Cover Made by Kat (crystalangelwings on deviantART)
It's very small. Almost unnoticeable. If I wasn't watching for it, I might have never seen it. But I do see it, and now I can't stop looking at it.
Right above Eric's shoulder, the air is flickering. It's like a small, isolated heat mirage, except we're in a grocery store right next to the freezers, and the chill coming off of them is making my skin prickle. It's almost like there's an invisible candle suspended in the air, waving and flitting in the sensual way fire always does.
"Lisa," Eric says. I blink and draw my eyes away from the flickering, letting them rest on the strong-jawed, slightly stubbly, well-sculpted face of my boyfriend. No, boyfriend doesn't sound right; too small, too childish. Eric is more to me than that. He is my sunrise, my sunset, my champion, friend, confidant, lover, and fiancé. Well, no… not yet. But it's as good as happened by this point. He is my Eric.
"What?" I murmur, because I haven't heard a word he said. I glance back at the space above his shoulder, but the flickering is gone.
Eric rolls his eyes. "You are such a distracted woman," he says. "Wouldn't a CEO have more focus than that?"
The words would probably sting if it weren't Eric who said them. And he's right, I should be more attentive. But that damn flickering…
"Lisa?" he asks, and I realize that I still haven't replied. He looks concerned, and I smile at him to show him that I'm all right.
"I'm sorry, Eric, I guess I'm just a little tired. That's all."
I hate lying to him, but it's necessary. He wouldn't understand what's happening. I don't even think that I do.
Eric gives me a look like he doesn't believe me, but is going to let it slide because it's me we're talking about and I'll come to him with my problems when I'm good and ready, thank you very much. CEOs don't whine until they need to. It's how they become CEOs.
"I was just asking about some of the appetizers," he says, gesturing to the freezer beside us. "See anything you like? It is your party, after all."
I study the contents of the icy vault, half hidden behind a glittering sheen of ice. Nothing really jumps out at me, but I know that Eric wants me to pick something, so I open the door and grab several bags of pizza rolls. I know he likes them. Who doesn't? They're pizza rolls.
We go through the rest of our shopping list very quickly; Eric is some kind of shopping wizard. He asks me things, and from the vague words I pick up I manage to say "yes" or "no" or some combination of both. I'm busy searching for the flickering again, but it doesn't show itself. We check out and carry the bags and bags of food out to the car.
It's fall in northern Texas, so it's not really warm but not really cold, either. The sun is beginning to set and is painting the dark blue canvas sky with wide streaks of gold and violet. A light but full breeze wafts across the parking lot, picking up my hair and twirling it around my face. I love the evening; it is where the beauty of the sun and the earth and their interaction becomes the most obvious. If time suddenly stopped and we had a continuous evening for the rest of eternity, I would be the last one to complain.
Beside me, there is a small embankment with some young, wispy trees planted in it, separating the parking spots from the paths you drive on. One of them blinks, then disappears.
I hear my knuckles crack as I grip the handle of the shopping cart. Did I really just see what I thought I just saw?
You'll barely notice it at first. It'll sneak up on you, taking its sweet old time, and suddenly you can't ignore it. It's everywhere.
"Lisa?" Eric asks, worry in his voice. I grab his arm, and I don't notice that I'm clutching it with all the strength I have.
"Eric," I say slowly. "Did you see something? Just now? Something there?"
"Something like what?" he asks, sounding confused. "It's a parking lot, Lisa. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
"How many trees were planted over there?" I ask. "Five?"
"I didn't see," he says. "But there's five there now."
What? I blink hard and stare, and see that he's right. There are five trees. Were there always five? Or had there been six?
"Lisa, I'm starting to worry about you," Eric says, rubbing my shoulders. "You seem more than distracted, you seem off."
I close my eyes and relax against his strong chest for a moment, trying to clear my head. In the resulting empty space, his words ring clear.
It will start small. A misplaced set of keys, a crooked picture frame. But then it gets bigger. Stronger. Things will flicker and shift. They'll move when they're not supposed to. And that's when you know.
"Come on, we're going home," Eric says, guiding me forwards again. "You need sleep."
I always drive. Always. But this time, he does.
