The man awoke to a sore back and a throbbing head. He had a relatively old mattress, one that had been worn down by over a decade of sleeping, lounging, and sex. He was not fond of it, and he would have bought a new one if he had enough money.
He looked around him and recoiled. The darkness was immense. He raised a hand in front of him, feeling it get close, closer, until he reached the tip of his nose. Still, he saw nothing. In a blind attempt, he threw his hand out sideways, at first feeling for his phone but stopping as soon as grit stung his palm.
For a moment he tried calling his wife's name, but he could not remember. It was there somewhere, floating around in the mass of his brain. He knew and he did not know. The absence was both maddening and unsurprising, like he had anticipated it.
He was persistent. He tried to remember for a long while, only stopping once he realized again where he was. Somewhere far from home, in an unfamiliar dark room, a room so completely without light that he could not see himself. All he could do was listen to his own heavy breathing.
There was no thought in this place. What could there be to think about? Aside from the coldness of his hands and the coarseness of the floor, he could not tell what was around him. The lack of sensory input only harshened his breathing. He forced himself to take deep, easy breaths. From what he could tell, he was in no imminent danger. The room was soundless, and no one had tried to kill him. Not yet, at least.
His mind flung itself in every possible direction. Where was he? Had he been kidnapped? That was impossible, how could he have been asleep during such an occurrence? Was he hallucinating?
Then there was the more pressing question: would harm come to him soon? He did not think there was anyone nearby. On the other hand, his captor could be waiting for him to move before torturing or killing him. Or doing whatever else kidnappers did.
With these thoughts in mind, the man found himself unable to relax. They were not, however, an uncommon line of thinking. He had his issues. His new coworkers were intolerable. His boss had just issues pay cuts across the board. And he'd found himself in front of the TV alone more times than not, leaving his wife in a comparable solitude.
All of these things had led to multiple "interventions," as his wife called them. Therapy, drugs, extra vacation time- he had been through it all. His work was very understanding, his kids even more so. None of it had helped. He was still working on a return to normalcy, taking it one day at a time, making slight, meaningless improvements while everyone around him insisted he was acting better, that his attitude had improved, he seemed to have more energy than he had a dozen years ago.
No matter what they said, he didn't feel any different. Life was the same drag, the same daily grind, and now he had landed himself in some sort of lightless prison. He knew then that it was not an imagined place. He was not crazy.
There was only one way to proceed, he knew. Surely the room was more than a square. Something had to be nearby. Even a piece of furniture would set him at ease. Ideally, he would find a way out, or at the very least a locked entrance. Whoever had taken him here could not have teleported him into a room entirely sealed off from the world.
He looked to his left and felt a surge of hope. Now that his eyes had adjusted, he could see a faint light in the distance. He crawled toward it, then seemed to think better and stood up, feeling the hard stone beneath his feet. Every step forward was tentative, like that of an infant learning to walk. He held his arms out to stop himself against any wall or obstacle that blocked his path. All the while his eyes were focused on that pinprick of light, now enlarging itself to become a shroud, then a very clear rectangle.
He walked for some time before reaching a comically dim and narrow hallway, which reminded him of haunted houses and late-night horror movies. It was not at all like the prison or kidnapper's basement he had imagined. His entire situation was so ridiculous that he could not help but smile, knowing that whatever reality he had stepped into must be temporary. Though it looked and felt real, it felt to the man no more than a dream.
The hallway was long. Its mahogany carpet was torn, and lights flickered between long intervals of darkness. The walls were stained yellow and peeled like the skin of an orange. He thought he could make out faint shapes behind the dirty white plaster, objects moving beneath its wavery surface, past the depths of his consciousness.
He was not scared. The sense of unreality had remained, stamped upon the endless dark corridor and the identical flickering lights and the hastily scrawled messages which threatened death and phalluses. Yet it was all absurd, and that fact was enough to calm him.
The man felt exhaustion settle over him, a warm blanket against the stark coldness of the hall. He'd not gotten a full night of sleep, had he, staying in what was likely a prison cell? Nor had he slept in the most ideal conditions. For all he knew, he'd been trapped in that room for hours, days, even. It came to him then that he could lie down beneath the shadows and sleep forever. It would be a long, peaceful, uninterrupted sleep.
