Light pours in from behind my eyelids. Through my eyelids. My head pounds and surges with pain. What good are eyelids when they are so thin they don’t even do their job, I think bitterly. I fling my arm over my face to block out the light.
In the darkness, with the reassuring slight pressure of my arm over my eyes, I find a few moments’ solace. Respite from the throbbing pain in my head. I sigh and try not to think of anything at all.
I have always held a strong fascination with meditation, with people who could clear their minds and sit for hours in peace. I marveled at that ability to embrace stillness. I marveled at it because it was something I could never do. Having a clear, pristine mind was such an alluring but alien concept to me.
My mind works continuously. I don’t want it to, it just does. I always felt like my brain and I were consistently at odds with each other. When I want rest and sleep, my brain constantly makes lists, reorders already existing lists, or looks for patterns in the world around me so it can make more lists. Subject doesn’t matter. It could be encounters with my friends, or a hyper fixation on a chance conversation with some new boy at school, or something altogether trivial, like why people toasted Pop-Tarts when they were so much better straight out of the package.
Oftentimes it was my homework mucking up my peacefulness. I have had it drilled into me numerous times from a young age how important education was to my future. I would stress about what paper I should write first. What reading chapter I should save for last. Would it be more efficient to do my math homework before my history?
The irony is that, in the end, it didn’t matter much, because I would spend so much time and energy thinking about how to do my homework in the best way possible that I wouldn’t allow ample time to actually do it. I would end up staying up half the night rushing through just those things that were due the next day, not doing my best work on them but still eking out a decent grade.
This is how my life had evolved, a neurotic girl with a hyperactive brain. It doesn’t help that the brain is housed atop a short and stocky frame, either.
My parents always disapproved of my way of doing things. They told me that I was forming bad habits. College would be much more difficult than high school, and that I couldn’t just skate by like I was doing in high school.
I didn’t doubt them, they were probably right, but I argued with them. You see, I am stubborn too.
A stubborn, procrastinating, perfectionist. Not the best combination of character traits.
I sigh quietly to myself. The light is gone, but now my mind found a new thing to preoccupy my thoughts, killing whatever slight peace of mind I had found in its infancy. All I can focus on now is a quiet but persistent hum of some electrical device.
I try thinking of clouds to distract myself, but they soon hum and buzz with lightning. I try thinking of flowers, but soon buzzing bees begin to fly into them.
It is no use. I am going to find no rest here.
Slowly, I move my arm from away from my face. I push myself up into a sitting position, feeling the hard, coarse fabric of the miserable little couch I was lying on. Eyes still closed, my head bent low almost to my knees, I run my hands through my dark, oily hair. I can’t remember the last time I took a shower. The prickling sensation of my fingertips dragging along my scalp eases some of the tension from my body.
I wonder at how long I have been lying on this horrid excuse for a piece of furniture. My back aches. My neck is tight. My legs have nearly gone numb, and still I hear that perpetual hum, now like a high-pitched whine of a belt sander against the temporal lobes of my brain.
Carefully, I open my eyes. I keep my head pointed down toward the floor to shield myself from the harsh lights above. My vision is filled with nondescript, pale beige carpet, ugly in its plainness. With my hands half cupped, half pressed against my forehead, I begin to raise my head.
A large, green potted plant and a dark, heavy oak desk materialize out of the haze, as my eyes adjust to the sickeningly unsympathetic white fluorescent lights of the room. One flickers just beyond my perception and etches the high-pitched hum into my eardrums. Across the room stands a blank, off-white, sterile wall.
The front of the room is frosted glass from ceiling to floor. One door stands in the middle of the glass wall. I can see another bank of fluorescent lights just outside the glass, and vaguely I can make out ghostly shadows moving farther out.
I have an intense sense of déjà vu, as well as complete confusion as to where I actually am.
This place reminds me of somewhere I’ve been. Somewhere I went to as a small child. Somewhere that must have left an impression, but, frustratingly, somewhere that I can’t seem to recall. My memory is fuzzy, like stale bread with green mold spotted on it. I close my eyes and try to scrap off the green fuzz as best I can.
