A half a cup of sugar, Mason thinks to himself. He's never made a batch of cupcakes before, and his mother insisted he help, despite his concerned words that he wouldn't even know where to begin. "Just follow the instructions exactly, and it will turn out fine," his mother had said. 


Mason grabbed two glass drinking cups from his mother's cabinet and dunked one inside the sugar bag, filling it all the way up to the rim. He poured half of its contents into the other glass until they were exactly even, then dumped one into the large mixing bowl. 


"There. A half a cup," he said out loud, staring curiously at the large volume of sugar lying on the curved bottom. He looked back at the instructions. A quarter cup of brown sugar. I have to use four cups? This can't be right.


He turns around and rests his back against the counter, huffing out a sigh of defeat. He gazes out the kitchen window, observing his neighbor's red-brick house, landscaped with pretty, pink flowers and prickly, green bushes. It's Mrs. Garner's home – a widow who had lived next door for all fifteen years of his life. It was basically a tradition for her to bring a baked good over for every major holiday. She would even make sure to deliver a cake or chocolate treat early when they planned to spend the holiday elsewhere. She may know a thing or two about how to make these cupcakes, he thinks. Without another thought, Mason snatches the recipe from the counter and runs over to Mrs. Garner's home. In no time, he was knocking on her cherry-colored door in a short melodic pattern. 


A few moments pass before footsteps settle on the other side of the door. But standing there with the door wide was not Mrs. Garner. Instead, a middle-aged man occupies the opening, wearing square glasses, buzzed blonde hair, and a worn blue polo that unintentionally implies, "I'm married and have kids."


"Mason! How are ya, son?" The stranger asks. 


"Uh…," is all he can manage to spit out. He's never seen this man before in his life. 


The man clears his throat and crosses his arms over his chest. "What can I do for you?" 


"I, um." He searches for the words. "I am, uh, looking for Mrs. Garner, Sir."


"Mrs. Garner?" He asks, raising his eyebrows. He looks around the door frame to outside as if searching for where a sound came from. "Are you kids playing a prank on me?" 


"A prank? No, sir. I was hoping she could help me with this recipe," Mason replies, holding up a folded piece of paper with crinkled corners. 


"Mason, Mrs. Garner has been dead for ten years. We bought the house and moved in shortly after." He pauses. "Are you feeling okay? Should I call your mother?" 


"My mother? No, no, I… "How does he know my mother, he thinks. "I was just joking," he says with a nervous laugh. "I'm going to go home now."


"Hey, Mason," the man says. Mason turns to face him. "Stay away from those dopers, you hear? Don't get caught up in the wrong crowd."


Did he just suggest I'm on drugs? "I won't, Mr., er, what did you say your name was again?" Mason asks, beginning to walk away. 


The man takes a step outside. "I didn't. Are you sure I shouldn't call your mom?"


"Yes, I'm fine. I, um, I'll see you around," Mason responds over his shoulder while sprinting back home. He bursts through the front door and dives for the phone, dialing his mother's cellphone number as quickly as his fingers can find the protruding plastic buttons. 


"Hello," she sings on the other line. 


"Mom! The strangest thing just happened. I, I think I'm losing my mind. Oh, and I'm not going to be able to make those cupcakes." She sighs on the other end in response. 


"Fine. I will bake them when I get home tonight. I'm working the evening shift as well today, so I won't be home until late. You can fix yourself dinner, right? There's microwavables in the freezer."


"Yes, Mom, but our neighbor."


"What about them?" she asks. Mason tells her the story, from deciding Mrs. Garner could help with the recipe to picking up the phone to call her. After speaking the story aloud, his whole body was jittering, inside and out. He even mentioned the cake Mrs. Garner gave them for Christmas last year. 


"The fruit cake? Baby, Auntie Jude made that. I'm not sure what business you have gotten into, but joking about a sweet woman who has passed on is very disrespectful," she scolds. 


"I'm not joking, Ma!" 


"Just hang out until I get home. We'll talk about it more then. I have to get back to work, sweetie. Love you," she says before a click ends their call. 


Unbelievable! Mason thinks. What am I going insane? He presses both palms into the side of his head, lacing his fingers through his brown, curly hair. He knew this couldn't be happening. A dream, perhaps? He pinches his arm, wincing at the pain, hoping it would wake him from a deep slumber. Nothing. 