Our house is large and majestic (I'm the one to thank for that), with a long, dark roof and dark trimmed windows. The walls are a shade of gray that also hints at smoky blue.
A large banner is tied above the garage for the party tomorrow. Eric had put it up this morning because he had found the time. When he finds the time to do something, he does it. Immediately. Neither of us has ever procrastinated.
The banner holds two words, but they're written so large, it couldn't possibly hope to fit any more. CONGRATULATIONS, LISA. Congratulations indeed, Lisa. Job well done.
I suppose the praise isn't unwarranted, as conceited as it might sound. My company does its job by helping other companies. We ship, we manage, and we prioritize. It sounds terribly boring, even to me, but I'm CEO and I have to be interested in that kind of stuff. Sometimes I look back and wonder how I got to be CEO of Canyons Limited. It seems like a blur, but at some point I must have been interested in that kind of stuff. Managing and overseeing and controlling. I do like to be in charge. Maybe that's how I got here.
I recently got Canyons Limited into China. The papers were talking about all of the billions of dollars I'll make. I only signed the papers.
Eric decided to throw me a party. Both of our families will be there, right up from the closest grandmother to the furthest branches of our tree, when you start getting into the mother's father's grandfather's nephew's grandnephew's cousins. Some of those people.
I've never been one for parties, but Eric seems concerned about my lack of enthusiasm this time around. He seems to think that becoming a billionaire should make me happier. I think he's trying to explain it by saying that the intense negotiations with China wore me out.
I know I'm distracted. I know that I should be focusing more on the party and my job and my family and all the beautiful things in life that you should pay attention to. But I keep hearing those words and seeing those signs. The flickers in the air; the shifts, the changes. Just like he said.
I am searching for my tell.
The tell is the one detail that is yours. It's what convinces you. It's more dramatic than the other signs. If they even exist, which I'm still debating. The other option would be that I'm crazy, and that's not a very good option either.
He had told me that his tell was a separation. He tried to explain that something happened to the horizon when the sun hit it each night, an aspect that broke and revealed something truer underneath. I had never understood it. I thought it was a joke back then. An entertaining story for little kids. Like I had been.
Eric suddenly hugs me from behind, and I can feel his lips and his stubble lightly brushing my neck. He breathes out, and I can't help but shiver just a little.
His hands find my shoulders and begin to massage them. Eric has wonderful fingers. They seem to know exactly where each little knot of tension lives, and how to slowly unravel it. I sink like putty in his arms, but suddenly I see it again.
The air above our house is flickering.
I must tense up, because Eric suddenly stops. " Baby, you okay?" he asks softly.
I cannot answer, for I am studying the flickering. I can't tell if it's three-dimensional or flat; like a mist or cloud or like a halo of light. It winks and bends just like a candle, making the slowly darkening sky dance behind it. The sun is setting, a great glowing ornament hung on a velvet tapestry. And suddenly, the flickering and the glowing meet.
There is a burst of light. It is brief and it is beautiful, more beautiful than anything I could have imagined; every color I have ever seen and thousands more I have never dreamed splayed across the wide Texas sky like a lighthouse beacon. Like a glorious torch, held high in victory. Like a star dying. Or maybe a star being born.
It's so abrupt that I almost think I imagined it. The flickering is gone and the sun is setting, and Eric rests his chin on my shoulder and sighs happily.
"What a wonderful sunset," he says. I think for a moment that he saw the burst too, but he couldn't have. Because the burst scared me. Eric is not scared, so he couldn't have seen it.
This is not my tell. I do not think that it is his tell, either, the one he told me was his and his alone. This is just another step, although I am not sure in which direction.
The moon is full and bright, as bright as the sun. The sky is vast, sparkling with stars like diamonds. It seems empty, but full. I can tell, staring up into it, that untold wonders populate its depths.
The window is open, and the milky light of the moon drifts in uninterrupted, washing our bodies in an alabaster glow. We need only a sheet to cover us, as the air is warm and calm. Eric sleeps deeply, his right arm resting over me as we lie nestled together. We fit perfectly.
