(CWs, some spoilers: alcohol, possible murder, body horror, derealization, dysphoria?, blood, insects)
CONWAY: Sometimes a drop of water is all it takes for rust to form. A single grain of sand to gum up the gears. One thought to plant to the seed of doubt.
Sometimes we don’t want to think that thought, so it festers, mold in our minds. We wear masks, build whole cities–empires–just to obscure that one thought. It can drive some people to madness, others to enlightenment.
What that thought is I’ll leave up to you. I’m not here to give you answers. I’m here to tell you what happened. The facts, as I see them.
Despite my power and wealth, something stung me. Ants crawling on my skin, salt in my wound. Defection among the ranks. And something else, too. A feeling that something wasn’t right. That I wasn’t right. That something had gone wrong somewhere along the line, but I couldn't remember what.
You can’t usually go back and fix the past, so what you’ve got left is thought, grains of sand, drops of water. Masks. What happens if the mask takes over, starts to be more real than the face underneath? And if you’re a mask, who’s wearing you?
Was it too late for me to take it off? Was I really…me? Or was I just what I thought I should be? Was I in the cave, or in the tower?
Wren, can you see my face? Or do you see the mask?
The first thing I noticed was the fog. Wisps of light gray curling and drifting above the tall grass that framed the narrow road. It wasn’t the fog itself that gave me pause, it was the movement. I hadn’t seen anything outside of my control move at all these past 3 days.
The yellow cones of the car’s headlights illuminated a sign, bent and scored by weather and age: “WELCOME TO AISLING, THE TOWN OF YOUR DREAMS. POPULATION–” I couldn’t read the rest: rust and time had swallowed the populace of this place.
Though there was movement here, it was nearly silent and empty. No crickets, no birds, no rumbling engines or hushed voices. I suddenly felt very exposed in my car. I pulled off into the dewy grass and got out. I took the flashlight and jacket out of my emergency kit in the trunk and ventured into the haze.
As I drew nearer, a cluster of short buildings emerged from the mist, and I could smell the lake on the air. Its gentle lapping barely pierced the foggy aura surrounding the town. The steady beam from my flashlight guided me as best it could, given the conditions.
The second thing I noticed was the cold. The temperature dropped precipitously as I crept through the barren streets. I focused the flashlight between my heavy puffs of breath onto the nearby houses. Every home along this road was encased in hanging ice, sheets of gray vacuum sealed to the facades, dripping at the edges in a thousand angry fangs. The frozen tendrils hanging from every surface mimicked alien architecture: these were no longer houses, they were noneuclidean sculptures hauled from the deep itself, symbols of tentacled things unseen and unspoken dwelling miles below the surface. Spiraling, bubbling cathedrals dedicated to the worship of beings our species had forgotten, or chose not to remember. There is a difference. One in particular near the shore stood elevated on a dock, now smothered in sharp icicles. There it sat hunched before the lake like a withered king on a throne, now too thin for his hanging robes. All he can do is watch as his kingdom melts away.
The third thing I noticed was whistling. As I explored the town further, I could make out a faint ethereal tune floating on the air. I followed it, and it grew in volume as I neared the lake. Out on the frozen piers stood a man in an orange vest, human alone amongst the jaws of ice, casting his line into what had to be frozen lake water.
I shone my flashlight his direction, which made him pause. His shoulders tensed and the line went slack. He slowly turned to face me from across the sculpted pier.
I couldn’t see his face. Or maybe he didn’t have a face. He waved at me, then pointed to my left. There in the frigid alien landscape was a warm glow. Incandescent light poured through windows thick with condensation. I heard voices carry across the dense atmosphere, quiet conversations, glasses clinking, laughing. I turned to thank this kind fisherman, but he was gone.
Shivering and nose running, I hopped along toward the bar. Even if this was somehow a trap, at least I’d die warm. I could feel the heat and light radiating from the building. It stood out so sharply from the rest of the town. I pushed the door with my shoulder and it swung open.
