Tim shivered as a crash of thunder rolled behind him, sending a ripple down his rain-soaked spine. The hotel doors were closed behind him. That lightning bolt must have been right outside! The electronic chandelier hanging above the foyer flickered, as if the storm had caused the power to fail momentarily. But in no time, the lights blinked back on, illuminating an empty, spacious lobby with smooth, shining walls of pristine white, so empty of decoration or marks that it appeared plastic.
Classical piano music was playing throughout the room. The sound quality was fantastic, although Tim could see no speakers along any of the blank walls or in the corners of the room. Tim knew this piece.
A tile floor of crystal granite sparkled rainbow colours under Tim's wet boots as he stepped across the empty room toward the receptionist. Instead of a counter or desk, the lone woman stood at a lectern, set facing the front doors, upon a raised dais, smiling at him with cool, half-lidded eyes.
“Good evening sir; nasty weather out there.” The receptionist spoke in clean, crisp syllables. Her uniform matched the walls and the podium, a white plastic dress-suit. Her hair was close-cropped, business-woman chic.
“Uh, yeah, it's really coming down,” Tim stared glumly at his soaked jacket and once again felt a shiver as if the rain water were shocking him with cold. <p style="">The receptionist's expression hardly changed, but a twinge of sympathy curved her delicate eyebrows and sharp lips. “Well, what can I do for you this evening?”
Tim's mind attempted to focus, and he felt like an athlete throwing his hands out to catch the ball and feeling nothing but empty, blank air. What was he doing here? He quickly looked about himself for some clue, some shred of a reminder to get him back on track. The receptionist watched him coolly as he spun in place. No bags, no papers in hand.. not even his wallet, phone or car keys.
“I, um...” Tim took one last look around the empty hotel lobby – at least, he thought it was a hotel. Not another person or thing in sight. No furniture, no artwork, not even doors or stairs leading out of the room. Just the receptionist and her lectern. “I can't remember...” he began. She just stared. The confusion was turning to apprehension. Something was wrong. “I feel like I'm missing something...” Tim began, though he himself did not know if he meant his wallet or something more substantial. “I think I should go..."
“Wait!” The woman in white reached out a hand and gripped Tim's arm as he turned to go, “I can help you. You seem a little lost. Allow me to guide you and we'll find what you're looking for in no time.” <p style="">Tim considered this a moment. He was struggling to remember anything at all now. How had he gotten to this place? What was he here for? This woman seemed nice enough. Tim did not feel himself. He decided to trust her to help him. “Well... all right...” The leisurely piano music was slowly fading away as the song ended.
With a small smile, the woman looked down at her lectern, raised a hand pointer-finger out and theatrically tapped a single button behind the stand. Tim spasmed in surprise as the dais they stood upon began to rise, moving up away from the lobby, while the chandelier above them rose as well, remaining equidistant as they left the hotel's foyer below. Passing through a floor, with nothing but walls all around the dais, Tim turned to ask the receptionist a question, but she smiled and shook her head as new music began to play around them.
A slow, steady beat began, low, quiet, but building, pumping up. Tim thought the song sounded familiar, but he could not be sure. As the dais and chandelier above continued to rise, a new room was revealed all around them.
The sparkling chandelier's off-white light transformed to a neon green, then blue, then red. A dark room slowly became visible by the faint light of the smoldering chandelier and some distant glowing beams far off in the dark.
An electronic synthesizer melody rose to its crescendo and the quiet beat dropped. The room exploded into a neon rainbow as glowsticks burst through the air in streaks and mushroom-clouds of spinning, swirling colour. A disco club surrounded Tim and the receptionist as the music blared through its climactic techno instrumentals. Dancers jumped and gyrated all around the dais, dressed in comical outfits of feathers and glitter.
Despite his terrific confusion, Tim found himself smiling as the revelers cavorted in circles around his platform like rainbow fish swimming around a desert island. The music's climactic melody and dancing beat called to Tim with a primal force that his body could not resist. He found himself pulled into the crowd, and he laughed as he rubbed shoulders with silly strangers and friendly creatures.
As lights from high above played over the club floor, Tim caught better glimpses of his fellows and saw no single entity who appeared to be a normal person. Indeed every figure on the dance floor was in such thorough disguise that Tim could no longer be certain that a single body around him was that of a human being.
Reptilian snouts, bird's-feather-crested beaks and blankly smiling masks all regarded him briefly and carried on with their writhing, while a subtle, frightful icy dread flowed into Tim's stomach, filling him with unutterable terror. He desperately wished to cry out for someone, to ask any of those around him if they would remove their masks and makeup and show him a friendly face, but he was afraid to speak. There was no telling if these happy dancers would turn on him if he were to spoil their fun.
