io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Hypnopompic Circumstance” by Gene Doucette. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
Thomas’s first encounter with the alien was terrifying.
It happened in his bedroom. Thom was attempting to get to sleep at the time, after a long Friday night that had extended into early Saturday morning. Alcohol was involved, and a little pot, but nothing natively hallucinogenic, not unless someone slipped him something. Nothing that could explain the appearance of someone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
Thom was still in his clothes—undressing being too much work—with the bass beat of the last song he heard running a tight circuit around his skull. It refused to leave because Thomas didn’t know the rest of the song. He decided it would either go away with sleep, or it would be in his head forever. There were no other options. Likewise, for the taste of vodka and tonic with a splash of bile that convinced him it was time to stop drinking and time to start finding a way home. It would either be gone in the morning, or it would be with him for the rest of his life.
The connective tissue between his thoughts began to fray. He was going over one particular conversation with Carl about patently dishonest distressed property reselling tactics which Carl swore by, and then another conversation intervened in which Ned declared Tina a bitch, and then Tina was there screaming about an open house and the bass beat on what the hell is the name of that song kicked in again and it all made sense to Thomas that the song lied about the bathtub, Tina, and Carl doesn’t care about the siding so let’s all here comes the chorus and SOMEONE WAS IN THE ROOM.
Thomas was lying on his back. Not two minutes earlier, his body was fully capable of moving about the apartment, but now it wasn’t at all up to the task. He could open his eyes—which he did, as soon as he sensed he wasn’t alone—but that was all. He was completely paralyzed.
The alien was super tall. Six foot five, at least. It was thin and all angles, like a piece of ambulatory scaffolding, with a long cloak and a hood. It had a head shaped like an upside-down teardrop, and eyes that took up half of its face.
Thomas couldn’t make out anything else about the alien, or turn his head to see the rest of the room. (Was this the only alien there? It could be a whole team.) It was too dark, and Thom couldn’t move to reach the light, the floor, or the baseball bat in the corner. The pillow under his head might do as a weapon, perhaps, but again he couldn’t move. He couldn’t even scream out loud.
The alien reached out with a gray-skinned hand that had only three fingers and a thumb—the fingers were unaccountably long and had an extra knuckle—to touch the side of Thomas’s face.
Thomas gave screaming another try. It still didn’t work, but his heart, which was now beating four times faster than the bass beat still stuck in his head, might have been audible by then.
And then, thankfully, Thom passed out.
Thomas woke up still in his own bed Saturday morning, still in his clothes. His room looked just like it had when he passed out the night before. Everything seemed normal, so normal that he didn’t even remember the alien until he got out of bed, and then only after a lengthy internal conversation:
Oh good, I can move.
Wait, why was I worried about this?
Was there a chance I wouldn’t be able to move?
Yes, I remember not being able to move.
When was that?
. . .
When the ALIEN WAS IN THE BEDROOM.
In the frantic moments that followed, Thomas removed all of his clothes and checked every body part he could get in front of the bathroom mirror for evidence of obvious physical trauma or general malfeasance. He came away from this review deciding that he needed to get back into the gym, but otherwise satisfied that the alien hadn’t obviously poked or probed him.
The next thing he did was verify that it was indeed Saturday, and also that it was the correct Saturday. He wasn’t missing any time, not counting the time he slept. If he’d been abducted (of course he hadn’t been abducted) it was a very brief abduction.
Satisfied and already naked, he decided to bathe.
By the time Thomas was showered and shaved, dressed and holding a cup of coffee, he’d convinced himself that the thing which seemed utterly and totally true—that there was an alien in his bedroom—had actually been conjured by his imagination. Yes, it was correct that he’d ingested no hallucinogens (knowingly) and yes, nothing like this had ever happened to him before. Also yes, in the past his senses had always proven to be dependable in arraigning the external world and his mind had always been good about evaluating what the senses reported in a way that conformed with basic reality. Even when he was drunk and/or stoned. There was no reason to think that had changed.
Ergo, it never happened.
That was the only reasonable conclusion. It never happened, so he could go on with his day, and his life, without worrying that a six-foot-five gray-skinned bulbous-headed alien with three fingers and extra knuckles had a key to his apartment and was maybe, possibly, doing things to him while he slept.
It was ridiculous to think otherwise.
Then it happened again. Sort of.
Thomas was in the business of selling real estate, which was why he had to work on a Saturday. It was also why he’d spent all of Friday night drinking with Carl, Ned, Indira, Louis, Ciera, and Doug: because he didn’t like selling real estate.
He also wasn’t great at it. An argument could be made that Thomas might enjoy it if he was better at it, but he was pretty sure it only worked the other way around, i.e., he would only be good at it if he liked it.
There was a third argument, which was that it was possible to be good at selling real estate while also hating real estate, provided one sufficiently liked making money. This was Carl’s approach, and it was great insofar as it justified all sorts of dishonest strategies because they accomplished the goal of making money.
The property he was trying to sell on Saturday was a vacation home belonging to a neurologist named Alek. It was a gorgeous place overlooking a lake, practically designed to make anyone who couldn’t afford it hate their own lives. It was so nice that when/if it sold, Thomas’s commission would be sufficient to live off of without selling another property for about eight months.
This only made him hate it more.
(That he even had the listing was something of a miracle. Alek, for whatever reason, seemed to like Thomas and think him competent at his job, which he really wasn’t.)
