Creepypasta Wiki
Advertisement

He sees you…

Part of the Cold Relics Series - Previous Story: The Liminal Warehouse, Next Story: Nowhere Train

The following occurred in 2018 and early 2019. This story combines a personal account with transcriptions from a recorded audio interview.

I wish I could say I beat that rabbit, or whatever entity projected it. That I somehow outwitted it in some grand final battle that took place entirely within my head, on a battlefield of my choosing.

But that never happened. Instead, I simply survived. When I didn’t dream, I found peace and rest. When I did dream, I ran and hid. That’s all it ever was; running and hiding from a creature that could exist as an electrical signal in my brain, or maybe throughout my entire body. 

I was barely aware of my surroundings as I slept. I could hear the constant beeps of machines, and sometimes a nurse would tend to me or I’d get a visitor. The latter came less and less over the years. Entire years I lost to the damn thing that seized control of my consciousness one night in Buffalo. But I never quite let it erase me. It may have all but shut down my physical self, but through some sort of sheer willpower and refusal to give in, my dream-self always avoided its grasp. And, over time, it weakened. It became slower, smaller, less threatening. Towards the end, it was a pitiful creature, becoming a shapeless black blob of corruption that could no longer chase me, instead simply appearing at random spots in my nightly adventures and memories. It was like a slug, clawing its way towards me for needed nourishment. I almost, almost even let it touch me once, out of a sort of passing pity.

And then I remembered where it had put me in the first place, and the malice within its organic programming. After it took on its small slug form, I never saw it again. I slept another five or six nights without seeing it anywhere, and then, finally, I felt my right hand’s fingers begin to twitch. Over the course of an hour, every part of me came back online, and my eyes bolted open.

I could barely move at first, my muscles were so weak. I looked around the dark hospital room. I saw old “Get Well Soon” cards on the stand by my bed, along with a miniature Christmas tree complete with LED lights. It was snowing outside, and the hospital window was frosted over.

“It’s Christmas…” was one of my first waking thoughts.

I hoped that had meant that I’d only been comatose for a month or so. But I didn’t hope too much. A part of me knew that much more time had gone by.

For a couple of hours, I just lay there in bed, exercising my eyes by counting the ceiling tiles, and processing the fact that I was actually awake. Anything to get my mind off the rabbit, and his little video game. And Boris. Not that I could ever hate the guy or anything—but he was a common NPC in my dreams, always showing up when I least expected it. It figured that the last human being I saw before the big sleep would become a sort of spiritual guide in my nightly escapes from the beast he had helped bring to life.

Eventually, I put some effort into it and reached over to the nurse call button, knowing it wasn’t likely that one would come in just to check on me at this hour. A young woman in her twenties rushed in within five minutes, and was clearly surprised to see me suddenly awake. It wasn’t every day that hospital staff got to greet someone that had been in a coma for just over four years.

Four years… Of course, my first question was about the length of my stay. I bet it usually is with patients like me. And, sure, I cried. I felt anger. I called myself stupid. I had given up four years of my life because I insisted on pursuing a truth the vast majority of people would never care about, and then got myself owned, I think literally, by a video game character. My second, less important question concerned my location. I was still in Buffalo. I had never been moved. I assumed that meant Boris was the person who visited me the most over the years, since his house was only a few miles away.

The proceedings were as you’d expect. Some of the hospital staff took a break that morning to give me a little celebration. I repeatedly answered questions about how I felt, underwent a few tests, and got my arms stretched and spun around so they could give me an estimate on how much physical therapy I’d need. A reporter from the local paper even came in for a small interview, for a blurb that would be printed the next day. I threw up some water and soft food after my first attempt at putting something in my stomach after so many years.

By the time I spoke to my sister around lunch time, I was starting to feel more grounded in reality. Gradually, the brain fog and the lingering grasp of so many dreams began to ease their grip on me, and things began to feel more solid. She certainly helped bring me back when we talked. She wasn’t angry anymore; just relieved. A massive weight had just been lifted off her shoulders.

She, her husband, and her kids flew up to see me just two days later. Kids, now; she had another while I was asleep, giving me a nephew six months after the rabbit nearly killed me. I met the little guy for the first time in a hospital room. He was quiet and shy, kind of like me when I was three myself. My niece, on the other hand, was eleven now and a socially active, precocious middle-schooler.

I smiled as her family entered the room, my heart feeling lighter in the process. I had come close to never seeing them again, or my nephew at all. I was ready to abandon my hunt for the relics, no doubt in my mind. When my niece walked up to my bedside and asked me if I thought I had gotten all the sleep I’d ever need, that was it for me. No more. I was done…

Well… I wanted to be done. I fought the temptation as much as I could. But it’s like a curse. There’s been a latent need in me, planted way back in my childhood through no fault of my own. All because my parents drove me past a certain area in Florida, and tragedy followed shortly after and triggered a false memory that turned into a subconscious parasitic virus, its roots ever deepening.

My sister and her family stayed in town for a couple of days, and then she told me to work hard on my physical therapy so that I could come home as soon as possible. She had a spare bedroom just waiting for me until I could get back on my feet. She told me to call every day. She gave me her old iPad. Then they left, and I immediately broke a promise to myself and began spending all of my spare time on the internet, mostly trying to track everyone down and find out what I had missed.

I couldn’t believe that Tyler was still running my website. That wasn’t all—he helped plan a trip with Kate and Boris, who then continued my investigations in my absence, with barely a lead to go on. What would’ve driven them to that?

I began my physical therapy the next day, but my muscles felt like Jell-O, and at first it seemed that I wasn’t making any progress. But I knew the sooner I could walk normally again, the sooner I would get to go home.

After the second day of therapy, Kate, Jack, and Ty all followed through with our plans to meet. They arrived together, visiting me in my room like we were old friends—even though Tyler was still the only one of the three I had actually seen in person before. Those false memories I got from my search for Kiddie Land still felt real to me, like I had partially lived in an alternate reality.

“Hey, there he is,” Jack said as he entered, wearing a dorky sweater. “Hey, bud. You doing better?”

I had put on a nice shirt and cleaned myself up as much as I could, but I was still always going to be the guy looking pathetic in a hospital bed.

“Hey, you,” Kate greeted me. She remained the tallest of us all, but there was something different about her. I had only ever seen a few pictures, but in my mind, I still imagined her with glasses.

“New look?” I asked.

“Oh. Switched to contacts recently.”

Tyler was next, sort of sliding into the room cautiously, his security blanket hoodie up and covering his hair. Always socially awkward. Not that I didn’t have some respect for the guy, pushing forward the investigation into a phantom organization we knew almost nothing about while I was out of the picture.

“Tyler,” I said for my simple hello.

“Yoooo…” He said and fidgeted in place.

They all grabbed chairs and pulled up to the bed, already looking for a way to make the best of their flight up here.

The four of us really didn’t have much in common, other than having grown up in Florida and getting exposed to a memory-making and altering device as kids, and then suffering hardships shortly thereafter. It wasn’t long until the pointless small talk began, just to fill up the time. But I broke that up pretty quickly.

“Guys, it’s all right,” I assured them. “We can talk about what we all want to really talk about.”

“You sure?” Tyler asked. “I mean… After what happened, we didn’t know if…”

“It’s fine. I still feel compelled by the search. I just got sidetracked by a nap for four years, that’s all. Besides, it’ll just be talking, right? And we’re safe here.”

Tyler looked the most relieved. He was certainly not that great at casual conversation, and I could tell that he was itching to get to the conspiracies.

He perked up and asked, “You talked to Boris yet?”

“Sure,” I told them. “But he’s not in town. Of all the weeks to be away, right?”

“Heard he was down in Miami, trying to get a flight to Cuba,” Jack said. “It hasn’t been easy since restrictions got reimplemented.”

“Feels like the world’s gone crazy while I was in a coma,” I replied with a groan. “And what’s this about you two going to Ukraine?”

“That was back in summer. It… Um, yeah, I’ll tell you later. I’m still working on getting my account of what went down just right.”

“He’s barely told us anything,” Tyler said. “So you’re not missing much so far.”

“And why is he trying to get into Cuba again?” Kate wondered. “It’s a part of Cold War history, sure, but what… specifically is he looking for?”

“He got a tip about some abandoned bunker or something,” Jack said. “He’s been going after every little lead. I think he’s put in so much effort for you, in a way. It’s like he thinks it’s how he’ll ‘make it all up’ to you.”

“He doesn’t need to,” I said with a sigh. “I got myself in here, made mistakes.”

“Anyway, I was going to say that he was ready to Skype with us if we wanted,” Tyler said, and eyed the iPad at by bedside.

Sure, I thought. He probably had a few things to add to our discussion. I rang him, and he quickly picked up. It looked like he was in a hotel room, and he had the skyline of Miami behind him. That made me jealous. Warm, clear skies on a balcony definitely beat a hospital room in winter where daylight didn’t last nearly long enough. But I stopped caring so much once we got to talking.

We wondered if we had a clear picture yet, about how all of the stories might’ve connected. The rabbit game and the laser gun set came from the USSR in the eighties, and were dangerous toys designed to traumatize and even kill their target users. One of these sets might have wound up in the Middle East, perhaps Iran or Afghanistan, before somehow ending up in a Florida Goodwill of all places.

Our home state also had a connection to the LIZ-4 early warning station, where the organic computer “Central” mentioned a distant link to a facility there, likely at a location that I investigated with Tyler, which gave me a psychotic episode of some kind along with false memories. Boris promised us that his journey to Ukraine yielded results on the Russian side of things, but he wanted to keep his findings a secret for the time being, and Jack wasn’t talking, either.

It seemed that all roads led back to Kiddie Land, which was the final topic we discussed together. Did I think up the imaginary amusement park first, and then my concept of the place spread like a virus to Jack, Kate, and Tyler as they also passed by the same location? As far-fetched as all of this already was, that theory seemed one step too “out there.” It wouldn’t explain a fake Kiddie Land prop being built out in rural Pennsylvania, either, years before I was born.

“I’ve given that a lot of thought, since we went out there,” Kate told me as Boris and the rest of us listened. “There was nothing left of the set, but we did find the train track Boris’s contact mentioned. If it ran parallel to the ‘shadow box’ of the park, then it might’ve taken photographs of it, or filmed it.”

“To record it?” I asked her.