Tim searched for salvation, hoping that the poor lighting would hide his horror-stricken face as he feigned pleasure at the incessant romping. Lost in the crowd, it felt like searching for a needle in a haystack, but when the empty dais finally came into sight, Tim found it sticking out like a sore thumb, completely untouched by the dancers circling around it. With little patience left for pretending at fun, he dove into the open space and found himself at the feet of his receptionist guide.
Panting and dripping with sweat, Tim pulled himself to his feet and leaned in close to whisper to the receptionist over the hypnotic electronica. “They're m-monsters! Aliens!” The thought only solidified in his mind as he spoke the word. Reeling back from his so-called ally, Tim squinted at the straight-faced woman suspiciously. “Are...are you an alien?” <p style="">At this, she smiled and shook her head. “I gather you aren't enjoying this any longer?” Tim was still panting, still uncertain if he should trust her, but he shook his head in answer to her query. “Then let's move on, shall we?” Once again, the pointer-finger rose and fell upon the lectern, opposite from Tim, and the dais began to rise, leaving the rave below.
Tim let out a sigh of relief as their platform followed after the chandelier – now back to its normal off-white light. They were surrounded by walls once more as they passed from the room below to another above. “So...are you? Tell me. Are you an alien?” <p style="">The receptionist shrugged and shook her head once more, a mischievous smile on her sharp, pristine face. “No, Tim, far from it.”
New music began to play as the dais brought them up into a new room. Tim tried to focus on what he had just heard. She knew his name. Had he ever told this woman his name? Had she told him hers? The music slipped in between thoughts as he tried to recollect. An electric guitar strummed a harmonic chord, distorted to create an effect of echoing eternity.
A pattern of light began to swirl across the dais. Tim looked up and saw the chandelier taking on a spinning pattern of rainbow colours, moving in waves and shapes like a kaleidoscope hanging above him. The music swelled with chords overlapping. A funky bassist began to follow after the guitarists' melody, drums backing them up with a steady rhythm. Keys entered the fray with symphonic chords of their own. Tim pulled his eyes off the entrancing chandelier to look around.
The dais was now parked smack-dab in the center of a full crowd of gape-mouthed hippies. From the dread-locked lovers to the bearded beatniks - sporting tie-dye shirts, flowing skirts, beaded necklaces, or hardly any clothes at all - this crowd was as diverse as it was simultaneously homogenous. Virtually all the hippies were staring in one direction - toward a nearby stage, where a band played live for their pleasure.
Tim recognized the song, the band; he even thought he recognized some of the faces in the crowd. A few people were dancing, others shouting in each others' ears over the music. Was it possible? Could he actually be here? Tim would give anything to see these guys live. The only way it could be better would be if his friends were with him.
Scanning the crowd between his platform and the stage, Tim's prayers were answered. His own best friends stood within the mob, passing a pipe between them as they laughed and raised devil-horns hands toward the band. “You guys!” Tim screamed as he ran to embrace them. Alen and Jack turned and grinned, welcoming Tim with open arms. <p style="">“What's up man?” They overlapped each other. Tim laughed so hard he thought he might cry.
“You guys are not going to believe the shit I've just been seeing! I am freaking out!” Tim's smile vanished as he tried to express the horror and confusion he had only just escaped. Alen and Jack exchanged worried glances, squinted at Tim dubiously, then turned their backs on him, staring off at the stage as the band carried on through the song. <p style="">Mouth dropping in sheer shock, Tim's face matched that of the awestruck hippies all around him. Were his own best friends really not going to believe him? Why not? Oh...
It finally dawned on him. It all made sense now. Tim knew what was happening. He must be on something. LSD; shrooms, maybe? He was tripping balls. Had someone slipped him a dose in his drink? Or had he completely forgotten his plan to trip? He shrugged; either way, that was one wild ride. Imagine - a hotel with a platform that rose from room to room, taking him through different places. Crazy! He did not even remember getting to the concert...
Something clicked inside Tim's mind. He remembered something. He was on his way somewhere...before the hotel lobby. Before he found himself soaking wet in that big, empty foyer...he had been traveling somewhere... I must have been on my way to the concert.
Tim turned back to where he had left the receptionist and her lectern. No doubt it would be gone now, just an endless sea of hippies behind him...
Nope. There she was, standing calmly at her podium, isolated from the crowd. Not a single drunk, high or otherwise stupefied concert-goer had dared to step foot on the dais. The chandelier still hung above her, suspended in the open air, as if the sky itself were a very convincing painting on the ceiling. This must be some good shit. But enough is enough. Tim felt annoyed and afraid. Why a receptionist and a dais? And how could she still be there? How could he envision such a big, empty space in the midst of a huge crowd?
