He opened his eyes. Confusion swirled around his mind. His head felt thick, his arms heavy. He sat on a wooden bench in a sunny garden, but couldn’t remember where he was, or why he was there.
Over some bushes he saw a reflection in a window. Dark hair, fair skin, blue shirt with no collar.
Is that me?
He looked around, but saw no one else in the garden.
What happened? Why can’t I remember?
Through the window movement caught his eye. He could see people carrying trays toward tables, a line to a cashier: a cafeteria. An old man shuffled slowly across the room, food tray in one hand, wheeled I.V. stand in the other. The bag of translucent fluid swung back and forth as he hobbled, sending a ripple down the tube that fed into the bandage over the crook of his elbow.
The man on the garden bench frowned and looked away from the old man.
A Hospital. Am I sick?
He looked down at his own elbow. No bandages.
Not a patient; a doctor?
On the chest of his shirt large letters were embroidered, upside down from his current vantage. He squinted at them.
RN. A nurse? How is that possible? I don’t know anything about medicine!
Images burst into his mind like a match flaring up in a pitch-black room. He saw himself at a bedside, giving a woman an injection. Another image appeared: he saw himself speaking with a man in a white lab coat who consulted a clipboard. He saw himself smiling, talking with a bald child in a wheelchair. He was pushing the wheelchair through the halls of a hospital. He said something and they both laughed.
Of course I’m a nurse! How could I forget a thing like that!
He ran his fingers through his hair and smiled.
“Must have just dozed off; had some strange dream. Of course… I’m a Nurse…”
He frowned, squinted, and strained.
My name. It’s…
He gripped the seat of the bench with both hands, breathed faster. His scalp itched, began to sweat.
A young voiced called out across the garden.
“Mr. Lincoln! Jack!”
The man sighed with relief. He flopped back against the bench, whispering to himself “Of course: I’m Jack. Jack Lincoln.”
Jack smiled again, suddenly full of elation and energy.
Everything’s gonna be ok.
He turned toward the voice. It was a pale, bald boy in the wheelchair, slowly wheeling himself across the garden, toward Jack.
The boy grinned at him.
“Sorry I’m late. I was afraid I’d miss you.”
Jack stood and turned toward the boy.
“Not a chance! I’d never forget… you… buddy.”
Jack tried to hold his smile, but realized he was nervously scratching the back of his neck, and felt even more awkward.
The boy beamed. “Thanks Mr. Lincoln! Hey, do you have time to finish yesterday’s story?”
Jack sank back down to sit on the bench.
“Oh. Right… the Story.”
His gut churned with guilt and frustration. He looked down, unable to meet the boy’s eyes, then saw a white band wrapped around the boy’s wrist.
Oh thank God!
He squinted to read the letters.
“Of course! Dawson. Jim Dawson. Of course I’ll finish the story, Jim!”
He laughed nervously, then frowned.
“Now… which, uh, story was I telling?”
The boy rolled to a stop next to the bench.
“Aw, C’mon. You know! The one where you killed that ogre with your enchanted crossbow, but then that wizard caught you and trapped you in the dungeon in his penthouse, ‘cause he owns the building, and everybody in it’s his brain slave.”
Jack managed. “Uh…”
He took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead, trying not to look lost. He closed his eyes.
Another burst of visions filled his head. Jack saw himself sitting on this bench, smiling at this boy, who at the time was much thinner, with sunken eyes and his own I.V., but still smiling. He saw a procession of images, all in this garden, at this bench, telling this boy stories. Jack: smiling, laughing, sometimes acting out heroic feats, jumping up on the bench, flailing his arms, demonstrating his expert headlock on a nearby sapling, firing imaginary crossbow bolts from a stick, aiming his eye down it’s length, directly at the smiling boy.
Jack smiled. “Ah, that one! I haven’t told you that one before?”
The boy grinned. “Never! I can’t wait to hear how you escaped.”
Jack leaned toward the boy. “So the ogre-”
When he spoke the word an image surged into his mind: a huge man, eight feet tall at least, with mottled green skin, smashing through a door and roaring.
Jack found he was short of breath, his hair standing on end.
A monster like that could tear me apart!
He blinked, and remembered his audience. He looked back into the boy’s eyes.
“I shot him with my enchanted crossbow, and killed him!”