It was a lousy way to spend a Saturday. About twenty-five people showed up for the open house, and the two or three who could afford it—if their default public persona is rude and dismissive, they can afford it—didn’t look truly interested. Thom had to hold a fake smile and an engaging tone for about two hours longer than any man should have been expected to, while despising the fact that he was there at all, and when it was done he had nothing to show for it other than a sore face from all the smiling.
He skipped the bar in favor of a quick sandwich, and an early bed, choosing end the bad day as soon as possible over try drinking until the day improves.
No alien showed up as he drifted off. This would have been cause for celebration—it had indeed been a hallucination, perhaps triggered by too much of something—but he was asleep and couldn’t celebrate. Nor could he do so the following morning because that was when the alien did appear.
Thomas had been in that half-awake state where the dream he was having—he didn’t solidly recall what it had been about, but he did remember being somewhere public and missing his pants—when he got that same weird sensation that there was someone else in the room.
When he opened his eyes, he saw he was facing the left side of his bed. Generally, the view of that part of the room consisted of a nightstand with a book he’d been meaning to get back to, a lamp, an alarm clock, a chair being used to hold clothing, and a window. On this morning, all the other stuff was there, but now an alien was sitting in the chair.
Thomas tried screaming, but as before he couldn’t seem to move.
“Do you like your life?” the alien asked. It had a tiny mouth at the bottom of that bulbous face that seemed too small to produce real sound. “I’m just curious. You don’t seem happy.”
Thom slammed his eyes shut.
Not real, not real, it’s not real, he thought. Then he felt something touch his cheek.
He screamed again—this time out loud—and sat up in bed, recoiling from the contact.
There was nobody in the room. The clothes on the chair were right where they were supposed to be, and the alien was exactly as nonexistent as it was supposed to be.
Once Thomas got his heart to stop pounding, he lay back down on the pillow, closed his eyes most of the way, and looked at that side of the room again. The chair was holding his dark blue suit. It was possible that the suit plus the shadows from the curtain over the window conspired to look like an alien, especially since Thomas was already predisposed to look for one in his bedroom.
Yes, he decided, that’s all it is. Then he stopped putting his clothes on the chair.
Only, it kept happening. A couple of times a week, either just before he fell asleep or just before he woke up, the alien would appear, talk to him for a few seconds or not, and then disappear back into the dark recesses of Thomas’s evidently overtaxed imagination.
Thom tried not sleeping, but that didn’t end up being a viable option. He borrowed some sleeping pills from Ciera—he claimed not being able to move Alek’s property was keeping him up nights—to see if sleeping too much worked better than not sleeping enough, but it didn’t.
Weirdly, he was starting to get used to it. Sure, he was always paralyzed and the alien was innately disturbing, but it hadn’t done anything to him. It mostly just sat there. It was still terrifying, but no longer I am falling to my death terrifying. More like, I was nearly hit by a car: a sudden shock, and then relief at still being alive.
And the alien asked the strangest questions.
“How was your day?”
“Do you enjoy this weather?”
“What do you want to do with your life? Is it this? Or something else?”
“Do you have a favorite color? Does everyone? Mine is ultraviolet.”
“Why do you care so much about what other people think of you?”
“You seem anxious. Do you like what you do for work?”
One morning, he didn’t ask any questions at all. He just said, “I’m being rude. My name is Gerald.” Then he left.
What was a little interesting was that as the questions continued (“Does everyone work all their lives like this?” “Are you dating someone?”) Thomas began asking himself the same questions. Because some of what Gerald wanted to know was sort of dumb—Thomas couldn’t speak for everyone, but he didn’t personally have a favorite color—but for most questions, even if Thomas had the power to respond he didn’t know what he’d say.
Despite being used to Gerald, then, Thomas still wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. Not because Gerald was a manifested figment of Thom’s imagination, given form in order to torture him. It was that the nature of the torture was in forcing Thomas into questioning everything he was doing with his life.
One day—finally—Thomas confided in someone about the alien. This was less a decision on Thomas’s part and more of a thing being blurted out of his mouth without him being a party to it. Certainly, his choice of confidantes was poor: his client, Alek. Probably, the last thing the man wanted to know was that his realtor was actively hallucinating.
He and Thom were in the middle of a strategy meeting at Alek’s primary residence in the city, a condo in a style that everyone at the office called upscale drug lord. Alek had just finished saying something requiring a response from Thomas, but Thomas hadn’t registered this in any way. He’d drifted back to the prior evening, when the alien asked why Thomas drank so much.
“Thom?” Alek said. “You there?”
“Yes, sorry. Sorry. What were you saying?”
Alek shook his head and headed to the coffee maker. They were in his kitchen for this meeting.
“You seem distracted, if you don’t mind my saying,” Alek said. He handed Thom a cup of black coffee. “Everything all right at home?”
“Yes, everything’s . . . neurologist, right?”
“That’s what my degree says, sure,” Alek said. “Are you looking for one?”
“And that’s, nerves. Neural pathways. The brain.”
Alek smiled. “Thom, I was joking. If you have a medical problem, you should really talk to your own doctor.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I have.”
“All right.” Alek checked his watch, and then pulled up a stool. “What are the symptoms?”
“Aliens,” Thom said.
It just fell out of his mouth. Later, he’d come to understand how desperately he needed to talk to someone about this but in the moment, he was mostly just horrified.
