We were all surprised every time Stan made it to another meeting. If he wasn’t yet knocking at death’s door, he seemed to be rolling up the access ramp to it, huffing into his mask, hauling his collection of failing organs with him. After several months we were all deeply knowledgeable about his ailments and injuries, his medicines and their side effects, his ongoing battle with incompetent doctors and heartless nurses and corrupt insurance clerks. The medical industrial complex, he said, was a God damn mess, and it was a miracle he was still kicking.
And yet, not only did he make it to the Elms every week, he arrived early.
Stan bragged to the group how he’d lied to the van service, told them the meeting was a half hour earlier than it was. The same smart-ass kid picked him up every week. Knocked on the door, wouldn’t use the bell, walked right in if Stan didn’t get there fast enough. The kid would stand there making faces behind that God damn lumberjack beard, wrinkling his nose at the house that Stan had spent four decades in. “How the hell can a man with no hands be a hoarder?” the kid said once. He’d shove stuff out of the way, kicking Stan’s belongings like they were garbage, or worse, picking them up like he was appraising their value.
“Why do you have a pistol?” the kid asked. It was a .357 police swing-out revolver, brand new and still in its case. Stan had found it on eBay.
“None of your damn business,” Stan said. There was a lot more than the .357 in the house, but the kid didn’t need to know that.
“How do you fire it?”
“Shut up,” Stan said. “We’re late.”
Somewhere in the house were his prosthetics. He’d gone through a dozen of them before giving up on them twenty years ago. They weren’t anything like the high-tech robot parts the soldiers had now; these were old-fashioned hooks and flesh-toned mannequin hands and strap-on shoes—original pirate material. Uncomfortable as hell.
These days he rented hands, day nurses and Merry Maids and Meals-on-Wheels volunteers. The new ones always suggested he move into assisted living. They didn’t suggest it twice. I survived on scraps! he told them. For months! You think you can put me in a God damn prison?
Oh, he could still crank up a good rant. The young ones quit the first time he reduced them to tears, and good riddance. He couldn’t stand wimps. He could instantly spot every variety of bad egg: the thief, the layabout, the cell phone watcher, the idiot. It usually didn’t take more than a phone call to get them transferred, and if that failed he could get them to quit soon enough. They thought he was old and helpless.
He could see it in the eyes of the group, too. Well, most of their eyes. The youngest one, Martin, still wouldn’t take off the sunglasses. He decided to bring it up with Dr. Sayer before the meeting started.
As the eldest member of the group, he thought it a good idea to confer with the doctor before the meetings and share thoughts about how therapy was going. Often she came downstairs right as the meeting was scheduled to start, leaving them no time to talk, but some weeks he could get a couple of minutes of one-on-one time with her.
Today he was lucky. He’d commanded the driver to wait with him outside the conference room, and Dr. Sayer came down the stairs a few minutes before six.
Her smile was bright and unforced. “Early again, Stan?”
The first time he’d met her, at the pre-group interview, that smile had struck a chime in his heart. It was not lust (though he was not above those feelings, despite lacking the ability to act on them), but something finer, almost familial. In another life she could have been his daughter. Her wide green eyes were steady and accepting. She always looked at him directly, without revulsion. Seeing all of him.
“Early is on-time,” Stan said. Before she could walk into the room, he asked her about Martin’s glasses. Did she realize that no one had mentioned them since the first meeting? It had been weeks and weeks. “Everyone’s so nervous about conflict they don’t want to bring ’em up again,” he said.
“That’s a perceptive insight,” Dr. Sayer said. Stan felt the warmth of her approval. True, it was Barbara who’d suggested to him that conflict avoidance was a reason for the silence, but Stan had been thinking much the same thing, so it was his idea too.
“I think you should bring that up in group,” the doctor said.
“Martin will just say that you let him keep the glasses on,” Stan said. Which is what Stan had told Barbara.
“Maybe,” the doctor said. “But that’s something we can talk about, too.”
That was her thing: Everything had to happen in the group. And maybe he should share this insight.
“I’ll think about it,” Stan said. He waved an arm to get the driver’s attention. “Wheel me.”
The kid didn’t move.
“Please take me into the room,” Stan said evenly.
The kid sighed. Stan knew he was rolling his eyes, trying to look like a big man in front of the doctor. Well, to hell with you, kid.
Stan directed the driver to his regular spot, between the chairs that Harrison and Barbara always went to. He liked Barbara almost as much as he did Dr. Sayer. He was so happy the woman had sat beside him on the first day, and happier still that they’d stuck to their seats as if they’d been assigned. Dr. Sayer, thank God, had not inflicted any teambuilding exercise on them and forced them to shuffle their positions.
Barbara arrived a few minutes later. Stan lowered his mask and said hello. She smelled like a proper woman; just a touch of expensive perfume, nothing cloying. He liked to breathe her in. Sometimes, if he shared something awful or sad, she’d pat his arm. Dr. Sayer, despite her obvious affection for him, never touched him.
“How are you doing, Stan?” Barbara asked warmly.
“Oh, can’t complain,” he said. He told her about his eye doctor, who wanted to do cataract surgery on him. His vision wasn’t as good as it used to be, but he wasn’t blind, not yet. “A dozen other things will kill me before I need to fix my eyes,” he said. Martin and Harrison came into the room. “I don’t need any more people coming at me with scalpels.”
“I think they use lasers now,” Harrison said. He was dressed in a suit jacket and T-shirt, which Stan thought was a ridiculous combination. Make up your damn mind; either wear the whole suit with a man’s shirt and tie, or go play basketball.