“Maybe in a more advanced way,” Boris added from the tablet screen. “Like they were scanning it, or copying it into a program. Something to transmit in three dimensions and put into your brains through radio waves, to trick you, or your subconscious into thinking it’s a real place. Before you know it, you’re having dreams about it. And then for some reason, if you suffer a tragedy, it activates and you’re fooled into believing it was a real place.”

“The ever-present wireless signals and electrical fields,” Jack said with a grunt.

I couldn’t explain either the science or the reasoning behind it, but these theories seemed sensible enough. There was just one piece of the puzzle I didn’t think any of us would be able to explain.

“But you remember the photograph I mentioned in my story,” I spoke up. “I had made my own version of Kiddie Land out of LEGOs when I was young, before I even ‘visited’ the park. That can’t be a coincidence, right?”

Strange to think that such an innocuous snapshot of some plastic blocks put together in childhood could pass on a foreboding mystery so many years later.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Tyler said after he got tired of seeing all of us deep in thought but not sharing any ideas. “They’ve been broadcasting Kiddie Land into our heads for decades. It was always in our heads.” He pointed to his own cranium, no doubt filled with a thousand other bizarre ideas. “Why do you think there are so many real Kiddie Lands out there? It’s the base line concept of a theme park, a place of fun and innocence that we all wish we could visit on the worst days of our lives. Like I’ve said all along, this crap has always been a lot bigger than we thought.”

I was actually hard-pressed to tell him that there couldn’t possibly be any truth to that. And while the rest of us didn’t have any other explanations for the time line of my life events, Tyler did bring another theory to the table with his rant.

The worst days of our lives… An early warning station…

“What if we all started thinking nice, pleasant thoughts about an amusement park as the nuclear holocaust came knocking?” I asked the others, while trying not to sound overly serious about it. “Or am I just talking crazy here?”

But Kate seemed to latch onto my idea, and she added, “Maybe not even necessarily an amusement park… What if they ‘recorded’ other happy places, too? Concepts to placate our minds just before or after the bombs dropped. And people would latch onto whatever inserted memory that made them the happiest.”

“Opium for the masses?” Jack wondered.

Tyler muttered, “More like the pleasant film of flowers you get to watch before they turn you into Soylent Green…”

“All interesting theories, but it wouldn’t explain the why,” Boris said. “What would the government, or some secret organization, stand to benefit by giving everyone a good memory just before they burned up in a fiery shock wave?”

We changed subjects, hung out and talked about our lives for a bit, got back to the stories—I think just to get another dopamine hit that came with each new possible theory—and then called it a day. They were all staying in town only briefly, which I understood given the time of the year. For me, it was nice enough just to see everyone, and wanting to be seen by them despite the cost of a plane ticket up here. I felt even more compelled to work hard on my physical therapy; the sooner I got back to Florida, the sooner I’d make visiting these guys easier, seeing as how they all still lived within driving distance.

Tyler was the last to head out, and I could tell by his nervous grin that he was trying to confide in me about something. I thought it would just be another crackpot theory, which he was too embarrassed to tell the others. Once he checked to see if anyone was still in the hallway, he let me in on the secret.

“So… I just started seeing this girl,” he told me.

“Cool. Congrats, man,” I replied tiredly. “But I hope you’re not asking for dating advice. I couldn’t even hook up with anyone in my unending nightmares.”

“No, no… I just… I wanted to tell someone else, you know? I don’t, uh, have many friends. And I’m nervous I’ll screw it up before anyone else finds out.”

“Well, try not to be. I’m sure she likes you for who you are.”

“Yeah. I hope so. Okay. Feels good to get that out to someone. But don’t put what I just told you in one of your stories, okay? I mean, I’d just edit it out anyway, before adding it to the website, but still, just don’t. Thanks.”

Sorry, buddy. I also have access to the site, remember?

We all started talking to each other every day after the visit. I liked the lot of them, even if we didn’t have all that much in common. It felt like we all could’ve been friends back in high school or college if given the chance.

Meanwhile, I spent my days trying to transition back to solid food, and going through my physical therapy. My muscles were atrophied, and at first it was like I had forgotten how to walk, as well. I had gotten used to running in the dreams that plagued me the past four years, but staying in motion like that didn’t equate to much in the real world.

I ordered a new laptop, had it delivered to the hospital, and used it nightly to reread the stories, do more research of my own, and keep in touch with the others. I still had a lot of catching up to do. Tyler, Boris, and even Kate and Jack had long word documents full of notes, theories, and links to even the weakest of possible connections. All of that research across several years, and we still didn’t even have a name for an organization or company that existed or still did, in either the west or the east.

And when I wasn’t doing that, I was catching up on a few of the PC games that came out in the past few years. Nice bonus—and an improvement from my last gaming experience. They also helped me exercise, at least mentally.

After about two weeks, I was able to walk on my own again, albeit slowly and I needed something to lean on. I was still on an IV bag for half of my meals, but I could take it with me on a rolling stand and explore the hospital. There weren’t many other patients during my stay, and the nights offered some peace and quiet in large, open spaces. I found the bright, steady fluorescent lights comforting. It was the mundane nature of the place that soothed my exhausted mind; the complete lack of chaos. It was what I needed, but I never stopped worrying about the possibility that my experience had changed me for the rest of my life, whether in some psychological or biological aspect.

It was a quiet Friday when I got the email. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, and was craving social contact so I responded right away without really thinking about it, or forwarding the email to one of my buddies first.

“Interview Request,” was the subject title. I thought it was just another local media company getting in touch with me again.

I reread the email twice before realizing who had actually contacted me, assuming it was genuine.

“Greetings,” it started, “I’ve taken an interest in your stories. I’ve read them all so far. Congratulations on waking up. We’ve never met, but I have a feeling you will want to after I explain who I am.

“Your series of stories began with one about a group of young friends who played a fateful game of laser tag. And then someone put a journal online about it, and you stumbled upon and kept it up for years, maybe in hopes of its original author finding it. Well, here I am. That journal shares my experience, about the day that ruined the lives of a few kids in a quiet neighborhood.

“I’m not too far away. I could visit you tomorrow night, if you’re up for it. I’d really like to meet. I can’t promise I’ll have any answers for you, but I’m certain you’d want a fresh take on the day when all of this began.”

I was startled by the email. I had made state news and my name had low-key gotten around, but I didn’t even have an alias for myself online, with Tyler only sometimes referring to me as the “hero.” I also wasn’t sure how he got my email, seeing as how I didn’t have it posted anywhere. I used it to register to certain communities online way back during my own early research, but none of that had happened recently. Maybe an account of one of my friends got compromised? However he found me, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

I agreed to meet him, and we set up an interview on a Saturday night. And even though I knew it wasn’t really a good idea, I let him record us, just as long as he promised not to mention any names—and that, preferably, he’d down-pitch my voice or disguise it a bit somehow. I recorded our conversation as well, to make sure I’d have a copy for our use.

He came into the hospital at 8:00 PM exactly. His hair was jet black, which wasn’t how I really pictured Justin from the Laser Tag story. I planned to try and verify his identity as best I could, but the only information I had on him was from the story itself, so if he was a faker, all he’d have to do was memorize the tale like I had. But, if he offered up enough realistic background on the event, and his friends, then perhaps he would convince me. Still, I knew going in that I wasn’t exactly at my sharpest yet. I was still experiencing brain fog and at times, confusion and forgetfulness, so I couldn’t be the best judge of character.

After a few brief greetings, we took the elevator to the third floor and found two seats in the empty lounge. The region had gone through a warm spell, and a thunderstorm had rolled in, bringing cold rain and the occasional flash of lightning that illuminated Buffalo’s skyline and Lake Erie in the distance.

It was the perfect ambience for sharing a story that could’ve been an urban legend. Rain, hitting the glass of a dark corner of an empty part of a hospital, with the soft buzz of vending machines nearby. Justin had only brought his phone to record our talk; no pad of paper, no notes to read from. On my end, I just had my own phone, and the rolling IV stand dripping dinner into me.

Justin had a confidence about him that seemed force, rehearsed. His inability to maintain eye contact for long was a good tell that he was going on a script of sorts, a list of learned guidelines that were supposed to make him a functioning member of society. While he asked questions and stared into the distance most of the time, his mind must’ve always been trying to pull him back into a dark place. Call it survivor’s guilt, PTSD, years of self-pity, or just general childhood trauma—whatever it was, he definitely had something gnawing at him.

Even so, we had a fairly normal chat, despite the subject matter. Here is the transcript. Unlike the other stories, where the narrators try their best to recall events and what was said, the following is 100% how it all went.

Justin

Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. And… um, again, congrats. For waking up after four years. That must’ve been… quite an experience.

Me

One I wish I didn’t have. Would’ve been better if I didn’t dream at all.

Justin

Oh, so… you, and the rabbit… Mister, um, Fun Bunn…

Me

Yeah. Chasing me, the entire time. You read the stories.

Justin

The Electric Rabbit more times than the others, actually.

Me

So you know what he’s like. I didn’t exaggerate anything. The game was enough to send shivers down spines, but the dreams…

Justin

How did you beat him? And wake up? If that’s what happened.

Me

I guess that whatever piece of me he was trying to invade survived long enough. It wasn’t always a conscious effort. Sometimes, it was like my own immune system took over. Sort of like antibodies, if that makes sense, but maybe closer to that willpower that keeps us going. It fought back against a mental invader. As far as how I beat him? I can’t say for sure. He got smaller over time. I think, gradually, he was just purged from my system. Cells get replaced, new neural pathways open as old ones shut down. If he “lived” within an electrical signal, then maybe, over time, he just lost coherence.

Justin

Wow. That’s just… That’s incredible. I mean, the lost technology alone that can do that. Then again, that’s kind of what’s at the heart of these stories.

Me

So you believe them?

Justin

Hard not to when it started with my own. Where are you going from here? Are you going to find these people, hunt them down?

[I hesitate to answer here. I found it a little odd how he phrased that. ‘Hunt them down.’ As in, out of revenge? I hadn’t given it much thought regardless of how he asked it. We always seemed to be stuck on the first step, of just finding a name for the organization, whether it was a private company or some buried governmental department.]

Me

We aren’t sure what we’d do if we ever found them. If there’s anyone left, we’d ask them hundreds of questions, but after that? Never really talked about it.