Instead of being greeted by central heating and stale beer, I was met with more ice. The door to this place must have been left open during whatever had affected the rest of the town. Ice hung from the ceiling, the bar, the rough stools. The walls were coated with translucent spears. The sole artifact spared from the ice was a black rotary phone, sitting in the center of the bar’s counter.
A sharp bell rang out from bar, through the town. I jumped, I’ll admit it. I was startled. It rang again, and I turned the phone around to see how they managed to wire it up in this place. Of course, there were no wires. No phone line. Simply a disconnected phone ringing in a frozen town that shouldn’t exist. Given the circumstances, I presumed the call was for me.
WREN: “H-hello?”LF: “Weeelll, now you’ve stepped in it, huh?”
WREN: “What do you mean? Who is this?”
LF: “Just a fisherman angling for a bite. And what I mean is you’ve crossed over. Welcome to the unwaking world. I’m sure you’ve got questions, but I can only answer three, and it looks like you’ve used two. So I’d watch my words, if I were you.”
WREN: “I see. Well, instead of asking questions, I’ll request that you tell me about this place.”
LF: “Clever work. Now this used to be a big lumber town. Imports and shipping. Real nice little place across the lake from canada. Town was run by an old robber baron’s kid, scion of the Van Leer family. Had this funny notion there was something special about this lake and boy, was he right in all the wrong ways.
WREN: “Maybe if you weren’t arbitrarily governed by genie rules, I’d ask you more about this town’s history and this Van Leer person.”LF: “As well you might. Then sometime round 1918 was when it all went to hell. This Van Leer fella put together a team to dredge the lake. Lookin for a shipwreck from years back he said had some kind of vast wealth in it. The Oneiros. He even went in himself in his diving dress. I’ll spare you the guessing as to whether he found that shipwreck. He did. And more.
The crew dragged this massive crate from its grave in the muck and pulled it into the center of town. Took 4 men stout and true to get it open. Inside was a mass of iron, smooth in some parts and sharp in others, pipes and wheels gone wrong, like a steam engine built by a madman. Van Leer had found his treasure. It’s said that the next night, he went out and tried to start this wicked machine. Wouldn’t burn coal or wood, though. Needed something with more…vitality. So he fed its dark cravings with blood.
The engine roared and huffed black smoke. This activity must have stirred something in the water, because soon a white maiden flanked by hideous beasts visited the town. Nobody’s quite sure what came of Van Leer or the rest of the people here. Place has been frozen since. Or so the story goes.
Now I’m not sure how much of that is true, but I have seen the drag marks. You can follow them if that sick engine is what you’re looking for.
WREN: “Oh, my.”
LF: “‘Oh my’ puts it mildly. Oh and Wren, I’ve got a warning: you’re in danger.
LF: “I’ll pretend there wasn’t a question mark at the end of that sentence. You’re real, Wren, the only real thing here, and that puts you in a pickle. The last real person here was a man named Kenji, and I assume you heard what happened to him.
WREN: “Oh, my…”
LF: So that’s why I had to call you. To let you know that he knows you’re here, and his dark messengers are coming for you the second you step out of this bar. The frozen horrors of this town have started to thaw. Hope you can run, kid.”
LF: “Now you’re getting it. Well, I best be lettin ya go…”WREN: “Wait! I still have a question left. Where’s Conway?”
LF: “Which one?”WREN: “huh?”
LF: “That Van Leer kid, name was Conway, too.”
WREN: “Two Conways.”
LF: “Sort of. Before you brave the cold again, let me tell you a story…”
NARRATOR: Joe had always been a bit of an odd guy. A nice guy, but a little hard to live with. Real picky about certain stuff–liked to have stuff just so–had a hard time letting go of grudges, and usually felt that the people around him didn’t really care for him. He had a small group of friends he’d known since college that he figured were accustomed to his predilections. They sure all had their own, as everyone does. But this didn’t stop the thoughts from creeping in. The thought that maybe he didn’t belong, that they’d rather he disappear.
