Heartbeats are your timekeepers, the steady thud against your ear that reminds you of the passing moments. You’re not sure how many more seconds you have. You’re never sure here, in this world of twisted senses, where every fear is utterly familiar and still utterly strange.
You remind yourself that you’ve been here before, but that doesn’t slow your heartbeat. Adrenaline races through you until you ache under the strain, the compulsion to run. No matter how often you try to run, you always return to the door. And you know what’s waiting behind that door, or at least you think you know.
Faces of your friends swim in your peripheral vision. They don’t know what’s behind the door, or they don’t care. They’re playing a game, and they want you to join in. Whatever it is, it’s lethal. You understand that much as you map out a pathway across their open space. Maybe it wouldn’t harm them, but they belong here. You don’t, and you have only two choices.
You turn your back on the game and choose to run. Shouts and shrieks of laughter fade behind you. The game is no longer important. You are running. You can feel your feet hitting the asphalt, but you aren’t running fast enough. Whenever you move, the road stretches out even further ahead of you, and your limbs are dragged down by their own weight.
“Come on, come on,” you whisper to yourself. “At least try to run.”
Maybe the whisper helps, because you gain some traction. The edges of the road soften as you increase your speed, skimming across the asphalt. Your breath doesn’t come easily, but at least you have the illusion of distance between you and the door. Maybe you’ll be able to get away this time.
The next moment is always the same. You never remember how, but you’re facing the door again. Too drained to run, you wait for the door to open. That’s your second choice, to go in. You don’t want to, but you can’t run away. You can’t run away from anything in this world. It’s going to happen to you, even though terror threatens to paralyze you.
The consciousness of your own terror hurts the most, a stabbing pain. You’ve been here enough times to know that these experiences are only past sensations, bottled and shelved until your mind pours them out in the dark. But you don’t understand why you feel the terror so keenly. In other mixtures of your mind, you are detached, only half-present. Some things you feel, but most often you observe. Not here.
Enough wondering. The terror ebbs a little, enough for you to realize that the door is open. You can see inside the room, and it’s different this time. The dimensions are the same, and even some of the décor, but the furniture isn’t. Long, low, shelves along the back wall, each occupied by an oblong box, slightly tapered at the top. The dark-cloaked figures are stationed in front of the shelves, appearing from nowhere. You know what they want you to do, but you won’t do it.
When they point at the box, you find yourself stepping forward, sliding the lid of the box aside. You can’t see inside, and you slam the lid back before it opens all the way. The dark cloaks—or whatever hides under them—are murmuring at you. This time, you ignore them.
“I don’t care what you are!” Your own voice surprises you, but you keep shouting. “I don’t care what you want me to do. I won’t do it. Do you understand?”
When you walk out of the room, they don’t try to stop you. You’re outside, blinking in the light and the quiet. Your friends have all disappeared. Is it too quiet? You don’t even hear the rustle of the wind, or the trill of birdsong. Think about the wind for a minute, about the birdsong. Really think, or you won’t be able to bring them here.
Listen, can’t you hear them? Finally, some control over this place. You summon the sunshine too, because you can, and turn your face up to the light. Your heartbeat slows. If your luck holds out, you may be able to leave soon. Maybe even leave by your own choice.
Curiosity emboldens you, and you turn back to the door. Not the one they forced you into, but a second, smaller, door. This one doesn’t open on its own. You push against solid, weather-beaten wood, pausing for a flash of a second when you realize you can feel it. For once, your surroundings are more concrete than the terror inside you. The door creaks open, the earsplitting grate of rusty hinges. This sound doesn’t paralyze you. This sound, you made.
The cloaked figures are still standing inside the room, but the shelves and boxes are gone. Your heartbeat doesn’t pound at all now, just a gentle pattern to remind you that time is passing. You study the figures, which appear to be grouped around something, something their cloaks are hiding. By all the rules of this place, that sight should have sent terror stabbing through you—but it doesn’t. You make the door creak again, but they don’t look up. You blow out your breath, whisper, speak, shout, and they still ignore you.
Why doesn’t this concoction of fears respond to you? Only heartbeats ago, these figures were compelling you to open the box. Now, they don’t seem to care what you do. You step into the room, right into the middle of their group—and there’s nothing there except the cracked, concrete floor.
“What game are you playing now?” The question escapes in a hissing whisper, almost the way you imagine the cloaked figures would talk. They don’t answer, so you grab the nearest one and shake the folds of fabric. “Come on, tell me what you want!”
The cloak falls to the floor. You’re surrounded by pools of black fabric in an empty room.
“Try harder next time!” you call out. Then you tilt your head back and laugh. You can feel yourself separating from this place—lines are blurring, feelings are fading.
“Congratulations, Dreamer.” You’re not sure if the whisper is yours, but that doesn’t matter anymore. “You’ve conquered the memories.”