Justin

All right, let’s go back to the beginning. One day, someone posted a journal on a message board you helped run. You don’t know who put it up. You weren’t even aware of it until a friend of yours went through the site archives and stumbled upon an interesting story about a killer laser tag set and shared it with you. What made you want to get it out to a wider audience and preserve it?

 Me [after a lengthy pause]

I found it very… interesting. Relatable. Maybe even plausible.

 Justin

Hm. Or, you just like a good… creepypasta, it’s called, right?

Me

Campfire stories for the modern age, yeah. I thought it was a good one, so I put it on a personal website I ran briefly, along with dozens of other stories from obscure websites that I didn’t want to disappear from the internet entirely.

 Justin

And what happened to that website?

 Me [I let out a sigh]

My host terminated it. Never gave me an explanation. The only reason that story survived at all, was because I also put it on the official creepypasta wiki first, which I guess ‘they’ haven’t been able to shut down. It was my favorite saved story, and the only one I shared elsewhere. I lost the other ones.

 Justin

Do you think it was that story that got your site removed?

 Me

I can’t explain why, but yeah, I always did kind of feel that way. Nearly every part of me believed it was just another scary story, and yet… I really did feel connected to it somehow. I mean, I couldn’t tell you why, but—

 Justin

Your experience with Kiddie Land?

 Me

I suppose so. Both stories have this air of childhood mystery to me, that I always liked in a good urban legend. Stories that take place in your youth, touching on the frailty of our early memories… Those inexplicable events that occur before we’re old enough to really explain them—that kind of element adds another layer of mystery, or even dread, you know? Like, you could look back and wonder how much danger you were truly in, while these strange things happened around you that you had no control over. And you think, wow, I still managed to become an adult. But they haunt you nonetheless.

 Justin [he gives me a wry smile]

I know exactly what you mean. Still, you must’ve just thought at first that my story was just another story, until one thing led to another after you shared it. What got you into the genre, anyway? What do you like about it?

 Me

Strange thing is, I’m not even that big of a reader. I only get through a few books a year. But a good creepypasta… [Justin audibly snickers] Yeah, I know the name kind of loses whatever flimsy legitimacy it has after you say it a few times. Still, it’s a community-driven genre, you know? The good ones are scary because they draw on shared experiences. Fear. Loss. A re-imagining of a good horror movie. Science gone awry, the doubts and unknowns of the universe. To me, though, the best ones were always about regrets and the frailty of memory.

 Justin

The things we couldn’t control in the past and can’t undo.

 Me

Yeah, that too. Because that’s the worst thing. Everything slips away, and you’re worried you can’t hold onto the good times. Even the bad times—as much as you hated them at first, I feel like eventually, you don’t want to forget those, either. When I started going to college… I mean, I had depression on and off for years. The car accident that killed my mom really messed me up, and still replays in my head. To say nothing of the fact that I grew up without a mother, and the things that can do to you.

Anyway, when I was in college, I started getting into the genre, back when it was just becoming big. Now some of the classics are, you know, ancient as far as internet age goes. Ah, man, there are some good ones… You read any?

 Justin

Not really. Some of the bigger ones make their rounds on the web, but they were never something I… actively sought out. I had trauma in my life, too, but reading scary stories wasn’t really my idea of healthy therapy.

 Me

I get that. For me, they were, though. Sometimes, I was just glad to not be the characters who had to experience horrible things. Other times, they helped me accept the fact that the world’s a dark place. Now, sure, the vast majority of the stories have no truth to them, but some are based on real ideas and possibilities. They all reach out from a place in the human psyche.

 Justin

I didn’t know this stuff could get so philosophical.

 Me

I know, but bear with me just a minute. Over time, if I wasn’t reading them, I was listening to them. Narrators with just the right voice, who added just the right visuals to their YouTube videos, and play just the right stock music at the right story beats… Hm, yeah. That was my idea of a good late night alone with a pair of headphones. If Thunder Dreams started playing at some big introspective moment, it was like the story narrator knew me.

 Justin

Is that the title of a piece of music?

 Me

Oh, uh, yeah. Kevin MacLeod, royalty free. Plays on some classic narrations. Look it up. Anyway, where was… Okay, so, sure, a lot of the stories are more humorous than scary. But I could happily listen to a tale about a haunted McDonalds right after something reflective about a childhood nightmare. Or a viral picture file that kills you unless you email it to someone else. A town that gets cursed and starts vanishing from people’s memories, even disappearing off the maps… Broadcast intrusions that show images of Hell… Roads that loop endlessly… Possible explanations for our ‘glitch in the matrix’ moments…

 Justin

Were you looking for a piece of yourself in these stories?

 Me

Maybe there’s something to that. I was afflicted by the memory of something I couldn’t explain, after all. All right. I got all of that out. What about you?

 Justin

I don’t know if I could add too much. I think you’re onto something when you say that the scariest things are what we can’t explain, which have been hopelessly lost to time. But pretty much everything is covered in the journal. It goes through the events of the day in sharp detail.

 Me

Sure, but did you really find the set in a Goodwill of all places?

 Justin

Why not? I bet it’s actually sort of refreshing. I’m guessing most of the ‘cursed objects’ in these stories are found in a dusty old thrift store, or in some forgotten box in a basement or attic. I’ll never be able to explain how it got there, or who once owned it. So, I’ve given up trying. Saves me some grief.

 Me

It’s not your fault, you know. No matter what Peter said to you when he was angry. You couldn’t have known what would happen, not for sure.

[I remember feeling like I came out of left field with that remark, or that I was suddenly trying to speak with him too personally. I think I really just wanted to gauge his reaction, which was a fake cough and a brief painful grimace that came from remembering a distressing moment.]

 Justin

That is… what I’m always trying to tell myself.

[This was about the time I first really took notice of his facial twitch, which popped up every few minutes. For a nervous tic, it was fairly pronounced.]

Justin

Brian, Gil, Nick, Devin, Peter, and me. We were a good group of buds.

 Me

Sorry I didn’t change your names. I wasn’t doing it yet back then for the stories.

 Justin

Forget about it. It all happened over twenty years ago now, and we’ve all gone our separate ways. A few of those guys, I still talked to in high school. Now it’s been more than decade since I’ve had contact with any of them.

 Me

I think everyone eventually drifts apart with at least a few childhood friends.

 Justin

I visited my old neighborhood recently. It was like time had forgotten us, and what happened. All of our houses had new families, the streets had been repaved, they even buried all the powerlines. The same ones that buzzed during our last game of laser tag… I mean, I didn’t know what to expect to feel or see by going there. I couldn’t even find the spot where Nick… Where he…

 Me

I went to my own childhood neighborhood not long before my visit to Boris’s. It was dry, and hot. No breeze. It was like the air was weighing on me.

 Justin

That’s just in your head. It’s the past pressing down on your shoulders. I used to feel it every day for a while. Regret’s a bitch, but growing up is sad on its own.

 Me

What was it like to handle those laser guns?

 Justin

I remember their weight, like holding a real weapon. It’s the vest I always think about more. Just… strapped on, waiting to explode… I’ve wondered what it must be like to get vaporized like that. A brief moment of intense pain, then nothing, before you have time to even think about what happened to you…

[I was starting to feel sick at the thought of asking more questions, and making him relive such a horrible event. What would they add to our research, anyway? I stopped going in that direction, and instead tried to get a little chummy with him, asking about his parents, or his favorite movies and games growing up—not that any of it is important enough to transcribe.

I’ll fast forward about fifteen minutes in the recording, at which point he suddenly returned the topic back to the stories.]

 Justin

Sure, I had a good childhood, up until that moment. Like night and day, flicking a switch, from good to… the worst feelings imaginable.

 Me

These people might not be around anymore to give us any answers, but the things they did are still hurt others. Sometimes it feels like swinging your fists at a ghost—one that’s completely indifferent to the trouble it’s made.

 Justin

And who do you think… did all these things?

 Me

We don’t know. We don’t have a name, or motives.

 Justin

Is it just a collection of science experiments gone wrong that escaped a lab?

 Me

Um, something like that, I guess.

 Justin

Well, come on. Give me your theories. I want to see how clear a picture you’ve got. I asked for an interview, but you can consider me your newest fan.

 Me [after a pause to collect my thoughts]

The Cold War had an arms race, a space race, and I think a hidden tech race that got buried under everything else. I don’t know which side made the special circuit board, but evidently the other must’ve stolen it and used it in a different way. America wanted to do something with creating false memories. Russia… maybe they really were just trying to infiltrate our toy stores. Give kids a modern version of lawn darts, or the Atomic Energy Lab chemistry set.

 Justin [he smiles]

Interesting ideas. But why?

 Me

Why else? People do sick things all the time.

 Justin

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Want my take?

Sure, the Soviets probably saw a new way instill more fear in America. By the 80s, the red scare and fear of communist takeover wasn’t working out so well anymore. Gen X was growing up listening to punk rock and not taking any of the old tactics seriously. Their parents grew up learning how to duck and cover, and filling the family’s useless bomb shelter with crap that wouldn’t fit in the garage. Soviets couldn’t even make it to the moon, so what was there to be so afraid of? North Vietnam won, an unpopular war ended, but the world didn’t. They didn’t expect the East to collapse overnight, sure, but Russia wasn’t the same boogeyman to kids a bit older than us, that it was to their parents.

The threat of nuclear annihilation was already a diminishing concern, even by the time The Day After was scaring TV viewers. But Russia still had its priorities. Still had a super-power to weaken, still gunning to dissolve NATO while they were losing their own legitimacy, and losing control of their member states.

These days, we don’t worry so much about bombs. You don’t need to threaten the world with fire to claim you’re powerful. Now, their government just fires off misinformation on the internet to create division and weaken their enemies. But, in those last few years in between the two governments, when the USSR was dying, they made one last attempt to stoke fear in the other big kid on the block.

 Me

By going after the literal kids on the block, right?

 Justin

Sure. Make a fake toy company that distributes nightmares into the local Toys ‘R’ Us, at prices that compete with the big brands, and watch the chaos ensue while folks are distracted by fluff like the Satanic Panic. Instead of the kids in your neighborhood shaking hands with the devil, they’re blowing themselves up or being haunted by demented video game bunnies. No one is safe. Call in the National Guard. Waste time and money with investigations, watch the politicians lose their minds, ignore foreign affairs, let Reagan do whatever he wants.

Me

… Shit. I hadn’t gone quite that far in my thinking, but… You don’t think that’s maybe stretching things a bit, though? Would it really cause that big a panic?