“Just another kind of knife,” Stan said.
“Lightsaber,” Martin said.
Greta took her seat next to Harrison. Stan had never gotten close enough to Greta to sniff her, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she wore men’s deodorant. She was almost certainly homeless, or a lesbian, or a homeless lesbian. Definitely didn’t like men. Every week she sat across the circle from him, glowering. Hardly ever spoke. What the hell was she doing here, if she wasn’t even going to talk? Also, he was pretty sure she wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Who’d like to start?” Dr. Sayer asked.
No one said anything. Dr. Sayer turned her eyes to Stan.
He lifted his eyes from Greta’s chest. What was the doctor wanting? Oh right. “I want to talk about the glasses again,” Stan said.
Martin looked up, wary.
“No one’s asking you to take them off,” Barbara said to Martin. Then to Stan: “Are you, Stan?”
“No.” But he thought, Not yet.
“Good,” Martin said. “Because I’m not.”
“I’m not telling you to,” Stan said.
“Here’s what I want to know,” Harrison said. “If you’re not recording anything right now—”
“I’m not,” Martin said.
“Then why can’t you take them off, just for this meeting?”
Stan was annoyed that Harrison had stolen his thunder. “Yeah,” Stan said. “Why?”
Martin mumbled something.
“What was that?” Stan asked.
“I said, I can’t turn off the game.”
Before anyone else could jump in, Stan asked the obvious question: “What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s called Deadtown,” Martin said. “It’s an augmented reality RPG.”
Stan said, “Augmented . . .”
“It’s a video game,” Martin said. “But you play it in the real world. The game turns people on the street into zombies, and you actually see their faces transformed through the camera. The filters are wicked cool, completely dynamic.”
Stan still had no idea what he was talking about. But it was certainly the most animated Martin had ever been in group.
“You get points by killing the zombies,” Martin said. “You can pick up weapons that the game world drops for you, or buy them online. You just make your hand into a gun shape, and—” The fingers of his right hand curled. “There. A pistol.” He made another shape. “Or a knife. Or a sword.”
“You walk around pointing your finger at people?” Stan said.
“It’s not that easy,” Martin said. “You have to shoot them in the head to kill them. Or get close enough to chop their heads off.” He made a flicking gesture with his hand. “If they touch you, they turn you into a zombie.”
“You do this in public,” Stan said disbelievingly.
“Nobody knows what I’m doing,” Martin said. “I played for months and nobody noticed. And they don’t know they’re zombies. I just—” He pointed his hand. “Bang. Splat. The sound effects are awesome. The glasses use bone conduction speakers, so you actually feel the back blast.”
“That’s . . . awful,” Barbara said.
“The entire sound design’s incredible. Sirens in the distance, people screaming, gunshots. The game could actually get you to duck. Totally insane. And the gameplay. You don’t level up like in other games, you don’t get more hit points or better weapons. It just gets more and more intense. The apocalypse keeps snowballing. I mean, I kept playing, and more and more zombies appeared on the streets. Even the buildings started to change. Like, crumbling. Cars burning, corpses on the sidewalk. I’d walk into the 7-Eleven and there’d be a headless corpse slumped against the beverage cooler. The guy at the register would have bullet wounds in his face.
“And the zombies kept coming. Some days—some days the streets were filled with the dead. Gray faces on everybody. Way too dangerous to leave my apartment. I’d snipe from my window, or go down to the front door and try to clear a path . . . but sometimes there were too many of them. Impossible. Some days I’d have to wait for hours for a lull, just so I could get to work.”
Stan said, “Why didn’t you just stop?”
Martin shook his head at the stupidity of the question. “There’s no—how do I explain this? There’s no break, no pause between levels. You don’t even have to save progress. They’ve removed all reasons for stopping. You can go all day, all night.”
“Until you starve to death,” Harrison said.
“So what?” Stan asked. “Just take off the damn glasses. Why is that so hard?”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Martin said. “To be immersed like that.” He looked up. “Every other game, there’s this wall. The screen that keeps you out, and you can’t get to the other side, no matter how hard you try. But this—I was inside. All the time. And it was amazing.”
Martin looked down at his hands. Or rather, the eyeglasses were aimed at his hands.
“And then I started seeing things.”
“Right,” Harrison said. “Then you started seeing things.”
“No. Things that weren’t supposed to be in the game.” Martin shook his head. “It wasn’t just the standard monsters anymore. I saw this thing. It wasn’t a zombie, it was . . . I don’t know. White, slippery skin. Too many arms, too many fingers. Like a lizard, but . . . weirder.”
“Ah,” Harrison said knowingly. Which annoyed Stan immensely. Ah what?
“I could barely look at it,” Martin said. “It wasn’t just one thing. Well, it was one thing, but overlaid on itself. All lizards.”
“Like seeing it from all angles at once,” Greta said.
Martin looked up. “Yes! Like that! But not just space—like I was seeing it over time.”
“Nude Descending a Staircase,” Dr. Sayer said.
“What?” Stan asked.
“It’s a painting by Duchamp,” Barbara said.
“Why don’t you google it?” Harrison asked Martin. “We’ll wait.”
“I know what she’s talking about,” Martin said. “These things are like the woman in the painting, but . . . worse. They move. I get nauseous looking at them. And the people have no idea that these things are right next to them. But I could see them. They left afterimages, like trails. Wakes. So even when they weren’t in front of me, I could tell where they’d been. There were tracks everywhere through the city. We were overrun.
