an excerpt from
THE BLACK ROOM:
Part One, In The Black Room
by Luke Smitherd
Copyright © 2014 by Luke Smitherd and published here with his permission
An Unexpected Point Of View,
Proof That You Can Never Go Home Again, and
The Importance Of The Work/Life Balance
Charlie opened his eyes, and was immediately confused. A quick re-assessment of the view, however, confirmed he was right; he suddenly had breasts. Not very noticeable ones, perhaps, but when he’d spent over thirty years without them, even the appearance of a couple of A-cups was a real attention grabber. As he continued to look down, the very next thing to come to his attention was the material covering them; a purple, stretchy cotton fabric, something he had never worn, nor had he ever harboured any plans to do so. As he watched his hands adjust the top, he came to the most alarming realisation of all; those weren’t his hands doing the adjusting. The giveaway wasn’t in the slenderness of the fingers, or the medium-length (if a little ragged) fingernails upon their tips, or even the complete lack of any sensation in them as he watched the digits tug and pull the purple top into position. It was the fact that, whilst they were clearly stuck to the end of arms that were attached to his shoulders (or at least, the painfully skinny shoulders that he could see either side of his head’s peripheral vision; his shoulders were bigger than that, surely?) they were moving entirely of their own accord.
He was so stunned that he almost felt calm. The bizarreness of the situation had already passed straight through this is crazy and out the other side into the utterly incomprehensible. Charlie stared dumbly for a several seconds as his mind got caught in a feeble loop, trying and failing to get its bearings (What…sorry, what….sorry, WHAT…) Whilst, in that moment, he never really came any closer to coming to terms with the situation, his mind did at least manage to reach the next inevitable conclusion: this wasn’t his body.
The loop got louder as these unthinkable, too-big-for-conscious-process thoughts instantly doubled in size, but got nowhere (WHAT…WHAT…WHAT THE FUCK.) All Charlie was capable of doing was staring at the view in front of him as it moved from a downward angle and swung upwards, to reveal a door being opened onto a narrow hallway. A second doorway was then passed through, and now Charlie found himself in a bathroom. He wanted to look down again, to see the feet that were carrying him forward, to help understand that he wasn’t doing the walking, to aid him in any kind of conscious comprehension of his situation…but he quickly realised that he couldn’t affect the line of sight in any way. The viewing angle was completely out of his control. Instinctively, he tried to take control of the limbs that were attached to him, to move the arms like he would have done on any other minute of any other day since his birth, but there was no response. There was only the illusion of control; the moment when one of the hands reached for the door handle at the same time that he would have intended them to, as he reflexively thought of performing the motion simultaneously. What the fuck was going on? What the fuck was going on?
The crazy, unthinkable answer came again, despite his crashed mind, even in a moment of sheer madness—what other conclusion was there to reach?—as he saw the feminine hands reach for a toothbrush on the sink: he was in someone else’s body—a woman’s body—and he was not in control.
Incapable of speech, Charlie watched as the view swung up from the sink to look into the plastic-framed bathroom mirror, and whilst he began to notice the detail in his surroundings properly—tiny bathroom, cheap, slightly grubby tiles, and candles, candles everywhere—the main focus of his concern was the face looking back at him.
The eyes he was looking through belonged to a woman of hard-to-place age; she looked to be in her mid to late twenties, but even to Charlie’s goggling, shell shocked point of view, there was clearly darkness both under and inside her green eyes (physically and metaphorically speaking) that made her look older. Her skin was pale, and the tight, bouncy, but frazzled curls of her shoulder length black hair all added to the haunted manner that this woman seemed to possess.
All of which Charlie didn’t give a flying shit about, of course; thoughts were beginning to come together, and his mind was already rallying and coming back on-line. Whilst Charlie would never describe himself as a practical man, having spent most of his life more concerned with where the next laugh was coming from rather than the next paycheque, he had always been resourceful, capable of taking an objective step backwards in a tight spot and saying Ok, let’s have a look at this. Whilst he was beyond that now—had he been in his own body, that body would have been hyperventilating—he was now aware enough to at least think more clearly. As the woman continued to brush her teeth, Charlie watched, and thought the one thing to himself that instantly made everything else easier:,
This is probably a dream. This is fucking mental, so it’s got to be a dream. So there’s nothing to worry about is there?
Whilst he didn’t fully believe that—the view was too real, the surroundings too complete and detailed, the grit and grime too fleshed out and realised—it enabled him to take the necessary mental step back, and put his foot on the brake of his runaway mind a little.
Okay. Think. Think. This can’t actually be happening. It can’t. It’s a lucid dream, that’s what it is. Calm down. Calm down. That means you can decide what happens, right? You’re supposed to be able to control a lucid dream, aren’t you? So let’s make…the wall turn purple. That’ll do. Wall. Turn purple…now.
The wall remained exactly the same, and the view shifted downward briefly to reveal an emerging spray of water and foaming toothpaste. The woman had just spat.
Right. Maybe it’s not quite one of those dreams then, just a very, very realistic one. Don’t panic. You can prove this. Think back. Think back through your day, think what you’d been doing, and you’ll remember going to bed. What were you last doing?
He’d met the boys, gone for a drink—excited about the prospect of one turning into many—the first night out for a little while. Jack had been over from London too, which was both a good excuse and good news for the quality of the night. They had ended up on a heavy pub crawl, and somebody had said something about going back to their place…Neil. That guy Neil had said it. And they’d gone to Neil’s, and then…
Nothing. Nothing from there. And now he was here. As he felt hysteria start to rise, escalating from the panic that he already felt, Charlie frantically tried to put a lid on it before it got badly out of control.
You passed out. You had some more and you passed out. That’s why you can’t remember what happened at Neil’s, and this is the resultant booze-induced crazy dream. So wake up. Wake your ass up. Slap yourself in the face and wake the fuck up.
