite side of the street.
It appeared injured, perambulating on two legs in a slow, deliberate manner, its spindly arms flailing awkwardly as if perpetually off-balance.
Andy thought nothing but merely watched.
The creature’s head was the approximate length of its body yet its girth was impossible. It moved from shadow to light as it crossed the street, stopping at the curb, which came up to its knees. The head remained on the asphalt, a glistening streak painting the road leading up to it. Though at a distance of fifty or so feet, Andy recognized human-like features he’d never before seen on a person. Fleshy, pulsing caverns occupied the space beneath its brow and the line running from ear to ear opened at regular intervals to reveal an array of dry, grinding teeth. In some ways the face resembled a child’s drawing, without symmetry and possessing merely the rudimentary essence of standard anatomy.
It caressed the concrete curb with its thin, bulb-tipped fingers while its head remained affixed to the street. Its neck was broken but did not appear stout enough to have supported the head had it not been. The fact that locomotion was possible despite the obvious break in the neck was but one confusing aspect of an already unbelievable scene.
A black creature, long and thick like a bloated snake, was coiling its disgusting form around Andy’s ankle. Its entire body was covered in stiff, ebony hair that could well have been narrow spikes. The head was merely a circular gash, which continually opened and closed with a wet, sucking sound. Andy kicked his leg out and felt the spikes dig into his skin. Teeth gripped the meat of Andy’s calf and the creature writhed as if trying to burrow into the tissue.
Numbness crept up Andy’s leg and it began to buckle at the knee.
The bobble-headed animal collapsed in the street and bleated like a wayward calf. Almost as if on cue a chorus of calls erupted nearby.
BE-YOOP was the initial cry followed by a dozen or so echoes of the same sound.
The numbness touched the base of Andy’s spine and his vision clouded, a brown, gauzy haze separating him from whatever reality he occupied. He pitched forward and caught himself on instinct.
The cries of BE-YOOP filled his mind and obliterated all thought. As his internal vision darkened, a wall of black rising before him, he felt hands crawl across his body. The determination of their grasp spoke of desperation.
He heard honking, although distant, more akin to a memory than an actual occurrence.
“Hey mister,” came a voice from a world away.
He heard a jazz tune with a lively trumpet as the main fixture.
Gradually, the feeling returned to his leg and his vision began to regain its former clarity. His body was unmolested, the pain and tingling absent from his leg. He realized he was standing in the street, one foot one either side of the dividing yellow hash marks.
A car swerved around him.
“Mister,” the voice said again.
Andy turned and saw the homeless man, still utilizing the shopping cart as a walker. He’d moved into the crepuscular light and stared at Andy with genuine concern.
Andy looked at his still shaking leg and saw evidence of nothing unusual.
“I- I think so.”
He returned to his car on mechanically clumsy legs and sat behind the steering wheel for a full minute.
“I handed you some money. A twenty. A second ago. I think it’s on the sidewalk,” Andy said though he stared straight forward.
He jerked the car door shut and pressed the gas pedal. The car lurched and Andy drove home, accompanied by the waning sound of a trumpet blurting from the AM station.
Andy was thankful that his workweek was over. He hoped two days of rest might clear his head or at least allow him time to seek out an explanation.
Sleep came with great reluctance, and brought with it nightmares.
“Hi this is Jean. If you can’t reach me I’m playing the slots! Wish me luck!”
Andy cleared his throat.
“Hi Mom, it’s Andy. I’m-I- I was just calling to see how you were doing. Tell Pops I said hi. Call me back,” Andy hesitated before adding, “soon.”
Andy placed the phone on the receiver and toggled the mouse, which brought the computer monitor back to life.
The room was filled with natural light for the first time in weeks. Despite the glare it created on the screen that held Andy’s attention, it was comforting. Metallica played in the background, a necessary distraction.
Andy awoke with the honest intention of unearthing the root to his problem in the library a few miles across town. The idea of driving his car and encountering anything similar to the morning’s terrifying offerings robbed his will to do anything more than open the blinds and research from the comfort of his computer chair. He sipped an energy drink and began to read.