“At first I thought I’d leveled up,” Martin said. “But that wasn’t it. These things weren’t part of the game. I checked the forums—nobody was seeing this. Nobody had heard of anything like this. It didn’t make game sense, either. I couldn’t do anything to them. I couldn’t shoot them, or knife them. They’d just leer at me.”
“They could see you?” Dr. Sayer asked.
“Did they talk to you?” It was Greta.
“Not to me, but—” He shook his head. He didn’t look at her. Hadn’t ever looked at the girl since the group began. “They whispered to people on the street. I could hear them, making this sound . . . but it wasn’t words. I don’t think it was words.
“There was this guy who hung around our block. My roommates called him Dog Man, because he was always sniffing the air. Wrinkling his nose like something stank. Talking to himself. They thought he was schizophrenic, but I could see the thing with him. Speaking to him. And Dog Man was listening. And sometimes it would be whispering to him, and he’d look at me like he knew me.
“I stopped going out. It wasn’t just Dog Man. The streets were full all the time now. My apartment was the last safe place. At least I thought so.” His smile was a surprised twitch.
“I was lying in my bed. It was late, maybe two or three in the morning. The sirens were dying down. A building was on fire across the street, and the flames were flickering in my window, making this weird light in the room. Which is impossible, I know that. Glasses can add pixels, they can’t add light, but still, I could see everything in the room, lit up by the firelight, and everything seemed to be in motion. No, like it was about to move. Quivering, like . . . I don’t know. Something under pressure, deep under the ocean. I remember looking at my desk, and my shirt was draped across the back of the chair, like a man hunched up in the dark. Waiting. Everything in the room was vibrating, on the edge of bursting open, like a jack-in-the-box. You’re turning, turning, and you can feel the lid trembling. You can’t help yourself, you’ve got to turn the crank a little more, just daring yourself . . .”
Martin ran a hand through his hair. “At the end of the bed is the door to my closet. It’s a heavy wooden thing, not a regular closet door, more like a door to another apartment. Maybe it was, once. The building’s old, the apartments are all too small. Anyway, the door sticks all the time. I usually have to yank to get it open. But that night, I’m on my back, looking straight at it. And it starts to open.
“And there was nothing there. My closet was gone. Where it used to be was a tunnel. The walls were rock. Damp, shining, like, I dunno, wet coal. It went back a long ways.
“Then I saw the hand. I yelled and pushed myself backward. It had come up from the floor and grabbed the footboard. It wasn’t human, it was one of theirs—gray, webbed, fingertips like knives. Then a second hand came up. And the creature pulled itself onto the bed. Smiling.
“I scrambled off the bed and ran for the door to the hallway. Later I realized the thing must have come out of the tunnel and crawled across the floor, out of my line of sight. Maybe I could have shut the door. But all I was thinking then was that it was in the room with me, and I had to get out.
“So I ran. I grabbed my backpack and bugged out. My roommates were in their bedrooms asleep, but I knew they couldn’t help me. Wouldn’t help me. I ran into the hallway, downstairs. I’m standing there in the street like a crazy person. And I realized I’d yanked off the frames. I was holding them in my hand, and now the sirens were gone. The fires. For the first time in weeks everything was normal. Everything looked totally normal.
“Even Dog Man.
“He was standing there on the sidewalk looking at me, a weird smile on his face. He was alone. I knew that the lizard thing he’d been talking to, his partner, was up there in my room. I started screaming at him. Take it! It’s yours! I decided I was never coming back. If the creatures wanted the place, they could have it.”
“They can’t do that,” Harrison said.
The attention of the group turned toward him.
“They can’t take a place, because they can’t cross over.”
“And you know this,” Martin said skeptically.
“They’re called dwellers,” Harrison said. Greta made a noise and Harrison said, “They’re not like the dwellers in the books. They’re more vicious. And if they could get you, they would, glasses or not.”
“But they can’t?” Barbara asked.
“They’re not here. What he’s seeing—he’s peeking through to the other side. That’s where they live. They’re always there, watching us. Looking for a way to get through.”
“You don’t understand,” Martin said.
“Oh, I think I do,” Harrison said. “Nobody knows as much as I do about the dwellers.”
“You don’t know what they can do!” Martin yelled. The boy was flushed, breathing hard. He might have been crying, but the glasses made it difficult to tell. “They’re here, whispering.”
“Do you see any monsters now?” Barbara asked.
Martin stared at his hands. Finally he nodded.
“Where are they, Martin?”
“There,” he said. He lifted his head and nodded at Greta.
“You see a monster next to her?” Dr. Sayer asked.
“No,” Martin said. “She is the monster.”
We had been so careful with her, in meeting after meeting, because we believed her to be the most vulnerable of us. Her silence we took to be a great wound that could close only with time and our support. So in the first months of the group the rest of us talked and talked, telling our stories, working on our “issues,” while we circled around the void that was Greta. We tacitly agreed that we would wait for her. Let her come to trust us. And make no sudden moves.
We didn’t realize that by questioning Martin, we would make the most sudden move of all. In the space of a few minutes we outed her. Finally, we thought, we’ll hear the story of her scars.
Then she stood up and walked out of the room.
Jan went after her but failed to convince her to come back inside. The meeting ended awkwardly, with all of us retreating into silence. Martin was obviously still angry, but he refused to say anymore.