Charlie did so, his hand slamming into the side of his head with the force of fear behind it, and as the ringing sting rocked him he became aware that he suddenly had a physical presence of his own. If he had a hand to swing and a head to hit, then he had a body. Where the hell had that come from?
There’d been nothing before, no response from anything when he’d tried to move the woman’s arms earlier. He’d been a disembodied mind, a ghost inside this woman’s head, but now when he looked down he saw his own torso, naked and standing in a space consisting of nothing but blackness. Looking around himself to confirm it, seeing the darkness stretching away around him in all directions and now having a body to respond to his emotion, Charlie collapsed onto an unseen floor and lay gasping and whooping in lungfuls of non-existent air, his body trembling.
His wide, terrified eyes stared straight ahead, the view that had previously seemed to be his own vision now appearing suspended in the air, a vast image the size of a cinema screen with edges that faded away into the inky-black space around him. Its glow was ethereal, like nothing he’d ever seen before. How had he thought that had been his own-eye view? It had clearly been there all along, hanging there in the darkness. Had he just been standing too close? Had something changed? Either way, there was no mistake now; there was just him, the enormous screen showing the woman’s point of view, and the black room in which he lay.
Charlie pulled his knees up into a ball and watched the screen as he lay there whimpering. That slap had hurt badly, and instead of waking him it had added another frightening new dimension to the situation. He was terrified; he lay for a moment in mental and physical shock, and for now at least, everything was beyond him. The words that he feebly tried to repeat to himself fell on deaf ears—it’s a dream it’s a dream it’s a dream—and so he lay there for a while, doing nothing but watch and tremble as the woman made a sandwich, checked her emails on her phone, and moved to sit in front of her TV. She flicked through channels, thumbed through her Facebook feed. As this time passed—and Charlie still watched, incapable of anything else for the time being—he came back to himself a little more. He noticed that, whilst he was naked, he wasn’t cold. He wasn’t warm either, however; in fact, the concept of either sensation seemed hard to comprehend, like trying to understand what the colour red sounded like. Thoughts crept in again.
You can’t actually be in her head. You can’t actually be INSIDE her head. People don’t have screens behind their eyes or huge holes where their brain should be. You know that. You haven’t been shrunk and stuffed in here, as that’s not possible. So this…HAS…to be a dream. Right? You have a voice, don’t you? You can speak, can’t you? Can you get your breath long enough to speak?
Charlie opened his mouth, and found that speech was almost outside of his capabilities. A strange, strangled squeak came out of his throat, barely audible, and he felt no breath come from his lungs. He tried several more times, shaping his mouth around the sound in an attempt to form words, but got nowhere.
Focus, you fucking arsehole. Focus.
Eventually, he managed to squeak out a word that sounded a bit like hey and, encouraged by that success, he tried to repeat it. He managed to say it again on the third try, then kept going, the word getting slightly louder each time until something gave way and the bass came into his voice.
With that, the ability to speak dropped into place, even if getting the hand of it again took a real physical effort. He at least knew how to do it now, his mind remembering the logistics of speech like a dancer going through a long-abandoned but previously well-rehearsed routine. He looked out through the screen with sudden purpose, determined to find out if she could hear him.
“Hey…hey…” he gasped, his lips feeling loose and clumsy, as if they were new to his face. Charlie sat up, hoping to get more volume behind it, more projection. He thought he had to at least be as loud as the TV for her to hear him, if she was capable of doing so at all.
“HEY,” he managed, but there was no external response. Charlie’s heart sank, and he almost abandoned the whole attempt. After all, it was easier and more reassuring to resign himself to the only real hope that he had; that this truly was a dream, and thus something he could hopefully wait out until his alarm clock broke the spell and returned him to blessed normality. Things might have turned out very differently if he had, but instead Charlie found the strength to kneel upright and produce something approaching a scream.
“HEY!!” he squawked, and fell back onto his behind, exhausted. Staring at the glowing screen before him, dejected, Charlie then saw a hand come up into view, holding the remote control. A finger hit the mute button.
The image on the screen swung upwards, showing the white ceiling with its faint yellowing patches marking it here and there, and hung in that direction for a second or two. It then travelled back to the TV screen, and as the hand holding the remote came up again, Charlie realised what was happening and felt a fresh jolt of panic. Without thinking, he blurted out a noise, desperately needing to cause any kind of sound in an attempt to be heard, like a fallen and undiscovered climber hearing the rescue party beginning to move on.
“BAARGH! BA BA BAAA!” Charlie screeched, falling forwards as he almost dove towards the screen in his clumsy response to the images upon it. The hand hesitated, and then the view was getting up and travelling across the living room and down the hallway. It looked like the woman was going to look through the spyhole in her front door, and as she did so, the fish-eye effect of the glass on the huge screen made Charlie’s stomach lurch. He still saw the fairly dirty looking stairwell outside, however, and realised that they were in some sort of apartment block.
Charlie stared, trying desperately to pull himself together, and assessed the situation. She could hear him then; but she certainly didn’t seem to be aware that he was there. So she could be as unwilling in all of this as he was? Did she know anything about all this?
He didn’t believe that though. He just couldn’t. There had to be some sort of explanation, and he couldn’t be physically in her head, so this was…an out of body experience? Some sort of psychic link?
Charlie surprised himself with his own thoughts. Where the hell had all of that come from, all of those sudden, rational thoughts? True, he’d been confronted with something so impossible that he didn’t really have much choice but to look at the available options, but…was he suddenly adjusting again? When this all started, he didn’t even have a body, but that quickly appeared soon after. Was his mind following suit? He was still trembling, his shoulders still rising and falling dramatically with each rapid, shallow in-breath of nothing, but his mind was at work now; the shock had seemingly been absorbed and moved past far more quickly than it should have been, he was sure. Would he be this rational already if he were in his own body? Whatever was going on, being here was…different. He felt his mental equilibrium returning, his awareness and presence of mind growing. He was scared, and he was confused, but he was getting enough of a grip to at least function.