After living with friends for years, he decided it would be easier to live alone. Now moving is stressful, even under normal circumstances. For Joe, it was a nightmare. How to box everything so that it doesn’t mix rooms, split functions, lose pieces. Trying to find someone to help lift furniture that won’t resent you. Picking an apartment in the first place.
Joe moved in most of his belongings, but found this apartment a bit smaller than his last. This meant some boxes had to go in the basement. Joe carried a stack of books in a laundry basket down the stairs, and nearly dropped it on his foot when he came across something he hadn’t expected. Below his kitchen was a large crate, nearly as tall as the basement ceiling, with a scribbled note that read “do not open.”
Joe lasted about 3 weeks before he opened the crate. The best tool he had for the job was a screwdriver and he was too stubborn to get a crowbar, so it took him a while to pry the planks up, but eventually they splintered. The tiny bit of light leaking in from upstairs illuminated the interior, and made visible the shape of a man. Joe recoiled and dropped the screwdriver bouncing across the cement floor. He reeled backward and slammed into the stairs behind him. He sat with his hand over his mouth for a good minute, breath caught in his chest, staring at the body inside the box. There was no movement. Surely dead, after all this time in a sealed container, he thought. Should he call the cops? The FBI? The president? He leaned a bit closer and finally took a breath. No, can’t be a corpse: he could only smell the freshly torn pine of the box and the usual basement mildew. Not a whiff of rot.
He fished his phone out of his pocket and switched on the flashlight. Sitting inside the box was a life sized doll. A mannequin of sorts. Joe stalked over to the box and hesitantly turned the head toward him. Staring back at him in the stark light was a startlingly familiar face. Joe’s face. His own damn face, in molded and painted plastic and silicone and whatever the hell else. He instinctively pushed the doll away. It landed naked and cold in the sawdust and packing. Not only did it have his face; it was his height, his build, his hair. This couldn’t have been a coincidence. It was supposed to be him.
He felt sick to his stomach, dizzy with questions flooding his mind. The most pressing of which wasn’t who or how, but why. Why would someone make this? Why would someone leave this effigy here?
His landlord had no idea what he was talking about, and didn’t want to make the drive up from Cinci to look at a box. He sat with this doll for a time, both leaning against their respective walls, both silent. Then Joe piled the splintered planks up, trying to seal the doll–mannequin, whatever it was–back in its container. He at least managed to cover enough of it that he didn’t have to see it from the stairs.
Joe could hardly sleep that night, and his dreams were fitful and strange. He’d be sitting in a small, dark room, unable to escape. Then came a light, and the man who stole his face. Then he’d wake up.
Day after day, the events in Joe’s life only grew stranger. Joe felt a connection to this doll, a kinship, and an equal and opposite revulsion. He’d go down to check on it late at night when he couldn’t sleep. There he’d find pieces of wood stacked in places he’d swear he hadn’t left them. He’d hear footsteps in the dazed half-waking hours of the early morning. He’d find bags of chips that were lighter than he remembered. But he never saw it move. It was just a doll, after all.
Joe’s acquaintances found out about it (how long can you keep something this strange to yourself) and they were powerfully curious. Joe took them down, a few of his closest friends, to “meet” the doll, which he’d been calling Joseph. They were stunned at the similarity. Uncanny. So similar to Joe but not quite. And in his own house. They said it could easily be his twin if they didn’t know better. Lots of playful joking and laughing. He laughed along too, for a time.
The laughing stopped when he came home from work to find the doll standing in the corner of his kitchen, wearing one of his shirts. He called his friends in a flurry, asking around to see which of his them had pulled this awful prank. Not a soul would confess. A cruel trick, I’d say, to make someone think they’re losing their mind. He returned the shirt to his closet. He was determined to keep this thing under cover, so this time covered the box with a tarp. He figured his friends probably didn’t actually like him, were humoring him at events. That they were messing with him. It didn’t occur to him that none of his friends had a spare key to get inside his place.