Leaving his impatient friends to their concert, Tim stepped back up to the podium and confronted his imaginary friend. She watched him with the same cool, collected expression as always, while the chandelier above her cast its kaleidoscope psychedelic lights over her space.
“I know what this is now,” Tim declared, pointing a finger at her. “You are a hallucination. I'm on something right now. This is just a crazy-ass trip! I was on my way to a concert and I took some drug, or someone slipped me something.”
The receptionist smirked and shook her head. “I don't know about that.” <p style="">Tim frowned at her, unhappy with the stubborn streak in his own imagination. “You don't know about that?”
She shrugged. “You might have been on your way to a concert...but I am no hallucination.” <p style="">Then what? Tim's mouth hung open again as he tried to comprehend his situation. Confusion returned to dominate his thoughts. Memories were so hard to grasp. Logic, reason itself seemed to slip from his mental grasp, like a hand trying to hold smoke in its grip.
“I can see you're not enjoying this,” she went on. “Let's keep going; maybe we'll find what you're looking for.” <p style="">For the third time, the pointer finger rose and fell upon her private lectern. Tim had been so distracted before that it had never occurred to him to wonder what it was she played at behind her private little station. He craned his neck and took an awkward side-step to try and get a glimpse at the panel she worked at.
Blackness surounded the dais as they left the jam-band concert behind and passed through a thick divider. As Tim's vision returned, he saw his mysterious guide leaning over her lectern to meet his searching eyes with her own, sharp, grey orbs.
With a meaningful, knowing smile, she gestured with one hand up around them as a soft, faint light filled the next chamber they were entering. Above their heads, the chandelier was coming back to life, its many lights no longer solid off-white electric bulbs, nor neon glowsticks or rainbow colours. But rather, the entire set of lights now flickered and glowed like dark and moody candles.
All around them, soft guitar-strings started to play a familiar intro. Tim's eyes glazed over as his mind took him out of his body, all worries forgotten. That chord, that melody - it was all so familiar. A sharp, heavy pang of old, unforgettable pain wracked his chest as Tim's deepest consciousness recognized the song and brought it to the forefront of his thoughts.
“This was on the album she gave me...” he muttered aloud as he recalled a love lost long ago.
That fuzzy, warm feeling that this song had brought him back when he first knew it had since been mixed with a bitter-sweet taste of nostalgia that gave the song an even deeper meaning, even as he wished he could forget it, forget the song ever existed and forget the memories it brought with it.
Sure enough, the dais was rising into a chamber dripping with Tim's memory. Glancing around him, the confused man saw a scene he had long-left repressed in his memory, locked away behind doors and bars meant to protect him.
She lay across his bed in his old apartment, watching him, her own smile more knowing than that of the receptionist at the podium. Tim found himself walking without thought, returning to bed from whence he had been changing the music on his computer.
His ex-girlfriend grinned, seeing him locked onto her. She was sweet and nice now. But Tim knew that would all change. Her demons took hold of her weeks later, and despite all his efforts, they broke up. And a year of bitter fights, sweet minor triumphs and terrible upsets could not fix what was not meant to be.
“I love you,” she whispered, lying across his bed, smiling at him through the dark shadows of his dusty old studio. <p style="">Tim blinked away a tear as the overwhelming memory sweeped over him. He knew it was not real; he could not be where he saw himself just then. This was a memory, something that had been long ago, but never to be again. But he could not pull away from her gaze. “I remember...” He nodded, swallowing hard.
The song played on, the romantic, lilting guitar repeating its rhyme of tragic love. Tim squeezed his eyes shut against the tears and felt his entire body tense as he tore himself away from nostalgia, twisting at the hip to look back at the dais behind him.
The receptionist watched him with avid fascination, studying every twitch of expression on his face, her eyes unblinking. As he met her eyes, he began to wonder what to think. She could be lying. Maybe this was all a terrible hallucination, or she was indeed an alien. She could have been lying all along. But how could he possibly tell?
At this point, it didn't matter. He was overcome with emotion. In fact, this all felt too strong to be any drug trip. He had known this kind of familiar sentimentality before, but only in one realm. A slim smile of knowing resolution lifted Tim's lips as he decided where he was.