You have her attention. Don’t lose it.
He opened his mouth again, got nowhere, reset himself, then tried again.
The view jerked round, then everything in sight became slightly further away, very quickly; she’d spun around, and fallen backwards against the door. The view then swung sharply left and right to either side of the hallway, looking to the bathroom doorway and then to the doorway of another, unspecified room. Charlie assumed it was a bedroom. He tried again.
“Can…can you hear me?”
The view jerked violently. She’d clearly just jumped out of her skin, her fresh adrenaline putting all of her physical flight reflexes on full alert. It was a dumb question to ask—she obviously could—but even with his growing sense of control, Charlie’s mind was still racing, his incredulity at the situation now combining with the excitement of finding that he could communicate with his unsuspecting host.
It was clear that she was terrified, and Charlie realised that he couldn’t blame her. She was hearing a voice within the safety of her home when she thought she was by herself, and Charlie could only guess what it sounded like to this woman. Did his voice sound as if he were right behind her, or was she hearing it actually coming from the inside of her head? Charlie couldn’t decide which would be worse.
Get a grip, man. She’s going to shit herself when you start talking to her. Just…try and think, okay? Think straight. You have to get out of this. You need her to talk to you; you need her if you’re ever going to get this sorted out. Get a grip, get control, and think smart.
“Please, it’s—” He didn’t get any further as the jump came again, this time with a little scream; it was a brief squeal, clipped short as if she were trying to avoid drawing attention to herself. Charlie jumped with her this time, startled a little himself, but pressed on. “Please, please don’t be scared. I’m shitting myself here too. Please. Please calm down—” The second half of this sentence was lost, however, disappearing under a fresh scream from the woman. This time it was a hysterical, lengthy one that travelled with her as she ran the length of the hallway into the living room, slamming the door behind her. Charlie heard her crying and panting, and watched her thin hands grab one end of the small sofa and begin to drag it in front of the door. The scream trailed off as she did so, and once the job was done, the view backed away from the door, bobbing slightly in time with the woman’s whimpering tears and gasping breath.
Charlie hesitated to speak again; he knew that he simply had to, but what could he actually say without sending her off into fresh hysterics? The answer was immediate; nothing. There was no way to do it easily. She would have to realise that she was physically alone at least—and safe with it—and the only way to help her do that was to keep talking until she accepted that there was no intruder in her home.
Not on the outside, anyway.
“I need your help,” he tried, wincing as the view leapt almost a foot upwards and then spun on the spot, accompanied by fresh wails. “Please, lady, you’re safe—” The cries increased in volume, to the point where he had to raise his voice to be heard. In doing so, Charlie realised that he now had his voice under complete control. And wasn’t the blackness around him a fraction less dark now, too? “Look, just calm down, all right? If you just listen for two seconds, you’ll find that—”
“Fuck ooofffff!!” she screamed, the volume of it at a deafening level from Charlie’s perspective. He clapped his hands to the side of his head, wincing and crouching from the sheer force of it. It was like being in the centre of a sonic hurricane. “Get out of my flat! Get out of my flaaaaaaat!!!”
“Please!! Please don’t do that!” Charlie shouted, trying to be heard over the woman’s yelling. “Look, just shut up for a second, I don’t want to be here, I just want to—”
“Get out! Where are you? Get out!! Get oooouuuuuttt!!”she yelled, ignoring him, and as the view dropped to the floor and shot backwards—the living room walls now framing either side of the screen—Charlie realised that she’d dropped onto her ass and scooted backwards into the corner, backing into the space where the sofa had previously been. Frustrated, terrified, in pain and pushed to his limit (it had been one hell of an intense five minutes, after all) Charlie let fly with a scream of his own, hands balled into fists over his throbbing ears.
“JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR A SECOND!!” he screamed, and whether it was from using some volume of his own, or because her own screams were already about to descend into hysterical, terrified and silent tears, the only sound after Charlie’s shout was that of the woman’s whimpers. The view still darted around the room though, trying to find the source of the sound, a source well beyond her sight.
Charlie seized his moment. At the very least he could be heard, and that hopefully meant he could start talking her down. She was more terrified than him—of course she was, at least he’d had time to get used to the situation whereas she’d just discovered an apparently invisible intruder in her home—but he had to get through to her whilst she was at least quiet enough to hear him. Hysterical or not, she had ears, even if he appeared to be currently stood somewhere inbetween them.
“Look, I’m sorry for shouting like that, I just need you to listen for a second, okay? Just listen,” Charlie said, as soothingly as his own panicking mind would allow. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay? Okay? It’s fine, you’re, uh…you’re not in any danger, all right?”
“Where…where are you? Where are you?” the woman’s voice sobbed breathlessly, small and scared. Her thinking was clear from the confusion in her voice; she was finally realising that she should be able to see the person talking to her, that there was nowhere in the room that they could be hiding. Charlie thought quickly, and decided that it was best to leave that one for a minute. He’d only just got her onside, and didn’t want to push her over the edge.
“I’ll tell you in a second. I’m, uh…I’m not actually in the room, you see. You’re alone in the flat, and you’re safe. You’re fine. Okay?” She didn’t reply at first. The sobs continued helplessly, but Charlie thought that they might have been slightly lessened, if only due to confusion.
“Wha…what?” she stammered, the view swinging wildly around the room now. “Your voice…what the fuck…what the fuck is going onnnnnn….” And then she was off again, the hysterical screaming coming back at fever pitch. Charlie stood in front of the strange, glowing screen, his hands at his ears again whilst she bawled, blinking rapidly as his mind worked. After a moment or two, his shoulders slumped and he sat down. There was nothing he could do but wait, and let her adjust. His own breathing was beginning to slow further, and he was finding acceptance of his situation to still be an easier task than he thought; whilst it was no less mind boggling, his panic was dropping fast, and unusually so.