Joe tried to carry on with his life, even put an ad online to get rid of the doll: FREE, LOCAL PICKUP ONLY. But there were no bites. By now, Joe’s lack of sleep was getting to him, and he was getting irritable, antisocial. When his friends texted him, he was snippy. He avoided calls and meetups.
He was trying to make dinner on a steamy midsummer night when he heard a thud downstairs. He hadn’t checked on the doll in some time, and for a moment wondered if he had an intruder. He grabbed a shovel from the porch and crept down to the basement.
In the cascading luminance from the open doorway, he saw the legs of the mannequin laying on the bare floor, covered in denim. A pair of his jeans. Joe was instantly furious, then that anger cooled to desperation. He begged his friends to stop whatever game they were playing. Said he didn’t care who was doing it, didn’t want a confession anymore, he only wanted it to stop. He’d leave them alone if they stopped. Still they claimed innocence.
Summer had come and gone, and Joe’s 30th birthday was fast approaching on the back of a biting winter, and while he wasn’t looking forward to getting older, he did find himself excited to see friends for the first time in months.
Derek had set up a whole party at his place. Drinks, music, cake, the works. Joe wanted everything to go right. He put on a nice shirt and pants, but when he reached for his favorite tie, he found the hanger empty. Ah, well, Joe thought, I’ll skip the tie. Maybe a bit formal for a birthday party anyway.
Surreal. That’s what it was. Uncanny.
Joe knocked on Derek’s door, who gave him an apprehensive look as he opened it. Surreal.
“Oh, hey Joe, uhh come on in,” Derek warily led Joe into the living room. Mid-2000s indie music scored the scene of friends and couples drinking, talking, laughing. And on the couch among his friends, wearing his favorite tie and nothing else, was the doll. They were chatting as if nothing was out of place. The mannequin even had a little controller in its hand for playing kart racing games. Sitting next to it was a girl Joe had been talking to for a few weeks. He thought this issue had been settled.
“What the hell is that thing doing here? I told you it wasn’t funny anymore.” Joe strained to keep his anger under control.
“Whoa watch it, man”
Joe stormed out of his own party. Derek looked around the room and issued an awkward shrug.
Joe sped home, gunning it down highway lanes dotted with circles of orange vapor glow. He crunched up the frosty grass slope to his door, and locked himself inside. Derek tried to reach out, but Joe wasn’t ready yet. This was a massive breach of trust.
A few days passed and Joe realized that he’d probably overreacted. His friends were probably trying to get a rise out of him. And even if they did genuinely hate him, they were the only friends he had. He texted Derek. They planned to meet at the coffee shop down the block so he could apologize and catch up.
Joe strolled down the crisp downtown streets toward the cafe. He stood on the corner across from the shop and took in thin air through his nose. Behind the cafe’s foggy window, he saw Derek, sitting at a table already. He smiled and took a step forward.. That’s when he saw that sitting across from Derek, in a striped shirt and slacks, was the doll. On the table in front of it was a full cup of coffee. It still wasn’t moving, it was just a doll after all, but Joe could see Derek’s lips moving.
This was too much. This wasn’t a joke anymore, this was hostile action. He could only be kicked so many times before he’d kick back. What were they thinking? Did they like the doll more than him? Why, because it wouldn’t make snide remarks, wouldn’t feel down, wouldn’t drink your beer and forget to replace it?
Joe needed rest badly. He had gotten some sleeping pills from his doctor at some point he couldn’t remember, but hesitated to take them before. Not so this time. Joe swallowed the pill and went into the kitchen.
He descended the basement stairs, holding the shovel from the porch. The tarp over the box was flipped up, and inside was the mannequin. Joe licked his dry lips and stepped lightly into the crate. He tapped the doll with the handle of the shovel. Nothing. He shouted at it. Nothing. It was just a doll, after all.
Then his phone rang. It was Derek.
DEREK: “Oh, uhh hey dude, I was wondering if…is Joe there?”