Then came the photos, shooting down any ideas of rest. They depicted his life like a slideshow. Him graduating from college, meeting his wife, vacationing on the beaches of South Carolina. There she was at their favorite ice cream shop, grinning despite the liquid sugar that dripped down her hand. In the next picture was her family, all four of her brothers and sisters beneath the awning of her parents' back porch.
Then pictures of his two kids. First as infants, then crawling past kindergarten, first grade, third, middle school. Birthday parties and friends and family members overjoyed at the sight of their youngest niece and nephew and grandchildren. Several other moments were shown as well, though there was one he didn't remember, a photo of his daughter staring hatefully at the camera, almost as if she were looking at him in that very moment. Her long black hair was swept away from her face, and her blue eyes seemed deeper in that image than the very darkness he had just emerged from.
In none of these pictures was his own face present. He knew he had been there, that he had been in the vast majority of these pictures, but where he had remembered himself was an empty space, as if he'd been edited out of the images, out of existence altogether. Unsettling gaps of nothing between people, hands reaching out toward an invisible friend, his wife looking on at some unseen person to her left. And there, one of his most vivid memories: that of a trip to the Grand Canyon with his wife and parents, before their first child had been born. His wife had an arm around nothing, his own parents looked on at the oblivious photographer, and… no. He had to stop looking at these false images, these edited versions of his life where he had once existed and was now confined to this narrow, featureless hallway without end.
Yet it did end, and sooner than he had expected. A bright light emerged, blinding against the relative darkness behind him. The man blinked and rubbed his eyes before stepping into the space. He was in a perfectly square room with long fluorescent lights overhead. The floor was polished hardwood, and the walls were a bright blue, in startling contrast to the yellowed walls which he could still see behind him.
In this room, there was a single desk. It was placed in the center of the room, and on either side of it were two chairs. One was occupied by another man of average stature, one with grayish-black hair and a pressed white button-down. A blazer of some sort rested on the back of the chair. It looked like an antique from a nineteenth-century museum.
The man who had entered the room approached the desk. He sat down silently, gazing at this other man, one who even from behind looked frustratingly familiar. When he turned around, both men blinked, one in surprise and one for no reason at all.
Across the desk from this man, the one who had traversed a hallway in nothing but boxers and socks, was a clone. It was a version of himself, one without wrinkles and flab on his face. He was better-looking and better dressed than the overweight, relatively naked man across from him.
"Who are you?" the man asked.
"You know who I am," said the clone.
"No, I don't think I do. Where am I?"
The clone chuckled. "That you don't need to know. A better question might be this: why are you here?"
The man stared blankly at his counterpart.
"You are here because you have walked. You have walked because you awoke in a dark, unfamiliar place. And you will continue walking because you have nowhere else to go."
Both men were silent, eyeing each other with a wariness that did not befit them.
"I don't understand a word of what you just said," the man said.
"Nonsense. You know more than you think. In any case, it does not matter. What matters is that you're here. Now, please follow me."
The man followed his clone across the room, toward a door that had up until that point been invisible. It was the same blue as the walls. The door's only distinguishing feature was a small metal knob embedded in its center.
The clone opened it, revealing a hellscape. Beyond the blue room was a plain with brown grass and blackened shrubs. Trees hung against the earth, and a dim, reddish sun filled the cloudy sky. There was nothing else aside from these things and the coarse dirt.
"What is this?" the man asked.
"Your way home. Assuming you still want to go home." The man took a step back. "Oh, come on. It's not that bad. You only have a few miles to walk. Well, perhaps it's a bit hot, but you're hardly dressed! You can handle it."
"I don't want to go out there. I'm more comfortable here, in this room."
The clone glowered. "You do not have much choice here. It's either a long walk home or an infinite walk down that hallway, back to the darkness you came from. Surely you understand this?"
"I do. But that doesn't change my mind. How do I know I can trust you? Out there I might get lost. There could be nothing else within a hundred miles of where we are."