It’s being in here that’s doing it. It has to be.
Either way, he let her have a minute or two to calm down. Eventually, he stood and began to pace back and forth in the darkness—illuminated dimly by the unusual light of the screen—whilst he decided what to say next. His frantic mind kept trying to wander, to seize and wrestle all the aspects of the situation into submission, and failed every time.
You don’t like the dark. You don’t like the dark! Don’t think about it, don’t think about it…think about…wait…there’s no breeze in here, no echo. Is really is a room of sorts then, a space with walls on all sides?
He looked out into the darkness, looking for walls, and saw none; there was only seemingly endless blackness. Charlie thought it would be best not to go exploring just yet. Instead, he tried to control his breathing, and quickly ran through a mental list, double checking his actions and decisions of the previous few days before his night out:
Went to work. Did the late shift. Argued about sci-fi films with Clint. Helped Steve throw the drunk arsehole out that had started slapping his girlfriend. Went home, stayed up and watched a film because I had the Wednesday off. Met Chris in town—
And so it went on, By the time he’d finished a few minutes later—whilst he was no clearer about what had led him to be inside this woman’s head—he told himself that he really did feel more capable of beginning to deal with things, and less frightened; in the absolute worst case, even though he didn’t believe this to be the actual case, this situation was real, and had to be resolved. If he’d got in, then he could get out, and if this was the best—and more likely—scenario, where this was all just a dream, then he would wake up and all would be well.
Yeah. And if I had wheels, I’d be a wagon.
Charlie took a deep breath, and decided to speak again.
“Are you ok?” he said. The view jumped again, along with a fresh scream.
For fuck’s sake.
“Look, we’re not going to get anywhere if you keep doing that,” Charlie said, not being able to keep the frustration out of his voice. “I’m sure you’re a smart person really, so just knock the screaming and shit on the head and we can work together to sort this all out, right? For crying out loud, if I’m not there, I can’t exactly do anything to you, can I? I know you’re scared, and I know this must have been a hell of a shock, but I’m not exactly a million dollars myself right this minute. So, please…come on. Just…have a minute, sort yourself out, and then we’ll…then we’ll carry on,” he finished, shrugging his shoulders in annoyed impotence. He knew that he was perhaps being a little harsh, but he couldn’t help thinking that he had a bit of a flake on his hands here. Being scared was one thing, but a complete collapse like this was another.
Don’t be a dick, Charlie, he reprimanded himself. You don’t know what she’s been through before now. You might be squatting in her head, but you don’t know anything about her.
It was a fair point. She seemed to respond better to his last outburst though, and the sobbing was now drying up into skipping little breaths. She wasn’t responding to his annoyance, Charlie thought, but it might have been the honest approach that got through. Sometimes people just appreciated it.
“Your voice…” she said, and her own was steadier, but uncertain. “Where—” She hesitated, seeming to try and find a different question to ask, something else to say that would stop her from repeating herself. She gave up. “Where are you? Where…where are you?”
She’s not going to drop that one. Would you, in her shoes?
Again, a fair point, and Charlie decided that the honest approach had seemed to work before.
“Look…okay, I’ll tell you,” he said, trying to find words to describe the impossible, “and I don’t understand it in the slightest myself, but it’s…it’s pretty heavy shit, okay? I mean, well, I don’t mean heavy as in serious, as I’ve no idea what it really is, but I mean heavy as in…hard to get your head around. It’s…weird. And we can’t be having any of the freaking out stuff you were doing earlier, okay? I need you to work with me. Okay?”
Another pause, and then the view nodded quickly; a rapid, brief up and down motion that would have been barely noticeable to an outside observer, but seemed to Charlie as if her flat had been caught in an earthquake.
“Okay,” she replied quietly, her voice breathy and small.
“Right…” said Charlie, speaking slowly and trying to prepare each word carefully. “I don’t know how this has happened, or why, but the last thing I remember is being on a night out with my mates, we were out in…wait…hang on, where is this? Where do you live?”
“Which city? Which city are you in right now?”
“Jesus! That’s where I live!”
In the brief pause that followed whilst she waited for him to continue, his mind grabbed the thought and filed it away for later. It might be relevant. Maybe they’d been somewhere in the city, been through something, something that caused a connection…
It’s a dream, remember? This is down to cheese and too many pints, or a bad kebab.
He dragged his wandering thoughts back on track, and continued.
“Anyway, anyway, we were out in Cov, and then we went back to someone’s house, and then, I don’t know, I must have fallen asleep or drank too much or whatever, but somehow…somehow…”
He stumbled, tripping at the vital hurdle.
“What?” she asked, the view still scanning around the room, as if hoping to find the answers there.
“Ah…ah fuck it, look, I, I, I woke up or whatever and here I am, in your fucking head. I don’t know how I got here, and hell, I might be gone in the next five minutes for all I know, but I’m here, I’m in your head, here I am. That’s it.”
Silence again. Then:
“I’m in your head. I’m stood here, in front of this, this…” He waved his hands in front of the immense, ethereal screen before him, taking it in as yet another rapid flicker shivered across it. These had been happening constantly; later he would realise that this effect was due to her blinking. “This screen thing, okay, and everywhere else in here it’s just black, and I’m stood here, completely…” he trailed off, looking down at his genitals and deciding that it would probably be best not to mention the nakedness to a scared woman who is stuck in a flat on her own, “…completely without any idea as to what’s going on.”
Silence again. Then:
“A screen…there’s a screen in my head?” she asked. “What…what screen, what the hell are you talking about?”
Charlie rubbed at his face, angry now, both with himself and her. Of course she didn’t get it, it was un-gettable, but she wasn’t even coming close to understanding and he was doing a lousy job of explaining it. He needed to get the important facts across if they were ever going to move on, and spare her the more intricate details. He needed a different approach.
“Look, don’t worry about that, forget it, forget it. Listen. Right, ok, I’ll start again. My name is Charlie. Charlie Wilkes. What’s yours?”