 Justin

I think the Reds just ran out of time to see if it would work. I mean, prototypes have been found, along with manuals. Someone was obviously getting ready for distribution. Then suddenly, the Soviets have too many fires of their own to put out, one of them radioactive, a few of them revolutionary in nature.

[He leaned in closer across the table]

The real question is, how did the ‘engine’, as you call it, end up on both sides? Both were developing technology around it too closely together on the timeline. We’re not talking on the scale needed to reverse engineer something, or to learn how it works and start from scratch. Nah. Someone was playing East and West.

Some other party sold the strange, exotic technology to both countries.

So, ask yourself. Should I really be poking around with a group that might’ve been trying to further instigate global nuclear warfare? Wouldn’t people like that be dangerous, even if they were long gone? You know what Lovecraft said about the dead gods. I get that you think something’s driving you, maybe forcing you to keep looking, but going after them was never a good idea.

[I didn’t know what to say at first, and it was like his entire demeanor had changed as he told me these things. After a solid minute, I spoke up again.]

 Me

I see you’ve done your research and made up your own theories.

 Justin

There’s really only one thing I wanted to ask you in any serious way. What do you know about the person you and your friends seem to call ‘Umbrella Man?’

 Me

Huh? What do…

 Justin

Don’t get me wrong, I like the title. A little vague, but ominous. Allusions to JFK’s assassination. But do you really know nothing about him?

 Me

He’s only popped up a couple times in the stories. It’s not like we have much to go on.

 Justin

Hm. All right.

[At this point, he looked at me another ten seconds or so, and then suddenly stopped recording on his phone. I did the same, assuming our talk was over, abrupt an ending that it was.]

 

I suddenly realized how exhausted and stressed he looked, like a guy who hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in weeks. He excused himself from the table to go and use the restroom, leaving his bag behind. I eyed it suspiciously. Had he been totally straight with me, and not seemed like he was hiding something or had some ulterior motive during our whole meeting, I probably wouldn’t have looked. But the whole thing just felt incredibly off. And it didn’t feel like an interview.

So I leaned over and rifled through it. There wasn’t much inside: a laptop I wasn’t about to try to log into, and a few philosophy books of all things. I gave up on finding anything interesting, but I did notice one standout curiosity. The edge of the bag, where it would be handled the most, had a few dried black smudges. But I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

If I had just been a little more lucid, I think I would’ve been more concerned about his tone throughout our chat, and the questions he asked.

Even so, I did have vague suspicions about the guy and his real reason for visiting. Against my better judgment, I stood from my chair—still not the easiest feat for me at the time—and shambled my way over to the nearby bathroom door, just to check if he was maybe talking to someone.

It turned out, he was. But it was just himself.

“You can’t do this,” I heard him saying. “No matter what he did to you. It doesn’t matter what he did to you. I don’t care, it’s still wrong, it won’t fix anything. Can’t think straight, can’t think…”

Poor guy sounded like he was having a mental breakdown, but now I was concerned that he was conflicted about doing something to me. I heard him rip out a paper towel, and figuring he was about to come out, I shuffled over to the vending machines to make it look like I was just here to look at the snacks.

He was a nervous wreck when he stepped out and saw me.

“Oh, uh… T-thanks for meeting with me, but it’s getting late. I better go.”

“Keep in touch, okay?” I asked him. “I’d like to talk some more.”

“Yeah. Sure, okay. I’ll do that.”

Now he was in a hurry. He went back to the table, grabbed his bag, and started rushing down the hall to make a hasty exit. It wasn’t as if he had been spooked; more like he just wanted to leave before something happened.

At least, I thought, I was in the clear. I had started to worry about my safety being alone around him.

As my eyes started getting heavy, I returned to my room for the last time—in this ward full of long-term patients who were comatose like I had been, or were in other states of incapacitation. Tomorrow, I’d be moved to a general care room for a little while longer, until I reached a point in my physical therapy where I could get on the first flight to my much warmer home state.

I couldn’t go to bed without telling someone else about my meeting, and my first choice was Tyler, knowing he’d never mind being texted in the later hours. I turned off my room’s light, sat up in my bed, and got on my phone.

 Me

Ty, I just had a recorded interview with someone. More of a chat, really.

 Tyler

Yeah? Who?

 Me

Justin. From the original laser tag story.

 Tyler

Serious? If true, holy crap. How’d you find him?

 Me

He found me. I guess he was close by, because he only just contacted me yesterday. I’ll email you the audio file. I don’t think he’ll give us any big revelations, but he had a few interesting ideas.

 Tyler

Hurry up and send the file. I want to listen to it right away.

I did so, uploading our interview to a file hosting site that would delete it as soon as Ty grabbed it. I plugged my phone into the charger and changed to the iPad for some late-night web browsing to wind down with before bed, and actually ended up reading a newly posted creepypasta just to see what the “kids” found spooky now. I was halfway through when Tyler’s next three texts came through on the tablet. I felt a pit form in my stomach as I read them.

 Tyler

I listened. Something isn’t right with this guy.

 Tyler

I get that he still has some form of PTSD, but the way he’s talking to you, and what he’s saying, is concerning.

 Tyler

Can you describe his looks?

[I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, and wondered what he was getting at.]

 Me

Sullen expression. Dark black hair. Blue eyes.

 Tyler

I’ve got that story memorized. Peter has blue eyes. It describes them right near the beginning. Dirty blond hair, not black, but that can be easily changed.

Tyler

Don’t know about Justin’s eyes, but now I’m more worried.

 Me

You’re saying it’s actually Peter? Why would he lie about that?

 Tyler

None of the reasons would be good ones.

 Me

Shit. There was something strange about his hair, now that I think about it. Maybe it was dyed.

 Tyler

Watch out for this guy, man. Tell the staff you don’t want any more visitors.

 Tyler

If that’s really Peter, he’s probably even less stable than Justin would be.

 Tyler

I feel bad for both of them, but being stuck in a hospital and frail isn’t the safest way to meet either of those two for the first time.

 Tyler

Hey? You still there?

 Tyler

Send me a reply. You’re scaring me here.

 

I didn’t actually have a chance to see his last five messages. As he sent them, I was preoccupied. Justin—or rather Peter, who as a boy suffered the trauma of killing his own twin brother, had rushed into my room. Before I even knew what was happening, he had stuck a needle into my neck and pressed down on the plunger of a syringe. I reflexively covered the jab with my hand like it was a life-threatening wound, and stared up at him as my vision began to blur.

“Sorry,” he told me at my bedside as I lost consciousness. “I’m sorry.”

I was certain that he had just put something deadly in me as I blacked out.

But I woke up with a pounding headache and muscle aches a few hours later. It also felt like I was paralyzed, and I couldn’t move my head at first so that I could investigate why it felt like my chest was constricted. I saw Peter in the peripheral of my vision, and I moved my eyes to see him sitting in a chair in the corner of the dark room. He was just staring at me, waiting there until I woke up.

I barely managed to sputter out, “What… What did you…”

“I gave you a small dose of a powerful concoction,” he told me, and then checked his mechanical watch. “It’s about two in the morning. I wanted it to be just us, so I knocked out the orderlies, nurses, and other staff in this ward, too. Bigger doses, so they probably won’t wake up until sunrise, at the earliest.”

“Peter…”

“Guess you figured it out. Yeah, it’s me. Sorry about the deception. If it makes any difference, I enjoyed our talk. We’re a lot alike.”

“Why are you…”

He got up and walked to my bedside as my muscles came back to life, and my entire nervous system began to tingle like a leg or arm that had fallen asleep. I could see his eyes reflect the hallway light, and I didn’t notice any malice or sinister intent in them. The guy just looked so… empty.

“Justin was the only one of us that actually believed me at all. The others called me crazy when I told them what happened to my brother. They shunned me.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sure people have tried to help you, but give me a chance. I actually do believe it.”

“Hm. That’s what so many others have told me over the years. You know… The thing I always hated the most in horror movies, is when no one listens to the main character when they’re trying to warn everyone about the lurking danger. The audience is usually on their side, after all. We saw the same thing they did.”

“Peter, don’t… do whatever you’re trying to do,” I continued, trying to get him to think I was on his side, or at least reach him in some way.

“Do you know what it’s like to go through that in the real world, for years? To be told repeatedly that your brother might still be out there? You didn’t vaporize him, Pete. You imagined it. You experienced trauma. It happens. It’s not your fault, stop blaming yourself, the police found nothing wrong with the toy…”

My arms began to obey my commands again, and I slowly pushed myself against the wall, trying to get my head up so I could see what was squeezing me. While Peter talked, he kept both hands hidden, making me worried about just what he might’ve been holding.

“There are security cameras all throughout the building. They’ll see it. And if they don’t get it out there, I will. I’ll find the security office and make a copy.”

I felt my heart trying to beat out of my encumbered chest.

Peter raised up his right hand to show me what he was holding. It was a piece of black molded plastic, with rusted metal trimmings. An old laser gun from the ’80s, in rough condition—there was even some duct tape keeping it all together.

Seeing that deadly weapon startled me, and gave me the extra jolt I needed to finally sit up all the way. And it was surreal seeing what I was strapped into.

I was wearing a total of eight laser vests, all of them connected together with a tangle of small metal chains. Six were spaced out evenly and covered my front and back, which accounted for the aches I felt from sleeping on top of the units. Covering my sides were two more sets, their chains spreading across my stomach. The whole thing might as well have been a straitjacket; it was a mess I wouldn’t be able to untangle or cut through easily.

I didn’t really question why or how he had gotten his hands on so many vests at first. What bothered me more was just the thought that he had strapped all of this dangerous, old, potentially leaking shit to me while I was knocked out by drugs. Peter was quickly losing the sympathy I wanted to offer him.

He pointed the laser gun down at one of the vests, and I couldn’t even move my still-trembling arms quickly enough to cover up any of the sensors if he meant to fire right away. For the second time that night, I was certain I was about to die. The visual I always had of what happened to Nick from his story flashed in my mind. But then he pulled back upon seeing my frightened expression.

“I’m not going to just shoot you while you’re still in bed,” he told me. “I just want one last game. I’m hoping maybe the thrill of it will make me feel something again, especially… now that I know what a ‘critical hit’ will do.”

“What the hell do you want me to do?” I asked him. “You want me to shamble around the hospital while you shoot at me?”