As soon as Eric is asleep, he is asleep for good. And usually, his even breathing is enough to let me drift off, no matter how stressed I am. Tonight, though, I seem unable. I lie with him and stare at the moon and do not sleep.
After the sun had set, nothing strange had happened. We had put away the groceries for the party tomorrow and had made some tea, like we always do. I don't quite remember when my teabag had left the cup and where it had gone, but maybe that was nothing. And then we watched some television, like we always do. Mindless reality shows and news channels and comedies where we laugh at people hurting themselves for money. And then we were in bed. I don't remember coming here, but here I am.
I am reminded of fabric unraveling. Or a piece of paper ripping in half.
Suddenly the bedroom seems hot, unbearably so. Eric doesn't seem to notice, but I do. I carefully extract myself from his sleeping embrace and walk over to the open window. It sticks out of the roof at the top of the house, and sloping shingles surround me. I hop onto the windowsill and climb out.
It's very quiet up here. I sit at the crest of the house, knees to my chest, listening to the earth and the night as the breeze wafts my hair around me. I don't come here often. Just when I really need to think.
What are these signs? What do they mean?
It is these signs that vex me. I remember he told me about them so long ago, but he can't have been right, can he? He was a known alcoholic, although he swore he hadn't touched a bottle in months. Everyone knew he was a little crazy. Even I knew, although I loved him with all my heart.
Whatever these signs actually mean, I know I see them. At least, I think I do. But what does it mean if I see them? I'm not crazy, am I? Crazy like him? I can't afford to be crazy.
The horizon begins to flicker. I watch it carefully. It's not my tell, but it's bigger than any flickering I've seen before. That must mean something.
It will start small. But then it gets bigger.
I've been avoiding it. Avoiding it for years. But I have to think of that night.
I am five or seven. Probably somewhere in between. It must have been important to me back when it was happening, but now I can't quite remember. Not that it matters.
It is Thanksgiving at my aunt's house. She has a giant ranch right smack in the heart of Texas, and every year the entire family flocks there like migrating birds and eat and shout at the football game on television and eat and tell stories and eat some more.
I am the only child of my age at the gathering. My closest peers are in high school, and it seems below them to talk to me. It seems below most people. I am usually alone.
Except for Uncle Joseph.
Everyone thinks Uncle Joseph is crazy, and maybe he is. He drinks. He tells wild stories. But for a little girl feeling lonely when her closest family surrounds her, he is a blessing. No one wants to talk to him. No one wants to talk to me. We have great conversations.
For this Thanksgiving, I am extra eager to see Uncle Joseph. For the past several times I've seen him, he has been building on a single story. It is extra entertaining because he makes up evidence and brings it to me for my inspection, like the story is real and he needs my help in solving this great mystery. With the enthusiasm he tells it, I can almost believe that it is. The last time I saw him, he told me he was close to a breakthrough. Whatever this story is leading to, the finale must be happening today.
My parents like to believe that I enjoy the boring conversations they have, so I stay with them for a while, pressing close to Mom's leg, gazing up at the faces and wine glasses of the relatives I can't remember the names of. They ignore me, like usual. I would never expect anything different.
As we eat, Uncle Joseph doesn't catch my eye from the far end of the table. I wonder if something is wrong, because he looks different. His eyes are suspicious beneath his glasses. He sits tense and hunched over, like he's expecting something to suddenly happen. Things keep catching his eye, but when I try to find them too, I can't see anything. No one else seems to notice that anything is wrong, not even his wife. Maybe no one knows him as well as I do. Aunt Judy and Uncle Joseph have been drifting further and further apart for years. I've heard my parents talking about it sometimes.
Uncle Joseph leaves the table as soon as he can, and I slink off to follow him the next chance I get. It takes a while to find him, but eventually I come across an open window in one of the bedrooms. It's strange enough to catch my eye, so I carefully poke my head outside.
Uncle Joseph is standing on the roof. He is facing away from me, but he seems to hear me approach and he turns around. He motions me towards him, his face a mixture of pain and happiness.
I'm slightly confused, but I think this must be a part of the story. I carefully climb out and join him.
"What is it, Uncle Joseph?" I ask him. "What's going on?"