There was a long, uncertain silence.
“Minnie,” she replied, her voice shaking again. She was about to go any second, he could tell.
Talk her down.
“Are you scared to talk to me?” asked Charlie, as tenderly as he could manage. “You don’t have to be. Talk to me. What’s your surname? You might as well get used to talking to me you know, as we need to talk to sort this all out, yeah? Come on. What’s your surname?”
“I don’t…I don’t like to…” the tears were coming again, and Charlie knew he needed to stop this fast before she lost it.
“It’s okay, have a second—“ he began, but she cut him off, her voice rising.
“If I talk to you…it’ll get worse…I think it’s finally happening, I think it’s finally happened and you’re not real and I’m going cra-ha-ha-haaaAAAAAAA—” and then she was gone, wailing again…but this time it was different. This time the screen went black and the sobs became muffled, turning into the low, mournful cries of someone who has given up. She’d dropped her head into her hands or onto her forearms, with her eyes squeezed shut as she cried, cutting off Charlie’s view of the outside world. He realised in that moment why her earlier reaction had been so severe; this was someone not entirely comfortable in their own mind, someone already scared of finding voices in their head or visions of things that aren’t there. He didn’t have time to dwell on that, however, as he realised that Minnie’s eyes being shut meant that he was now swallowed by total darkness. Terror came rushing in, threatening to take him and ruin the small amount of progress that he’d just made.
“Minnie, trust me, you’re not going crazy,” Charlie said, raising his voice almost to a shout to be heard over her noise, “I know it sounds crazy, this whole situation is crazy, but I promise you I’m the real deal! Okay? My name is Charlie Wilkes, I work in a pub—Barrington’s, you know Barrington’s?—I support the Sky Blues even though I never go to the Ricoh, I grew up in Oxford, I moved here, what, ten years ago? I like, ah, I like movies and books, uh, I like, I like music…shit, who doesn’t, okay, I like cheese, and I hate getting up early! The last film I saw was The English Patient on Blu-Ray, the, uh, the last thing I bought from the shop was a Peperami and a can of Sprite! My favourite place to eat in Cov is the Ocean Restaurant, and I didn’t vote last election day because I forgot to get to the polling station in time…okay? Is any of this getting through to you?”
“…you’re not real…”
“I am! I promise I am! Look, if I wasn’t real, right, and you were genuinely going crazy, don’t the voices in crazy people’s heads tell them to go and kill people, shit like that? Tell them that the government is run by lizards, and that they’re Jesus come to, to, I dunno, stick forks in their asses? Well I’m not saying any of those things!”
Ease off, for God’s sake. Don’t start attacking her again.
“Look. All I’m asking you to do is listen to me. That’s it. That’s it. You know what, absolute worst case, you’ve gone nuts and you have a voice in your head. But it’s not a non-stop voice, look, I can be quiet if you want, listen.“ Charlie stopped talking for a good thirty seconds before speaking again. “See? And I’m not nagging at you to do bad things. So it’s not that bad of a bad thing, worst case. And best case…I’m telling the truth, and you and I can figure this out together. Okay? So just, you know, chill out for a moment, take a nice deep breath, and let’s talk.”
He took a few deep breaths himself, trying to keep a grip—it was hard enough for him to keep it together, let alone having to try and do it for two people—and waited for her response. He closed his eyes, trying to pretend that the now-complete blackness that he saw all around him was of his own choosing, and that he could bring the light back any time he wanted. Her reply eventually came, so quiet that he could barely hear it even inside her head.
“Sorry?” he said, feeling suddenly hopeful. “What did you say? I didn’t catch that sweetheart, I—“ He jumped back as the screen blazed into life, her eyes opening as her head came up. He didn’t have time to revel in the sudden return of the light, as her anger was already being directed at him.
“Don’t fucking call me sweetheart,” she snapped, her voice immediately strong. “I’m not your sweetheart, and I have a name. It’s Minnie. I told you. Okay?”
Jesus, thought Charlie, kicking himself. He’d meant it as a term of endearment, trying to get her onside, and hadn’t meant to patronise or insult. However, it seemed to have given her more of a kick up the arse than anything else he’d said so far, shunting her frightened mind back online.
“Okay, okay, fair point, I’m sorry,” he said quickly, taking it back. “I just didn’t catch what you said, that’s all I meant.” She hesitated to respond again, however, making a small noise in her throat that Charlie couldn’t discern. Was she mollified by his apology or…embarrassed by her aggression? Whatever it was, the sudden fire in her seemed to have died down as quickly as it arrived, as if she’d forgot, then remembered, the situation that she was in.
“I said my surname,” she said quietly. She was embarrassed, Charlie could tell.
“Okay, sw—Minnie,” Charlie said, correcting himself. “What is it?”
There was a heavy outlet of breath, and then something surprising; laughter, if a little snuffly in its execution. The light from the screen flashed off and on as she wiped her eyes.
“I don’t like to tell people really, but I don’t know why I’m embarrassed to tell you because obviously I’ve finally gone loony and you’re not even real,” Minnie said, laughing again and sniffing some more as she cleared the last of her tears. It was sad-sounding laughter, but there was also release in it, speaking to Charlie of an inner strength pushed beyond its emotional limits. There was another story here, Charlie knew, one that would have to wait. He decided it best to play along.
“That’s right, you’ve gone crackers and I’m the result. Talk about adding insult to injury, eh?” he offered, smiling despite himself, and was rewarded with a small bark of continued laughter, sniffling and nervous, the view shaking back and forth as she shook her head resignedly.
“Yep, that’s right…Charlie, was it?” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “Sounds like a name I’d give to my lunacy-powered imaginary head-buddy. Jesus…” She let out a sigh that ended in a final sniff. “Okay, Charlie, stand by to yuck your socks off like everyone else has my entire life, then ask the questions. Ready?”
