The plasma glow from the television was the only source of light in the apartment. All the curtains were drawn — they always were, day or night. Al glanced towards the obscured window of the lounge and searched for a trace of sunshine that might indicate the current time, but his gaze was watery and pulsated from hours of screen time. Al returned his red eyes to the display.
The air inside the flat was lifeless, he could smell it, could taste it, but he didn’t care. The odour was that of old food, sweat, gas that has been long-since been passed, and the staleness of a place that has not experienced the cool kiss of a breeze in quite some time. Al had grown accustomed to the stench; it was the reek of home, of safety, his bubble, his cocoon.
Dotted around him, as he sat in the solitary chair in front of the screen, were traces of the food he’d consumed over the past year. Pizza boxes stained with grease; paper bags, soiled and torn; shiny foil wrappers and packets for treats, chocolates, crisps and Pop Tarts; empty soda bottles — a fair few were no longer empty, as they had been filled back up again with his own urine.
Al bashed away at the controller in his lap, the lethargic neon of the videogame on the screen a paradox. He didn’t enjoy videogames anymore; any fun he might’ve once felt from the magic of the digital realm had long since left him, like the balloon that floats away from the toddler’s chubby grip. He played because he was bored, because it was all he had to do. It was all he did, yet it failed to fill the hole within his tattered soul. It was ironic that he played games about the wilderness — characters who rode horses over plains, ripples in the grass from the electronic breeze.
As a child, he’d loved games, had played them with his friends and with his father. How they’d laughed! The good times they’d shared! Al recognised that he was forever in search of that high, like a junkie. Always after that warmth and familiarity his heart yearned for. It was why he always purchased the latest consoles, the newest PC upgrades, the brand-new games; forever in the hopes that they’d make him feel the way he used to feel. He could scarcely afford it, and the happiness he experienced when he purchased a new game was brief, the shine ephemeral, the silver soon tarnished.
“You play too much,” he’d been told by almost everyone — his parents, his friends, his onetime girlfriend. “Those games aren’t good for you. You should get out more, get some fresh air, feel the sun on your skin.”
Al recognised that they were partially right, yet also quite wrong. He did play too much, but what else was he to do? He’d almost forgotten what else he could do, where else he could go — the muscles had atrophied. Al had memories of the outside, the smell of flowers, the sun on his skin, time spent with friends, the sound of laughter, the memory of doing things, but all of that seemed so far away from him, now. How did you just go outside? If he called a friend up and said, “Hey, let’s go do something,” they’d make a big deal of his sudden contact — that’s if they responded at all; many had grown tired of his apathy, and had left him behind in their pursuit of likeminded individuals.
He understood that it wasn’t the games that were at fault, it was him. Oh, sure, they could be addictive and hard to quit, but he oversaw his own life. Al knew there were plenty of people out there who played and lived functional lives, they treated games like they would a television show or a book — as a time-occupier. If they could do it, then it wasn’t the games who were to blame, was it? It was how you used the game — or whatever crutch you happened to lean on. Al knew this, and yet he stayed inside and refused to change, forever hidden from the world, safe in the blueish-white light from the television.
He bashed at the controller, hands greasy from the crisps. Al wiped them on his shirt — when had been the last time he’d done laundry? Over a year ago? — and carried on with his game. He glanced towards the window when a flash of light broke through the closed curtains. Al ignored it and kept his attention on the screen, albeit without much heart or enthusiasm. It was just a car.
He had a migraine, worsened by the flashing images, the sharp sounds. He would not turn it down or — Heaven forbid! — off. His neighbours hated him, but he made no conscious effort to not annoy them. Every now and then, one of them would knock on his door, look him up and down in disgust when he opened, grimace at the smell that wafted out, squint into his hovel of an abode with disapproval, and then tell him to “keep that racket down.” This was what Al thought was going to happen when someone banged on his door, hard enough to rattle the chain that was always pulled across.
Al sighed and pushed himself to his feet, his body creaked with the rare movement. A bottle of some sugary drink dropped onto the floor as he stood, but he left it. “All right, all right, I’m coming, I’m coming,” he said to the door that juddered. “Hold your horses.”
As he approached the door, which danced in its frame, Al felt a slight twinge. Who on Earth would be banging on his door with such ferocity? He got closer, eyes squinting through the panes of frosted glass. He saw two things: one, it was dark outside; and two, there was more than one person stood there. Al’s pulse started to race — who could it be? Had he been that loud? Had someone called the police on him, sick after too many nights of loud television? With sweaty palms, he undid the chain across the door as quietly as he could. After a second’s hesitation, he turned the key in the lock.