Uncle Joseph gets down on one knee so his eyes are about level with mine. They are a striking shade of amber, very sharp against his aging face and graying hair.
"Lisa, I've figured it out," he tells me earnestly. "It took me a while, but I finally have it."
"You do?" I ask, feeling excited. This does have to do with his story. Everything is going to be fine.
He nods at me, but there's something about his face that concerns me. He doesn't look happy. He has the look of a man who knows what he has to do, but really doesn't want to.
"You remember how I told you I've been noticing things? Things only I can see?"
"Yeah," I say. I remember. It was how this story started out.
"I know why," he says. "I know what these things are, and why they're here. And why only I can see them."
He pauses to take a breath, but then doesn't start talking again. He just stares at me like he can't quite believe what he's seeing.
"Uncle Joseph?" I ask him, nervous.
"Lisa," he says, voice breaking slightly. Tears start to roll down his cheeks. "Lisa, I'm sorry but… but I… I don't think you're real. I don't think any of this is real."
A strange feeling of panic takes root deep in my heart. "Uncle Joseph, don't say things like that. You're scaring me."
"Lisa, I don't want to scare you," he says, wiping his tears on his sleeve and putting his hands on my shoulders. "I really don't. I love you, Lisa, and I love everyone here. But I owe it to them, and to myself, to escape from here. To get back to my real family."
"Uncle Jose-" I start, but he shushes me.
"Lisa, it has to be this way. The things I've been seeing, the signs and fluctuations, they're evidence that this is an imperfect world. This isn't a real world. I don't know why only I can see them. Maybe I'm the only real person in here."
He stops and rubs away one of the tears that has leaked out of my eyes.
"I hope that you're real, Lisa," he says. "I hope that you are. Then maybe one day you can escape, too. Just look for the signs."
He smiles suddenly. "I know that you'll see them. Because you're like me. You'll get out of here one day. Just remember what I told you about the signs. Look for the mistakes, look for your tell. Maybe I'll see you again one day."
He stands up and walks to the edge of the roof. "I love you, Lisa," he says over his shoulder.
And then he jumps.
The memory is so real, so vivid, it takes me a moment to remember that I'm grown up and alone on a different roof, with different tears on my face. Uncle Joseph is long gone, wheeled away under a sheet with a shattered neck and a ridiculous dream. A fantasy.
And now I'm seeing his signs. Does that make me crazy? Or does that make him right?
I shiver and pull my legs closer to my chest. Being here in the dark, alone with my visions, lets me know how frightened I am. I'm not sure whether I'm more scared that this world is real, or that it's not. Both options don't seem very tantalizing to me. The ground is a long way away. An asylum seems even further. Neither is a jump I feel willing to take.
There is no catalyst for the party. No sort of warning, no clouds on the horizon. One minute we were setting out food and the next minute there were countless relatives talking and laughing and drinking. I'm caught in a current of people, an unstoppable flow that shifts me in circular, looping patterns around the house. Everyone wants to talk to the new billionaire.
I try to be a good host, to answer their questions and laugh at their jokes, but I feel distracted. More and more, I see strange flickers hovering about the ceiling. There's been one beside the fridge that simply won't go away. It's exhausting trying to keep track of them all.
I'm suddenly standing in front of my parents. They smile at me and hug me and tell me that we really should try to see each other more; it doesn't matter that they live in Pennsylvania. My father puts a hand on my shoulder, and there's a sparkle in his eyes.
"We're really are proud of you, Lisa," he says. "Your mother and I. We're so happy that you've made something of yourself in this world."
"Yeah?" I say, but I feel off. Sick, even. My vision is starting to blur, and the room is beginning to spin.
And suddenly, I start to see things. There is something strange happening to everyone at this party. Their eyes are dark pits with bright fires burning far within. Fires burn in their chests, too, blazing up through their skin from where their hearts would be. Their skin is dark and dead, their hair lifeless and flat. When they open their mouths, unholy light flows out.
I turn in horror to my parents, who are just like the others. Their soft, familiar features are marred by the strange, foreign inner light. They don't look real. They don't look human. Their glowing smiles suddenly turn to horrid expressions of concern.