“I mean, an alien,” he clarified. “It keeps showing up in my bedroom. I know it isn’t real, but knowing that doesn’t stop it from showing up. I don’t know what to do, but . . . I thought maybe there might be something wrong with my head.”
To his immense credit, Alek neither laughed nor fired Thomas on the spot.
“Have you tried asking the alien what it wants?” he asked.
“I can’t. When he shows up I can’t move at all, except my eyes.”
“I see,” Alek said. “Well, I’m the wrong kind of head doctor for that.”
“I know, I know. But I thought maybe you’d encountered something like this before.”
Alek pondered over his coffee cup for a few seconds, while Thomas enumerated the many reasons talking about this to a client was a bad idea.
“Alien, huh,” Alek said. “Specifically, an alien.”
“I don’t know what else to call it.”
“All right look, here’s some free advice. Go online and check out hypnopompic hallucinations. Or hypnogogic. One’s when you’re falling asleep and one’s when you’re waking up; I forget which is which.”
“Yeah, man, it’s either that or a real space alien is visiting you. If that’s what you think, you’re definitely talking to the wrong person. It’s just your body waking up in the wrong order and your brain not knowing it’s awake at all. With sleep paralysis thrown in, your head can end up in all kinds of unusual places.”
Thom decided not to ask what sleep paralysis was. Alek assumed he knew, and he was already feeling self-conscious about having brought this up.
“The point is,” Alek said, “not only is it not real, it’s not all that unusual. You woke up halfway, freaked out because you couldn’t move, and your imagination filled in an alien. If you were more of a religious type you would’ve seen an angel or a devil instead. A few hundred years back it probably would have been a succubus. So, relax.”
“Wow,” Thomas said, “that’s a huge relief, thanks.”
“You’re welcome. But do me a favor and talk to a psychiatrist anyway.”
“I’ll find one.” Thomas laughed. “Probably just ask me the same questions the alien’s been asking.”
Alek was supposed to laugh at that. He didn’t, and Thomas felt awkward all over again.
“Yeah, hypnopompic hallucinations don’t usually talk. Is it . . . telling you to do stuff?”
“It usually just asks about my day.”
Alek stared at him for an uncomfortably long beat.
Now I’ve said too much, Thomas thought.
“Anyway,” Thom said. “You’re right, I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Yeah of course,” Alek said. “But definitely speak to someone, man. I can get you some names. Until then, keep in mind it’s all in your head.”
Tina reassigned Alek’s listing a week later—to Carl, of course. Thom considered asking Alek for an explanation, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like any of the possible answers. It was true that Thomas hadn’t been able to sell the vacation house within the anticipated timeframe, but it was also true that Thom had confessed to visual and auditory hallucinations. The second thing was probably a bigger problem.
I’d have fired me too, he thought.
Over the course of that same week, Thom had looked up the definitions of hypnopompic hallucination, sleep paralysis, and auditory hallucination. The word schizophrenia came up a lot. He didn’t think he was schizophrenic, but that was probably not an easy thing to self-diagnose.
Meanwhile, Thom’s work was suffering. He began to worry that Alek hadn’t just asked for a new realtor; he’d told Tina about the alien. Other listings started to get pulled from under him, and drinks after work stopped being quite so common. In fact, they were rare enough that he began to wonder if they were just meeting at a different bar without him.
He would have straight-up asked one of them about it but since paranoia was one of the symptoms the internet said he should be on the lookout for, he actively overcompensated in the opposite direction.
He also didn’t speak to a psychiatrist. He did pick one, and even went so far as to plug the number into his phone, but he couldn’t bring himself to connect the call.
Meanwhile, Gerald the alien stubbornly refused to stop showing up, despite not existing. He continued to drop in two or three times a week, always with a new question or a variation of an old one. It was like a recurring nightmare, where Thomas was trapped in the middle of a personality survey with no way to respond. Only, since he wasn’t asleep, it couldn’t be a nightmare.
One morning, Gerald asked if Thom was having trouble at work.
“I ask because you’re not sleeping well,” the alien noted.
Gerald lacked the basic awareness necessary to work out that he was the problem, and not the rest of Thomas’s life. Thom didn’t have a great life before the alien visitations began, but it wasn’t terrible. And yes, at the time the question was posed he was having trouble at work. Tina had just suggested he take some time off, which wasn’t really a thing in a commission-based industry and she knew it. He told her he was fine, maybe a little too loudly, because Doug and Louis were in her office barely a second later, to calmly suggest he call it a day.
So he did. He left. He did not slam the door on his way out; he just closed it more forcefully than he meant to. It didn’t break or anything. Then he went to the bar, alone, and drank until the sun went down, and he went to bed, and woke up to Gerald the chatty alien wanting to know how Thom’s job was going and if he was getting enough rest.
YOU AREN’T REAL, Thom screamed. GO AWAY BECAUSE YOU AREN’T REAL AND I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE.
He couldn’t actually scream it; he thought it loudly.
Amazingly, Gerald acted like it had been spoken aloud. He . . . recoiled. He had a nearly expressionless face, and yet he managed to look wounded.
And then he was gone, and Thomas could move.
Thom spent the entire day—a day in which he hosted an open house for a distressed property where the most valuable thing in the place was the donuts he brought—wondering if this had done the trick, and he’d finally banished the alien from his unconscious mind.