The next week he was still angry. How could he explain to the others what he saw in Greta? She burned, radiating heat. Yet she came into the room and took her seat as usual. Then the meeting started and she sat there as if she were just like them. As if nothing he’d said had mattered.
After ten minutes he could stand it no longer.
“Tell us,” Martin said. “Tell us what you are.”
Greta said nothing.
“You can’t just sit there!” he said.
Jan leaned forward. “Each of us gets to decide how much to reveal, and when,” she said. He took that as a veiled reference to what he hadn’t shared yet with the group, but that was unfair; what Greta was hiding was so much worse. “That’s the only way the group can work.”
Greta looked as if she were about to speak, then she shook her head. “I will tell you. I promise. But not now.”
“We have seventy-eight minutes,” Martin said. The frames’ clock glowed in the upper right of his vision.
“It’s not about the time remaining,” Harrison said. His voice was dismissive as always. Martin knew that the man had never liked him. “Take off the glasses. If you’re seeing her as a monster, you’re not seeing her as a person.”
“Wow, that is so profound,” Martin said.
Barbara said, “Martin, we’re not attacking you.”
“No, he is. Trying to put this back on me.” Martin sat down and crossed his arms to steady his hands. “Is that the way the group works, Jan?”
Dr. Sayer regarded him with that distant, professional gaze. Watching them from the other side of the glass, analyzing them. Not for the first time Martin wondered why she’d assembled these freaks. Did she enjoy making them tell their ghost stories? No normal psychiatrist could believe the crazy shit they were telling her, so she was doing something else. Writing a book about them probably. Or collecting evidence for the next new diagnosis for the DSM: Supernatural Victim Delusion. She should be paying them. (Not that he was totally up to date on his payments. He’d been forced to delay the last couple of checks.)
Martin said to her, “So. Are you going to take a stand here?”
“I’m not sure what you’re asking,” Jan said.
“It’s simple,” Martin said. “You’re the doctor. You’re supposed to do what’s best for your patients. So now you have to take a stand. Are you going to protect us, or . . . her?”
Jan hesitated, and Martin said, “Unless you think I’m making all this up.”
Jan shook her head. “I believe you’re sincere when you tell us what you see through the glasses. But Greta is also—”
“Let me try ’em on,” Stan said. “I’ll look.”
“Let her finish,” Harrison said.
“She knows she’s a danger,” Martin said to the doctor. “So let’s stop talking and do something.” He looked at Harrison. “You’re the big monster hunter. You’re going to just sit there?”
“Greta is not your problem,” Harrison said.
Jan said, “Martin, you saw Greta on the first day. Was she a monster then?”
“Can we please stop using that word?” Barbara said.
“Jesus,” Martin said under his breath. Then to Jan he said, “Yes. She was.”
“But you didn’t leave,” Jan said. “Every week you came back. You sat in the room with her, six feet from her. I’m curious about that. Would you like to talk about that?”
He understood now; no one wanted to talk about the truth, with the possible exception of Stan. The old man seemed ready to believe him, but all Barbara wanted was for conflict to go away. Harrison was allied with Greta, trying to get in her pants. And Dr. Sayer would rather make this Martin’s problem than deal with the actual fucking monster in the room. It was no different in group than anywhere else.
Martin stood. “If she won’t talk,” he said sarcastically, “then there’s nothing to talk about.”
It felt good to be the one to march out this time. When he reached the front door of the building he paused. No one had called out to him. No one was running after him.
He’d walked a dozen feet down the sidewalk before he realized that he had not scanned for lizards—scratch that—dwellers. He stopped, turned. It was near dusk, and there was no one close by, and no otherworldy creatures that he could detect. However, the marks of their passage were everywhere: Streaks of blue-black (streaks that after sundown would change to a pulsing silver in his display; he could control the graphics settings) painted the sidewalks and streets. So many here, way more than in other parts of the city. The Elms, he’d realized on the first day he’d come here, was interesting to them. He’d even briefly entertained the idea that this Dr. Sayer must be a Deadtown player, but then he met her and no, she’d never seen a pair of frames.
Martin’s bus was scheduled to arrive in ten minutes at a stop two blocks away. His CTA app—which as far as he could tell had not been haunted, spiritualized, or otherwise corrupted by Deadtown—told him that the bus was running on time. But still he didn’t leave. He walked a little way down the street, where he could watch the front doors of the Elms, and waited.
Harrison and Greta were first out, and they exited together. Martin watched as they walked, heads low in conversation. The air seemed to shimmer in Greta’s wake, like heat above a highway. Harrison stopped beside his car, a gleaming BMW coupe that was more expensive than anything Martin could afford. They exchanged a few words. Greta shrugged. Then they continued down the sidewalk.
So, Martin thought. A date.
Jan had not prohibited them from meeting outside the group. She said it usually happened, so why make a rule? She did ask that when members did meet outside that they tell the group about it. Anything that happened to members of the group was fuel for the group’s work. Secret alliances, the doctor said, could divide them.
Martin watched them walk away, the air trembling behind them, twisting the light like beach glass. Even after they turned the corner, the effect did not dissipate. He stood there for several minutes, not caring about his bus now, and after ten minutes the warp remained. He wondered how long it would last—hours? Days? What was she? She cut through the world like a knife, and the scars she left behind were deeper than any made by the dwellers.
Police tape still crisscrossed the front door of his apartment. He’d wondered if the landlord had changed the locks, and so was relieved to find that his key still worked. And why not? The rent was paid a month in advance. He was not a criminal. Not even a suspect. He pushed open the door, then slipped under the tape. He closed the door quietly behind him.
