Surreal

The Fog

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Fog curls around my ankles like creeping vines, and all I can think as I stand there in the dark, surrounded by death, and stare up at a cold and lifeless sky, is how the world wasn’t always like this—how it was once bright, how it was once young and new, pristine and undefiled, a shining luminescent jewel that inspired wonder rather than fear and hope rather than despair.

But those days are gone, dead and buried along with most of the population. I watch dark and dangerous clouds gather in a dusky blood-red sky, and when I tire of watching the wounded horizon, my eyes drift back to the ground and the swell of fog churning at my feet.

What secrets does the fog conceal? What hidden horrors lurk beneath its tainted gunsmoke exterior? I feel the weight of its touch as it swirls above the ground, and if I strain my ears, if I focus on the many silences of the world and the dead things in between, I can hear it speak.

Your life belongs to me.

I used to hear its call as a child, either at night before the flames of a dwindling fire, or during the day in the dark alleys of an ancient city turned graveyard. It’s always reaching out, trolling the tenebrous waters of a forsaken world in search of prey, and there’s always someone who listens. As for myself, its call has grown more insistent, and as time wears on, as I pass through the threshold from youth into old age, the lunatic cry becomes increasingly difficult to resist.

Your life belongs to me, it says every night before I fall asleep and every morning when first I wake, and every day, I find myself more inclined to agree.

Now, here I stand, broken and defeated. I can fight the fog no longer, and though my mind urges me to run away, to flee into those few remaining corners of the world where the fog hasn’t gained a foothold, I have not the strength to go on.

Once, I think as the fog creeps up my legs, life was worth protecting. Now, what is there to look forward to each day but a bloated, terminally diseased sky? What is there to pass on to future generations? The fog took away our reason to live, and now that it’s prevailed, what is left to do but answer its death call?

Your life belongs to me, it says, sweeping up my back and my chest, over my shoulders and my head, and when that fetid off-white mist pierces my lips, when it shoots down my throat and into my lungs, I give in at last.

Your life belongs to me, it says again, and just before I close my eyes, just before the last of the oxygen is squeezed from my lungs and the final darkness of death blossoms before my fading vision, I hear my silent reply.

Take me away, I say, and the fog does exactly as I command.

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Oracle

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I apologize for making you uncomfortable. I know many find the way I stare unsettling, and like you, they always look away, hoping I won’t notice their awkward shoulder shrugs or the way they turn their heads.

I don’t do it on purpose. It’s just the way I am. It makes me uncomfortable, too, and while you might have to contend with a stranger’s awkward stare, what I have to deal with is far worse.

They found me in a crack house when I was an infant, unwanted and unloved. If not for their intervention, I wouldn’t be alive today. Sometimes, I wonder if they ever truly loved me. Their concern for my well being seemed genuine, but at the end of the day, I was human and they were not. On some fundamental level, a communion of equal minds was impossible, and when I look back, I wonder if I might just have been some alien child’s adopted puppy or kitten.

Either way, they turned me loose upon the Earth on my eighteenth birthday. It was hard going at first, with no human schooling or skills. Human relationships and social interactions were a mystery to me, and it was a while before I learned how to eke out a modest living for myself.

Most challenging of all was coming to grips with how other humans perceive time. For most, it’s a line that flows in only one direction, when in reality it’s more like a universe, expansive, multidimensional, and bubbling with probabilities. My caretakers perceived this truth, and they no doubt passed it on to me.

Like an oracle, when I behold the world and the creatures who inhabit it, I see their futures, fanning out before them like an endless cosmic sea. I view both good fortunes and bad—unexpected inheritances, reunited families, forthcoming promotions, and financial prosperity; or else addiction, poverty, gruesome murders, and terminal diseases. I have a morbid fascination with the latter, and though I do my best to ignore these dark and pallid visions, sometimes, like a trainwreck or a fatal car accident, it’s impossible to look away.

As for the terrible things I see in your future, well, I’d rather not say. Humans are better off not knowing their fortunes. I understand this from experience. Just know that I wish you all the best, that if our paths should ever cross again, I mean you no harm. As I’ve told you already, I don’t mean to stare.

It’s just the way I am.

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Into the Dark

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I should have known there’d be a price. There always is. But I was a struggling independent writer. I’d plunked most of my life’s savings into a creative business that was pulling in less than a hundred dollars per month and I was desperate. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a life preserver, you take it. You don’t ask how and you don’t ask why. I wish to God that I had, but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?”