Through perusing conspiracy sites and message boards Andy managed to find a couple of topics concerning “time slips.” Generally, the time slips involved accounts of encountering people or things from the wrong era. In one instance a contributor claimed to have photographed a soldier from the American Revolution wandering around a field near his home. The soldier made eye contact with the writer and brandished his weapon in fear. With a flash the picture was taken and the soldier disappeared in the same instant. The image was rather blurry but did appear to depict the soldier as the author described.
Although interesting, Andy did not believe the phenomenon (or possible fabrication) was related to his own experience.
Andy glanced out his window and saw a car on the street below stopped at a red light. He sucked in air, unknowingly filling his lungs to capacity. He willed the light to turn green or the car to give some indication that it was not frozen. He began to rise from his seat in preparation.
The light flashed green and the car sped away. Air seeped through his gritted teeth as Andy sat down.
Andy opened a thread titled My Experience.
He began to read, at first annoyed by the lack of punctuation and then intrigued by the content.
“…worked the midnight shift as a security guard because I couldn’t find a job after college…” “…And sometimes I didn’t see another soul for weeks I don’t know how it got to be this way I just drifted away…from people and those things you use to define a person and I realize I’m rambling now but I swear there were times when I literally felt like I no longer existed…”
Andy’s face nearly touched the monitor, his eyes scanning the text as if the key to salvation was hidden within.
“…I guess I slipped is the best way to describe it. I don’t understand physics or any science beyond what I learned in school but I can feel it I can feel at the fringes of our reality another reality bleeding through and maybe my detachment from our reality made me sensitive to it I don’t know. The other reality is terrible it’s evil it’s a vision of hell. The things I saw didn’t make sense the sky was green like bile and the animals..they weren’t animals they were monsters, demons…the anatomy was wrong it just defied logic…”
“What’s terrifying is I can’t tell the difference anymore. Our worlds kind of blend together. Sometimes I sit at my post and catch a whiff of the other world. I’ll see those horrible things stalking around the neighborhood, passing through houses as if they didn’t exist. Sometimes I’m in the other world and I see a car drive by, oblivious. I think they watch me sleep. I have to go but will write more if I can.”
Andy scrolled and found nothing. There were a few replies, mostly insults. The thread was the author’s only entry on that particular site. Andy reclined in his chair, his arms hanging lifeless at his side. In the break between Metallica songs silence reigned for a few seconds.
Andy bolted upright, brandishing the mouse as if it was a weapon.
A second, two seconds passed and the next song began. The calls came again, echoing inside Andy’s mind and he recognized at once that he had imagined them. The demarcation between his reality and what hovered near its edges was obscured.
The walls were too close together and the ceiling too low. Dueling urges to cower inside his closet or abandon the mausoleum of his apartment left him pacing. He approached the front door with his arm outstretched, fingers quaking. His eyes, raw and jaundiced in appearance, glanced about the room as if each shadow cloaked a devil. A rise of adrenaline coaxed stomach acid to up the back of his throat.
He grasped the doorknob for support, turned it, and stumbled out of the living room onto the cement walkway that led to his apartment.
Andy squirmed in the grass, finally appreciating that he’d been staring at the sun for over a minute. To a passerby he would have appeared a drunkard who had abandoned his attempt to make it home. He turned on his side, a blue haze dominating the center of his vision.
Control your breathing.
He braced himself with an elbow and achieved a seated position. He stood and began to walk.
Andy managed to escape within the pages of a book. He thumbed through a hefty paperback about cryptozoology, considering the various grainy pictures purported to be one beast of legend or another.
“Hmm…” he said, quizzically.
There a few creatures with which he was unfamiliar including the orang pendek, or “short man” of Sumatra. Ape-men appeared to be a phenomenon consistent across many cultures and Andy couldn’t help but consider the possibility of a kinship to his own dilemma.
He saw her in his peripheral vision, a tall, curvaceous woman with auburn hair. Clearing his throat, he turned his body in what he hoped appeared to be a natural fashion, and chanced a more direct observation. She was quite beautiful and the fact that she was perusing the conspiracy and occult books served to deepen the immediate attraction.