The living room was dark. He was happy to not see whatever stains marked the carpet.
He had not been close friends with his roommates. The four of them were at most business partners: They’d been brought together by the online Mix-Master of Craigslist to share rent, that was all. In the frames he’d tagged them all as “Dave.” The fact that one of them was white and two of them were East Asian made less difference than their tastes in gaming systems. One Dave was a console drone; another liked handhelds and played ancient DS games; the third preferred indie board games with names like Push Fight and Zug un Zug. Martin was the only one with experimental bent. Oh they tried on his frames, but one of the Daves got motion-sick from them, and they’d called them “immature tech.”
He’d tried to tell them about Deadtown but they weren’t interested. So, when the other creatures began to invade the game, he kept that information to himself. When he locked himself in his room and didn’t talk to them for days, they didn’t mind. As long as he paid his share of the rent he could do what he wanted.
And when he ran out of the apartment, and told Dog Man to take what he wanted, he didn’t give the Daves a second thought.
Martin did not turn on the lights, though he knew from the glow of charging devices that the power was still on. He did not want to alert the landlord. He made his way back to his bedroom, opened the door, and turned on the flashlight app on his phone.
He slowly exhaled. Dog Man, it seemed, had not entered the room.
He opened his backpack and began to fill it. He stuffed in clothes, his external hard drives, the Sony PSP, the box of Arduino chips. Then he knelt and popped the case of the custom-built PC and yanked the hard drive, motherboard, and graphics card. These last two were the most expensive components, and he hoped he could sell them. There might have been financial support for the victims of crimes, but as it turned out there was no financial support for the crime adjacent. It didn’t matter to anyone but himself that he was homeless now. His savings were gone, and his credit—never very good—was maxed out. He’d have to sell everything he could and try to buy back what he needed later. He’d learned that he was afraid of the homeless shelters, and terrified of living in the streets.
He looked around one more time. His backpack was already overflowing, but perhaps, if the landlord didn’t find a renter, he could sneak back in again later.
As for tonight . . .
He didn’t want to sleep in this place. But he didn’t know where else to go. He shut the door, and moved his desk chair so that the chair back was wedged under the knob. He didn’t have to be afraid of Dog Man. The man had been arrested while still in the apartment. Hadn’t even tried to run. But there were other people out there, people listening to the whispers.
Martin shouldn’t have told the dwellers that this was their place now. He shouldn’t have invited them in. He lay on his back, watching the room’s single window, and hoped that they hadn’t noticed that he’d returned.
At the next meeting, Martin sat in his usual spot, waiting. Stan complained about nurses creeping around on the second floor of his house where he didn’t go anymore, going through his things, looking for valuables. Then Barbara talked about an apartment where she went at night to do photography or painting or something. These people had houses on top of houses. Harrison probably kept summer homes on each coast.
Greta, once again, sat there saying nothing.
“I know it doesn’t make any sense,” Barbara was saying. “I know I’d be safer at home with my husband. We have an excellent alarm system. But it’s only in the studio that I feel safe.”
“Safe from what?” Jan asked.
“The Scrimshander,” Barbara said.
“But he’s dead,” Greta said. She looked at Harrison. “It’s in the books. Lub stabbed him through the heart with a harpoon.”
Barbara looked shaken. “Is that true?”
“You can’t trust what’s in the books,” Harrison said.
“Amen,” Stan said.
“But in this case,” Harrison said. “Yes, he’s dead. I saw it myself. And it wasn’t a harpoon through the heart—that’s the kiddie version. We cut off his head and burned it.”
“But he’s not human,” Barbara said. “He could come back.”
Stan said, “You want him to come back.”
“Of course not!” Barbara said.
“Not really come back,” the old man said. “But just to end the waiting. I’m always waiting. Sometimes I think I’m still up there in the nets, the boy running his fingers through my hair, waiting for the Weavers to take me down for the next treatment.”
“Stan,” Harrison said. “Let Barbara finish.”
Barbara was staring straight ahead—in Greta’s direction, but Martin thought that she wasn’t seeing anyone in the room. “He carved pictures into me,” Barbara said. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘I left you a message.’” She inhaled shakily and seemed to come to herself. “But if he’s dead, who’s going to tell me what he drew?”
“How about x-rays?” Harrison asked. “MRIs?”
“X-rays don’t show the surface of the bone,” Barbara said. “MRIs don’t work either. Ultrasound gets close, but it won’t show the fine marks.”
No one had any more ideas. Greta said nothing—of course.
Then Jan said, “Tell us more about the apartment, Barbara. Why do you think you feel safer there?”
Barbara started talking about some kind of bathtub. Martin watched the clock on his frames, wondering how long it would take them to finally talk about Greta. She glowed in his peripheral vision. He thought he was going to scream. Then he took off his frames.
Barbara stopped talking. He’d jerked in his seat, and the legs had loudly scraped the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He put the glasses back on.
“What is it?” Jan asked.
When he’d taken off the frames, he’d glanced at Greta, and she was still glowing. He could still see the fire behind her eyes. That should have been impossible.
Jan said, “I’ve been getting the feeling that you had something to say, Martin. Did you want to say something to Barbara?”
Not to Barbara, he thought. “Please. Go on,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Barbara said. “Say what’s on your mind.”
That flash of Greta’s true nature, without the filter of the software, had thrown him off. It took him a moment to realize that this was the moment to speak he’d been waiting for.