Before he even had a chance to open the door, it was thrust open. He staggered backwards. “Hey, what th—” he managed, as the two men barged their way into the dark confines of his home. They were each dressed in slate-grey suits, with black ties and polished black shoes. They also wore impenetrable sunglasses and had earpieces, coiled wires disappearing around the backs of their necks.
“Mr Bentson, you’ve got to come with us,” said the one.
The other pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “You know what this is regarding.”
“I-I don’t! I swear I don’t!” He tried to back away down the hallway without taking his eyes from the men who advanced upon on him.
“You do,” said the first. His voice was robotic. “You do, Mr Bentson.”
“Please do not resist, Mr Bentson,” said the second. He opened the handcuffs with a click.
Al looked from the one to the other. They were each over six-foot tall and built like the proverbial outhouse. They had strong, square jaws, and the only unique characteristic that separated them was their hair — one had brown locks, the other was blonde. “I don’t! I really—” his voice turned into a squeal as the pair shot towards him.
“Do not resist, Mr Bentson.”
“This is for your own good, Mr Bentson.”
Al started to scream. “HELP! SOMEBODY HELP ME! I’M BEING ATTACKED! HEL—” His cry turned into a pig’s squeal when the brown-haired one grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him up. Al’s legs dangled. As if he were naught but a bag of shopping, the man carried Al over to his partner, where he was handcuffed. “Am I being arrested?” He twisted his neck to get a look at them as they marched him out of his apartment. The door slammed behind. With a pang of regret, Al realised he left his keys inside and remembered that his door locked automatically — he was shut out! Then he reasoned with himself that this was an odd preoccupation to have, when you were being abducted.
Al tried to drag his heels. The two giants simply grabbed a hold of each arm and hoisted him into the air. He got the distinct impression that they could have carried another five or six people without breaking a sweat. As they carried him down the stairs, his feet above the floor, Al pleaded in the hopes that just one of his neighbours would open their door to the commotion or call the police. None did, however.
They carried him down as he continued his cries. Every now and then, they’d offer him a monotone response. “It’s for your own good, Mr Bentson.” They were now in the lobby, the double-doors in sight. It downed on Al that they would succeed in their kidnap.
“You chose this, Mr Bentson,” added the other.
Chose this? Chose this? When the hell had he chosen this? “How did I…” Al began, but his voice drifted away when he saw the state of his mailbox. Letters overflowed from its mouth. When had he last checked it? He wracked his brain, but the answer eluded him. His eyes were fixed on the waterfall of envelopes as he floated through the lobby.
And then they were outside, and Al forgot all about his post.
It was dark outside. Quite late, too, by the look of the sky. Al’s breath formed a cloud that drifted away from his lips. He shivered. “Cold, Mr Bentson?”
They put him down and one of them removed his jacket and put it around Al’s shoulders. It came down almost to his knees, but it was still warm, so Al didn’t complain. Beggars and choosers and all that. “Er, thank you?” he said.
“Anything for you, Mr Bentson. Are we okay to walk to the car, or should we carry you?”
“To the—” He paused as panic seized his throat. Where were they taking him? “I can walk,” he said in a tiny voice. What choice did he have? It was going to occur with or without his permission — might as well go of his own volition.
“Very good, Mr Bentson.”
“Call me Al.”
“Okay, Mr Bentson.”
They walked in silence to the carpark at the rear of the building. Sure enough, there was an idle limousine with blacked-out windows, engine on. “Where are you taking me?” The time it took for the question to form had been long enough. “What will you do with me?”
“All in due time, Mr Bentson.”
The door of the limousine swung open, the shadows inside loomed. No interior light popped on. Al squinted into the murk but could see no trace of the person inside. He glanced back at the two men and was nervous to see that they watched him with expectation. “You want me to…?”
They nodded in unison. “Please, Mr Bentson,” said the blonde, as he gestured towards the open door that yawned like a snake’s mouth. Al nodded and swallowed hard, a dry click in his throat. His hands were still handcuffed behind his back. He was about to ask whether they’d take them off, then thought that would probably be pushing it. He had no idea how far this newfound gentleness would stretch.
“This is your choice, Mr Bentson,” said the other.
Is it, though? he wanted to ask. Instead, he ducked his head and clambered into the hungry void without much grace. Al felt a softness and dropped onto it in a rather good impression of a seal. He rolled himself over, so that he was in an upright position, when the door slammed shut behind him. Al let out a yelp. Second time today.
