Dear Reedsy community: my fellow writers and readers,
You’re all in on it, aren’t you? The truth is, you’re all pretending, right?
Believe me, if just one of you said you knew me, I might believe it.
Do you know me?
Frankly, this is the last place I still exist. I fear that soon this will be gone too.
Wait, let me guess: You have no idea what I’m talking about? You think this is a joke? Maybe if you know what happened you’ll believe me.
My name is Harlan Trembley. I am 52 years old and I work at Diamond Ridge Property Management downtown Chicago. At the Bloomingdale’s building. We’re on the 16th and 17th floors. I live at 1227 Brumeux Lane in Mechant Lake, IL. My wife Beth and I bought this place in 2008, ten years before she passed away. Go look it up on Google Maps. You’ll see it’s real. Mechant Lake is just southeast of Tinley Park, IL. You’ll see. If you can’t find it, that means I’m not real. But if I’m not real, how are you reading this?
It was December last year. That’s when I first noticed something was amiss.
When I set out for work that Tuesday morning, two days after Christmas, the air had an artificial quality to it. Synthetic and still. With an acrid taste, like an electrical fire or a short circuit. Even the clouds seemed to hover in place. Unmoving. And with no intention or destination.
Crows cawed somewhere nearby, but unseen. Their voices echoed between the houses, then faded. Not a soul outside. It was frigid. And the street looked like it was painted onto a great canvas.
No heartbeat in the world, just flat surfaces upon which existence was drawn. Drawn, not like with a pencil and paper. Drawn, as in summoned. The way an image appears on your computer screen. The image doesn’t show what’s really there. It’s just a representation. A possibility.
Standing on the Metra train platform at the Homewood stop, I noticed the usual zombies waiting for the train with their hands stuffed into their coat pockets. Shoulders hunched forward, as if hugging themselves to ward off the brisk winter air. A visible puff of white emanated from my mouth as I exhaled into my freezing hands. From the others, no evidence they were even breathing.
On the train, I always sit in one of the four seats that face one another at the end of the car. The leg room is far more spacious than the pairs of seats all facing the same direction.
The tranquility of the moving train and sleepy passengers sets the perfect atmosphere for me to read during the 47 minute trip downtown. I don’t sleep on the train like the others. I sleep at night. And because I don’t sleep on the train, I know what I experienced was real.
Marvin, the conductor, entered the train car from the far end. He comes through every morning, punching single ride tickets and acknowledging monthly riders, like me. When he got to my row, he glanced at my ticket and punched the single ride ticket of the woman seated next to me.
Every weekday morning for the past five years, I have asked Marvin, “How’s life on the rails?”
And every morning, he has always answered, “As smooth as a chocolate swirl”, referencing the line in the Super Bowl Shuffle by Willie Gault.
On his way back to the front of the car, usually five or ten minutes later, Marvin stops and chats with me and other regulars. I’ve learned all about his family and his life from those mini-interactions over the years.
On this day, however, when I asked him, “How’s life on the rails?”, he didn’t even look at me. Instead, he just grunted and moved on. On his way back through to the front of the train, he raced by without so much as a glance in my direction. He did stop to talk to other monthly riders though.
Walking up Michigan Avenue was a blur of semi-familiar faces. People I’d seen many times over the years going through their morning routine. Taking the same routes, meandering through the dull gray streets in winter. Among the drones, I pondered whether or not I was one of them. My footsteps felt premeditated and blunt. A thoughtless string of code designed to carry this vehicle to its final destination.
When I arrived at my building, I stood behind two women in line at the coffee stand. Another ritual. An intense sensation of déjà vu swept over me as I overheard their conversation. It was as if I knew every single word they were going to say before they said it. Not the kind of déjà vu in which the conversation or situation feels familiar afterward. This was precognitive. And the intensity made my eyes water and my mouth fill with saliva. A sickly sweet feeling in my stomach, not entirely nausea. As if someone showed me the script and then pulled it back after it was too late. Something I wasn’t supposed to see.
As I sat at my desk, I dove into my work with the intention of forgetting the anomalies of the morning. By the time the memory of the unsettling events had regressed to no more than a bad dream, my boss Frank brought a new hire around the office for introductions. Trichelle.