“I feel like we’re being judged,” Martin said. He’d thought about this sentence for a while. That “we” was strategically placed. This wasn’t about him, he was saying; this was about the group being attacked.
“By me?” Jan asked. Her tone made the question sound sincere, not at all defensive.
He nodded in Greta’s direction.
“Me?” Greta asked.
“You can’t come week after week and not talk,” Martin said. “You listen to us, but you don’t share anything of yourself.”
“You’re still mad about last week,” Harrison said.
Martin started to deny it, then said, “Yes! Yes I am. Everybody’s pretending like nothing happened.”
“She’s not a monster,” Harrison said. “Those scars—”
“Then let her prove it,” Martin said. “She should share something. Anything. Put some cards on the table.”
“I’m right here,” Greta said softly. “Please stop talking about me in third person.”
Martin still could not look at her directly. The monster burned in her, heat spilling from her mouth and eyes. A basilisk.
“I’d prefer not to,” Greta said.
“You can’t keep hiding from us,” Martin said.
“I won’t. I just . . . I can’t. Not right now.”
“That’s what you keep saying.” He looked at Harrison. “But you talk to him, don’t you?”
“Excuse me?” Harrison said.
Jan said, “Does anyone else have thoughts on Greta’s participation in the group?”
No one spoke. The silence dragged.
“Cowards,” Martin said.
Harrison and Greta again left the building together. They did not pause at Harrison’s car this time, but strolled on down the sidewalk, walking side by side, almost touching shoulders. Intimate.
Martin watched from across the street, but he did not move until they turned the corner. He did not need to follow closely. He’d tuned the frames to Greta’s frequency, and her trail hung in the air, clear as the lightpath of a Tron bike.
He followed the monster’s shimmering wake down two blocks, then across a parklet. The pair was far ahead of him. They crossed the street and entered an Irish pub with a wide front window. Harrison held the door for her.
Night was falling, and the streetlamps were humming to life. Martin stepped into a doorway of a closed stationery store that was kitty-corner from the bar window, about thirty feet away. He waited, thinking of stealth games like Gunpoint and Metal Gear Solid. If only the frames would throw up a red exclamation mark over his head if he was detected.
After a few minutes he was rewarded. Harrison and Greta took a table near the window, lit up as if on screen. They learned toward each other, talking earnestly. There didn’t seem to be any other customers in the pub.
Greta burned, and he could barely look at her. He studied Harrison’s face instead, trying to squeeze meaning out of every expression. That smile; was he flirting with her? Laughing? Then Harrison hopped up and returned with their drinks. When he sat down again he was facing slightly away from the window.
Martin stepped out of the doorway and moved closer to the bar, staying close to the brick wall of the building. He took up a new position at the mouth of a narrow alley. The couple wouldn’t be able to see past their reflection in the window; if he stayed in the shadows, he should be invisible to them. He watched them for ten, fifteen minutes, recording every second for later analysis. Unfortunately there was no app he knew of that could lip-read from video. HAL 9000, already way past due, was still in the future.
Harrison reached across the table and laid his hand on hers. Martin nearly laughed when Greta pulled away.
“Hey,” a voice behind him said. “Pervert.”
He turned, and a fist caught him in the throat. He went down to his knees, gagging. A boot caught him under the ribs and drove the air out of him. His brain flared in panic. Dwellers, he thought. Finally.
But no. These weren’t the lizards; they were humans in sharp-toed boots and dark clothes, though he couldn’t figure out how many of them there were. Two, three? He lifted his head, and something hard smashed into his face. Pain blinded him.
“Don’t even look at her,” a voice said. A woman’s voice.
He lay on the sidewalk, trying to curl into a ball. They were kicking him, and there seemed to be dozens of them now, coming from all angles. He could not defend himself. He couldn’t breathe. And the frames—oh God, the frames had been torn from his face. He was defenseless.
Then the blows stopped. He tried to speak, but his mouth would not work correctly. Maybe they were finished with him?
He turned his head and saw a dark-haired girl watching them. She was ten or eleven years old, dressed in jeans and a pink cotton jacket. She did not seem scared by what was happening to him. She seemed . . . interested. If he’d been wearing the frames, he might have thought she’d been rendered by the game software.
Then his arms were seized, and they dragged him backward across the pavement. He caught a glimpse of faces rendered hawkish by streetlight and shadow. Then they pulled him further into the alley, out of even that light.
They weren’t finished with him, he realized. Not at all.
We were not yet a fully functioning group. Early on, Dr. Sayer had outlined the typical stages—forming, storming, norming, and perhaps, someday, performing—but cautioned us against thinking that these stages were clearly defined, or that progress was going to be linear. There was no ladder. The work of the group was to follow wherever the work of the group led. Sometimes that meant we doubled back to the same issues again and again.
Often it came down to trust. The patients among us did not trust each other, and some of them did not trust the doctor. Did she really believe these outrageous stories? And how, exactly, were they supposed to “get better”? What possible treatment plan could there be for people who’d seen the truth? Because most of all what we didn’t trust was the world.
Dr. Sayer understood this, better than the others could know. She knew—knew—that the universe was full of malevolent creatures, and that there was no protection from them. All the group members, Jan included, were certain to die, almost certainly alone. What the patients didn’t understand was that this was the human condition. The group members’ horrific experiences had not exempted them from existential crises, only exaggerated them.