I finally decide that this place reminds me of my father’s office, designed to be plain and boring, yet suitable for everyone’s tastes. Not taking any chances at picking a color or shape that might offend someone’s aesthetic palate, but simultaneously not appealing to anyone’s liking. Or at least, I think it reminds me of my father’s office. For some reason, I’m having a hard time bringing up an exact image of the office. The mold is still there blocking any recollections.
But it doesn’t matter, I suppose. I hate this place from the moment I see it.
I sit there for I don’t know how long analyzing the bland pattern in the floor below me, not knowing what to do or where I am. This place is eerily familiar, but I know I have never been here before. I try to force myself to remember how I got here, but, frustratingly, I can’t. I have odd sensations of a cold room, an orange light, and a sticky feeling oozing all over my skin. It doesn’t make any sense to me. So I just sit there in a dazed state.
Eventually, my curiosity gets the better of me. Ignoring the aches in my muscles and the throbbing in my head, I brave the intense buzzing lights of the room and scan over the desk as best I can. It is immaculate. A small singular stack of paper lies on the far end, neatly ordered with all the papers aligned. A white coffee mug stands near me with a handful of pens and pencils standing at attention in it. A nameplate stands absolutely centered near the front lip of the desk, but I can’t read what it says from my sideways angle. Dominating the desk is an old and heavy-looking black typewriter.
It occurs to me that I have not seen a typewriter before. I mean, I know what they are, and I’ve seen them in movies or TV shows. But I realize just then that I have never actually seen a real one. It looks intimidating and sturdy enough to survive a bomb blast. I have a strong desire to touch it, press one of the keys and hear the clack as the letter block slams some ink into the fresh, white sheet of paper rolled into it.
I don’t even know where I am, but I decide to give in to my urge. I figured, what the hell. It is only one letter on one sheet of paper. Plus, I want to get up anyway to read the name on the nameplate. I might as well know whose office I am in.
I move to stand up, but as soon as I push myself off the couch, the muscles in my legs protest, freezing in place, and a large rush of blood to my head makes me feel dizzy and nauseated.
Carefully, I gently lower myself back down and hang my head between my knees, breathing deeply, trying not to throw up. I note with some dry humor that my vomit would probably blend in with the carpet. Maybe no one could even tell it was there.
The thought of puking fills my mouth with copious amounts of salvia, and I can feel the tightening of my lower jaw as my stomach prepares to launch whatever was in my stomach out of my body. This is not good. I fight with every inch of my being not to vomit right then and there. Furiously I try to think of something else, and immediately I can hear that insidious buzzing again. Thankfully, my mind is distracted and annoyed enough that my stomach is quelled.
Sitting there, taking long, labored breathes, and gritting my teeth in frustration, I hear a latch turn, and I look up to see the door opening. And I think to myself, “God, what now?”
My mouth is dry, my back is frozen in place as I whip my head around to stare at the opening door. Nervousness floods my body and my belly fills with ice. I don’t know where I am or how I got here. I have no idea what type of person is walking through the door. I feel vulnerable and exposed. My breath stops.
Quickly, a small woman enters the room. Her posture is prim and straight, like she is dangling from strings. She wears black subdued heels but only to increase her size and stature. A long, dark skirt covers most of her legs, and a black, angular coat covers the rest. Her nose is long and hooked with slim wire-frame glasses propped up on the bridge. Her lips are blood red and her dark black hair is pulled back into a bun so tightly I think the skin on her forehead might tear apart from the strain.
She moves fast and briskly closes the door behind her. I feel naked as she fixes an intense stare at me.
“You are awake.” She speaks like she looks: efficient and proper.
I don’t say anything in response. Partly because I don’t know what to say and partly because I am not so sure my tongue is still working. So I just give a slight, stupid nod.
The lady stands by the door for a moment, scanning me with a penetrating look. She is sizing me up, making judgments and evaluations about my character. I feel the need to make a better impression, so I struggle to sit up a little more straight, bring my knees together and lay my hands flat on my thighs.
She gives a curt “hmmpf,” which I can barely hear and walks with long, precise strides around the far side of the desk, giving me a wide berth, and sits down. I feel like I should say something, but the lady speaks first.
“Eustice P. Jennings.” She says plainly and neatly.
I flinch at my name being called out. I have never liked my name, but have never liked my nicknames either. My name is stuck to me and I am stuck to it.