"I understand your fears. You just have to-"
The man had retreated into the room. He turned and began running down the hallway. The clone called after him. "Hey, come back! You're making a mistake. You can't run away forever!"
But he tried. The man tried to escape. He sprinted down the hallway faster than he had gone anywhere in his life. Pictures of his family and friends raced past him, the same as they had been minutes ago. Nothing had changed in the hallway, except for the spotless carpet beneath him.
He was not bothered by this subtle difference. At that point, only the appearance of God would have surprised him. Even then, it would not have been totally unreasonable. After all, what else could have taken him to this place? He knew by then the importance of where he was, that while it felt dreamlike it was most certainly real, with real meaning and consequences.
When he passed the last picture, the man wondered if he had not made a mistake, as his clone had suggested. What would he do in that dark room? Sit and go insane? He would have to go outside eventually, no matter how hellish the world appeared. Unless he could find a way back through the darkness.
An idea came to him. How did he know the darkness was a room? Could it not just be a hallway much like the one he had just exited? He had not run into any walls or objects on his way out, though. Maybe it was a vast plain, and he just had to go deeper.
Something brushed against his arm, and the man became overwhelmed with fear. He had been stupid to think he could run through such a dark room. It was a confined space, surely, or else something- a sun, a moon, stars- would have lighted his way. He had seen a world outside, and he could not imagine someone building a structure so large that it would take hours to run across.
Even as he slowed, he was too late. A wall crashed against him, and the man felt nothing.
Until he moved his arm. Something tugged at it, and he opened his eyes. The light was blinding. Spots flickered across his vision, and his head felt leaden, like he'd gone days without sleep.
When the room came into focus, he found himself in a hospital room, hooked up to several IVs. A hand brushed against him, and he looked up. His wife was there, staring down at him with watery eyes.
"You're awake," she said, almost in a whisper.
"Yeah." He coughed. His throat felt raspy, like he'd just swallowed bile. Maybe he had.
"Shhh. Relax," she said. "You're okay now."
She flinched at the question. Her hand left his side, working its way under her chin. "You don't remember?"
"Do you…" She struggled to finish the sentence. "Do you know who I am?"
"Yeah, you're my wife." He paused, looking into her face, taking in her curly brown hair, light blue eyes. "Marge. Your name is Marge. Why didn't I remember that?"
She gave him a sad smile. "That's because of the accident."
"You were in a car accident. It wasn't your fault. The doctors didn't know what was wrong at first, but the brain scans and x-rays came back fine. Just a couple of broken bones. They think it was shock."
"Ok. Well, that's good, right?" Marge was crying now. "Isn't it? What's wrong?"
She shook her head. Now she could do nothing to hide her sorrow. Tears were cascading onto his gown.
Then he remembered. He had not forgotten the dark room, the hallway, the version of himself opening that door to hell. But he hadn't known until that instant that he had been driving his ten-year-old daughter to a friend's house. It was the only memory he had before waking up.
"Don't tell me," he said.
Marge wiped her face. "It's alright. She's alive, she'll be fine, just…"
She couldn't finish, and she didn't have to. He remembered the rest in a sort of blurry slideshow. Him being wheeled down a long hallway, the doctors telling him to lay down, stop moving, relax, you're going to be fine in just a moment.
And his daughter. They had tried to hide it, but he'd heard them. When they thought he'd been unconscious, they had been talking about her. From what he had gathered, she'd been blinded in one eye by debris. Permanently disfigured, they said. Something about skin grafts and scar tissue. He remembered being confused. Why would they be talking about his daughter? He hadn't paid much attention after that thought, slowly sinking back into unconsciousness.
He felt like his bed had been pulled out from under him. Like the whole world had been upended. He'd been so concerned about his own vision, that room of darkness and the imminent hellscape. Now one of his children was hurt. He realized how petty everything before had been. His anxieties were inconsequential compared to the lives of his family.
Money didn't matter. Work didn't, either. Not even his current situation concerned him, even as he shifted his leg and felt the cast there. He had forgotten that there were more lives than his own.