He stomps to the hallway mirror, perched above a petite desk not more than five steps from the front door. Two small square windows carved from the door shine light through to the desk's surface. Appearing warm, Mason touches the illuminating formation. He grimaces, unsatisfied by the coolness of the wood. He looks at himself in the mirror, staring deep into his eyes, searching for something real to grab onto. He shakes his head. "Maybe we really are crazy," he says to his reflection, then turns with his head hung low and starts to walk away. 


"No. Only you are," a small, high pitched voice replies. Mason whips around to see a little girl standing on the other side of the mirror facing him. Her face – it isn't there. In its place is a dark dust cloud, rolling into itself, glitching into sideway slants every few seconds. With each glitch, her head ticks slightly to the right like a deranged feral animal. The darkness of her face consumes him, sucking the air from his lungs. His gut turns to a rolling boil of fire and glass, plastering a horrid expression across his face. Her body splits in three horizontally at her neck and waist, her sections appearing to float above the others. Her torso and lower limbs rotate through familiar bodies – his friend Zane, then Jessica, his mother, too – the mix never matching, creating an uneasy view of his most cherished people. After seeming to spin out of control, the pieces settle abruptly, landing on a combination he knew very well. The face hadn't changed, but the hair around it had – from straight blonde pigtails of a little girl to the short, red afro of Mrs. Garner. 


"Who are you?" Mason demands, clenching his fists together to strengthen his courage. If it weren't for the deep and audible swallow of a massive lump in his throat, the creature might have believed he wasn't terrified. 


The black mess of a face mutates into Mrs. Garner's, green eyes and all. "It's me, dear," her mincing voice insists. 


Mason squeezes his eyebrows together and backs up. "You're not real." 


"Am I not?" she asks, her body turning to static. A new form appears, matching the darkness of its vaporous face. A black cloak hangs over shoulder-like curves, covering any sign of appendages. Condensation gathers on the mirror sending drops of water down the reflective surface. What was once facing Mason in the mirror now appears to be looking over his shoulder. Too scared to turn around, he freezes, petrified. Hot breath tickles at the hairs on his neck, causing them to stand on end. His body wants to run, run fast, but he can't seem to move even his eyes from the dark and shadowy figure in the mirror. 


"I feel real, don't I?" A man grumbles deeply in his ear. The voice radiates through his body, sending a shiver through his spine. Mason spins on his heels, but before he can make a run for it, the creature grabs him by the neck, lifting him in the air. He can't breathe. His feet flail like a fish out of water. He tries to claw at his attacker's arms, but his hands fly through like there was nothing but open air holding him off the ground. Mason looks at the man's cloudy face, watching the mixing sensation intensify with every second that passes, every second closer he gets to complete suffocation. 


A knock on his door sends Mason falling to the ground gasping for air. The creature is gone. He stays on his knees, rubbing his neck frantically. His chest rises and falls faster than the motor pistons in a Shelby Mustang. As if to add to his panic, the knocking on the door turns to aggressive pounding. 


"Mason! It's Mr. Thompson from next door. Your mother asked me to check on you," the voice says. It's the neighbor he spoke to earlier today. 


Mason scrambles to his feet ungracefully, knocking down the wooden bowl they use for keys on his way up. He swings the door open, ready to beg for help, but it's not his neighbor. While his body is still dressed in a blue polo, his face is a folding mess of black fog. The creature leans in towards him, the dark essence opening from the middle. Mason throws the door shut, but the man's black boot stops the close. He runs to the back door, nearly losing his balance around the coffee table, but his hands slam into a solid wall where the sliding glass door used to be. His hands inspect the surface. "No, no, no," he says, knowing there was a door here only seconds ago. He looks around. All the windows are gone, too. It's just a box made of familiar walls. He heads to the hallway on his right, but it's closing in. Only a few feet and he runs into a wall where the turn to his bedroom used to be. The hallway inches closer toward the living room. It's shrinking; the walls are closing in. 


The hallway's end pushes him out into the main room. The room's sides approach each other, removing square foot by square foot with each tick of the clock. Something rustles his shirt behind him, and he rips away. A hand, the color of his mother's peach walls, reaches out towards him, snatching violently at the air in front of it. More fingers protrude from the wall around it, rising out of the drywall like zombies awakening from their grave. Dozens of pinkish hands plead to get ahold of him from every angle, and as the walls slide closer and closer together, the hands do, too. 