“I'm dreaming...aren't I?” He asked his guide. "I was driving home in the rain. Maybe I fell asleep as soon as I got home and forgot all about where I was going or what I was doing? Dreams are funny like that." Her white suit remained its pristine colour under the soft, flickering light of the chandelier, her face as uniform as ever, watching him with professional courtesy. It certainly felt like a dream. Her smile was not so cruelly amused as before. As the soft chorus of the song chanted around them, she only shook her head very slowly and gently, much to Tim's confusion.
The memory remained, a constant siren tugging at Tim's heart, trying to bring him back to a time and a place that was long-dead, yet immortalized within his own soul. Part of him wanted desperately to look back at his lost lover, to remember the happy days of yesteryear. But he knew he had to carry on. He was trapped in something bigger, more horrifying than any mere memory. Without turning back, Tim took one heavy step after another, back onto the dais, and without a word, the receptionist pressed at her lectern and carried them away from his historical heartache.
The darkness felt cold and empty between chambers as Tim found himself eagerly awaiting whatever was coming up next in his strange journey. The receptionist was completely silent and motionless behind her stand as they rose up into a lighter, warmer room.
An upbeat drum rhythm set the background for a guitar riff, followed by a tenor male voice singing affirming, positive lyrics, reinforced by a chorus behind him. Tim shook his head with a wry smile as he looked at his guide. He knew this song and could barely imagine why it would be playing in this bizarre dream, hallucination, or whatever this was.
The dais slowed to a halt in another familiar place. His mother's kitchen. Only something was off about it. Tim struggled to discern the oddity, squinting, thinking. Finally it came to him. The entire room was without colour. Stark white light cast from the chandelier above set the black-and-white room in perfect illumination.
A pile of old newspapers teetered on the brink of falling from the round kitchen table. Plastic cups and china plates lay out on a rumpled towel, drying next to the sink. Tim recognized the filtered, staticky quality of the music playing, because it was blasting from the little clock-radio set in one corner of the cluttered counter-top, underneath the cabinets he knew would dump pots and pans out on his head if he dared to open them.
“Mom?” She was sitting at the kitchen table, reading a plastic-wrapped book from the local library. At the sound of his voice she looked up and smiled that warm, happy greeting that always made him feel safe. Either she could not see the dais and the strange woman dressed in white, or she was just too excited to see her son to care.
“Oh, Timmy, I just love this song!” His mother beamed at him as the chorus chanted behind her. <p style="">Tim raised his eyebrows and rolled his head in a sarcastic nod. “Yeah...I know, Mom...” He watched her smiling face, waiting for her to ask him what he was doing home, how he had risen out of the floor next to their refrigerator on a dais with a chandelier hanging over his head. But she just nodded and returned to her book, humming along to the music.
Turning on the woman in white, Tim's quizzical look was back in full force. “So...I'm not dreaming?” The woman shook her head. “You're not a hallucination?” Another shake. “And you're not an alien?” Her smile said "No." <p style="">Thought was difficult. The confusion was absolute. Tim's ideas flittered away as the music continued to play on behind him. He looked back at his mother, casually reading in her kitchen. He could not possibly be here for real. Or at any of the places he had been. He had not really danced with monsters in the dark, or met his friends at a concert, or seen his ex-lover at a place and time long ago. So what could it all be? “Have I...” The thought crystallized in his mind even as the words formed in his mouth. “..Have I gone mad?”
The receptionist looked him over carefully, her cold, calculating eyes considering his question. Her nearly-unmoving face twisted in a pout of critical thought and she shrugged, shaking her head once more. “I do not believe so...” <p style="">Relief came mixed with frustration, a strange blend. Tim sighed in sorrow at the failure of his latest theory. But he felt a deep weight that had only just fallen on his shoulders lift back off, to think that perhaps, if this apparition was to be trusted, he had not lost his mind.
“At least...you certainly have not gone mad yet.” She added. Tim gulped down his dread at this last amendment. The song faded in its outro and once more the guide pushed a button on her lectern, sending the dais upward. Mom's kitchen dropped away as the chandelier led the dais up to some strange new place. Tim was apprehensive as they passed through the claustrophobic middle space between rooms. What could possibly be waiting above? <p style="">To his surprise, Tim found himself smiling as he heard a light, beautiful piece of music playing. It was nothing he knew by heart. This song had no words, no drum solos or guitar riffs. It was just piano, beautiful, intricate, flowing piano music. And what was more, he was the only person to have heard this song.
Upon recognizing the piano piece, it was no surprise to Tim when he found himself in a half-finished basement. Colour had returned, but there was little to be seen as he glanced around the room. An empty laundry basket shivered where it was perched, half on the washer, half on the dryer, as both machines worked away. The narrow window along the top of the wall facing the backyard showed that it was raining outside. But Tim only had eyes for the lovely figure sitting at the electric piano by the column in the middle of the room.