“That wouldn’t be any fun for either of us. Look, it’s not personal. He sent me here to find out what you know, and then deal with you. But I have my own issues that I need to work out, too.”

“Clearly. And who the hell are you talking about?”

“I think you know. I have vests of my own, and I’ll wear them. If you can find the second laser gun I hid somewhere… Maybe you’ll still have a chance.”

“And you think that will make this ‘fun.’ You want the excitement. Just a few hours ago, we were talking about how you can’t revisit your childhood.”

Peter sighed and began to back out of the room, keeping his gun pointed at me all the while. “I’ll give you five minutes to get out of that bed. Then I’m going to come looking. Whoever wins… Well, if it’s you, promise me you’ll at least get the story out.”

“Peter—” I shouted to him in my effort to try and reason with him one more time, but he left the room and disappeared before I had a chance.

I took a moment to think about the absurd survival situation I had found myself in. As my drug-induced stupor began to wear off, the seriousness of it hit me. He was really going to hunt me, and shoot me with an invisible light that, if fired at just the right spot, would cause me to explode into ash. I didn’t have many good options other than to play along and try to find that laser gun supposedly waiting for me. I didn’t have any intention of returning fire, but I would never get a chance to try and level with him until I was armed as well.

My biggest problem, other than my hobbled state, was that I had a total of eight hit sensors to worry about. There was no way I could block all of them with my arms. I thought that maybe I could wrap myself with my hospital bed sheet, but he had already thought of that and removed it—the pillow, too.

No phone or iPad either, of course. So, all in all, it was a shitty situation.

I rolled out of bed and pretty much fell onto the floor. I demanded and forced my legs to work, and managed to stand up, though they were wobbly and I felt like I couldn’t trust them. I shuffled my way to the door and peeked down the hallway in either direction. All of the lights were on—or at least tried to be. The vests I had on caused so much interference, that any fluorescent lights within twenty feet of me either died completely or flickered rapidly. The cause and effect also confirmed that my vests were indeed active, and deadly.

I only had two minutes or so left in my “head start,” so I used them to go the floor’s reception desk by the elevators, the lights going out as I approached. I saw the woman who worked the desk on the floor and leaning against the wall, showing no signs of life. Not entirely convinced Peter didn’t just kill everyone in the building, I checked her pulse—she still had one; just no telling when she’d wake up. The vest interference caused the nearby computer screen to distort and go black, and I couldn’t even hear a dial tone when I tried the landline phone.

As long as I carried the vests with me, they’d render any other electronics useless. If only I could find something that would cut through the chains.

It’s a hospital, I thought. There should be something in one of the rooms where they do surgery. I would’ve risked using a bone saw if it meant getting the death contraptions off of me. The problem was this ward probably didn’t have any such tools, since it just held long-term patients.

I checked the three hallways that intersected near the desk for any signs of Peter. All of the lights outside of my vests’ range were steady, meaning he wasn’t around. I thought there was maybe still a chance he was just playing mind games with me. Not that I wanted to wait around to see.

I went to the elevator to see if it would work, but the vest interference was so strong that the call button didn’t do anything. It was starting to look like Peter had really prepared, and wanted our “arena” to be confined to this floor—as the nearby stairwell door’s handle had been locked up with chains.

There was another stairwell down one of the halls. Maybe he hadn’t gotten to all of them. Before I began making my way toward the other end of a corridor, I checked the receptionist desk for the laser gun, figuring it had to be somewhere on this floor if my opponent was playing fair. I didn’t find it, so I started down the hall.

I could easily cover up the single laser sensors on my sides, but it meant walking sideways down the halls for that protection—moving like a crab would just slow me down further. And then what if Pete was waiting for me in one of the patient’s rooms? I would leave my front and back vulnerable to a sudden shot from somewhere inside those darkened places.

It seemed like the best thing to do was walk straight ahead, covering my sides, while looking back over my shoulder every few seconds and being vigilant overall. So that’s what I did, looking ridiculous the whole way. I was wearing slippers, loose hospital clothing, and a mess of chains that held vintage toy vests in place. I’d be damned if I died in that sort of getup.

I looked in and quickly checked every room I passed. Most of them were empty, while a few others had sleeping patients—impossible to tell at a glance if they were drugged as well, or just asleep for the night, or were comatose like I had been. The beeps of their monitoring machines were all the same. What was I going to do, anyway? Wake them up and ask for help? I knew I was effectively on my own from the start.

Halfway down the hall, as lights flicked off and my dome of darkness followed me, I looked back and noticed the lights by the receptionist desk flickering. Peter might’ve been back there, but I couldn’t see him in the dark that would’ve surrounded him. The damn lights would always give our positions away, yet also make it harder to see each other.

I walked backwards the rest of the way, keeping my eyes focused on the spot of darkness, trying to find Peter inside it. I kept going, covering as much of the three sensors on my front as I could with my hands, leaving only slivers of the metal sensor plates exposed between my fingers.

Suddenly, the vest I couldn’t quite cover let out a crackly noise and sent out a small shock, which almost gave me a heart attack. Peter had just hit from me all the way down the hall. His childhood title of “Eagle Eye” was still apt, it seemed. It wasn’t just his accuracy that was surprising—it was also the range of the laser gun itself. Those, too, seemed much more powerful than a standard toy. I was lucky he hadn’t hit that “critical hit zone” and blew me up just then.

I slid into the alcove with another stairwell door, locked up with chains just like the other one. I stayed there for a minute or so, safely in cover as I thought about my next move. I figured the remaining exit was also barred, so I basically had two options: play Peter’s game, or keep trying to talk him down.

Eventually, I peeked around the corner to check the long sterile hallway. It was empty, with no flickering lights. Peter’s two vests caused less interference and only seemed to overload the fluorescents closest to him, meaning that if he was hiding in one of the dark patient rooms, he could get the jump on me.

My mind was still scrambled, and I was in no condition to play his games with any critical thought processes. But there seemed to be an easy way to skip out on it entirely. He may have removed the blanket from my room, but I had my doubts that he went through every single one just to hide the linens.

I crossed the width of the hallway and ducked into a nearby empty room. I grabbed the bed’s blanket, wrapped it tightly around myself to cover up all of the sensors, and then returned to the hall. I was fairly confident the invisible laser wouldn’t be able to pierce the layers of fabric.

Holding the blanket with all of my lacking strength, I started shuffling back towards the receptionist desk. Now I was hoping Peter would just pop out, so I had another chance to try and convince him to end all this.

Halfway down the hall, he let out a playful “pew pew!” and stepped out from another empty room, into the darkness I created. I turned around to face him, and he looked at my blanket and simply sighed in head-shaking disappointment. I could see in the dim light that he had on two vests of his own; one in front, one in the back. He must’ve really thought that gave me fair odds in this duel.

“Tch, that’s no fun,” he said with a sigh. “Why do you have to try and cheat?”

“Pete, listen to me,” I told him and backed away a few feet so he couldn’t make a grab for my safety blanket. “I want to help you. You don’t have to do this.”

“Why couldn’t we just have some fun?” he muttered. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve had any fun? How am I supposed to hit you, if you got all the vests covered? That just ruins everything. Devin used to cheat sometimes, too.”

He was beginning to piss me off again, so I dropped the nice act and fired back, “You want to talk about cheating? You strap a ton of vests on me after drugging me, don’t give me a gun, and then only wear two yourself. And where did you even get this many, man?”

He laughed.

“All of the remaining vests that still work in the world are probably in this hospital! Can’t you see the lengths I went to so this game could happen? C’mon, lighten up. You just woke up from a long nightmare, so have some fun and revisit a piece of childhood! It’s good old laser tag, a staple of the nineties. The best decade in existence, right? I think we can agree on that.”

“If it’s all the same, I think I’ll just keep ruining the game, then. Might as well give up and act like adults here. You still haven’t told me who ‘he’ is.”

Peter frowned, then sighed, then let out an agitated grunt. He dug into his pocket with his left hand, and pulled out a small remote of some sort.

“I wish that you would just play along,” he groaned and pressed a button.

It suddenly felt like I was on fire. My muscles seized up as my entire body was shocked. The voltage was so strong, that the metal chains wrapped around me shot out sparks. I dropped the blanket and hit the floor, where I convulsed helplessly. I couldn’t tell what was electrocuting me. I reached around to my back as much as I could while in tremendous pain, but I only felt the vests.

After around six or seven agonizing seconds, Peter released the button and knelt down while my heart raced and I tried to shrug off the lingering burning sensation.

“No more cheating,” he said, yanking the blanket away and tossing it into one of the rooms. “Next time, I’ll shock you and then shoot at you. The radioactive batteries in these vests still got a lot of power in them. And they were easy to turn into shock collars—you already got their metal back plates pressed against you, so, you know… I took the time to modify them a bit.”

Stuck on the floor, the only thing I could think of to ask in that moment was, “How long have you been planning all this?”

“A few years. You took your time waking up. Didn’t expect your friends to keep at it in your absence, though. Now, can we start over? You got five minutes.”

He got up and disappeared somewhere down the hall. I spent that first minute still writhing on the floor and lost track of him. My situation was just getting worse, and I couldn’t see any easy way out of it. My only chance was in finding that other laser gun, even though I still had no intention of killing my visitor.

Once I could move again, I crawled for a few feet before just barely being able to stand up. I was so weak and in so much pain that it felt like all my physical therapy so far had gone to waste.

Stumbling down the hall and covering two of my vests with my arms, I made it to the now darkened lobby area. It wasn’t interference messing with the lights anymore; Peter must’ve turned off all the lights on the floor. All that was left was the dim ambience of the exit signs, the city’s lights, and the glow from the vending machines.

Thinking that maybe Peter still had a sense of humor amid all his other problems, I stuck my hand into the drop slots of both machines to search for the gun, after checking the area for any dark shadows lurking about. I came up empty, but my mind was already hard at work thinking about where my weapon might be hiding. If Peter had been planning all this for years, then certainly he wouldn’t just shove it away in some random patient’s room.

I looked down the hall opposite the one that led to my room, the longest of the three. Near the end was the floor’s x-ray lab. I remembered that Peter had just mentioned the radioactive batteries in the vests. It was a stretch, but I thought that maybe he had radiation on his mind. Since I couldn’t come up with a better place to look, I forced my aching legs to start taking me in that direction.