He holds his arms to his chest, squeezing his elbows into his ribs. His eyes slam shut, crunching the skin around the corners of his eyes. A cooling sensation surrounds him, but he's too afraid to look. Two of the hands make contact, grabbing on to each of his shoulders. This is it for me, he thinks. The hands pull at him and tilt him forward at the hips, holding him in the shape of an upside-down "L." His eyes are still shut. His top half feels heavy, heavy like bricks have been stacked on his back. 


"Open your eyes," a soothing, feminine voice whispers. "It's over now."


Mason peeks one eye open. He's blinded by a bright, metallic room. He opens the other, and his world turns sideways. He's sitting – or rather levitating – in a cocoon of blue goop. 


"Ick! What is this?" 


"Shh! It's a medium for our bodies to stay alive. Come on now, get out of there. We don't have much time. Here's some clothes." She hands him a pair of grey sweatpants and a white T-shirt. Her hair is black with tight curls, and her eyes, a light mocha brown, are the same color as her glowing skin. He looks down at the goop bath he's in and realizes he's completely nude. A wave of embarrassment rushes over him, and he can feel his ears go hot. 


The woman leaves the room to keep watch on the other side. He pushes himself out of the gel-filled capsule and nearly slips to the ground. He slides around on the metal floor until enough slime has been removed from the soles of his feet, then pulls his clothes on quickly. Outside the room, a hallway, dotted with doors just like his, spreads on forever in both directions. The fluorescent lights above hum, their overbearing glow causing him to squint his eyes, and an eerie chill takes comfort between the white walls that enclose them. It reminds him of a hospital. Or an asylum. 


"Follow me," she says, barely louder than a whisper. They jog down the hallway to their right. 


"Where are we?" he asks. 


"In an alien factory."


"A what?"


"You and everyone else here was abducted nearly fifteen years ago. We're used for food. But not our bodies, our minds." She turns and opens the door to her left, leading them inside. In the room is a pod just like the one he came out of, but there's someone else inside. Another man, about his age. Dark hair, light skin, and a mole on his chin. One hundred or so wires are hooked up to his head and neck. Mason touches the same areas on his body, feeling tiny sore spots along his skin. They're still bumped up. 


The woman walks up to his side and joins him, looking at the face of the unknown man. "The aliens feed on our paranoia and fear. They connect to our brains and send us to insanity. When we kill ourselves inside their simulation, they start over again." 


She strides to the wall by the man's feet and pulls a metal square off its surface, housing a tunnel out of the factory. "Let's go," she says. Mason can't tear his eyes away from the helpless man drowning in inescapable nightmares.


"But aren't we going to save him?"


"In due time. But right now, my mission is to free you."


Reluctant to leave the poor man behind, Mason crawls into the dark tunnel. His liberator trails him, latching the secret door in place. He moves quickly, gathering dust particles and oily residue on his sweatpants and palms. After a minute or so of scurrying like large mice, they reach a bulky metal fan, stagnant and lifeless like the bodies they left behind.

"Push it open," she says. As if rusted, it resists his nudge. With more force, it finally breaks free, welcoming them with a long exasperated squeal. He climbs out into a normal-sized corridor, lit by frosted glass windows all along the walls. With only one path to take, it leads them solely to a deep-blue door on the other end. They hasten to its metal frame and use all their body weight to heave the final barrier open. 


With the wind playing in his hair, he takes in the lush, exotic landscape on the other side. In front of them, rolling hills, painted with luminous orange and purple bushes speckle the land for miles. To their left, an angry, roaring waterfall plunges down to a lake hundreds of feet below, its rapids tumbling so violently, sprays from the water moisten their faces and clothing. The spilling river, like a moat, defends entrance into a magnificent forest that claims the adjacent land. Sparkly dew blankets the trees' leaves, shining like gold flakes in the sun's rays. Sharp, swaying light pierces his eyes, pulling his attention to a braided rope stretching from one side of the ravenous river to the other, connecting the land on both sides. 


"Why did you free me? Of all the people in there, why me?" Mason asks. 


She replies, "Because you will be the one to save us all."

October 31, 2019 18:49

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