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The flashes started when I was about eight.
Back then they were too short for me to really see anything. The first one happened in the playground. I was on the swings when, just for an instant, everything I could see was replaced by grey, and I couldn’t feel my body. For a moment, the lively chorus of children playing lapsed into total silence. When it was over I was flying through the air before crashing into the ground and tumbling. My mother ran over to me, panicking. Apparently I’d gone totally limp while the swing was on its way up; flew right out of it.
They kept happening, but for a few years they were too short for me to see much. Usually my vision would go grey, I might see some fuzzy shapes, and then I was back. But sometimes, maybe once every dozen times, I’d hear something as well. These eerie, semi-musical stringy sounds, somewhere between screams and a rusty violin.
Every few months they got just a little bit longer. By the time I was ten, they’d last around eight seconds. There was no way to hide it from my parents, and they made me go to a psychiatrist. Whatever was happening was so strange they didn’t even try and flog a pill at me. I just kept getting half-heartedly referred to more and more specialised doctors.
I think I was fourteen when I first started to get a bit of control. A flash happened, identical to any other, and one of the shadowy shapes was nearby. At this stage they weren’t even scaring me. As much trouble, confusion and worry as they caused, I was used to them. That’s why I started playing around with them. That’s why I tried to move forward.
The first few times it didn’t do anything. Then the blurred shape moved a little closer.
It might seem strange, but that tiny little push was exhilarating. These flashes, they were something that happened to me, that I was victim of. They made me black out and slap down onto my desk at school. They made me collapse and break my arm in the hallway. There was nothing I could ever do to stop them, so to consciously influence them, even the slightest bit, felt like I had a little bit of power again. I pushed another time. The shadow wobbled and moved closer, like I was hobbling towards it. I got closer and closer before, for the first time, one of the shapes came into focus and took on some kind of colour.
It was a stop sign, faded and battered. All the optimism and empowerment from just a few seconds ago was gone. I pulled back to reality feeling more lost than ever.
Just passing out and seeing a colour could be some simple nerve related thing, but I was passing out to have extremely vivid dreams. It was a much less sane problem, the kind of thing you lie to people about. No doctors could help me, nobody knew anything. So I did the only thing I could do to possibly get more information. I started exploring.
I couldn’t make the flashes happen, but if I really tried I could stay for a little longer, and I got pretty good at moving. Soon enough I was able to stay for a few minutes at a time.
I always found myself in a ghost town smothered in what I now realised to be mist. On every street there were heavily dented, abandoned cars. Shattered glass and canned food littered the ground. Everything was utterly silent, apart from the occasional tortured, screeching melodies. It took me a long time to build up the courage to follow one of those.
I was in a gutted food store. All the produce had rotted into one reeking black mass, and the few remaining cans on the shelves were covered in these webbed patches of tar-like goo. Then the squealing notes appeared, just on the edge of hearing. I steeled myself and left the store, following the sounds as well as I could.
I went down five or so streets before it started to sound close. Then I saw the source, a shape in the mid-distance, obscured by the endless grey. It moved in clumsy, jerking motions, getting closer and closer.
It came into focus and I froze, unable to even think of getting away. Going by the torn, hole ridden slip it was wearing, and the few fine, silver hairs drooping from its head, I figured it must have been a woman at one stage. It was an emaciated, hunched, grey figure with long, gangly limbs ending in hideously stretched hands and fingers. Its eyes were inky pools blending into sunken, black eye sockets. Its lips were pulled permanently back over its teeth, making the head look even more like a bare skull and strange, thin spikes, like obsidian, grew out of its scalp.
And it was breathing, releasing drifting silver tendrils every time it exhaled. Through the fear I managed to wonder if that’s where all the mist came from.
It looked at me and the its ‘music’ became a single, piercing note. It began jerking and staggering towards me, arms swinging limply with every burst of motion.
The closer it got the more firmly I was rooted to the ground.
It got close enough to flail an arm at me. The paralysis broke and I pulled up my hands, shattered nails tearing across my palms. I turned and ran away from the thing as fast as I could, stumbling around corners and bouncing clumsily down the empty roads, hearing a new higher-pitched song from whatever was chasing me; a song of long, wailing notes that might have been a desperate cry for help, and might have been some warped expression of excitement.
I ducked into an alley when it sounded like the creature was headed away from me. It took few minutes for me to calm down enough to realise that I’d pulled my hands up, that I could feel feet touching the ground, that I was breathing in crisp air that tasted of chemicals. I tried to pull my hands up again. For some reason it was incredibly difficult, like trying to raise my hands made them turn to lead, but when I managed I saw that they weren’t mine. They were stretched, grey hands with shattered nails. My heart dropped and I stared at them for what seemed like forever before I thought to try something else. I held one of the sprawling hands up to my face and breathed on it. A cloud of misty tendrils appeared.
At that moment I was pulled out of the misty place and found myself lying on my bed. I sat in silence for a long time, having no idea what to do with what I’d just discovered, having no idea what it meant.
Every time I had a flash after that I was in the body, and if I tried I could stay in there for a good while, but the longer I was there the worse I felt. It was as if being in one of these things bodies, using their senses, made me gradually start to feel what it was like to be one of them. If I was ever there for a half an hour I’d have to just lay down and weather waves of nausea and this vague, aching feeling that I should be dead.
I tried talking a few times, only managing the make the scraping, high notes that comprised the songs I’d been hearing for years. Doing that made the singers get louder and try and make their way towards me, so I soon stopped.