Charlie wondered what the hell she was talking about, but didn’t want to interrupt her flow.
“My full name…is Minnie Cooper.”
Charlie stared at the screen, suddenly lost for words. This had to be a dream, then.
“Are you…are you ser—“
“Yes, I’m serious, my Dad thought it would be funny, yes, my brother is really called Tommy, even though he insists on being called Tom, no, I don’t like it, no, I won’t change my name as it’d really upset my Dad, yes, people find it funny, and no, I’ve never owned one. I think that’s all of the usual questions. Got any others though?” she finished, sighing and chuckling in the quiet manner of someone who doesn’t actually find anything in a sickening situation funny.
“No, I think that’s all of them,” Charlie said, sitting down and realising that they were finally having a conversation. “Well, I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but given the circumstances, I think that’d be a lie.”
“Uh-huh,” said Minnie with a sigh, the view leaning back and looking at the ceiling. “Keep talking, this really is something else. A real first, I have to say. Just…great. Fucking great.”
“It’s for real, Minnie, I promise you. You have to take me seriously. Please.”
“Don’t worry Chuck, I’m all ears. Go for your life.”
“Do me a favour, will you?” he asked, scowling slightly.
“For you? Anything. Just name it.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Charlie responded.
“Don’t call me that. It winds me up, and I’m stressed out enough as it is.”
“You’re stressed? Ah wait, of course you are. You’re stuck in my head. You just don’t know what to do with yourself, you little tumour you. I always thought that when my brain eventually went, it’d be a sudden haemorrhage, but I guess I’m going the slow way. Marvellous. Perfect way to leave a legacy, ending up wandering down the high street in my knickers, make-up smeared all over my face and babbling to invisible Chuck.” The hand came up and picked something up off a nearby coffee table, then threw it against the wall where it shattered. Ignoring the deliberate jibe, Charlie took in the room in front of him whilst he thought of his next move. It was as shabby as the bathroom, with a threadbare carpet and faded paint on the walls. A small table with two chairs stood in the opposite corner, and a bookcase—a full to capacity bookcase—was placed in front of the eastern wall. A fairly old TV stood in the corner to their left, with a knotted rug placed in front of it. She had done her best to make it homely, though; the candles were again in abundance, and there were many small picture frames all over the walls, each one with a candid photo of people she presumably knew. They were all quite faded however, suggesting they hadn’t been updated in some time.
Charlie realised he was going to get nowhere unless he convinced her that he was for real, and so he turned his attention to finding a practical method for this. Almost immediately, he thought of two. Excitedly, he spoke up.
“Facebook. Look me up on Facebook. I have an account, it’ll say I live in Coventry, I’m all there. Easy.” There was silence for a moment as she pondered this.
“Nope. Won’t work, Chuck,” she said, sighing and shaking her head, as Charlie gritted his teeth and tried to keep a lid on his anger. “I could have seen your name on a mutual friend’s profile, or even just seen your name in the paper, anything, and my subconscious has picked you at random and given you a little voice in my head. Seeing a name on a Facebook page, what would that prove?”
“I could…I could tell you what my last few status updates were about, and then you could check them and see if I was right. How would you know that?”
“Well, apart from the fact that I couldn’t look at your statuses as we’re not Facebook friends, Chuck. Unless your profile is Public?”
“I told you, stop calling me-”
“Chuck! Chuckchuckchuuuuck!!” Minnie suddenly screamed, and the jaded bravado dropped away completely as silent tears began. Charlie bit his lip, and waited a moment for them to fade before he tried his next idea.
“Don’t cry, come on. Listen…” He hesitated before asking his next question, being forced to go somewhere he never really liked to. It had been a while… “Can you drive?”” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice and quietly hoping the answer would actually be no. She sniffed in response, and drew in a breath.
“I clearly shouldn’t be allowed, but yes,” she replied, her voice croaky, and Charlie’s heart sank a notch. Dammit…he’d been hoping they’d have to take the bus. He always avoided being in cars.
“Where do you want to go?” Minnie continued. “I’m assuming this is the start of the bloody…killing spree, right? Drive the fucking…Fiesta through Tesco’s shop window?” The hand dragged across the bottom of the screen as she wiped her nose. Again, Charlie found himself wondering where he physically was; how could he be stood behind her eyes? He couldn’t be. The screen would have to be, again, just a strange representation of them then?
First things first, Charlie. Plus, it’s a dream, don’t forget that, the voice in his head said…but it sounded less confident than ever. Then Charlie realised that he was listening to a voice in his own head, and quickly pushed that thought away before his mind blew.
“My house. We’ll go to my house,” he said, firmly, pleased with his own idea and finding it infallible. “I’ll tell you where the spare key is, and you can go in, hell, I’ll tell you the password to my PC, you can go in there too…all stuff that you couldn’t possibly know. Right? And then you’ll have to believe me. Okay? And then we can decide if this is, I dunno, a psychic link or an out-of-body experience or whatever, and then decide what we do about it. Tell me what’s wrong with that, eh?”
Silence again, followed by another sigh and a headshake. Charlie was about to do some shouting of his own, when the view began to rise from the floor.
“Okay, whatever you say Chuck, it’s not like I had any other pla—sorry, Charlie, Charlie—let’s go for a road trip. At least I’ll have some company.”
“You’re up for that? That’s great. Do you…do you have a car of your own?”
“Only just, but yes. Hopefully it’ll get us around Coventry and back.”
Great. An old banger as well. This just gets better, thought Charlie, trying to smother his usual anxieties.
“Where the hell are we going anyway?” Minnie asked.
“Radford,” said Charlie, relieved at least that they were making progress and pushing thoughts of the dreaded passenger seat out of his head. A thought struck him. “Where are we at the moment, anyway?”