"Lisa, what's wrong?" I hear the voice of my father saying, and the figure that looks like him mouths the words. But it is not him. This terrible, horrifying, alien thing cannot be the father that I know and love.
He reaches for me but I jump away from him and his strange, dead hand. I bump into the people behind me and they turn, glowing faces looking confused. What are these things? What are they doing here? Where is my family?
There is a panicked noise rising from my throat that I can't control, and as I stumble and trip across the room it gets more and more hysterical. Everywhere I look I see these strange creatures, their fires searing my eyes and creating an unbearable wall of heat that I cannot bear to touch.
I hear Eric call my name and I whirl around. He is there, fighting through the crowd to reach me, and his dead hands are reaching for me, to hold me. His eyes and heart blaze, and I am so scared because Eric is gone and has been replaced by this… thing. Hot, burning tears run down my face, and I back away from him, biting my lip and shaking my head. Beside me I see the door to the bathroom, standing open, and I leap inside and slam the door shut.
"Lisa!" Eric shouts, and I fall backwards as he throws his weight against the door, shouting for me. I bite my knuckle to keep myself from crying out and curl up against the far wall. Eric cries for me, pleads with me to talk to him, to tell him what's wrong. It hurts my heart because he sounds so scared and it's his real voice, but the thing making it is not him. It's just a shadow of my Eric. For all I know, he could be dead. My heart feels like it's going to break in two.
Everyone at the party looks like these things, have become these things. What do I look like? Filled with a sudden panic, I leap to my feet and run to the mirror. As soon as I rise, the room spins and tips dangerously, and I stumble into the wall. Everything I look at looks like running paint, smudging and fading to nothing. I am filled with a sudden wave of nausea, and I vomit on the floor, unable to even find the toilet. My throat burns.
Arms shaking and weak, I pull myself upright on the sink and stare into the mirror. The image is blurred and washed out, anchored only by my amber eyes, but I can see normal skin. There is no fire. I am normal.
I am the only one who is normal.
What has happened here, to make me the only human left in my house? Maybe even in the whole world? I am surrounded by strange, inhuman, demonic things. Dead men filled with a terrible fire. This is not my family. I don't know where they are, but I need to get to them. I have to protect them.
And it suddenly dawns on me. I am the only real person in the world. In this world. I have to get back to mine.
This is my tell. Uncle Joseph was right. He was right all along.
Uncle Joseph was able to somehow see the errors in this manufactured place, revealed in sunsets. Somehow, I am able to see what these things that replaced all the people really are. I am in a prison, in a false earth, and I have to get out. I must escape.
Sucking in a deep breath and holding it until my heart calms a little, I carefully open the door and step outside. The strange beings are still there, standing around and looking at me with glowing expressions of confusion. Eric's lookalike puts its hands on my shoulders, and I bite my tongue to keep myself from screaming. If I freak out again, these things won't let me do what I need to do.
"Lisa, are you okay?" the Eric-thing asks. "What happened back there?"
"I… uh… I thought I saw something," I say quietly. "I feel a little sick, that's all. A fever."
Eric-thing tries to feel my forehead, but I shy away. I can't bear to let its dead skin touch me.
"Do you need anything?" it asks. "Can I get you anything?"
It's Eric's voice, and it makes my heart melt to hear him so concerned, but I have to remind myself that this is not Eric. This is an imposter.
"I just need to go lie down for a little," I say. "I'll be okay."
The strange, destroyed, flaming face of the Eric-thing relaxes. "Okay," it says. It puts a hand in the small of my back and leads me forward, clearing a path through the crowd of corpses towards the staircase and up towards our room. Outside of the door it turns me around and looks into my eyes with its soulless, dark pits. Far at the bottom, impossibly far, is the unholy light, flickering strangely.
"Tell me if it gets worse," it instructs me. "I'll take you to the hospital."
I nod, and it walks down the hallway. Right before it reaches the stairs, though, it turns.
"I love you," it says. I swallow hard and nod again, because I can't bring myself to say something like that to a thing that isn't my Eric. It leaves.
Once I'm in the bedroom I stride over to the far wall and fling the window open. A cool, stiff breeze reaches me, feeling wonderful on my sweaty, prickling skin. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then climb out onto the roof.