I knew the countdown timer had run out and we were officially “playing,” so I covered up as many vests as I could again and kept my eyes peeled as I moved. I was definitely at a big disadvantage. Peter could shoot me from any room I passed, or just show up behind me and hit me from far away.

I stopped for a moment at the door of another coma patient’s room and looked inside to see an old man hooked up to a machine just like I had been. Given the situation, I was starting to wish I hadn’t woken up just yet. My vests began to interfere with the devices keeping him alive, causing them to let out asynchronized beeps, so I didn’t linger.

Pew, pew!” I heard a sudden taunt behind me.

I looked back with a jolt, and just barely saw the moving shadow of my opponent in the lobby before it disappeared. He still seemed more interested in trying to trip me up. Or, maybe, he only wanted this to last as long as possible. I kept going, trying my damned hardest to work through my fear.

At least if I die, it’ll be fast,” I remembered thinking.

Then again…

I thought about the possibilities that the vests had lost some of their pop over the years. If they now only fizzed, then what if they just blew a big hole in me instead? I envisioned myself on the floor, twitching and quickly bleeding out with a large smoldering cavity in my chest. Not a pleasant thought.

Halfway down the hall, I paused at a supply closet, its door ajar. I knelt down for some additional cover and opened it, to find a custodian stuffed inside, slumped over. Like the receptionist, he was still faintly breathing. I searched him and the closet for anything useful, like a key to something, but there was little more to be found other than hygiene products.

I was about to leave the closet, but I felt compelled to give the guy one more look. It was a good thing I did—because for the first time that night, I had some luck on my side. The guy had a flathead screwdriver in his pants pocket that Peter must’ve missed. I grabbed it and checked the back of the vest pressing against my chest. The backplate was held in place with several tiny screws that I couldn’t do anything about. And I couldn’t just pry it open, either, since there was no space to stick the flathead into.

But I could still maybe use it to bend and break off the vest buckles, or the chains Peter attached to them. At least I had something to try as I staggered about the hospital and tried to avoid my pursuer. I started working on one of the buckles as I got up and resume my trek to the x-ray room, and found that it had some give to it and could potentially break off.

As I passed by another empty patient room, I suddenly froze in place after being startled by the vest on my left side going off, meaning Peter had just shot me from inside the dark room. He must’ve both snuck and rushed by me while I was digging around in the closet.

“Darn, couldn’t quite hit ya,” he said with a laugh after I took cover by the open door. “All right, all right. You keep going wherever you’re going and I’ll come out of hiding once you’re gone.”

I stayed as quiet as I could, and stuck the screwdriver behind some of the chains at my side where he wouldn’t see it. If he saw that I had it, I knew he’d shock me again, and I wasn’t sure if my heart could take it.

“One minute, and I’m coming back after you!” Peter yelled out, probably thinking I was farther down the hall.

He may have been planning this for a while, but logistically, what with its long dead-end hallways, this hospital floor was never going to be a very practical battlefield for a game of laser tag. The best he could do seemed to be this variation of hide and seek he was trying to make work.

I held my breath and counted down in my head, and after fifty seconds, I heard him approaching and formed a fist.

He yelled out again as he reached the doorway, “Ready or not—”

I walloped him as hard as I could, right in the face. I wasn’t expecting much with my pitiful muscle mass, but the spike of adrenaline must’ve given me a nice boost, as I actually managed to knock him to the floor.

“Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he looked up at me and checked to see if his nose was broken. “Not cool, man! Not a contact sport!”

I saw him reaching into his pocket for the remote again, but he was in a bit of a daze and fumbled it about. I turned and continued down the hall as quickly as I could, hoping I could get out of range before he pressed the button.

That didn’t work. The remote might’ve reached a hundred feet for all I knew. He shocked me, and I fell to the floor. But he only kept the electricity flowing for a few seconds this time. Could be he felt that getting a punch in the face wasn’t as severe as covering up all my vests, or he was just rooting for me to actually find my laser gun before the night ended.

I got back up and pushed myself towards the x-ray room, now just feet away.

“Look, I get it, you’re desperate,” Peter said behind me, his voice now a bit nasally. “I put you in a messed-up situation. I’m not crazy. I still have a grasp on reality. Wasn’t that way for a while after my previous game, sure, but…”

I turned around to see his silhouette in the darkness, and the dull, nearly fully decayed tritium of his gun’s lights pointing towards me.

“You really just want to blow me up, Pete?” I asked him, while backpedaling as unnoticeably as possible. “What’s that going to fix for you, huh?”

“You don’t get it. If it’s not me, he’ll send someone else, or do it himself. I’m just trying to give you a bit of fun beforehand.”

“Or false hope. Or… maybe you’re just hoping I’ll vaporize you first.”

He breathed deeply and choked on some air before replying, “I want the world to see, I just want to be believed. Doesn’t matter who wins tonight.”

“How’s that going to work for you? Look around, man! We got so many vests between us that the lights can’t stay on. You think the cameras aren’t getting scrambled? Why don’t you get a few of these off of me. Hey, we go down to two, or even one vest each, and maybe they’ll actually pick something up. Then the survivor promises to leak it on YouTube, rack up a million views for ‘Killer Hospital Laser Tag Game – Real or Fake?’ That work for you?”

“S-see? Now you’re getting it! That’s the kind of joke me and the gang would make! W-we should’ve grown up in the same neighborhood. You would’a liked the guys… Fit right in. But I can’t do that—’cause you’ll just cover up the only sensor. Not me, though. I wouldn’t cheat. Honest Nick… He never cheated, either… J-just liked playing games with his brother…”

I could tell that he had fallen into a recollective trance, and I used the moment to duck into the x-ray room, where I began to frantically dig around in the drawers and cabinets. I felt around the bed and the machine itself in the dark, but didn’t find anything. All the while, I heard footsteps in the hallway.

Thinking Peter could appear in the doorway any second, I got ready to tear the room apart if I had to, since I was still confident that this was where the gun was hidden. But I figured I was out of time, so I took cover behind the bed. Maybe I could bum-rush Peter to get past him once he stepped into the doorway.

But he didn’t show up. Perhaps I was over-thinking it, but I kind of took that as a sign that I really was in the right place. Maybe he believed I already had the gun, so he took off to get into a better position. That, or he was just playing more mind games.

I turned to the room’s operator’s booth, where the x-ray machine’s computer resided. After going inside, I searched the desk, turning up nothing.

I was about to give up and leave the room.

And then I looked at the computer’s tower near the monitor.

It made me think of the utility shed from my story, and the old IBM from LIZ-4. Those tritium lights, stuck in both of the machines… Pete kept saying that we could’ve been friends. He had read my stories and thought he knew me. Could be that he was trying to reach out to me, and make some sort of connection.

I reached around to the back of the tower, pulled up a latch, and unlocked the side of the PC’s case. I slid it off, and with my darkness-adjusted eyes, saw the dull green glow inside. A plastic and metal toy gun with a radioactive element had been lodged inside, tangled up in the wires. I reached in and plucked it out.

After all the years of searching, I was finally holding one of these lethal babies in my hands—that was my first thought. My second, more important thought, was about how I’d get out of here, hopefully without having to kill Peter.

He’d come looking for me again eventually, but while I did have a minute, I started working on a plan. The first step was to get out the screwdriver again and see how many vests I’d be able to pry off. I didn’t start with high hopes. Most of them were in better condition than the one with loose buckles. My plan was risky as hell, but as long as I could get pry off just one vest…

“Come out already!” a distant voice soon called out from down the hall. “We got a game to finish! I know you must’ve found it by now. You’re a smart guy.”

He kept taunting me and goading me to come out and play, but if he was so willing to let some time go by, I’d gladly use it to work out my insane plan.

“All right, man, you’re no fun,” he shouted a minute later. “I’m coming in, and we’ll just have a close-range gunfight. See who gets blown up first.”

That was my cue. Pistol in hand, I looked out from the door and down the hall.

“Okay, let’s get this over with,” I yelled back at him, wherever he was hiding.

“What took you so long?” he replied from one of the rooms.

“I had a lot of thinking to do,” I told him and began walking backwards towards the stairwell. “I’m still on the mend. You sprung this game on me so fast. I didn’t have a chance to come up with a, you know… battle strategy.”

“Fair, fair. I must’a looked at the floorplan for this place a hundred times while you were asleep. I should’a given you some time to prepare.”

With one of my trembling hands busy pointing a laser gun in Peter’s direction, I could fully cover just one of my frontal sensors. But I only had to survive until I reached the chained door.

Pew… pew…” I heard Peter say quietly.

He poked his head out of one of the rooms about fifty feet away and began shooting at me. He hit one of the vests, and then landed a second hit a moment later. Both shots caused them to emit old, crusty audio and vibrate, which is a terrifying sensation when you know what they’re capable of.

Not fair, Pete,” I shouted out, feigning confidence. “I can’t see your vest.”

“Oh, right,” he said with a laugh. “Where’s the fun in that?”

He stepped out into the hall and slowly approached as he continued shooting. I squeezed my trigger and returned fire, but kept my aim just slightly off so I didn’t risk hitting him.

“You must have better aim than that!” he scoffed, and then opened his arms. “C’mon, I’ll give you a free shot!”

“Pete…”

“Stop calling me that! Just shoot me. I gotta know that you’re taking this seriously. C’mon, give me your best. I’m wide open.”

I used the few seconds he was giving me to get closer to the door without the threat of getting hit, but I knew that his patience would run out. Fearing a retaliatory electric shock, or just a barrage of laser fire in my direction for not complying, I grasped my gun with both hands, exhaled, took aim, and fired.

At this distance, it was a crapshoot if I’d actually hit the critical zone or not. Even way back when I first read Peter and Justin’s story, I always considered it a game closer to Russian roulette than one of pure skill.

“Ah, I felt that. Good one!” Peter, still alive, replied—and then returned fire.

He was closer than before, and my vests kept taking hits, any of them possibly lethal. But his barrage gave me the excuse I needed to cover up a second sensor, blocking it with my gun-holding hand. Peter still didn’t seem to care, and he simply redirected his fire to the one sensor I left exposed. I had a valid reason to project defeat anyway, since I had backed myself into a dead end, with the chained door pretty much at my back.

“You giving up?” Peter shouted. “C’mon, it’s supposed to be a gunfight!”