He had not. Gerald returned that night.
Thom greatly preferred the morning visitations to the evening ones. Nighttime appearances were more frightening for some reason, even if Gerald didn’t really look much different regardless of the time. The alien seemed to be aware of this, as he mostly showed up in the morning. He also didn’t usually drop in back-to-back.
On this night, Gerald did something new. Rather than ask probing questions, he picked up the long-neglected book from Thom’s nightstand, flipped past the page Thomas had left off, and began reading.
Thomas fell asleep after about five sentences.
The following morning, as soon as he was awake Thomas flipped open the book to the bookmarked page. It was not where Thomas had left off; the bookmark was now three-quarters of the way through. Nothing on the page looked like anything Thomas had previously read. But he did find what Gerald had read out loud. All five sentences. And he’d read it word-for-word.
He’s real, Thom realized. And I know how to talk to him now.
But he still couldn’t, because Gerald didn’t reappear that night, or the next night, or the night after that.
And then a week passed, and Thomas decided he must have finally done it.
He’d gotten rid of his alien.
This didn’t positively impact his overall mood; if anything, it made his general demeanor worse.
Instead of worrying that Gerald might show, he spent his nights awake and going over the alien’s questions, again and again.
Thomas was not happy. He did not like his job. He didn’t like his friends, he hadn’t been in a serious relationship for three years, and he was doing nothing with his life.
What he was instead, was angry all the time.
Thomas didn’t have anyone he could talk to about any of it. But he used to. He could talk to Gerald, if only Gerald would come back again.
After another week passed, Thomas took to leaving apologetic notes for Gerald on the bedside table, and talking to his ceiling.
“I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said. “Please come back.”
But every night, Thom fell asleep alone and every morning, woke up alone.
The month that followed was a bad one for Thomas.
It began okay. His work friends seemed to have concluded that Thom was back to normal, so he was getting invited to go out again, which was . . . okay. It didn’t bring him much joy, and the longer he spent with them the more he realized they weren’t friends at all; they were just coworkers. The only thing they all had in common was selling property for people they loudly despised to people they loudly despised.
He begrudged them for the word normal, too. He didn’t know what they thought his personal normal was, but didn’t think he’d behaved any different outwardly, before, during, or after Gerald came into his life. He had maybe been a little short with a couple of them, but he wasn’t getting a lot of sleep at the time; real friends would understand that.
Inwardly? If normal was to be interpreted as before an extraterrestrial proved its existence to him, Thomas didn’t think he’d ever get back to that.
Still, he tried going through the motions of his prior existence. But his ability to sell property to or for anybody had, if anything, gotten worse. Whereas when Gerald was around, Thomas zombie-talked his way through his appointments—which was bad enough—now that the alien was gone Thomas had begun self-sabotaging.
He couldn’t help himself. When showing a property, instead of skipping past the flaws—and he always knew where the flaws were in his listings—he kept bringing prospective buyers right to them.
Whatever hope Thomas had that he’d be getting over this eventually and going back to living his life—and again, to normal¬—fell apart the night after Alek’s vacation home finally sold.
It took Carl nearly as long to sell it as it took Thomas to not sell it, because the neurosurgeon was asking for too much and seemed content to wait until someone willing to pay too much came along. To that end, Carl was actually a better match, because what he did—and what Thomas was unwilling to do—was lie, outrageously, about the neighbors. This was his favorite trick. Taking Carl at his word, nearly every property in town was just around the corner from the family of a famous actor, sports figure, or pop singer.
The occasion of the sale called for a trip to the bar. Everyone got loud drunk. And Carl got to be Carl.
“To Thomas,” he said, some untold number of drinks into the evening, “for sucking so bad.”
Carl laughed. Nobody else did, not until Thom smiled, albeit thinly, to let them know it was okay.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Carl said. “Look, I feel bad. Tell you what, I’ll split the commission. You can have . . .” He acted like he was doing the math. “Five percent. What do you say?”
Thomas was pretty sure Tina had told Carl to split the commission already, and this was a performance. That just made it more grating.
“It’s okay,” Thomas said. “I don’t want your five percent.”
“Aw come on,” Carl said.
“I think that’s really nice,” Ciera said.
Doug, who only six weeks earlier was partly responsible for escorting Thomas from Tina’s office, clapped him on the shoulders and said, “Yeah, that’s really generous.”
Thom looked into the faces of the people around him and saw nothing he liked.
“No thanks,” he said, standing, “I’m not interested in your pity.”
He turned to walk away from the table when he heard Carl say, “Why don’t you ask the alien?”
Thomas lost his temper then.
Really lost it.
He couldn’t say how he ended up on the other side of the table, only that he did, and once he was there he had Carl’s collar in one hand while he was punching Carl in the face with the other hand.
He was told later—by the police officer in charge of escorting him from the bar to a jail cell—that it took four people to pull him off of Carl.
He had no memory of this.
Thomas was released on his own recognizance the next morning, once he proved sober and lucid. Carl—who got a nice ride from the bar to the hospital—didn’t press charges, but that was the only positive to come out of it.
Two days later, Tina notified Thomas that he would no longer be affiliated with her real estate firm, and that was that. He was effectively out of a job.
Another five days passed, in which Thomas did nothing but sit in his apartment, ice his swollen fist, and sleep. He talked to Gerald quite a lot during that time, but got no response.
