I have to thank Dominic Morel over at II·EADS for the photograph, which I found through rgb, that I used to construct the cover image. Again, another image that fit the story perfectly.
This is an especially odd little tale, and a short one. It's shorter even than "Dawn" (now just at Smashwords) at only 1,483 words, and it's certainly one of my more philosophical pieces. I hesitated to categorize this one as horror even more than I hesitated to categorize "Out of Joint" as horror. Utlimately, though, I decided that any story with a first-person narrator who is forced to question his own reality has at least one foot in the horror genre.
Incidently: I just discovered today that "Out of Joint" was approved on September 30th for inclusion in the Smashwords Premium Catalog. That evidently means that the story will automatically be distributed to major online retailers including Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo, Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson Australia, Whitcoulls, the Diesel eBook Store, and eBooks Eros. I have to admit that I derive a certain degree of validation from that.
I've also decided to set a personal policy that I will be making any story clocking in at fewer than 2,000 words available for free. Call these my loss leaders.. Hope you enjoy, and I welcome all feedback and reviews, positive or negative. And if you like it, as always: pass it on.
Copyright © 2011 Anthony J Fuchs
Cover photo by Dominic Morel
Choking darkness surges around me, thick with smoldering smoke and raging flames.
This inferno casts no light. Only morbid heat and jittering shadows. At once I know what this place is, but it's less a burst of insight than a tedious recalling. You're dead, my mind whispers from the edge of midnight. And you must've really gone wrong to be here.
The thought sounds like it originates from inside my head. Except that for the same reason I know I'm dead, I know that I have no head. I have no body. I suddenly realize that I've known all along that I can't see, can't hear, can't smell or touch or taste.
I feel the intense scald of the fiery brimstone. It doesn't hurt. Not in any physical way. I suppose that the souls of the religious are writhing in eternal self-torment for failing the gods they worshipped. Perhaps the rest of those lost spirits slipped into silent insanity when they found themselves in the inexplicable pit of timeless desertion.
I feel only this strange bodylessness. Wonder giddily if it makes me an antibody.
In a void of permanent now, I wonder if I'll remain fixed for all of eternity. The information comes, as I knew it would. I find myself free to roam this spaceless place of nonspaceness. I feel my mind – all of me that exists now, I realize – clutching for the familiarity of reality, the distinct notions of space and time. I wonder, in a lapse of logic, how long I've been here. I know that I've been here forever, and for less than an instant.
I catch my simple three-dimensional mind before letting it wonder where I should go now. I remind it that the concepts of where and now are pointless.
You're afraid, my mind tells me, that you'll go insane.
It makes sense. The mind's inability to process its situation strikes me as the very nature of insanity. But I wonder whether the nonplace in which I now exist – or don't exist, my mind jokes – can be called real. Certainly not to anyone not experiencing it save for the pious and the hopeless. Is it real for me? With that thought, though, follows a deeper, more horrible consideration. How do I know that I'm real? How indeed.
To be conscious that you think, my mind snaps, is to be conscious that you exist.
I consider the Aristotelian argument. I try to tease out a flaw. I can't argue with the logic. "Okay," I tell my mind. "You win; I exist."
And in that moment, I realize that I can speak. It strikes me as commonplace, yet so alien it makes me pause. I spoke. I know that I did, yet I know that I lack the equipment with which to speak. No lungs, no throat, no vocal folds or tongue or lips. But as surely as I know I can't speak, I know I did.
"I did speak," I say, and hear my own baritone in ears I know I shouldn't have. I reach for those ears, to feel them. To prove they're there. And I do. I touch the soft flesh of the earlobe and am struck by the strangeness of that familiar sensation.
At once aware of my own presence again, I hold up my hands, stare at them with jade eyes. They look like someone else's hands.
That someone else, my mind tells me, is you.
"They're my hands," I answer. "But I didn't have them before."
"No. You didn't."
This new voice strikes my head like the energy of an imploding universe. A sudden whiteness cracks my mind so viciously that for an eternal instant all reality blurs into a snowlit streak across my skull. A horror of indescribable pain detonates. My lungs and throat open to expel a sound like a scream so intense I can't even hear it.