I kept my breathing steady and concentrated, trying to do everything I could to help my reaction time. My eyes drifted to the ceiling above and behind Peter, where a domed security camera watched over the hall. I wondered if it really was recording, free of interference. And my mind went to a place where I was telling myself that if these were my own last moments, then hopefully, at least Peter’s wish might come true. If a story really did get out about what happened, then maybe the whole rotten old buried conspiracy would blow up. Some of the missing answers might even find their way to my friends.

Of course, I’d much prefer living. I hadn’t even gone out into the world since I woke up. It was just too bad I couldn’t have loosened another vest to test out my theory beforehand. I was pinning all of my hopes on my vague understanding of entropic decay and thermodynamics.

I snapped to my senses the instant I heard my uncovered vest emit a new sound. It was some kind of blaring, crackling warning alarm, but it wasn’t accompanied by a vibration or a shock from the vest—only a faint gasp from Peter. He recognized the sound, and it must’ve triggered a painful memory.

All of this was enough to tell me that I was about to be vaporized.

Or, rather and most likely, I’d simply turn into a bloody mess. Because considering the age of the batteries, there was no way they still packed that much of a punch. At least, I hoped so.

I pulled the vest that got hit right off, the buckles I had weakened breaking with ease. It let out a high-pitched sound like a camera flash warming up. In its prime, it might’ve gone off right away. Now, the capacitors inside needed time to saturate. One second, two seconds… a whole three passed by before the entire device began to vibrate, and become as hot as an oven. Honest to God, in the darkness of the hall, I could actually see the metal shell glowing a dull red.

It scorched my hand, but I tolerated the heat, and I was willing to risk a few broken bones, or at worst, sacrificing the whole thing. I was a righty, anyway.

Peter watched all of this curiously, showing some surprise that I had just removed the entire vest from its chains. I pressed the sensor backplate against the door’s push handle and the cluster of chains keeping it from moving.

On the fourth second, it finally reached critical mass and exploded, with most of the energy going through the back. It destroyed one half of the handle mechanism and blew apart the chunk of door just past it, including the lock. The front part of the vest remained intact, but the kickback was enough to snap my wrist. It hurt like hell, but my burned palm spread out the pain, so I didn’t only feel the sharp agony of a few broken bones. My left hand was out of commission for anything requiring finesse, but it didn’t look like I’d lose it entirely.

“That’s not supposed to happen!” Peter yelled as I kicked the door open and headed downstairs, as carefully and quickly as I could.

Stairs especially were still hard on my legs. At this point, I was at the brink of what I was physically capable of. If I ran around for much longer, I would probably collapse from exhaustion or chance a heart attack.

Peter started yelling and swearing at me—I must’ve just broken several of his “rules”—and he came charging through the busted door as I hit the second floor. Fortunately for me, in his anger, he forgot that he still had a shock collar on me. He shot down from the top of the stairs instead, but seeing as how he had neglected to put a vest on my head, I was fairly safe from attacks from above. It was also almost completely dark in the stairwell due to the interference. Only a few flicking lights kept me from stumbling in pitch-blackness.

What remaining stability he was clinging onto vanished in a few seconds, and it soon sounded like he was having a psychotic break above me. I was getting away, his game was ruined, he was about to go to jail… Whatever was on his mind, he couldn’t handle it. Even then, I still felt a little bad for the guy.

I didn’t start hearing his own feet echoing through the stairwell until I was already on the ground floor, where I emerged into the lobby. It was empty, other than a receptionist at the desk across the room. She was far enough away that she hadn’t noticed me yet. In the few seconds I had before Peter showed up again, I thought about what to do next.

I could sneak up and tackle him, sure, but he was liable to either get a close-range shot off, or shock me first and then get a critical at point-blank. There seemed to be only one thing that would keep from fully retaliating. My best chance was to keep playing his game—but then use it to try and keep both of us alive through the night. I only had a second or two to get into place.

I crouched down by the stairwell door and took off the one other vest that I could remove, on my right side. Its buckles were fine—it was the chains attached to it that I had managed to loosen, and I slipped off the entire thing.

When Peter barged through the door and came charging through, I took him by surprise and tripped him. Carried by his momentum, he crashed onto the floor. Before he could flip himself over or get back on his feet, I jumped on him, got the vest onto his leg, and tied it together in a basic knot that I knew wouldn’t hold. To keep it in place, I had to something I never imagined I’d be capable of.

As Peter swore at me and broke free of my grip, I took the screwdriver and jammed it through the chain links, right into his leg. He shouted out in pain, stood up, and stumbled forward with a new limp. He reached down and tried to take out the screwdriver, but the adrenaline that must’ve been coursing through him didn’t numb the pain enough to make removing it bearable.

I got up and watched as he fell onto his knees and gripped the screwdriver, but he couldn’t do much more than jostle it before letting out a whimper.

“Why’d you do that…” he muttered. “Why couldn’t you just play fair…”

He took out the remote to shock me again, but I slapped it right out of his hand. It hit the floor and slid away, disappearing under a lobby chair.

“Peter, enough already,” I shouted at him. “It’s over.”

He disagreed, and pulled at my leg, causing me to hit the floor. I landed painfully on my back and watched as he took out his laser gun and took aim at the sensor on my chest. I tried to kick it out of his hand, but my leg muscles were so weak that I barely batted away his arm. After that didn’t work, I rolled over and crawled towards one of the lobby chairs. Peter hit the sensors on my back a few times, but even at close range, he was too angry and in too much pain to get another critical shot off.

Once I had taken cover behind the chair, I glanced over at the receptionist again. She had noticed our scuffle and must’ve seen that Peter was holding some sort of firearm, and she was now talking on the phone as she looked at us. Help had to be on the way, I figured. I just needed to hold out for another minute or so.

Peter managed to stand up and started limping over, but he was struggling just to walk as he kept his gun on me.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he said. “You were supposed to turn to ash, just like my brother. The world was supposed to see it happen.”

“Too much time’s gone by, Pete. The vests just aren’t as strong as they used to be,” I tried one final time to talk him down. “These things should’ve stayed in the past, and we should’ve just had another chat instead of doing all this.”

“Should’ve been easier…” he grumbled and shuffled closer. “I gave you a chance, but I gave myself an advantage. Should’ve been ‘easy mode’ for me…”

I sighed and stood up so he could see me, though I kept my two front sensors covered. Behind him, two security guards were cautiously approaching.

“You’re not giving me enough credit here,” I informed him. “I spent years running and hiding from a monster. In dreams, sure, but I guess it still counted for something.”

“I’m… not a monster…” he murmured.

“No, you’re not. But you need help.”

“Get back!” Peter suddenly turned and shouted at the two security guards.

Unable to tell if his gun was real or a toy, they backed off a bit. By this point, I was more worried about Peter’s well-being than my own.

And things were only about to get worse for him. Blue and red lights suddenly flashed into the lobby through the doors. A police cruiser had pulled up outside, and two officers were approaching, looking like they were just here to check out what was going on; their weapons had yet to be drawn. I couldn’t be certain at first why they were here. Who had called them?

Then I saw that Boris came in with them, wearing a heavy jacket to combat the cold. To me, he might as well have teleported here, because I could’ve sworn he was still in Cuba. He looked at me, and then Peter, who looked back at them. The two officers assessed the situation quickly, and then saw the gun in Peter’s hand. Within seconds of arriving, their demeanors changed and they realized that this was more serious than they expected.

“Easy, easy,” the younger of the two officers told Peter. “Drop the weapon.”

“It can’t hurt you…” Peter grumbled back, who seemed unable to assess the danger he was now in—or just didn’t care. “You’re not wearing vests…”

“What?” the older officer replied. “Hey, just put it on the floor. We don’t want to hurt you. Sir? Do you understand? Did you take anything tonight?”

As they tried to deescalate things, Boris cautiously walked over to my side.

“You okay?” he asked me quietly, and looked at my injured hand and the vests that had been bound to me with chains.

I nodded, lying. My own laser gun was still at my side, but the cops’ attention wasn’t on me. I felt like I could only stand there helplessly, hoping that Peter would stand down and let the police take him into custody.

“Tyler texted me,” Boris explained as he warmed up his hands.

“Thought you were out of the country,” I replied, as if everything was back to normal all of a sudden and we could have a casual conversation.

“My plane landed and my phone blew up with his texts. Called the police and rushed over straight from the airport. Jesus, so that’s really Peter… What the hell did he do to you?” he asked as he studied my vests.

We looked back at him, still refusing to drop his weapon, and with the screwdriver in his leg clearly making it hard for him to stand. All he had to do was comply with the officers, and I was sure he’d get the help he needed.

Don’t be stupid.

Instead, after several shouted commands from the cops and the realization that neither one of us could possibly “win” the game at this point, he took on the expression of utter defeat and hopelessness. He looked desolate, and not just about the fact that he couldn’t fulfill a simple order from someone to get information out of me and then dispose of me.

He raised his gun and pointed it at the officers. Even now, they couldn’t be certain that it didn’t pose a danger to them. The commands to drop it got louder and sharper. I figured that Peter maybe had a few seconds left before they opened fire, and I wasn’t about to start my new life by witnessing a suicide by cop. With their eyes focused on the disturbed one among us, I brought up my pistol, took a deep breath, exhaled, and steadied myself.

“I just wanted them to see…” Peter murmured for the fifth or sixth time.

The vest I got around his leg let out its warning beeps as its capacitors soaked in energy. Peter just stared at it without emotion. I don’t think the cops even really noticed. The moment after I scored my first critical hit of the night, I dropped my laser gun to the floor and kicked it under a chair.

I figured that this was my last, only chance to get Boris his sought-after ’80s toy, and that I might as well try. Assuming it didn’t all get seized and disappear.

Peter closed his eyes a moment before the battery exploded, maybe still expecting that it would kill him.

It didn’t. It turned his left leg below the knee into a bloody mess that sprayed all across about half the lobby, but he’d live. The cops, security guys, and Boris couldn’t even really tell what just happened at first. Peter collapsed to the floor, wailing. And while I had pulled the trigger, I probably would’ve puked up something had I actually eaten solid food recently.

Once they saw that Peter was no longer a threat, the four guys rushed to his aid while the receptionist got on the phone and summoned medical personnel.

“The hell was that?” one of the officers exclaimed.

“Some sorta bomb?” his partner replied.

They both looked up at me, and the vests that I had on. They suddenly looked very hesitant to approach. I knew I was safe now, but I did still want to get the things off as soon as possible. I was more concerned about how long I’d have to stay up tonight answering questions about whatever the hell had just happened.