Joe’s face grew red. Embarrassment, anger, jealousy, fear, who can say which feeling specifically caused the break. He hung up and threw his phone across the concrete floor. Joe twisted the shovel’s handle around in his sweaty palms, then lifted the shovel high. He brought the sharp edge down directly on the doll’s head.
At this point, the drug took hold, and as the doll fell to the side, Joe collapsed against the wall and plunged into a deep, woozy sleep.
He hoisted the limp doll over his shoulder and dragged the heavy object upstairs. He wrapped it in an old area rug and stuffed it into his trunk.
He drove on in the frosty moonless night, down country roads outside the city, heading to the pine forest nearby. He was quivering, quiet. He kept checking the rearview mirror to see if he was being followed.
He passed a sheriff near the woods and a cold chill ran down his back. What if the sheriff pulled him over and checked the trunk? He was speeding a bit. But then again, he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, right? It was just a doll, after all.
He found a suitable spot and pulled off the road. Dripping rug and shovel in tow, he finally stepped into the woods.
The ground was hard, digging even harder. He was sweating and coughing as he dug a hole for the doll. His twin. His reflection. He dug until he physically couldn’t anymore, arms sore and lungs ablaze.
By now the sun was starting to cast its pink rays through the snowy branches. High conifers bowed in the breeze, shaking loose a dust of fine white into the air, which caught the milky morning light and shimmered in sapphire. The hole was barely deep enough for a body now, and the ground was too hard to dig further. He rolled the thing into the cold grave, then slowly covered it with dark soil.
It would be gone, finally, and he could live his life. His friends would be happy to see him again. No more jealousy, no more fear, no more worry. No longer burdened by the weight of his imposter. Everything was in its right place. He was free.
Even if that sheriff spotted the tire tracks in the fresh snow, followed the footprints down into the frozen woods. If he uncovered the freshly churned earth, and what was decomposing within. If sirens blared, a line of cruisers shining in the neon sunrise. If they checked his car and found the stained rug, brought him in and asked him a thousand questions, about his past, his friends, the bandaged gash on his head, he would still be free.
It was just a doll, after all.
WREN: uhh, is someone still on the line?
LIZ, apprehensive: “Hey, uh, Wren? What does Conway look like?”
WREN, on the phone: “You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him described. Hmm, dark hair, normal height I suppose, 28-36 years old?”
LIZ: “Sooo…not a towering column of flesh?”WREN: “....no?”
LIZ: “Got it. Well, that’s what’s here in the boardroom.”
WREN: “Board room??”LIZ: “It’s like this…bureaucratic nightmare cave. Probably 10 stories high, walls lined with filing cabinets floor to ceiling. Stacks of papers and folders everywhere, with more of those shadow things flipping through them and stamping pages.”
WREN: “Oh…that sounds bad.”LIZ: “And in the middle, surrounded by a bunch of empty chairs and desks, is this tower of skin and paperwork fused together. There are eyes and mouths all over it, just twisting, pulsing…like it’s breathing. Like this thing is a person, or a tumor imitating a person. What should I do?”
WREN: “It’s always been a game of facades, hasn’t it. Gather what shadows you can–you seem good at that–then leave. Whatever that is, it’s not Conway anymore, if it ever was. On your way out, burn whatever remains.”
WREN: Immediately upon hanging up the phone, the town outside started to shift. I could hear water pooling under the gap under the bar’s door. Sloshing and groaning, crunching, far-off wailing carrying on the wind outside. “None of this is real, I’m what’s real,” I whispered to myself a few times, standing right beside the door. Of course, merely because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t kill. It’s happened before. I stretched my left leg, then the right, and hopped up and down a few times to get the blood flowing. I hoped I could run, too.
The door flung open with more force than I’d intended. The slamming door reverberated throughout the town, once empty but not so anymore. The rows of anomalous buildings shook and rose. Unholy behemoths descended from their perches, writhing and dripping as they freed themselves from their stupor. The sound of the door alerted them to my presence. They slinked along the roads toward me, some still half encased in ice, dragging massive blocks of frozen terror in their wake. I couldn’t go home now, even if I wanted to. I planted my feet and took off full speed toward the dock.