One-on-one therapy was sometimes not the best tool to bring this point home. Jan had been Barbara’s personal therapist for three years now, and the woman would not take the news from her. Barbara’s torture had, in her mind, transformed her into a separate class of person. She could impersonate the perfect mother, she believed, but never be her. She could pass. But no citizen of the normal, she believed, could possibly understand what she’d experienced. What she’d become.
What Barbara needed were peers. Others like her, who also lived close enough to meet with her. Jan knew all about Stan; she had followed his status even before she started her practice, and in some ways, had started it because of him. But she had never approached him. She could reach out to his therapist, but that wasn’t enough; two members could not make a group. She needed five at a bare minimum.
Then a psychotherapist in the suburbs, a woman Jan knew only in passing, called to say, “I’ve got someone who might be up your alley.” Jan had authored a chapter in a book about treating clients who’d experienced extreme trauma: torture victims, witnesses to the murders of loved ones, those who’d murdered loved ones for no reason they understood. She often got referrals for these types of patients.
“PTSD?” Jan asked.
“That’s part of it,” the other therapist said. “But I meant, uh, the other alley.”
Word had also gotten around about Jan’s interest in the paranormal, or rather, in patients who blamed the paranormal for their presenting problem, but exhibited no other symptoms of schizophrenia. Sometimes they were also torture victims, witnesses to the murder of loved ones, or murderers—and who’d killed for reasons that no one would believe.
No one except Dr. Jan Sayer.
“She told me she murdered over fifty people,” the other therapist said. “But that’s not what the police report said. There was a fire, and she escaped—the only one to get out alive. At first I figured her problem to be survivor’s guilt.”
Jan said, “At first?”
“By the end of the session she told me that some kind of angel had killed them—but that she was still responsible.”
“An angel,” Jan said flatly.
The other therapist laughed. “Or something. So you’ll take her?”
“I’ll talk to her,” Jan said. “She might be right for a small group I’ve been thinking about.”
Speaking the idea aloud seemed to act like a summoning. Within days of that call, Jan received referrals for two more locals, one of them semi-famous, the other a fragile young man whose roommates had been murdered by a homeless man.
She had her five.
Then, after she got them into the same room, she wondered what the hell she’d been thinking. Every small group was a chemistry experiment, and the procedure was always the same: bring together a group of volatile elements, put them in a tightly enclosed space, and stir. The result was never a stable compound, but sometimes you arrived at something capable of doing hard work, like a poison that killed cancer cells. And sometimes you got a bomb.
She wasn’t sure what she’d created. In the first dozen meetings it was hard work just to keep everyone coming back. Stan was an expert at driving people away (he’d told her this himself). Harrison had already declared his intention to jump ship. What the members needed most was hope: hope that they could change; that they were not alone; that their suffering would ease.
With this group she was expecting a crisis call at any time. It was a miracle that it took several months for the first one to come.
She’d been dreaming, and somehow the ringing of the phone upstairs became part of the dream. Jan was a child again, and her mother was ringing the bell that she kept beside her. Jan was terrified; she did not want to go in her mother’s room. She hid in the dark, waiting for it to stop, but the ringing went on and on.
Then Jan awoke, and the dream shredded. She was in her basement. She slept down here when she had trouble falling asleep, and that had happened more and more often lately. She untangled herself from the special bed and slipped down to the cold basement floor. She made it upstairs before the phone stopped ringing.
The time and the telephone number were both a surprise: 2:20 A.M. and Mercy Hospital. The nurse told her that a patient of hers had been admitted to the ER.
“Who is it?” Jan asked, thinking: Barbara.
“His name is Martin Treece,” the nurse said.
“Has he hurt himself?” Jan asked. Of course she thought of suicide. It was a common joke among psychotherapists that you never received crisis calls from men; you only heard from their widows.
“It’s not like that,” the nurse said. “He’s been mugged.”
Martin’s glasses were gone but he still seemed to be wearing a mask. Bulging red bruises made each eye into a fist. A clear tube snaked under his swollen nose. A clamshell of bandages covered one ear. But it was his stiffness on the hospital bed—lying on his back, face pointed straight up, his bandaged left hand dead at his side atop the covers—that hinted at serious damage.
She thought he was unconscious, but then his mouth opened and he said, “Hi.” The word was remarkably clear.
She moved a seat closer to the bed, being careful of the tubes and wires that sprouted from him. Martin was in a curtained-off area that was part of the ER. He hadn’t been admitted to a room, and with his lack of insurance he probably wouldn’t be.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked.
“The frames,” he said. His hand opened. She frowned. “My glasses.” Each “s” turned to slush. His vocal cords may have been okay, but the damage to his lips and jaw would make some consonants difficult.
She looked around the bed, then under it and the chair. Usually the hospital staff put all clothes and belongings in a clear plastic tote bag. “I don’t see them,” she said. “I can ask the nurses.”
“I need the glasses,” he said.
“I know, Martin. But I can’t—”
“I’ll pay you back. Or you can take them back to the store after I get mine back.”
Jan sat down again. “You’re going to be all right. I know you can get through this.”
Without moving, Martin seemed to sink further into the bed. In his pre-group interviews, Martin insisted that his main goal for therapy was not to deal with the trauma of the murders (he could barely acknowledge that he was traumatized), but to break his dependence on the frames. He wanted to live in the world like a normal person, to stop being afraid. But losing the frames this way, Jan thought, had to be the harshest way to go cold turkey.
“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.
“I don’t remember. Not all of it.”
“Then just what you can.”
“I was walking home after the meeting.” He spoke slowly, trying to make the words clear. “I stopped because I saw someone, then . . .” He moved slightly, signifying a shrug. “That’s when they grabbed me.”