“Canley,” she said, moving to pick up a black woollen coat from the living room table. “Costa Del Canley. Not too far…” she caught herself, and gave a hollow laugh. “So it shouldn’t inconvenience you too much.” Then, quietly to herself: “What the fuck are you doing, you crazy bitch…”
They moved into the hallway and the mirror came into Charlie’s view, showing Minnie’s face again. It was now red-eyed, with blotchy pink patches on her skin.
“Jesus, look at the state of me,” she said, sarcastically, running her hands through her tight curls. “I’m in no state to be seen out and about with my very own man-in-the-head. Girl-about-town, man-in-the-head. Not every day I get to do this sort of thing, right?” Her face crumpled slightly for a second, about to go again, but she swallowed it back. She stared into the mirror for a moment, and as Charlie watched he was suddenly struck by an uncanny sensation.
It was only brief, but for a second Charlie had the utter conviction that he recognised her; that he knew her face like that of an old, long-forgot friend, reduced to a hazy memory by a distance of years. Then just as quickly, the moment was gone, and Minnie was yet again just a stranger whose life he’d been thrown into.
“Charlie?” Minnie said, in a small, suddenly scared voice. Or maybe not suddenly, Charlie thought. He wondered if maybe the annoying sarcasm was her defence mechanism against the world, protecting the real Minnie when she felt as terrified as she did now.
“I’m here. I wish I wasn’t—no offence—but I’m here.”
“When we’ve been to your house…if it’s there or not…will you leave me alone after that?” she asked. It was almost a plea. Charlie didn’t know what to say.
“I’ll try. I promise I’ll try.”
She carried on staring into the mirror, and then he heard her keys jangle in her hand. Minnie—and Charlie with her—was turning and walking out of the front door.
In all the years Charlie had lived in Coventry, he’d never quite got his head around where each area ended and the next began; knowing the quickest way between them was even more of a challenge. Riding inside Minnie’s head—and inside her barely roadworthy Ford Fiesta—it became immediately clear that she didn’t suffer from the same problem. He thought it best to be silent as they drove, even though he had questions; was she born here, what was her job, what the hell was her general problem anyway, other than having a strange man in her head (although he thought that if he did ask that, he’d phrase the question slightly more pleasantly). All of which he kept to himself, both out of politeness—Charlie was all too aware that he was effectively trespassing on her life—and the fact that if questions were asked about his life in Coventry, he’d never really be able to answer them all, as he knew that he couldn’t really explain why he was still there.
He’d moved there for a girl, after all, and quickly realised that she wasn’t The One (a lack of desire to do anything other than watch TV became rapidly apparent in their new domestic situation) and after moving out, he’d kept the same stop-gap bar job that he’d taken upon arrival in the city. He’d started off telling himself that he’d only work there whilst looking into doing something else—he had a degree in English after all, and had thought about becoming a copywriter—but the same internal conversation had carried on for ten years, even when he was made manager of the venue.
These days, he didn’t really even bother convincing himself that he intended to do anything else; life was good, the hours suited him, the work was mainly a sociable laugh, and he was lucky enough to have what he considered to be a good group of friends. If the city wasn’t his first choice, and the pay wasn’t spectacular, he supposed he didn’t really class those issues as being enough reason to upset the status quo. Bottom line, he guessed that he spent a lot of time having fun, and that was what he loved best in life. Starting a family wasn’t on his radar, held no appeal, but it wasn’t because he was shallow; he just prized his freedom very highly.
And yet here he was, sitting trapped in a black room, with no knowledge of how he got there in the first place.
Even worse, he was trapped in a black room that was itself trapped inside a moving car, one of his least favourite places on earth to be. Visions of the past flashed before his eyes; the roll and flip of the light, the smack of weight on water…he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, taking it away as best he could.
Eventually, it was Minnie who broke the silence.
“You there, Charlie?” she asked, sounding businesslike. Minnie had seemed to relax once they were in the car; she had a job to do now, something to occupy her frightened mind.
“Yeah”, he replied, sitting up and feeling keen to talk. As time had passed, he’d felt more and more guilty about his presence in her head, despite his previous annoyance at her hysterics. She’d been scared out of her wits after all, and had done nothing, as far as he knew, to deserve any of this. Anything he could now do to be ‘nice’, he would do so, for her sake. “I’m here, just, you know, trying to respect your personal space. Well…as far as possible, anyway.” He chuckled slightly, trying to make a joke, but she didn’t acknowledge it.
“Sat nav says we’re nearly here,” she said, referring to the phone software that was directing her. The modern hardware looked out of place where it was sitting, clipped in its plastic holder against the aging air vents of the decrepit vehicle. She hadn’t recognised the name of the street when he’d said it, but Charlie hadn’t even bothered to try and use it as proof of him being who he said he was. She’d only claim the same explanation that she’d used earlier, that of her own subconscious storage of something she’d heard, or seen once in passing, that was then forgot by her conscious mind.
Charlie looked to the right of the view, clocking a shop he recognised as it went past.
“Yep, nearly here,” he confirmed. He’d known that they’d been drawing near for the last few minutes, seeing landmarks he knew. Thank God, he thought. Get out me out of this bloody thing. He meant the car, and realised that he could have meant the black room as well. “Couple more streets down, on the left.”
The day was bright, being morning and early autumn, and as Charlie dimly acknowledged this, a switch flicked in his head and a jarring thought occurred. Was it Autumn? He’d just realised he had absolutely no idea what the date was, assuming all along that it was the next day after his night out, a Saturday, meaning today would be a Sunday. What if wasn’t Sunday? Then what the fuck would he do?
He tried to steady his shaking hands in front of the screen’s bright glow, and took a deep breath, wondering whether to ask Minnie.
One thing at a time. Last thing you need to do is give her another crazy concept to worry about. Let’s do the bloody home visit first, confirm you’re the real deal, then see what’s up…Sunday mornings off, at least. Good thing you’re not supposed to be in work right now.