Reflexively, I respond with a meager, “Present.” And halfheartedly raise my hand. I am just trying to lighten the mood, but the woman does not seem to notice.
“You have caused me quite the bit of trouble.” Great. Already I have pissed this woman off and I don’t even know who she is or how I’ve done it. She motions to a chair across from her on the other side of her desk.
Meekly, I get up. Fortunately, my legs and head both seem to function much better now. Walking over to the chair, I am unsteady and my knees threaten to buckle once or twice, but I sit down again without incident. I take the opportunity to check out the nameplate now that I am sitting right in front of it.
Beatrice A. Krugmen is etched in the bronze plate.
“Beatrice A. Krugmen,” I think, rolling the name around in my head. Looking at the prim and proper woman with the hooked nose, blood red lips, and wire frame glasses, I quickly think, “fitting name.”
Smaller letters beneath her name on the plate read: Division of Lost Souls, Lead Admin.
Division of Lost Souls? The strangeness of the title hits me like a slap to the face, but before I can give it much more thought, Beatrice clears her throat and speaks.
“For some reason, the powers that be saw fit to not follow the proper channels. To not follow protocol and …” She eyes me as if this is all my fault, when I have no idea what she was talking about, “to not inform me of all this beforehand.” I get the feeling that being in the dark is not something Beatrice takes kindly to.
Beatrice pauses and brings her hands up to her face, index fingers pointed, she makes a rigid triangle under her chin. I think I can make out a few dark whiskers here and there dangling discreetly from her chin and upper lip. My attention snaps back to Beatrice’s eyes when she speaks.
“I do not like surprises. Indeed, I make it my job to eliminate them. You are a surprise. One I plan to get rid of quickly.” I don’t know why she tells me this other than to make me feel bad at what I’ve done to her. But I don’t even know what I’ve done!
I feel a surge of blood flush my cheeks. I don’t understand what is going on, but I know enough not to like the way this woman is talking to me, “Look,” I say more curtly than I probably should have, “I’m sorry for whatever has happened, but I don’t even know where I am right now, or how I got here.”
Beatrice lowers her hands, angling her body forward, and stares closely into my eyes. Immediately, I feel meek and at a disadvantage, but that just makes me dig in my heels and hold my ground. I try to be nice to people when I can, yet I also don’t appreciate this lady’s tone. I meet her gaze and stare back.
After several long seconds, Beatrice leans back. A small smirk briefly appears on one side of her mouth before it dies just as quickly, “No, I suppose you don’t,” is all she says.
Another handful of seconds pass and I feel the need to speak, but again Beatrice cuts me off before I can even start. She looks at a watch on her left wrist and then abruptly rises out of her chair. “The ceremony is almost over, but we can catch the end of it if we hurry.” She briskly walks around the desk and toward the door as she speaks. I can almost hear the carpet groan with pain as she thrusts her heels into it.
Pausing with one hand on the door, she leans over and grabs a large, black piece of clothing off a coat rack I didn’t even noticed before. As she opens the door, she throws the garment at me. It hits me square in the face. My nose is filled with the smell of dust and boiled cabbage.
“Put that on and hurry up.”
I stand up from my chair and fumble with the huge piece of cloth. I can’t even tell what it is yet. It looks like an old, thick, black bedsheet. I struggle to find any holes or discernible way to wear the damned thing.
Beatrice rolls her eyes and a sound of frustration escapes her lips. She walks over to me, grabs the fabric and throws it over my head. Blackness fills my vision, and I almost gag on the musty smell pervading this horrid garment. The next thing I feel is Beatrice’s hand painfully grabbing my arm, “Are you always this slow?” she asks, annoyed, as she drags me out the door.
With only one arm, I fight my way through the darkness and desperately try to find a hole for my head to fit through. All the while, Beatrice pulls me along through a maze of what I assume are cubicles and other desks. I am vaguely aware of other people moving out of our way or doing work at their desks as we storm past them.
Beatrice stops to open another door, and I finally manage to find an armhole. After some more struggling, I figure out this black garment draped over my head is a robe of some sort. Huge and ungainly though. I am still having trouble finding the collar for my head to go through when Beatrice walks through the open door. The soft plop of her heels on the carpet turns into a hard echoing clip-clop as she walks out into a hallway.