I managed to find a mirror in a mouldy, water-damaged apartment. I saw something reminiscent of my own body. It was grey, out of proportion, gaunt, all of the things that had terrified me when I saw them in that ‘singer’, but there was enough of my own bone structure in the face for me to tell that it was based on me.
I was managing to spend enough time in this ‘world’ to realise I was always appearing in different parts of the same town, but generally, if I was in a certain part of the town before I was ‘pulled out’, I’d be more likely to appear near that point when I came back. It was fairly easy to avoid the singers. You could hear them a hundred feet away. I was even able to hide and watch them. Whenever two of them crossed paths, they swung out at each other. It usually took them a few tries but they eventually got a grip and started…hugging. At least that’s what it looked like to me, but not in an affectionate way. They’d latch onto each other like their life depended on it, fall down onto knees. They’d start feeling each other’s faces and staring into one another’s eyes. It was like they were begging each other for help. After a few minutes they’d stumble back up, and go in separate directions, quieter than before.
I found a big, central, road and followed it out beyond the town. Past the outskirts the road was bordered by a sea of dry, brown grass. I figured that, even if this was all just in my head, I might learn something by following the road. A couple of times a day I’d flash in, and if I wasn’t doing something important I’d make my way onwards. I could hear singers from far away, so they were easy enough to avoid, but it slowed me down.
After a few days of this I saw something that broke the monotony of cars and dead grass. It was this hundred foot long, twenty foot deep, curving web of solid mercury that ran alongside the road. I took a good while to try and pull some Freudian meaning out of it before giving up and moving along.
Sometimes I’d appear in the fields next to the road, sometimes further back or further on in the road than where I’d left off but, in general, I kept moving forward.
I started to think that maybe when I wasn’t there it all played in real time, like the grey, skeletal body I kept finding myself in just wandered about like all the rest. I tested the hypothesis. One day, after I made my way onto a highway, I started to feel myself get pulled back to my body. I got in one of the abandoned cars. It wasn’t easy, because it was so hard to move my arms, but I managed it. My thinking was that these things weren’t that smart, so maybe the one I controlled wouldn’t be able to get out of the car. I know all this sounds like an oddly rationalist way to approach dreams, but they never showed any inconsistencies from one to the next.
It worked. The next time I flashed in I was pressing my face against the car window, the interior having been filled with mist, presumably from my ‘body’ breathing while I was away. It took me a second to notice the singing, unusually animated just outside the car, and then the sharp bangs. I pressed my face back to the window and just managed, through the fogged up glass, to see a singer thrashing its arms against the car. I left through the other side. It gave up chasing me after about ten minutes, turning to stagger in the opposite direction.
It made sense when I thought about it. If my singer body was moving around and acting like the other’s when I was gone, it must have been doing all the desperate grasping and hugging. The other singer might have been trying to get into the car for hours. I realised how lucky I was to never enter the body and find a singer touching my face.
I heard the city days before I actually reached it, countless tormented, atonal voices carrying on for miles. The mist got thicker the closer I got, so that I could barely see a few feet in front of me. The music became deafening, pouring over me and shaking the air. I didn’t know I was in the city until I bumped straight into a singer. It tried to grab me but I pulled back, smashing into another that was behind me. We fell down and it latched on, pulling itself on top of me, its lipless mouth screaming down onto me, pouring out fresh mist that burned inside my nose. I threw it off and got back up, making it a few feet before something slammed into my waist. I looked down to see a singer that must have been a child wrapped around my waist, staring up at me with glistening, pleading eyes. I threw him aside and pushed forward. There were so many, all around me. I started to panic.
I reached a small area where the mist lightened up, at a junction surrounded by tall concrete apartment buildings. What I saw looked like an orgy of grey, starved bodies. It was a blanket of singers, crawling over each other. Each of them stood up occasionally to toss themselves onto a nearby part of the street, like they were looking against reason for some kind of help from creatures just as damned as they were.
Something exploded beside me, and I turned to see a limp grey sack surrounded by a pool of black sludge. One of them had fallen off one of the buildings, and burst on top of two others that now made strangled, manic sounds as they spasmed, clinging to whatever sort of life they had.
A forest of hands reached up at me, trying to pull me down. I fled into one of the concrete buildings, throwing singers aside as I clambered up the steps. I flung myself into one of the apartments and slammed the door closed with my body, rather than my stupid, weighted hands. I was still leaning against door as I fumbled with the locks, hearing singers who I’d passed in the hallway get closer and closer. When I finally got one of the locks to click closed I collapsed with relief against the nearest wall.
I never left that apartment again. I’d flash in two or three times a day, listen to the tortured cacophony outside, start feeling sicker and sicker, and flash back.
And it’s been like that ever since.
I went to a college that was willing to accommodate the blackouts (I never told people about the misty world unless I had to).I graduated and after a few months I got a job offer from a little firm. It was in a town far away from home but the pay good enough to make up for that.
I realised something was wrong as soon as I got there, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It took a few minutes of walking around for it to click. This was the town, the town that the flashes first sent me to, and it was only a twenty minute drive from the nearest city. My stomach lurched, I got dizzy and had to make my way to a pub. I buried my head in my hands, trying to somehow explain this away, to piece reality back together. Then I looked up at the small boxy TV that hung up near the ceiling, seeing the final nail in the coffin. On the local news was a coloured sketch of the mercurial web, bending around a highway, just as I remembered it. It was a modern art sculpture, due to be finished two years from now.