The vision appeared: the shimmering black bolt stuck into the ogre’s chest. It sneered and tore the bolt out with one hand, but then green flames erupted from the bolt and the wound, engulfing the creature. It screamed in pain, swung its arms wildly, smashing furniture, tearing through drywall and wood supports with equal ease. Finally it crashed through the wall and collapsed to the floor, still howling in agony. It rolled back and forth, but the flames still burned. Then at last he was silent, and the only sound was the bubbling and hissing of his melting flesh. When the flames finally burned out there was nothing left but a black patch of scorched floorboards.
Jack’s stomach convulsed. He barely held in a stream of vomit, and pressed a hand to his gut. He forced himself to swallow it, burning all the way down.
“The enchanted… crossbow bolt…”
He swallowed again, then took a few deep breaths.
The boy was still smiling.
“And then the wizard hit you with his mind control!”
Jack forced a smile.
He closed his eyes.
But the visions did not come. He frowned, squeezed his eyes shut tighter, and tried to concentrate: tried to remember.
He felt as if a black cloud surrounded his mind, cutting him off from everyone and everything. He could find no memories, no information of any kind: everything was beyond the opaque bubble. In his mind he pawed at the smoke, but it only roiled around his hands, swirled through his fingers.
Jack gripped the wooden bench.
“I can’t… my memories… the wizard…”
After he spoke the word the image of the wizard came to him: a pale man with short, dark hair and ragged stubble, wearing a black silk robe and looking out through his penthouse window, high above the city. Jack saw himself, taking pictures through the zoom lens of his camera from a nearby building, jotting down notes in the margins of a large and ancient book. Pinned on the page was a photograph of the exact same man, but an old black-and-white one, cracked and weathered with age.
Details flowed into Jack’s mind.
“The wizard had lived for centuries, used his magic to stay young, always with an army of brainwashed people living in his building. I’d been hunting him for years: waiting up nights, just for a glimpse of him. I studied his habits, the building, its security and magical defenses, his human slaves, and the small army of magical minions hidden inside.”
Jim interrupted. “Yeah, and you lured out the biggest baddest ogre, and put him down, then went after the wizard himself!”
Jack looked at the boy, then remembered the image of the massive greenish man, and swallowed.
He took a deep breath.
“I couldn’t wait around for him to be missed, I had to go in that night. I dressed up as a security guard for the parade, and blended in so I could get close-”
The boy’s face screwed up with confusion.
“The parade two weeks ago?
Jack’s eyes lost focus. The visions grew dimmer
“Yes, two… two weeks.”
“But you’ve been at work every day! When were you captured? In the dungeon?”
Jack shut his eyes tight, trying to squeeze out any details. He could feel the black smoke spinning faster and faster around his mind, threads of visions occasionally visible.
What is happening to me?
Jack scoured his mind for any other information, anything he had already remembered.
He imagined the large and ancient book, picturing the weathered pages turning, revealing longhand text in several languages. Finally the pages fanned to the one with the wizard’s image. He breathed deeply and let the words skitter through his mind.
“When a wizard abducts a human, one does not merely disappear. He will craft a Fetch: a homunculus made from whatever materials are close at hand. Once endowed with the wizard’s power, they spring to life. The wizard steals the human’s memories and feeds them to his creature, who then takes on the human’s appearance, and thereby lives out his life, concealing the absence from his family and friends. Should the human ever return, the Fetch will fight with all its strength to keep its stolen life.”
Jack’s breath came in short gasps. He slumped back against the bench.
A side door creaked open. Jack quickly stood, eyes wide, expecting to see some monstrous creature. Instead a tiny old woman in hospital scrubs stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips.
“Mr. Dawson! You know you’re not supposed to wander off: you’re overdue for your medicine!”
Jack wiped sweat off his forehead and sighed with relief. He was desperate to be alone, to be away from anyone who might trigger the horrible visions.
The boy sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Aw man! It was just getting good.”
He turned to Jack. “Do I have to?”
Jack looked back at Jim. He had no hair: even his eyebrows were missing His skin was ghostly pale, his eyes sunken, but filled with excitement. He smiled wide and leaned forward from his wheelchair.
Jack smirked and shook his head. This kid would take on a monster before Jack could.
“Tell you what, Jim. You go take your medicine, and next time I’ll tell you the best part.”
He grinned and winked at the boy.
Jim leaned back in his chair and sighed, but the smile never left his face.
Jacked grasped the wheelchair handles and steered Jim toward the old nurse.
The boy twisted in his seat to look up at Jack.