He opened his mouth to tell Minnie that it was the next turn, but the sat nav app got there first; she flicked the indicator without a word, and the Fiesta turned into Fynford Road. As Charlie laid eyes on his home street, he felt a sudden pang of longing; here was normality, here was his life, represented by the terraced street he called home. It wasn’t the most glamorous street in the city by any stretch, but the rent was cheap, the building was sound, and he knew enough of his neighbours to say hello to, that he felt there was a greater safety here. He wasn’t friends with any of them, as such—they didn’t make any more effort than a smile and a greeting, and neither did he—but they were acquaintances, good people as far as he knew.
Take a trip in their heads buddy, double check. You don’t bother asking permission, right?
Minnie pulled over in the first available space, and drew the keys out of the ignition. She sighed again, a heavy, resigned, I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing this release, and the view swung up to the ceiling of the car. Charlie noticed that she seemed to have a habit of looking up when she spoke to him.
“Right. We’re here. Which number am I looking for?”
“17. The one with the high hedge.” Charlie said, as calmly as possible. He was excited now, the prospect of getting her fully onside filling him with anticipation. This would be the start of the process that got him the fuck out of there, and Charlie decided in that moment that if she helped him fix this, he’d give her some money towards a new car. Patronising again perhaps, but he thought it was the least he could do.
“Of course it is. Doesn’t hurt that it’s also the one I’ve just parked near, right?”
She was persistent, he had to give her that.
“The hedge hides the door number from here. How could you know that one was number 17?”
She didn’t reply, and simply unbuckled her seat belt.
“Let’s just get this over with,” she said, quietly, and opened the door. Charlie felt his shoulders drop and his back settle the instant she stepped out of the metal cage.
The view moved across the fairly empty street as she walked—at that time of day, as usual, most of the cars were gone—and approached the house, which was obscured, as Charlie had pointed out, by the high hedge sticking up over the small fence that ran around the edge of the miniscule, gravelled front garden. Her hand came into view, pushing open the low gate that was made from a different wood to the rest of the fence. Minnie’s steps seemed to grow lighter once she was walking on the short, concrete path, as if she were worried about being caught trespassing. The scuffing sound of her trainers on the dull grey surface ceased, as she picked her feet up properly and put them down again with care.
“It’s okay, no-one’s in,” said Charlie, noticing the change and trying to reassure her. “Eric’ll be out at work—sorry, Eric’s my housemate—so there’s no-one to worry about.” Minnie didn’t respond to this, and instead the view began to cast about the front doorstep, looking for something.
“Where’s this spare key hidden then?” she asked, her voice very low and discreet. “There’s nowhere for it to be hidden under.”
“You have to crouch down,” said Charlie, whispering himself on reflex—not wanting the hiding place to be overheard—then realising that doing so was idiotic. He raised his voice again. “At the back of the step, on the right hand side, it’s crumbled away slightly and left a gap. We stash it in there.”
Without a word, the view lowered and then angled up, showing the upstairs windows as Minnie craned her head back, leaning in with her shoulder. A few seconds passed.
What…did the curtain just move upstairs?
“There’s nothing here,” said Minnie, softly. “There’s a gap, but no key.”
“Of course there is,” said Charlie, annoyed at what he took to be a half-assed effort on her part. “Check again.”
“Charlie, I felt all round it. It’s only a small gap, barely enough room for a key as it is, and there isn’t one there. This is, as I suspected, bullshit.” She didn’t sound victorious, or even angry. She sounded scared, the word bullshit coming out almost as a squeak.
Eric. He’s forgot to put the bloody key out.
“Eric’s obviously forgot to leave it out,” Charlie said, frustrated now. This was typical; Eric, always so reliable, except on the one day that it was really required of him. “This means nothing. And hey, how would you have known the gap was even there in the first place?”
Minnie sighed, and the view moved to the floor in silence for a moment, showing one of her trainers pawing in aimless arcs on the path. Charlie’s heart sank; despite the important point about the gap in the step actually being there, she didn’t buy it, and was instead fearing the worst.
“Look, Minnie, I promise you—“
Both of them jumped as the front door opened. The view leaped a foot back from the step, and Charlie actually fell onto his backside in surprise. The floor in his darkened room was solid, and yet didn’t hurt; it wasn’t hard or soft, it was just something for him to stand on, it seemed. But there was no time to consider that.
The person responsible for the door opening was a short, elderly woman, easily in her eighties. She was wearing a green jumper and jogging bottoms, with an apron covering the whole ensemble, and her feet were covered with nothing but a pair of brown socks. Her white hair was scraped back into a high ponytail, though some of it had escaped in thin strands that stuck out in all directions. She wore glasses, and the expression on her aged face was a mix of confusion, suspicion and indignance.
“What are you doing?” she asked, looking Minnie up and down and putting a foot out of the door onto the step, holding on to the doorframe with one hand. Minnie didn’t answer, and the view continued to show the scene before her. Had he been of normal mind, Charlie would have realised that she was frozen, waiting for him to explain or give her a clue as to what to say; this wasn’t the situation that she’d been told to expect—whether she believed him or not—and she couldn’t exactly ask questions of her invisible companion to get the answers she needed without looking insane.
At that moment, however, Charlie simply wasn’t capable of providing assistance. Hs blood had run cold upon seeing the old woman, and his world had been rocked even harder against its already battered and strained foundations.
He had never seen the old woman in his entire life.
His mind raced; Eric’s mother?
No, you’ve seen pictures!
Had Mr Bansal, the landlord, hired her as a cleaner?
He’s never done that in ten years, and he knows I’d hit the roof if he sent someone round without telling us first!
Had Eric invited her round?
What the hell for?
Everything drew a blank, and Charlie just stood there and gaped in shock. The mutual silence went on long enough to draw another enquiry from the old woman. Her free hand went up, palm out, and her head began to shake back and forth in slow defiance.
“I’m not interested, whatever it is. I don’t want it. The sign says that we don’t buy from salesmen, so we don’t buy from salesmen. Or saleswome