The love of his life, a dream come true, a vision of light to make the world look like a series of shadows. She sat over the piano, playing with the passion and concentration of a master musician, her fingers dancing over the keys as if they were perfectly practiced in this exact song. But she had played this song just for him, an improvisation that she recorded. The music drew Tim off the dais, so that he stood just behind her as she played on. This song, this glorious song. He could hardly believe she could play something so melodic, flowing and intricate, not to mention long, all without practice or a single note written for her. She was a true virtuoso.
Tim was so proud of her. He glanced over his shoulder at his guide with a bright grin. The woman in white only stared back at him, cold and unmoved as ever. Tim's smile faltered momentarily, but he turned back to his girlfriend to watch as she continued to play. What was he doing here? How had he come here? What was happening to him?
His mind worked over the overwhelming chaos of his situation, strove to make some sense of it all. There was no rational explanation. No rhyme or reason. He was going from place to place, seeing strange things, meeting strangers and familiar faces, old and new. No dream, no hallucination, no aliens, perhaps not even madness....The rain pounding against the basement window caught his attention, even as he continued to listen to his lovers' song. His heart sank as he thought of one last idea. One final solution, so terrible he did not want to face it. I was on my way somewhere, driving my car...that much I remember...and it was raining...Perhaps I had an accident?
The piano music played on, a smooth, beautiful waltz of fingers on keys in perfect harmony. Tim wanted to stay, wanted to hear more. This was heaven...yes...perhaps it was. Perhaps he was right this time... With a deep sign of regret, Tim turned back to his guide.
“Have I died? Is this heaven? Or some strange passage into the afterlife?” He felt his heart stop. Outside, the rain battered at the window. A chill ran up his spine as he waited for an answer. Every bone in his body ached and his skin turned to gooseflesh. <p style="">His guide, the receptionist dressed in white stared into his eyes long and hard before answering.
In a sudden, unexpected burst of laughter, she shook her head, “No, Tim. You are not dead yet, either. But I cannot promise you what awaits at the end of all of this...” <p style="">Tim gaped in shock. All the cold fear that had seeped into his body burst into flame at the mocking laughter. Her strange appearance was finally too untrustworthy for him to believe. He could feel rage building up in him beyond anything he had ever felt.
She saw his face turning red with anger and quickly beckoned him back to the dais. “Clearly you are not enjoying this anymore. Shall we move on?” As he took angry, hurried steps toward the dais she slowly raised her finger to push something behind her lectern once more. <p style="">“Let me see what you're doing!” Tim pushed his way beside her, despite the woman's angry protests and her arms fighting to keep him away. What is all this!? Not a dream or a hallucination? She's not an alien kidnapping me or an angel taking me to heaven. So what then?! Tim turned to see what was hiding on the other side of the lectern. What strange device might be taking him up and up, through room after room? <p style="">When he saw it, he knew what it was, yet found it wholly unfamiliar at the same time. The buttons were much bigger than he was used to, but their arrangement, their shape and design was precisely the same as he had always seen them. Forward, Back, Menu, Play... he knew these buttons. He had pressed them a million times, either with fevered concentration as he searched for some specific song, or without even looking as he skipped through playlists, shuffling for whatever might suit his mood, trying to find whatever he was looking for.
“But...That's impossible...H-how?” Tim stammered. His guide watched him with a cold frown, her eyes burning with displeasure. The pristine suit and perfectly combed hair framed her eyes so well he could see without a doubt that electricity shook and rattled within her glassy orbs, like tiny lightning bolts forever shivering inside her skull. <p style="">Lightning bolts...Thunder outside the basement window rolled, and Tim found his thoughts all thoroughly concentrated on memory of a short time ago. He was driving in the rain, soaked to the bone. His windshield wipers squealed with every rotation as he roared down the highway toward his girlfriend's house, where he stood now...only he was not really there now, was he?
A song had come on his MP3 player, something he was not in the mood for. So he reached down with a rain-soaked hand to hit the Forward button, to shuffle to the next song...
“It's you...” He realized. “You're...my MP3 player...” The woman in white did not shake her head, or smirk, or frown. She only stared at him. The piano piece was coming to an end, the dais began to move upward, the chandelier lighting the way as they entered the narrow tunnel before reaching the next room...the next song... <p style="">“So...If this is not a hallucination or a dream, if I am not dead...Am I trapped inside my own MP3 player? Will I ever get out? Can I return to my body?” <p style="">She was cool and calm as always as she shrugged and answered, “I guess we'll find out when we run out of songs on the Shuffle.”