Eons later, perhaps the instant before, I wake up. My left cheek is mashed against the cold surface of a steel tabletop. I breathe in shallow gasps, my pulse hammering against my temples. A dull ache beats along the edges of my shocked body. My eyes adjust slowly to a pale light. I reach for the tabletop, push myself up in my seat. I blink hard, twice, waiting for these walls to stop spinning so I can get my bearings.
"You okay?" that new voice asks. That voice that isn't so formal, isn't coming from inside my own head.
I hear a soft click. A crackle of burning paper. I force my eyes up to see a man in a dark suit leaning against a doorjamb in a cinderblock wall. He looks like a detective.
But he isn't, my mind tells me. It sounds amused.
A freshly lit cigarette hangs from the man's lips. The tip glows a bright cherry as he drags from it. The man looks at me, one eyebrow cocked, vague concern in his eyes.
"Can you hear me?" he asks, louder than before. I nod, grimacing.
"Okay," the man sighs, relieved. He stands. "Last guy who went through that didn't quite make it all the way out the other side in one piece."
I grunt, trying for uh-huh, failing. The man eases into the seat across the table. He cups his hands on the steel surface, the cigarette pinched between two knuckles.
"Where am I," I strain. It comes out more like a statement than a question.
The man smirks, head tilted as he watches me. "You're at my place."
I raise my face. My expression must betray my confusion. "Who are you?"
He almost laughs, but is courteous enough to refrain. He sets his cigarette between his lips instead, and offers his right hand. "Lewis Carl Fhurr."
I take the hand and give it a weak shake, leaning on the table for support. My eyes flicker futilely, never fixing on anything particular, certainly never coming to rest on the suited man across from me. My mouth opens, closes, opens again. I must look like a fish on a line. I grope for words, and in a satisfying moment, I know there are none. I close my mouth and look at Fhurr, content to wait him out. Let him do the explaining.
"You were right," Fhurr starts, and then stops.
I wait for the rest of the sentence, but nothing comes.
"About what?" I ask.
Fhurr looks up for a long moment. "Everything," he says. Like it's obvious. Like he's never heard anything so absurd. "That matters."
I shake my head, trying to understand. How I could already understand, how I can't understand that I understand. "So...I exist."
Fhurr nods. "Quite."
"And—" I struggle. "I'm dead."
I stare off for a moment, thinking out loud. "Then that makes you..." My words falter after a lengthy pause. I feel my eyes go wide. I look up to Fhurr.
Fhurr just blinks slowly, nods again, smiling softly.
"So what happened to all the fire and brimstone?" I manage.
Fhurr plucks the cigarette from his mouth. "That," he says, exhaling a thin stream of smoke that circles his features like a wraith. He sneers as he considers the brimstone, the fire. As if he finds the whole affair distasteful. "Meaningless theatrical melodrama. For show. To scare the newcomers." He thinks, waves his hand. "Not my idea."
I consider as Fhurr leans toward me. A sly grin spreads across his mouth. He points at me. "But it didn't get you. You knew it wasn't. That's how you got here." He laughs, leans back, watches me as if I fascinate him in a way he can't understand. "Amazing."
I'm too exhausted to even try to sort this all out. "What is?"
There is admiration in his expression, and infinite sadness, and unexpected fear. I am somehow not what he anticipated. I am somehow more. Somehow worse. "I just had to meet you," Fhurr tells me, not answering my question, and not making a secret of it. He shakes his head with that sly grin, pulls another drag off the cigarette. Stands. "I just had to meet you, in the flesh. As it were."
Fhurr laughs at his own pun. He turns, walks out of the room. I hear his voice again from down the hall, receding. He laughs to himself: "in the flesh." I stare at that door, wondering how I can see. How I can hear that voice. How I know anything at all.
How I ended up in choking darkness, thick with smoldering smoke and raging flames. An inferno that casts no light. Only morbid heat. Jittering shadows. And at once I know where I am. It's less a burst of insight than a tedious recalling.
You're dead, my mind whispers from the edge of midnight.
And you must've really gone wrong to be here.