When he got to my office, Frank looked at me with confusion for a moment, then glanced at the nameplate on my door.
“Trichelle, this is…Harlan. He is our tax accountant for all of our Chicago accounts. Trichelle will be joining us in preparation for the Sanders/Walburn buyout.”
After lunch, I came back to my office to find Trichelle sitting behind my desk as Frank stood next to her. The office had been gutted. All that remained was my PC, my desk and chair, and the filing cabinets.
Standing in the doorway, I said, “What’s going on?”
Frank looked up at me with a pleasant expression and said, “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, are you moving me to another office? Where’s all my stuff?”
Confusion spread across his face as Trichelle watched me with widening eyes. Frank approached me and said, “I’m sorry, is there something I can help you with, sir?”
“Sir? What is this?”
Putting his hands up as if to push me backward, Frank added, “Sir, I’m not sure how you got in here, but you’re going to have to leave. I will be forced to call security unless you tell me your business on our floor. This is a private office.”
“Frank! It’s me! Harlan.”
Frank stopped and looked at me. The fading remnant of amber light flickered somewhere deep behind his eyes. His face morphed into a waxy mask, too close to the real thing but obviously…different.
Before I knew it, plastic hands grabbed me from behind. It felt like being in a house of horrors with animatronic creatures all around me. Looking at me, but not seeing me. Their movements achieved with tremendous mechanical effort, devoid of intention. I saw them all, but they looked past me as I was dragged to the elevator and out through the front door.
I convinced myself I was fired. In a panic, I walked back to the train station, avoiding eye contact with anyone.
The train ride home was like being bounced around in a washing machine. I tried to ignore the world around me, burying my nose in my book. But I couldn’t concentrate on anything I read. Anxiety wracked me. Whether the conductor came by twice or a hundred times, I do know know. The people around me were oblivious to my existence as I shrunk against the fabric of space-time.
My mind reeled at this unreality. What was my place here?
In one day, people I had known for years suddenly didn’t know me at all. Connections severed like telephone wires. The unseen gears and machinations that kept my world running were wearing down. Breaking down. The usually smooth operation of my thoughts were now misshapen. Jagged edges tugged at my mind, pulling it in several directions at once. Too many possibilities seemed plausible here. There are billions of humans on this planet. But how many are verified as such? Am I?
When I got home, I paced the kitchen with a glass of wine, wishing Beth was still here. Outside, an invisible haze hung over the world. A separation between organic reality and materialist representations of reality. A film that drew the two apart, exposing what lay behind the curtain.
Do you know that feeling you get when you’re looking at a humanoid robot? They can do wonders making the skin look and feel like a real human’s. Even their movements closely mirror mine. And now, they can even mimic appropriate expressions. But when you look into their eyes, you can tell immediately. They’re not looking at you. There’s no life behind those eyes. They don’t recognize you and feel an emotion. Their eyes look through you. Truth is always in the eyes.
The talking heads on the TV machine moved with the intentional fluidity of programmed robots. The voices sounded the same, but they looked through the camera. Not seeing it. I witnessed this on the flatscreen in my family room, right next to the fireplace.
On the mantle of that fireplace was a row of framed photos from our wedding. Beth and me. Or at least they were there yesterday. Now the mantle was vacant save for a few trinkets and a clock.
That feeling in my gut, the panic, clicked up one more notch. The sparks catching on the first corners of a field of tinder. Threatening to consume me like a forest of deadwood.
I thumbed through the contacts on my phone and clicked my mother’s name.
Three rings, and then, “Hello?”
“Mom? Something’s wrong.”
“Ok, just calm down. What’s the matter, Harlan?”
I took a deep breath and stood across from the fireplace. My eyes trained on the mantle where our wedding pictures once stood.
“Mom, something’s happened to Beth. Our pictures from our wedding, they’re gone! Who would do something like that? Who would just take my pictures?”
I began to sob, then added, “It’s all I have left of her.”
Silence from the other end of the phone call.
I heard her sigh, then she said, “Who’s Beth?”
My eyes bulged, and I held the phone away from my face. Staring at it with dawning horror.
Suddenly, the call volume was too loud. Even as I held the phone at arm’s length, far from my ear, I heard her.
She said, “Who is this?”
I shuddered. Pressing the phone to my ear again, I whispered, “It’s me, ma. Harlan.”