It is quiet and still again, like it was before. As I look around me, though, I can see that the entire horizon is flickering madly, like a boiling sea. Just another reminder of my prison.
I perch on the edge of the roof so my toes are hanging off the edge. It's a strange feeling, hovering over the edge like this. A tugging balance of life and death. Imprisonment and freedom.
"What are you doing?"
I twist to see someone climbing through the window after me, a young girl. She's my niece, Hannah. She's thirteen years old.
She is also completely human.
"Oh my god!" I shout, running over to her. I crash to my knees in front of her, feeling the normal skin of her hands between my own, see her normal face, absent of death and fire. She looks at me with fear in her eyes, backing away.
"What's wrong?" she asks warily. "What are you doing up here?"
"You look normal," I sob. "You're real. I'm not the only one, you're here too!"
"What are you talking about?" Hannah demands of me, and I take a deep, shaking breath.
"Look, Hannah, I have to tell you something," I say, fighting hard to keep my voice steady. "And I have to tell you because you are the only person who can hear this. You must tell no one else, do you understand?"
"Yes…" she says carefully, giving me a confused look. "I won't tell anyone."
"Hannah, I've figured it out," I tell her. "Finally, I've figured it out. It all makes sense, it all points to the same conclusion. I've done it."
"Done what?" Hannah asks.
"My Uncle Joseph told me about it. He told me I would see the signs, and I did," I explain. "I think you'll see them too, because you're real. You'll see them like I did."
Hannah opens her mouth to protest, looking kind of scared, but I interrupt her because I have to be heard. I have to tell her before I go.
"You'll see them," I say. "Imperfections. Flickers. Things will start moving and changing when they shouldn't be moving and changing. It'll be small like that at first, but then more will happen. You'll see your tell."
"My… tell?" she says.
"Yes," I say. "It's a unique thing you see that convinces you that you're trapped. Like, just now, I found mine. I can see what all of these people really are. They're fakes. Monsters. Except for you."
My heart moves for her because she looks so scared, like I was, and I hate to leave her all alone here. I swallow hard and keep talking.
"Hannah, this world isn't real. It's all a fake, a façade, a projection. The sky isn't real; Uncle Joseph could see that. The people aren't real, either; I can see that. You'll see something too, and that's when you'll know. You're one of the only real people in this world. You're like me."
"What?" Hannah blurts out. "That makes no sense! You're going-"
"I can't take you with me," I interrupt again. "You have to find it on your own, when you're ready. You might think it's weird now, but you'll see. You're like me."
I stand up, and when she tries to grab me I break out of her grip.
"Stay here," I command. "Wait for the signs. Hopefully I'll see you soon."
I walk to the edge of the roof and jump.
Six years later.
I gaze at my reflection in the mirror in my room. My hair is flat, my skin is flat. Even my eyes are dull. They're the worst shade of amber anyone could ask for.
My phone suddenly buzzes, and I unlock it. It's a text from Megan.
Hannah, where are you? I've been at the mall for, like, 15 minutes.
I groan and grab my purse, shoving my phone inside. I hate going out in public when I look like this, but I suppose it can't be helped. Everyone has off days.
My car sits in the driveway, freezing in the icy winter sun. Taking care not to touch the frigid metal for too long, I open the door and slide into the seat. In my rearview mirror I can see the billboard that sits across the street for my house, now showing an advertisement for the company Canyons Limited. My Aunt Lisa used to run it before she went insane and jumped off a roof. I had been the last one she had talked to before she died. I guess that can't be helped, either.
I start the car with a sigh and pull out, twisting the wheel and charting out the fastest route to the mall in my head. As I pull onto the road, though, something catches my eye. I'm so distracted by it that I forget to stop for a moment and almost take out my mailbox. I hurriedly stomp on the brake and look harder.
The sidewalk in front of my house is flickering, like I'm seeing it through ripples of water. It bends and warps and twists in a strange, alien way, like there's a heat mirage over it. Even though it's the middle of winter and it's freezing outside. I've never seen anything like it before. I rub my eyes and look again, but it's gone.
I stare at the same spot for a few seconds before shrugging and driving away. It's probably nothing.