On day six, he agreed to go into the office the following morning to fill out paperwork and clear his desk. This would no doubt be conducted in front of armed security or something. Which was stupid: Thomas wasn’t a threat. Carl was just an asshole. He thought everyone could agree to that. Even Carl.
Lying in bed that night, staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep and/or Gerald to arrive, Thom wondered what he was going to do with his life now that he’d burned down what little he had so far.
What do you want to do with your life? Is this it?
Then he wondered if he wanted to live at all.
When he opened his eyes the next morning he couldn’t move, which was fantastic news.
Gerald was there again, standing beside the bed, all six feet and five inches of him looming over Thomas.
Thomas tried to think-scream an apology, but he didn’t have a chance.
“Don’t go to the office today,” Gerald said.
Then he was gone, and Thomas could move again.
“Why not?” he asked the ceiling. “Why not, Gerald? Come back here and tell me why not!”
He stumbled out of bed and for some reason decided to search the house, as if after all this time the alien hadn’t been appearing out of nothing at all; he was just hiding in the linen closet.
Of course Gerald wasn’t in the linen closet or any of the other closets, or the shower, under the bed, or behind the couch. Thom looked anyway, not yet prepared to admit that his alien friend reappeared specifically and only to say something cryptic before vanishing.
Defeated, Thomas cycled through a shower and a shave, Gerald’s words echoing in his head like that bass beat from the first night.
Don’t go to the office today.
He’d already decided what clothes to wear while being formally escorted from the premises. Something casual but not too casual. An I am cool with not being here anymore look that said he was a guy on his way up, rather than who he was, which was someone who’d just as soon set his real estate license on fire.
He knew they were talking about him and wanted them to understand that he didn’t care.
Why do you care so much about what other people think of you?
Thomas decided he cared that they were left with the impression that he didn’t care. He had no reason to; he’d never be working with any of them again, never see any of them again if he had his way. And the odds were pretty good that most of them wouldn’t even be in the office, not unless they decided, collectively, to attend the formal drumming-out.
He could wear the khakis, loafers, and button-down shirt, act like he was heading to his yacht after this unsavory business was resolved, and it would make no difference. He could show up in a bathrobe, blue jeans, and sandals and it would also make no difference.
In that context, the idea of simply not showing up at all didn’t come off as unreasonable.
I’m sorry, something came up, he could say. Something in my important and busy life that took precedence over returning to the office for such trifles. Maybe we can do this next week?
Do you like what you do?
It was strange, but Gerald’s suggestion that he not go into the office on this day had somehow given Thomas a sense of agency over his life—however temporary—that he didn’t have before. He was always where other people told him to be, when they told him to be there, whether it was Tina at the office, his clients, or the team heading to the bar. Stupidly, this one potential rebellious act—of not going in when he said he would—felt like an act of liberation.
Liberation was a low hurdle. Especially when the only reason he was thinking about it at all was because someone else told him to stay home. Sure, that someone else was a space alien who may actually be evidence of a psychotic break, but he was still doing something someone else told him to do.
Unfortunately, going into the office was a binary problem. Tina told him to go, and Gerald told him not to, and there was no third option. He couldn’t defy both of them so his only real agency was deciding which one to ignore.
His act of performative defiance would have to take place at some other time.
The trip down this deterministic rabbit hole took up half of Thomas’s morning somehow, and soon it was well past time for him to have left in order to make it to the office as scheduled, especially if he intended to exit the apartment in clothing. In this way, he managed to make a decision by failing to make any decisions.
Close enough, he thought. He put on his bathrobe, turned on the living room television, and went about finding something to eat.
An hour later, he decided it would be best if he let Tina know that due to a difficult-to-describe decision-point paralysis he would not be leaving the apartment today. (He would find a better way to phrase that.) So, he called the office.
It went straight to voicemail, directing him to press zero to hear the directory listing the other available realtors, given Tina’s current unavailability. He pressed zero and listened to all the names, noting as he did so that his name was no longer an option.
He tried Ciera next and got the same message about pressing zero. Same with Indira, and Doug, Louis and Ned. Not even Carl was picking up.
Thomas’s paranoia spoke up to suggest that they were all perhaps avoiding him, but that was ridiculous; he was expected there a half an hour ago. If anything, they should have been eager to hear from him.
That was when he noticed the chyron on the bottom of the television screen. He’d been watching an episode of a serialized fantasy series about which he knew nothing (it had magic and vampires and looked sort of cool) but now there was a bulletin at the bottom, which read, DOWNTOWN EXPLOSION ROCKS CITY. A few seconds later, a local news anchor was apologizing for interrupting the regular programming, but the “possible gas main eruption” that destroyed two blocks of businesses downtown was too important to wait for the News at Noon.
The anchor read off the location, while at the same time a camera shot from a drone over the city confirmed the same thing visually: the real estate office was right in the middle of the blast.
The police were at Thomas’s door a week later.
He’d spent most of that week in his bathrobe, with the clothes he would have died in still draped on the chair in his bedroom. Both of the times Thom left the house was for food, and he only did so after giving Gerald plenty of opportunity to notify him not to, if he were so inclined.
He was not. Once again, the alien didn’t show, which was terrible. Thomas would have been in the office when the gas main exploded were it not for Gerald, and now Thom was afraid to do anything at all. His new way of taking charge of his own life was to say no when the world said you should really leave the apartment.