She side-stepped at a leisurely pace, closing the distance between herself and Andy. She smelled like sweet citrus, and honey. Andy recalled a crush from middle school and smiled.
She hummed as dancing green eyes surveyed the titles.
When she collided with Andy her demeanor metamorphosed from quiet contemplation to pure terror in an instant. She fell backwards onto the carpeted floor and landed awkwardly with legs pointing in opposite directions. Her petal pink lips trembled.
“I-…” Andy stuttered.
In her eyes he discovered the inspiration for fear. There was nothing particularly frightening about his appearance. She just hadn’t seen him. At all. She’d seen open space and meant to occupy it.
Andy dropped his book, held out a hand as if offering assistance and withdrew it. She shielded her face from him and he hurried away, practically sprinting as he neared the double doors leading out of the bookstore.
The world beyond the doors was not one Andy recognized. The sky was sea green and populated with tattered clouds of a similar color though a slightly lighter hue. The air tasted different, acrid. It reminded him of the sour, phosphorous scent of the paper mill he passed on the route to school as a child.
Behind him was not the bookstore but an expanse of yellow earth interrupted here and there by tufts of grass. He saw a man there, crouched with his back to Andy.
Andy jogged toward the figure and felt a surge of relief knowing he was not alone.
“Hey!” Andy screamed and heard distant replies of BE-YOOP.
He stood over the man, panting, gray strands of saliva dangling from the corners of his mouth.
“Hey, what are you-” Andy stopped.
The man wore a black suit from an old, though undefined era. The clothes were dusty and tinted yellow because of it. A bow tie made of ribbon fluttered in the feeble wind. He looked up at Andy and smiled. The lone incisor, the color of aged paper, commanded Andy’s attention for a moment.
“My God,” Andy whispered.
The man’s eyes were small, far too small for his head. They were practically marbles. His face was terrible; the skin was ruddy and blotched, interrupted here and there by random patches of white hair. A spider-web of capillaries dominated either cheek and a thin film of black fuzz covered his constantly darting tongue. He smelled like the aftermath of battle, of rot and gunpowder.
The old man held a collection of animals in his hands, hairless pink things with wrinkled skin. He held them up for Andy to see.
They shared his face. Each of the six rat-sized animals had the old man’s face.
The man placed the animals on the yellow dirt and retrieved a single specimen. He held it by the nape of the neck with maternal delicacy.
“Some of us chose to come here,” the man said. His voice was like the croak of a vulture.
He sunk his single tooth into animal’s back. Blood gurgled from the wound and filled his mouth, purling from the corners in twin, red streams. His Adam’s apple danced as he swallowed.
Andy turned to run but stopped. There was nowhere to run. He saw the hazy silhouettes of trees, cacti, and other things he could not indentify but there was no place to hide.
“Is this hell?”
The old man wiped the blood from his cracked lips and dropped the creature onto the ground.
“Heaven if you ask me,” he said, simply.
There was no malice or deceit in his voice.
“Why am I here?”
The rat-thing with the old man’s face dragged its broken and bloodied body away toward a sprout of grass, mewling softly as its life bled out into the dirt.
The old man secured another writhing victim between thumb and forefinger and paused to consider the question.
“Because you weren’t there anymore,” he said and nodded toward the approximate area from which Andy had arrived.
“And if I don’t want to be here?”
With thinly-veiled annoyance the old man looked up at Andy and blinked his miniscule eyes rapidly.
“Start walking. And hope. They had a thing called radios where I came from. You could tune to a station and hear another in the background sometimes. Sometimes that other station came through so clear it sounded like the radio men was talking to each other. It’s a web, you know? It’s all the same place, your world and mine. You tuned out of your part of the web and another claimed you.”
Andy, startled, spun around.
“Oh, don’t worry about them. Those bastards are delicious.”
The old man began to stroke the yellowed beard of his rodent counterpart.
“But don’t let them catch you sleeping.”