Short of breath, I yank my arm from out of Beatrice’s grasp. The clip-clopping of her heels stops. Now I can hear the steady tap of one foot as she waits impatiently for me. With both my hands, I am able to find the hole for my head. I breathe deeply as my head emerges from its dank prison.
Beatrice’s hands are firmly planted on her hips, “Are you finished?” She asks before turning and continuing her fast-paced walk. I have to half jog just to keep up with her.
We walk down blandly decorated, harshly lit corridors. The walls are some reddish dark wood panels, the floor a polished checkerboard of black and white. The reflected glare from the fluorescent lights above renews my headache with a vengeance.
I try to take in the names and numbers etched on the doors that we pass, but we are moving too quickly. For whatever reason, I am already on thin ice with this icy woman and don’t want to dillydally any longer. My curiosity will have to wait.
We make a few turns down similar-looking hallways until we come to two large double doors. Beatrice pauses and smooths her tightly wound hair of nonexistent strands that might have escaped the stranglehold her bun has on them. She also brushes her shoulders and wipes her palms on her hips. Then she looks at me and frowns.
I look down at myself. I hardly recognize anything. My body is hidden in a voluminous black robe that drags on the floor and hangs loose over my hands. I can’t imagine I look good in it, but she gave me this damn robe and made me put it on. Why is she frowning?
I give a halfhearted shrug and try to pull the sleeves over my hands but with no luck. They just slide back down after a few moments.
Beatrice motions with her hands and mouths “put the hood up.” I don’t know why she is being so quiet, but not knowing is a common theme of the night.
Slowly, I feel around the back for a hood. The robe was so large with so many folds it is difficult to find. Eventually, with Beatrice still frowning, I manage to find it and pull it over my head.
Immediately everything changes. I can feel the waist of the robe cinch up and hug me just above my hips. It is tight but comfortable. My hands are freed as the sleeves shrink down to a normal length, and I have no fear of tripping anymore as the lower hem hangs just above my toes now, no longer dragging a mile behind me on the floor.
I am just about to remark how strange this all feels and how it works, when Beatrice opens the large double doors.
I step through and find myself in the middle of a large theater. There are rows of seats to my left sloping upward and rows of seats sloping down to my right. The room is hardly lit, making it difficult to properly see anything. A single light is illuminating the stage, and a single person stands in the center of the light. He is wearing a robe just like I am.
Straightaway, I sense something odd about his appearance. Though I can’t place what. He seems of average build. Not too big and not too small. He stands with his hands at his sides and seems comfortable in the lone spotlight. His hood is raised just like mine. Since the light is above him, his face is mostly covered in shadow, giving him a ominous look. Even worse is the little of his face I can see. It’s gaunt and too angular, too white.
As I continue to look, something else peculiar jumps out at me that I didn’t notice at first. I can see his teeth. Why can I see his teeth? Then I notice with shock. He has no lips.
He has no skin at all.
My jaw drops and my stomach flips over inside my belly. His chin is pure bone and his white teeth glare at me from across the stage with a sinister smile. I raise my hand to cover my open mouth and to preemptively fight off a deepening sickness in the pit of my stomach.
The room is silent and I can only continue to stare, frozen in place. Many awkward seconds pass, until Beatrice clears her throat.
“We have a late comer.” Is all she says. When nothing happens, she quickly adds with a note of distain, “Pardon the interrupt.”
The man without skin speaks. A gravelly baritone rumbles over the chairs and hits me in the face, “Well now. This is surprising.” He raises a hand and I have to stop myself from retching. His fingers are long, thin, and tapered to a point. They are also pure white. Pure bone.
“But where are our manners,” the bone man spreads out both his hands in a wide arc, “Class. Let us welcome our new guest.”
I hadn’t seen them before, but now a dozen or so other hooded and robed figures seated in the front rows stand and materialize out of the darkness. They all turn to look at me. In the darkness I can’t see their faces. Their hoods reveal only more darkness inside. Images of skulls leering at me through the shadows fill my mind. For a moment, I fear my knees will give way and I will collapse to the ground. Through sheer force of will, I hold firm even after what happens next.