The local news’s ongoing forensics of the downtown explosion was utterly engrossing. The death count was up to forty-nine, with over two hundred injuries. Tina was one of the forty-nine and so was Doug, and Louis, and Ciera. Indira wasn’t, nor Ned or Carl. So far. They were still adding to the list.
Thomas wasn’t being counted among the dead either. Nobody had called or come by for a wellness check and it wasn’t a secret that he was supposed to be there at around the time the explosion happened, and he hadn’t told anyone that he was still alive, but they hadn’t declared him dead anyway.
This led to Thomas being unduly preoccupied with the mechanism involved in developing an accurate headcount. The real estate office was at the epicenter of the explosion so there were no bodies to recover, which probably meant the only way to get included among the dead was to have someone report you missing. Self-evidently, there was nobody in Thomas’s life who could do that. (Aside from Gerald, who they probably wouldn’t believe.) This meant, perversely, that if Thomas was in the office at that time, he still wouldn’t be counted among the dead.
For about an hour, Thomas took seriously the notion that he had gone down there and was currently dead.
He resolved this by ordering a pizza.
Because of his new asceticism, when the police arrived at the door they didn’t get to meet the young, successful, definitely-going-places version of Thomas he had intended to convey by wearing the clothes draped on the chair. They got to meet someone who hadn’t shaved in seven days or showered in three, and hadn’t held a proper conversation with another human being in about two weeks.
It was not a good first impression.
The lead detective introduced himself, asked if Thomas was indeed Thomas, and then asked if he and the two uniformed officers waiting in the hall could all please come inside to have a conversation.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone,” Thomas said, as if this wasn’t obvious. Aside from the facial hair and—presumably, although he couldn’t smell it himself—three days of funk, he was in a bathrobe and boxers, with no shirt.
“We’re not looking for a dinner party,” the detective said. “We just need to ask you a few questions.”
His name was Naughton. He had a disarming smile.
“Sure, come on in,” Thom said.
Naughton took a look at the couch, and the pizza boxes on the floor next to the couch, and opted for the folding chair in the corner instead. (The couch was the only thing Thom had in the living room to sit upon. The folding chair was there if he ever had more than two people over, which had not yet happened.)
“Is this about the explosion?” Thom asked, sitting in his usual spot on the couch. He realized the television was still on, so he clicked it off with the remote, to be polite.
“It is, yes,” Naughton said. “I understand you were supposed to be downtown that day. Is that right?”
“I was, but I decided not to go. Lucky me, right?”
“Very lucky. Very lucky. You were meeting with Mrs. Wainscot?”
“Tina, yeah. I was clearing out. But, you know, I figured I could do that another day.”
“You changed your mind.”
“Right. Okay.” He flipped to another page in his notes. Naughton was working off a small pad of paper. It seemed inefficient, but Thomas didn’t think it was his place to say so.
“You were also involved in an incident about a week earlier, is that right? A Mr. Fellowes was hospitalized? Carl Fellowes?”
“That was . . . yes. Yes, that’s true, but what does that have to do with the explosion? Did Carl say something?”
Naughton didn’t answer that.
“According to the report, you assaulted Mr. Fellowes, which is what led to Mrs. Wainscot’s decision to sever, is that essentially correct?”
“He wasn’t in the hospital,” Thomas said. “Carl. He wasn’t in the hospital. They checked him out and he went home. Didn’t stay overnight.”
“Must’ve really pissed you off,” the detective said, smiling.
“Sure, I guess.”
He closed his notepad.
“Look, Thom—can I call you Thom?”
“Thom, this is just a loose end, do you understand?”
“Not really, no.”
“A loose end. You punch your friend Carl in the face—”
“Carl isn’t my friend.”
“All right. You punch your business associate Carl in the face because he made you angry. You lose your job. Boss asks you to come in and clear out your desk. You don’t go in, and boom. The whole block goes up. You see where I’m going?”
“Not at all.”
He grumbled and looked at his notes again.
“Why don’t you tell me why you weren’t there that day?” he asked.
“I told you, I decided not to go.”
“But why did you decide not to go? I mean, that’s pretty lucky, right? A little more luck than makes sense from where I’m sitting.”
It’d been a long time since Thom had interacted with another human being. It wasn’t as fun as he remembered.
“It was an accident,” Thom said.
“You weren’t there by accident?”
“The gas main. What does it matter why I wasn’t there if it was an accident?”
Naughton looked at one of the uniformed cops with a comically exaggerated what is he talking about? expression. The cop shrugged.
Thom didn’t know where the other cop went.
Is my apartment being searched right now? he wondered.
“Who told you it was an accident?” Naughton asked.
Thom pointed at the television. “Everyone,” he said. “That’s what they’re saying on the news.”
“Sure, they’re saying that now. The thing about a blast this big, it’s really hard to pinpoint whether something happened just because, or if someone meant for it to happen.”
“Sure, like terrorists. Except they like to brag about this kinda thing and we haven’t heard anybody doing that. Look, Thom, just tell me what made you decide not to go in that day, I’ll write it down in my notebook here, and we’ll be on our way. You can go back to . . . whatever you’ve got going on here.”
“It was a friend, that’s all. A friend talked me out of it.”
“A friend like Carl?”
“Carl’s not a friend of mine,” Thomas said, maybe too loudly. “I thought I told you that.”