“I don’t know. They’re just . . . one was in a hoodie.”
She wanted to ask if they were white or black. Instead she said, “Can you describe them better?”
“They dragged me into an alley,” Martin said. “It was dark. The next thing . . .” His unbandaged hand moved. “Woke up here.”
“Did they rob you? Have the police made a report?” Jan asked him.
“No. I don’t know. I haven’t seen anyone.”
“Okay, I’ll contact the police and see if there’s a report,” Jan said. “Maybe someone saw something. In the meantime, is there anyone I can call for you? Your parents, maybe?” In the pre-group paperwork, Martin had given only one emergency number, for his parents in Minnesota.
“Please,” Martin said. “Don’t.”
She expected that. There’d been some kind of break with his family that he’d not wanted to talk about.
“Then is there someone local we can call?”
He did not move. Perhaps he was staring at her in disbelief; it was difficult to tell.
“Okay,” she said, getting frustrated. “How about your employer?”
He moved his hand again, this time in dismissal. It looked like he was trying to decide what to say.
“You can tell me,” Jan said.
“Do you believe me?” he asked.
“Of course I believe you.”
“No. About the frames. What I see. Do you believe what I see?”
At their first one-on-one meeting, he had told her that his greatest fear was that he was going insane. Jan said, “I’ve told you, Martin—I believe you.”
“But why?” His voice was anguished. “I mean, Harrison I get. He’s seen this stuff before. But you never have. You never even asked.”
“I don’t have to,” Jan said. Later, she would regret not telling him why she did not question his “hallucinations,” but at the time she thought it would interfere with the therapy. “Others have reported seeing the dwellers,” she said. “I know you’re not making it up.”
“Good,” he said. Then: “Do you know what a boss fight is?”
Jan shook her head.
“It’s a gaming thing,” he said. “Every game has a boss you have to fight at the end. But before you get there, you have to get through all these . . . minions.”
“Okay . . .”
“I’m talking about Greta.”
Jan winced inwardly. Even from his hospital bed, Martin wanted to turn Jan against her.
“The people who attacked me weren’t muggers,” he said. “They did this on her orders.”
“She was there. In the bar where they attacked me. Meeting with Harrison. Holding hands.”
“Martin, did you follow them?”
“One of them said, ‘Don’t look at her.’”
“One of the attackers? And you think they were talking about Greta?”
“They’re her minions,” Martin said. “Protecting her. And now they’re going to come finish me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“See?” It came out shee? “You don’t believe me.”
“You called me here to ask for my help,” Jan said. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
“Kill the boss monster,” he said.
She sat back in her seat. “I’m not going to do that.”
“Didn’t think so,” he said. He seemed suddenly exhausted. “Just bring me my frames. I want to see them coming for me.”
Jan strapped on her doctor balls and forced the staff to hunt for Martin’s belongings until they turned up. The plastic bag contained Martin’s clothes (bloody, torn), shoes (fine), and backpack (full of cords and batteries and a tablet computer, as well as an inside zipper pocket containing $19—she was not too bashful to check)—but the frames were not with them.
The staff ’s information on the police was more of a mystery; the cops were supposed to arrive “any minute now.” Jan took a seat in the corridor to wait until they arrived or Martin was released; she was afraid that if Martin spoke to the cops alone, they’d soon be calling his psychologist anyway.
She knew that he was not crazy. She didn’t doubt for a second the reality of his experiences. But she did doubt his conclusions.
Jan had entered all the group members’ contact info into her phone. Greta had given her only one number, a cell phone. She clicked to call, then fought the urge to hang up with every chirping ring. What could she ask Greta—if she had “henchmen”?
After thirty seconds of ringing, an automated system announced that no one had set up this number for voicemail. It may not have even been Greta’s real number; Jan had never had to dial it before.
She stared at the phone’s screen for a while, then found another contact. After three rings a voice said, “Dr. Sayer?”
“Harrison,” Jan said. “I apologize for calling so late.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” He sounded surprisingly awake. She’d often wondered what he did with his time. On his intake form, under employment he had made a joke about being a professional “nightmarist.” Then he told her he was retired. She asked him what that meant, considering he was thirty-six years old. Was he an internet millionaire? He said, “It means I stopped doing what I used to do, and haven’t decided if I’m going to do anything else.”
He asked, “Is there anything the matter?”
Jan told him that Martin had been attacked by several people, just a few blocks from the Elms.
“Holy shit,” Harrison said. “Martin’s been attacked?”
“They’re doing more x-rays to look for more broken bones. They already think his hand is broken.”
“That’s terrible,” Harrison said. He sounded genuinely upset. “Tell him I’m thinking of him.” After a pause he said, “Where did this happen?” There was a new note in his voice.
“There’s an Irish pub on Fourth. It was right after the meeting tonight. Last night.”
The line was silent for a moment. Then: “That’s why you’re calling.”
“I was there,” he said. “With Greta.”
“Did you see anything?” Jan asked. “Hear anything?”
But Harrison had seen nothing, even after they left the pub. He asked Jan questions, some of them the same ones as she’d asked Martin, and her answers were just as vague. She didn’t mention Martin’s minion theory.
“I’m looking for Greta,” Jan said, moving on. “I’m not getting an answer on her phone.”
He paused, then said, “Did you text her? Only old people call each other.”
“But you answered.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Listen, I’ll try her too. Is there a message you want me to pass on?”
“Just ask her to call me.”