“You’ll tell me the whole rest next time?”
Jack stared down into the boy’s sunken eyes.
“Sure thing, kid.”
Jack stood on the sidewalk in darkness, gripping his keys and staring toward a house with the lights already on. He looked over to check the mailbox. It matched the address on the driver’s license in his pocket.
He pictured a man just like the one on his ID, wearing his face, charging out of the front door with an ax, or shooting at him with his pistol.
He shook his head to clear his mind.
No, that’s nonsense. Nothing like that happens in real life.
The image of that massive ogre came to him then. He imagined it smashing through walls like they were paper, then burning away to nothing, screaming, smelling of burning meat and hair. Jack shuddered.
He checked the time on his phone, then looked back at the house. No lights turning on or off, no shadows moving behind the curtains. He felt a sharp pain in his fist, and realized he was squeezing his keys with a white-knuckled grip. He opened his hand and stared at what he somehow knew was the house key.
He took a deep breath, then strode to the door, unlocked it, and pushed his way inside. He stood perfectly still for a long moment. No sound came but the slow clicking of a grandfather clock down the hall.
His chest was tight. He realized he had been holding his breath since coming in, and released it.
Of course there’s no one here.
He closed and locked the door, hung his jacket up in the closet, then went to the kitchen.
Jack opened the fridge and started preparing a salad.
Fresh cherry tomatoes, ground pepper, spinach, lettuce…
He pulled the large knife from the block on the counter and sliced an apple. He emptied the slices into a large plastic bowl with the rest, poured just a bit of dressing in, then held a plate face-down over the top and shook it all vigorously. He flipped it over and set the plate down on the counter, bowl held on top with his other hand. He leaned his face down next to the plate, smiled slightly, then lifted the bowl off the top with a flourish.
He closed his eyes and inhaled the smell of fresh leaves, fruit, and spices. His smile widened into a grin. He set the bowl down on the island and reached for the fork drawer.
His eyes passed over the knife that lay on the counter, where he had left it moments before. He noticed a sizable nick halfway down the blade.
What happened here?
He picked the knife up. His fingers slid around the handle and gripped it tightly. They seemed to know just what to do.
Across the room he saw movement: a glint of light. His smile vanished.
He held the knife out, pointing it toward the figure.
The flicker of light mimicked his movement. Jack squinted into the darkened hallway. He pulled the knife close, point toward the ceiling, like a fencer’s rapier saluting his opponent. The figure saluted back with its own blade.
Jack slowly walked to the hallway and flicked on the light. In the dim hall light he saw a full-length mirror hanging on the closed closet door. He hadn’t given it a second thought before. He snorted a relieved laugh, then looked down at the nicked blade in his hand.
He rolled his eyes, walked back to the kitchen, and slid the knife into the block.
As he stood there, still grasping the handle, another vision suddenly flashed before him. He saw himself standing just where he was now, but he was pouring something out of a glass bottle onto the counter. Shining white droplets crackled with unearthly light as they fell, fizzing on contact with the counter.
He carefully poured, making lines and curves, and eventually formed a strange symbol. The image of himself nodded in satisfaction, carefully set down the bottle, then whispered a few sentences under his breath. He pulled the knife from the block, then pricked his finger. He smeared the blood with his thumb until it covered all of his fingers, then slapped the bloody palm down onto the design. The whole vision flashed white, then was gone.
Jack’s hands were shaking, his mouth dry, gut twisting. He slowly turned and looked at the countertop where the vision had shown the symbol. It was empty.
Jack put the bowl back over his salad and placed it in the refrigerator. He turned off the kitchen lights and walked to his bedroom. For a long moment he stood in the doorway, staring at the bed.
Is it really my room? What happened? Why can’t I remember?
He undressed and climbed into bed, then frowned at the lamp he had not turned off. He closed his eyes and turned his head away from it.
Several minutes later he turned onto his stomach and shut his eyes tighter.
Finally he sighed, threw back the covers, walked over, and turned out the light. He returned to bed and lay on his back.
He lay still, but every little sound found his ears. The heat kicked on, then turned off. The grandfather clocked rang out the hour, echoing down the hallway and into the room. His eyelids twitched with every click of every gear. The pendulum swung back and forth, every second, every minute, every hour.
The clock chimed ten.
Jack frowned and sat up. He cracked his knuckles, threw off the covers, and walked down the hall. The city haze reflected off the smog and in through his windows, so he didn’t bother turning on the lights.