With no more emotion than an annoyed phone operator, she said, “Harlan? I don’t know any Harlan. You have the wrong number.”
With my mouth hanging open, I heard the call go silent. I glanced down and saw her number, but no name attached to it. She wasn’t in my contacts anymore. Nobody was. It was empty.
I sat down hard on the floor. Shaking my head. The phone almost slipped from my hand, and I looked down at it. It was a thin block of wood with a tiny indention where the screen would be. A solid object of no value or consequence.
Dropping it as if it were a venomous snake, I crawled away from the faux-phone. Backing away as my mind threatened to split into two.
I had to get out of the house. Run. Anywhere. There had to be someone. Someone who could help straighten this all out. Snap me out of this nightmare.
The Whartons! Down the street. I ran in the frigid night air, breath puffing from my mouth in blossoming white clouds. My footfalls echoed on the frozen sidewalk like it was a soundstage, as I approached their house.
Dan and Denise Wharton. I was at their house last summer for their annual 4th of July picnic. Dan made Italian sausage and brats. They were incredible.
A streetlight in front of the house buzzed. I could almost feel it vibrating in my brain. My hand trembled as I rang the doorbell. Rang it again. No answer. Not a sound from inside, but lights were on.
I tried the door handle, it was unlocked. As I stepped inside, I called out, “Dan? Denise? You guys home?”
It had been months since I’d been in their house. It felt foreign. As I made my way toward the kitchen, the knot in my belly twisted tighter, dripping kerosene onto the fiery panic. Just begging for a total loss of control over my sanity.
And there they were. Sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. Mannequins, frozen in mid-conversation. Too-happy grins, molded into their faces as if sharing an inside joke nobody else could hear. Dan’s hand was outstretched, reaching for a roll in a little wicker basket in the center of the table.
I approached them and poked his shoulder. It felt like rubber. Their skin gleaming and flawless. She in her summer dress (in December?), and he in a suit right out of Mad Men. Shaking my head, I poked him again. Harder. No response.
The trickle of panic ignited, bursting like an explosion, a rushing torrent of disbelief and terror. I pushed Dan off his chair, and he toppled to the wood floor like a rag doll. His joints, permanently bent to a sitting position. Grabbing the steak knife next to his plate, I jabbed it into his arm. The blade sunk neatly into the faux-skin.
I was screaming now. Unable to hear myself though, I reached into the open wound and pulled out a mess of plastic fibers and wires. Some gelatinous substance oozed from thin tubes onto my palm. I looked up at Denise, and she stared back at me. Through me. With vacant eyes. The dead eyes of a shark.
Still, their grins held. My sanity didn’t though. There was a break in my mind, and I sprinted out the front door and into the plastic air. Each breath felt like I was sucking in manufactured oxygen. Canned and distributed from an assembly line. Empty of life.
I ran all the way back home only to find the front door locked. Lights were on, and I heard voices inside. Peering in through the picture window, I saw a whole family of them. Frozen in time. Who were they? Was this even my house?
With a trembling hand, I held the Wharton’s steak knife over my forearm. Terrified of what I would find inside. But I had to know. Slowly, I plunged the sharpness into my skin. Words cannot express my relief as I witnessed my own blood stain the snow at my feet. Verified.
As I sit here now, with the only electronic device that somehow reaches the ether, through the vestiges of a link between me and what I thought was the real world…I have to ask you: Do I even exist where you are? Is there a light behind your eyes? Behind mine?
That light behind their eyes. It’s not consciousness. It’s a diode. Artificial. Powered not by humanity. What powers yours?
I know what you’re thinking: I imagine that I am the only character in some twisted reality TV series, like the Truman Show.
No. Quite the opposite. Nobody is watching. Not even God. God is this season’s popular plastic doll. Mass produced and boxed, ready to ship. You can choose from millions of them, but they’re all the same. And none of them see me. Their eyes lie, just like their name. Nothing is real. Not even you.
I scrutinized the possibilities, looking from every angle. Does some tiny electrical pulse tell me what to see and hear? If they don’t have a soul, can they see me?
When the light in your eyes fades, the world will go dark.
This world has forgotten me. So, I ask you again, do you know me? If the world ceases to exist when I close my eyes, will I have ever existed at all?