After a medical gurney was brought down and Peter was surrounded by the people that would save his life, he went into shock while a tourniquet was made on site to staunch his bleeding.

I can remember clearly how he acted as he was carried out of the room. He was mostly mumbling incoherently, but I did pick up his disappointment.

“Was supposed to turn to ash… Had to show them…”

There it was. He had just realized that whatever the outcome of his game, he was never going to get the one thing he wanted out of it. All those years of planning and mental preparation, for nothing.

“Crazy night, man…” Boris said to me after I collapsed onto the nearest chair.

“You have no idea.”

A nurse came over and examined my injured hand and wrist, seemingly unafraid of the vests. Boris ended up being the guy who cut them off of me. That made it easy for him to score one of the things, plus the laser pistol I hid. Everything else disappeared into police custody, just like the original sets from twenty years ago. I bet he started taking them apart in his lab that same night.

Peter vanished from my life as quickly as he entered it, although I had spent so many years thinking about if he was simply a real person. He was, and he had suffered because of the people who had probably gotten away with it. I had, too, but at least I had made a few good friends on the way.

I was moved to my new room in the morning, probably not too far off from the one where Peter was recovering. The incident was enough to get me permanent security detail for the rest of my stay, while I heard that several officers guarded his room, wherever it might’ve been. My phone, iPad, and laptop were found a couple days after the big visit, all hiding in an office in a different part of the building. I got right back to my regular internet browsing and research, acting like I had been unfazed by another life-threatening experience.

The others became more cautious after my run-in and went quiet for a while, outside of some casual email conversations about other subject matter.

When I changed rooms, I brought all of my get-well cards with me as a memento, and went through them properly, my mind more lucid than the first time I skimmed the handwritten well-wishes from family and friends.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Peter had left me a card. It wasn’t signed so it wouldn’t have been a dead giveaway at first, but it was definitely from him. I checked the copyright date on the card, to see that it was from 2015. He had found me within about a year of my admittance. I hoped that he didn’t actually get inside my room and watch me as I slept, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Looking forward to you waking up!” he had written inside a very generic get-well card. “Let’s share a good story sometime. Pew pew.”

After another two weeks of rigorous physical therapy, I flew back home, moved into the guest bedroom at my sister’s house, and started looking for a new job. Maybe something in architecture or construction, if I could work up to it. But I started with something simple until I was back to top form, just to keep myself from being a freeloader. I shoved the stories and the relics as far back in my mind as I could and tried to enjoy the time with my family, although theories never stopped nagging at me. I also thought of Peter often and what he had gone through, and if there was still some hope that he could get better.

Weeks and then months passed, and I didn’t hear anything about or from him. But I did stay in touch with the others as I slowly came to terms with everything that had happened and got to writing down the night’s events.

We all agreed to lay low, be careful, and stop pursuing leads, even while we knew Boris would tear apart his new acquisitions and document everything about the toys. Jack got back to being a typical middle-class dad to his kid, Kate started training for a pilot’s license, and Tyler never shut up about the girl he was dating or stopped asking us for advice.

We also knew what would always linger in the back of our minds. I don’t think we’d ever escape a curse that had been given to us in our childhood.

In February of 2019, shortly after I arrived back in Florida, Boris shared with us what little he had found in Cuba through a webcam conference call.

The summary being that it wasn’t much—and yet, he was almost certain that there actually was a connection to our shadowy group. After landing in Havana, he spent a week in the Cuban countryside, hopping from one bus to the next and even hitchhiking a couple times to get out to a site in the central-southern mountains. I admired his dedication in doing all of that to pursue just a tiny clue, but the rest of us agreed that he could stop now, as we were all ready to try our hardest to let go of it all. Peter was just another reminder about how dangerous it would be to continue.

But he had already made the journey, and we all listened intently. In some overgrown hills were the remnants of a concrete bunker. A recent landslide had exposed one side of it to open air, allowing more vegetation to intrude. Boris didn’t linger long, and the place had been picked clean already, but there was one little element that grabbed his interest. Just past the rusted, busted-down steel door entrance, in the “foyer” of the bunker, were the faint remnants of a shape, once painted in black. It was some kind of obscure corporate logo, Boris thought. A large, wide rectangle, with a much smaller one in its lower right corner, originally filled in and solid. Amid that chipped, decaying paint were the edges of just a few letters, three of them bunched together.

“ptu”.

And that was it. Boris’s big, expensive, long journey south turned up nothing but three letters. Even so, he said it was worth it. And then he advised radio silence for a while, let us live our separate lives until something big came to one of us. We still sent an occasional casual email to each other, but we stopped talking about anything related to the stories.

After the others disconnected from the call, Tyler stuck with me a moment longer. The glow of his computer screen hitting his hoodie and face, with nothing but blackness in the background, he looked like he had a lot on his mind.

“More girl advice?” I asked him.

“Not this time. Just been thinking about something recently. It’s like… how much can we really trust our memories? We all think Peter got brainwashed, or I guess maybe they call it ‘reprogrammed’ now, so there’s proof right there of how pliable our minds can be. Tricked, manipulated. You know what I mean.”

“Are we talking about Kiddie Land again?”

“Yeah. The first time we chatted, I told you my memory of it was of the place burning. Maybe the device sending out the waves into my head was falling apart, the broadcasted memory decaying. I later told you that I saw a man in that memory, and I thought he was you. Thing is… What if that part, that I could’ve sworn was always there, was just given to me the moment you shut it down? It could be semi-logical that it was you I saw destroying the park.”

“I still can’t make sense of the day we went out into the middle of nowhere, Ty.”

“I can’t either, but the point I’m trying to make is… it’s scary, you know? To have your memories altered in a way where it feels like they’re modifying your own perception of the past. Literally rewriting your own history. You can’t actually change the past, but if you change how everyone believes it all happened, you might as well have invented a time machine.”

“You don’t think…”

We were already on the same page, and Tyler replied in an ominous tone, “Yeah. It’s possible that the Kiddie Land device or program was designed to actually give the survivors of a nuclear war an altered history, or to let them forget the old world and give them a reason to go on living and rebuild. Can’t blame people for not wanting to if they ever survived something like that.”

“And you’re comparing that to being ‘reprogramed.’ I guess it really is.”

“Would be an easy way to do it. Our new friend Pete might’ve been subjected to such horrors. Who knows what bits of truth he was allowed to keep and what he only thinks happened. Could be all his friends are still out there, looking for him, worried about the guy. Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass, I dunno.”

“Maybe we’ll hear from him again someday. But I think you might be onto something, once again.”

“Or maybe I just have too much time to think. Take care of yourself, man. I don’t feel like there’s much more we can do or look for unless something springs up on its own. Maybe all this stuff really has dominated our lives long enough. It’ll keep pulling us back, because that’s what it does, but I’m not going to let it control me anymore. I’m gonna try and get back to appreciating the little things in a world that hasn’t experienced a nuclear winter. You should, too.”

I let out a small laugh and told him, “Thanks for the advice.”

Time went by in a strange way after that. Before I could get a good-paying job, the pandemic struck and messed up my plans and everyone else’s. I got by on temporary online work here and there, while my nights were filled with little else other than me catching up on all the games, movies, and TV shows I had missed, getting my niece and nephew involved when it was age appropriate.

I personally liked the extra rest and a chance to slow down for a bit, even if it meant staying cooped up indoors.

The gang still kept up on each other’s affairs, and we kept our discussions about relics and stories to a minimum. It was just nice to have someone to talk to, and it helped combat the sense of isolation just a bit.

Weeks became months and then close to a year as life took a pause and the passage of time felt close to meaningless.

And then, in December of 2020, two years after I woke up, my interviewer sent me another email. I replied to it, but I never got a response, nor did I expect to. Peter had used a burner email, and gave me no details about further contact.

“Just writing to let you know I’m okay. It cost me a leg, but you saved my life. The doctors say I’m doing better, and I’m seeing a specialist who deals with the small community of people who have experienced something similar to what I have. The guy I see prefers to call it ‘coercive persuasion’, but I know I’m not a standard case. Entire segments of my life and how I perceive reality were rewritten, shaped into puzzle pieces that fit in with the parts of my history that are still real. It’s been tough for me, though. For the past year, I’ve had to try and pull apart two entangled realities and condition myself to accept the truth.

“The old man found me in 2005, when I was at the lowest point of my life. I drank, I was depressed, I was living on my own but still too young to have cut off everyone that wanted to help me. One day, I came home to see him waiting outside my apartment. He got on my nerves at first with his questions. I was used to getting into bar brawls by then and was ready to deck him, until he brought up the laser tag set. He was the first person, other than Justin, to believe me. I wish I could tell you what happened afterwards, but it’s all fragmented, like he tried to delete the initial days where he must’ve scrambled my brain. I can’t even say for sure if I was supposed to be his protégé or just some apprentice hitman or other asset, but he had a grip on me ever since.

“Over the years, I came to see him as a fatherly figure, or he made me feel that way. I cut off all contact with my friends and family. A few times a year, he’d contact me and have me go somewhere, find or observe something, or force me to bring him someone who I would afterwards never see again. My last job was setting up a meeting with you. And yet, I can’t even recall his name.

“He made me believe that my parents were alcoholics who disowned me. Not true. They had some hard times after my brother died, but they got their lives together and did everything they could to get me to do the same. And my friends are still the best a guy could ask for. They didn’t forget about me, and now I’ve been visited by all of them. Justin’s even coming by tomorrow. I told him about you, and about the stories. By now, he’s okay with his journal being out there, but I don’t know when he’ll get around to reading the series. It is still a traumatic experience that he tried to bury. I was the same way, and it resulted in me getting manipulated by an indifferent, cruel man.

“One day, I should be able to rejoin society, and I’m going to try and move on with my life. So many aspects of it were altered in ways I still don’t understand. There are details that the man changed for seemingly no reason. I’m not sure if I’ll ever escape the doubts I have about certain events. But that’s all in the past, and any memories I make from here on will be real.

“Maybe you should move on, too, if you at all can. If there’s anything I got out of our late-night chat in a hospital lobby, it’s that we have similar personalities, and we can both get too obsessed and let questions and regrets linger too long.

“I’m sorry for what I put you through. We may never meet in person again, but we both share in the fact that we’ve been given a second chance. I’m not going to waste it.”

Advertisement