He stopped by the door and peered through its small window. The street outside was empty. He sighed and continued toward the kitchen.
Jack froze, confronted in the hall by an exact duplicate of himself. He stepped backward, and the other man did the same. He moved to the side, and the image half-disappeared.
He scowled accusingly at the mirror.
Thought I had shut that.
He walked forward and pushed the closet door all the way closed, then walked into the kitchen. The tiles were cold on his bare feet. He opened the fridge and lifted the bowl off his salad. He remembered the image of his own bloody palm and his gut clenched. He lowered the bowl back on the plate, closed the fridge, and sighed.
He found his gaze sliding to the knife block, then to the empty counter. He slowly approached. After a long moment of staring he shook his head, rolled his eyes in the darkness, and turned back toward his bedroom.
He closed his eyes tight, willed the visions away, but he could not forget the bottle of crackling white liquid, the strange symbol, the blood on his hands. He walked back to the knives, and slowly drew out the long one.
He stared at his empty palm. He could almost see blood covering it. He turned his hand toward the light coming in through the window and the shadow vanished. His hand shook. He clenched it into a fist, then turned the knife and pricked his thumb with it.
He dropped the knife into the sink, held the wound over where the symbol would be and squeezed it with his other hand. A tiny drop of blood welled up and dripped.
Nothing. He looked around the room, still dark. Jack shook his head again, then squeezed out a bit more blood and smeared it over his palm. He held it just above the counter for a long moment.
This is idiotic.
He imagined again the flash of white light, the monster, the blood, and the green fire. Jack shuddered. He hesitated a moment longer, sneered, then pressed his palm down onto the counter.
Brilliant light seared into his eyes. He threw his hands up in front of his face and staggered backwards, cried out, tripped, and collapsed onto the hard tile floor.
Spots danced across his vision. He clambered up to his hands. They shivered and shook. His head felt thick and swollen, his stomach heavy and knotted.
The strange white light flickered up from the counter, illuminating the room. He stood, stumbled, then pulled himself up to look at the counter.
The symbol glowed up at him with strong lines, then slowly began to fade. As it diminished he noticed another light coming from the far wall. He squinted over and noticed a strange flicker. Something was hanging on what before had been only blank wall.
He approached cautiously, and noticed two rows of wooden shelves, filled with numerous bottles of multicolored liquids, a metal gauntlet, a medieval crossbow, several knives, and a frowning mask with horns protruding from the brow. Below the shelves a long sword hung down with its crossguard resting on two large pins driven into the wall.
Impossible! I must be hallucinating; some chemical, or an allergic reaction.
The white light faded, but the faint moonlight shining through the windows still glinted off the long sword, reflecting off intricate designs carved into the blade.
I’m going mad! This is just an illusion.
Jack crept closer.
Unless the normal kitchen is the illusion.
He reached out to touch the blade.
This isn’t real. It can’t be. I’m just going to touch blank wall, then wake up from a seizure or something.
His outstretched hand shook, shivered like a twig in a breeze. He edged closer, but then saw a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye.
Jack saw a twisted apparition in the full-length mirror in the hall. It was not a man, but a squat creature with an impossibly thin body and a great bulbous head, eyes and teeth glowing orange. He froze in place, and the creature did the same.
It’s just an illusion! Some nightmare in my head.
The creature did not move. He stared at it, and it stared back. He took a deep breath, and it did the same.
Jack’s eyes widened, and the creature’s angry orange eye slits changed to a pair of glowing circles. He turned and slowly inched toward the mirror. He shook, wavered, nearly falling at every step. He reached up and touched the mirror, seeing the creature reach out to him. The hand was a literal stick, forking into three twigs. It even had a withered leaf hanging off the elbow. His head was a carved pumpkin, flickering candle-light emerging from his carved eyes and mouth. It had been stuck onto the trunk of a small tree, planted into an orange ceramic pot, with the tips of two shoes protruding from underneath.
He reached up and touched his own face, and the image in the mirror touched its pumpkin visage. He could feel it: the smooth plant hide of his own face, could smell the dirt in his pot. He looked down at his own scrabbly stick-fingers, the toes of the shoes peeking out from below the reddish ceramic.
He looked back at the mirror. A cloud obscured the moon, the light faded, and all he could see was the reflection of the glowing eyes and mouth of his horrible Jack-o-Lantern face.