“Whoa, whoa, take it down. Okay, a real friend, then. Not the kind of friend you send to the hospital. A different kind. What’s this friend’s name?”
“Excellent. Last name?”
“I don’t think he has one.”
“No last name?”
“If he has a last name, I don’t know it.”
“Sure. But we’re gonna have to talk to Gerald,” Naughton said. “So, help us out. You got an address? A phone number?”
“I, ah, I don’t think that will be possible. I don’t know when he’ll be back, and he only talks to me.”
“Right. Right. Here’s the thing, Thom . . .” He rubbed his face and looked at the ceiling, like a guy in a play who’d forgotten his lines. “Let’s say it wasn’t a gas main explosion. No, that’s not right. Let’s say something else happened first, and this thing that happened first triggered the gas main explosion. Let’s call this thing that happened first a bomb.”
“There was a bomb?”
“I’m not saying there was. I’m saying, what if? What if there was a bomb, and that bomb happened to be directly under the real estate office where you were supposed to be that morning. Now it’s possible that whoever put the bomb there didn’t even know they were putting it next to the gas pipeline cutoff, and that detonating something right there would ignite two city blocks. I mean, oops, right?”
“But that’s not what happened,” Thom said. “On the news, they were talking about a utilities maintenance breakdown.”
“Sure. Sure. Just use your imagination for a sec. So now we have a problem, don’t we?”
“I’m not following.”
“The problem is your friend Gerald knew about the bomb before it went off, and since nobody else did—cos it hadn’t gone off yet—that means your friend Gerald just might have had something to do with the bomb being there in the first place.”
“But, he didn’t,” Thom said. “He wouldn’t have. And . . . and there wasn’t a bomb.”
“Then how did he know?”
“I’m not sure, but he could . . . anything could be possible with him, because he’s . . .”
He’s an alien, Thom thought. He can see the future.
“He’s what, Thom?”
Thomas didn’t know how to finish his sentence with anything other than the truth, so he didn’t.
“Is he an alien, Thomas?” Naughton asked.
The police can read my mind too, he thought. Oh no.
“What did you say?” Thom asked.
“It’s just something we heard from a couple of people. Go ahead, you can tell me. Is your friend Gerald an alien?”
“It’s . . . it’s not like that. You probably think I’m . . . I probably sound crazy, but he proved it to me.”
“By telling you not to go into the office?”
“No. Yes, but . . . he read from the book. He read from the book on my nightstand. Do you understand?”
“Sure, Thomas. I understand.”
Detective Naughton took him into custody then, but he didn’t go to jail. He’d already been in the jail once, overnight, after he punched Carl, and didn’t like it very much. He was sort of relieved when they brought him to a psychiatric hospital instead.
“For observation,” was what he was told. This sounded like something optional, but it wasn’t; he wouldn’t be allowed to leave.
They did give him his own room, which was okay. It came with a cot, a toilet, plush walls, and paper clothing for him to wear around. When he asked what the difference was between being under arrest and being held for observation—like, could he get a lawyer, and would they let him out once they realized there was no bomb—he couldn’t get a clear answer. Lots of shrugs and don’t worry about it and we’ll talk more about that soon.
Pinning his release on the absence of a bomb was a little treacherous, only because there might well have been one. He didn’t put it there, but he couldn’t speak for Gerald. Not that this made any sense at all. Why would a space alien commit an act of terrorism?
Shortly after his arrival, Thom had the first of many long conversations with a Dr. Blatt. Blatt seemed a lot more interested in Gerald than in the lack of a bomb.
“I didn’t think he was real either at first,” Thom explained. He thought at least acknowledging that this sounded improbable—that Dr. Blatt and Detective Naughton were likely coming from a place of total disbelief, and that this was reasonable—was a good way to start. “I was even going to speak to a psychiatrist about it. But then Gerald proved he was real, so I didn’t think I needed to.”
He went on to list the ways the alien had proven himself. Blatt wrote down everything, but didn’t look all that impressed.
“I’m particularly interested in the day he told you not to go into work,” Blatt said. “Was this the first time he’d given you a set of instructions?”
“It was, yes. Before that, we just talked. Well, he talked. I listened to what he said and thought about what the questions meant until I knew why he asked them.”
“I see. He didn’t tell you to do . . . anything else?”
“No, he didn’t.”
Blatt nodded, and wrote that down.
“Now, these questions your friend Gerald asked,” he said “How did they make you feel?”
“Confused, I guess.”
“Confused and angry?”
“Yeah, a little,” Thom said. “But not at him.”
“Did you act on that anger?”
Thomas sighed. “Not in the way you’re thinking of.”
“What way is that?”
By setting off a bomb, he thought. “I didn’t hurt anyone.”
“But you did. You sent someone to the hospital.”
“That was for something Carl said about Gerald, not about something Gerald said.”
Thomas must have raised his voice when he said this because one of the burly orderlies in the room stepped forward. Blatt waved him off.
“And yet Gerald’s words made you angry,” Blatt said. “You’ve already said so.”
Thomas realized that Blatt had yet to refer to Gerald as an alien, and wondered why that was. Surely this was an important detail.
“Yes,” Thom said.
“Why is that? Do his words still make you angry?”
“Yes, but at myself. And maybe the world.”
“Ah,” Blatt said. He wrote that down like it was important.