Just my luck, only three steps in, I slipped and faceplanted into the stone below. My nose crunched and shards of ice dug into my skin, painting trails of red across my face and palms. I scrambled and clawed until I was on my feet. Hunched, bloodied, and soaking now, I came face to face with one of the awakened giants. Icicles still hung from its head, a wilted crown, its body bulky and strong. From the hole where it’s mouth should be, a long whiplike tongue unfurled. It darted toward the drops of blood running down my cheek. I wiped away the flowing blood and snot with my sleeve and skittered to the side. I saw an alleyway behind the beast. Narrow, empty, just wide enough I might sneak through it. The creature turned as I moved around its horrible frame, and from its spine sprouted many more tongues. They lashed at me, a hundred tiny blades. The tongues tore at my shirt and left slashes across my arm. They sliced and curled, but the beast couldn’t grab hold of me; the slush I was covered in kept me slippery. I darted down the alley.
A look over my shoulder revealed the creature leaning on its back, now carried by dozens of pink slavering tongues. It tried to follow where I had gone, but the alley was too narrow. Stuck between the two buildings, It let out a gurgling howl, like a psalm for drowned god. I briefly smirked. Then it began tearing at the wood and brick around it, and the fleeting moment of triumph vanished.
I kept moving, on and on the melting streets went, each rounded corner possibly harboring another death. The sky overhead was a crumpled sheet of tin, and the remaining houses seemed to lean inward around me, casting their spiky shadows over me as I ran.
I managed to escape the center of town and found myself at the lakeshore, dread mariners following in my wake. There, through my panting sweat and blood and dried tears I saw the tracks in the ground. My eyes followed the deep lines in the earth to what I had been looking for. There, floating in the misty air, impossibly suspended upside down, was the Lighthouse. The tower issued a distorted bellow and the shore was shrouded with fog. I could hear wet tendrils slapping close behind me.
I ran for the lighthouse. Its tip stood about 5 feet off the ground, the rotating lens nearly at my eye level. The beacon spun toward me as I approached, its dazzling light shining on me. I was instantly overcome with nausea. It was clear that whatever entity resided here didn’t want me any closer. The light was a nameless god here, and these were its charnel angels. I dropped to my knees under its watch, as the intense gaze of this tower soaked into me. I felt the skin on my bloodied hands and face burn and peel away from the bone like an orange rind. Static filled my head, and my body disintegrated.
But this was not my first rodeo, as they say. Unlike Conway, I’ve dealt with this static, with this withering glare, before. I took a deep breath and focused my thoughts. I imagined a radio, and on that projected radio was a dial. My spectral fingers reached out and turned the dial. I felt the astral station change and the static dissipate, replaced by the gentle plinking of piano keys. The fire on my flesh turned to tingling, and I realized my body had not actually been damaged, despite the pain.
This was enough to get me standing upright again, but forward progress was still slow; the full focus of the burning lens was still on me. The light had a physical presence that continually repelled me with every step. I was losing energy, and the blasphemous vermin behind me were slithering ever closer. A long, mucous tentacle skated over the ice and reached for my ankle.
The last thing I saw there in Aisling was a flash of brown fur. A blur of claws and hair leapt out of the haze and slammed into the malicious angel that had tried to grab at me. Talons ripped into a monstrous carapice. A pink light from the furry creature’s forehead sent the horrid bug flying ino the frigid water.
Why is something always swooping in at the last moment to save me? I'm not 12 anymore, I can legally drink now! I can handle myself. Well, maybe not in this situation, but usually I can. The furry creature turned its long neck my way, its face covered in synthetic brown hair, and I locked eyes with my one-time-nemesis, my friend, my deskmate, my savior.
Its yellow beak parted and it spoke.
My eyelids grew heavy, my head spun, and I fell to the ground, unconscious.