It was almost three in the morning when I heard his voice for the first time. I was sitting at my laptop, poring over credit card statements and wondering how much longer I could stay afloat before crushing debt put an end to my artistic ambitions (“Follow your dreams,” people used to say when I was younger. But dreams, as it turned out, didn’t pay the rent.)

I should have been alone, and when I heard those words I stumbled, tripped over my desk chair, and tumbled to the floor. I looked up, heart stampeding, and there in the shadows stood a man, filling the open bedroom doorway.

“Few things are more heartbreaking than an artist who’s tried and failed to make a living from his work.”

Who are you?

That was the question I wanted to ask, only I couldn’t speak. The man stepped forward just as I scrambled to my feet, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered how long I had left to live before he pulled out a gun or a knife.

“I’m a friend,” he said as if he’d heard my unspoken question, and in retrospect, I believe he did. His voice was deep and resonant and seemed to fill all the empty pockets of the world. It was enigmatic, hypnotic, and before long I felt my terror drain from me like a leaky faucet.

“I know what you’re going through. All that money wasted on failed marketing. All that time invested in words that sit in some obscure corner of the internet, never to be read again. All you want is to support yourself while doing what you love, to be understood and appreciated in the process, and every day, life finds another way to teach you how foolish you were for even trying.”

“Yes,” I said, head bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box.

I was no longer afraid, yet there remained a lingering sense of wrongness, like a veneer of smog over an otherwise beautiful day. I knew I should be scared, but at that moment I couldn’t articulate why. The uninvited stranger’s presence in my home seemed, just then, to be the most natural thing in the world, and I found myself agreeing with everything he said.

“Yes,” I said again. “That’s exactly right.”

“No one cares how hard you work or how much debt you accrue. It’s a travesty the arts today are so undervalued. Ah, well. That’s why I’ve come. Together, we can create something that will change the world forever. With my help, you’ll reach unparalleled levels of fame. Your money problems will disappear. Most importantly, people will read your work and listen to what you have to say. You can have everything you’ve ever dreamed of and more. All you have to do is accept my help and agree to work with me.”

Even in that hypnotic state, my mind managed to sound the alarm. Don’t do it, that part of myself urged. Don’t give him what he wants.

And he did want something, of that much, at least, I was certain. But his words had drilled down into a primal region of my heart that knew only a raw and excruciating hunger for success.

The man’s eyes had found my own, and despite the advanced darkness of the night they seemed to glow. I can help you, his gaze seemed to say, and God help me, I took the bait.

“God, yes. Help me, please.”

The man smiled. His head dropped in a half bow, and just before he lifted his eyes, I thought I felt the fabric of reality itself shift beneath my feet.

Then, all at once, he was gone. I blinked, bleary-eyed, and looked around, as if he hadn’t just vanished before my eyes. I could still feel whatever was in my head preventing me from being afraid, but that was no longer important, no longer a worthy subject of study, because now my mind was bursting with ideas. Too many ideas. Dark, twisted, sinister ideas. They throbbed in my temples like a migraine, and the only way to ease the pain was to sit before my laptop, fingers splayed across the keyboard, and loose them into the world.

My recollection of everything that’s happened since is vague and riddled with gaps. I know only that in the months that followed, I took the internet by storm. The dark and haunting themes that invaded my mind each night seemed at last to strike a societal chord, and the sort of viral response I’d spent thousands of dollars each month trying to manufacture came about organically.

Every now and then, I would hear the stranger’s voice. “I am with you,” he would say. “Come, follow me into the dark.” And, God help me, that’s exactly what I did.

Never before had the stories in my head been so vile or corrupt, and with each blog post, with each podcast, with each self-published book, I was certain I’d gone too far, that my readers would abandon me, that the stranger’s promise to help would come to naught in the end.

Now, almost a year later, I’m a celebrity. I’m bigger than Neil Gaiman, than Stephen King. I sit down at my laptop each night to regurgitate the strange and otherworldly terrors in my heart, and like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I use them to lead people into the dark.

I realize now that I’m his vessel, that through the work of my hands he intends to carry out his dark designs. I know that what I’m doing is wrong, that if I had any shred of decency left I would pull the plug on my writing for good and salvage whatever wreckage of my soul survives. But I can’t stop. I’ve accomplished too much, invested too much, and as they say in poker, I’m all-in.

So I soldier on, and as I lead the world forward into the dark, I try not to think of what the stranger might do to us when we get there.

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