“What I mean is . . . I can’t remember the last time I was happy. I got the job I was supposed to get to earn the income I was told I needed to have. It paid for the apartment I should have wanted and the car I ought to have enjoyed and I didn’t really want any of it. I hate my life and I want to stop living it but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”
“You have suicidal thoughts?”
“No . . . no, you’re not listening. I didn’t want to live this life. Look, it’s like . . . like I’ve been sold something I don’t want. Like a bad timeshare deal, right? But I’ve sunk so much into it now, I don’t know how to get out. So yeah, I’ve been angry. Gerald’s questions got me there, sure. But I should have asked those questions myself and if not, someone else in my life should have. Like my supposed friends. Like Carl. Somebody should have said something. But to be honest with you, Dr. Blatt, I think they’re just as unhappy as I am. Or were, I guess.”
Blatt made a ton of notes, which delayed his response.
“You wanted a way out of your life,” Blatt said. “Is that fair? Start over again?”
“Yes. But I didn’t know what I wanted to replace it with. I still don’t. Everything I had was supposed to be enough, so I never looked into my other options.”
“What do you think Gerald’s role in all of this was?”
“I think . . . I think he wanted to understand. But the more he asked the less I understood.”
“Of course. So, at what point did you decide you wanted to blow it all up?”
“Your life, I mean. Was it after the incident in the bar or before?”
“I didn’t say blow it all up. You said that.”
“Blow up the . . . bad timeshare deal of your life. Is that better?”
“No, it’s not. Don’t put down that I said blow up, I never said that.”
“No, of course not,” Blatt said. “Tell you what, let’s end here. We can pick this up again tomorrow.”
Thom didn’t mind being locked up in the hospital all that much. The food was okay, and while the word antipsychotics was floated—by Blatt and by a couple of the nurses—unless it was in the food, nobody was drugging him. He was regularly followed around by large orderlies in case it looked like he wanted to hurt someone, but that was only likely if Carl showed up. Otherwise, he was fine.
The sessions with Blatt didn’t improve any. The doctor kept pushing Thom to admit to doing something he didn’t do, rather than discuss what he actually wanted to talk about, i.e., what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be something conducted on the inside of a hospital, or in a prison. He told Blatt this, but the doctor didn’t want to hear about it.
After a couple of weeks (probably; it was hard to keep track) Thom started asking why he was still there. Naughton hadn’t returned to file charges of any kind, which probably meant they hadn’t found any evidence of an explosive. That being the case, they had no reason to continue to hold him.
“We only want what’s best for you,” was what Blatt said.
Another time, Thom asked Blatt what part of his story sounded crazy to the doctor: the alien, or everything he said about hating his life.
“We don’t use the word crazy around here,” Blatt said. Then he didn’t answer the question.
Thomas did figure out what he wanted, eventually. The problem was, he would need Gerald’s help, and his alien friend had stopped visiting. He still talked to Gerald every night before falling asleep. There were probably listening devices in the room, recording everything, but he didn’t care. Gerald was listening too. He was sure of it.
“I know what I want now,” he said, on the first night in which it was a true statement. “Please come back.”
He said it again the next night, and the next. In session with Blatt, the doctor tried to steer him into explaining what it was that he knew he wanted—they were definitely listening—but Thomas refused to say.
The fourth night, Gerald returned.
Thomas was paralyzed, as always. His gray-skinned alien friend loomed over him, taller somehow in the big, square, featureless hospital room, with nothing available to provide scale. He was in his black cloak and hood. His enormous eyes set in his bulbous head stared at Thomas, somehow kindly.
“How are you feeling?” Gerald asked.
I’m sorry I doubted you before, Thom thought. I didn’t understand.
“You know what you want now,” Gerald said. It wasn’t a question. Thomas wondered if the alien knew what he was going to say.
Yes. I want you to take me with you.
The alien nodded slowly.
Is it possible?
Thomas’s eyes teared up. He was so happy.
Gerald smiled with his tiny mouth, unrolled his too-long fingers, and held out his hand.
“All you have to do is take my hand and we’ll leave this place tonight.”
But I can’t, Thomas thought. I can’t move.
“You can if you try hard enough,” Gerald said.
Thomas tried very, very hard. His fingers twitched.
Is this a dream? he asked.
“Keep trying,” Gerald said.
It had to be a dream because he’d never once been able to move anything but his eyes as long as Gerald was in the room. As soon as he did move, the alien would disappear. Every time.
He raised his arm, and Gerald was still there.
“How am I doing this?” Thomas asked.
“The paralysis was never my doing, Thomas.”
Thomas interlocked his fingers with that of his friend’s. The skin was cool and smooth.
“Very good,” Gerald said. “Now, come with me.”
There was a dark void where the wall used to be. Gerald walked him to the edge of it.
“What’s on the other side?” Thom asked. “I can’t see anything.”
“You have to step through first,” Gerald said. “Are you ready?”
“I’m ready,” Thomas said.
Gerald squeezed his hand, Thomas closed his eyes, and the two walked toward the unknown together.
Gene Doucette is the author of over twenty sci-fi/fantasy titles, including The Spaceship Next Door and The Frequency of Aliens, the Immortal series, the Tandemstar books, and The Apocalypse Seven (2021). Gene lives in Cambridge MA.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINEto read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue, which also features work by Kat Howard, Howard Andrew Jones, Rich Larson, Carrie Vaughn, Andrea Kriz, Kristina Ten, Nelson Rolo, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.
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