Al sat in the dark, he saw nothing, heard nothing. The world had been reduced to the sound of his own laboured breaths, the sensation of the handcuffs that bit into his wrists, and the cushioned seat beneath his derriere. He could also smell some fancy aftershave. There was a thunk and then the limousine rocked a bit, followed by another thunk-thunk. Al felt a vibration as the engine did its thing — it was smoother than he’d ever thought an abduction would ever go.
“So, here we are,” said someone in the shadows. Al jumped and loosed a tiny squeal. “How are we feeling today?”
He cleared his throat. “Confused?” Al said, not sure how he should respond to that sort of question. “Frightened?”
“Yes, yes, confused and frightened. Of course.”
Silence as the car drove on.
“Um, who are you?” he asked. He sounded like a teenage boy with a cracked voice.
He could feel the grin on the other person’s face, even though he couldn’t see it. The other person offered a soft chuckle. “Who do you think I am?” Al recognised that voice, he knew he did. But from where?
“I don’t— I asked you first.”
“Oh, well, that settles it then.”
Another pause in their back-and-forth. Al got the impression that he was being toyed with. He didn’t like it. Anger seized him, and the words shot out from his mouth. “Look, you’ve got me here, I’m not going anywhere — I’m bloody handcuffed — now tell me just who the hell you are, with your massive henchmen and your goddamn limo!” Before Al had reached the end of his tirade, the voice from the gloom had begun to laugh.
“Oh, my, you’re fierier than I remember! Perhaps I haven’t given you enough credit after all. Forgive me, it’s been about forty years, give or take.”
“Forty—” Al’s words caught in his mouth. “I’m only thirty! How the hell can we have met forty years ago? Who are you?”
The stranger sighed. There was a click. “Better light us up, boys, before he kicks the doors out.”
“Right, Boss,” came the monotone drawl of one of the men. Before he had a chance to wonder whether it was the blonde one or the brown-haired one, the lights came up and dazzled him.
“Jesus,” Al said, unable to raise a hand to his eyes.
“No, just me.”
Al blinked, trying to focus. There was an elderly man sat in front of him, all dressed in black. His vision swam, then righted itself. Al frowned, mouth agape.
The man looked offended. “What? You don’t recognise me?” Al’s eyes traced his grey hair, his wrinkled face, his grey eyes.
“I…” Al’s voice trailed off. In truth, he did recognise him… he just wasn’t sure from where.
The man tutted and shook his head. “Not surprising, really. I didn’t recognise him either.”
Al looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Maybe it’s just bias, but I remember being sharper when I was sat where you’re currently sitting. Perhaps it’s all that staring at a TV that’s fried your brain, eh? Well, no matter. We’ve got time.”
There was a pause, and Al felt that the conversation had been shifted back onto him. Not sure what he was supposed to say, he said: “So, who are you?”
The older man looked at him as if he were stupid — perhaps he was. “I’m you,” he said, as if this were the most obvious statement in the world. “Just a little bit older. Well, quite a bit older, actually.”
Al shifted in his seat. He’d been kidnapped by a literal lunatic. An eccentric millionaire, he guessed, by the look of the limousine and the cut of his suit. Where had he seen him before? He’d rarely left his apartment in the past year, so it couldn’t have been out and about. At the grocery store? He forced himself to smile at the old man who claimed to be him. “Ah. I see.” He nodded. “Hm, yeah.”
The old man slumped back into his seat, deflated. “You don’t believe me.” It wasn’t a question. “Of course you don’t. I didn’t.”
“Aha.” He was still nodding. “Right. Gotcha.” How would he get out? Try to wriggle over to the door, grab the handle with one of his cuffed hands then jump out of the vehicle? Al eyed the grey hair, the wrinkled face, the body beneath the suit. He looked pretty good, for someone who was seventy. Would he be able to stop him before the goons caught up?
“You’re thinking about jumping out of the car, aren’t you?” The question cut right through his panicked thoughts. “I know I thought about it. I recall that one of us did just that, three of four loops back. It’s why we cuffed you. Plus, we locked the doors.”
Al glanced at the handle. Was it locked? Did he want to chance it?
The old man leaned closer. “I know you think I’m crazy, because I had the exact same thought.” His features had softened now. “For a little while, you’ll think that maybe you’ve gone crazy, too. But know this: we’ve both got our sanity.”
“What do you want with me?” The words choked out of him.
The old man smiled; he could sense that Al was on the cusp of believing his madness. “We need to have a little chat about your habits, Young Al — you can call me “Old Al” if you like — you see, you need to get on with your life’s true calling.”
The words didn’t seem to come from him. He felt very far away from his body. “Which is?”
“To stop the machines.”